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Housing

Irish speakers are leaving Gaeltacht areas due to problems with planning and a lack of housing

“When we left, the island probably lost more than we did. Because they lost a whole family. Gone.”

ANNE MOONEY AND her husband Ciarán Ó Ceallaigh moved with their three young children to Inis Meáin, one of the Aran Islands off the coast of Co Galway, in 2016.

The family had been living in Brussels, but moved to the small island after Ciarán secured a job as Bainisteoir Comhlacht Forbartha Inis Meáin (manager of the local development organisation).

“It was kind of a crazy move, but we did it,” says Anne. “It was a complete culture shock, but it was good for us. A good experience.”

According to the 2016 Census, Inis Meáin is the least populated of the Aran Islands, with just 183 people recorded as living there.

Chlann Uí Cheallaigh (the Kelly family) thrived on the island, immersing themselves in the community and Irish traditional music. Anne and Ciarán both spoke Irish fluently, and their children picked the language up quickly after they enrolled in the local primary and secondary schools, three of just a small number of children living and learning on the island.

However, the rented home they lived in was too small for their needs. Anne and Ciarán had a fourth child in 2019, and it became impossible for them to live in the house any longer.

“We had a bigger house at the start [when we first moved] but they wanted to rent it out over the summer so we had to get out for the summer, that’s why we were in the smaller house,” says Anne.

“If we’d gotten a bigger house earlier on in the five years, or even just before we left, we’d probably still be there.”

Despite searching, the family were unable to find a house to live in on the island. Any empty homes that suited their needs were used as holiday homes or short-term rentals. The family considered building on a site, but were told they wouldn’t get planning permission.

Eventually, having exhausted their options, the family left the island last year and relocated to An Cheathrú Rua (Carraroe), another more highly populated Gaeltacht region in Connemara.

“We were very disappointed to leave, and the kids still are,” Anne says. “Life was totally different out there.”

According to advocacy groups, language officers, and local residents, the Kellys’ experience is one affecting Irish speaking families in Gaeltacht regions across the country, as they are forced to relocate due to problems with the planning system and a lack of suitable housing.

Decline in speakers

The number of people in Gaeltacht regions who speak Irish on a daily basis is falling. According to the last Census, in April 2016 there were a total of 96,090 people living in Gaeltacht regions across the counties of Kerry, Galway, Donegal, Mayo, Cork, Waterford and Meath. This is a drop of 2,574 on the 2011 Census figure.

Of this number, 63,664 (66.3%) said they could speak Irish, down from 68.5% in 2011. However, less than a quarter of people (20,586) said they spoke Irish daily outside of the education system, a drop of 11% on 2011, when 23,175 people spoke the language daily.

Irish language advocacy groups point to a number of reasons for this decline, including emigration, a lack of proper investment, and an influx of non-Irish speakers into Gaeltacht areas. Top of the list in recent years, however, are problems with housing and the planning system.

“The planning is, we would say, the most important [factor] that’s coming through in the last two years. It’s crystallising more and more and is coming from a couple of different angles, depending on the area in question,” says Peadar Mac Fhlannchadha, Advocacy Manager with Conradh na Gaeilge, the Irish language organisation.

Mac Fhlannchadha says that he wouldn’t be surprised if Census 2022 saw a further decline in the number of Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht.

“And that’s based on the planning issue, based on the lack of housing, because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in so many cases and when you’re dealing with all the Gaeltacht areas it’s really the most common thing coming up.”

Planning permission

One of the most highlighted issues around housing is the difficulty people have in securing planning permission to build homes on land they own, or are considering buying.

In recent years, local and national planning policy has sought to move away from single, detached rural dwellings (in other words, one-off housing) and instead towards building up urban settlements. This is in order to combat urban and suburban sprawl, protect natural heritage, and ensure developments are environmentally friendly.

At a national level, this policy is driven by the National Planning Framework (NPF), which was adopted by the government in 2018.

Single builds in rural areas are still governed by 2005’s Sustainable Rural Housing Guidelines for Planning Authorities, however. New guidelines for rural dwellings were due to be published in January this year, but have been delayed (a Housing Department spokesperson says they are at “an advanced stage of drafting).

On a practical level, local and national planning guidelines are geared towards reducing the number of one-off builds, especially in areas that are relatively close to cities or big towns.

However, in relation to the Irish language in Gaeltacht regions, National Policy Objective Number 29 of the the NPF states that it must:

Support the implementation of language plans in Gaeltacht Language Planning Areas, Gaeltacht Service Towns and Irish Language Networks.

Under the government’s 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language 2010-2030, language plans are to be developed at community level across 26 Gaeltacht Language Planning Areas, in order to meet the government’s Irish language objectives.

But Irish language advocates say that local authority planning policy is often at odds with protecting and enhancing use of the Irish language. They state that the resistance to one-off builds is having a severely negative impact on Gaeltacht areas, as native speakers are unable to secure planning permission, and so are forced to relocate.

A report commissioned by the West Kerry Language Plan in 2020 found that in relation to planning and the language, local authority policy “is quite aspirational and arguably not closely focused on fostering retention, let alone expansion, of Irish speaking communities.”

The issue was highlighted recently by West Kerry musician Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich, who sought planning permission for 15 years to build a home on family land in the west Kerry Gaeltacht, after he was refused on multiple occasions.

Following a lengthy, high profile campaign, Ó Beaglaoich was finally granted permission for a one-off dwelling in October 2020.

“The planning policies are driving people off their land and into the big towns. Rural Ireland is being slowly suffocated,” he told RTÉ News at the time. Kerry County Council defends its record of building houses, and states that 78% of planning applications for one-off dwellings in the county were granted in 2020.

Anne Mooney and her family considered building a home on a site on Inis Meáin, but in pre-planning consultation with Galway County Council they were told the site wasn’t suitable for housing.

“They came back to us and said no, that the location was not a suitable site for housing, that you had to go to the village,” says Anne.

“Which is crazy, as it’s an island and land is finite on an island, there’s only so much land you can build on.”

taoiseach-visits-aran-islands Leo Varadkar visits a school on Inis Meain in 2018 PA PA

Anne could have challenged the council, but she knew of other islanders who had had serious difficulty in securing planning permission for sites they owned.

“I know it’s very, very difficult to get planning permission and we just weren’t ready to go down that road, really,” she says.

“I knew that if we went down that road, it would take a long time and that we’d still be in the house we were in for another few years, and I don’t think [we] could have stuck it.”

Peadar Mac Fhlannchadha says that there seems to be a complete aversion from planners on one-off housing being built in Gaeltacht areas, and that local and national government officials need to provide people with alternatives.

“If, in the majority, one-off houses need to be stopped, then the government has to come up with the solution with providing houses in the Gaeltacht,” he says.

“If that’s a small housing estate as part of local villages, or whatever. [Officials] can’t just say we’re refusing to give permission, so away with you and do the best you can.

“Because the only result of that, which we are seeing already, is people moving out of the Gaeltacht.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing says that the NPF “fully supports the sustainable development of rural areas and the need to ensure they continue to be viable places to live, work and invest in.”

The spokesperson said that since 2019 all local authority development plans are being assessed by the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR), to ensure they’re consistent with national and regional policies.

Housing estates

Another problem with housing in Gaeltacht areas has to do with larger developments being granted permission, which could potentially dilute the number of Irish speakers in an area.

This issue has been highlighted in a number of high profile cases in recent years.

In its 2019 annual report, the Office of the Language Commissioner found that Kerry County Council had breached the law by failing to implement a language condition attached to a planning permission for a housing estate in the west Kerry Gaeltacht in 2004.

More recently, in November last year the High Court overturned an An Bord Pleanála decision to allow 30 houses and a guesthouse to be built in the Ráth Chairn Gaeltacht in Co Meath, due to the negative effects the development would have on the Irish language.

The local Comharchumann Ráth Chairn, which works to enhance the use of the Irish language in the area, brought the challenge.

In a separate case in An Rinn, in Gaeltacht na nDéise (the Waterford Gaeltacht), there was fierce local opposition to a proposed development of 46 houses in Mweelahorna, for fears it would negatively impact the language. The application was refused by Waterford County Council, but the decision has been appealed by the developer.

Community housing

“What we require in Gaeltacht na nDéise is housing that is accessible and affordable for the local housing needs that already exist,” says Conor McGuinness, a local Sinn Féin councillor who lives in An Rinn, and a former Language Planning Officer for the area.

“So we’re talking about young families, families with young children, and couples and individuals who are younger and who would like to start a family. That’s the kind of housing we need.

“The nature of the proposed development that you referred to would be that by and large they would be much larger houses and would have been prohibitively expensive for people within the community to purchase.”

Gaeltacht na nDéise had a population of just over 1,800 in the last Census, and was one of the only Irish speaking areas where the number of daily speakers rose.

However, McGuinness says that locals there are facing the same problems as in other Irish speaking areas – namely a lack of suitable, affordable housing, and a planning system averse to one-off builds.

“The housing crisis is causing deep frustration, deep anxiety and deep harm to individuals and families, and I feel that’s slightly more pronounced in the Gaeltacht areas I represent because of those other factors: identity, language, access to services in people’s own language,” he says.

He says more social housing needs to be built in the area as a matter of urgency.

Solutions

McGuinness also points towards a community driven plan to build affordable houses on land currently owned by Údarás na Gaeltachta, the regional authority responsible for the economic, social and cultural development of the Gaeltacht.

Comhlacht Forbartha na nDéise are working to obtain the land and to develop up to 14 houses there, however McGuinness says the plans have been “delayed”.

Rónán Mac Con Iomaire, director of Regional, Community Development & Language Planning with Údarás na Gaeltachta, says that the authority “supports the project”, but that many details still need to be worked out.

“There’s clearly a need, we have land in the area that we can provide for this development, but obviously if we sell it at market rate, then it’s going to be very difficult to develop affordable housing there given land prices,” he says.

Mac Con Iomaire says that Údarás is in discussions with the Department of Housing in relation to how to progress the plans.

“We recognise the concern, we recognise the project that’s proposed by the community is a viable project and we’re actively looking at ways of trying to enable that project,” he says.

In general, Mac Con Iomaire says that housing issues aren’t a feature of all Gaeltacht areas, but in some regions – like An Rinn – there is an acute housing need.

Údarás does not have a specific planning or housing remit, but instead it manages and funds the 33 Community Development Organisations throughout the Gaeltacht, which it then works with to identify challenges and opportunities in their areas.

“We’ve had a number of Community Development Organisations come to us recently around acquiring Údarás na Gaeltachta land that hasn’t been developed… so they can develop social housing schemes,” says Mac Con Iomaire.

He also says the authority is in talks with local authorities and the Department of Housing around developing consistency in planning across different local authorities, to make sure the Irish language is protected in line with national guidelines and the local authorities’ own language plans.

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“Some local authorities, their spatial plans are focused on congregating populations and moving people into more urban settings, which can affect the nature of the… community fabric of the Gaeltacht, which is very much a rural community,” he says.

“And if you’re moving people out of those areas into urban areas, or out of non-Gaeltacht areas, or they’re having difficulties, it’s going to breed difficulties in terms of the sustainability of the language as a community language.”

A spokesperson for the Department of the Gaeltacht said it was working with Údarás and the Housing Department in relation to the planning matters in Gaeltacht areas. A working group was convened between the different bodies, with input from relevant local authorities, to “examine various aspects of the planning process in all Gaeltacht areas”.

National Policy

Conradh na Gaeilge has called for the implementation of a National Policy for Housing Planning in the Gaeltacht, which would ensure consistency in how planning guidelines are implemented across Gaeltacht regions.

Under its draft policy, there are demands that anyone seeking planning permission has an appropriate standard of Irish; that there are restrictions on housing estates and holiday homes; that social housing be provided for Gaeltacht communities; and that physical planning be in tandem with language planning.

Conradh also calls for planning powers to be given to Údáras na Gaeltachta in Gaeltacht areas, something which isn’t being considered by the government.

Peadar Mac Fhlannchadha says that the organisation is aware there is a housing crisis across the country, but that the problem has an extra dimension in Gaeltacht communities due to the fragility of the Irish language.

“The point that we would be making is… if there’s a problem outside the Gaeltacht it’s in relation to housing, in the Gaeltacht it’s in relation to the language and if the language goes, it’s gone.

“We see this happening, particularly in the more rural Gaeltacht areas, which are paradoxically the stronger Gaeltacht areas, so if a family does not see any prospect of getting housing in the area, they move out.

“Once a family moves out of an area, there are huge knock-on effects to the confidence of the community in general.”

A spokesperson for the Department of the Gaeltacht said it was “widely acknowledged that the Irish language remains under ongoing and significant pressures”, but that it was their hope that the implementation of the Government’s Action Plan for the Irish Language 2018-2022 will “serve to further underpin the maintenance and development of the language which will be reflected in forthcoming census results.”

“Gone”

Anne Mooney says that planning officers should take more of a proactive role in ensuring suitable locations are found to build houses in rural areas, in order to ensure that people remain there.

“The fact that we were living on the island for X amount of years – the kids were going to the school, Irish speakers -  that should all be looked upon really favourably and they should be more accommodating towards families like us,” she says.

“Okay, we’re not from the island but we were willing to settle there. On an island, they need all the families they can get.

“When we left, the island probably lost more than we did. Because they lost a whole family. Gone.”

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.

 

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