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Promoting the Irish language: Lessons from the Irish diaspora

Is the Irish language on its way out? Conclusions emerging from two sets of recent research forecast a grim future for the Irish language and its usage in Ireland. I would like to offer a counter view drawing on my experience to illustrate that the diaspora plays an important role in the promotion and use of the Irish language.

But first to the research and findings: The main conclusion emerging from the piece commissioned by the state agency Údarás na Gaeltachta (using CSO figures for 2006 and 2011) was that Irish will no longer be the primary language in any Gaeltacht community in ten years time (Irish Times, 29 May, 2015). Social usage of Irish is declining at an even faster pace than researchers anticipated in their last report in 2007, and it is within community settings rather than classrooms where the decline is most obvious. Of the 155 electoral divisions in the Gaeltacht, only 21 are communities where Irish is spoken on a daily basis by 67% or more of the population, the tipping point for survival of the language.

Not good news, it would appear, for the future of the language in the designated Irish language-speaking areas on the island. And to add fuel to the funeral pyre, findings from the ERSI/Amárach research, released in August 2015, on attitudes towards the language, show 57% of people in the Republic report having basic or advanced fluency, but with limited opportunities, it would seem, to actually use the language in their day-to-day exchanges: 13% of them speak Irish weekly, 33% less regularly. More worryingly, 26% believe the language should be discarded.

Taken together, these two pieces of research present a deeply troubling perspective on the use of the Irish language in state-supported Gaeltacht areas and amongst the general public outside these areas in Ireland.

Now let me now offer a counter view, albeit a subjective one that also draws on two sets of experiences in 2015, one in Ireland, the other in western Massachusetts, USA. During a week-long course in the Kerry Gaeltacht this August, organised by Oidhreach Chorca Dhuibhne, I stayed with a local bean an tíand used Irish from dawn to dusk in my lodgings, in the classroom, shops, pubs, and at music sessions, out on my walks etc. The other experience was my involvement in an online project to support conversational use of Irish, www.comhralecheile.net, developed and facilitated by Irish-Americans in Amherst, Massachusetts, USA, where I live much of the year.

On a superb course organised by Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne in a fantastic new facility in Ballyferriter, Co. Kerry, I immersed myself in a familiar dialect (I was raised bi-lingual) and in a landscape that is truly extraordinary. My teacher, Máire Ní Scannlán, a native of the area, used a delightful approach with our group of adult learners. I particularly welcomed her way of dealing with our mistakes – she repeated the phrase back to us in its correct form to enable us to hear it. It was a gentle and effective system, natural to her, I think, and a welcome relief to experiences in the past of being told we didn’t have the grammar quite right. Nothing silences as effectively as shame. The Oidhreach Chorca Dhuibhne organizers welcome adults of all abilities and offer a wide range of courses and extra-curricular activities (yoga, hiking, dancing, singing etc.) to suit beginners, intermediate and advanced users of the language.

During a most enjoyable week, what surprised me was that in my social exchanges outside of the classroom it was up to me to initiate the conversation in Irish in almost all instances within this Gaeltacht area. It seems that local people, dependent on the tourist trade for their survival, almost always use English first, and rarely, if ever, automatically greet in Irish. I have no doubt that their intention is to make their customers feel comfortable in the shops and pubs. They do not wish to offend or appear rude. The problem is that this practice presumes that the visitor had no Irish and no interest in exchanging even a basic greeting as Gaeilge.

In the months before my visit to west Kerry, I’d been using Irish on a weekly basis, even though I was in Amherst, Massachusetts, about two hours west from Boston. In my home town in America I’ve been fortunate enough to meet Americans Jonathan Kennedy and Amanda Bernhart a young couple, in their thirties, with fluent Irish and an absolute passion for the language (photo above). Their mission is to promote the language, especially amongst the diaspora in America.

In an American context dominated by English and multiple other languages, their successful approach hinges on three vital factors that facilitate the Irish language to thrive: energy and enthusiasm for the language (fuelled by their love of it), fluency and skill (they both hold Masters degrees in Modern Irish from the University of Galway, NUIG), and crucially, Information Technology know-how (they have the ability and capacity to use Information Technology and the Internet to meet their goal). I have been really impressed by their teaching skills and use of IT. And, I think there is much to be learned on the island of Ireland from their pioneering venture.

Jonathan and Amanda’s online Irish language medium www.comhralecheile.net points the way to the future for the language. Of course the system’s effectiveness depends on much more than just technology. The quality of their online presence is vital – their careful cues around pronunciation matter, as does their capacity to introduce new vocabulary that contributes to a positive experience that benefits users. I think Jonathan and Amanda’s Comhrá le Chéile also builds on vital lessons learned in the area of language learning more generally, what Jonathan describes as ‘blended learning’ i.e. where online classes are supported by face-to-face opportunities for engagement. Perhaps Oidhreach Chorca Dhuibhne could take on board some of the lessons emerging from ‘blended learning’ and use technology to remain connected to graduates of their summer courses, facilitate online conversations to practice language use and generally sustain interest in speaking Irish throughout the year. Such a move takes time and resources, but it’s worth considering.

The other lesson emerging from their program available on www.comhralecheile.net is that distance doesn’t matter – if you have access to a computer and wifi you have a gateway to a virtual Gaeltacht. In my American Comhrá le Chéile group this spring, participants included people from Colarado, Bhutte, Montana, Tampa, Florida, Chicago, and a few of us scattered around Massachusetts. Our age range suggested that no one was put off by the use of technology. Using a sort of Skype split-screen system, we could view one another as Jonathan or Amanda facilitated the discussion. If words came up that were new to the group, the facilitators typed the proper spelling and its meaning in a designated section of the screen, or demonstrated how to use a web-based translation tool. This all took place as we spoke – the conversation continued, and the Internet enhanced our learning – it didn’t impede it. Later we took away our list of new words and phrases.

Whoever is in charge of the Irish language in Ireland should establish contact with these two vibrant members of the Irish diaspora. It won’t be the first time the diaspora contributes to cultural revival in Ireland. Remember it was Captain O’Neill, the Chicago policeman, who notated much of the Irish music transported to America by immigrants who’d learned the tunes by ear, and returned it in print form to Ireland so that other generations could learn the music. And, it was members of the diaspora like Michael Flately and Jean Butler who made Irish dancing appealing again to a new generation in Ireland in the 1990s.

Jonathan and Amanda learned to speak the Irish language not in a Gaeltacht area in Ireland but in America – their first teacher was the legendary Donegal musician, Daithí Sproule. Smitten by the language, they built on this foundation by undertaking a Master’s degree, an academic enquiry conducted in Galway that yielded a new pedagogy, applied abroad. They brought their idea for a new online system back to America to enable others in the Irish diaspora to use the language on a regular basis. The critical factor in all of this is that they are fluent in both the Irish language and in information technology, and are able to tailor language experiences to the needs of various learners. The difference between what I witnessed during my course in Ballyferriter and what I experience in Amherst, Massachusetts has to do with these young American-born organizers’ strategic use of information technology.

Two final points: as Ireland promotes the Atlantic Way as an astonishingly beautiful part of the country to explore, we need to build into the marketing strategy something that speaks to the value of the language experience available in the west of Ireland (where most Gaeltacht areas area located) and offer ‘tasters’ for those visitors, often members of the diaspora, who cherish their Irish heritage. That would require a series of bespoke courses that have the diaspora in mind. Nonetheless, I think it would be worthwhile and, crucially, appreciated by visitors. I’m thinking here of a half-day course, for example that combines all the best of what established course providers like Oidhreach Chorca Dhuibhne have to offer. Once ‘hooked’ into using some Irish, the participants should be facilitated to continue to engage with other users and improve their fluency in the language after they leave Ireland – via a virtual Gaeltacht – something along the lines of what www.comhralecheile.net manages to achieve.

Jonathan Kennedy and Amanda Bernhard (www.comhralecheile.net) are featured speakers in the Amherst Irish Association’s Event Series 2015/2016 (see website: amherstirish.org). 

Íde B. O’Carroll is Co-Chair of the Amherst Irish Association, Amherst, Massachusetts, USA.

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