Failte! Anyone who’s read my blog for a while knows that I love Celtic folklore, whether it’s from Ireland, Scotland, or Wales. You also might know that I am an American of Irish descent. While my father’s parents came from Port Glasgow, Scotland, their parents were from Ireland, as were my mother’s grandparents. So, all my ancestral lines lead back to Ireland. I am just one generation shy of being eligible for dual Irish/American citizenship. Insert sad emoji here.
Like most Americans of Irish descent, I am proud of my ancestral heritage and enjoy learning about Irish history and culture. I have tried to learn the language and do know a bit more than cead mile failte, Erin go bragh, and slainte, but I’m far from fluent. If I had the money (which I don’t and probably never will) I would love to learn Irish the correct way—by immersing myself in it. That brings me to the subject of this week’s post: the Gaeltacht. If you’re a typical Irish American, you’ve likely never heard of the Gaeltacht. But it’s much more important than shamrocks and leprechauns because it’s the place that keeps the language of our ancestors alive.
What is a Gaeltacht?
Constitutionally, the official first language of the Republic of Ireland is Irish (Gaeilge). It is taught in primary school or, as Americans would say, in grades one through six. In reality, the first language of the majority of Irish people is English. This language was brought into Ireland by the Norman invaders starting in 1169. Over time, due to discrimination, the Penal Code, and social shame, it became advantageous for the native Irish both to speak and to abandon their ancestral language.
But some people held firm and continued to speak Gaeilge (pronounced “gwail-guh’ not gail-ik). Also, in recent times, there has been a desire to reclaim Irish cultural identity which has led to more people learning the language. In the Republic of Ireland, there are regions where the majority of the population speak Irish as their first and daily language. These regions have become known collectively as the Gaeltacht. The largest Gaeltacht area by population is in County Galway, but there are other large Gaeltacht regions in the counties of Donegal, Kerry, and Mayo, as well as smaller areas in the counties of Cork, Meath, and Waterford.
While the predominance of spoken Irish is the main determiner of a Gaeltach region, these areas also tend to be centers of Irish culture, preserving traditional Irish music, crafts, and folklore. That said, these are not places where you’ll find women in long dresses, transport by horse and buggy, and houses with no electricity. People in the Gaeltach regions very much live in the contemporary world. For example, Donegal has industries ranging from engineering to medical products and textile manufacturing to engineering. It also has a network of digital hubs. Some of the largest biomedical companies are located in Galway.
Visiting Gaeltacht Areas
In addition to learning or improving your Irish language skills, the Gaeltach regions are excellent places to visit as a tourist. Be assured. Most Gaeltacht residences speak English as well as Irish. Below are some examples.
Donegal, on the northwest coast of Ireland, has an exquisitely beautiful landscape. Among the treasures to explore is the Sliab Liag Cliffs in southwestern Donegal. With a breathtaking view of the Atlantic Ocean, Sliab Liag has the highest cliffs in Europe. Also located in Donegal is Mount Errigal, the highest mountain in the county. Slí an Earagail is a loop of walking trails that wind through moorlands with lakes and coastal landscapes. Donegal’s Gaeltach regions are located in The Rosses, Gaoth Dobhair, Gleann Cholm Cille, and Fánaid.
One of Kerry’s Gaeltach regions is the Dingle Peninsula where you can go on one (or more) of the scenic walking trails, take craft lessons in pottery or weaving, or enjoy the craic at an Irish Trad music session. Alternatively, you can go to the Uíbh Ráthach Peninsula and drive the famous Ring of Kerry. Star Wars fans will be particularly interested on an island just offshore from the Uíbh Ráthach Peninsula—Michel Skellig. This island, once home to a monastic community, is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Fans of the Star Wars movies, however, will recognize it as the island Luke Skywalker took refuge on in Star Wars Episodes VII and VIII.
County Mayo’s Gaeltacht region has a low-density population leaving the area with massive stretches of unspoiled natural beauty. If you’re looking to go walking, cycling, or even surfing, Mayo is a perfect destination. Its three Gaeltacht regions are Tuar Mhic Éadaigh, Acaill and Iorras.
As mentioned above, Galway is the largest of the Gaeltacht regions. Most of the Galway Gaeltacht is located in Conemara, but it also includes the Aran Islands. The population of this Gaeltacht contains about 50% of the total number of first-language Irish speakers in Ireland. Galway globally is considered an epicenter of Irish culture. Festivals and cultural events are held throughout the year. Galway also is home to the National University of Ireland (NUI) which offers both undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in Irish Studies.
Cork, Waterford, and Meath also have Gaeltacht regions in their counties, but these are smaller areas than the four already mentioned. It is worth noting, too, that there is a Gaeltacht Quarter in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It seems unusual to have in the strongly British capital of Northern Ireland but, in this area, Irish not only spoken regularly, its use is promoted.
Keeping Irish Alive
According to World Atlas, Irish is one of the oldest written languages. Scholars say the first speakers of Irish came to mainland Europe over 2,500 years ago. Over time, they developed a writing system that has become known as Ogham. Artifacts from the 5th and 6th centuries show ancient Irish etched into Ogham stones.
Irish is a branch of the Celtic family of languages. It is closely related to Scottish Gaelic and a cousin to Welsh, Cornish, and Breton.
While the occupation of Ireland by the English and their attempts to eradicate Irish culture led to a severe reduction in the number of speakers of the Irish language, the establishment of the Republic of Ireland in the early 20th century led to attempts to save the language from extinction. The official recognition and protection of the Gaeltacht regions by the Irish government have greatly assisted in this effort. In addition, Irish is taught to primary school children (the equivalent of grades 1-6) throughout Ireland in both public and private schools. There now are some schools in which subjects are taught entirely in Irish.
Interest in the Irish language by members of the Irish diaspora and their descendants also has helped to keep the language alive. There are immersion programs that give students the opportunity to spend time (a couple of weeks to an entire summer) in the Gaeltacht. But you can begin to learn Irish from the comfort of your own home. You can buy lessons through Rosetta Stone or Babble, or you can learn for free on Duolingo.
For anyone with a more serious, academic interest in the language, there are many Irish Studies programs both in the U.S. and Ireland. These generally have Irish culture and history components in addition to language study. If you’d like to get a degree in Irish Studies, check out programs at Boston College, Notre Dame, or NYU. The Boston College program includes a summer session at Trinity College in Dublin. Click here to read about Irish Central’s pick of the top ten Irish Studies programs in the U.S.
Of course, there’s no better place to study the Irish Language and culture than in Ireland. Trinity College and University College in Dublin both offer undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Irish Studies as does the National University of Ireland in Galway. Check their websites for more information.
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Slan go foil!