Gaelic renaissance and Irish obituary

Mark A. Mandel mamandel at LDC.UPENN.EDU
Mon Jun 19 00:52:53 UTC 2006

The New York Times ran an article on the teaching of Gaelic, last Wednesday, 
June 14, on page B9 of the Metro section, in the Education (rubric? 
department?). The URL is (reachable via), but by 
now probably only if you have a subscription, so I append the article below.

The second paragraph of the article is: "Irish-language schools and an 
Irish-language television station are booming in popularity, despite 
Gaelic's seemingly unpronounceable strings of consonants. And now the 
language's supporters, who have long bemoaned the impending death of the 
ancient tongue, have set their sights overseas." This makes me wonder 
whether the writer of the article was thinking of Welsh. Oh, there are 
initial sequences like "bhr" and "mh", but written Gaelic, for me, is more 
characterized by impressive strings of vowel letters.

And in fact the facing page, B8, offers a pertinent example in the obituary 
of Charles Haughey, three-time prime minister of Ireland. About two thirds 
of the way through the article we read: "He went on to serve as minister for 
health and social welfare and, in 1979, completed an extraordinary comeback 
when Fianna Fail selected him as head of the party and thus prime minister, 
or taoiseach (pronounced TEE-shuck, meaning 'leader' in Gaelic)."

-- Mark A. Mandel
[This text prepared with Dragon NaturallySpeaking.]

June 14, 2006
Irish Tongues Are Wagging in U.S. Classrooms

DUBLIN � For generations, Irish schoolchildren have grown up despising 
Gaelic, this country's native language and a mandatory subject from 
kindergarten through high school. But these days the language, which most 
people here simply call "Irish," is experiencing something of a renaissance.

Irish-language schools and an Irish-language television station are booming 
in popularity, despite Gaelic's seemingly unpronounceable strings of 
consonants. And now the language's supporters, who have long bemoaned the 
impending death of the ancient tongue, have set their sights overseas.

The government department responsible for promoting the language began a 
fund last year that will dole out grants, of up to $36,000, to help 
international colleges establish programs teach Gaelic. This fall, the local 
branch of the Fulbright program will, for the first time, send 
native-speaking teaching assistants to American universities.

"Their immediate response was: 'Yes, yes, yes! We can't get enough 
teachers!' " said Carmel Coyle, director of the Irish Fulbright Commission.

Four assistants are going to colleges with Irish studies programs � New York 
University, Boston College, Notre Dame and the University of St. Thomas in 

In some ways, Ireland is catching up. Of the 51 universities outside Ireland 
that teach Irish, 29 are in the United States. The Fulbright program has 
sponsored foreign language teaching assistants to work and study at American 
universities since 1968. Those modest one-year fellowships have generally 
gone to teachers of perennially popular languages, like Spanish and French, 
and more recently are going to languages like Arabic, Hindi, Turkish and 

Still, a language that has few practical applications besides deciphering 
road signs in Connemara and reading old Irish literature is a less obvious 

Slightly more than half of Irish language students at Notre Dame are 
descendants of Irish immigrants, a result of what Christopher Fox, director 
of the university's Keough Institute for Irish Studies, called "the 
third-generation effect." Societal bias meant that earlier generations 
"couldn't be ethnic in America," he said in a telephone interview. "Now it's 
O.K., and they want to connect."

Mr. Fox added, "The Irish language is seen as one way of doing that."

But Gaelic also appeals to students who are interested in linguistics, the 
preservation of indigenous cultures, or the role languages play in 
international politics, Mr. Fox and other university professors said.

And there are those who simply like Irish culture.

Meghan Donaldson, 22, a senior at Notre Dame with no Irish roots, studied 
French and Spanish before she decided to take Irish this semester, after 
spending time abroad in Ireland. She also got involved in Irish 
organizations on campus, like teams that compete in traditional step-dancing 
and in the sport of hurling.

"It's geared toward learning the language rather than passing the tests," 
she said. "They make it a lot of fun."

Notre Dame first taught the language in the 1860's, but stopped offering 
courses in the 1950's. Since it restarted the program in 1994, student 
interest "has been astonishing," Mr. Fox said. The number of students 
enrolled in Irish-language classes has jumped to 296 from 114 in three 

That enthusiasm certainly surprises people in Ireland.

"It's a big battle for kids here to learn their national language," said 
Aibhistin O Coimin, an Irish-language teacher at Wesley College, a school in 
Dublin encompassing the American equivalent of kindergarten through Grade 

Mr. O Coimin, 27, is going to teach at Boston College this fall as part of 
the Fulbright program.

"They think it's odd," he said, referring to the reaction of his class that 
he would be teaching in the United States. "They think it's very strange."

Ms. Coyle said the fellowship recipients "go out as ambassadors for the 

But with a bit of reverse psychology, the government wants the program to 
improve attitudes here, too, with the rationale that, if American students 
like it, it must be worthwhile, said Deaglan O Briain, a policy officer in 
the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

"We can raise the perceived status of the language at home by showing that 
it's taught abroad as well," he said.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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