An Gaeltacht

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The Christian Science Monitor has an interesting article today on Ireland’s Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) areas. Click here to read it, then come back here for my thoughts on the subject.

As mentioned in the article, Ireland is officially a bilingual nation, with Irish (you may know it as Gaelic) being the primary language. The overwhelming majority of the population however speaks English on a regular basis. All government materials, including road signs, are published in both languages. In the case of road signs, when there is a shortage of room to publish both Irish and English names, the Irish takes precedent. Many government departments, positions and programs are commonly called by their Irish names. For instance, the Prime Minister of Ireland is the Taoiseach (pronounced tee-shuck, it’s the Irish word for chief), while the Deputy Prime Minister is the T√°naiste (pronounced taw-nesh-ta). Kathleen and I have been picking up a fair number of words in Irish as we sit and read the newspaper with our English/Irish dictionary at the ready. We’re a long way from being able to speak or understand the language in general usage though.

Upon the founding of the Irish free state in the early 20th century, the Constitution of Ireland was written in Irish, leading to its place as the primary language of the nation. Fearing the fading use of the language, areas of the country were set aside to be primarily Irish-speaking areas. These areas are known individually as Gaeltacht (the plural is Gaeltachtaí). Recently, as the Christian Science Monitor article discusses, steps have been taken to more strongly enforce the requirements for living in a Gaeltacht. Students in primary and secondary school are required to take Irish language courses. As you can imagine, this focus on two languages is costly for the Irish government and people, and does lead to some culture clashes.

I have mixed feelings about some of the steps taken to preserve Irish. The idea of excluding people from living in certain areas because they don’t speak the language is a tough one. I can certainly understand people who are concerned about the amount of money required to perpetuate a bilingual government.

But on the whole I can’t help but believe that preserving the Irish language is incredibly important. I think making a public statement that preservation of the language is worth spending money on is important - as a friend said to me recently, “Budgets reflect priorities.” The language that we use causes us to think a certain way. When a politician in America talks about the “death tax”, that’s a recognition of the fact that words matter, they tell a story. The Irish language was developed by a people that had a very nature-centered existence, and a people with a rich storytelling tradition. So, almost by default, speaking the Irish language leads one to use words that are nature and story-centered. They mark the landscape. For example, the little town we live in is Tramore. In Irish, it’s Tra Mhor. Tra is the Irish word for strand, or beach. Mhor means big - so, we live in the town of the big beach. That’s a fairly direct translation, but there are so many words in Irish that express concepts which don’t have a direct translation to English. Anam cara is one expression, beautifully explained by the author John O’Donohue as “soul friend” in the book of the same title (See the post about Feile Bhride for more on John O’Donohue). If the Irish language fades from use, we will lose the richness of thought that comes from it’s use.

Learn more about the Irish language at Wikipedia.

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