The survey, carried out by Donncha O hEalaithe, a language enthusiast and lecturer at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, shows that only 25 percent of households in Gaeltacht areas are fluent in Irish.
This contrasts with the ever-increasing demand for Irish language classes in New York and the United States in general. Why the surge of interest in the language here when it appears to be languishing at home? A single search on the internet turns up a plethora of classes and schools for Irish. It would seem that, in New York at least, the language has never been more popular. Is it due to a rise in ethnic pride and the trendiness of all things Irish, or is it a thirst for a tradition that does not exist here?
One venue for this revival is New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House, at Washington Square Park in Manhattan. Evening classes are held on Mondays and Wednesdays and cater to those who wish to learn conversational Irish at beginner and intermediate levels.
Padraig O Cearuill, a native speaker from the Gaeltacht area of Gweedore, Co. Donegal, is the teacher there. He is the Irish language lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences at New York University.
O Cearuill is delighted that there is such interest in the language. “There are as many different reasons for learning Irish as there are students,” he said. “Everyone has their own motivation. Sometimes it is just to satisfy a curiosity.”
O Cearuill has been in New York for 14 years but taught in Ireland before that. He said he thinks Irish people in Ireland are unaware as to the level of enthusiasm for the language here in New York.
“Learning the language would appeal to more people at home if the government banned it,” he said, laughing. He does, however, approve of the touted plans to redraw the borders of the Gaeltacht areas.
There are other hurdles to be overcome, however, O Cearuill argues. “The Irish mentality at the moment is almost post-colonial,” he said. “Many people are looking at their own culture and language as having no value.” He added that the lack of monetary gains associated with Irish may hinder its development.
He points out that due to Ireland’s increasing ethnic diversity, there may come a time soon when there are more native Romanian speakers than native Irish speakers. “That might make people eventually think about it,” he said.
Sean Cahill is one of O Cearuill’s pupils. The 39-year-old political scientist lives in the East Village and cites various reasons for his interest. “My paternal grandfather is from Cork, so I have an interest from that perspective,” he said. “Really, though, I got interested in the language after spending time in the North of Ireland and was exposed to the language revival and what it meant to the people there.”
Cahill is involved with groups that go to the North every year to act as human rights observers.
“It seems to me that in the North at least, speaking Irish is a form of non-violent cultural resistance,” he said.
Cahill also speaks French and Russian and found them both easier to learn than Irish. “I am at intermediate level now in Irish,” he said. “I can chat away.” His aim is eventually to speak like a native or as close to that as he can.
There are other less academic venues in which to flex your Gaelic tonsils. Rocky Sullivan’s pub in Mid-Manhattan hosts Irish language classes which place an emphasis on the joy of speaking the language.
Teacher Liam Mac Niallais caters to beginners and intermediate levels with a 10-week course costing $100 ($50 for the unemployed). The Derry native says his classes are made up mostly of women. “They seem to have more of an interest in the language,” he said.
While few native Irish attend the classes, many other nationalities are represented. Past students have included African Americans, Jews and Swedes. Mac Niallais attributes the popularity of learning the language with a genuine love of Ireland and the popularity of Irish culture in New York.
“I notice that depending on what’s going on, the classes expand or decline,” he said. “For example, when ‘Riverdance’ was on Broadway, our classes were very popular.”
Mac Nelis is loath to shatter illusions about learning the language, but he has had to warn people that it can be a difficult and long process. “It is romanticized to an extent,” he said.
He also said he is disappointed at the decline of the language in Ireland. “I think that the government must bear a major portion of the blame,” he said. “They only pay lip service to the language.” He believes that the key to learning Irish is to have a good time. “The love of the language has been knocked out of the people in Ireland,” he said. “You have to teach them to love it again.”
Another proponent of the Irish language is Seamus Blake, a radio host for Fordham University’s WFUV. He sees himself as a missionary of the Irish language and culture. Blake has hosted “Mile Failte,” a program devoted to the modern Irish language, since 1989. Originally a 10-minute segment, “Mile Failte” has grown to a one-hour slot every Saturday morning. The program includes segments of Irish lessons and culture.
Blake, a native New Yorker, said his parents inspired him to learn the language of as a child. “My father used to get a local county paper with a column in Irish and sit me on his lap and read the Irish to me,” Blake said. He later spent a summer on the Aran Islands, living with a family for the summer and practicing his Irish. Then as a Fulbright scholar, Blake studied Ireland’s language and literature for two years at Dublin’s Trinity College.
According to Blake, the current number of Irish speakers in New York numbers only in the hundreds. “The language is dying,” he said, but notes that a rebirth may be under way, with “an explosion of interest in the Irish language in colleges in America.” He calls it the “roots phenomenon” — Irish people trying to learn their language.
Seosamh MacCloskey has been teaching Irish for years. The 52-year-old St. Louis native has had a love affair with the Irish language ever since he was a youngster. “My grandfather was Irish, he lived with us and was a strong influence on the family,” he said. MacCloskey’s father took lessons and made efforts to pass on his knowledge to his children. “He taught us our prayers in Irish,” MacCloskey said. After college, MacCloskey decided that he wanted to learn the language properly. “I’m good at languages, so I tried to learn it on my own,” he said. Feeling that he would make more progress in a more formal teaching environment, he enrolled in a local adult school in New Jersey. Now, as a teacher, he has some long-term students. “My students are a bit more mature,” he said. “They all have an Irish background.”
MacCloskey laments the decline of Irish in Ireland but believes that Irish people don’t have the same incentive as Irish Americans. “Speaking Irish cuts to the core of the Irish identity,” he said. “It might not seem that way to someone who grew up in Ireland because they are familiar with their nationality, but an Irish American does not have that background.” MacCloskey also believes that a certain synergy exists between New York and Ireland and that the rise in popularity here may translate across the Atlantic. “There is definitely an effect of one group on another,” he said.
Not only are Irish language classes growing in popularity in New York, so is the use of Irish in popular music. The band Baka Beyond, for example,is composed of members from from Britain, France, Cameroon, Senegal, Ghana and Sierra Leone. Their music mixes African beats and Gaelic vocals. One of their songs is called “Rakish Paddy.” The Afro Celt Sound System is another group that mixes world music with haunting vocals in the Irish language.
As O Cearuill remarked, “Many Irish people are unaware of the immense cultural wealth of the Irish language.”