Just over a week ago, people around the world were celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with food, friends and booze. For Americans, in particular, St. Patrick’s Day is a time for wearing “Kiss me I’m Irish” and “Erin Go Bragh” shirts or just covering oneself in all things green while attending parades and parties with a Guinness in hand. Alas, with St. Patrick’s Day behind us, many have forgotten the Irish. But luckily, several international news outlets decided to use the holiday to bring attention to the Irish language and its revival.
“What?” you may ask. “Irish is a language?” Indeed, it is. In fact, Irish, or Gaeilge, is one of the official languages of The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the other language being English. If you have ever been to Ireland, you can see the presence of Gaeilge around you, from street signs to bus schedules to government buildings, which all have names written in Irish and English. The surprising part of this is that only two percent of the Irish population speak the Irish language, and most of these people live in enclaves of Irish speakers called gaeltacht. So although Irish is one of the official languages, it is not spoken or understood by many Irish.
The Irish language is an ancient celtic language and is one of the oldest literary languages in Europe, predating English. For this reason, many people characterize Irish as the language of poets, playwrights and singers. According to Public Radio International, Ireland was a primarily monolingual country, which spoke Irish until 1620-1630 when the English came. However, the English cannot be entirely blamed, since many colonized nations have been able to keep their native language while also learning the language of the colonizers. In the case of Ireland though, the colonial government in Dublin collaborated with the Catholic church to remove the Irish language from schools and subsequently the private lives of the people. The potato famine further pushed the Irish to learn English because they knew their children were likely to migrate to English speaking countries, like the United States and Canada.
During the 19th century, an Irish language revival began as the Irish revolted against the English. By 1922, the Irish had regained and established control over the state from the British, and shortly after, an education initiative began that required Irish to be taught in schools. Many say the initiative was minimally successful because it focused on grammar and literature, rather than speaking and the more engaging aspects of culture associated with the language. Regardless, many children were exposed to the language and the initiative encouraged the interested children to continue learning the language.
Today we seem to be experiencing another Irish language revival. This new revival, however, is sweeping not just the Irish nation but also curious individuals in the United States who see Irish as a tool to understanding the Irish culture. Méabh Ní Choileáin, a Fulbright scholar teaching Irish in the United States, discusses the importance of the Irish language by saying, “Perhaps when it comes to Irish, my American students have it right; it is just another language, comprised of its own grammatical structures, and with its own culture surrounding it … perhaps treating it like just another language is the highest mark of respect we can bestow upon it.”
Although its complex grammatical structure (verb-subject-object) may deter some from learning Irish, the language is also incredibly rich and beautiful. Elizabeth Greiwe of The Chicago Tribune eloquently describes this aspect of the language by stating, “Spoken Irish paints the country’s landscape. Its soft, liquid vowels butt up against harsh, guttural consonants, mirroring the wind that whips across the country’s velvet hills and whistles through its craggy outcrops.” Hopefully, with the luck of the Irish, this language revival will be successful in producing enthusiastic Irish speakers who keep the rich language alive for further generations to enjoy.
In May 2011, on a visit to Ireland, President Barack Obama quoted an Irish proverb that said, “Broken Irish is better than clever English.” So following that mentality, is fearr Gaeilge briste, ná Béarla clíste (use whatever Gaelic you have, doesn’t matter how poor).
Junior Alena Klimas and sophomore Annalycia Liston-Beck also contribute to this featured blog, “Critical International Media Perspectives.”