A “Brief Word” on the Gaelic Situation in Australia

Before I start, I want to make it absolutely clear that I’m not disrespecting anyone in the Gaelic community here. Yes, I get frustrated with the attitudes that seem prevalent at times. Yes, I get frustrated that more Gaelic isn’t spoken. Yes, I sometimes think about how much more could happen if the “younger” people didn’t always have someone pooh-pooh-ing their ideas. But, aig deireadh an latha, we’re all in this together.

I get annoyed with the establishment, but, truth be told, I’m somehow now a part of it. I express my frustration with the two Gaelic Societies, whilst conceding that I’m on the committee for both. I grumble about the choirs learning everything phonetically, whilst pointing out that I’m actually the Music Director for one of them. Yes, I wish things were slightly different. But it’s not anyone’s fault that things are the way they are. This post is simply a statement of the way things are, and a bit of an explanation as to how they got here. It’s not meant to be biased or provocative, but there are bound to be some people who will be upset by how I’ve described something.

I originally started writing the post in response to being asked several times by Americans and/or Canadians about Gaelic in Australia, my Gaelic life in Australia, and so on, and wanting to write down all my thoughts about what it is and how it got this way. Since then, I’ve had an unfortunate interaction with some bodach on Facebook, so I need to add this disclaimed.

Anyway, on with the “brief word” about the Gaelic situation in Australia (if that’s possible).

Gaelic used to be well-spoken in pockets around Australia, especially regional and semi-regional Victoria (such as Gippsland) and New South Wales, as well as the two capital cities, but it stopped being transmitted around the time of Federation (about a hundred years ago). That means the last native speakers died in the 70s and 80s. Well, the last one died in about 2012, but most of them were gone in the 70s and 80s.

However, they’re the ones (and their parents) who set up the Gaelic societies as formal community groups with committees, and it’s their grandchildren (now in their 70s-ish) who still, for the most part, hold positions and power within the official Gaelic community. So those people have memories of Gaelic being spoken, and while some have learnt Gaelic mostly from books over the last 30-40 years, others are mostly in the committees to preserve the memory that Gaelic was spoken, and are at times quite against any actual Gaelic being used in meetings, or even newsletters and other publications.

Those who have learnt Gaelic, though, are quite pro-Gaelic-use, although there are many varying levels of ability (from barely capable of greetings to pretty much fluent). But those who either can’t or won’t use Gaelic well tend to hold the balance of power in committees.

The books most popularly used in classes taught by these descendant-learners tend to have been published in the 60s, 70s, and 80s – so these people learnt the traditional spellings and tend to cling to them iercely and refuse to see any other spelling. (I have seen them argue for changing the spelling minimally on a song-sheet, even though most of the choir are just relying on phonetics and can’t speak Gaelic!). Part of this is the idolisation of Canada which seems to grip the whole nation at large (Justin Trudeau can do no wrong, apparently) – there have been many articles from Canada fiercely arguing against the revised spellings, and these are pulled out and waved around at any opportunity.

So there are these older people who have been committed members of the community for quite a long time, and they’re holding the balance of power, but one thing they often don’t realise or even ignore is that there are a LOT of younger speakers and learners these days – who either don’t access (or don’t have time to access) the traditional structures. Meetings are often held during working hours, or information is conveyed by word-of-mouth, and younger people simply don’t know about it or can’t get to it. Something I’m trying to do when I come across a new speaker or learner looking around online (which happens at least once a month, and I’m not on most of the social media!) is to connect them to the existing structure in their area… which they don’t know about, because often nothing is mentioned online.

The younger speakers fit into two broad categories: speakers (or proficient learners) recently immigrated from Scotland; and Australians (often with Scottish/Gaelic ancestry, but not always) who are learning. Often the Australian learners have had contact with SMO or another group in Scotland before they’re found by CGA or CGBh. These younger speakers are passionate, generally more proficient (on average) in the language than the older/established/powerful, but busy, available at different times, and much more connected online.

Sometimes I think it would be easy – so much easier – just to give up on the traditional structures and do our own thing with young New Speakers online, organise meet-ups that work for us, communicate via means that work for us… but that’s foolish. Younger speakers need the Gaelic Societies and the older people – native speakers, non-native learners who have years of experience running events and dealing with paperwork – just as much as the Gaelic Societies need the younger speakers.

In Adelaide, the Gaelic “class” meets on Tuesday mornings, with a group of retirees. Some have been learning for a while, or had Gaelic-speaking parents, and speak it quite well. Some have been learning for decades and still look at you with a blank smile when you say “Ciamar a tha sibh?”. One has come more recently, thrown themselves into the language, and frankly amaze me by how quickly they’ve got so proficient in such a short time.

With their blessing, I ran a course at the WEA, and found a dozen eager learners, most of whom had no idea the Tuesday morning class exist. Some of my class were retirees, had had an interest in Gaelic for a while, were of Scottish background – the standard mould for a Gaelic learner. Some were much younger – uni students. On social media, I also found a handful of other speakers in the Adelaide area.

In Melbourne, the Gaelic community is much larger and more active. There are around a hundred speakers, learners, and persons with an interest in the language. There are classes every week, and a choir, and regular cèilidhs – the sitting and singing sort. In Adelaide, you can hear Gaelic once a week, if you put your mind to it, but probably not speak it. In Melbourne, you can hear and speak Gaelic every day if you really want to. But it was in Melbourne that I first encountered the “preserving the memory that Gaelic was once spoken” attitude.

Sydney is the home of the national society, atlhough in truth, except when it comes to the Sgoil Nàiseanta, it’s very much more of a “Sydney Gaelic Society”. I haven’t lived in Sydney, so I don’t know the details, but there are regular classes and regular conversation groups.

There are of course Gaelic-speakers and Gaelic-learners scattered across Australia, including in the regional areas. With less than a thousand speakers nationwide, it’s very easy to be very isolated as a Gaelic-speaker. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that there’s simply more opportunity in the city – that’s why I live in a university hall of residence with a hundred other farm kids and country kids – and that’s no different with Gaelic. It’s simply easier to speak Gaelic regularly living in urban Melbourne than ever it was in the semi-rural Adelaide Hills.

The Gaelic community isn’t huge. It needs everyone there is. We’re a diverse group, and everyone has a different life situation, different ability level in the language, different desires for where the language should fit in their life. The situation isn’t the best it could be – but it isn’t the worst. The differences are not insurmountable. Many of us already work together in committees and planning events. I for one am confident that the Gaelic language – and the community of those who speak it – is going to be around for a long time yet. 

As predicted, this “brief word” has been anything but brief – it’s currently running to two and a half pages on the word document – and there’s so much left that could be said.

But to boil it down:

          Gaelic used to be spoken by small communities, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales, but also nationwide

          It stopped being commonly transmitted as a first language about a hundred years ago, and most of the last Australian-born native speakers died in the 70s and 80s

          Many of the long-term members of the two Gaelic societies are the children and gradnchildren of these last speakers

          Many of those learnt Gaelic from books in the last few decades of the last century. Some are proficient to fluent. Most are supporters of the older orthographic conventions.

          Younger learners come from all backgrounds and connect mostly through social media. Some know about the Gaelic societies but many don’t know about their local branch, group, or class. Many have made contact with SMO or another group in Scotland before they can find local speakers and learners.

          The Gaelic community is of all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life. However, it is very small, unseen and unknown by wider society, and there is the perception among the older members that there are no young people and everything will die soon

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