Backstory: Are Gaelic-only laws linguistic apartheid?
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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."
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.