We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

Six O'Clock Show presenter Brian Dowling shakes Ivan Yates's hand. Virgin Media

Irish It's not cool to just tear down our beautiful, native Gaeilge

Caolán Mac Grianna of Conradh na Gaeilge says we cannot afford to take shots at our native language, it needs our support.

EVERY 14 DAYS, somewhere in the world, a language dies. History, songs, folklore and stories disappear forever with the death of a final speaker. But not Irish.

The Irish language has survived invasions, colonisation, famine and more. Irish is often referred to as the oldest vernacular language in Europe outside of Greece and Rome, with a literary tradition stemming back millennia.

Irish speakers number in the hundreds of thousands, with native speakers, language learners, young and old who use Irish every day.

Ivan Yates on last Thursday’s The Six O’Clock Show, Virgin Media 1, told us that there are just 16,000 ‘natural speakers’ of Irish. The figures show us that there are, in fact, 788,927 people in 26 counties of Ireland who speak Irish well or very well.

Perhaps ‘natural speakers’ refers to those who speak Irish in the Gaeltacht alone? That figure is 65,156 with 34,168 daily speakers. Furthermore, there are 71,968 daily speakers outside the education system alone in the state and 625,933 with those still in education included. Add speakers from northern counties, where there is an undeniable grassroots revival of Irish as a community language, and these figures are higher again.

A language to be protected

That is not to say that the Irish language is immune to threat. Language loss, diminishing usage and a decline in first language speakers are issues that all minoritised languages must contend with, Irish included.

Indeed, UNESCO categorises Irish as Definitely Endangered, if there is any doubt as to the fragility of the language or the challenges that Irish as a spoken language may face.

Safeguarding Irish for future generations will require motivation, education and investment – and from time to time, intervention.

On motivation, those who are passionate about Irish may find that this is lacking at times from those who would matter the most. The Government target for 250,000 daily speakers by 2030 is fast approaching with little to show for it. Not only has this not been achieved, but there has been a reduction in daily speakers since the Government set this target in 2010.

The targets, set out in the 20 Year Strategy for the Irish Language, were happily ambitious. Yet there has been an abject failure in the mechanisms and means to reach these targets, with an obvious lack of motivation from successive governments to adequately resource or invest in the plan.

How we teach the language

On education, feelings are much the same. Our education system has a huge role to play in fostering new generations of Irish speakers and bringing out the best in those who learn Irish at school. Research shows that 50% of people in the south would choose a school that teaches through the medium of Irish for their children if there was such a school in their area, yet the reality is that 8% of primary students and just 4% of post-primary students currently attend Irish-medium schools.

These figures would indicate a desire and a great amount of goodwill on the part of the public, but a failure to meet these wishes on the part of the government – in particular, the Department of Education. There is little acknowledgement from the Department of Education of their role in fostering new Irish speakers.

Nor is there action to double the number of students in Irish-medium education, despite this being a commitment in the Programme for Government. Across the water in Wales, where they have a target to increase students attending Welsh medium education from 23% to 40% by 2050, there are concrete, resourced plans detailing how they will get there, something absent from targets here.

The same is true in the case of Gaeltacht summer colleges. At a time when waiting lists to attend courses are a mile long and getting longer, some colleges have closed and numbers have dwindled. Where is the ambition to expand courses, build new colleges, develop year-round provision and support families who have been opening their homes to our young people for decades? Where is the ambition to double, or even triple the number of students over the next ten years, growing the Gaeltacht economy in the process?

Where is the ambition to provide scholarships, so that every school student can have the opportunity to visit the Gaeltacht at least once, no matter their economic circumstances?

Investment in the Irish language is, and always will be, essential. To disinvest from Irish out of a desire for equality between Irish and English does not level the playing field. We may consider investment in TG4 as an investment in Irish, but do we think of investment in RTÉ as investment in English? When funding for RTÉ is already multitudes greater than that of TG4, is the playing field really level?

Investment in Irish is an investment in all the other things that we do already – housing, planning, employment, education, arts, media and other sectors. Irish speakers have all of the same needs as the rest of the population and only ask that those needs are considered. Irish speakers are reliant on a state that operates through English to provide medical care in Irish when the focus is on providing English-language services by default. The same is true for childcare, or social services, or the legal system. Far too often, Irish speakers must leave their Irish behind for English, or not avail of services at all. At almost every juncture, English comes first, and Irish second.

That is where Irish speakers legitimately expect the state to intervene, to do better, to do more. More than a century on from the foundation of the state in the South, language equality must become a reality, not an aspiration.

In spite of challenges and causes for despair, many Irish speakers are hopeful and have immense pride in the language. Younger generations laugh when outdated arguments about Peig Sayers are made, as her book hasn’t been on the Leaving Cert this century, perhaps even since before they were born. While being sympathetic to those who are older who had a profoundly negative experience with the language, it is a profoundly positive sign that an ever increasing number of young people are learning to love Irish and experiencing the language in a better way than them.

To speak, to read, to hear, to feel and to love through Irish is a valuable experience, one that’s intrinsically connected to the culture and the heritage of this island stretching back thousands of years. It is a privilege that’s worth every effort and every investment twice over. In an increasingly globalised and interconnected world that gets smaller by the day, where languages are being lost and cultures are subsumed, Irish gives us something that makes us unique, something to call our own. For that, Irish is worth it.

Caolán Mac Grianna is a spokesperson for Conradh na Gaeilge.

Caolán Mac Grianna
Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel