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Dixon's pub in Meenlaragh Michelle Nic Pháidín
mín lárach

'There is no need for me to ever speak English at home': The town with the highest percentage of Irish speakers

“From the moment I wake until the moment I go to bed, I speak Irish.”

THE ROAD CURVES towards the Atlantic Ocean as you make your way to the home of Cormac Mac Ruairí. The 41-year-old is inside in the sitting room which soon is filled with the rich smell of freshly brewed coffee. Iarla Ó Lionáird’s distinctive voice sings from the TV in the corner.

Cormac lives in Meenlaragh/Mín Lárach in the Donegal Gaeltacht, an area which recorded the highest percentage of daily Irish speakers in the Republic of Ireland, according to the 2016 census. The census found that of the 400 people living in the area, 73.3% speak Irish on a daily basis – the highest percentage by far of any other town, ahead of Rann na Feirste, also in Donegal, in second place at 66.6%. 

The rest of the top ten is made up of towns almost all located in Donegal or Galway (Cork is the only other county to make an appearance), with the percentage of daily speakers dropping by almost 50 percentage points between #1 and #10 on the list. 


The townlands and villages flanking the small townland of Meenlaragh are exceptionally rich in terms of the Irish language; places such as Meenacladdy, Bloody Foreland, Derryconor, Curransport, Magheroarty and Glasserchoo all have high levels of spoken Irish, as well as Tory and Inishbofin islands which are nestled within sight of the mainland.

Cormac believes the rich Irish culture exists due to the area's close geographical proximity to the islands, which has helped maintain and nurture the Irish language through a symbiotic relationship which has existed for many years.

This history is woven into every day life: a great lover of the sean nós style of singing, he sings Dán Aoine an Chéasta, the words of which were given to him by a great aunt on his mother’s side. The tune for the song was bestowed upon him by the academic author and professor in Irish languages, literatures and culture at NUI Galway, Lillis Ó Laoire. Cormac’s late grandmother Kitty Shéamuis Bháin was a gifted singer on Tory Island, the place where he was born.

Cormac told The Journal: “I sang the song the last time I was on Tory. I have a great respect for Tory and for their style of sean nós singing.”

Many years ago, a post office, shop and bar in Meenlaragh were used by the mainly Irish-speaking islanders who would travel over to avail of them.

Cormac adds: “The post office and shop meant that they didn’t need to venture further afield. They could buy all their household items, collect their pensions, post their letters and if they wanted they could go for a drink in Dixon’s bar. The post office and the shop really were the heart of this community.”

The shop and post office closed in Meenlaragh around a decade ago. Dixon’s bar still exists alongside a new business called Cíocras which serves food.

IMG-1389 (1) Meenlaragh Michelle Nic Phaidín Michelle Nic Phaidín

Speaking from Austria, Diane Cannon, a vocalist who is performing and touring there, shares similar memories as Cormac. Her home in Meenlaragh was seldom without music or song. Diane’s mother grew up in Meenlaragh and her father hails from the picturesque area of Mín na Craoibhe in Dunlewey, located under the shadow of the majestic Errigal mountain, twelve miles away.

Diane attended the national school in Magheroarty and later attended Pobailscoil Chloich Cheannfhaola. The eldest of a family of four, she says her siblings will all settle at home in Meenlaragh. All the family speak Irish as did the generations before them.

“From the moment I wake until the moment I go to bed, I speak Irish. There is no need for me to ever speak English at home,” Diane says.

Diane travels the world performing through the medium of both English and Irish.

“There is a strong connection between the language and traditional sean-nós singing,” she says. “My grandparents' home was located in an area known locally as ‘the cottages’ - homes that were built for the people who wanted to move from the islands onto the mainland. Everyone in the area knew their home, the people of Tory and Inishbofin often frequented that house.’’

Diane said:“The islanders didn’t have to carry out their business in this area through the English language.”

The islanders and locals now travel to nearby post offices and shops to carry out their business.

Diane established her own business to showcase the music, the tradition, the song and the beauty of the area.

Diane’s family have been immersed in tourism for many years so she has vast experience in the industry; her family ran Óstán Loch Altan for fifteen years, and also established and ran many local festivals. They also run the Gweedore Bar and Inis restaurant at the crossroads in Falcarragh. Diane used to host an Oíche Ghaelach, where she invited people into the bar and showed them how they carried out traditional tasks such as making rope, mending fishing nets, learning traditional Donegal dances and enjoying local seafood and produce. When the pandemic struck, she decided to take her business to sea and it has become a great success.

Diane believes that the language is extremely important in terms of tourism and it attracts visitors to north-west Donegal.

Although many speak of the demise of the Irish language in Gaeltacht areas, Diane, with the stats to back her theory, says the language continues to prosper and thrive in Meenlaragh and shows no sign of erosion.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

Michelle Nic Pháidín
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