As a place name, Dingle is known to people all around the world – many of whom have never even visited my home country of Ireland. It was almost a brand in its own right: the archteype of Irish small town charm, character and hospitality in a picturesque setting. The historic County Kerry town looks over Dingle Bay in the south-west: it has a natural harbour lined with fishing boats, and is backed by a mountain. As well as fishing and agriculture, Dingle makes its living from a substantial amount of tourism, and many international visitors cherish its beautiful scenery, authentic local flavour and the traditional Irish music that’s popular in the town.
Dingle has had a few claims to fame in its 700-year history: in the 16th century, the Treaty of Dingle was signed with Spain, and the town became a departure port for pilgrims travelling to Santiago de Compostela. By then, it was also one of Ireland’s most important trading ports, exporting fish, and importing wines from Europe. For around 80 years from the mid-18th century, it was renowned for its linen production.
But in the early 21st century, Dingle disappeared. Not literally, of course. What happened was that in December 2004, something called The Placenames Order was signed by the minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Gaeltacht being the name of the regions where Irish Gaelic is commonly spoken) – under which all road signs would be required to show only Irish language place names. From Easter Monday 2005 (when there must have been quite a few holidaymakers touring Ireland and hoping to visit this well-known town), the English names of villages and towns in the Gaeltacht were removed from signage or covered over, and replaced by their Gaelic names. Dingle became An Daingean . . . and impossible to find for those without the benefit of speaking or reading Irish Gaelic.
This controversial decision was taken as part of the Irish government’s drive to protect and promote Irish Gaelic. Preserving the original local language is, of course, commendable and important, but tourism is economically very important to this beautiful part of Ireland: what is the message to visitors (many from the USA and Britain) faced by incomprehensible place names that they can’t find on a map? It certainly isn’t: “Welcome!”
What reminded me of this whole saga was the increasing use of Catalan/Mallorcan – rather than Spanish – here in Mallorca. As a native of a country with its own ancient language to preserve, I fully understand Mallorca’s desire to give its indigenous language greater prominence – particularly given the fact that Catalan was actually banned during the Franco regime. But what might be the long term effect on tourism here if Catalan were to become the dominant language? Would tourists even care?
Earlier this summer, I visited Can Prunera in Sóller – the opening of which was much heralded last year. If you’re at the Sóller train station in Palma you’ll see it advertised. The museum/art gallery is a visitor attraction – maybe not with the mass tourist appeal of some of Mallorca’s others, but one that will delight anyone with an appreciation of contemporary art and the emblematic Art Nouveau architecture of Sóller. The place has been sympathetically restored and is fascinating. But how much more I could have learnt about it if the explanatory signs had been in a language other than Catalan (although the basement exhibition does carry multi-lingual information). I’m sure that Catalan is not a language widely understood by the majority of visitors here. The message would seem to be that Can Prunera is for locals only: non-Catalan speakers not welcome. And that’s certainly not the intention.
Mallorca’s economy depends on tourism. The UK Office for National Statistics recently reported that last year 2.2 million fewer Britons visited Spain – and that’s only one nationality. There are already too many factors that jeopardise our island’s future as a popular tourist destination. The uncertainty of the euro, high prices on the island, competition from other European (and more distant) destinations, and climate change are surely enough challenges to contend with? Do we also need to alienate visitors by not communicating better with them when they’re visiting places promoted as attractions?
It’s not just signage in attractions though. Many guide books, maps and GPS tracking devices carry the Spanish version of place names, but it’s often the Catalan names found on roadsigns here. For first-time visitors, touring in their (expensive) hire car, there’s potential for confusion – for example: Peguera/Paguera; Colonia Sant Pere/Son Pedro.
Foreign residents – there were almost 185,000 at the start of 2009 – find that official government leaflets are increasingly being published in Catalan only, rather than both Catalan and Spanish. For those who chose to move here because they were already Spanish speakers (from the mainland or South America, for instance) or who have taken the trouble to learn Spanish so that they could integrate, it’s frustrating.
In July this year, Spain’s constitutional court ruled that Cataluña could call itself a “nation”, approving most of a charter granting new powers of self-rule to the region. But it also ruled that the Catalan language should not have more weight than Spanish – a decision that’s sparked outrage and demonstrations in the region. We have not heard the end of this matter because Cataluña is wealthy and has around seven million of Spain’s 48 million population.
I applaud the preservation of an indigenous language: it’s a matter of pride, a part of one’s national heritage. But should that be to the prejudice of a healthy economic future in the global marketplace of tourism? The good folks of Dingle would doubtless say no. Or perhaps we should all be learning Catalan ? I’d love to hear your views.