Opinion:English placenames banned in Gaeltacht

  • 22 December 2004
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The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, éamon ó Cuív, has signed an order preventing the use of English-language or anglicised versions of place names in the Gaeltacht. The law is to come into force next March.

The Minister's order has only modest implications. Since 1970 it has in any case been the law that place names in the Gaeltacht are only put up in the correct Irish form.

Road maps produced by the commercial sector have, however, ignored the road signage and insisted on using anglicised forms, or English names that bear no relation to the original Irish.

To cite an example given on radio recently: in Galway the road sign declares that the visitor has reached Sraith Salach, but the map points to a place called Recess. But if Sraith Salach is its name, then why is Recess used at all?

The Gaeltacht, the area in which Irish is used as a spoken vernacular, is continuing to shrink, not least around Sraith Salach. Arguably one of the factors that contributes to this shrinking is the hostility of English-speaking Ireland, though that hostility is not underpinned by the laws or Constitution of the State.

On the contrary, Bunreacht na héireann clearly views the struggle for the revival of Irish and for cultural autonomy as connected to the fight for and assertion of political independence. It explicitly states that Irish is the first official language of the State, or principal language as stated in the Irish text. English is only recognised as a second language.

Minister ó Cuív and the Official Languages Act have not brought in any new ideas about the positions of Irish and English in the State. The new rules give legal effect to the existing constitutional provision.

Those who take issue with the Constitution's intent are free to propose an amendment and argue their case to the people. Instead of that, however, anti-Irish lobbyists have complained about the order's effect on visitors to Ireland.

"What about the tourists?" has been the cry, as if identifying An Spidéal instead of Spiddal is a task beyond them.

The counter-argument has been simply that tourists can manage with such problems in France or Germany, dealing with French or German place names, though they may well mispronounce them. France or Germany are French or German, and it is only in Ireland that an issue of this kind causes such controversy.

And how are the rights of the Irish speaking community being respected?

If, for example, you live in An Tismeáin in An Cheathrú Rua and want to buy land for a house, the deeds of transfer are still written in English, 82 years after the founding of the State; your townland will be designated as Tishmaan in Carreroe.

The rights of Irish-speakers must include specific recognition of the language throughout the country (including the North if the Good Friday Agreement statements on parity of esteem are to have meaning), and in particular the use by official bodies of the language in dealing with them and in all dealings with the Gaeltacht.

The effort by ó Cuív is directed at such questions. It is not a very revolutionary step, and indeed it might be regarded as a sorry comment that it has taken so long to reach this point. There is much more involved in the Official Languages Act, and so there is certain to be more controversy.

Eoin ó Murchú is the Eagraí Polaitíochta of RTé Raidió na Gaeltachta. He is writing here in a personal capacity