The demise of Ring Gaeltacht

The Ring Gaelteacht in Co Waterford, once an island of an Irish-speaking community now is engulfed by English-speaking commuters. By Siobhan Tanner


It's Sunday afternoon in Mooney's pub in the County Waterford Gaeltacht of Ring. The loudest voice in the pub is that of a man speaking Irish at a rapid pace. “Agus tá sé ag rith síos an phairc …” It's the voice of the TG4 commentator following the progress of Loch Gorman and Phort Láirge hurlers around the pitch. Waterford hurler Dan Shanahan scores a point from way out. “Cúl baire,” spits the commentator. A chorus of congratulation goes up from the punters – “Good man, Dan”.

From the vantage point just outside the pub, you can see the Ring peninsula below jutting into Dungarvan Bay against the backdrop of the Comeragh mountains. It's a million-dollar view that has become the Gaeltacht region's misfortune since it caught the eye of property developers a decade ago.

Across the road where once there was just a field now stand 12 luxury homes. Prices start at €690,000 for houses in the Ceithre Gaoithe development, some of which boast “extensive walk-in wardrobes” and saunas.

This development is one of nine housing estates that have been built in Ireland's smallest coastal Gaeltacht since Waterford County Council zoned 110 hectares of agricultural land for residential development in an area action plan in 2001.

Since the action plan was adopted, approximately 70 houses have been built in housing estates within the Ring villages of Baile na nGall and Maoil a'Choirne and the population of the Gaeltacht has risen by more than 10 per cent.
The council subsequently reduced the amount of land zoned for housing to just under 40 hectares in its development plan 2005 but the development in those areas has continued unabated.

Waterford County Council recently approved a further 49-house development for Maoil a'Choirne, a move that will effectively double the population of the village.

The majority of the houses built are at the high-end of the market and well out of the price range of the average native. A search for a house in Ring on Ireland's largest property website Daft returns 24 matches; just two are under €300,000.

“We are losing a whole generation of Irish speakers,” said Fionn Mac Giolla Chuda, chair of Caomhnóirí na Gealtachta, an action group set up to organise opposition to over-development in the area. “Most of the young people can't afford to buy a house here; the average house price in Ring is over €400,000 so they move into Dungarvan.''  

The predicament of Ring's next generation is a common one in Ireland's Gaeltachts whose traditions are threatened by a growth in urban areas.

The fear among native Irish speakers is that unchecked development will achieve what the famine, unemployment and the English failed to do – wipe out the Gaeltacht.

The survival of Ring as the last remaining Gaeltacht in the south east is inextricably linked to the establishment of Coláiste na Rinne in 1905 which a tangible connection to the language and a source of employment to the area.

Áine Uí Fhoghlú, local writer and researcher, said Ring's survival as a Gaeltacht could also be attributed to its peninsular location.
“People in Ring had an ‘island-like' existence, they were cut off on three sides, they would go to Dungarvan town once a month in the boat or walk across the Cunnigar beach when the tide was out …. As well as that, with the sea as a natural resource the people there were self-sufficient so they didn't need to emigrate to find work.”

In 1996, 86 per cent of people living in Ring could speak Irish, the highest in any Gaeltacht anywhere. Following the national trend this figure had fallen to 76 per cent in 2002.

However, a truer indication of the state of the language in Ring is the 44 per cent that claim to speak Irish on a daily basis.
Statistical evidence shows that Irish speaking communities yield to the pressures of the language shift when the proportion of active speakers in a community falls below this threshold of 67 per cent. In Ring the evidence to support those statistics is manifold.

The sign at the intersection tells drivers to “Geill Slí” but down at the iconic Helvick fishing pier the bins are labeled for “Litter”, a sign outside the Coastguard's office warns people to “exercise caution when loading boats”.

Very little conversational Irish is audible on the streets. “Conas atá tú” elicits a response of, “maith, tú fhéin” from an elderly passer-by but the attendant in Spar asks for, “twelve euros please” for the “spicy chicken wings”.

A recent government report on the use of Irish in the Gaeltacht said Irish as a community language would die within 15 to 20 years unless radical measures are taken.

The linguistic study was commissioned by the Department of Community Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs at a cost of €500,000 to review official Gaeltacht areas and identify means to strengthen the their linguistic development. It identified planning approvals as one of the areas in need of reform.

The report stated that in making decisions on planning applications planning authorities should give priority to facilitating the young people of the area with reference to the housing costs they could bear. It advised planning authorities to first determine the ability of social infrastructure including childcare services, pre-schools and post primary education to cope with any change to sociolingustic compostion resulting from the development without undermining the effectiveness of Irish medium services.

Padraig Breathnach, principal of Scoil Náisúinta na Rinne said in Ring this had not been done, to the detriment of native Irish speakers.
“English-speaking children are causing severe problems in the class. There are so many interruptions of Irish into English it weakens the whole ethos of the Irish class.”

While Irish may not be the predominant language of communication in Ring the majority of its social infrastructure including GAA matches and Catholic mass are still administered through Irish.

Irial Mac Murchú, Managing Director and founder of television production company Nemeton, which operates through the medium of Irish, said the influx of English speakers had put the local community in an awkward position.

“We have to change the local infrastructure to include those people who don't speak Irish because the last thing we want is two separate communities of those that speak Irish and those that speak English.”

“There could be 14 of us along the bar talking in Irish and if one person came in who couldn't [speak Irish], the whole conversation would switch to English, because well, we're a courteous bunch.”

To combat these pressures the linguistic report strongly recommends that language conditions be attached to every housing development in Category A and B Gaeltachts bearing in mind that the linguistic threshold is 67 per cent.. Current planning regulations require that 50 per cent of houses in any development in the Gaeltacht are to be occupied by Irish speakers.

According to Mac Giolla Chuda these regulations were not being enforced – a belief which prompted the group to take an unsuccessful high court action last year seeking an injunction against a development which they contended had not sufficiently satisfied language requirements.

“Initially the council wasn't diligent in pursuing the enforcement of the language conditions. In one case they had accepted the Leaving Certificate from 10 years ago as proof of Irish speaking ability.”

The council's system changed following a Bord Pleanála ruling in March 2006 on a 17-house development by Blackwater Homes in the village of Maoil a'Choirne that stated no fewer than 10 houses must be sold to Irish speakers and the remainder sold to locals.

The planning authority ruled that the level of fluency of the prospective homeowners' eligibility requirements were to be on par with the rigors applied by Department of Rural Irish and Gaeltacht affairs in administering the Scéim Labairt Na Gaeilge and the building grants.
Following the ruling the developer shed plans for the 17-house development and instead secured permission for a 49-house development, doubling the population of the host village of Maoil a'Choirne.

The constitutionality of this condition has since been called into question and has prompted Blackwater Homes and Developer Denis Lehane to appeal it to An Bord Pleanála on the grounds that it contravenes EU law and the Irish constitution.

Pending the outcome of the appeal, 60 per cent of the houses in both developments must be owned by fluent Irish speakers.

Mac Giolla Chuda said he was confident the planning authority would be supportive of the Irish language condition as it had been in the past but concluded from the legal timbre of the appeal that Blackwater Homes could well pursue the matter in the high court.

A Law Society report in 2005 submitted to the Department of Environment found that language conditions in Gaeltacht areas were constitutional but those which discriminated against people without family connections to the area were not.

Blackwater Homes did not respond to Village requests for comment.

When asked why such a large-scale development had been approved for a linguistically sensitive area, Waterford County Council's Director of Services Denis McCarthy said it would be inappropriate for the council to comment on an application before an Bord Pleanála.

In a letter addressed to Caomhnóirí na Gaeltachta in January 2006, McCarthy wrote that “much of this zoning was contrary to advice given but resulted from considerable pressure being exerted by local landowners to have their lands zoned for residential purposes.”

Paradoxically, as the Ring Gaeltacht struggles to retain Irish as the language of the community, its summer college has been credited with boosting the language nationally.

Coláiste na Rinne is arguably one of Ireland's most successful Irish language colleges with names like Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, Garrett Fitzgerald, Brenda Fricker, Michael O' Herlihy and Joe Dowling on its roll.

The downward trend of recent years has been reversed for the college's full-term Scoil na Leanaí and  this year 150 pupils are attending the bridging school between primary and secondary.

An estimated 1,700 students are expected to attend the college this year which now runs a weekend course for adults and teacher training course in conjunction with DCU.

“Rather than just teaching people how to speak Irish we're here to develop a grá of the Gaeilge,” said Coláiste Manager Liam Suipéil who is confident of the future of the Irish language and lists the upsurge in Gaelscoileanna and the provision of third level courses through Irish as encouraging developments.

“To do things through Irish takes a lot more effort and money at different levels. But I believe people are willing to make the effort and spend the money. Are we going to be the generation that breaks the link? I don't think so.”

The government has given no undertaking to implement the measures recommended by the linguistic report but is to set up the first ever sub-committee into the Irish language. In Ring there is a general scepticism that the study and the resulting committee will yield practical results for the Gaeltacht. Residents there are more likely to be watching the progress of the appeal to the language condition.

Back in Mooneys pub, the match is over; Waterford lost. The supporters turn back to their drinks as the commentator's post mortem is muted and English once again becomes the loudest voice in this pocket of the Gaeltacht.