“IN many ways, Gaelic speakers are a minority on this island”.
Those were the words of Donegal fiddler Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, who was one of five panellists to address a public meeting on preparing for a new Ireland in Radisson Blu Hotel in Letterkenny on Thursday evening.
Ms Ní Mhaonaigh said she believes the language is “being killed”, and said she is often challenged by others about why she speaks “that language”.
“I am a Gaelic speaker from the Gaeltacht and in a way Gaelic speakers are a minority on this island. I have to talk very strongly about that because if you look at all the Gaeltacht areas on this island, we are all on the verge of the country. Our Gaeltacht area is at the coast of the Donegal, the next step is the water. It is the same down in Connemara and the same in Kerry.
“We are a minority in our own country. Sometimes we are a minority when we speak Gaelic and someone says to us ‘why are you speaking that language?’ The language is not dead, it is being killed, thrown to one side. If the language dies, it is not only the language that dies, it will be a psyche, a way of thinking,” said the former teacher.
Education, health and a better standard of living were some of the other topics under scrutiny at the event, chaired by former Donegal journalist and now chief news reporter with Newstalk, Barry Whyte.
Senator Eileen Flynn said today’s Ireland is very different to the country of 100 years ago. She made history in 2020 to be the first woman from the Traveller community to sit in the Seanad.
She said ethnic minority voices must be heard in the debate.
“The Seanad is 100 years up and running and the Dáil as well and it took 100 years to get somebody from the indigenous community in Ireland around that table. Ethnic minority voices, whether we like it or don’t like it, are part of our Ireland.”
Senator Flynn spoke about how she is not a fluent Irish speaker, recalling how she was excluded in school because she was a member of the Traveller community.
“I shouldn’t be ashamed of that because that was an inequality that I endured underneath our education system because of being from the Traveller community.”
She said Ireland has moved on in the last 100 years and is a country of diverse communities. Any conversation around a new Ireland must ensure a fair Ireland, to which she received rapturous applause, she said.
Sudanese national Thoiba Ahmed contested the local election in 2019 as an Independent candidate. She said division must be eradicated.
“I have seen division. Division has torn my country apart and we are still struggling with that today. I was the majority in my home country but now I am a minority and I know how that feels.”
She said she believed the unity process must be “slow and very delicate”.
Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty apologised for being a little late arriving to the meeting as he was returning from Leinster House. He quipped that one of the benefits of a new and united Ireland might be a railway back into Donegal, to which loud applause erupted.
He said the Good Friday Agreement is 24 years old and that the time has come to prepare for a new Ireland. He said partition has impacted economically and socially.
“One of the things we do have is an elected government we can hold to account. In the north that does not exist. There is a huge democratic deficit at the heart of the union and it has devastating consequences, and those consequences flow right into Donegal because of our peripheral nature and our connection with the border.”
He said Brexit has propelled this conversation.
“We know Britain is facing a decade of stagnation and higher inflation and less investment as a direct result of leaving the European Union, a decision that completely went against the majority of those citizens in the north. The north is an opportunity.”