Dinny McGinley planning a bottom up overhaul of government Gaeltacht strategy?

My father didn’t speak English until he went to school in Fanad at the age of four or five. I couldn’t speak more than a word or two of Irish until we began to learn it at school in Holywood when I was eight or nine. My cousins, ‘at home’, grew up with it because their mum, my aunt, spoke it with them from birth.

Now all that’s keeping Irish alive in that part of Donegal is the Irish medium school. The kids now speak what my uncle once dismissed as Dublin Irish, as opposed to what once could pass easily for an Irish dialect of Scots gaelic spoken by the fishermen from the western isle who used to put at Port na Loing in Ballywhoriskey.

Now Dinny McGinley of Fine Gael (and Gaoth Dobhair) has pressed ahead with the only the second set of legislative reforms of the Gaeltacht since the mid 1950s:

Irish speaking communities would be asked to draw up a strategy for the future and it would be up to them to implement their plans, he added.

It was “essential that the Gaeltacht was based on linguistics” and not on a geographical area.

Mr McGinley said the Government wanted any Gaeltacht region to be a “true reflection of what was there”. The Bill also introduces new initiatives to promote the language.

Certain towns can be designated “Gaeltacht service towns” which would provide support for Gaeltacht areas. Urban districts could become “Irish Language Networks”, areas outside the traditional Gaeltacht where the language is widely used.

McGinley is recommending the kind of bottom up approach that we often recommend on Slugger… Yet in yesterday’s Irish Times there was a piece arguing that welcome though such an approach might be, Minister McGinley was in danger of letting government out of its own responsibilities for promoting the language:

Mr McGinley should not let the Government off the hook so easily. It is all very well to say that Gaeltacht communities should be responsible for their native tongue but the Government too has its role to play. Can those same communities really be expected to preserve and promote the language if their interaction with the State and its agencies is so often – and has too often been – through the medium of English?

And, tellingly, the piece also notes that despite weak/ineffectual state sponsorship of Gaeltachtai:

Academic research has suggested that we may be facing the end of Irish as a family and community language in Gaeltachtaí within 20 years. The language will survive after that date but in what effective state it is hard to imagine.

All very intriguing. Could be an attempt to fly a kite. To stem a huge and largely unaccountable amount of money into historic Gaeltacht regions and in the process open up new (but significantly smaller) streams of revenue into the new Irish speaking spaces in the east, and even online.

Or it could be just another can kicking exercise. In any case, it is time something was done to overhaul government’s strategy in sustaining an iconic native language. We’ll watch this space with some considerable interest.

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  • sonofstrongbow

    For someone like me with no interest or affinity with the Irish language it seems strange, and perhaps telling in a wider sense, that an individual’s parent, a native Irish speaker, had a child that could not speak Irish until beginning to learn it at school.

    I have worked in a number of the constituent parts of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire and found that local language and culture was, unsurprisingly for a visitor, strong.

    Yet the old Empire suppressed these local national symbols and getting on in life meant speaking the ruler’s tongue.

    Why is it that the Republic of Ireland seems unique amongst those smaller nations that broke away from larger political entities in the last century as not having reclaimed its language?

    Looking at language as a tool, why is it that throughout the life of the Republic the majority of the population continued to select English as seemingly the most effective tool in the box?

  • Unfortunately the plethora of Irish language organisations and “western” interests have a kinda monopoly on Irish Government largesse and have been effectively blackmailing successive governments.
    The First National Language is the First National Hypocrisy…..and arguably there is a keener interest in Irish outside its traditional heartlands than there is inside the Gaeltacht areas ….
    Sooner or later there has to be a disconnect between Geography and Language and the fall of Fianna Fáil can help that process.
    Certainly passing thru Ballaghaderreen a few years ago, I stopped to ask directions to Frenchpark and just happened to ask a man from Eastern Europe. And he didnt know. But the lady in the shop (she was from Ukraine) did know.
    Wasnt this the town where Douglas Hyde asked the young lad “why arent you speaking Irish?” and the lad replied “sure isnt it Irish Im speaking?”
    Things have to change. Not least because of the number of Dubliners, non-Irish speakers or newcomers moving west and changing the demographics “demanding” schools, government services, church services etc are in English…..and resentment as funding is withdrawn.

    I wish Minister McGinley well. It deserves more success that Minister Ní Chuilíns an Liofa initiative (to which I am signed up) which is just a newsletter issued every three months and a list of resources.

  • Mick Fealty

    Well, the truth is the stopping speaking happened once embedded in the old English only National Schools…

    My aunt, who lived in Beechmount (via Philly, NYC and, briefly during the war, the Markets) for most of her married life, told me a family story from when my dad was only two, and mentioned that the school going kids mostly spoke English to their parents, who mostly spoke Irish back…

    I was blissfully unaware of my dad’s fluency in Irish because he never used it in front of us when we were growing up in Holywood… and it would never have occured to my Donegal family to speak it with us native English speakers…

  • Mick Fealty

    As for the second part, Reg Hindley (http://astore.amazon.co.uk/sluggerotoole-21/detail/0415064813) is good on this.

    Essentially, English is a tough neighbour. The implementation Irish medium education was slow (and probably a generation too late)…

    And Irish to the ordinary folk of the Gaeltacht, back in the 20s and 30s, was not particularly cool… Listening to English jukeboxes was enough to get the “cead bus abhaile ar maidin*” in the 50s…

    *First bus home in the morning…

  • JR

    While it is nice to look at a map with a big shaded area repersenting the gaeltacht where everything in there is Geilge and everything outside is English the reality is much more complex. When we learn at School that they speak Irish in Donegal, Galway and parts of Cork and Kerry it pigeonholes the language a bit

    It is hard to understand the pressures on a minority language untill you try to live with it. Since the birth of our daughter we have only spoken Irish within the home. I have to admit I hadn’t fully appreciated the tsunami of English that besieges every Gaeltacht community untill then. Although TG4 and Radio na Gaeltachta are brilliant resources and the thousands of books Cd’s dvd’s etc make it easy to maintain an Irish environment within the home it is very difficult outside.

    I certainly have been made to feel that speaking Irish on the street, using the Irish form of your name or the Irish form of your address are not socially acceptable in Ireland outside the Gaeltachtí. Anyone with a fada in there name will know that it is a uphill struggle to keep it there, eveyone from school secetaries and librarians to NIE and the BT guy in india insist on leaving it out, not to mention if your family have an Irish surname the Mac, Mhic, Nic (Ó, Uí, Ní) saga.

    Despite all this Irish is more popular than ever among the young outside the Gaeltacht and the Irish speaking communaties in Donegal, Galway, Cork and Kerry are all expanding. All this makes me very hopeful about the future of the language.

  • Dewi

    “Now all that’s keeping Irish alive in that part of Donegal is the Irish medium school. The kids now speak what my uncle once dismissed as Dublin Irish, as opposed to what once could pass easily for an Irish dialect of Scots gaelic spoken by the fishermen from the western isle who used to put at Port na Loing in Ballywhoriskey.”

    That’s not a particularly Irish phenomena..

  • Fearfhanada

    Scots Gaelic originated in Uladh and is a dialect of Gaeilge na hÉireann brought to Alba by the Scothaigh (Gaels) when north Britain, unconquered by the Romans, was colonised from Uladh. Anglo-Saxon settlers south of Hadrian’s Wall called the Gaels north of the Wall Scots ant the land they occupied Scotland.Gaelic culture and language in Alba did not suffer as did the language and hence the culture in Éire. Various dialects developed in various areas in Éire because of their isolation and absence of inter- area communication.Tir Conall Gaelic is similar to Gaelic in Alba because of the constant communication and travel between the two areas. ” Na Scothaigh go deo”!

  • Mister_Joe

    I think Mick hits the nail on the head when he mentioned jukeboxes. The overwhelming culture available, cinema, books, newspapers, magazines, radio and later tv was in English, notwithstanding the Irish language programmes still broadcast.

  • Mick Fealty

    So fear, cutting to the chase, how do you think Fanad would fare in any future reform?

  • SDLP supporter

    Bhios ag stopadh I nGaillimh le deanai, nios lu na deich mile taobh amuigh den Cathair agus ba togail croi domh an meid Gaeilge a chuala me a usaid, go hairithe o theaghlaigh oga. Nuair a bhios im consi ansin nios mo na fiche bliain o shoin thosaigh an “fior Ghaeltacht” thart fa Indreabhan, ach bheadh mise muinineach go leor go bhfuil An Spideal slan do toghchaoi.

  • IJP

    I have long held the view that education and broadcasting are priorities for the development of the Irish language – because they are enablers, in the sense that people who do not want to know about the language (and no one is obliged to) can simply ignore them, but people who do (regardless of where they live) can access them.

    That said, I cannot see any future for “native Irish” if there are no areas where it is spoken as a primary language – and I now struggle to find any. Even in designated Gaeltacht areas of Donegal, almost any signage other than official road signage is exclusively in English.

    The additional problem with this is that it makes the language inaccessible. I, as a willing learner, am left with a sense there is nowhere I can truly go to *use* the language. Whatever anyone says, without that, attaining even basic proficiency is nigh impossible – after all, there are many more languages I can access (simply by, say, going to Italy, or going to Poland, or going to Sweden or whatever).

    It absolutely goes against my Liberal instincts, but I cannot help but think some Quebec-style prohibitions, whereby absolutely all signage in Gaeltacht areas must be “predominantly in Irish”, would help – indeed, would be critical. The aim would be areas of the country where Irish is absolutely the first language and where visitors would be at least expected to try (like say in Italy or Poland or Sweden…)

  • Dewi

    It’s actually quite simple. Just pass a law in the south that every advert broadcast on radio or TV is bilingual and job done. We must do this in Wales quickly or might end up in same mess.

  • Mister_Joe


    It’s not just primary use. I had 9 years education classes and i could converse etc but after 40 years of no one to speak to, I remember very little. Even have to use google translate to understand the occasional post here.

  • Dewi

    IJP – this Gaeltacht thing has failed. Irish is an urban language or it’s dead – fantastic statistics on Irish medium schools in urban Ireland. The focus is changing.

  • Mick Fealty

    Not universally Dewi. See SDLP supporters post on Connamara… It’s trending that way, but just dropping whole areas is rash and politically suicidal… It involves a lot of transfers…

  • IJP


    I think that’s the same point.

    I’ve attended classes too; and I studied linguistics so should have an advantage; and yet I can put it to no use.

    If I had somewhere I could reliably go and be surrounded by the language and order a coffee etc, that’d be different, I think.


    That concerns me – Irish as an urban language too often isn’t Irish. “Broken Irish” is frankly just English with Irish lexicon, because the thinking behind it is all within the framework of English, not Irish. It does not reflect the true feeling of the original language.

    What on earth do I mean? Well, for example, the bar “The Beehive” on the Falls Road translates its name to “An Choirceag Bheach” (spelling’s not a strong point, I hope that’s right). I’m no expert on Irish, but I know, “coirceag” already means “beehive”, so the word “beach” (“bee”) is redundant. This type of error is a consequence of thinking in English, even when the intention is to write in Irish.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for urban learning insofar as it goes, but alone it’s not enough (at least not in the case of Irish, I can’t speak for Welsh). For me, the primary objective must be to maintain the real language in daily use by those who speak it as a mother tongue and then enhance it from there.

  • Brian

    In 1840 45-55% spoke Irish only.

    In 1860 that figure was 15-20%

    The Famine, which was the worst in the south and the west where Irish was the tongue of most of the people (excluding the ruling classes and clergy, or course) effectively sped up the process of killing the Irish language (and much of its culture).

    Globalization and modernization has done the rest. When so few people speak it, learning it is just not a priority. Unless you feel intense cultural pride or are otherwise driven to master it, you will not learn it.

    Of course, I wish I knew the language fluently. I just don’t have the time or motivation to do so. Learning spanish (my wife is Venezuelan) really kicked keeping up with my Irish on the backburner…

    There are some gaelic classes offered here at random places (I live in DC), I was somewhat surprised to see.

  • JR

    I have to say if you havent found somwhere you can reliably go to speak Irish you are not looking too hard. Many of those speaking Irish in Belfast speak it to as high a standard and with all the richness of those in the Gaeltacht. In my experiance I have never had a problem finding people to converse with in Irish outside the Gaeltacht but especially in the Gaeltacht. If you are stuck try An Cumann cluain ard

    Secondly your point on the Beehive is totally incorrect. A coirceog is a cone. Coirceog mhona is a turf stack, Coirceog reoiteoige is an Ice cream cone etc. Coirceog on it’s own can be used to mean beehive just as bee keepers will often shorten beehive to hive. Beware of correcting others when you havent mastered the language yourself.

    I do know what you are talking about though, Béarlathas as it is refered to. but anyone whos first language is english will make lots of mistakes for a while.

  • IJP

    That’s not quite what I mean, JR. I mean that the assumption on the part of everyone you come across – re-emphasised by signage and so on – is that English is the default language.

    Obviously I bow to your superior knowledge of the language itself (for a second time!) – a poor example I will take up with the person who gave it to me! I was going to go on about the colour spectrum…

    But the point is that anyone whose first language is English speaking only with other people whose first language is English will continue to think in English. It’s not really to do with “mistakes”, but more the instinctive “feeling” for the language.

    That’s not something I profess to have for Irish by any stretch, but I’m aware of it in German. I’ll risk another example: if you see a bunny-like creature jump out in front of your car, you would tend to say “Oh look, a rabbit” even if it is in fact a hare; in German, you would perhaps say “Guck mal, ein Hase“, even if it is in fact a rabbit (which would be Kaninchen). Nowhere in a dictionary will you be told this, nor will you learn it by surrounding yourself perpetually with non-native speakers. It is to do with the instinctive “feel” for the language.

  • harold

    I’ll do my best to explain exactly what is happening here.

    For longstanding sociolinguistic reasons, the Gaeltacht regions are in perhaps terminal decline.

    No-one who is familiar with the situation disputes the findings of the Gaeltacht Commision of 2002


    Nor indeed, does anyone familiar with the situation dispute the finding that, 5 years ago, the Gaeltacht was given 15-20 years to live by a sociolinguistic report by Galway University. Summary here.


    So the Department of the Gaeltacht were obliged to respond and McGinley’s bill is the centrepiece of that response.

    It is a total crock of shit.

    You might think the dept. would be in favour of saving Irish. But, they are simply interested in keeping their extremely well-paid jobs, and a quiet life where they don’t have to challenge any of the vested interests (including themselves).

    They want (in a ‘bottom-up approach’) local activists (whom they employ on contracts) to formulate and implement ‘language plans’.

    This same Dept. however are already in breach of their own requirement to formulate scores of plans for Govt. services in Irish.

    The systemic failure for anybody to be held to account for these failings (no ministers of civil servants get sacked for incompetence) mean that this Gaeltacht Bill will be the last.

    What’s in it for Fanad? Memories. The fat lady has cleared her throat.