Friday, July 25, 2008

A scoot around the Gaeltacht

It is that time of year again when I take my annual scoot around the Donegal Gaeltacht. Over the last couple of weeks I was in the north of the county in Ros Goill, further west in Dún Lúiche (where my paternal grandfather was born and raised) and in the south of the county in Gleann Cholm Cille where I did my annual poetry reading. (Don’t worry if you missed it, I will be back next year!)

Have to say that I noticed a (slight) change for the better in Ros Goill and Dún Lúiche. It can be hard enough to find Irish in Ros Goill unless you happen to know an Irish speaker personally. However, I actually heard people speaking Irish by chance in the pub – and I am not a regular in pubs either. Even more important was Sunday’s Irish-language Mass where the holiday makers outnumbered the locals. That said, the Irish speakers in the congregation certainly made themselves heard and it was a great (for me anyway) that my children actually heard people speaking Irish other than their father.

However, if you don’t know anyone in the area who speaks Irish and you don’t attend Mass, you might well find it hard to find any Irish in the area. Funny enough though, while Ros Goill is one of the few Gaeltacht areas which does not have a summer college for children, it does have one for adults. So that would seem to be the best way of making a local acquaintance.

In this context too, I would have to say that the local language committee, Coiste Céim Aniar, have done good work in raising the language’s profile in the last couple of years. Their newsletter, Guth Ghoill, is a mine of information about local lore and stories and there are a lot more signs in Irish in Downings and in Carrigart than used to be the case. Many locals have also (successfully) undertaken diplomas and degrees in Irish to improve their command of the language and Coiste Céim Aniar are also doing their best to promote the language among young people.

Ros Goill may be one of the weaker Gaeltacht areas in terms of numbers of speakers but there is little doubt that there is still a wealth of Irish in the area. Hopefully, the attempts to encourage young people to speak Irish and to remind older speakers of the value of the language they have from the cradle will bear fruit. The area faces a great number of challenges in keeping the language alive but it certainly seems that there are many locals who are determined to meet that challenge.

On a trip to Dún Lúiche, I was surprised too by how keen the locals were to use Irish. That has not always been the case. In years gone by, I was rebuffed in English by some locals when I spoke Irish to them. (And I would not have been alone in that particular experience.) However while visiting Ionad Cois Locha, the locals were more than happy to talk Irish. The woman selling tickets responded to my very diffident: “An bhfuil Gaeilge agat?” (Do you speak Irish?) with a torrent of Irish. I almost think she was insulted I thought she might not! You just can’t win. Also, the young girls working in the café were speaking Irish amongst themselves and of their own volition. It certainly gladdened this (somewhat cynical) heart.

Anyway, just back from Gleann Cholm Cille where Oideas Gael and their language courses continues to generate much needed tourism. Talking to bean an tí, she said it had been a very bad season and if it had not been for the Irish-language courses, things would have been much worse. Indeed, that seems to have the case in much of Donegal – the summer colleges brought in the students and their parents on visits and they all spent money. Who said Irish was of no economic value?

Of course, this is little more than a snap shot of the Donegal Gaeltacht. Irish remains very fragile in many Gaeltacht areas and you can search high and low before finding a native speaker. I could honestly see some areas that are officially Gaeltacht areas disappearing of the language map in the next twenty years or so. I hope that I am proved wrong.

Beidh le feiceáil.


Aidan said...

Very interesting to read about your experiences in the Gaeltacht. I am always amazed that people in the Gaeltacht sometimes want to reply in English so it is nice to hear that you did not encounter this. For me the biggest problem is that there is too much value put on speaking in dialect so that speaking standard Irish is dismissed as 'learner's Irish' or 'school Irish'. In that respect Irish is almost unique amongst the languages of Europe because speaking the standard form is the norm with every other language I speak and speaking in dialect to an outsider is, if anything, a sign of being somewhat uneducated.

Howard said...

I agree, I enjoyed reading this and I have never learnt a word of Irish!

Anonymous said...

As far as I know native Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht don't like speaking Irish to people who don't sound ''native'' or has bad prononciation. Or if you are struggling to speak or speak a complete different dialect to theres.

If you speak with good prononciation and have their dialect, they will always reply back in Irish. This is from my experience in Gweedore.