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Column Yes, we can save Irish – but there’s no point trying to spread it

If Irish is to survive as a real language we must focus on preservation – and just forget about promoting it to English speakers, writes Ian Mac Eochagáin.

THE NEW GAELTACHT Bill, currently at the second stage in the Oireachtas, is really nothing new in Irish-language legislation. This jumble of reorganisations and reclassifications will fail native Irish speakers for two reasons.

Firstly, it provides no linguistic definition of a Gaeltacht; and secondly, it does not differ between the realistic task of maintaining the current number of native Irish speakers (preservation) and the unrealistic one of turning English speakers into Irish speakers (promotion).

The Bill (pdf here) essentially provides for the redesignation of existing Gaeltachtaí as Gaeltacht Language Planning Areas, and for the creation of Gaeltacht Service Towns and Irish Language Networks outside the Gaeltacht. For each of these categories to receive funding, they must draw up an Irish Language Plan to be approved and monitored by the Minister for the Gaeltacht. These Plans must “provide for and encourage the increased use of the Irish language in the family, educational, public, social, recreational and commercial life of the area concerned”.

These plans must conform to ‘Language Planning Criteria’, which “may include … the proportion of the population concerned which speaks Irish”. The key word is “may”: this criterion can be omitted at the whim of the Minister. Different areas will apply for funding with the Minister choosing which ones are worthy. In theory, then, an area can be deemed a Gaeltacht with no account taken of how many Irish speakers it holds. Hardly a Gaeltacht “based on linguistics”, as Minister McGinley was quoted as saying earlier this week.

Nor is there any distinction made between maintaining the current level of Irish speakers in a given area and increasing that number. Tragically, this distinction has never been made in independent Ireland. Instead, central and local government have been agents of Anglicisation in the Gaeltacht, while millions have been poured into ‘promoting’ Irish among English speakers. ‘Promotion’ boils down to this: English speakers are encouraged, by various campaigns, to speak Irish to each other.

For one obvious reason, these campaigns never work: English speakers already have a language, English, to use with each other. Why bother, then, to ‘promote’ Irish among them? Far more useful would be to overhaul the teaching of Irish in schools so that English-speakers have a basic, practical knowledge they can use with native Irish speakers.

‘Only preservation and not promotion’

If Irish is to survive as a community language, then only preservation and not promotion must be concentrated on. This means ridding the conversation around Irish of such terms as “promotion”, “increased use” (among English speakers), “expansion”, and so on. All government-funded bodies devoted solely to Irish-language promotion should be closed down and the ‘promotion’ side of other bodies abolished.

Preservation means giving native Irish speakers the opportunity to interact with the state in their native language: at present, this opportunity is severely limited, as staff in government departments and local authorities speak Irish less than fluently. If Gaeltacht areas are given more autonomy, with native speakers staffing government offices and official information published in the local dialect and not the Dublin ‘standard’, Irish speakers can feel the state supports their language rights and their language will have a chance at surviving. Irish-speaking communities need the state to speak to them in their language.

Legislative change is needed in this area, but not of this kind. The first reform should be an amendment to Article 8 of the Constitution to give Irish and English equal status. The next should be a Language Act to replace all existing language legislation, which would spell out and provide for the rights of speakers of both official languages to State services and information, including, above all, a numerical definition of English-, Irish-speaking and bilingual areas.

The Bill before the Oireachtas at present is a haze of new definitions, plans and reports that all boil down to ministerial discretion and not linguistic reality. It must be opposed and replaced with a Language Act that will defend the rights of speakers of both official languages to services and information, on the one hand, and devote Irish-language policy exclusively to keeping the level of Irish speakers at its current level, on the other. Then we may have some hope of an Ireland of two equal languages and the guarantee of language rights for all.

Ian Mac Eochagáin is an English teacher and freelance translator living and working in Finland. His blog in English and Russian, is at, and his business website, Maceochi Language Services, is at

Column: Why not give Irish equal status on our road signs?>

Ian Mac Eochagáin
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