Radio connects Irish speakers

by Robbie Hannan

Due to Covid-19 lockdown, I have been working from home for some time along with our youngest son and daughter. So far, the arrangement is going well, although things can get a bit tetchy as cocktail hour approaches on Fridays!

I am in the third year of a PhD at Queen’s University, Belfast which is part of the MEITS project. My research involves examining the sociolinguistic impact an Irish-language radio station, RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta, has had on native Irish speakers in the Donegal Gaeltacht, or Irish-speaking district. I was lucky to visit the greater part of the Donegal Gaeltacht, from Fanaid, the most north-easterly Irish-speaking district in Donegal to Teileann in the south-west of the county, to establish how people there regarded the station. As is the case regarding Breton in Brittany, these Irish-speaking pockets are separated from each other by large swathes of English-speaking areas. Opportunities for Irish speakers in the peripheral areas of these separate communities to mix with each other are few.

One of the findings to emerge from this fieldwork is that the communities closest geographically to the station listen to it more often than those further away from it. They also have an affinity to it which is not matched in areas more physically removed from it. Because of dwindling resources, staff are hard-pressed to travel to the more distant Irish-speaking districts to cover news and events. Furthermore, the staff tend to come from the areas immediately proximate to the station. As a result, speakers from areas such as Teileann, a ninety-minute drive from the studio in Gaoth Dobhair, do not hear their dialect very often in the station’s output and, therefore, can feel estranged.

Recently, I have been indulging in a virtual escape from lockdown by listening to field recordings associated with this project, in particular, an interview carried out on 22 October 2019 on Tory Island. Tory lies nine miles into the Atlantic off the dramatic coastline of north-west Donegal. It has a population of about 140. I visited Tory once before in August 1981. On that occasion the weather was magnificent, the sea calm and blue-green, and the view of Tory and the mainland from the boat was spectacular. When I returned, some thirty-eight years later, the journey was very different. High seas, high winds and high blood pressure all took their toll!

The people I spoke with on Tory were largely well-disposed to RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta, although the younger members of the focus group did not listen to it. This was by and large the case in all the areas I visited. The station clearly has a problem in attracting an audience among young people. This is a challenge it is aware of, as senior staff I met have freely admitted. As in many parts of the Donegal Gaeltacht, those who do listen to it are mainly interested in local programmes and news. Interestingly though, one of the programmes they enjoy in Tory is presented from the station’s headquarters in Conamara and comprises interviews with native Irish speakers from that area. It is surely remarkable that RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta has established a bond between Irish-speakers on an island off the Donegal coast with other native speakers living a considerable distance away whose dialect is quite different from their own, and with whom they would otherwise have no contact.

Thankfully, there are no cases of Covid-19 on Tory. The Atlantic has protected the population from it in much the same way it has preserved Irish on the island. In these difficult times, RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta provides a link between this island on the periphery of the Irish-speaking world to other Irish speakers.

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