Irish Language

Lá sona st Pádraig, that is to say “Happy St. Patrick’s Day”. As the dust settles in Irish neighborhoods around the world, I woke up in the mood for a screed about Irish-Americans who bedeck themselves with shamrocks and drink themselves green on St. Patty’s Day and indulge in a sort of maudlin jingoism, but who, if asked if they speak any Irish, can’t come up with more than Éirinn go Brách.

Instead, I’m happy to pass along a link to one of the most entertaining and fascinating documentaries about language ever: No Béarla (No English) by filmmaker and native Irish speaker Manchán Magan. In this entertaining multipart series aired in ’07 and ’08 (free now on Youtube), Magan chronicles his misadventures touring Ireland speaking nothing but Irish.

This should be easy, right? Irish is the “first national language” of the country. Most students in Ireland spend more than a decade studying the language. And yet mostly what Magan encounters is embarrassed bafflement. He stands in a popular Dublin Square and pleads with, harangues, and cajoles passers-by in Irish. He waves a €5 bill to anyone who can chat with him in Irish. Nobody understands him. The Irish, he laments, won the fight for the freedom to choose between the Irish language and English “and then chose English.”

I often free-associate from Ireland to Israel. Born less than 30 years apart, both nations had a historical relationship to a language not spoken by a majority of its citizens. Both states recognized those languages as national tongues and promoted their use. The result in Israel was the spectacular resuscitation of a language that had been out use as a medium of daily life for nearly two millennia. Irish continued its decline.

The different outcomes have less to do with a lack of zeal in Ireland than with the factor that most often drives language learning: utility. Reviving Hebrew was inspired and inspiring. As Jews immigrated to Palestine before the foundation of Israel, however, they spoke many languages: Arabic, Polish, Yiddish, Romanian, German, and French to name a few. Modern Hebrew filled an urgent need for a shared lingua franca. At the time of the Irish Revolution, on the other hand, English might have had an odious association with an oppressor, but residents of Ireland had no problem talking to each other.

A brilliant editor juxtaposing comedy and tragedy, stirring solemnity and banal visits to convenient stores, Magan is part provocateur, part comedian, and part jeremiah. Check it out! To learn something about Irish, where else would one go in North America but the home of the Fighting Irish: the Notre Dame Irish language program.

The winner of Friday’s copy of Elements of Japanese Design was Katharine in Detroit. Thanks for reading, Katharine!


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