Slán to the Gaeltacht

I live in a wild area in the Gaeltacht*. It’s officially called a ‘hinterland’, but I like to think of it as the place that time forgot. It’s beautiful. Heartbreakingly, mind numbingly beautiful. It’s also quiet. Swans’ wings in flight are thunderous.

Here, nearly all of my neighbours speak Irish from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to sleep. Not as a choice, it’s just what they speak.

Up until a few years ago, there was an elderly couple living in a house on the bend in the road that heads up the mountain. He would sail off on the criss-crossing currents of the bay with his bike in his boat to go shopping and visit friends, until well into his eighties. She wore a scarf and a long skirt and spoke very little English. The few words I heard sounded laboured, like they came from a land far, far away. Except they didn’t – she was totally of her own place. When she switched to Irish I could barely understand her, words flowing fast like the currents, rich and colourful, a layered tapestry.

My Irish is reasonable enough to appreciate it, and I will never tire of being able to walk out the door to converse with people who never look at a dictionary and couldn’t give a damn about my grammar. I feel like the most privileged person on this whole planet.

I make stuff, and I would like to stay. To make more work in this place. To live here through this time. It is important to me for reasons I can barely fathom. All I know is that the edge of the western world feels like the centre of the universe. I have been looking for a house to buy here since I arrived. During that time nothing has come up for sale, so I have been renting the same house for over five years. I don’t mind renting so much, despite the social stigma and the colonial baggage associated with being a ‘tenant’ in Ireland. It’s almost a dirty word. I console myself that it beats being in negative equity in a house I have outgrown. But I would like to have my own place here and not have to deal with a landlord, or any kind of lord. I work from home quite a lot, and occasionally, I employ someone local too. I hope that I bring some different energy into the area without destroying what I love so much about it.

I’ve been in the city, in priveleged, middle class settings and have described the quiet life here. The slow decline that contains the world. In response I hear it described as sad. In the sense of judgement sad, like, what a way to choose to live kind of sad. I guess it can be sad for some, and it can be lonely for some too. Living in a place where the rural way of life is dying, has been dying since the 1960s. Where maybe, just maybe, the language is going with it. At times I find it sad too, but from an entirely different perspective. Not tinged with judgement and tarnished with dismissal. Maybe everyone should move to the city and get with the picture? Aspire to be comfortable, middle class, forgetful, generic. No doubt, I am the one who sits in judgement. If only they knew.

Every few months, in this place, there is a passing. An intellectual disaster of language loss that quietly slips away with a last breath. We live in the narrow space between diversity and homogeneity, sustainability and catastrophe. I wonder, what will it be like here in ten, twenty years time?

The couple who lived on the bend in the road moved to an aged care home three years ago and their cosy little house has lain empty since. As are many houses here. I walk past them every day, slowly rotting. Their neighbour across the road passed away last year. Her house sits there too. Sometimes a nephew comes and goes. He has plans, but I will never know what they are. There is a half built house down by the water that may never be completed. Plans have changed, they’re staying in America.

There are so many of them. The empty houses. Some occupied for two weeks of the year. Winking their big spotlights every night saying ‘keep away’. Beware of the dog that isn’t there, minding the absent people.

I have searched out every old building here, every site. I know the planning history of every single house and ruin. After walking through a planning maze that kept landing me back where I started, I went further afield and found a beautiful site with a ruin on a neighbouring peninsula. I sat an oral exam with the County Council to prove that I could speak the language. I passed. I was told I could apply for planning on the basis of ‘strengthening the Gaeltacht’. A breakthrough! I waited three months for a pre-planning meeting. It went surprisingly well. I met engineers. I got very excited. Persistence really does pay off! I could see the future, here. Somewhere near here.

After long negotiations, the owners would not agree to sell pending planning. They don’t believe I would ever get permission to build here. Maybe they’re right. I’m an outsider, a strainséar. What was I thinking? So I’m back to square one, in a market that has gone full circle, spinning back from a depression to yet another manic phase in those five years.

Over the last two years I have also watched luxury developments rise up along the coast road like monoculture plantations. Fancy estates built by developers. I wonder if they sat the language exam? I wonder if the people who eventually live there will be Irish speakers? Houses that people who work in the arts, or who are self employed in the ‘creative industries’ could never afford.

I have friends who are native speakers from this Gaeltacht area, who couldn’t, and still can’t get planning to build one house. Who have gone through the whole process time after time, costing them thousands of euro. Who are modest in their needs and want to build sustainably, but are constantly coming up against barriers. The want to live in or near their home place, and if they have a family, to bring up their children speaking Irish. Isn’t that how communities grow? Isn’t that how languages flourish? Many end up moving into the city and suburbs because they have no choice.

I realise that my own dilemma pales in comparison.

I don’t give up on anything easily, but I have to admit that I’m starting to give up on this humble dream. I am wondering if my great romance with a non-romance language is becoming destructive. If enthusiasm has become welded into wilful stubbornness. I would like to remain ‘lán dóchas agus grá’, but the inability to move forward feels like an invisible wall that momentarily disappears, only to reappear in another formation around the next corner. The energy stuck somewhere between the famine and an unsympathetic, punitive system that doesn’t have the interests of ordinary people, communities, or the Irish language at heart.

I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that the number of Irish speakers is dropping in the Gaeltacht according to the latest census figures. It looks like, very soon, this second hand speaker will be amongst them.

*Irish speaking area

21 thoughts on “Slán to the Gaeltacht

  1. Leigh me an litir. Alainna scriobh tu , go h-iontach ar fad . Guim leat , na chiall an misneach . Beidh an bua agat in deireadh na Dala

  2. You said that you found a potential building site on a neighbouring peninsula, but that “the owners would not agree to sell pending planning. They don’t believe I would ever get permission to build here.” If planning permission is granted, it is most likely that the price of the land will shoot up. If I were you, I would go ahead and buy it anyway, before seeking planning permission. You can leave your rented accommodation, and live on you own land in a mobile home or a Tiny House, laying out your garden and planting it, while you submit your planning application. If your application is successful, you can proceed with building a permanent house. If not, you can continue to live there in your mobile home or Tiny House, surrounded by your garden.

  3. I used to work for a Swiss multinational pharmacutical company and attended meetings in various european countries. Translation booths were always at the back of the meeting room. German to french, french to engish, english to spainish etc. I always felt ashamed that I could not speak my own IRISH language properly. This ancient and beautiful language should be preserved,used and held in the highest regard because it, along with the Irish traditional music, is about all we have left of our unique culture.

  4. Dear Paula A Phóilín Chóir
    This poignant revelation of the reality of living in one of the strongest Gaeltacht areas should give pause for thought to those who believe official status, a language act, a language commissioner & a (20-year) strategy for Irish will transform the fortunes of the Irish-Gaelic language in Northern Ireland.

    Is ceart deireadh a chur leis na dlíthe éagóracha de chuid an Stáit agus an Chomhphobail Eorpaigh a chaomhnaíos ceantar, ainmhithe agus fásra ach a dhíbríos na daoine. Is ceart tús áite a thabhairt d’iarracht le bunadh na Gaeltachta a thabhairt abhaile agus fostaíocht agus tithíocht a sholáthar dóibh faoi scáth Údarás na Gaeltacha agus Fiontar Éireann i bpáirt le chéile.

    Go dtuga Dia bean scríofa an chuntais slán.

    1. Oh god. Your piece touched me. Tàim craite aige. But greed has taken over. I would not give up on your dream. Get back to the planners . Show them where you want your home again. Explain about developers. I would even post your article to all local newspapers . Anywhere where Irish is spoken. Show your story to anyone who will listen. I want to share your story. It’s a sad one. If the next generation can’t gets to grips with our beautiful language ,what hope have we got. I’m so proud that I’m still fluent. I’ve gone away to LONDON And loved it there but the call for home to my heritage and my language won over and I’m back since the 90’s.. what I’m trying to say is that I never lost my love of this beautiful language. But if we don’t make Our spoken Irish fashionable, in to days age, it will die out like our forefathers before us.

  5. Really lovely and sad. My ancestors left during the famine, and so I am American. I would write in Irish if I could, but have only been here a short time, and have had only two terms of Irish language class. I hope to become fluent eventually, but languages really do become harder to learn with age. I wish you luck in your endeavor.

  6. Cumhachtach. Lean ort ag troid, caithfear an córas a athrú, agus is léir domsa gur fúinne atá sé sin. Tacaím leat!

  7. Written so beautifully​. You speak of owning your own place. Would you buy a plot if you made enquires as when the locals know you as your renting few years you would get a sight to buy. What a shame if you didn’t consider asking the locals or in the villages nearby 😁

  8. In the waterford Gaeltacht a Belgian man is objecting to a local and native speaker Moving home with his wife to be to build on his own land This man did not send his children to the Gaeltacht school and is trying to sell his house but is still objecting to a native speaker moving home. And he had thus far succeeded!!

  9. Paula: Thank you for your well conceived and executed description of this frustrating situation. Sometimes it takes a higher power to open doors. May the angels help you find a home.

  10. Tá súil agam nach bhfuil tú ag éirigh as. Coinnigh ort agus beidh an t-ádh leat ag deireadh thiar thall. agus rud eile – fair play dhuit gur phioc tú suas an Ghaeilge agus go labhraíonn tú í. An bhfuil fhios ag na comharsa go bhfuil tú ag iarraidh teach a cheannach.

  11. I was under the impression that to buy a property the Irish language is still a necessity and that checks are in place to ascertain that, in keeping with the 2012 amendments to protect the Irish language and culture into the future.

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