Farewell to Gaelscéal

I am writing this article in English (though I will probably write something similar in Irish for Gaelscéal) because I want slugger fans, the majority of whom are English readers, to read it and engage with the issue, rather than get bogged down in whether or not it should be in Irish or English. As poet Michael Hartnett wrote in his poem, Farewell to English:

But I will not see
great men go down
who walked in rags
from town to town
finding English a necessary sin
the perfect language to sell pigs in.

Late on Friday afternoon, the feastday of St Brigid or Imbolc, the story filtered out on twitter that Foras na Gaeilge had decided to unilaterally terminate its three year contract with the publishers of the weekly Irish language newspaper, Gaelscéal.   Torann na dTonn Teo(the Sound of the Waves Ltd) was a joint venture between the Connacht Tribune, a weekly provincial newspaper based in Galway, and Eo Teilifís, the producers of TG4’s long running soap opera, Ros na Rún.

In its letter to Torann na dTonn Teo, Foras na Gaeilge said that despite the quality of Gaelscéal, the reading trends of Irish speakers were veering away from the printed press.  The letter also hinted that the Foras, the cross border half brother of the Ulster Scots Agency, was preparing a plan to cater for the emerging trend, presumably an online Irish language news service/magazine.

Gaelscéal’s contract was due to run until the end of 2013 and questions remain as to what led to this precipitate decision and who ultimately decided to pull the plug on the newspaper, which had been making great strides in the past year, in particular.  It had just launched a new section aimed at primary schools, a sector which is crying out for material given the failure of the authorities north and south to provide appropriate up to date material to assist primary teachers.   It would have been expecting a boost in sales from that latest venture. While the Foras pointed to the shop sales of 1300 copies per week, a statement issued by the newspaper on Friday said the overall sales, including shop sales, schools and downloads of the online PDF version was 3973 copies per week.

Ironically, the decision to close Gaelscéal came in a week when the newspaper led with a story claiming that Gaeltacht activists in Donegal and other areas were being silenced by threats of funding withdrawal by Department of the Gaeltacht to employers.

On Friday in Galway a meeting of Irish language activists convened by Conradh na Gaeilge heard that organisation’s Ard Rúnaí/General Secretary, Julian de Spáinn, make a remarkable accusation. ‘For years Conradh na Gaeilge and other Irish language organisation have been fighting to promote Irish with anti Irish forces within the Irish Government – now we’re expending our energy trying to counter the attacks on the Gaeltacht and the Irish language in general by what was thought to be the pro Irish faction within the Government.

Whether it’s1300 copies or 4000, it’s not a sales figure to write home about. The lesser figure is around 2% of the daily sales of the Irish Times. TG4, which is the flagship of the Irish language media in many ways, gets around 2%, of the available TV audience. There are no figures available for RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta. While the Census figure returned around 1.7m who had knowledge of Irish (for the 26 counties), and 250,000 who used the language actively, only 4000 filled the census form as Gaeilge. These are the hardcore Irish speakers and activists. I filled the form as Gaeilge, I’m proud to say. We happy few!
So an Irish language newspaper/news service/media outlet has the odds stacked against it. However difficult it is to attract a substantial chunk of the population to your publication if it’s in English and can readily access 1000s of news feeds from all over the world, it’s much more difficult, but not impossible, to do when your publication is in a minority language. It’s not just the news gathering and editing, proofreading and page design, which are all relatively straightforward, it’s distribution, convincing vendors to give your publication equal space with the Daily Express if not the Irish Daily Star or the Irish Times on the shelves. It’s convincing a disparate Irish language community, comprised of as many different elements/tastes as there in the general population, but in smaller amounts, that there’s something for them in your publication, something compelling enough to get them to fork out €1.65 per week. I liked to think Lá had engaging articles and must read news – and, eventually, I thought that Gaelscéal was hitting the mark. But I want to read as Gaeilge, for too many in Irish society, it’s a chore. You might say you’d read only an Irish language newspaper for Lent. (There’s a marketing idea for the remaining weeks of Gaelscéal’s publication. You will feel better, cleaner, healthier in mind, body and purse, at the end of the 40 days!)
Foinse ceased publication acrimoniously and temporarily in Summer 2009 after its publisher Pádraig Ó Céide had a disagreement with Foras na Gaeilge during negotiations over a new contract. Foinse reappearined as a lightweight supplement with the Irish Independent in November 2009, coinciding with the announcement of Torann na dTonn’s triumph in the Foras competition for a weekly Irish language newspaper.
The Belfast based daily newspaper, Lá, sold 4,400 copies per edition at its peak but was unable to maintain that momentum and eventually its funding too not renewed by Foras na Gaeilge.
So this has happened before.  An editor and a team of journalists, full time and freelance, have got a call or an email from their employer to tell them that Foras na Gaeilge was not going to continue to fund their best efforts.
In a sense Foras na Gaeilge are right. The trend in worldwide newspapers, not just the Irish language variety, is declining print sales and increasing use of online services, be they websites, twitter or apps.  Foras na Gaeilge turned down that option when in February 2008, when I was editor of Lá having received the call that Ciarán Dunbar undoubtedly received on Friday, I proposed that Lá become an online only newspaper, with a website with a live news service and a pdf version.  The option was rejected out of hand by the Foras who claimed it would amount to a breach of contract.

That claim might come back to bite them as now the Foras appears to have executed an unheralded departure from the terms of the contract it had with the publishers of Gaelscéal.
The workings of Foras na Gaeilge are mysterious.   The cross border body appears to enjoy some dispensation from the British and Irish Governments in that it is and always has been tardy in publishing its Annual Report and Accounts.  The accounts for 2009 have only been published in the past few weeks. The fact that the Foras is conjoined with the Boord o’Ulster Scotch in the Language Body complicates matters as the accounts are consolidated – but 13 years since the establishment of the crossborder body, surely those matters could have been ironed out.

The Foras does publish the minutes of its eight board meetings per year, albeit in heavily redacted form. In the minutes for its 2012 terms, there is no mention of concern regarding the sales figures of Gaelscéal. The Foras board has established a sub-committee charged with the responsibility of Gaelscéal, Comhar, a monthly magazine, and Beo, an online monthly.
The membership of this sub-committtee is not in the public domain and, while the Foras has a Freedom of Information Code of Practice, it is not bound by FOI legislation on either side of the border.

The issue arises when Foras na Gaeilge made the decision to unilaterally terminate its contract with Gaelscéal. Was it a board decision? Apparently the decision was taken at what seems to have been an extraordinary meeting of the board on 25 January. According to Seán Ó Coinn, the Foras deputy Chief Executive, the Foras had told Gaelscéal three months ago that they were undertaking a review of the newspaper’s contract. He was speaking on Raidió na Gaeltachta’s flagship morning news show, Adhmhaidin, on Monday.

Were the Ministers – Sinn Féin’s Carál Ní Chuilinn holds the relevant Culture portfolio in the north while Jimmy Deenihan is her counterpart in the south – aware in advance of the Foras decision? Given that the British government – and presumably the NI Executive – are bound to support one Irish language newspaper under the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, how does the SF minister feel about being put in breach of that charter by the unilateral action of Foras na Gaeilge, which is partly funded by her department? It’s worth mentioning that the British Government committed to the European Charter in the Good Friday Agreement.
In the south, the Government has been accused of neglecting its commitments in the 20 Year Strategy for Promotion of Irish. The Foras closing yet another newspaper without having a plan in place for its replacement by an online service – of which there is no mention in the 2012 minutes – fits the narrative that the Irish government is at best paying only lip service to its stated commitments regarding the strategy.

The closure of Gaelscéal, on the other hand, does fit a narrative wherein discordant voices, which have expressed opposition to the emerging negative trends in Government decision making regarding Irish language and Gaeltacht matters, are being silenced.

It reinforces the argument that whatever newspaper or, more likely, electronic news service which emerges post Gaelscéal, it will have to be in some way independent of Foras na Gaeilge. That body has proved itself adept at closing newspapers but not so proficient or professional at supporting those newspapers which were in existence prior to the arrival of the crossborder language institution.
If government departments and agencies on both sides of the border were to publish the Irish language versions of their recruitment and public service ads, which are now published alongside the English language versions in the English language media, not alone would considerable savings be achieved for the Exchequer but Irish language newspapers would have secured a degree of independence from Foras na Gaeilge.

While the Foras has consistently pleaded that it must provide value for money to the tax payers in respect of the funds it provides for its various clients, Irish language organisations, Gaelscéal etc, it has never really proved its own value to Irish speakers who remain suspicious about its bureaucracy and constant neediness to promote and maintain the Foras rather than the language. An indication of this is its ongoing recruitment of staff at a time when other agencies in the public service are barred from hiring new staff.

One of the most significant handicaps of the Foras approach is that newspapers have been established, a team built up and skills and experience developed, and then, suddenly, the Foras has a change of heart. The newspaper is deprived of support and eventually closed and the skills and experience gathered is scattered to the four winds. The next newspaper or service to pick up the poisoned chalice is then forced to start from square one and make some if not of all of the mistakes of its predecessor all over again.

I understand that a survey of the needs of the Irish language community, whoever we are, is to be conducted by Foras na Gaeilge in the next two months. They have, it seems, been studying the issue and a report by academic, Dr Regina Uí Chollatáin, was published in Autumn 2011. The report is a hefty volume, long on theory and short on testimony from those who served on the coalface of the Irish language print media, but it’s a starting point for a deeper and wider discussion. According to Seán Ó Coinn, the Foras will not leave the Irish language public high and dry and the vacancy left by Gaelscéal will be filled. I believe Seán Ó Coinn believes this but I have difficulty reconciling that belief with a conviction that whatever comes next will be a long time coming if at all.

I don’t want Gaelscéal to close – not least because of the loss of jobs of the journalists working there.   A group of hardworking professionals whose skills will be, most likely, needed in the next incarnation of an Irish language print media service. I myself write a column for the paper.  I started a petition to persuade the British and Irish governments to reverse the Foras na Gaeilge decision.

At times like this, the social media are awash useful suggestions about what Gaelscéal should have done – its weaknesses and failures. Like any Irish language newspaper, which preceded it, these are many. It’s not because of lack of effort by the team or failures of imagination or ambition, it’s a question of resources and deadlines and the practicalities of getting a newspaper to print. In situations like that of pressing circumstances, the perfect is the enemy of the good.

It’s as easy to blame Foras na Gaeilge as it is to point the finger at Gaelscéal for the perceived weaknesses in the publication. In the final analysis this decision to close Gaelscéal must be an indictment too of Irish speakers/activists/enthusiasts. They – we – are not converting our soft enthusiasm for the Irish language into hard purchases/support. We are cultural snobs, you see. Would we be happy even if the Irish Times were made available every days as Gaeilge – or would we complain that it was in official Irish and not in the Irish of one Gaeltacht or another.

It’s time for a new approach. Let’s leave Foras na Gaeilge out of the picture entirely, not out of badness, but because if we really want an Irish language newspaper/online news magazine, we Irish speakers must do it for ourselves.