In 1851, the Mayo Gaeltacht stretched west across the county from a line between Kilasser and Ballindine, excluding the town of Ballina. The official census figures for that year record that 65.8 per cent of the county’s population could speak the Irish language. By 1926, that figure had plummeted to 36.8 per cent and today, 47.2 per cent of the Mayo population claim the ability to speak the language, though to vastly different standards. Statistics for where the language is living and in everyday use are more important and telling. In that regard, the Mayo Gaeltacht is now confined to the Erris region, the eastern half of Achill Island, the Corraun Peninsula and a pocket around Tourmakeady on the western shore of Lough Mask.
Currently, there are over ten thousand people living in the Mayo Gaeltacht, of which just 6,667 speak Irish and not necessarily on a daily basis. To even get to this static point in the language’s survival has been a struggle. It has been recognised on several occasions by officials and commentators over the decades that in order for the Gaeltacht to survive, it needs to be a viable, self-sustaining unit, capable of offering its people a reason to stay.
At the beginning of the twentieth century the Irish summer colleges were an important source of income for the Mayo Gaeltacht. Two of the county’s colleges, Scoil Acla and Colaiste Chonnacht at Sliabh Partraighe, were very well-respected. The number of Gaelgeoirí in Mayo at this time was 88,601 and the availability of Irish instruction from native speakers coupled with the scenic beauty of the county attracted language tourists. The Gaelic League had identified the need for a healthy economic base to shore up the Gaeltacht and individuals like Margureite Chavasse established a knitting and lace industry at Keel on Achill which saved girls from the annual summer emigration to Scotland in search of work. Action for the survival of the Gaeltacht was all the more urgent as activists drew the island folk’s attention to the threat of anglicisation from the encroachment of the Congested Districts Board.
In 1926, the first Gaeltacht Commission established the official Gaeltacht. An author of the Commission’s final report stated, “The economic development of the Gaeltacht is, to my mind, a national duty”. It would appear that the government was now fully informed of exactly how precarious the future of the Irish-speaking areas were. The Commission received support from Gaelgeoirí in Mayo who passed resolutions at Fáinne meetings that the Commission’s recommendations should be put in force. While elected members of Mayo County Council fell short of calling their own meeting to deal with Gaeltacht interests in the aftermath of the report, they did at least send representatives to one such meeting in Galway. Progress in terms of stable industry was an issue in the decades following the 1926 report.
During the 1950s, two Mayo Dáil deputies held the position of Minister for the Gaeltacht. During his tenure, Fine Gael TD, Patrick Lindsay visited the Gaeltacht of Carrowteige in 1956 to hear grievances. The concerns of the locals would not have been new to him. In essence, what they asked the Minister to secure were the basic building blocks of any Irish community; permanent employment, a principal teacher for their school, a pub for socialising, a regular Garda presence. Importantly, the people of Carrowteige asked that all civil servants transact business only through Irish. Lindsay largely deflected the locals’ demands to other government bodies.
Fianna Fáil TD, Michéal Ó Moráin visited Tourmakeady in his capacity as Minister for the Gaeltacht in 1958. Ó Moráin brought with him news of a new heated tomato house scheme being rolled out that would supply extra money to the people of the Gaeltacht for very little work. The issue of job security in the Gaeltacht remains today. Údarás na Gaeltachta is currently responsible for securing industry and enterprise for the Gaeltacht areas. At the end of 2011, there were 675 people employed in a full-time capacity in Údarás na Gaeltachta client companies in the Mayo Gaeltacht alone. That retaining Irish speakers is a vital part of retaining the Gaeltacht was recognised a century and more ago and remains the case today.