Breathing life into the language

Living

IRISH WELCOME A welcome sign in Dooega on Achill Island. ‘Labhair Gaeilge Linn’ – speak Irish with us, underlines the desire of many in Achill to grow the Irish language there.

Edwin McGreal

Over a century ago 90 percent of people in Achill spoke the local dialect Gaeilg’ Acla.
The number of Irish speakers has declined considerably since but the grá and aptitude for the language remains strong.
It is a huge part of the area’s cultural history and identity. You only have to eavesdrop on some as Gaeilge conversations around the place to appreciate that.
A new strategy for growing the language in the parish of Achill aims to tap into much of the latent Irish around and marry it with the enthusiasm of those who wish to learn from a lower base.
As part of the Government’s 20 year strategy for the Irish language, local man Colm Mac Eachmharcaigh has been appointed as Achill’s first Oifigeach Pleanála Teanga (Language Development Officer) and he is aiming to grow the language year on year. He started his work last week.
A well-known footballer with Achill and various Mayo teams, 40-year-old Mac Eachmharcaigh (football followers will know him as Colm Cafferkey) has experience in TV scriptwriting for Red Rock but is hoping to pen a positive local story here.
The raw potential is there. Surveys conducted by Coiste Gaeilg’ Acla revealed that 20 percent of people in Achill speak Irish on a daily basis, between schools and in the home, but that 65 percent have conversation level Irish.
“Of that 65 percent, three quarters have expressed an interest in using it more, so that’s over a thousand people in the area that we can aim to support straight away,” Mac Eachmharcaigh told The Mayo News.   

Worth holding onto
His task involves the implementation of Plean Teanga Acla (Achill’s Language Plan), an extensive document compiled by Coiste Gaeilg’ Acla in conjunction with local development company Comhlacht Forbairt Áitiúil Acla which lays out a roadmap to substantially increase the number of Irish speakers in the area. The plan is being overseen by Udarás na Gaeltachta.
The Gaeilg’ Acla dialect is still in use and Mac Eachmharcaigh says locals feel it is worth preserving.
“What I am noticing from talking to people is that so many people are realising how important it is to use as its use declines. Everyone I have met is very enthusiastic about the local dialect. It is unique to here and people feel it is worth holding onto,” he said.
The dialect is strongest in places like Sáile, Currane and Cloughmore and while some native speakers are elderly, Mac Eachmharcaigh notes there would be ‘quite a few’ people in Currane in their late 40s who grew up as native Irish speakers.
A controversial 1956 Gaeltacht division left one third of the parish outside the Gaeltacht but Mac Eachmharcaigh’s remit is for the whole parish, which includes the island and most of the Currane peninsula.

Adds richness
In his role he wants to help facilitate a greater use of Irish in everyday life in Achill.
“In the short-term we want to raise awareness and from there we want to find people who are enthusiastic about the language and gather a big, strong team, get them on board and start having little events for them. We want to make the language something you can use and enjoy with your social life.
“Even if there’s 400 people that are willing to do it, that those people will know each other and if they meet in the shop, they can talk in Irish.
“Some people might lack the confidence but the main thing is to start, use what you have and go from there and enjoy it.
“It adds a richness to the area and changes people’s experience of the area. If we all recognise the value and make the collective decision we can grow it, it can unite the community and give people a great pride in the place,” he said.

Targets
Cafferkey himself recalls learning Irish in Bunacurry NS from Tomás Ó Seáin and picking up lots of phrases in the family pub Ted Lavelle’s in Cashel but that it was only when he started working in Gaeltacht adventure college Coláiste Acla in Dooega that his own Irish started to ‘blossom’ and can therefore appreciate the different standards people may have.
In terms of hard and fast targets, Mac Eachmharcaigh is aiming to use the 20 percent who speak Irish on a daily basis and grow it from there.
“My goal is to increase the amount of people using Irish on a daily basis by 5 percent per year. So that’s 25 percent in the first year, up to 30 percent in year two and so on. It might be ambitious but I think there’s so much latent Irish there and so much enthusiasm that we can get there. I think it’s a reasonable goal,” he said.