New approach needed to save Irish language

An Gaeltacht sign near Claregalway, Co Galway. File photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Our national approach to Irish as a spoken language is in urgent need of a rethink. Given the pending demise of the Gaeltacht, the status quo is clearly not working.

Without vision and innovation, Irish will not survive as a community language beyond the next 10 years and we will lose the social context needed for young people to acquire fully functional Irish.

Except for rare individuals, you can’t really have competent Irish speakers without the Gaeltacht. And you won’t have a Gaeltacht without serious social change. Language communities need competent speakers and those speakers need communities. One reinforces the other.

Much of the public debate about Irish ignores the tension between, on the one hand, the processes of social language death in the Gaeltacht and, on the other, celebrating the use of Irish as an artistic or symbolic appendix to the dominant English-language culture. We appear to be living through a final eclipse of Irish as a community language by the use of Irish for display or performance.

This eclipse of communal use by display and sentiment is common in the death of a language.

Current policies, including the State’s 20-year strategy for the Irish language, are irrelevant. The cliche about the benefits of individual bilingualism do not address the problems of the threatened minority group of Irish speakers.

The realignment of policy towards learners’ individual needs is strategically facilitated by a widespread denial of and indifference towards the Gaeltacht among sections of the political class, the media and academia. It is impossible to address the crisis of Irish if those in charge refuse to recognise the clearly documented evidence surrounding the decline of the Gaeltacht – or worse still when they conspire to “shoot the messengers” who report these facts.

We propose the establishment of new social structures and organisations, based on democratic agreement and organised along co-operative lines.

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