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Irish: the tongue of terror? Not!

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Stephen McKinley

After the recent Independence Day celebrations throughout the U.S., it was reported in the Irish Daily Mirror that an Irish brother and sister were arrested at a fireworks display in Springfield, Ill., because police overheard them speaking Irish, and assumed it was Arabic and that they were terrorists.

The two were later released, the newspaper reported, when authorities realized their mistake.

But both the police in Springfield and the Irish Consulate in Chicago have said that the story is fictitious and that the two apparently do not exist.

The newspaper named the couple as “Michael and Sharon O’Toole,” allegedly students vacationing from Ireland.

Aged 20 and 23, respectively, the pair were said to have been released after the police realized they had made a mistake. Michael O’Toole was quoted as saying: “It was like something from a movie. We couldn’t believe it. We were trying to explain that we were only speaking Irish, but I guess they were just following procedure.”

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Said a bemused Sgt. Kevin Keen of the Springfield Police Department: “We don’t know anything about this incident. We did not arrest anyone over the holiday weekend who matches this description.”

The newspaper report had added that the pair were released when Irish Consulate officials in Chicago vouched for their identity, but Irish vice-consul Catriona Doyle in Chicago said that the consulate there had no knowledge of the couple.

“We saw the report that this couple had been verified by the Irish consulate, but that was the first we had heard of it,” she said.

By the Saturday after July 4, the State Journal-Register, which covers Springfield, had published an article asking, “Gaelic gaffe in Springfield? Not quite.”

Reporter Kelly Davenport suggested the story was nothing more than an “auld urban legend,” adding that the learning of Gaelic was rising in the Chicago area Irish community, but that the language was still obscure enough that someone could have mistaken it for Arabic.

Todd Lawrence, a doctoral student of urban legends at the University of Missouri, told Davenport that the story contained enough elements of “truth” that it clearly reflects “American fears about terrorism,” while Charles Fanning, director of Irish Studies at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, suggested that “it is one of these languages that’s remote enough and esoteric enough that you might think something like [the story] could happen.”

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