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    Where is the diaspora in the Irish-language strategy?

    By Noreen Bowden | December 30, 2010

    The new 20-year Irish-language strategy announced by the Taoiseach recently is aimed at increasing the use of Irish among all citizens. Curiously, however, the document makes almost no reference to the Irish abroad, despite the enthusiasm of the government for diaspora participation in almost every other realm of strategic growth (The diaspora has figured highly in recently announced strategies for the Smart Economy, higher education, and tourism, for example).

    The omission is particularly glaring in light of the fact that the Gaeltacht areas have traditionally been some of the hardest-hit by emigration, and the numbers of Irish-language speakers abroad are not insignificant. There are 95,000 Irish speakers in the UK, according to Wikipedia. The US census found that in 2000, there were 25,661 people speaking Irish in the US, while in 2005 it reported that there 18,815 speakers. (The decline in numbers perhaps reflects a number of Celtic-Tiger returnees as well as the deaths of some of the 1950s/60s generation.) The heaviest concentration was in Massachusetts (where many Connemara emigrants have settled), New York, and Illinois.

    So why is there so little mention of the Irish abroad in this document?  The first reference to the diaspora is this comment, which follows an outline of 13 policy objectives previously set out in the 2006 “Government Statement on the Irish Language”:

    It is also an objective of Government to support the promotion and teaching of Irish abroad, through the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs. Particular emphasis has been placed on supporting the teaching of Irish in third-level colleges in a range of different countries.

    Apparently, the inclusion of the diaspora is an afterthought, perhaps reflecting the larger status of the diaspora now, post-economic collapse.

    The second major mention of the language as it is spoken outside of Ireland is in reference to third-level courses abroad:

    In 2006 the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs established a dedicated fund to support the development of Irish language courses in third-level institutions overseas. The objectives of the fund are to promote and foster goodwill for the Irish language and indeed for Ireland and Irish culture in general across Europe, North America and Canada and to provide a platform from which the Irish language can be assessed and showcased as an international language. This increases awareness of the Irish language and culture outside of Ireland and leads to links between Ireland and the countries in which these institutions are located, resulting in positive long-term impacts on the language. It also provides an excellent opportunity to present the Irish language to the academic community worldwide and gives the Irish language equal status to other European languages being taught abroad. In addition, many students who study Irish in their own countries continue their studies here in Ireland and as a consequence students from all over the world attend courses in the Gaeltacht. This results in bonds of friendship and a lifelong interest and understanding of the rich language and culture of this country.

    Currently over 30 third-level colleges and universities in the USA, in European countries and further afield are actively providing Irish language and Celtic Studies’ programmes within their own institutions.

    These measures by the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs to support the teaching of Irish overseas (including the joint programme with the Fulbright Commission and the Ireland Canada University Foundation) will be maintained as a vehicle to expand the teaching and learning of Irish in universities outside Ireland.

    The strategy thus seems to view the use of Irish in the diaspora solely as an academic exercise. Is this not a lost opportunity? Surely native Irish speakers outside of Ireland are as deserving of support as those in the Gaeltacht, and they should be also encouraged to use their Irish, pass it on to their children, and to partake of opportunities to use the language in their communities.

    There may even be some native speakers in Boston, New York, and Chicago who might be interested in creative interaction with those learning Irish in nearby universities.

    Here are a few ideas off the top of my head of ways to encourage the use of Irish abroad and to engage native speakers in promoting the language:

    • Support touring productions of Irish-language dramatic productions
    • Encourage oral histories of Irish-speaking communities abroad
    • Support Irish-language elder programmes in senior centres
    • Irish-language programming on the long-overdue Irish television service for the Irish in the UK
    • Extend support for family language transmission to Irish speakers abroad
    • Engage the GAA and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in promoting the language abroad
    • Support Irish-language programmes aimed at preschoolers and children in Irish cultural centres
    • Strongly promote Irish-language summer programmes for diaspora-based learners of all levels.

    Perhaps some of these initiatives are being undertaken already, but it would be nice to see more outreach to native speakers in the diaspora as part of the strategy. It seems a rather glaring oversight to ignore them, particularly given all the recent focus on both the diaspora and the importance of Irish culture abroad.

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