Backstory: Are Gaelic-only laws linguistic apartheid?

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Can you imagine having to take an exam – or "The Exam," as it's ominously known around here – before you could buy a house? In this vibrant, friendly town on Galway Bay, potential home buyers must submit to a rigorous oral test to see if they're worthy of receiving the keys to a new home. They aren't tested on housekeeping skills, or health-and-safety know-how, or willingness to lend cups of sugar to neighbors in need. Rather, they're tested to see if they can speak Irish Gaelic – because fluent and committed Irish-speakers are welcomed here over others.

In order to protect the use of the Irish language – to "preserve the region's cultural identity" – the Galway County Council enforces strict regulations about who can – and can't – move in.

"We're discriminating against the rest of the world," explains Tina Curran, an office worker. "We're closing ourselves off to outside influences by only letting certain people in."

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Spiddal is part of the Galway Gaeltacht. (Gaeltacht is the term for regions where Irish is the official language.) Spoken in homes, at work, in school, and in church, Irish is the native tongue of 68 percent of Spiddal residents.

Mac Dara Ó Curraidhín, a filmmaker who makes documentaries in Irish and lives just outside of Spiddal, knows an English couple that inherited land but was forbidden from building a house on it because they don't speak Irish. "I feel sorry for them," he says. But he supports the restrictions, believing, or at least hoping, that they might help to "slow the steady decline of the Gaeltacht regions."

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Irish is a minority language in Ireland. The Irish constitution recognizes it as the first official language of the state, but English remains dominant in politics, media, and daily life.

The number of people who speak Irish – the oldest vernacular language still spoken in Europe – is dwindling. The 2002 Irish Census counted 1.6 million – out of a total population of 4.3 million – who describe themselves as "competent" in Irish. Of these, 350,000 claim to speak it daily and 460,000 said they never speak it.

However, even these figures can be misleading. The vast majority of the 350,000 who claim to speak Irish daily are children who only use it in compulsory Irish language classes. The number of "daily speakers" – those who, crucially, speak Irish in the home – is much lower.

The combined population of the Gaeltacht regions peppered across the western counties of Ireland – here in Galway, and in Kerry, Cork, Mayo, and Donegal, with much smaller Gaeltacht regions in Waterford in the south and Meath in the east – is 85,000. Census figures suggest that's probably the true number of people in Ireland who use Irish as their daily mother tongue.

"Some people are moving out of the Gaeltacht, and emigrants are moving in. This all has an impact on the status of Irish," says a spokesman for the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. The government agency is concerned that Irish use is declining even in the Gaeltachts. The Galway Gaeltacht is popular with English-speaking tourists from America and Europe, so many of the residents who run businesses increasingly converse in English. And it's popular among the majority English-speaking population of County Galway and emigrants as a place for rustic second homes.

In the face of what some see as an influx of English, the Galway County Council took drastic measures. In 2005, it announced that all property developers must sign legal agreements restricting the purchase or rental of new housing in Gaeltacht regions to those fluent in Irish. Potential purchasers had to prove their fluency and agree to "continue to use Irish in family and community life." The proportion of the population that speaks Irish in any Gaeltacht area determined the percentage of housing units allocated exclusively to native Irish speakers. That meant that where 70 percent of the population spoke Irish daily, seven of every 10 new properties would have had to be sold or rented only to Irish speakers.

The rules caused an uproar over a "Gaeltacht Gestapo" enforcing "linguistic apartheid." One Gaeltacht resident, a British citizen who bought her property before the new restrictions were announced, told a local newspaper that it was "akin to racism ... to refuse someone a place to live because they do not speak a certain language."

In response, the council last year relaxed the rules – a little, no longer applying the rules to Gaeltacht regions where fewer than 20 percent of the population speak Irish daily. The council retains the right to refuse planning permission for housing developments which may not "be beneficial to the usage of the language in the area."

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Rossaveal is a beautiful fishing village near Spiddal, and smack-dab in the middle of the Galway Gaeltacht. It is perched precariously (or at least that's how it feels) on the western coast where the angry Atlantic crashes against ragged black rocks and winds almost blow you off your feet. You can taste the sea salt when you breathe.

Everything here is in Irish: daily conversations at the corner shop; shouts between fishermen on the harbor; road signs, which come with no English translations. Other parts of Ireland may have modernized in recent years, thanks to a bout of rapid economic growth which has seen the "Emerald Isle" relabeled the "Celtic Tiger." But the tiger doesn't seem to have roared around here. Rossaveal looks and sounds like Old Ireland.

The people are proud of their linguistic heritage. Jennifer McDonagh, a mother-to-be, says she'll raise her child speaking Irish "because this is our culture, and we have to preserve it."

"Irish is our way of life. We cannot let it slip away," she says. "And if that means taking stiff action to prevent the decline of the Irish- speaking areas, sobeit."

Yet Rossaveal can feel cut off from the rest of Galway. Some Rossaveal residents talk about the Galway City dwellers "having no Irish," as if they are cultural traitors. In turn, an office worker in Galway City disparagingly describes the residents of the Gaeltacht as "bog people ... stuck in the past."

So is surrounding the Gaeltacht with a legal anti-English force field against English-speaking creating a cultural apartheid?

Back in Spiddal, Tina Curran thinks so. She believes the housing rules are isolating.

"Areas benefit when new people move in, whether it's because they bring more employment or new cultures," she says. "I don't think we should say to someone who can't hold a conversation in Irish that they are less worthy of living in a beautiful area. If we do, we're being unfair to them and to us, because we're losing out from new experiences and ideas."

Ms. Curran thinks the council's legalistic language barriers could backfire and end up making Irish "even more isolated than it already is."

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