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  • Place, Dialect, and Broadcasting in Irish:Plus ça change …
  • Jerry White (bio)

In the Gaeltacht, as elsewhere in rural Ireland after the nadir of despair in the 1950s, the 1960s saw the first serious challenge offered to the defeatism and fatalism of a century. A group of articulate young radicals suddenly found its voice and began demanding policies to arrest the dissolution of and disappearance of its own community. These Gaeltacht radicals were generally well educated, and like similar groups in Northern Ireland, were part of the global dynamics of youth politics and civil rights movements of the late 1960s. The new movement brought results.

(Ó Tuathaigh 113)

One of the strangest paradoxes of post–World War II Irish history is that one of its least-discussed struggles is also one that was heavily invested in mass media, especially broadcast media. I refer here to Gluaiseacht Chearta Sibhialta na Gaeltachta, also known as the Gaeltacht civil-rights movement. My experience is that it is entirely left out of most general histories of postindependence Ireland. To take but one illustrative example, the Oxford Companion to Irish History does not mention it at all, and while Nicholas Williams’s very short entry for “Gaeltacht” tells us that “native governments have given the Gaeltacht preferential treatment,” the words “gluaiseacht,” “movement,” or “civil rights” do not appear (Connolly 216). That same tome has an entry for “civil rights,” but Paul Ferguson discusses only the North and treats the term as synonymous with that region in the 1960s and 1970s (94). One of the few exceptions is indicated by this article’s epigraph, which is from Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh’s contribution to Joe Lee’s 1979 book Ireland, 1945–1970. It can scarcely be a coincidence that this was given as part of the Thomas Davis Lectures, a series of public talks broadcast on Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ; or Radio Éireann at first—the lectures began as far back as 1953). [End Page 113]

Why, then, have the civil-rights struggles connected to Irish been so heavily invested in mass media? Part of this is fairly intuitive. Spoken language is the purview of broadcast media, and thus it is no surprise that groups like Conradh na Gaeilge would protest against RTÉ as aggressively as they did in the 1970s and 1980s, when a number of their activists (as well as elected officials from Údarás na Gaeltachta) went to jail for refusing to pay their television-license fees in protest against the lack of Irish on the national broadcaster.1 However, there is a fairly radical difference between what activists connected to groups such as Conradh were seeking and the goals of Gluaiseacht Chearta Sibhialta na Gaeltachta. The reasons for this are to be found in the suffixes. Conradh na Gaeilge was a nationwide group (in an all-island sense) devoted to the promotion and preservation of the Irish language, known as Gaeilge in Irish. Gluaiseacht Chearta Sibhialta na Gaeltachta, on the other hand, was a movement devoted to supporting and sustaining a specific set of communities, one with a very precise legal definition set out in the legislation of the Republic of Ireland. Desmond Fennell, the journalist and political philosopher whose articles and pamphlets formed a kind of intellectual backbone for Gluaiseacht, summed up this basic difference between their movement and more nationally oriented ones years later in his 1985 book Beyond Nationalism: “To their emphasis on teanga (language) we opposed our emphasis on pobal (people or community), maintaining that the language would look after itself if the communities which actually spoke it were stabilised through self-government” (141). Localism was the real goal of Gluaiseacht, and it was the real goal of their broadcast-related campaigns as well. The biggest political success of this localist struggle was the establishment of Raidió na Gaeltachta in 1972. That campaign speaks to the intellectual and political complexity of a certain idea of the Gaeltacht, an idea whose complexity remains strangely absent from mainstream discussions of Irish culture. It speaks to the degree to which Gluaiseacht Chearta Sibhialta na Gaeltachta was a genuinely republican organization—republican in a sense of which commentators about Ireland are...