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The Irish Language in the Six Counties – under attack


Cultúrlann McAdam-Ó Fiaich in BelfastNotwithstanding the massive growth experienced by the Irish language in the Six Counties through the dedicated work of language activists and speakers across all sectors from Gaelscoileanna to the arts and media, there still remain major, uphill battles to be fought for full recognition of Irish language rights. Indeed, since the return of the Stormont administration, the Irish language has come under sustained stealth attack.

It was an Englishman, Edmund Spencer, who wrote in his 16th Century pamphlet entitled A View of the Present State of Ireland that, “the words are the image of the mind; so as they proceeding from the mind, the mind must needs be affected with the words; so that, the speech being Irish, the heart must needs be Irish, for out of the abundance of the heart the tongue speaketh.” The pamphlet remained in manuscript form until its publication in print in the mid-seventeenth century. The pamphlet argued that Ireland would never be totally 'pacified' by the English until its indigenous language and customs had been destroyed, if necessary by violence. Spenser recommended scorched earth tactics, such as he had seen used in the Desmond Rebellions, to create famine. Although, once regarded as a polemical piece of prose and valued as a historical source on 16th century Ireland, the View is seen today as genocidal in intent.

While the tactics espoused by Spencer may no longer be in vogue, his view that “the speech being Irish, the heart must needs be Irish” remains one which underpins the mindset behind the British administration’s hostile attitude towards the Irish language. Like Spencer, they realise that the Irish language also encompasses having a different and more independent world-view than those of the colonial overlords. Little wonder then that the colonial administration at Stormont is again attacking the Irish language, albeit in a stealthier fashion than that advocated by Spencer.

Education – Trying to curtail a growing demand

4,000 children curently attend gaelscoileanna in the Six Counties aloneLast October, the Department of Education announced a review on the future of Irish Medium Education which has the potential of negating and restricting development within that sector.

The first Irish-medium school of recent times, Bunscoil Phobal Feirste, was established on Shaw’s Road, Belfast, in 1971, with nine children. The school owed its existence to a small group of Irish-speaking families that had established a small Gaeltacht community in the area. These families wanted to raise their children in an Irish-speaking environment, and were determined to maintain this linguistic approach when their children were of school age. The families faced great difficulties in gaining recognition for this school and for some time were at risk of prosecution for conducting an ‘unregistered school’. Since those early days, the Irish-medium sector has grown steadily to the point that, currently, there are a total of 81 schools providing Irish-medium education to over 4,000 children at pre-school, primary and post primary level throughout the Six Counties.

One would have expected the Department of Education to learn from the wealth of positive experience of many engaged in the Irish-medium sector, from educationalists, parents, pupils and past pupils, or from the methods of best practice developed over many years of pioneering educational activity, often without state aid. Instead, the review has sought to minimise the potential for future growth by recommending that, in establishing any new Irish-medium primary school provision, its own preferred ‘federated model’ should not be set aside other than in the most exceptional circumstances.

Under this federated schools format, the Department is proposing that Irish-medium schools should be part of existing English speaking schools thereby limiting and effectively negating one of the key elements of proven success within the sector – that of language immersion whereby pupils are immersed in Irish from their first day in school. The main factors of immersion regarding the Irish language mean that an Irish medium language school is a school where Irish is:

  • The business and communicative language of the school
  • The teaching and learning language in every subject except English;
  • The language of the teachers;
  • The language of the pupils;
  • The language of all aspects of school life where Irish will be spoken always in the school playground, school bus, on school trips and during after school activities.

Under the federated schools model, particularly where the Irish medium school is linked into an English speaking school, many of these key, important elements will be minimised and lost, creating a situation where English, rather than Irish, will become main pervading language within schools.

This slyly crafted attack upon the Irish language comes at a time when the level of identifiable additional expenditure on Irish-medium education has been shown to be a very small proportion of the total spend on education. Furthermore, despite the falling overall number of primary pupils in the Six Counties, the projected growth in demand for Irish-medium education demonstrates that even the lowest growth projection predicts an increased number of Irish-medium education primary pupils. Indeed, the Department of Education’s own figures show that the key message from any analysis of demographic trends is clear - the demand for Irish-medium education is growing while English-medium sectors are contracting.

Irish-Medium education has given the language a new impetus in the Six Counties. Whole groups of children and young people are now growing up as active speakers supported and nutured by their familes and communities. Little wonder then that those who have benefitted most through Irish medium education are now the most vociferous in their opposition to the Department’s proposals.

Lá Nua – druidte

The final edition of Lá Nua‘BÁS’ was the stark headline on the front page of the Belfast-based Irish language newspaper, LÁ, announcing the publication of its final edition on December 19th with the loss of eight staff, including four journalists.

First published on Monday 13 August 1984, on the day after the RUC murdered Sean Downes in Belfast, LÁ represented and embodied a new era for Gaeilgeoirí with production of Irish language newspaper. From humble beginnings, LÁ provided Gaeilgeoirí in Belfast and elsewhere across Ireland with an invaluable news service in the native language. The daily print edition was supplemented by an online edition which made the paper accessible to Gaeilgeoirí everywhere.

The paper’s involuntary closure was forced upon it as a result of a decision by Foras na Gaeilge (a body set up under the Good Friday agreement) to remove the paltry grant that they were giving to LÁ, the Irish language’s one and only daily newspaper.

The decision was widely criticised by Gaeilgeoirí and language activists alike. Indeed, Gearóid Ó Cairealláin, a former editor with LÁ as well as a former president of Conradh na Gaeilge, publicly hit out at those who approved the decision to cut the paper’s funding. In a recent article, published in the North Belfast News on 7/2/08, Ó Cairealláin hit out at the acquiescence of board-members of Foras na Gaeilge in what he described as an “act of short-sighted cultural homicide”.

Irish Language Act - broken British promises and unionist vetoes

Marching for an Irish Language ActLittle if any progress is being made on the introduction of an Irish Language Act for the North.

In October 2006, shortly after the Irish language community published its own document on an Irish Language Act for the North, the Irish and British Governments announced the St Andrews Agreement to restart the partitionist Assembly at Stormont. The British Government gave the following undertaking:

“The [British] Government will introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish Language.”

In December 2006 the department of Culture, Arts and Leisure at Stormont published a consultation document that described 4 legislative models, with POBAL’s proposals included. POBAL, an umbrella group spearheading the campaign for an Irish language Act, began to inform and advise Irish Language groups and the general community about the Irish Language Act and encouraged them to send their views and answers to DCAL. Thousands came out onto the streets to support the campaign and to protect their language rights. When the process ended, DCAL admitted that they had received 5000 names in various petitions supporting POBAL’s proposals, as well as 668 written submissions.

According to the Department these responses show that there is great interest among the community in this question and that POBAL’s proposals have great support:

Marching for an Irish Language Act‘This reflects a significant level of interest in the issues raised in the paper. Of those who responded, the overwhelming majority (93%) favoured the adoption of Irish language legislation; while a small minority of respondents strongly disagreed with the proposal. Those in favour preferred a rights-based approach. Those against (7%) cited cost issues and the perception that legislation would be politically divisive.’

The Department decided not to introduce this legislation before the setting up of the new Assembly. They announced a second consultation process, saying that the assembly would be responsible for Irish language issues from then on. The biggest Unionist party, the DUP, made it known that they were against legislation and that they would not introduce it. In May 2007, the DUP’s Gregory Campbell, now the Stormont minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, re-affirmed the unionist veto when he stated in relation to an Irish Language Act “It is a no-brainer. It is my view that the party will not introduce or allow this.”

In October 2008, two years after the St Andrews Agreement, POBAL and it’s co-ordinating group organized a parade, attended by several thousand people, to Belfast City centre to demand an Irish language Act.

There are many reasons why the British government and unionist political parties do not want to see an Irish Language Act. The current proposals with regards Irish medium education aimed at curtailing future development and growth, or the failure to provide funding to LÁ to secure an Irish language daily newspaper are demonstrative of those reasons. Simply put, a proper and effective Irish Language Act in the Six Counties would prevent such discriminatory attacks and policies.


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