Two years ago this month the native Irish language, Gaelic, entered the modern media age with the establishment of Teilifis na Gaeilge (TnaG), a television station dedicated to preserving and expanding its use. But it's waging an uphill battle against a population more comfortable with English.
Gaelic has struggled to survive since English conquerors began a policy of Anglicizing Ireland in the mid-1700s, requiring the use of English in schools and for all state business. The first governments following Ireland's independence from Britain in 1922 had a policy of fostering use of the language out of a sense of national pride.
The station, with its core staff of 30, mainly young, broadcasters, sought to project a forward-looking image using the most advanced TV technology available. TnaG chief executive Cathal Goan takes pride in the fact that his station has produced programs that "have been greeted with critical acclaim in all Irish media and have received international awards."
TnaG broadcasts for about 10 hours each day: four hours in Gaelic, with an additional six hours of programs in English. Recent viewer figures, however, indicate audiences for the Irish-language programs rarely go above 10,000 viewers, while programs in English attract as many as 150,000 viewers.
Donnacha O hEallaithe, a member of TnaG's advisory council, argues that with its weak audience figures "there's a question to be asked" about its future. "I don't want TnaG to be closed down. I want an open debate about its purpose," he says.
That debate has been taken up with gusto by critic and commentator Kevin Myers, who believes the station is "an audience disaster ... unwatched, unloved, and unseen."
The station receives an annual government grant of just over $15 million and gets 360 hours of programming each year from Irish national television (RTE), at a cost of $10 million. Mr. Myers says the money spent on TnaG "is more than calamitous. With hospital wards remaining closed for lack of money ... that is a true scandal."
TnaG chief executive Goan points out that the market share achieved by TnaG "is roughly equivalent to the share of [24-hour news channel] Sky News and superior to that of MTV."
He notes that these stations are well established and massively resourced, but, "They make little or no contribution to Irish social, cultural, or economic life."
Myers says that today, with English the dominant language in the country, "the real people of Ireland will not learn Irish."
In a recent editorial, Dublin's Irish Times newspaper referred to the station as "prohibitively expensive and ... failing to win sufficient viewers except occasionally for its non-Irish output, which is hardly its purpose."
The comment caused a flood of letters defending the station. But such zeal will not help TnaG survive the competitive TV marketplace in Ireland.
Despite two years of trying, TnaG has failed to build market share in the vitally important Dublin area, where one-third of the Irish population lives. Because of this, advisory council member O hEallaithe concludes that people "are not particularly interested" in the station. He believes it's time to "face the reality that there is little national demand for Irish-language programs on a separate TV station."
Ironically, audience figures show that the real broadcasting success for TnaG has been its decision to show live Spanish soccer matches.
This has led Mr. O hEallaithe to propose that TnaG become a sports channel, commenting, "After all, is it not for sport that most people watch TnaG at present?"