Aaron Hurst and Cat Charker report-
On New Year’s Day, the 2018 Year of the Irish Language (Bliain na Gaeilge) programme was launched with a broadcast on Irish television channel TG4 called Fáilte (Welcome) 2018.
The campaign marks 125 years since an Irish language revival organisation, the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge), was formed with a focus on reviving the language by focusing on journalism, new literature and folk traditions.
The main aim of the program is to acknowledge the language’s progress within the last 125 years and raise awareness of the language across the world. The events that are set to occur under the Bliain na Gaeilge banner across the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland include the Bróduil Agus Gaelach (BEO) parade through the centre of Dublin on the 3rd March 2018, and a series of seminars with the Irish language as its topic being held across the world under the name PLÉ ’18. Other events include drama festivals, displays of literature and concerts.
Northern Ireland will be holding at least 21 events in conjunction to those taking place in the Republic throughout 2018. Furthermore, events of this nature to take place outside of the divided Emerald Isle have since been organised to encourage the learning and use of Irish. These include interactive Irish language classes in Berlin, an Irish literature recital in New York, and a get-together to practice the language in Honolulu.
The programme aims to explore five themes: the revival of the language over the last 125 years; the creativity of the language; the vibrancy of the language; the participation of the community, and the value of the Gaeltachtaí (primarily Irish-speaking areas of Ireland).
According to Ireland’s latest census published by the Central Statistics Office, 1.7% of the country’s population aged three and over are daily speakers of the language.
So, what is Irish? Irish, or Irish Gaelic, is a dialect of the Gaelic (Sometimes called Celtic) language family. It is the official language of the Republic of Ireland and subsequently one of the official languages of the European Union. However, only a very small minority of Irish citizens speak it as their first language. Generally, it is mandatory for Irish students to study the language, though those with disabilities or other adverse circumstances don’t have to.
Ever since the 18th century, use of Irish has been in decline, but ever since the formation of the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) in 1893 and Irish independence in 1922, there has been a great effort put into reviving the language.
This is done through various means. Firstly, there is the previously mentioned mandatory education. Secondly, it is also mandatory that all of the signs and documents have to be in Irish (as of the Official Languages Act 2003), and finally you have the role of groups such as the Gaeilge Multimedia Information Community (Pobal Eolas Ilmheán Gaeilge), who focus on reviving the language through events and community.
Furthermore, in 2010, the Irish government set a target of 2 million people with a knowledge of Irish, and 250,000 daily Irish speakers by 2030.
Commenting on the 2018 Year of the Irish Language campaign, Professor of Modern Irish Language and Literature at University College Dublin Máire Ní Annracháin believes that while it’s “a step in the right direction”, it is “only one of a number of important steps that need to be taken.”
“The provision of funding through the campaign has some potential, but more importantly it feeds into the publicity focus of the modern world, where it is easy to be overlooked if not constantly publicised.”
“This year’s focus on native Irish speakers and the diaspora is welcome, but the provision of employment within the Irish language-speaking areas, support for Irish at home, proper provision of highly qualified teachers and public services through the Irish language all need reinforcement.”
Irish has been an official language of the European Union since 2007, but it’s currently under derogation within the institutions in Brussels, meaning that the EU are not legally obliged to provide drafts of acts in Irish unless a co-decision between the European Parliament and the European Council needs to be made. This derogation is expected to end by 2022.
Professor Ní Annracháin described the ascension of the language to official use within Brussels as “a most welcome step”.
“It has promoted the development of certain registers in Irish, and internationalised the language in the eyes of Irish people and given it extra affirmation as a language of the global world, and more than just a mark of purely Irish cultural heritage.”
“It has also boosted the claims of other lesser-used languages throughout Europe and has placed the responsibility on Irish speakers to act as leaders in the cherishing of Europe’s priceless linguistic heritage.”
It’s estimated that €3.7 million is to be spent by the European Parliament in 2018 on Irish translation and interpretation resources. Finding such aids has proven to be an issue since the language was granted official working language status in 2007. As recently as 2015, out of 157 participants in the exams that translators are required to pass, only two managed to qualify. According to Fine Gael MEP Deirdre Clune, there were 26 full-time Irish translator vacancies within the European Parliament as of March 2017.
Candidates for these vacancies not only need to pass the translator exams set by the EU, also known as concours, but they also must have knowledge of English and another EU language along with being fluent in Irish.
So, why the decline? There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, there is the role that the British administrators played during the years when Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. The UK government put great pressure on the populace to speak English instead of Irish, partially for ease of communication and trade and partially as a way of controlling the people. In addition, the Catholic church also wanted people to speak English as their first language, due to an effort to unite catholics worldwide at the time through shared languages.
But has the revival of the language been successful? Síomha Ní Ruairc, a coordinator of Bliain na Gaeilge 2018, seems to think so.
“The growing demand for Gaelscoileanna, the 5% rise in TG4’s viewers over the last year, and the massive success of the Pop-Up Gaeltachts [Irish speakers arranging mass meetups and social events] all indicate to me a language that is active and alive in its community.
“These organic developments show self-preservation.”
However, the number of students in Gaelscoileanna has actually decreased over the years; in 2013, there were 45,373 students at 144 schools, and in 2016 this number had dropped to 35,994 students. That being said, the argument can be made that the demand hasn’t changed, but just a lack of funding hurting the project. There have been “70% cuts to Údarás na Gaeltachta’s capital budget since 2007”, and this has hurt schools’ abilities to operate in Irish.
“I think more needs to be done to support the Irish language and the Gaeltacht areas, and reinstating some of those cuts is one way to do just that.” states Síomha.
Funding seems to be a vital part of the Irish question, an important factor in any affair but particularly here due to the wealth distribution of the country.
“Gaeltacht areas are suffering economically, and investment in creating jobs in these areas would encourage people to move into these areas.” says Síomha.
If additional funding was put into the Gaeltacht areas and into teaching Irish then it would encourage a renewed interest in the language. This is where the EU comes into it; by making Irish a full official working language, there are hopes that more funding will be allocated to the project.
Criticism is also levied against the funding and legislation going towards the preservation and revival of the Irish language. In September 2017, for example, DUP MP Sammy Wilson responded to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams’ call for a stand-alone Irish language act by stating that it would be discriminatory towards non-Irish speakers in Northern Ireland, and claiming that the language is in decline, a declaration that seems to clash with Northern Ireland’s notion to take part in the 2018 Year of the Irish Language programme.
So what does the future hold for the Irish language? Despite criticism and setbacks, the Irish language is at its strongest point in 125 years and things are looking up. With Brexit on the horizon and the limbo status of English in the EU, the languages of the Union are an important talking point. Irish will continue to flourish, whether that is internationally or locally, for it has an abundance of dedicated supporters and speakers that will ensure the survival of the language over the years to come.
But what of other languages in a similar predicament struggling to find a prominent voice in Brussels, such as Estonian and Maltese, or even unofficial European languages such as Breton or Basque? Professor Ní Annracháin has a positive outlook.
“Following Brexit, and the possible waning of the overwhelming dominance of English, I hope all the other languages of Europe will have a greater opportunity to flourish.”