When driving to Athboy in Co Meath to school for the first time last month, it seemed odd to pass a sign ‘An Gaeltacht’ south of the town. Irish speaking areas are more commonly to be found in coastal counties of the West, not on the gentle plains of Co Meath.
More typical of the Gaeltacht areas is the island of Cape Clear, a place I first visited ten years ago.
There was no car ferry to the island; vehicles had arrived via a builders’ barge or by being carried on the open deck of a boat. The process of reaching the island being so difficult, few cars seemed to leave and, if they did, would have been unfit for driving the mainland roads.
Cars on the island were not required to be taxed, nor were they required to undergo the National Car Test. The lack of any legal regulation was evident in the gathering of decaying vehicles parked on the harbour wall awaiting passengers or deliveries from the ferry. Rust and disintegration, and tyres that might match those of a Formula 1 Car for smoothness, were no impediment to the use of the vehicle.
Similar to the sign south of Athboy. a large sign stood at the landward end of the harbour wall, ‘An Gaeltacht’. Perhaps among the 120 or so residents of the island, Irish was the first choice of language, but, at the harbour, only English was to be heard.
A shop combined with a restaurant at the point where a sharply descending road came down to the harbour and, it being seven o’clock, we stopped to eat. The guest house was a three-quarters of a mile walk.
The waitress had a soft Scots accent. A native of Oban in the west of Scotland, she said she had just ended up in this place. Perhaps coming from the gateway to the Scottish Isles, she had a better feel for the place than someone sat looking for a wifi signal.
The island was a strange amalgam of past and present/ Unmistakeably contemporary buildings stood amidst dry stone walls of former centuries. A helipad, satellite dishes, a telecommunications mast, found place among white cottages and tiny fields. A supermarket on the mainland provided an internet ordering service for the weekly shopping, purchases being sent over on the ferry and collected from the harbour.
In the context of the national economy, one might have wondered how much it cost to sustain such a community. If market principles applied, what would be left? But, then, if everything was reduced to cash value, wouldn’t most of the country be living on the flatlands to the north and west of Dublin? Would rural Ireland, in any recognizable form, endure at all? Perhaps on the Gaeltacht in Co Meath would survive/