iMeasc - a brief history

 iMeasc – Network of Irish-Speaking Immigrants

  Imeasc Lógó

Immigrants to Ireland and the Irish Language - 2005 and onwards

by Ariel Killick

(This article was first published in Irish in ‘Léargais – Pobail na Gaeilge 2006’ [Insights – Irish-speaking Communities 2006 - ISBN 0.9552285.0.6] by Glór na nGael)

Asterixed references to Irish political parties, leaders etc and government and other terms in Irish are explained at the end of the article for non-Irish/based readers. All information in the article was current at the time of writing, i.e. 2006.

 

Background and history

Massive change took place in Ireland between 1996 and 2005 when for the first time, more people were coming into Ireland looking for work and a better life than were leaving for America, England and further abroad in search of the same. The implications of these changes for the Irish language had not gone entirely unnoticed, but little happened until immigrants saw that it was as much in their own interest, as for the benefit of the language, that the issue be addressed properly. In February 2005, Alex Hijmans, an Irish-speaking Dutch journalist based in Galway, wrote a dark and controversially speculative article discussing the potential for future fascists to use the language as a rallying point against immigrants. Alex said that people rarely called him about articles he penned for the national Irish language weekly, Foinse, but after that article he got three calls: one from Fachtna Ó Drisceoil, an RTÉ* journalist who had previously written about the same issue; John Walsh, an eminent lecturer in sociolinguistics in NUI* Galway and myself, an Irish-speaking Australian translator and artist living in Ireland. Coincidentally, I happened to be on the train to Galway for a television engagement the day the article was published and so arranged to meet Alex later in the evening to talk about ways of ensuring that what he had forecast in his article would not come to pass. Immigrants had already been used by people only too ready to ditch Irish, to argue that a traditional aspect of Irish multilingualism should be further demoted in favour of languages newer to Ireland, and comments such as ‘We’re all Europeans now, we should learn Spanish instead of Irish’, or ‘ More people in Ireland speak Chinese than Irish’; and “Compulsory Irish is racist’, were becoming more familiar. We saw what many Irish people didn’t, engaging immigrants and immigration against Irish in this way set immigrants up to be scapegoated in future for a demise in the language and played directly into the hands of those who could contribute to creating the dire scenario we sought to prevent.

By further bizarre coincidence, I happened to be booked to perform at an event in Galway the following Wednesday with former college housemate and colleague, magician Tony Pratschke. Tony was born in Cork but his father had come to Ireland from Czechoslovakia during World War II and Tony had also converted to Islam later in life. Tony, Alex and I decided to meet that fateful Wednesday to follow up on our meeting on Saturday, and shortly after that, iMeasc was born on 24 April 2005, in the new Irish-language centre, Gaelchultúr, in Temple Bar, Dublin, one year to the day after the march through Dublin demanding official status for the Irish language in the EU.

 
At the time of that march in April 2004, the Acting CEO of Conradh na Gaeilge*, Aoife Ní Scolaí, had called for a ‘carnival atmosphere’ for the protest and since I had much experience as a stilt walker, and against a backdrop of the Citizenship Referendum and the debate around immigrants, I decided to take up the call. Now over eight foot tall, dressed in an elaborate fire-themed costume with ‘Inimirceoirí ar son Gaeilge/Immigrants for Irish’ painted on my bare back, a mini media frenzy immediately ensued as six or so photographers sprang around me with two nearly getting into a fight with each other. The resulting image was used often in coverage of the Stádas issue, but with the birth of iMeasc a year later, what had started out on a once relatively carefree street entertainer’s back had transformed into something so much more serious that it would end up with me addressing no less than a Joint Oireachtas Committee in the Dáil* and a seminar on the Irish language at the Progressive Democrats’* National Conference just under two years later. I didn’t bring my stilts.

The first meeting in April 2005 was attended by six fluent Irish-speaking immigrants: Andreas Vogel from Germany; Michal Boreslav Merchura from the Czech Republic; Chantal Kobel from Switzerland; Colleen Dollard from Washington, Alex and myself. There were also some Irish-born people present, journalist Fachtna Ó Drisceoil, Siobhán Nic Ghaoithín, who was working with Conradh na Gaeilge in Galway teaching Irish to refugees; Pádraig Ó Laighin, a returned emigrant from Canada and head of the Stádas campaign and Anna Heusaff, another interested Irish-language journalist of mixed cultural background. After a roundtable discussion, I was elected Chairperson and the name iMeasc was chosen for the group to reflect both the concept of integration and respect, incorporating as it does the words ‘Imeasc measc i measc measa’ or ‘Integrate mix amongst respect’.

Two further meetings took place at which Alex was elected Vice-chairperson and we drew up a list of aims for the group:

1. To encourage immigrants to learn Irish and to use Irish

    -  to interact with that part of Irish culture

                         -  as a means for better integrating themselves, their children and their cultural identity within society;

    -  and to integrate in Irish society in a healthy, peaceful, sustainable way in the long-term.

  2. To disseminate information about Irish amongst immigrants

        a.  To encourage Irish language organisations to include immigrants in their work

        b.  To encourage immigrant organisations to include Irish in their work

        c.   To address attempts to utilise immigrants in arguments against Irish or Irish in arguments against immigrants.

Through:

  1. Publicising the group and its aims through the media, with politicians, community organisations, and representatives of immigrant groups with the objective of showing that immigrants can achieve high levels of fluency in Irish; that many of them wish to achieve this or at least some fluency in Irish; and that this is a good thing in itself and also in respect of point 2 mentioned above.
  2. Act as positive role models for both immigrants and Irish people with a view to achieving point 1 mentioned above.
  3. To achieve representation in the school, Gaelscoil and Irish language sectors
  4. To integrate immigrants and immigrants who speak Irish in Irish language education,    textbooks and in the Irish language sector/scene generally.
  5. To make submissions to state departments, and appropriate bodies and organisations to inform them of our existence and to advance our objectives.

It wasn’t long before aims became action. Upon an Irish Times editorial questioning the worth of the Official Languages Act by stating that most immigrants would choose to speak English, nine of us signed a letter in response disputing the insinuation that English would be the sole language of choice for immigrants, and also highlighted not only the various areas we worked in with Irish but the fact that some of us had learnt Irish prior to coming to Ireland. Nuacht TG4* contacted us the day the letter was published, and the interview broadcast that night was to become the first of many.

Events soon after would prove just how timely, and fortunate, the establishment of iMeasc was. When many people were suggesting immigrants were a threat to the Irish language on foot of plans by the Minister for Justice to change the entry requirements in relation to Irish for the Garda Síochána*, Alex and I were in place and ready to take up the challenge in the name of iMeasc. We had a series of interviews with both the Irish language and English language media to talk about our fluent Irish-speaking members, how learning Irish had benefited them and how they, in turn, were working in various areas to the benefit of the Irish language and the Irish people in general. A letter outlining why training in Irish should remain a part of the Garda training course and be made available to all recruits, regardless of cultural background, was drafted and sent to all who were involved in the change process.

We met with a Sergeant in Templemore responsible for designing the new Irish language course, and further media interviews followed. Whilst most went very well, an interview on Newstalk FM was by far the most difficult. A teacher called in saying that I was off the planet whilst ‘You don’t understand our culture, we hate Irish’, was one of the more memorable text comments to come in.

Two other small campaigns were also directed through the letters columns of the Irish Times, Daily Ireland and Foinse following letters from readers upset at the changes in recruitment procedures to the Garda. iMeasc stood up for both Irish-speaking immigrants and our solidarity with the language and made the point that Irish people needed to speak Irish themselves before demanding interest and support in the language from immigrants. The Irish Examiner published a full-page article on the issue shortly after with two people from iMeasc, highlighting the quote ‘It’s pretty repugnant when people say immigrants are a threat to Irish – start speaking it yourself.’ The opportunity to stress this aspect in the article arose from yet another freak co-incidence, namely that the features editor of the Examiner was a fellow Australian who was sympathetic to my views that the hypocrisy of people who had just enough interest in Irish to use it in arguments against immigrants, or vice versa, but not enough to bother speaking or learning it themselves, needed to be countered.

I was invited to speak at an educational conference being organised by Conradh na Gaeilge later that year and from a chance meeting through a friend, facilitated the visit a Basque language activist working with immigrants in her region to speak at the conference. I was also personally invited to become a member of the Business Committee of Conradh na Gaeilge by its Uachtarán* the very morning that Foinse published a piece about iMeasc shortly after its establishment. Joe Higgins, a socialist T.D. who had earned the respect of many due to his stand on scandals regarding foreign workers in both Gama and Irish Ferries, later invited Alex and I to the Dáil for lunch and his support and advice were instrumental in facilitating an address to a Joint Committee of the Oireachtas in conjunction with Conradh na Gaeilge in March 2006.

iMeasc also had substantial plans to achieve more than simply drawing attention to ourselves in the media. A list of ten proposals was drawn up and forwarded to the CEOs of Údarás na Gaeltachta* and Foras na Gaeilge* and meetings were held shortly after. Whilst the change in CEO for Foras na Gaeilge meant that some time passed before we could properly bring the plans forward, highly constructive discussions are ongoing at the time of writing. Our recommendations were as follows:

That arrangements be made for Irish language outreach work with regard to immigrants through the creation of an Outreach Officer in Irish language organisations to implement the following both regionally and nationally:

  1. Provision of classes in Irish to any group of refugees and their children being located in Gaeltacht areas, or close to a Gaelscoil and contact be made with any large group of immigrants in a particular area (for example the Brazilian community in Gort in Co Galway) to offer this service.
  2. Formulation and distribution of three-way phrase books (Irish –English – Chinese etc.) through the various immigrant organisations, launched at intercultural events for particular ethnic groups, introducing them to Irish culture through Irish, English and their own language. This would also provide an opportunity for people interested in Irish to learn about other cultures while also giving an opportunity to people from the ethnic groups to meet Irish speakers. A series of such events could be launched under the theme of An Ghaeilge do Chách (Irish is for Everyone) led by a celebrity such as Seán Óg Ó hAilpín*; or co-ordinated with a website giving profiles of different Irish speaking immigrants. The website could be in Irish, English or other immigrant languages, and could also include information about the language and what is available (books, classes, social events etc, with a link to www.gaeilge.ie.) There could also be a few bi-lingual games for children, for example one in Ibo/Yoruba and Irish.
  3. Funding for a short-term research project to put together the stories of Irish-speaking immigrants and how Irish has worked for them, and for a suitable website to spread the word further.
  4. Formulation of training courses to fully utilise the resource of foreign-trained teachers who have passed the Irish language qualification exam and who could provide courses in Irish through languages other than English (for those whose mother-tongue is not English, this having been identified as an extra barrier to learning Irish by one of our German members working in Conamara), and help immigrants to acquire the language as well as children attending school in the Gaeltacht who have neither Irish nor English (including the children of returned emigrants), or act as language assistants in Gaelscoileanna*/English language schools.
  5. Ensuring that children in Gaelscoileanna are given a range of opportunities to interact with children from different backgrounds and to approach this through, for example, arranging music workshops with musicians from different backgrounds such as Jaba Jaba Djembe from Ghana who speak some Irish (seas suas, bualadh bos etc.) with the children during their workshops.
  6. Discussion of the question with the European Network for State Minority Language Bodies at their conference on 11 November 2005.
  7. Organisation of a seminar to discuss the issue with the main partners in educational provision in Ireland.

A seminar was organised in Dublin in the latter half of 2006 between representatives from Foras na Gaeilge, the Irish Immigrant Council, the Department of Justice, the Irish Refugee Council, the Department of Education and the VEC (Vocational Education Board) in relation to iMeasc’s agenda. The day-long seminar was organised by Ariel Killick, with Alex Hijmans and Tony Praschke of the iMeasc network also present, and was attended by an Inspector with the Department of Education, the Chief Executives of Foras na Gaeilge and the Irish Refugee Council respectively, the Information Office of the Irish Refugee Council and for a brief twenty-minute period, by an official from the Department of Justice. iMeasc's recommendations were discussed in detail and the event was cordial and productive.

Towards the end of 2006, as part of the Belfast Media Group Aisling* awards in Belfast, iMeasc received the Aisling/TG4 Award for Outstanding Services to Irish in the Europa Hotel, with Ariel as its representative.

Ariel resigned as Chairperson of iMeasc after the Aisling awards, due to work pressure, and passed the responsibilities over to Tony Praschke, who unfortunately was unable to fulfill the duties of the role. iMeasc was entirely inactive during 2007 and there are no plans to reinstate the voluntary network's activities in the immediate future.

The future

Irish language organisations themselves need to include immigrants in their work, and develop an outreach role to forward the aims we laid out at the beginning, and the issue needs to be looked at within immigrant services organisations to ensure that immigrants are made aware of and integrated into the huge growth in Irish language activity over the last few years. I foresee that this growth is set to continue, as, to due net inwards migration, Irish people become more aware of the importance of language in defining cultural identity. Due to repeated reports of children of immigrant background excelling at Irish in schools, we can reasonably expect some of these children to grow to be leaders and innovators in Irish, much as some of those in iMeasc and higher profile personalities such as Seán Óg Ó hAilpín have done. We need to make space for these people now, work to create a society in which Irish plays an integrating role and move away from a view that sees the language and immigrants as incompatible. iMeasc claimed no monopoly on our aims or recommendations, and it is my hope that all Irish language and immigrant service organisations will integrate some of the aims we laid out for the benefit of Irish and intercultural peace in general in Ireland.

Footnote: In 2009, I was finally granted Irish citizenship...something that would have been a nice safety net when facing the likes of Michael McDowell, the Tánaiste and some of the most important people in the Progressive Democrats and RTÉ with only a temporary visa. It would have also been comforting when heading to the bowels of the Dáil for a meeting of a Joint Oireachtas Committee... but I survived nonetheless to tell the tale..

RTÉ - main TV and Radio broadcaster in Ireland.

NUI Galway - National University of Ireland, Galway campus.

Conradh na Gaeilge - Irish Language League, founded over 100 years ago.

Joint Oireachtas Committee in the Dáil - Joint Parliamentary (Oireachtas) Committee of Government (Dáil).

Progressive Democrats - A government coalition party at the time, with their leader holding the position of Tánaiste (or vice-prime minister) and the formidable Michael McDowell, former Attorney General, holding the position of Minister for Justice – and immigration affairs).

Uachtarán - President

Nuacht TG4 - TG4 News - TG4 is the Irish Repulic's Irish-language TV channel.

Garda Síochána - Guards of the Peace, official name of Irish police force.

Údarás na Gaeltachta - Gaeltacht Authority (Gaeltacht being an Irish-speaking area).

Foras na Gaeilge - Main Government Irish-language body.

Seán Óg Ó hAilpín - Well-known Irish-speaking sportsman, of Irish-Fijian origin.

Gaelscoileanna - Irish-medium school.

Aisling - vision

© Ariel Killick 2014