62. One Hundred Years of Irish Language Policy, 1922-2022

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John Walsh

National University of Ireland, Galway

In this article, Dr John Walsh gives an overview of his new book on a century of Irish language policy, to be published in 2022.

By the late 19th Century when the Irish cultural and literary revival was at its peak, the Irish language was in a marginal position in society and spoken by less than one in five people, mostly in impoverished mostly coastal districts known as the Gaeltacht. The revitalisation of Irish became a central plank in the movement for greater independence from Britain and many nationalists learned Irish or championed its cause. The establishment of the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) in 1893 was a milestone event, because the organisation dedicated itself to promoting Irish as the vernacular and attracted widespread interest throughout Ireland and abroad. While only a small percentage of those who attended its classes became fluent speakers, the League played a key role in raising public awareness of Irish and mustered support for the idea that its promotion was a key part of the broad nationalist movement. With the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 6th 1921, the path was cleared for the creation of an independent Irish state following a tumultuous decade of political change in Ireland. The Irish Free State, a dominion within the British Commonwealth, came into being one year later on December 6th 1922 and declared in its constitution that Irish was both the national and an official language, alongside English. Inspired by the ideals of the Gaelic League, some of whose members held ministerial positions, the new state announced a raft of policy measures to support Irish in education, legal status, public administration and the Gaeltacht.

The remaining Irish-speaking districts were located mostly along the western and southern coasts and had been decimated by economic problems and emigration by the time of the foundation of the Irish Free State. Given the centrality of language to the independence question, it was unsurprising that one of the state’s first big-ticket initiatives in relation to Irish was to set up a Gaeltacht Commission in 1925. The Commission was composed of representatives of the middle-class male Catholic elite that had backed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and was loyal to the new state. Some of the Commission’s 82 proposals were unrealistic in policy terms, but many useful recommendations were rejected by the Department of Finance on the grounds of expense, despite its claim to be supportive of the language. This was the beginning of a pattern that persisted throughout the subsequent century: proposals to strengthen Irish being rejected by governments that were ostensibly committed to its promotion. Despite a recommendation by the Commission that a permanent governance structure be set up for the Gaeltacht, responsibility was transferred to the marginal Department of Fisheries, later Lands. A dedicated central government department was not established under 1956, and this has remained relatively weak in political terms with the current arrangement combining Gaeltacht with five other portfolios. An industrial development agency was formed in 1957 and, following a rights-based campaign in the 1960s and 1970s, was replaced by an ostensibly more democratic body, Údarás na Gaeltachta, in 1980. While Gaeltacht development was successful in creating employment, it was also criticised for undermining the position of Irish by attracting English-speakers into the Gaeltacht to work in industries managed by non-Irish speakers. Since the industrialisation of the 1960s, the Gaeltacht has witnessed both socioeconomic and sociolinguistic change, and a major study of 2007 confirmed that Irish is under increasing pressure as a community language in its historical districts. The most recent census returns (2016) recorded falls in key Irish language statistics, particularly in the Gaeltacht. Almost two thirds of the Gaeltacht population (c. 64,000 people) report the ability to speak Irish, but less than 21,000 (21.4 percent) use the language daily outside the education system, a significant drop on the previous census. These figures mask considerable regional differences, with some parts of the Gaeltacht still significantly Irish-speaking. As part of a broader 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language launched in 2010, a ‘language planning process’ was launched as a result of the Gaeltacht Act 2012, followed by a Gaeltacht Education Policy in 2016. The Gaeltacht is now divided into 26 ‘language planning districts’, each of which has its own plan and Irish language officer, but the process remains underfunded and lacks political clout.

The language planning process covers Irish speakers outside the Gaeltacht also, who have been recognised on a statutory basis in the 2012 act for the first time in micro-level initiatives aimed at specified communities. Such projects are often sites for ‘new speakers’, regular users of Irish who were not socialised in the language in early childhood or are not from the Gaeltacht. New spatial categories of Gaeltacht Service Towns and Irish Language Networks are to be developed through this process, although progress has been much slower than in the Gaeltacht. The all-Ireland language planning agency, Foras na Gaeilge, supports additional local language schemes. Despite widespread knowledge of Irish in the population, use of the language in community settings is stubbornly low after a century of policy support. Census data from the Republic of Ireland reveal that about 40 percent of the population (c. 1.7 million people) claim competence in Irish, but that only about two percent speak the language daily outside the education system. More than two-thirds of these are outside the Gaeltacht and in loosely scattered networks rather than areas of geographical density. In Northern Ireland, where Irish remains far more marginal in public life, about 11 percent of the population (c. 185,000 people) claim some knowledge, with about four percent (c. 65,000 people) reporting the key skills of understanding, speaking, writing and reading Irish. Relatively high levels of knowledge and use are recorded in nationalist areas such as West Belfast.

Despite the undermining of the Gaeltacht Commission in 1928, other early policy measures were significant, particularly in the realm of education. On St. Patrick’s Day 1922, Irish was made a core school subject and later became a requirement to pass state examinations. Despite the challenges posed by lack of competence among teachers, the absence of a written standard and poor supply of textbooks, significant progress was made with immersion education in the following decades. By the 1930s, most primary schools were operating fully or partially in Irish with about one third of secondary schools doing so. Standardisation of the spelling and grammar of Irish from the 1940s and terminology creation consolidated the place of the language in education in addition to boosting wider consumption of published material. While the requirement to pass Irish in order to obtain the Leaving Certificate examination was abolished in the 1970s, the language has maintained its core status and is still studied by the great majority of pupils throughout their schooling. This has ensured widespread knowledge of it, albeit at more passive levels of competence, and has contributed to general goodwill towards Irish among the population, a majority of whom favour maintaining its core status. However, repeated studies have tracked declining competence among students and teachers and a discredited system of exemptions is being exploited by a minority in order to avoid studying Irish entirely. An Irish-language requirement for many leading universities in the Republic of Ireland is an additional policy prop, but with the exception of the academic subject of Irish itself, opportunities to study through the medium of Irish at third level are few and far between. Another weakness relates to Irish-medium education, with only 8 percent of pupils (approximately 45,000 people) in the Republic attending all-Irish schools (Gaelscoileanna), a percentage far lower than equivalent figures in Wales and the Basque Country.

Partition in 1920 left Northern Ireland outside the southern state, and decades of systematic repression of the nationalist community led to the total marginalisation of Irish from public life in the North. A radical ideology of resistance to the British state was often the basis for community Irish language projects since the 1960s, in particular a micro ‘Gaeltacht’ community in West Belfast. Further progress has been made since the adoption of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, especially in the establishment of Foras na Gaeilge as an all-Ireland agency with responsibility for promoting Irish on both sides of the border. The Agreement also obliged the British government to develop Irish-medium education and media and there have been significant advances in both areas in recent years. However, Irish remains a bone of contention between nationalists and unionists and was at the heart of the collapse of the power-sharing institutions in 2017. An agreement in 2020 to restore Northern Ireland’s government contained a commitment to enhance the legal status of Irish but fell short of the demands of campaigners for a standalone Irish language act. Progress has been slow, due to tensions over Brexit as much as cultural identity, and pressure has mounted on the British government to introduce Irish language legislation through Westminster, bypassing Stormont entirely.

Irish has benefitted from legislation in the Republic since 2003, when the Official Languages Act introduced obligations on public bodies to increase incrementally their offer of Irish language services. The Act followed decades of campaigning by Irish speakers for language rights, following the failure of the state to ensure the delivery of Irish language services, even in the Gaeltacht. Although Irish was designated the national and first official language in the 1937 Constitution, no legislation was enacted to give effect to the provisions, with a result that some Irish speakers had to use the courts to confirm their rights. The patchy case law that built up over decades was no substitute for legislative provisions and following the decision in 1973 to remove the Irish language civil service entry requirement, civil society groups turned their attention to a campaign for a bill of rights. The drive was also influenced by a growing discourse around minority rights and pressure for language legislation in countries such as Wales, Scotland, the Basque Country and Catalonia. The 2003 Act fell short of demands for rights-based legislation based on equality between Irish and English, on the basis that the Constitution gave precedence to Irish. Nonetheless, it established the first legal framework for the provision of Irish language services, albeit from a very low level in most public bodies. Based on the Canadian model, the office of Irish language commissioner was established to raise awareness of the Act and to monitor its implementation by public bodies. With the passage of time, deficiencies in the framework became apparent, particularly in the discredited system of ‘language schemes’ by which public bodies were supposed to enhance Irish language services on a cumulative basis. The Act was under review for almost a decade, reflecting its low political priority, but the failure to provide public health information and services in Irish during the pandemic threw the need for change into stark relief. The Official Languages Act (Amendment), enacted at the end of 2021, contains strengthened provisions about the provision of Irish language services and commits to deal with the recruitment of bilingual staff, a major weakness in the original legislation. 2022 also saw Irish gain full official working status in the European Union, giving a significant status boost to the language in an international forum and providing high-quality employment opportunities for Irish speaking graduates.

The past century has also witnessed significant changes in broadcasting provision in Irish. The country’s first radio station, 2RN (later Radio Éireann), was opened in Irish in 1926 by the Gaelic League’s co-founder, Douglas Hyde, but broadcast in English for the most part. Repeated promises of a Gaeltacht radio service over the decades were not realised until 1972, following the establishment of a pirate station in Connemara as part of a local civil rights movement. Raidió na Gaeltachta has grown from a local to a national radio service under the auspices of the state broadcaster RTÉ and has deepened connections between disparate Gaeltacht communities and Irish speakers at home and abroad. Ireland’s first television channel established at the end of 1961 largely ignored Irish and was criticised for its over-reliance on Anglo-American cultural imports. Pressure grew for additional programmes in Irish and eventually a dedicated Irish language channel, although campaigners differed over whether this should be a community service for the Gaeltacht or a national channel for all Irish speakers. A pirate television broadcast from Connemara in 1987 attracted further attention to the issue and a vigorous campaign for a separate channel culminated in 1996 with the establishment of Teilifís na Gaeilge (TnaG), based in the Gaeltacht but available nationally. TnaG was rebranded as TG4 in 1999 as the fourth national channel and despite a limited budget has developed a foothold in the national consciousness through its imaginative content. However, its core audience remains very small and the channel faces major challenges in the context of increased media fragmentation and the emergence of digital competition. The past thirty years have also seen the emergence of Irish language community radio in Dublin and Belfast and both stations provide spaces to often young and experimental broadcasters who fit the ‘new speaker’ profile and speak more hybridised forms of Irish. Given the exponential growth of digital media, there are opportunities for developing these stations further as community media hubs. However, since the emergence of dedicated Irish language channels, the language has been almost entirely marginalised in mainstream media, particularly the commercial sector.

Irish language policy has waxed and waned over the past century in line with changes of government and shifts in Irish political culture and international trends in governance. The rhetoric of Gaelicisation and revivalism that characterised the early decades has given way to a softer policy of bilingualism since the 1960s, although there is no evidence that any Irish government ever contemplated anything other than a bilingual state. Key individuals from politics and public administration, including figures such as former Taoiseach and President Éamon de Valera, his grandson Minister Éamon Ó Cuív and senior civil servant TK Whitaker, have shaped the policy in important ways at different times in history. Language policy has been professionalised and internationalised, with greater attention paid by both the state and civil society groups to relevant contexts abroad. Although some of the more robust policy measures have been diluted, Irish retains significant institutional supports that can only be dreamed of by many other minority languages: core status in education, its own broadcast media, state-supported publishing and arts initiatives, standardisation, official status in Ireland and at EU level, a commissioner to monitor legislation, an all-Ireland language planning agency and various voluntary bodies. However, the weak position of Irish as a spoken language by communities and networks, in the Gaeltacht and elsewhere, remains the language’s greatest challenge. As the state begins its second century, it is time to refocus political efforts on supporting all Irish speakers, regardless of origin, and encouraging others to adopt and relearn the language through a much more vigorous community programme than witnessed previously. Given the increasing mediatisation of society, this programme also requires major investment in an enhanced digital and multimedia presence for Irish.

Dr John Walsh is an Associate Professor of Irish in the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He is also Vice-Dean for Equality, Diversity, Inclusion and People in the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Celtic Studies. His monograph, 100 Hundred Years of Irish Language Policy, 1922-2022, will be published by Peter Lang in spring 2022 in the series ‘Reimagining Ireland’: https://www.peterlang.com/series/5882