Gaelic and Irish in Australia – Just how different are we?

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.

Think again.

Group photos at Sgoil Earraich (November 2018) and Daonscoil (January 2019). Two languages. Two events. Two communities. What unites us… and what divides us?

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.

 

Government Involvement

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.

 

Community Support

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?

 

Cèilidhean!

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.

 

Sgoiltean/Sgoileanna

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.

 

Dancing

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.

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12 thoughts on “Gaelic and Irish in Australia – Just how different are we?

  1. astraya says:

    The census question was “Does the person speak a language other than
    English *at home*?” (*italics*). Do all these people really speak Gaelic or Irish *at home*? I guess you don’t, so you can’t answer that for Gaelic and/or Irish and/or any other of your however many languages.

    Would the Scots accept Queen Elizabeth or King Charles as the monarch of Scotland as a Commonwealth realm?

    • Rachel says:

      The census question is a tricky one. Most of the Gaelic-speakers I know probably wouldn’t answer it with Gaelic, even the native speakers because most of them are married to non-speakers or learners, so I’d be surprised if they didn’t speak English as the main language in the home. But at the same time, I know there are Gaelic/Irish-speakers/learners who DO answer with Gaelic/Irish even though it’s not their main language, just to get it on the census. To be honest, when I’m in Melbourne, I probably *do* use more Gaelic than English at home because a lot of my social media usage is Gaelic-based and I’m regularly Skyping in Gaelic, too. And not really talking to anyone else when I’m in the house aside from that. So it could be that there are many *more* speakers if there are learners and speakers who don’t indicate they speak it on the census, or it could be that there are many *less* because there are early-level learners and semi-speakers who DO answer that they speak it for political or recognition reasons.

      As for the Queen/King question, I really don’t know. I suspect they’d shrug and accept it if it were pre-existing, but might have a problem with it if Scotland became independent and decided to keep her/him. The issue from what I can tell is mostly with a London-based and -centric government (with a good dash of Culloden-era anti-English songs) than it is to do with the Queen. But I really couldn’t say with any certainty, and probably because there’s a lot more political diversity within the Gaelic-speaking community than within the Irish-speaking one, there would probably be quite a range of opinions on Elizabeth as Queen of Scotland.

      • Rachel says:

        Of course, the 2016 census seems to have dropped both Irish and Gaelic from the list of languages entirely, so who knows? Both sets of numbers increased from 2006 to 2011, so I can’t imagine that both dropped to below 10 (the minimum number for inclusion in the data release list) in 2016.

  2. Beverly Brett says:

    Really enjoyed reading your piece. Reason why Canadian / Cape Breton Gaelic teachers keep the spelling with the accents etc. my teacher in particular — to keep the blas and to make both learning and keeping the rythym of the dialect easier. In Cape Breton we have at least 5 different dialects corresponding to where people are from Lewis/ Moidart- Barra- Lochaber and there is a divide between the clan society people and the Gaelic speakers and learners but they are starting to have classes etc at Highland Games. I am of irish background but live in Cape Breton amongst them all….. and we are lucky in having kept the music and song …. lots and lots of learners among the young. Almost none here in New Zealand where I spend 4 months a year. Cumail suas na Gaidhlig! Bev Brett, Cape Breton Island and New Zealand.

    • Rachel says:

      Yes, the reasoning is the same here. Except for a decade or so until the last few years, I think Gaels in Australia have kept closer ties with Canada than with Scotland (e.g. when I first decided I wanted to learn the language properly, the books I was handed by a friend of my honorary grandfather were the “Gàidhlig troimh còmhradh” books from Nova Scotia. I didn’t see any books from Scotland for a few years, pretty much everything was from Nova Scotia), and so any article or post that any Canadian has written about the evils of the GOC have been immediately devoured by Gaelic-speakers here and reiterated repeatedly. The different accents do actually make different sounds (Dé or dè? Mór or mòr? Fón or fòn?), plus keeping the full spellings, even if they have silent letters and apostrophes, makes the meaning more transparent to learners, and makes a lot of irregularities in the modern system regular (d’ thàinig, not “tàinig”, explains why it isn’t lenited).

      I’m sad to hear there isn’t much Gaelic in New Zealand – I’m aware there once was, especially in Dunedin and in Waipu north of Auckland. I do believe there’s movement at the university in Dunedin for more Gaelic, but I don’t know much about it.

  3. Gearoid Mac Maghnuis says:

    To us activists who use the language at home in the Gaedhealtachd both countries and peoples are regarded as the same people agus nation. What I would love to see san Astráil / in Australia would be group nation groups or Gaedheal coming together and holding joint events as we are one people and nation after all – Náisiún Gaedheal!

    But it is great to see that there are still speakers in Astráil or both dialects of the Gaeilig language. Agus I include the Gaedhil of Mhannin in that also. Are there any surviving Gaedhealtachd areas san Astráil these days. I know Albainn Nuadh / Nova Scotia i gCeanada and the efforts to revive Gaeilig ar Oileán Naomh Eoin / Prince Edward Island agus i dTalamh an Éisc / New Foundland. There is a Gaedhealtachd i nOntario outside Thoronto called Baile na nGael since 2007 and I am involved in plans to help revive Gaeilig in Carolíne Thuaidh / North Carolina agus Appalachia also. But is there anywhere in Astráil where there are even numbers of us where we could establish or re-establish a Gaedhealtachd again.

    • Rachel says:

      Yes, I very purposely avoided using “Gàidhlig” and “Gaeilge” in the post and just used the English terms, because seeing the two in-language words juxtaposed is jarring. I definitely don’t see them as two languages or two peoples. I know a number of Irish people have said to me that I speak “both languages”, but pretty much all of my Irish is just me speaking Gaelic with an Irish accent, and if I’ve been speaking Irish too much, then bits of Irish-ness start bleeding into my Gaelic.

      One thing I’ve noticed is that, in Australia, Irish-speakers tend to think of Gaelic as a different language, while Gaelic-speakers are more likely to view it as a single language or a continuum. I’ve heard from some Gaelic-speakers who have been kicking around longer than me that often the Irish-speakers are leery about being too closely affiliated with the Gaelic-speakers, or running too many joint events, because Gaelic is Scotland and Scotland is UK and they absolutely don’t want to look like they’re related to anything from the UK. That said, in at least Melbourne and Brisbane the two language groups do keep fairly closely in touch, mostly to do with individuals who are linked to both, plus in Melbourne the language classes for each are at the same venue (but on different nights). I personally would love to see much closer affiliation between the Gaelic-speakers and the Irish-speakers, and that’s a major factor in me going to Irish-speaking events as well. While I think a lot of the older/ more established people in each community are too caught up in the dynamic I described above, either stuck in that thought process or stung too many times trying to reach out, the young people in both communities are much keener to build closer ties – especially the Australian-born young people, I’ve noticed.

      I don’t know of any Manx-speakers in Australia. If there are any, I’d love to get in touch with them!

      As for your question about the Gàidhealtachd areas – no, I don’t think so, although I’m aware that there were some (for both Scottish and Irish varities) in the Gippsland area well into the 20th century (I know people in their 60s who grew up in those towns and remember their grandparents speaking Gaelic/Irish). For the other places that I’ve looked into that once had a large Gaelic-speaking (often Gaelic-only-speaking) community, in most cases it lasted only 10 or 15 years before the community started drifting away… The usual story is they were tied to the area by a church or a priest/minister who spoke Gaelic, and then the priest/minister died and a Gaelic-speaking replacement couldn’t be found, so there was nothing tying the families to that area if there was better land elsewhere. And of course as soon as you’re the only family in town who speaks Gaelic, it’s not going to last more than a generation or two.

      If hypothetically looking at re-establishing a Gàidhealtachd in Australia, then I’d probably suggest Melbourne (or maybe Sydney, but I know less of Sydney). By the time I was a child, there were only a handful (say, half a dozen) of scattered Gaelic-speakers in the Adelaide area, slightly more Irish-speakers but hardly a good number. Numbers of both are growing but it’s very much a haphazard learner situation. Likewise Brisbane, whether or not it ever had large communities, only has a few scattered learners of each language at this time. Sydney has more, including established native speakers of both (and, until recently, an Irish-speaking priest). Another strike against Adelaide is that a different Celtic language already has a claim there – Kernewek!

      Melbourne has large, established communities of speakers and learners of both Irish and Gaelic. Cumann Gaeilge na hAstráil is based in Melbourne, and Comunn Gàidhlig Bhioctòiria is more than a century old and far outweighs the Sydney-based Comunn Gàidhlig Astràilia in both clout and facilities. I’ve heard that in the 1880s, 10% of Melbourne spoke Gaelic – and there have always been more Irish-speakers than Gaelic, so I figure there must have been a time in the late 19th century when around a quarter of Melbourne were native-speaking Gaels. That’s why even though I can’t stand living in a city I’m so pleased to be living in Melbourne while at university – Gaels here say, “Oh, there’s not much language, you’ve got to struggle to use the language”, but I grew up in a state with a dozen speakers and there was only opportunity to speak it once a week, for an hour, maybe. Here in Melbourne there’s hundreds of speakers and there’s something happening through Gaelic at least three times a week, there’s probably something every day if you include stuff happening through Irish. It’s much MUCH easier to be a Gael here than at home. Still quite scattered, and you wouldn’t run into another Gaelic-speaker or Irish-speaker at the shops, but it’s something.

      I also say “Melbourne”, despite the fact that most of the better-known Gaelic/Irish “colony” towns in Victoria were in the outlying areas (Geelong, Gippsland, the Western District) because, basically, Melbourne is swallowing everything in Victoria at the moment – people, nearby towns, everything. So a lot of people descended from those colonies have moved to Melbourne at some point in their life and got stuck here. And some of those colonies (e.g. Campbellfield, site of the first Gaelic-language worship service in Victoria, 1854) are actually part of the greater Melbourne metro-sprawl now.

  4. Gearoid Mac Maghnuis says:

    Thank you for your rapid reply mo charaid. Yeah I think a Gaedhealtachd in Melbourne would be a great idea. But we’d have to make it a joint united Gaedhealtachd if you know what I mean. Politically my clann over here in Éireann have long been involved in Republican resistance to Sasanach rule and invasion and over here we have largely always been open and trying to reach out to our fellow Gaedhil in Albainn especially for help which we always got no matter what modern historians and selfish sectarian politicians say. We Gaedheal of Éireann, Albainn, Mhannin, Oileán Naomh Eoin, Talamh an Éisc, Albainn Nuadh, Ontario, Carolíne Thuaidh agus Appalachia are the same people who are divided by distance, geography and we are a multi faith people. It was the divide and conquer actions of the Sasanaigh that split our people.

    I’m saddened and surprised to hear of the attitude of the Gaedhil na h-Éireann in Astráil towards helping and mixing with their own people who are of Albannaich agus Albainn. I believe that we can start to change that now especially with Alba struggling hard for independence arís. I mean they should be backing and supporting them all the way. I’m sure I could help turn that around if I could get talking to them.

    I know this might seem silly but I dream of a united nation state of the Gaedheal, covering Éireann, Albainn, Mhannin, Talamh an Éisc, Oileán Naomh Eoin, Albainn Nuadh and with Ontario, Carolíne Thuaidh agus Appalachia having representation in Dáil nan Gaedheal. After recent events this past year in Éireann I no longer regard myself as Éireannach anymore I regard and identify as a Gaedheal and nothing else. I’d also make special place for Gaedheal in other parts of the world as long as they were living and using the language and if they were not I’d encourage them to strongly.
    Can I ask are you on the Facebook by any chance mo chara. The reason I ask is because I think we can do the impossible and establish a Gaedhealtachd in Melbourne and get cross Gaedheal support for it. I think it will and can also suppress the sectarian drive among the Gaedhil na h-Éireann san Astráil mo chara. I am on the facebook by the way.

    • Rachel says:

      Apparantly you’d already sent me a friend request – I’ve responded to it now. I noticed one of our mutual friends, Neasa, is a Brisbane-based Gaeilgeóir who is a close friend of mine and of the same mind about bring the Irish and Scottish Gaels in Australia closer.

      How would we establish as Gàidhealtachd? When I hear that I imagine a suburb or area where most people speak Gaelic, and I’m not sure about convincing everyone to move house for that! Commute times in Melbourne can be massive so you’ve got to live near where your job is.

      That said, among Gaelic-speakers (and other people related to the Gaelic-language community) at least there are a few of us to the south-east of the city – a lot of Comunn Gàidhlig Bhioctòiria’s events are held at the Kildara Centre in Malvern, because the head nun there is from a Gaelic-speaking family although she’s more of a passive speaker (can understand a bit and sings in Gaelic, but can’t speak it in sentences). I’ve also heard there’s a bunch of older people from Lewis living down on the peninsula. I don’t really know where the Irish-speakers live.

  5. Gearoid Mac Maghnuis says:

    Well the Gaedhealtachd i mBéal Feirste was started by just two or three families in 1973 when they decided to become total Gaeilig speakers in their every day lives and it just grew massively from there. Now Béal Feirste (Belfast) is the world’s largest Gaedhealtachd mo chara. I would like to maybe try something like that in the future in Melbourne or Brisbane or Adelaide if that is possible. Or maybe even a Gaedhealtachd in one of the outback farms and small towns as there are many young Gaedheal coming over and having to work there for the first 3 or 4 months. Just a thought.

    Go raibh míle maith agad for adding me mo charaid I really and truly appreciate that. I will get onto some of the Irish Association ones over their in NSW agus Bhioctóiria and there has ot be Gaeilig speakers among them as they are all heading over to Astráil anois.

  6. I love how you sum this all up: “You wouldn’t be part of a minority-language-speaking community if you didn’t love your language.” This is so true! I had been learning Welsh for a few years while living in the US, and only just recently began attending a Welsh language class in Melbourne. It has a broad mix of people from different backgrounds and age groups, but we all have in common that we love the language and want to do what we can to preserve it.

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