Austerity and Resistance in Ireland’s Gaeltacht 2008-18 by Ben Ó Ceallaigh

A small section of the 6,000+ strong crowd united under the Dearg le Fearg slogan at the first of several large marches that took place in 2014

Today’s FEL blog post, written by Ben Ó Ceallaigh, a final year PhD student in the University of Edinburgh, looks at the connections between economics, language vitality, and resistance efforts. Ben’s thesis is provisionally titled ‘Language shift and neoliberalism: The Irish economic crisis and the sociolinguistic vitality of Gaeltacht regions 2008-2018’. He is also the national secretary for radical activist group Misneach.

For almost one hundred years now, the Irish state has afforded special protection to those areas in which the county’s first, but minoritised, language remains the everyday community language. Despite this, the Irish language is still seriously endangered in these Irish-speaking communities, collectively known as “the Gaeltacht”. In 2007, a large scale report demonstrated that Irish was unlikely to remain the dominant community language in even the strongest Gaeltacht areas for more than 15-20 years if radical action was not taken.

The timing of the 2008 economic crisis and the enormous cuts to state spending it caused was, then, devastating for the Gaeltacht, with such peripheral areas being in no small part dependent on the state support which was cut so heavily during the crisis.

Having lived in a Gaeltacht community where Irish is now effectively moribund throughout most of the recession, and subsequently spent the last several years doing a PhD on the effects of this period on the Gaeltacht, I have seen many examples of how this large-scale international event has effected language vitality at the community level.

The examples are many, but perhaps the starkest illustration of the effects of the crisis is to be seen in the extent to which state provision for the Gaeltacht has been drastically reduced over the last decade. For example, the Gaeltacht development authority, Údaras na Gaeltachta, had its budget cut by 73.7% between 2018-15 and in a classic example of the neoliberal “rolling-back” of the state, the Gaeltacht Act, 2012 saw much of the responsibility for language planning transferred to voluntary community groups which are operating with only minimal resources.

The consequences of these cuts and other effects of the crisis for language use may be inferred from the 2016 census, which showed a dramatic drop of 11.2% in the number of daily Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht since 2011. As well as significant reductions to language support schemes, many Gaeltacht areas suffered large-scale emigration during this time.

These challenges to Gaeltacht life have not gone unopposed, however. Since 2009 several groups and campaigns have emerged in opposition to state policy and budgetary decisions regarding the Gaeltacht.

Guth na Gaeltachta Publicity material

In 2009 the campaign group Guth na Gaeltachta (“voice of the Gaeltacht”) was founded in Donegal and became one of the most important Gaeltacht-based mobilisations since the Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement of the 1970s. While the group had wound down by 2013, amidst threats of legal action against its spokespeople by the state, it laid important ground work and helped politicise Irish speakers, who, like much of Irish society, had been largely de-politicised during the “Celtic Tiger” boom years. While relatively short-lived, Guth na Gaeltachta served as an important inspiration for other campaigns which have emerged over recent years.

During my PhD fieldwork I had the opportunity to witness and take part in several of these campaigns. While my research topic was oftentimes depressing (as work in the area of language endangerment and loss so often is), on a personal, level these grassroots efforts provided me with an enormous source of inspiration and hope.

In 2014 Irish speakers from both within and outside the Gaeltacht mobilised to resist the proposed amalgamation of the Language Commissioner’s office with that of the state Ombudsman. This was to take place as part of a much wider process of public service rationalisation, reforms which themselves have been deeply neoliberal. The ensuing Dearg le Fearg (“red with anger”) movement saw a number of marches take place in Dublin, Belfast and in the rural Galway Gaeltacht. Well over ten thousand Irish speakers took part in these protests, with the government ultimately abandoning the proposed merger as a result.

Taking many of their cues from the 2014 movement, An Dream Dearg (“the red group”) have run a vibrant campaign over the last year and a half demanding a language act for the North of Ireland. Unionist opposition to such an act is a key obstacle to the reinstatement of power-sharing in Belfast – creating a very unusual case whereby minority language policy is responsible for a government’s collapse!

Aran Islanders and their supporters protesting to defend their islands’ air service

In 2015 the inhabitants of the Aran Islands in Galway organised a vocal campaign to oppose a proposal to replace islands’ aeroplane service from a nearby airstrip with a less reliable and less suitable helicopter service from a much further away airport. Many–including, I was told, the former minister for the Gaeltacht who supported the campaign–felt that this change was being proposed to open the way for discontinuing the air service altogether at a later date. Such was the scale and sustained nature of the community’s resistance efforts, however, that the recommendation became politically impossible and was eventually shelved by the government.

More radically still, several of the communities in which I conducted fieldwork physically blockaded their areas against the police and agents of Irish Water, the semi-state body which was charged with installing water meters throughout the country. These meters were widely understood as paving the way for later privatisation of the sort the International Monetary Fund had recommended while directing Irish state finances from 2010-13. One informant from a strongly Irish-speaking area in west Galway who I met on an anti-water charges protest in Dublin in 2015 stated that the frustration he felt at being forced to leave his home to search for work in Dublin had boiled over at a previous protest and prompted him to lead a spontaneous sit-down blockade of a main road in Dublin city centre. Faced with such acts of civil disobedience throughout the country, the government has since abandoned the proposed water charges.

Image from the recent protests by the Toraigh Islanders

More recently there have been a number of protests against the replacement of the ferry to Toraigh Island in the Donegal Gaeltacht with a much older and less seaworthy craft. In February 2018 the islanders and supporters of their cause organised a series of pickets outside state buildings to voice their anger at the way in which they, one of the strongest remaining Irish-speaking areas, are being treated by a state which is ostensibly committed to the maintenance of the Gaeltacht. They have publically stated they will blockade their pier and prevent what they deem as a potentially dangerous boat landing on their island, and are looking for support in doing so when the new service begins in early April.

While, then, the economic and political turmoil of the last ten years has had significant detrimental effects for the vitality of Irish and the communities that speak it, state policies entrenching neoliberalism have met with significant resistance. Although there is certainly much cause for concern regarding the language’s future, recent grassroots mobilisations of Irish speakers contains much that is both encouraging and inspiring to those interested in maintaining linguistic diversity. Although the Leviathan-like forces amassed against minoritised languages can often seem overwhelming, they are not undefeatable. These examples from the Gaeltacht show that these forces can be challenged and that, as in other areas of social justice campaigning, people power can prevail in favour of endangered language revitalisation efforts.