The Irish Language at Junior Eurovision Written by on November 23, 2017

It took over a decade for Ireland to send an entry to the Junior Eurovision Song Contest. John Egan takes a look at the Emerald Isle’s selection process, and explains why TG4’s mission of national language preservation means that Ireland declare their Junior artist with only days to go before the contest.

Ireland arrived rather late to the Junior Eurovision Song Contest in 2015. For 2017 the Irish entry will again be in Irish (the preferred term for the language is Irish rather than Gaelic).

Which might be a decision that seems to be something of a paradox. After all, Ireland’s only Eurovision Song Contest Irish language entry (Ceol an Ghrá, the Music of Love, Sandy Jones 1972) was one of the worst performing Irish entries (15th place) in the first three decades of Ireland’s participation. Yet, rather than RTÉ sending an entry to the Junior Eurovision it was left to the Irish language public broadcaster TG4 (“tee gee KA her”) to fly the tricolor, with entries performed mostly or entirely in Irish.

Réalta na mara – Aimee Banks (Source: Youtube/Junior Eurovision Song Contest)

To some, the question was “why give up the advantage of performing in English?” After all, the national language rule in the main Song Contest very much favoured Ireland (and the UK and Malta) in the jury era. Between 1965 and 1998 Ireland sent 32 songs in English. Of these, only three finished outside the top 10 (including Ceol an Ghrá): seven of these entries were victorious. Only three UK entries over this same period finished outside the top 10, producing five winners; of Malta’s first 15 English language entries after returning to the Contest in 1992, all but three finished in the top 10.

Since 1999, when entries could be in any language, most delegations have opted for English…and the fortunes of all three Anglophone countries have waned. Junior Eurovision has the national language rule (60% national language; 40% another language), so Ireland could send entries in English or Irish or a combination of both. There are two particularly good reasons why they have opted for gaelige (Irish) over béarla (English). One is historic; another is aspirational. Then there is the question of how to select an entry.

The Irish language pre- and post-colonisation

Before the 1800s, Irish was the majority language of Ireland despite being Great Britain’s longest held colony: in most of the country, most aspects Irish day-to-day life were conducted in Irish. Several things conspired against the language in the 19th century. First, when National Schools were introduced in the 1830s, all subjects were to be taught in English, a policy in place for the next four decades. Irish re-appeared as a subject in national schools in 1871, but it was not the primary medium (viz. language) of instruction.

Map of Ireland 1871

Prevalence of Irish as mother tongue – 1871 (Source: Wikimedia)

Second, in the 1840s the Great Famine (An Gorta Mór, the great hunger) led to the death of one million and the emigration of another million across Ireland. The famine disproportionately impacted the West of Ireland, where Irish speakers were more concentrated: many Irish speakers died or emigrated during and subsequent to the famine. Most went to the United States, Canada, England, Australia or New Zealand where English was the majority language, giving further impetus to English language instruction in Ireland: Both domestically and across the diaspora, Irish was being rapidly supplanted by English.

Efforts accelerated to reinvigorate Irish towards the end of the 19th century, when concurrent social movements focused on an Irish linguistic and cultural renaissance, and Irish independence, were interwoven. Yet by the beginning of the 20th century, Irish remained the quotidian language in relatively geographically isolated regions of Ireland. The political changes of the first half of the 20th century—rebellion, ostensive home rule, a bitter civil war and independence for much of Ireland—moved control of language and cultural policy to Dublin. Re-establishment of Irish as the national language was an early policy priorities.

Aspiration

Language policy in Ireland today seeks a balance between pragmatism and idealism. The Republic of Ireland defines Irish as the national and first official language of Ireland, with English a second official language. English remains the primary language in most people’s day-to-day lives in much of the country. Today there are around 75,000 native speakers of Irish; however, many more—over 1.7 million—speak Irish as a second language. This is unsurprising: Irish is a compulsory subject in primary and secondary schools where English is the medium of instruction.

In the Gaeltacht areas, where Irish remains the quotidian language, it is the reverse: except for teaching English, subjects are taught in Irish. As well, in several regions of the country anglophone parents have the option of sending their children to schools where Irish is the medium of instruction. Compulsory Irish in English medium schools, preservation of the Gaeltachts, and Irish medium schools are all policies designed to strengthen the Irish language.

20th century map of Ireland with Irish language speaker distribution

Gaeltacht areas where Irish remains the quotidian language today (Source: Wikimedia)

 

Public Irish language media are another strategy. Television network TG4 has broadcast since 1996, offering a range of Irish language programmes, including both local productions and dubbed versions of international television and films.

SpongeBob Squarepants theme song as gaelige (Source: YouTube/King balor)

TG4 reaches almost 60 per cent of Irish households, but its ratings share is a meagre two per cent. TG4 also tends to do quite a lot with relatively low funding: for example: TG4’s core staff is only 80 persons, most of whom work out of their primary studios in the Connemara Gaeltacht in County Galway. Their 2017 budget was almost €33 million, of which €20 million is for original programming of all types (current affairs, drama, light entertainment). (Mostly) English language broadcaster RTÉ’s annual budget for 2015 was €320 million. Bear in mind there is no other television broadcaster that produces original content almost exclusively in Irish besides TG4. If TG4 does not produce (or commission) it, for the most part it does not exist.

So TG4 has an unique mandate to promote the Irish language through television. With RTÉ struggling to resource an annual entry to the main Eurovision, there was perhaps little interest in the Junior event at the English language network. For TG4, however, Junior’s language rule—which in practice means only a Maltese entry will be English—puts the Irish language on a more even footing, competition-wise.

The next question for TG4 was: how to select a high quality entry, as inexpensively as possible, in order to promote the use of Irish.

Selecting an entry as gaelige

For this third Irish Junior Eurovision entry, a jury of previous Irish Eurovision artists reviewed all open submissions. A total of 32 songs were assigned to one of four semi-final heats. Each week the jury selects a top two to compete in a sing-off, after which the jury picks a finalist. In previous years these four finalists were joined by two wildcard entries selected by the jurors: for 2017 this was not the case.

The jury for the live shows includes two permanent judges:

  • Fiachna Ó Braonáin – A founding member of Irish band HotHouse Flowers, several of whose members met at Coláiste Eoin, an Irish medium school in Dublin. HotHouse Flowers were the interval act at the 1981 Eurovision held in Dublin.
  • Bláthnaid Treacy – Formerly a child actor on Glenroe, a soap opera that ran on Anglophone broadcaster RTÉ for two decades, Bláthnaid’s experience as a young performer is well suited to providing honest, age-appropriate feedback to Junior Eurovision aspirants.

Treacy and Ó Braonáin are fluent Irish speakers; both grew up in Dublin rather than in one of the Gaeltachts.

TG4 12-11-17@ 20.00 Junior Eurovision-  Eoghan McDermott &  Niamh Kavanagh as a guest judge,.

Host Eoghan McDermott and guest juror Niamh Kavanagh (Source: Flickr/TG4)

Artists who have represented Ireland at the main Eurovision act have been guest judges each week. Their levels of Irish fluency varied widely.  For the 2017 semi-finals the guest judges have included:

  • Brendan Murray, the 2017 Irish Eurovision representative, who did not qualify for Grand Final. He is from County Galway, but not the Gaeltacht part. His had little Irish.
  • Dustin the Turkey represented Ireland in 2008. His Irish is surprisingly serviceable, but it’s entirely possible “he” was reading his Irish comments, which uou can do that when you’re a puppet.
  • Jedward represented Ireland twice, in 2011 and 2012. They also had little Irish.
  • Brian Kennedy delivered Irelands first semi-final era top ten result with in 2006. His Irish is rather good for a second language learner.
  • Niamh Kavanagh won the 1993 Eurovision and represented Ireland again in 2010. For a second language learner her Irish is serviceable.
  • Linda Martin, winner of the 1992 Contest, will be the guest judge for the Grand Final. Based on her appearances in 2016, she also does not have much Irish.

Eoghan McDermott returns as host of the 2017 selection. He is a fluent Irish speaker and does an excellent job making the young artists comfortable speaking as much Irish as each can, while switching subtly to English whenever appropriate.

Overall, perhaps two thirds of each broadcast is conducted in Irish. TG4’s approach is a reasonable one, given the resourcing with which they have to work. The show aims to draw in young persons, either Irish speakers or Irish language learner.

There remains one perplexing aspect of the selection.

Féilire (Calendar)

The TG4 selection was conducted in September, with the results embargoed until each episode (four semi-finals followed by the final) is broadcast on Sundays. The semi-finals began being shown five weeks before the 2017 Junior Eurovision broadcast from Tblisi. That timetables TG4’s final to air on 19 November, one week before the Tblisi show. Perfect.

Except that the official CD was available for purchase or streaming on 10 November—two days before the last semi-final would air and almost 10 days before the Final itself. Unsurprisingly, before the last semi-final was broadcast, media began reporting that the winner of the first semi-final, Muireann McDonnell, would be representing Ireland with Súile Glasa (Green Eyes):

Súile Glasa  – Muireann McDonnell (Source: YouTube/TG4)

This sort of spoiler cannot facilitate a strong audience share for the Irish Junior Eurovision final. Momentum…lost.

There is another concern: none of the Irish Junior Eurovision selection show are live broadcasts. Muireann’s will go from performing to a studio audience of several dozen to a live television broadcast of several million. That is a daunting prospect for any young performer. Perhaps TG4  can get Muireann some live TV time on its own or RTÉ’s programming before Tblisi?

Brice ar bhríce (Brick by Brick)

TG4 has done a great number of things well already, in terms of its selection process. The show is tied in with the main Contest. TG4 has leveraged higher profile Irish Eurovision artists to contribute to the selection itself. And the broadcasts are anchored by three fluent Irish speakers as host and judges. There is relatively little other Irish language light entertainment programming that targets this same age group.

Brice ar bhríce – (Brick by brick). Not a bad metaphor forTG4’s approach (Source: YouTube/Junior Eurovision)

Has TG4’s approach produced strong entries for the Junior Eurovision? We can probably say yes. Each year’s selection has featured a number of songs that would have represented the country well. If we look at Ireland’s (admittedly brief) foray into the Junior Eurovision, their results have improved incrementally. In 2015 Aimee Banks took Réalta na mara to 12th place: Zena Donnelly’s Brice ar bhrice squeaked into the top then last year. Donnelly’s song was performed in both Irish and English, though the extent to which this contributed to the improved result cannot be determined.

Is TG4’s involvement with the Junior Eurovision helping consolidate Irish as the national language? That is a more difficult case to make. But each year so far has exposed the youth of Ireland to 32 songs in Irish—many of which are contemporary pop music of the sort that is age appropriate. There is nothing else on Irish television that brings new Irish language music to the fore. That seems self evident.

While the resource constraints are substantive, TG4 could rather easily improve the scheduling: dilemma: begin the broadcasts of the tape recorded semi-finals two weeks earlier, so the CD release does not produce spoilers. If it is not cost prohibitive, do a condensed one hour live final on TG4. If not feasible, get the anointed act some other opportunities to perform their entry on live television.

 

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