There are few languages as melodiously lovely as Irish (often dubbed Irish Gaelic). There are, on the other hand, few as fearsome to behold in print or as unusual in pronunciation. Take the letter “m.” In Irish, it sounds just like “m” in English. Unless, that is, it’s followed by an “h.” Then it sounds like “v” or “w,” depending on the vowels that surround it. Such madness is par for the course in Irish—try “an bhfuil,” for instance, pronounced “an will.”
Such difficulties make the preservation of spoken Irish daunting, yet it’s a point of pride among many inhabitants of Ireland. Even on our shores, that venerable tongue gets its due in places where Irish culture has a particularly strong cachet. All the same, it was surprising to get a press release from Elms College in Chicopee touting not only its Irish language classes (some of which are open to the public), but also that one of the instructors is a Fulbright exchange teacher, here from Ireland specifically to teach Irish.
That teacher, Pádraic Déiseach, filled me in on the current state of the language in its native isle. For many years, Irish has been a compulsory subject in Irish schools, thought of as a difficult necessity by many. Road signs bear names in English and Irish, and Irish has been declared the nation’s first language. All the same, it’s safe to say English still dominates.
“The only places [Irish] is spoken as a community language are in the ‘Gaeltacht’ areas on the west coast, espcially northwest Donegal, south Connacht and west Kerry,” Déiseach said in a recent interview. “Outside of those areas, Irish would not be a community language, but there are Irish speakers all over the country. There’s about 100,000 fluent speakers who speak it on a regular basis. In the last census, over 70,000 said they speak it on a daily basis.”
That may not seem like many, but it’s something of a victory for a language that seemed headed for extinction thanks in large part to the need to speak English to succeed in a country that was, for centuries, ruled by the English.
“English wasn’t really successful against Irish until maybe the 19th century,” says Déiseach. “People started raising their children to immigrate. Most people went to America and England, so people started speaking English to their children. Irish became associated with a lower class of people. Irish wasn’t allowed in school—children were beaten if they were found speaking Irish. Also the famine was the worst hit to the language—it was worst mostly in the west, where people spoke it.”
After Ireland gained its independence in the early 20th century, Irish began a slow comeback, one that’s still very much in progress. Déiseach says that Irish is quite present in modern Ireland, even if it’s not the dominant spoken tongue.
“My grandmother was an Irish speaker, so I would have been exposed to it,” he says. “It’s hard to avoid being exposed. I would have watched a lot of programs on television in Irish. Irish is becoming more noticeable, especially because of [television channel] TG4, launched in 1996. You also have a lot of Irish language schools, called Gaelscoileanna, where the children learn in Irish. They’re increasing in popularity.”
It’s remarkable that a language so old—it goes back to at least the 4th century, and probably much farther—is now becoming so ubiquitous in a country where it was once thoroughly eclipsed by English. It’s come so far that people like Déiseach, who studied Irish at undergraduate and graduate levels in Ireland, can find employment as translators.
“Most people think, ‘If we don’t look after it, no one else will,'” says Déiseach. “All Irish culture can be related to the language in some way—Irish has the oldest oral literature in Europe.”
On these shores, Irish has been something of an esoteric study despite the enormous numbers of Irish-Americans, limited for the most part to Americans with strong ties to the old country, or musicians in search of proper pronunciation for singing.
It was the latter that sent me to “conversational Gaelic” some years ago, when it was an undertaking both daunting in its difficulty and nearly comical in its impracticality. Even though “conversational Irish” was then something of an oxymoron, it’s becoming a truly viable idea. Americans with an interest in the language can, in addition to taking courses like those taught at Elms College, find Irish immersion courses (in the Northeast) thanks to the American organization Daltaí na Gaeilge.
Déiseach says his students number almost two dozen, and he’s been surprised by their enthusiasm. “It’s strange to me,” he says, “but not in a bad way, of course. I never thought that so many people would be interested. A lot of them have gone to immersion classes, and most people have some link to Ireland.”
There is, of course, something to be said for the idea that all languages are worth preserving. The continuing comeback of Irish may be counterintuitive, but the drive to preserve culture and history, no matter its provenance, is never a bad thing.
For more information about Irish cultural events and classes at Elms College, visit the Irish Cultural Center online at Irish-cairde.org.