The slow decline of Irish as a living language

Notes from the Western Periphery

CULTURAL OASES Our Gaeltachtaí must be properly supported if they are to survive meaningfully into the future.

Lessons from the Clonbur-Meath migration of 1940

John Bradley

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a Westport bookshop enjoying a coffee when I noticed a book with a title that intrigued me. The beautifully produced volume was ‘The Lost Gaeltacht:  The Land Commission Migration – Clonbur, County Galway to Allenstown, County Meath’, by Martin O’Halloran (Homefarm Publishing, 2020).
It triggered memories of the late 1950s when I was dispatched to a summer Irish-language camp in Meath. My memories of the experience are sketchy. I recall the wooden huts where we were housed, like POW camps from the World War II movies that were our cinema diet. I have no recollection of ever speaking Irish there, although attendance at classes was compulsory. And when I returned home, the accumulated grime from two weeks of not washing caused family outrage. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, but in a Lord of the Flies sort of way.

Better land
Martin O’Halloran explains why I was in Meath rather than Connemara. The story starts with the Great Famine, continues through the Land Wars of the late 19th century and the War of Independence, and leads to the planned migrations from the west of Ireland that were overseen by the Land Commission in the 1930s.
Of course, the western seaboard had been affected by migration before the Famine struck in 1845, and population collapse accelerated rapidly from then on. Mass migration was a daily fact of life in this region. But what was unique about the Clonbur migration of March 1940 was that this was government policy designed to give western farmers access to better-quality land in the east in the expectation that the move would sustain more opportunity and a better standard of living.
Some policymakers come out of the planned migration experience better than others. The Land Commission, which had taken over many of the powers previously exercised by the Congested Districts Board after its demise in 1923, documented its actions and was scrupulously fair in their interactions with the chosen Clonbur families. However, the anti-migration sentiments in the Meath area were exploited by some local politicians who were more concerned about their local political support than about any wider goals of national equity and sharing.
Excitement and sadness
A visit to view the new farms in Meath was organised on March 1, 1940, when the men left their hillside farms before dawn, cycled down to Clonbur, and were taken by bus to Meath. The account of their experiences and reactions is an uneasy mixture of excitement and hope (the land was much better, their Clonbur-based community would be kept close together) and sadness (their social lives and their attachment to the area would be disrupted). The abandonment of an island is more visually dramatic, but leaving your ancient rural heartland is just as devastating and gut-wrenching.
The Clonbur-Meath population transfer of March 29, 1940, involved some 23 families specifically chosen as native Irish speakers. The newly populated Allenstown colony in Meath was designated Gaeltacht Colony Number 5. But little effort was ever made to put in place the kind of educational and social infrastructure that would have allowed the new Gaeltacht to develop and flourish. No Gaelscoil, no Irish-speaking grant (on the curious basis that Allenstown was not already a Gaeltacht area), no transport to adjoining schools. As Martin O’Halloran summarised: “It was destined to fail due to indifference and ideology, and was not given practical or even pragmatic support.”
The improvement in living conditions that came about as a result of transferring to Meath was partially due to the better quality of the land that could be exploited by experienced and energetic western farmers and their families, but mainly due to the much greater work opportunities that came with proximity to Dublin and other towns.
In a longer-term strategic perspective, if the State could not, or would not, implement policies to build even modest population centres on the western seaboard, the only alternative was for the population to migrate out and relocate in the east or to emigrate.
Eighty years after the Clonbur migration, this saga has a curious epilogue. The EU-funded Good Information Project recently published a series of thoughtful articles on the fate of the Irish language. One was titled: ‘Irish speakers are leaving Gaeltacht areas due to problems with planning and a lack of housing’.
Reverse migration
As Ireland prospered since the 1980s and the population gradually aged, there has been a big increase in the purchase of holiday homes in the west of Ireland (full disclosure: I use my late father’s cottage in Murrisk as a second home). What was considered isolated and valueless in 1940 is now prized as scenic and valuable today. Incomes earned by people working in metropolitan Ireland can be used to acquire rural properties, thereby driving up house and land prices. The stated public policy of restricting permission for new developments to existing towns exacerbates the problem.
There is nothing inherently good or bad, right or wrong, about this process of reverse migration. But it needs to be handled with a degree of flexibility and thoughtfulness that seems to be missing in our public dialogue. In particular, the sustainability and development of Gaeltacht areas should be a national priority, not as museums to a dying language in tourist reservations, but as a vital, progressive and outward looking cultural force.

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.