A Twist for an Ancient Tongue Trying to Survive

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon Apr 25 13:02:21 UTC 2005

A Twist for an Ancient Tongue Trying to Survive


By John Daniszewski
Times Staff Writer

April 24, 2005

AN SPIDEAL, Ireland Generations of English-speaking tourists who have used
this pretty village of thatched cottages as a jumping-off point for the
pleasures of the wild Connemara region have known it as Spiddal. But a new
government policy means that the settlement, which boasts spectacular
views of Galway Bay and the Aran Islands in the distance, will be known
only by its Gaelic name, An Spideal.

As of March 28, all English versions of place names were eliminated in the
Gaeltacht, the pockets of Ireland where a majority of people still speak
Gaelic. English no longer has official standing on signposts, legal
documents or government maps. (For now, until the sign-makers get
cracking, officials are just covering up the English names.) It is the
latest official gesture in support of the Irish tongue. But is it too
little, too late? In the midst of an economic boom that is both
encouraging and threatening Gaelic's popularity, many advocates for the
republic's "first official language" are worried.

"It is terrible how things are going," said Seamas O Cualain, an
82-year-old enthusiast of the language of his forebears, which is almost
always called Irish on this island to distinguish it from the Scottish
form of Gaelic. "The language is dying in the Gaeltacht." The lilting
tongue, which arrived in Ireland with the Celts centuries before Romans
reached the British Isles, has an alluring sound, aspirated consonants and
a rich trove of poetry and folklore. Just a few words have moved into
English: "smithereens" and "leprechaun," for example. But something of its
musical syntax is captured by Irish English, as in the phrase, " 'Tis
himself that's coming now."

The change in the place names makes sense, advocates say. The English
versions, put down by government surveyors in the early 1800s, are mostly
nonsensical phonetic approximations of Gaelic words. Spiddal, for
instance, has no meaning in English or Irish. But in Irish, An Spideal
means "the hospital," a name that derives from the village's having once
been the site of a leper colony.

Another egregious example is a spit of land with the bowdlerized English
name of Muckanaghederdauhaulia. In Irish, it won't be much easier to
spell: Muiceanach idir Dha Shaile. But at least it will have a meaning:
the point between two tides. Tourist maps, however, will continue to carry
English place names in the Gaeltacht which includes parts of seven
counties alongside the Irish.

The changes are a way to encourage Gaeltacht residents who may be wavering
to hang on to their language by showing it its due respect, said Deaglan O
Briain of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in
Dublin. "Official Ireland [is] saying to people in the Gaeltacht areas
that we do recognize that you are there, and your language exists." O
Cualain, meticulously dressed, with glassine skin, blue eyes and a shock
of white hair, met a reporter in his neat cottage, the fireplace aglow in
his cozy study cum dining room. He is, he said, part of a generation of
native speakers trained as teachers in Irish-only preparatory colleges.

The goal was for these graduates to spread the language across the island,
bringing the dying tongue back to life in all of the 26 counties that
secured de facto independence from Britain in 1922. The idea was
promulgated by W.T. Cosgrave, leader of the Irish Free State, the nation's
first incarnation as a republic. More than 80 years later, a debate rages
about the efficacy of those efforts, prompted in part by the
Irish-language commissioner's recent criticism of the teaching of the
language in public schools.

Students must study Irish for 13 years, from kindergarten through high
school, receiving more than 1,500 hours of instruction in all. Yet many
still graduate without fluency, says Commissioner Sean O Cuirreain. He is
a government official who acts as an ombudsman for Irish-speaking citizens
and monitors government departments' implementation of Irish-language
policy from his office in An Spideal. O Cuirreain believes that the
country could do much better and that teaching methods should be reviewed.

On the other hand, he sees positive signs  such as a recent trend of
parents outside the Gaeltacht sending their children to all-Irish-speaking

Five percent of Irish children are in such classrooms, he said, while an
Irish-language TV station gets 100,000 viewers a day, and people listen to
pop music on a 24-hour Irish-language radio station.

In all, 1.57 million  or nearly 40%  of the nation's 4 million people say
they speak Irish, and 337,000 (counting schoolchildren) say they use it
daily, according to the latest census figures. In the Gaeltacht, 60,000
people employ it each day.

But at a restaurant in An Spideal called An t'Sean Ceibh (The Old Pier),
where a fresh sea breeze wafted through the sunlit bar as patrons sipped
pints and ate Irish stew, Soracha Ni Chonghaile admitted that she wasn't
always among those.

"It's dying," the 23-year-old waitress said of the language. "I would
speak it with my family and with the older customers who come in here, but
I don't speak it with my friends. It's not the norm."

O Cuirreain, however, believes that Irish, in contrast to the vast
majority of the 6,800 other languages in the world, is on course to
survive at least through the next century  thanks to continued government
support and its core of thousands of Irish men and women who still use the
language daily in their lives.

"We should not be complacent about that  but we should take a certain
degree of comfort that we have a fighting chance," he said in a telephone

Why all the effort to keep Irish alive when the world seems to be
converging on English? That tongue is not only the language of
international business and technology, but also Ireland's most commonly
spoken since at least the mid-19th century.

"The Irish language has been spoken for thousands of years," O Cuirreain
said. "It is the language of the hearts and minds of peoples for
generations in this country. To lose that would be unthinkable, as far as
I'm concerned."

Because of the influx of non-Irish-speakers propelled by Ireland's
economic boom, however, the language is threatened even in the Gaeltacht,
said Nollaigh O Muraile, a professor of Irish studies at the National
University of Ireland in Galway.

"Two things are pressing on it: One is English culture through the media
and World Wide Web, and the other is the housing developments stretching
out right up into the Gaeltacht area," O Muraile said. "The language is
being diluted."

Children speak Irish in the classroom, but English is the language during

Partly offsetting the trend, however, is a vibrant community of people who
have taken up Irish on their own initiative.

Residents protective of their language in An Spideal have recently
demanded that a developer devote most of his 17-home project to people who
can pass a test in Irish and show they are dedicated to the language.

The national planning appeals board gave a mixed ruling Friday. It said it
was too late to impose the mandate on the development, which had already
received preliminary approval without any language rule.

But the board said such requirements could be made of developers in the
future, both in the An Spideal area and other parts of the Gaeltacht. The
rules could mandate that new housing developments maintain the same
proportion of Irish- and English-speaking residents as in the surrounding

The dispute over the 17 homes was complicated, with the developer asking
that the language requirement be lifted and some townspeople demanding an
even tougher restriction, O Cuirreain said.

"It's one of those things where you'd need half the Los Angeles Times to
explain it, on a good day," he said with a laugh.

But the key point, he added, is that planners had endorsed the principle.
"It's a step being taken to protect the linguistic integrity of those
areas," he said.

Retired teacher O Cualain said he was glad about the changes but
discouraged at young people's apparent lack of dedication to the language.

"When I went to school, we spoke nothing but Irish going and coming," he
said in a soft, sad brogue. "Even those who didn't know the language, if
they came here, they picked it up by listening. But nowadays, I very
seldom hear the young people speaking it."

Some commentators have questioned whether it is a losing battle to keep
the language alive through government policy.

Alan Ruddock, a columnist writing in the Sunday Times of London, took on O
Cuirreain last month, challenging the need to force-feed the language to

He said the Irish Republic was willing to pay only "expensive lip service"
costly schooling, subsidized Irish-language radio and television and
"often-garbled" Irish at the start of major political speeches.

"But in no way are we serious about promoting Irish in every aspect of
national life. Nor should we be," he wrote. "Ireland is not bilingual. We
are an English-speaking country, have been from the moment we gained
independence and were for a century before.

"Nothing O Cuirreain does will change that, and neither will anything in
the Official Languages Act. If Irish is to survive, then it must be freed
from the albatross of compulsion."

O Muraile said he saw encouraging signs. Ireland's newfound prosperity,
and the pride rising with the "Celtic tiger" economy, is making it "almost
a trendy thing to speak Irish."

But in the Gaeltacht itself, it is diminishing as an everyday language.

"I don't know what the future holds, but perhaps we have to exist as a
second language," he said. "In a way, it has been a misfortune of Ireland
to come up against the most powerful language the world has ever seen."



Gaelic revival

The Gaeltacht, areas of Ireland where Gaelic is extensively

spoken, includes portions of seven counties.

English and Gaelic are vastly different languages. Here's how they look,
for example, in a comparison of the Lord's Prayer:


Ar nAthair ata ar neamh,

Our father, who art in heaven,


go naofar d'ainm;

hallowed be thy name;


go dtaga do riocht,

thy kingdom come,


go ndeantar do thoil ar an talamh

thy will be done on earth


mar a dheantar ar neamh.

as it is in heaven.


Ar n-aran laethuil tabhair duinn inniu,

Give us this day our daily bread,


agus maith duinn ar bhfiacha

and forgive us our trespasses


mar a mhaithimidne dar bhfeichiuna fein.

as we forgive those who trespass xxagainst us.


Agus na lig sinn i gcathu,

And lead us not into temptation,


ach saor sinn o olc. Amen.

but deliver us from evil. Amen.


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