According to the 2011 census, there are around 720 Gaelic-speakers in Australia, and 1900 Irish-speakers. Both are tiny numbers compared to the total Australian population, and given that the two languages are very, very similar, you’d think the two communities would also be very, very similar.
What are you doing here, then?
I’ve been going to Irish-language events (weekend language Scoileanna and half-day pop-up Gaeltachtaí) for a little over two years now. At first it was because I was living in an area where I could count the number of Gaelic-speakers on one hand, and simply wanted to talk to people – even if the language was a little different. More recently, it’s been because I’ve been in a city where there are a lot of events that I’m able to get to, and I’ve made Irish-speaking friends so I go along to hang out. Which is much the same reason, really.
But two years is enough time to go from “regarded-with-suspicion” to “you’re part of the furniture now and stop saying you don’t speak Irish”, and it’s given me the apparently-rare opportunity to experience both language communities from the inside. We have the same stories, the same music, the same inability to say “yes” and “no”, but here are a seven points where the two communities are quite different.
The Age Range
The first thing to note – and the thing that drew me to hanging out with the Irish in the first place – is that Irish-speakers in Australia cover a much broader age range than Gaelic-speakers.
Gaelic-speakers are weighted very heavily to the 60+ demographic, and most of them are in the 80+ range. Yes, there are younger speakers and learners, but we’re very much in the minority.
Irish-speakers, on the other hand, are much more evenly-spread. There are older people, of course, but they don’t outnumber the younger people six-to-one. There are twenty-somethings, both fluent speakers and learners, and there are teenagers who appear regularly.
Expats and Aussies
Gaelic-speakers in Australia are mostly Australian-born, and mostly multi-generation Australian-born. There are a few Scottish-born learners, and there are a few Scottish expat native speakers, but far and away the greatest number of people active in the language community are Australians, both speakers and learners, and both of the Gaelic Societies in the country are run by Australians.
Irish-speakers and -learners in Australia are a pretty even mix of Australian-born (both first- and multi-generation Australian) and Irish expats. While there are Australians in positions of power within the Irish-language community in Australia, the classes and events are overwhelmingly run by expats.
Simply put: the Irish government cares. The Scottish government doesn’t (or can’t). The Ambassador or the Embassy is almost always involved in the Irish Scoileanna, the Irish government supports language classes and programmes for supporting the language in the children of Irish-speakers abroad, and Irish-language programmes and events are almost always run under the purview of an expat support organisation.
Now, of course it’s like comparing apples and oranges to talk about whether an independant government supports its official language outwith the country verses a semi-devolved government supporting a minority indigenous language outwith the country, but basically – Gaelic-speakers don’t hear a peep from the Scottish government about the language. Even people who are involved in Gaelic language teaching and community support in Scotland, and who are well-versed in the idea that there’s a language community in Canada, are very often surprised to hear that there are Gaelic-speakers in Australia.
Irish expats, as a whole, are stickier than Scottish expats. Irish expats usually set up a single club in a given city and every Ireland-related activity occurs either at that premisis or with the full knowledge of whomever’s running that premisis.
Scottish expats… well. The word “clannishness” is marching steadily towards this blog post, and not in the warm fuzzy Gàidhlig sense of the word. Scottish expats divide themselves into tiny little groups based on surname or special interest, and then don’t talk to each other. Ever. At all if they can help it.
So the Irish expat community, all sitting together in their pub-slash-hall with a children’s playgroup and dancing classes and music sessions as they bond over how one once visited the neighbouring town of whomever they’re sitting next to as they drink their Guinness on tap, might only speak the cúpla fócal and have bad memories of the Gaeilge themselves, but a Mháire Mháthair they’re going to support the people who do speak the language because that’s part of our culture like innit?
Meanwhile the Scottish expat community, gazing suspiciously across the footpath from their individual tartan-festooned tents as five separate pipe bands play different tunes and drown out the possibility of talking at all, regard the blue-and-white “Comunn Gàidhlig” sign down the way with even more suspicion than the Donalds reserve for the Campbells because why would anyone want anything to do with that dead teuchter language that wasn’t ever spoken where I’m from anyway?
Religion and Politics
Okay, that one was very negative on the Scottish side of things, so here’s one swinging it the other way.
Irish-speakers in Australia are very, very sectarian. Actually, I understand this is true of Irish-speakers in Ireland. Either you’re a Catholic, Republican, anti-Monarchist, or you can shut up and get out. Never mind that most of the young people are atheist and the rest are practicing neopagans.
Gaelic-speakers in Australia… Well, always have been and still are a pretty even mix of Catholic and Protestant. The two main “colonies” of Gaelic-speakers in Victoria in the mid-19th century were one Presbyterian (Campbellfield) and one Catholic (Little River). These days, the majority of older speakers are Catholic (there are a number of Brigidine nuns…), Anglican (those multi-gen Aussies I was talking about), or agnostic, with a good smattering of Uniting and Presbyterian in there for fun. The younger ones tend to be atheist. Plus me. I’m Orthodox. But that’s an unrelated story for another time.
Oh, and as for the other two points – Gaelic-speakers here in general seem to think Scotland would be better off on its own and can get quite anti-English when you rile them up, but have no problem with the Queen as head of state for Australia.
Speaking Like They Do There
As far as I’m able to tell, the Irish spoken in Australia is just like the Irish spoken in Ireland. Sure, there are speakers of all three major dialects as well as the Caighdeán, but basically, Irish-speakers in Australia speak the same way Irish-speakers do in Ireland. I chalk it up to the steady stream of Irish-speakers that have augmented and got involved with the Irish-speaking community here over the last two hundred years.
Not so with Gaelic. Yes, there are a few native speaking expats here who appear at events, but as mentioned above, not so many as with the Irish. It might be the splinterish nature of Scottish expats that just means they never realise there’s Gaelic spoken in the community. It might be because the position of Gaelic has been such over the last hundred and fifty years that even when there are expats who speak Gaelic, they keep it quiet and to themselves and stop speaking it once they arrive in Australia. I don’t know why it is, but the situation is that Gaelic in Australia has mostly been on its own since the mid-1800s.
And that means that there are a whole lot of random things that we simply do differently to how Gaelic-speakers in Scotland do them. Probably a lot of it is because Gaelic was almost lost here, it mostly stopped being transmitted to children around 1900 and picked up by the grandchildren of the last native speakers when they retired in the 70s and learnt to spell from ancient books.
So we spell things with a whole bunch more letters and spaces and apostrophes than they do in Scotland. (That’s not unique to us; the Canadians are like that, too. We’re a little more extreme in some cases, though). There are some words for modern things that are different; words we’ve coined that in Scotland they’ve borrowed, and vice-versa. Vowels before nn and ll and m are diphthongs, not nasals like in Scotland, and the vowel certainly hasn’t swallowed the consonants like it has in Canada. We put a phone air someone, not gu them. We say taigh beag for a flat or a unit, and taigh cach for a toilet. We say teatha for that thing that’s not coffee, and inneal-sgrìobhadh for computer. And we never, ever say rach if we can help it, even if people from Scotland give us a funny e-look for saying deigh.
Will these differences stick around in the internet age? I don’t know. The older people still speak and write like this, but most of the learners these days are visiting Scotland regularly and doing courses at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. Comunn Gàidhlig Bhioctòiria now seems to be endorsing Canadian correspondence courses over the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig ones (I think it has to do with money, not the courses themselves, because SMO is expensive!), so maybe we’ll keep the archaic spelling but turn all those diphthongs into nasalised long vowels. Who knows?
The Drinking Culture
Mo chreach the Irish don’t half drink. Now, I’m Australian. Australians are known as drinkers. I’m no stranger to being around people with stubbies of beer in their hands. But Australians hold nothing to the Irish. It gets to five o’clock at a Sgoil, barely afternoon in summer, and out comes the Guinness and the wine. My first Sgoil I found it quite shocking.
By comparison, most Gaelic-speakers in Australia will have a shot of whisky while they chat at the pub on a Wednesday night, but that’s pretty much it. I’m trying to think of the last time I saw a bottle of wine bought out at a Gaelic-language event and I honestly can’t remember it happening. I don’t know what’s to blame – the Presbyterian influence, the older demographic, the surprisingly high percentage of nuns that show up to these events – but the Gaelic-speaking community here doesn’t seem to have a drinking culture to speak of.
After all those differences, is there anything left that unites us?
Well, the Irish-speakers might call it “craic agus comhrá”, but the general principle is the same. Get a bunch of people sitting around, some of them might have instruments, sing a few songs, have a good chat, get some food and/or drink into you, and sing a few more songs.
The high point in the calendar of both groups is that one weekend where people from all around the country converge on a designated convention centre, camp out in tiny little one-bed-in-a-shoebox rooms, and spend their days sitting in classes and their nights singing songs.
It’s just a shame we can’t do it at the same time and place.
I’ll grant that the music’s slightly different. While both Gaelic-speakers and Irish-speakers go for slow, sad ballads, the Irish songs have wobbly tunes and the Gaelic ones are in funky keys. The Irish love their fast fiddle jigs, reels, and polkas, while the Gaelic-speakers would rather you sung your strathspeys in gibberish.
But the dancing’s the same. Everyone in two lines – or a circle – or in groups of six – and with all the same steps and all the same fun. But then again, that basically describes a traditional Australian dance as well.
Love of Language
You wouldn’t be part of a minority-language-speaking community if you didn’t love your language, especially not since most of us are either bilinguals stronger in English, or learners with a first language of English. So that’s something we can agree on. We love our language, we love our culture, we love speaking it, and we want to see it still spoken in this country in fifty years or a hundred.