Off the fence
It seems that Mayo’s very own version of Banksy has been busy with his spraypaint along the roads of the Gaeltacht. If you have travelled along many of these roads in recent times you will no doubt have noticed his calling card along the way.
His main target has been the new Irish only road signs referring to towns and villages in Gaeltacht regions and he has taken it upon himself to spraypaint the English version over the Irish.
His work seems to be more prevalent in the Erris Gaeltacht with very few signs for Béal an Mhuirthead not now changed to Belmullet. In some places, a more political statement of RIP has been spraypainted on ‘An Ghaeltacht’ signs.
Since the introduction of the Official Languages Act, which has sought to have all placenames in Gaeltacht areas referred to by their Irish name only, it has divided opinion in many areas.
Opponents to the changes to ‘Irish only’ signs say it is an abuse of the Irish language by fanatics and say that tourists coming to these areas will have no idea what the signs mean. They often point to places like An Geata Mór for Binghamstown or Teach Doite for Maam Cross which will completely disorientate your average American or German touring around the west.
But that argument really doesn’t hold water. Do we expect all strangers to the area to be so turned off by Irish signs that they will never return?
Take for example a few cities on the continent which we all know by their English names but all the road signs are in the native language. Going to Munich you will have to look out for Munchen, Vienna - Wien, Seville - Sevilla, Copenhagen - Kobenhavn, Venice - Venezia and so on. Yet for some we are able to find these places without ending up making a 100 mile detour.
One of the main reasons was to get more people to refer to the Irish version of the place in everyday use so it can eventually become the norm. Some might say that it will never happen but there are examples here in Ireland and abroad where the transition has been a success.
Who now refers to Portlaoise as Maryborough, Dún Laoghaire as Kingstown or Cobh as Queenstown. I’m sure it took time to get used to these changes but these towns did not go off the map once they changed from English to Irish.
In Wales a number of large towns such as Llanelli have been referred to with their Welsh name only for over half a century and they are able to survive in an English speaking world. Welsh is a widely spoken language and in comparison to Irish is spoken more in ordinary day life and is understood by more Welsh people long after leaving the education system.
If the next generations are able to speak and understand Irish like our Celtic cousins can maybe changing Belmullet to Béal an Mhuirthead or Dingle to An Daingean will be worth it.