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  • Is Irish-Language Publishing at a Crossroads?
  • Brian Ó Conchubhair, Máirín Nic Eoin, Micheál Ó Conghaile, and Philip O’Leary

“The fortunes of the Irish language”—to use a phrase coined by the redoubtable Daniel Corkery—have long been worrisome, and concern about its future and its status in the present has been an unabating theme in Irish public discourse for generations now. Nonetheless, it is hard not to feel that a milestone, both a symbolic milestone and a practical one, was passed in July 2018, when the publishing house Cois Life announced it would cease trading at the end of 2019.

The announcement shocked and concerned commentators, critics, and authors. Established in 1995, Cois Life published literary and academic works in the Irish language. The company has gained renown for its consistently high production values, attractive book design, and its dissemination of books in different formats. In the press release announcing the decision to close, the publishers identify several causes. These include the failure of the book market to recover from the crash of the Celtic Tiger; increased administrative and bureaucratic burdens; a drastic decline in leisure reading in Irish; and declining literacy among Irish-language university students and the marginalization of literature and literary studies in academic courses. Many of Cois Life’s publications are now deemed “too difficult” for undergraduate majors, with faculty reluctant to assign them as texts. The contraction of Irish, the elimination of modern literature from universities represents a crisis for Irish-language publishers and creative writers. To take stock of this development, New Hibernia Review gathered together a roundtable of Máirín Nic Eoin, Micheál Ó Conghaile, and Philip O’Leary, who responded to questions posed by our advisory editor for the Irish language, Brian Ó Conchubhair. The conversation below was conducted over e-mail in the summer of 2018.

brian ó conchubhair:

Let’s begin by asking how you respond to the depiction above. Does Irish-language publishing and writing now face an unprecedented crisis?

máirín nic eoin:

Irish-language publishing has always been challenging from a business perspective. The story of the publishing house Sáirséal agus [End Page 54] Dill, as recounted by Cian Ó hÉigeartaigh and Aoileann Nic Gearailt in their wonderful and thought-provoking book Sáirséal agus Dill 1947–1981: Scéal Foilsitheora (2014), would indicate that the situation was just as challenging in the period 1947–1981, so it is probably inaccurate to characterize the current situation as being unprecedented. The market for books in Irish, even among Gaeltacht communities, has always been small, and publishers have been dependent on the education system to create and sustain their core target audience. Developments in education have clearly impacted on the publishing sector in general, as have more general cultural trends associated with the digital age.

To analyze the present situation accurately one would need to examine closely the general reading habits of all age groups, with a particular focus on the reading habits of undergraduate students (who have for long been one of the most important target audiences for Irish-language publishers). Developments in curriculum and pedagogy—such as the removal of literary content from second-level examination curricula—has had an impact on undergraduate literacy levels in the language. I think it is important to bear in mind, however, that literacy levels have not dropped universally. Motivated students are still achieving very high levels of competence through the education system. The main problem faced by university faculty members in choosing core texts for their undergraduate courses is the challenge of teaching large groups of students across a spectrum of linguistic abilities on common Honors degree programs. University lecturers in all subject areas, including Irish, are now using a range of multimedia resources to support students’ learning.

Even a cursory examination of patterns of student borrowing in our university libraries, and the redesign of those libraries as areas for what is commonly termed “digital learning,” would be evidence enough to realize that the book as an artefact is no longer as central as it was to the learning experience of third-level students. This is a cultural change that is...


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