Revised after consultation with Éanna Ó Cróinín
While planning decisions in Ireland are rarely uncontentious, a recent decision in Meath has sparked outrage. Branded the “end of Ráth Chairn”, the granting of permission for a development in the smallest Gaeltacht has set in motion efforts to radically change how planning decisions in Gaeltachtaí operate.
The crystallisation of a cultural nationalist dream, the concept of a “Gaeltacht colony” in Meath served a double purpose of addressing congestion issues in the West and restitution of the historic injustice of Cromwell’s “To Hell or to Connacht” policy. In 1935 27 families moved from the Connemara Gaeltacht to land in Ráth Chairn, outside Athboy. The settlers faced enormous difficulties with insufficient equipment and knowledge of the land and from the hostility of locals. Homes for settlers were broken into and fired at while slogans such as “No more migrants wanted here”, and “This land is not for Connemara people – it is for Meath men” were daubed on walls. Tensions subsided eventually however and in 1967 the area received official Gaeltacht designation. While the fight to survive as a cultural island has been arduous, Ráth Chairn has largely survived as a Gaeltacht community in the Royal County and can boast a vibrant Gaelic culture alongside a church, 2 primary schools, pub, community centre and Gaelcholáiste.
However, the development of 28 new houses in the centre of Ráth Chairn along with a 30-room guesthouse by local businessman Colm Ó Gríofa could spell the end to a community that has struggled to survive since 1935. While Ráth Chairn village’s cooperative, the Comharchumann has questioned the sustainability of such a large development in such a sparse area so suddenly, the true bone of contention has been the language condition for the sale of the houses. The Comharchumann has indicated their intention to seek judicial review of the decision in the High Court.
Local Teachta Dála Peadar Tóibín branded the move “cultural vandalism” and added “There is no faster way to kill a Gaeltacht that to building homes within the Gaeltacht that are for English speakers. All the state agencies know this. All of the campaigning groups know this. It is the policy of the Department to ensure that homes built in the Gaeltacht are for Irish speakers. The inspector that the wrote the report for An Bord Planála[sic] knew this. Yet we have a decision by the Bord that goes contrary to all this knowledge and wisdom”.
Language conditions on housing often in the form of Language Enurement Clauses (LEC) have a tenuous history in Ireland, coming to a head in 2007 when the European Commission investigated the legality of various 'local-only' planning policies. Later investigations found they breached EU law and the government was forced to reform policies regarding blood ties and traditional sectors etc. However, the most contentious form of this discrimination proved to be linguistic barriers and the one the government was least keen to relinquish. Article 12 of the 2012 Gaeltacht Act provides for the preservation of Gaeltacht areas and Planning and Development Acts 2000-2013 permit the use of planning decisions to this end.
The Meath County Council development plan 2013-19 outlines plans for various Meath towns and villages. The Ráth Chairn plan features broad objectives to “ensure the survival of the Irish language” and the “promotion of a Gaeltacht cultural identity” .Comharchumann Ráth Chairn's contribution to the document follows review and research on other councils work in this area, notably Waterford County Council, the only Gaeltacht with a "satisfying increase in Irish speakers" in the 2006 census. The Comharchumann expressed it fears the damage a number of English-speaking homes close together could have on the "fragile balance of bilingualism". They pointed out that conversations and events will transpire in English for fear of leaving out monolingual English speakers. They also mentioned difficulties in locals obtaining land to build homes on. In order to increase the number of Gaeilgeoir families in the area, the Comharchumann proposed that applicants of 2 years or more who do not fulfil the local criteria be advised to achieve a C1 TEG grade in oral Irish in a test ran by Lárionad na Gaeilge, NUIM in order to satisfy the criteria and that the usual clause for residence or sale should stay in place for 20 years. This requirement was listed in the 2018 Meath Ghaeltacht language plan among the actions that Meath County Council would take to reach the aim of the plan, a 10% increase in daily Irish speakers in 7 years.
The minutiae of Galway County Council’s language policies were also examined. Firstly, an LEC was placed on 80% of housing units, while the remaining homes were kept for local English speakers, social housing and returning emigrants. These LECs were put in place for a period of 15 years and linked strongly to the area. The 80% figure was based on the local percentage of daily Irish speakers. This figure is closer to 50% in Ráth Chairn due to the number of English speakers on the outskirts of the territory. Study carried out by Dr Ó Giollagáin on the use of Irish in the Gaeltacht found that this figure must be at least 67% for the language to survive as a community language. Concordantly, the Comharchumann recommended a figure of 80% be placed on Ráth Chairn housing. It also suggested a two-tier system of LEC be introduced as in Galway, where a higher percentage of homes are reserved under LECs in the centre of the district and a lower percentage for the outskirts. They noted that Galway CC interviewed every planning applicant in Gaeltacht areas or those purchasing houses with LECs to assess not only their Irish but their willingness and ability to contribute to a Gaeltacht society. Comharchumann had carried out these interviews but believed they could not offer a "fair judgment" as most of the cooperative lived in the area.
Language planning officer Hannah Ní Bhaoill branded the development a "disastrous blow" to the language and Dáithí Mac Cárthaigh, chairman of the Meath Ghaeltacht language planning committee said there were already places in Ráth Chairn where the language balance was “upside down” due to the sale of homes to monolingual English speakers. They praise the LECs in place in other Gaeltachtaí, particualrly in An Rinn and advise a similar system be implemented in Meath. Ní Bhaoill suggest a Junior Certificate level of Irish should be used as measuring standard while Mac Cárthaigh recommends a B2 level of Irish. These levels are substantially below the C1 level mentioned in the language plan, equated to mastery or complete fluency.
In a statement in response to the planning decision, the Comharchumann, the body leading the implementation of the language plan points out that this development does very little for the plan and as the inspector highlighted in his report, it makes the implementation of the plan impossible due to the amount of families that would move into the area without Irish as a family language. They also noted the inspector's remarks that the local economy relied on the strength of Irish, through summer courses, local Gaelscoileanna and Irish bodies offices. They also emphasised the implications for every Gaeltacht area with language conditions as the council indicated the conditions could be circumvented by writing in direct to the council.
During a radio interview, Éanna Ó Cróinín, chairman of the Comharchumann Ráth Chairn explained that "The problem with the necessary standard laid down is that there is basically no process in place, leaving it up to the council and developer. The council have already shown they don't understand" [the language issue]. Ó Cróinín’s fear of Meath CC is warranted given the council’s poor record in regards the Irish language. He also points out that the developers’ sole interest rests in selling as many houses as possible, as fast as possible. Any language conditions hinder this and thus is against their interests. To see “proper management” of the issue he advocates that "planning power is taken from the council and given to Údarás na Gaeltachta". He said that the Gaeltachtaí have lost faith in An Bord Pleanála and the councils. That was why the Comharchumann will seek to change the dynamics of planning decisions in Gaeltachtaí areas.
Despite any goodwill of the political establishment, this endeavour will not go uncontested. ‘Housing for Gaeilgeoirí’ not only faces an uphill battle against those who would hope to profit from property in the area. ‘Jobs for Gaeilgeoirí’ has proven contentious across this island since the foundation of the state, with most language restrictions on civil service posts being rolled back. Granting the power to reserve housing for Gaeilgeoirí in the countries’ Gaeltachtaí would no doubt experience significant backlash, especially considering the natural beauty of many of the areas and their popularity for holiday homes and retirees. However, in the view of the Comharchumann and many in Gaeltachtaí around the country, this change will be vital if Irish is to survive.
Some may see it as ironic that this effort would be spearheaded by the smallest of the Gaeltachtaí but perhaps it’s the most appropriate. Ráth Chairn has always been on the frontline in the cultural milieu around Irish in this country. Since the journey east, the Gaeltacht of Ráth Chairn has had to fight for survival continuously against local hostility. Now it must fight a far more pernicious foe -greed and apathy.