The lessons from Ireland that could help save Gaelic in Scotland

Anna Nic Dhonncha is at work at a florists in Carraroe, County Galway, where folk drift in and out of the shop, exchanging the polite chat of the day in Irish.

Sunday, 15th August 2021, 4:55 am
Updated Tuesday, 7th September 2021, 9:58 pm
South Uist, Outer Hebrides, where Gaelic speakers account for around 60 per cent of the population. The figure rises to 82 per cent in some pockets of the island.

Irish is the language of Anna’s home, her school life, her working life – and also her future.

Anna, 18, said: “I was brought up with Irish with my mum, my dad and my grandparents. I was schooled in Irish, everything in this community is done in Irish. In the shop we speak it. If you go to the library, it is spoken there. For me as a young person, it’s a big thing to have Irish and people want to learn it.

"I want to do primary school teaching – that it the dream. I want to pass it down to children, and then one day to my own family too.”

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Professor Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, Director of Language Sciences Institute, University of Highlands and Islands. PIC: Contributed.

Carraroe has one of the highest concentrations of daily Irish speakers in Ireland, with 61.6 per cent using it daily. The village is also a popular summer destination for young people from urban areas, who for decades have come here to learn Irish and stay with local families.

"We call them Irish seekers. My grandmother used to take them in and her children had to sleep in one room to make space for the visitors," Anna said.

Carraroe sits in the Connemara Gaeltacht, one of 26 statutory areas recognised by the Irish Government where the Irish language is the predominant vernacular, or language of the home. The Gaeltacht receives around £78m Euros a year to grow business, learning, employment and the arts in Irish-speaking communities.

The Scottish Government is seeking to create it own Gàidhealtachd following a SNP manifesto commitment rooted in its vision to get more people speaking more Gaelic, more of the time.

Planning is in its very early stages but all eyes will be on the Irish model as the area is defined.

In Scotland, the Gàidhealtachd will almost certainly cover parts of the Highlands and Western Isles, where 62 per cent of the population have Gaelic language skills but where better transport, connectivity and employment opportunities are needed to stem the loss of population.

Extending the language area into parts of the Central Belt may also be considered, given pockets of existing speakers and the growth in those attending Gaelic schools.

Shona NicIllinnein, chief executive of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, said: “It’s about looking at what works elsewhere, looking at what the situation is in Scotland, comparing models and identifying how the Gàidhealtachd can be brought forward in Scotland

“The benefit of the Gàidhealtachd is that it will increase the use of Gaelic and it is about finding the right mechanisms to support that.

"The situations are different in Scotland and Ireland with the status and number of speakers, but let’s see what we can learn from them.”

In Ireland, the Gaeltacht was first mapped in the 1920s with around 100,000 people now living within its boundaries, which mostly run around the western seaboard, although many more Irish speakers are found in urban areas.

In Scotland, around 87,100 people have some form of Gaelic language skills – 1.7 per cent of the population – with the state of the language described as “very fragile” in the draft National Gaelic Plan for 2023 to 2028.

Meanwhile, in Ireland this summer, an in-depth report on the Gaeltacht found Irish-speaking “in crisis” with just 23 per cent of children using the language at home. There are regional variations, however, with two areas in County Galway recording more than 50 per cent of children speaking Irish outside of the school setting.

It is hoped the report will guide more targeted work to support those who want to speak Irish.

Professor Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, Director of the Language Sciences Institute of University of Highlands and Islands, said the issue was that the Gaeltacht was now supporting areas where large sections of the population spoke English.

In Scotland, the areas with the highest density of Gaelic speakers must be supported to help the language survive, he said.

He said: “The problem is that in Ireland, the Gaeltacht is not really effective now – but it used to be.

“Because of social changes in these areas and English speakers moving in, generally from the 1980s, areas of higher density of speakers became diluted.

"From a social point of view, language policy hasn’t been able to adapt. So the question is how do you build a language policy that adapts to social change?

“You are managing areas where most of the population has shifted to English speaking. There is no official response to address this shift.

"We had a social and economic policy for Irish speaking areas and what we have now is Gaeltacht symbolic policy.”

Professor Ó Giollagáin co-authored a book last year that found that social use of Gaelic in the Western Isles was at the point of collapse with around 11,000 vernacular speakers found largely among the over-50s, with very low levels of the language now spoken in the home.

The book’s argued a Gaelic Community Trust should be set up under the leadership of the speaker community to lead language planning and bring policy home.

Meanwhile, work is ongoing at Bòrd na Gàidhlig to support growth of Gaelic in the Western Isles - where pupils are now automatically enrolled in Gaelic Medium Education – in areas such as nursery provision and community buyouts that promote the language.

Professor Ó Giollagáin said it was essential that communities were given control of language-policy in the islands.

"In Scotland, communities don’t need more symbolic recognition. We need concrete mechanisms to help the Gaelic –speaking communities meet the challenges they face. Anything else is just a distraction from the crisis.” he added.

In Scotland, as in Ireland, the last word on saving Gaelic for future generations is far from being spoken.