A Plan to save the Irish Language by creating a New Town in the Gaeltacht

In 1926 we had more than half a million Irish-speakers, but by 1996 this had been reduced to between 10,000 and 21,000. [where do you get those numbers?] In contrast, Icelandic with 250,000 speakers, and Faeroese with a mere 46,000 speakers have not suffered any decline in that period. This text explains why, & sets out the measures needed to maintain Irish as a living language, i.e. one which children acquire naturally from their parents & which is automatically used by all members of the community when speaking to each other.

Irish constitution Article 8.1 'The Irish language as the national language is the first official language' When Irish was made an official language, the civil service resisted making it the language of administration, arguing that this could only be done when the entire population had been through the school system and learnt Irish. The Irish state itself therefore became, like the British state before it, the main force for destroying the Irish language. Until relatively recent times, state employment made up a huge proportion of the non-agricultural jobs in the 26 Counties, and were highly sought after. The vast bulk of such jobs were based in English-speaking areas. Although a qualification in Irish was an entry requirement for state jobs, this was very low level. Most state employees could not even speak Irish as well as a five year old native speaker. Once the entry hurdle was cleared, few ever used Irish. On the other hand, both to get and to keep a state job, native Irish-speakers had to read, write and speak English as well as English-speakers. Native Irish-speakers also had to be fluent in English in order to deal with officials. Government agencies have been repeatedly warned that they were responsible for increasing anglicisation, but simply ignore regulations designed to meet the special needs of Irish-speakers. If this is allowed to continue Irish will soon be exterminated. However, where separate structures have been set up to serve Irish-speakers, the situation is much better. [How do you know that?]

Recommendation 1: Government departments and agencies should set up special units staffed by fluent Irish-speakers to serve the Gaeltacht & Irish-speakers in the Galltacht. The working language of these units should be Irish. Their career structure should be separate from the rest of the public service.

Even for those who remain within the Gaeltacht, the economic pressures to speak English are strong. The jobs that the state helped to create in the Gaeltacht during the 1970s greatly increased that pressure. They brought Irish-speakers into work environments where they had to use English to communicate with customers, suppliers, co-workers and managers. This was a disaster for the language. Commercial pressures would force most private businesses to use English. However, the situation with public sector jobs is quite different. Although it has never used this power, the constitution specifically grants the government the right to direct that any activity must be conducted in Irish. Moreover, a 1993 survey by Institiúid Teangeolaíochta Éireann found that

66% said the government should encourage "Use of Irish within the civil service"

Surveys in 1983 and 1973 gave similar figures.

Recommendation 2: The units mentioned in Recommendation 1 should be located in the Gaeltacht. In addition, to provide jobs for Irish-speakers, some other public service jobs should be moved to new units based in the Gaeltacht. These should be jobs which do not involve interaction with English-speaking members of the public. The working language of all jobs transferred to the Gaeltacht should be Irish, and all communication between public servants based in the Gaeltacht and those elsewhere should be in Irish. Their career structure should also be separate from the rest of the public service.

When Irish-speakers encounter English-speakers, most automatically switch to English in order to communicate. This is the natural thing to do when all Irish-speakers are fluent in English, but few English-speakers can handle a normal conversation in Irish. Those who have visited non-English-speaking countries will have noticed the same thing there; people who can speak good English will speak to you in English. This is not a problem in those countries, since the majority of the population rarely encounter English-speakers. However this effect is destroying Irish-speaking communities as they are brought into increasing contact with English-speakers.

The industrialisation of the Gaeltacht in the 1970s was a major disaster, not just because the language of most work places was English, but even worse, because the new jobs stimulated inward migration of English-speakers and returned migration of Irish-speakers with English-speaking families. Research indicates that if a single English-speaker joins a network (people who regularly talk to each other) of Irish-speakers, then the entire network will switch to using English. Except in the most isolated Gaeltacht communities, people whose first language was Irish now spend most of their waking hours in the company of English-speakers. This has turned the language of schools, pubs and whole communities from Irish to English. The 1996 census found that around 40% of Irish-speakers living in the Gaeltacht could go a whole day without speaking Irish and 31% didn't even speak it once a week.

Map of Faeroes and Iceland This brings us to the fundamental difference between Irish on the one hand, and Icelandic and Faeroese on the other. Both Iceland and the Faeroe Islands are physically remote, politically independent, and have little immigration. They thus form separate speech communities (or sets of speech communities). Members of a speech community speak mainly among themselves, having little contact with members of other speech communities. Sociolinguistics has found that in the long run, two languages cannot exist within a single speech community unless there is both widespread bilingualism (ability to speak both languages) and diglossia (the languages are used for different purposes). This explains why, as English spread, Irish-speaking communities survived only in the most isolated and economically backward areas; people in those areas formed separate speech communities and had little contact with English-speaking Ireland. As contact increases, they merge into speech communities which speak English and lose their Irish. Teaching Irish to all school children has not resulted in widespread bilingualism, and there has been no attempt by the government to promote diglossia. Therefore the only hope for maintaining Irish is to have a separate speech community where English is either excluded, or is restricted to tightly defined uses. People in this community must be able to enjoy a normal west-European lifestyle, or else they will leave.

Recommendation 3: Educate the general population about sociolinguistics and the mechanisms which cause language shift.

Finland demonstrates how a state can maintain a two languages without diglossia. The proper legal framework will support a separate speech community for the weaker language. Finland also shows that a less thorough approach will fail.

Swedish is an official language in Finland, and there are Swedish-speaking communities both on the mainland and on the Aaland Islands. The former are being slowly assimilated into the Finish-speaking majority, but not so the smaller community on the Aalands. This is because there are laws restricting the settlement of Finish-speakers on the islands, the language of administration is Swedish, the Finish language is only an optional subject in the schools, and few Islanders can speak Finish.

Map of Aaland Islands The Aalands are also physically closer to Sweden than to Finland. However, the British Channel Islands are even closer to France, and that did not prevent the language shift there from French to English. The Channel Islands had political autonomy (like the Aalands) and French was the official language. However the Channel Islands did not restrict settlement on the Islands until after the shift to English had taken place. Thus it is obvious that the laws excluding Finish and Finish-speakers are the crucial factor in maintaining the Aalands as a separate Swedish-speaking speech community. Ireland has no such laws to protect Irish-speaking communities, and that is one of the most important reasons why they are disappearing.

Introducing such laws and buying-out all the English-speakers already in the Gaeltacht would not be sufficient to halt anglicisation. The adoption of a modern, west European lifestyle, which everyone desires, brings increasing contact with English. The remaining Gaeltachaí do not contain a single large town. They are small rural communities, dependent on English-speaking towns for employment, shopping, entertainment, health care, education, etc. All these things draw Irish-speakers into English-speaking environments. In addition, young people are continuing to leave the Gaeltacht, for higher education, careers and excitement; and the overall population is only stable because of the in-migration and return migration which is so damaging to the language.

Money images In addition to the pressures on adults to speak English themselves, they are naturally concerned for the welfare of their children. It is impossible to be a banker, lawyer, advertising executive or to pursue any other well-remunerated career without using English as one's working language. Gaeltacht parents know that their children must emigrate to English-speaking Ireland or English-speaking countries abroad if they are to get good jobs. Therefore English is absolutely essential, while Irish has little practical value. Some still associate Irish with poverty and regard it as an obstacle to social and economic advancement for their children. Parents are not prepared to sacrifice their children's welfare to the ideal of Irish revival, and therefore many do not raise them with Irish as their first language.

Many if these problems would be solved, or at least reduced, by creating a large Irish-speaking town in the Gaeltacht. This would provide the local Gaeltacht with a wide range of employment opportunities and all the modern amenities which people desire, without obliging them to speak English. It could act as a base for third-level Irish-medium education, and could also attract a proportion of young people from the other Gaeltachtaí who would otherwise emigrate to English-speaking towns. Anyone returning from this town to their home Gaeltacht would then not have acquired an English-speaking family.

Because it wouldn't be acceptable to evict all the English-speakers from an existing town, a new town would have to be created. Such schemes have failed in the past because of "internal weakness plus inability to exclude English-speaking families" (The Death of the Irish Language, p144). This could be prevented if the town was a gated community whose members were bound by a covenant not to use English, or to use it only in narrowly prescribed circumstances. Members of the community could then be carefully selected and people unwilling or unable to comply with the rules could be excluded. Restricting access to the town to those who agree to speak only Irish would simulate the physical isolation which makes Iceland, the Faeroes, and the Aalands separate speech communities.

Physically building a new town is not a problem. The trouble is that the Irish-speaking population has fallen to such a low level that there would not be enough people to fill it. For this scheme to be viable, some of the English-speaking population would have to return to using Irish as their main language. Fortunately, there are indications that sizeable numbers may be willing to do so. According to the ITÉ 1993 survey, 9% of the population (around 300,000 people) say that in a completely bilingual Ireland, they would choose to speak only Irish. Being able to live a normal west-European lifestyle in a large, entirely Irish-speaking town may be close enough in practical terms to attract a similar number.

Many of those who say they would prefer to speak only Irish may not be linguistically capable doing so, may have English-speaking families, or for other reasons may be unable or unwilling to relocate to a new town. The most suitable people to recruit would be those who are young, unattached and already able to speak Irish fluently. (Being away from family and old friends, and in new surroundings are the ideal conditions for switching to use a new language).

In 1993, 15.4% of the 18-24 age group claimed to able to speak Irish at native-speaker ability or well enough to be able to handle most conversations. Thus there were approximately 9,403 school leavers each year in this category (based on a figure of 61,000 school leavers). These would probably be more enthusiastic about speaking Irish than the general population. However, even if they were not, that would still mean there were around 846 school leavers each year (9% of 15.4%) willing and able to speak only Irish. If these could be attracted to the new town and successfully integrated into an Irish-speaking community, it would not take many years to create a sizeable town. It is important that it does grow quickly and become a major town. Love of Irish will not keep people there indefinitely otherwise, and certainly won't hold their children.

Recommendation 4: To assess the practicality of this plan:

Recommendation 5: If the plan is judged practical, a government-owned corporation should be set up to purchase the land and manage the creation of the town. Maintaining Irish as the language of the town should be the overriding priority for this corporation. The jobs mentioned in recommendations 2 & 3 should be re-located to this new town to help provide employment. Other jobs would be created in the service sector. There should be a positive effort to develop trade links with non-English-speaking countries. The linguistic impact of all proposed public & private sector jobs should be assessed, & those likely to have a negative effect should not be allowed into the town.

It is important that efforts to revive Irish in the rest of the country are maintained, and that the new town is seen as a base for expansion, rather than as some sort of reservation. One of the easiest and most important measures which the government could take would be to remove the obstacles to setting up new gaelscoileanna. Around two-thirds of adults who attended post-primary Irish-medium schools say they can speak Irish either at native-speaker ability or well enough to handle most conversations. Among those who were only taught Irish as a subject, less than 12% have the same level of ability. The 1993 ITÉ survey found that 23% of parents would like their children to attend post-primary gaelscoileanna, but in 1993 just 1% of 17-24 year-olds had attended such schools. Also, according to an article in The Irish Independent ("If you want an Irish playschool, try Frankfurt" 17/9/99) it is harder to get funding for a pre-school Gaelscoil in Cork than it is in Frankfurt!

Recommendation 6: The obstacles to setting up new gaelscoileanna should be removed.