Language: The Irish Question

Declining as a native tongue, Gaelic is expanding as an acquired one. The ancient language lingers on

WHEN I WAS A schoolboy in Ireland, some years ago, my classmates and I would slip copybooks up the sleeves of our uniform jackets before the nine-thirty class taught by Mr. Doyle. The copybooks were soft enough to fit snugly around the upper arm but also stiff enough to afford the deltoids a measure of protection.

The subject that Mr. Doyle taught was the most unpopular one in the school—the Irish language, sometimes called Gaelic—and the resistance it met would have tried the patience of men with milder temperaments. The class was conducted entirely in Irish, and Mr. Doyle would pounce angrily upon laggards who had failed to prepare for the day’s lesson. His verbal upbraidings concluded with a stirring finale. “An dtuigeann tú?” Punch. “An dtuigeann?” Punch. “An dtuigeann?” (“An dtuigeann tu?” means “Do you understand?”) Eventually Mr. Doyle would desist and accept a meek, propitiatory “Okay, tuigim, tuigim” from the quaking malefactor. I think he knew all along about the copybooks up our sleeves, but it was important to him that pain, like respect for the Irish language, at least be feigned.

This was during the mid-1960s, four decades after the Dublin government, newly independent, had launched an aggressive campaign, largely centered on the schools, to restore Ireland’s moribund national tongue to its “rightful place” among the living languages of the world. The Irish language, schoolchildren like me were told, was a precious and essential part of the nation’s heritage, one that not even centuries of oppression had been able to eradicate. It was a sublime and glorious tongue. (“Never forget, lads, that Ireland gave Europe its first vernacular literature.”) To be sure, turning a land of Englishspeakers into a land of Irish-speakers more than a century after Irish had ceased to be the majority language would be a formidable task. But other, “lesser” languages had managed to survive and even prosper under circumstances almost as severe. (“Look at Quebec! Look at Israel!”) Besides, if the language were lost, then what would Ireland have left? How, in any fundamental sense, would Ireland remain distinct from England? (“We’d still be Catholics, yes, but look into your hearts, a bhuachaillr— do you see the faith growing stronger there day by day?”) The battle, in short, was one for the nation’s soul.

It was clear twenty years ago, however, that the ambitious effort to revive the Irish language was falling short of its objective. To be sure, the physical evidence of Irish abounded. Street signs and official documents were (and are) bilingual. There were Irish-languagc programs on Telefís Eireann and Radio Eireann. Politicians as a matter of course began their speeches with a bit of Gaelic boilerplate. At school, instruction in the language was mandatory, and a demonstrated proficiency in Irish served (by law) as an entry-level shibboleth for higher education and a good many jobs. People went along. Yet I recall little enthusiasm for the Irish language among either my contemporaries or their parents, and I knew of no one who used Irish at home. Outside of school, or once employed, there was usually no reason for a person to speak Irish, no stigma or discomfort in letting the language lie fallow. One did not need Irish to transact business with the victualler or to ask directions from the bus driver. When the Vatican ordained that the Mass be said in the vernacular, the vernacular of choice in Ireland was English. “The Fugitive” and other television shows that people actually watched were broadcast in English. Debates in the Dáil (Parliament) were, and are, conducted in the native tongue of John Bull.

Some people, of course, were ardent language advocates, and thanks to Ireland’s system of linguistic preferment many held positions of prominence. Such folk were known, generically, as the Gaeilgeoirí, the term having a somewhat pejorative connotation. (Dubliners in my day called them the “Irishians" and seemed to think that the Irishians were “in it”—“it" meaning the language—for economic reasons.) Language sympathizers wore the Fáinne, a small gold or silver ring affixed to the lapel which signified a degree of fluency in the speech of Carolan and Brian Ború. At my school there was an Irish literary league (membership in 1966: five), and although the school yearbook was written in Fnglish, a few pages were dutifully set aside to describe, in Irish, the Cumann Liteartha na Gaeilge’s uninspiring recent activities. Some parents sent their children to live for a summer or two with families in the west of Ireland, where native speakers could still be found. These “Gaeltacht” areas, however, were home to only a few tens of thousands of Ireland’s three million or so people, and were rapidly being depopulated. A number of public schools offered instruction exclusively or partly through the medium of Irish, but they hardly constituted a growth industry.

The general situation during the 1960s was, in sum, a depressing one as far as the Irish language was concerned. Admittedly, there was a certain amount of passive good will toward the language, which somehow managed to coexist with a considerable reluctance to actually use it. “Do the people of Ireland want to revive Irish?” an Irish Times editorialist asked two decades ago. “There is no doubt at all that, if in the advertising term we could have instant Irish, if we could by some Brave New World method learn Irish in our sleep without any conscious effort, there are few who would not be glad of it.” But learning (and using) Irish did require conscious effort, and the effort was, by and large, not being made. The Irish government, in frustration, began deemphasizing the language issue and dismantling some of the institutional apparatus that helped keep the language alive. The conventional wisdom during the late 1960s held that the death of Irish was probably imminent and that the Irish people had best accept this fact and start devoting their energies to something more useful, like joining the Common Market, or bird-watching.

The conventional wisdom has turned our to be only partly correct. In all likelihood Ireland is never going to be a nation of Irish-speakers, or even one where most people are bilingual. Nonetheless, though presumably a permanent member of the family of Englishspeaking nations, the Republic manifests an atavistic tendency that may earn it a qualifying asterisk in the almanacs for some time to come.

The Irish language seems to be suffering the fate of Morocco’s Atlas lions, which are now extinct in the wild even as they propagate in captivity. There still exist in Ireland a significant minority who, while fluent in English, frequently speak Irish with family and friends, at home and on the street. As a proportion of the total population, their number appears to be holding steady (at about ten percent). However, Ireland’s Irish-speakers are increasingly to be found not in the rural Gaeltacht, where the language is indigenous, but in Ireland’s cities, where it has been transplanted and bred; they are being drawn less from the lower strata of Irish society, from the farmers and fishermen who gave Irish its reputation as a “backward” language, and more from the ranks of the middle class, from the white-collar professionals, intellectuals, and bureaucrats of Dublin in particular. Such are the indications from census data and a recent survey published in 1984 by the Institiúid Teangeolaíochta Eireann (ITE), the semigovernmental agency responsible for linguistic research.

“Something happened during the 1970s, something hard to put your finger on,” Pádraig ó Riagáin, of the ITE, acknowledged in an interview last winter. “I don’t want to give the impression that the position of Irish isn’t still precarious, because it certainly is. But I am willing now to say that Irish will be around, as a language used by communities of Irish people in their daily lives, until well into the next century. A few years ago I couldn’t have told you that.”

UNTIL THE EARLY decades of the nineteenth century, Irish was the language of almost everyone in Ireland—a language spoken in 1830 by some three million people. Irish is a Celtic language, introduced to Ireland during the first millennium before Christ, and it proved to be durable and adaptable over the ensuing two thousand years. Even the Norman Conquest, beginning in A.D. 1169, had little initial impact. While English would come to be the language of the Pale— the fortified enclave around Dublin— the Anglo-Norman lords in domains beyond the Pale, though nominally loyal to the English king, easily came to terms with local custom. Many spoke Irish and became patrons of Irish poetry and song.

Four centuries after the Conquest, Henry VIII decided to do something about this lamentable state of affairs and launched a series of long and ferocious wars against the Gaelic chieftains and their Anglo-Norman allies. These wars would continue, under Henry’s successors, until the end of the seventeenth century. The Irish-speaking aristocracy was systematically destroyed, the last of its representatives fleeing the island after the Battle of the Boyne, in 1690.

Classic Irish, the medium of literature, withered away, and with it went any “standard” form of the language. A profusion of peasant dialects took its place. Irish-speakers of one kind or another constituted a majority of Ireland’s population for another century and a half, but legal proscription of the language, together with Britain’s tightening grip on Ireland’s rural economy, gradually took its toll. The Great Famine of the late 1840s struck a final, decisive blow. It hit hardest in precisely those isolated, rural areas, west of the River Shannon, where Irish was most firmly rooted. The great majority of the one and a half million Irishmen who perished in the Famine, and many of the millions more who subsequently emigrated, were native Irish-speakers.

Among the survivors, the shift from Irish to English was rapid, deliberate, and traumatic. Irish-speakers in most of the country compelled their children to learn English and refused to speak Irish at home. Reporting firsthand in 1911 on conditions in Sligo and Roscommon, Tomás ó Ceallaigh, a Catholic priest, summarized the prevailing attitude among recent generations of country folk: “They had been brought up in the belief that English was the topnotch of respectability, the key that opened Sesame, and they were determined that their children should not be left without a boon so precious.” The census of 1851 found that only one quarter of Ireland’s six million people still spoke Irish. By 1891, 85 percent of the Irish population spoke English only. Fewer than ten persons in a thousand had no English at all.

The Irish language did not figure large in the thinking of most early Irish nationalists. The men who led the abortive rebellion of 1798 were Englishspeaking and Protestant. Daniel O’Connell, who during the 1820s led a successful campaign against the Penal Laws, and later an unsuccessful one for Home Rule, was both Catholic and fluent in Irish; but he disparaged as impractical attempts by his countrymen to hold on to their ancient tongue.

The catalyst for a Gaelic revival was provided by Anglo-Irish scholars, antiquarians, and writers, intent on salvaging some remnant of the native culture that colonial policies had effectively destroyed. What began as an artistic and literary movement soon evolved into an overtly political one. A turning point came in 1893, with the founding of the Gaelic League by Douglas Hyde. The League, which sought to arrest the relentless “anglicisation” of Irish life, served as both nursery and school to a generation of voting radicals. The leaders of the Easter Rebellion of 1916, including Eamon De Valera, were generally League members and fluent Irishspeakers, though most of them had learned the language not at their mothers’ knee but by dint of patient study and long vacations spent in the windswept west of Ireland, among poor peasants and fishermen.

The Irish Free State (later the Republic of Ireland, or If Eire) was established in 1922, incorporating twenty-six of Ireland’s thirty-two counties. Among the avowed aims of the men who came to power was the restoration of Irish to a position of linguistic pre-eminence. Eamon De Valera, Ireland’s prime minister (taoiseach) for two decades, and later the nation’s president, was a passionate proponent of Irish, which was designated Ireland’s “first official language” under a new constitution adopted in 1937. The government’s language policy came to consist of two main elements. The first was to give succor to those regions of Ireland where the use of Irish had never died out; with luck and money, it was hoped, such Gaeltacht communities would not only be preserved but might even flourish and expand. The second element was to induce the population outside the Gaeltacht to learn Irish. Irish-language instruction was made compulsory in both public and private schools. Only students with a demonstrated proficiency in the language could obtain a leaving certificate (equivalent to a high school diploma), enroll in a university, or get a job as a teacher, lawyer, doctor, or government bureaucrat. Irish, not English, was henceforth to be “the key that opened Sesame.”

This two-pronged language policy was pursued, with little alteration, up through the early 1970s. It was supported by both of the Republic’s major political parties. And it was sustained institutionally by a heavily subsidized network of public, semipublic, and voluntary agencies and societies. However, without substantial reinforcement outside the schools—as one had, say, in Israel—neither conservation nor coercion proved to be a wholly satisfactory stratagem.

There were, to be sure, some signal successes. For one thing, diligent linguists managed to pull Irish abreast of the twentieth century. They gave it words like siocreoigh (freeze-dry), steal laire (syringe), and fuinneamh adamhach (atomic energy). Out of a welter of dialects the scholars also synthesized, and to some extent imposed, a new “standard" Irish, enshrined by the early 1950s in official dictionaries and grammars.

Where the effort broke down was where it counted most: among those whom the humorist Myles na Gopaleen called the “Plain People of Ireland.”One popular novel of the 1920s, The Boys of Ben Eadair, was set in a future Ireland— the date was given as 1950— where English, like snakes, had been driven from the land. But Anno Domini 1950, when it actually arrived, did not live up to the advance billing. Most Irish people under a certain age were by then at least familiar with the ancestral tongue. That in itself was a considerable achievement, but there it stopped. Nothing, moreover, could halt the erosion of Irish in the Gaeltacht. The Irish people seemed determined to demonstrate that social engineers had a limited capacity to effect any desired outcome.

IRELAND’S SEERAL Gaeltacht areas, or Gaeltachtaí, are located primarily in remote coastal regions of counties Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Kerry, Cork, and Waterford, but they also encompass a few landlocked pockets as well as a score of tiny islands off the western coast. The Gaeltachtaí have a total population, according to the 1981 census, of less than 80,000, of whom 60,000 may be native Irish-speakers. Perhaps three quarters of these people—little more than one percent of the Republic’s population— continue to use Irish as the language of the home. A visitor to the Gaeltacht quickly kens why Irish was able to survive the centuries there. It is mostly high, rugged country where the roads are poor and the valleys open not on the interior but on the stormy North Atlantic. Until recent times the villages along the coast were linked one to another primarily by boat; the old cemeteries hug the shoreline, where access even from local parts was easiest. There was little here the English rulers wanted.

I drove into the Galway Gaeltacht oneday last winter with Alf MacLochlainn, who is a novelist and fluent Irish-speaker, a former director of the National Library in Dublin, and currently the director of the library at University College, Galway. The Galway Gaeltacht is the largest of the Gaeltachtaí both in population (26,444 in 1981) and in size. We followed the coast road from the city of Galway along the northern shore of Galway Bay, through Spiddal and Rosaveel and Carraroe, stopping finally at kilkieran. This is a thirty-mile trip that can take several hours, because the roads live up to their Irish name, bÓithar, which essentially means “cow path.” Everything from Spiddal on is Gaeltacht country, at least for now, and from time to time MacLochlainn would pull over and speak casually, in Irish, with pedestrians. Did they know a certain friend of his who lived nearby? What would happen if we took this road instead of that one? The replies seemed to come easily in a natural, lilting Irish, but that may just have been my impression. Irish, after all, is supposed to lilt, and in the Gaeltacht it is supposed to be natural.

We left the main road at one point to explore a dirt track that ran up a riseknown as Knockatee. Above the treeline soggy mountain bogland stretched unbroken on all sides. Here on the roof of Galway, atop a slight knoll, we encountered a lone cottage, whose ruddy proprietor was repairing a wall. MacLochlainn addressed the fellow in Irish. “Is there a name for this place?” heasked. The man eyed his desolate domain, the only human habitation within miles. “Slieveneena,” he replied. MacLochlainn shook his head as we drove away. “Slieveneena,” he explained, “means ‘market hill.’ Wasn’t a trace of irony in the man’s voice.”

Many place names in the Gaeltacht suggest a populous past. So does the stonework. Between the roadway and the sea the arable land has been relentlessly subdivided into a honeycomb of tiny plots. Ruined cottages stand thickly among them, presenting a low, roofless cityscape. In pre-Famine times families lived here at urban densities. Farmers enriched the poor soil as best they could with seaweed—one still sees the stuff drying on country walls or covering a potato patch—but even now the land and its people are unsuitably matched.

“Much of the Gaeltacht coincides with what used to be called the Congested Districts,” MacLochlainn said. “They were congested even after the Famine reduced their populations by a third to a half. And it was partly because they were so crowded that the language survived in places like this. If these people had been living miles apart, an oral tradition would have been hard to preserve. Even today sometimes I will be driving around in the countryside and just from looking at the fields, from seeing the bad land and the houses close together, I get a feeling: this must have been one of the Congested Districts. I had that feeling once in West Mayo, outside of the geographic Gaeltacht, and so I stopped at a farmhouse and asked whether this was still an Irish-speaking area. And it was.

“The problem with the Gaeltacht, as far as Irish is concerned, was that the native speakers were never self-conscious about their language and therefore had no ideological commitment to it. They didn’t think of themselves as repositories of the original Gaelic culture. There was none of the enthusiasm for the language movement that you found among the intellectuals and nationalists in Dublin. The native Irish-speakers had other concerns. To begin with, they were poor and they lived on marginal land. Just look at these fields!" MacLochlainn indicated the terrain on both sides of the road. It had been raining all day long and in each field water was trapped on the surface by the bedrock just below. In the wide, shimmering pools, archipelagos of potato-sized rocks interfered with a wind-driven ripple of waves. “You could buy this land very cheap now. If you can’t get it by the acre you might try by the gallon.”

THU GALWAY GAELTACHT, like the other Gaeltachtaí, was an exporter of people for a century and a half—a trend reversed only in recent years. The Irish-speakers who remain there have done so at least in part because the Irish government since the 1920s has sought assiduously to make it worth their while. It provides generous subsidies: subsidies for each child brought up speaking Irish and additional subsidies when those children start attending school; subsidies to buy pigs and cattle; subsidies to improve housing and install running water and flush toilets. Unlike in other rural areas of Ireland, in the Gaeltacht thatched cottages are rare; most homes now boast newer roofs of tin or asphalt. Many families in the Gaeltacht shelter language students from the Galltacht—the English-speaking areas— during the summer months. For each of these scoláiri families receive a stipend of £2.25 a day from the government. If a family needs to enlarge its house to make room for summer students, it is eligible for financial assistance. Dublin’s largesse is administered by Roinn na Gaeltachta, the Ministry of the Gaeltacht.

Several semi-independent agencies operate under the ministry’s aegis. One of these is the Bord na Gaeilge, the Irish Language Board, established in 1978. To the Bord falls the job, essentially, of consciousness-raising—“winning the free and willing co-operation of the Irish public in furthering Irish as a living language.” The Bord na Gaeilge maintains a high profile on a low budget. A far more conspicuous presence in the Irish-speaking areas, however, is the Udarás na Gaeltachta, the Gaeltacht Authority, created in 1979. The Udarás is responsible for luring jobs and industry into the Irish-speaking areas, with the aim of making Irish-speakers prosperous and content in their natural habitat. An earlier agency, Gaeltarra Éireann, had initially sought to accomplish this purpose by promoting cottage industries. The Údarás was set up in the late 1970s, when it became plain that the prospect of a lifetime spent knitting sweaters or fashioning little donkeys out of turf was not incentive enough to keep Gaeltacht youths on the reservation. (The word “reservation” creeps frequently into discussions of the Gaeltacht, only to be summarily retracted in a manner that recalls a line from Yeats: “God forgive! My body spake, not I!”)

Headquartered in a sleek modern building in the Galway Gaeltacht town of Furbo, the Údaras provides hefty grants-in-aid for new buildings and equipment, subsidizes rent paid on factories that the government may have built to a manufacturer’s specifications, and underwrites the cost of employee training. To date, some eighty industrial enterprises, large and small, have been planted in the various Gaeltachtaí. The industrial parks and modern factories are hard to miss. Surgical stockings are made at Carraroe, ophthalmic lenses at Casla, cosmetics at Carna. In the harbor at Rosaveel, French merchantmen are docked alongside a French-owned fishprocessing plant.

Dublin’s efforts have brought a degree of affluence to the Gaeltacht—enough, at any rate, to prompt considerable grousing outside it about Ireland’s homegrown version of affirmative action. As an anti-poverty program the government’s Gaeltacht policies have been crudely effective. The 1981 census showed an increase over the preceding decade in the number of people inhabiting Gaeltacht areas. But the very mechanism designed to curb the exodus may also be hastening the decline of the Gaeltachtaí as Irish-speaking enclaves.

I brought the matter up at a late-afternoon tea that Alf MacLochlainn had arranged with some friends in Kilkieran. The house that Peggy O’Connell shares with her two sisters, on a scarp above the water, is destined to lose its battle with the winds and tides of Kilkieran Bay. For the time being it seemed secure against the storm, made temperate inside by the warming fires of turf and whiskey. One of the guests was John Jennings, who was born in the Galway Gaeltacht and has taught in local Irish-language primary schools for almost three decades. He did not lament the economic improvements in the Gaeltacht but he noted that the region’s gradual integration into the rest of the Republic, together with the relative prosperity of the past decade, had accelerated an erosion not only in the quantity of Irish used by nativespeakers but also in the quality.

“When I first started teaching,” Jennings said, “I enjoyed reading the essays of the children. In vivid Irish they would paint a whole tableau about something as simple as a visit to the beach. Today it’s ‘I went, I saw, I came home.’ I have a fellow in class now whose grandfather gave two hundred and twelve Irish-language songs to the National Folklore Commission. The grandfather could entertain you from morning till night, at home or in the pub. Everyone wanted to be around him. But his grandson can only say, ‘Yeah, no, yeah, no.’

“Irish lived on in these parts because of the isolation, but the isolation is not so complete anymore. Storytelling and the love of words are no longer the only amusements. The newer amusements usually involve English. When jobs came to the Gaeltacht, many young people who had emigrated came back. Sometimes they brought English or American wives who had no Irish. The men who run the factories, and their families, usually have no Irish. Every year brings more and more people into the Gaeltacht who can speak only English. And the Irish-speakers think they can have the best of both worlds. They recognize the quid pro quo and keep up their Irish so they can get the subsidy for the bull, the subsidy for the sow, the subsidy for the house. But many of them use English at home and many of the children use English with one another. It’s a matter of economic calculation.”

On the time-long, distance-short drive back to Galway, MacLochlainn spoke of the upcoming election for the governing board of the Udarás na Gaeltachta. The Minister of the Gaeltacht appoints six of its thirteen members, but Gaeltacht residents vote for the other seven. Gaeltacht areas are defined geographically, like ZIP codes, and what has been happening in the Irish-speaking communities, MacLochlainn explained, was starkly evident in the conduct of the election. “The signs on the telephone poles are written in both Irish and English,” he said. “The advertisements in the newspapers are in both languages.”

He passed me a Galway newspaper as evidence; it was hard to read as his car lurched along the buckling, pitted road. In their platforms the candidates said little about the Irish language but quite a lot about the condition of Gaeltacht roads. One maverick. Peadar Ó Tuathail, had recently served time in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison for refusing to pay his car tax. I learned later that Ó Tuathail won office handily, so perhaps the Gaeltacht will be getting a few roads resurfaced. As for the Irish language, the Bord na Gaeilge recently concluded that “at this stage only emergency measures will ensure that the Gaeltacht areas will survive even at their present strength until the end of the century.”

ACROSS THE ISLAND, on the other side of the Bog of Allen, the capital of the Irish Republic presents something of a contrast. Dublin was never wholly an Irish-speaking city. It was founded by Vikings, in the eighth century A.D., and it remained in the hands of the Norse until their distant cousins, the Normans, made it the capital of Anglo-Norman Ireland. In Georgian times Dublin was the second largest city in the British Isles. It is a haunting, lively place but overall hardly a charming one. North of the River Liffey the city has been deteriorating for decades. The city south of the river, always the capital’s more prosperous half, has fared better. Ireland enjoyed an economic boom throughout the 1970s, and it shows in both the buildings and the costume. The women in particular are attired boldly and stylishly. Although male fashions tend toward the drab, at least outwardly, I inferred after a game at one of the city’s new racquet clubs that designer underwear must be enjoying brisk sales. Not coincidentally, perhaps, the Bord na Gaeilge, in a recent promotional campaign, drew an explicit connection between dressing well and speaking Irish. The Bord’s advertisement featured a large photograph of a smartly dressed young woman admiring herself in a new hat. “You never know how well something suits you,” the text began, “until you try it. A new fashion . . . a different colour. . . your own language.”

Merrion and Fitzwilliam squares lie at the heart of Georgian Dublin, and much of the Irish-language establishment has found lodging in the refurbished row houses of this elegant part of town. The Bord na Gaeilge is here, and the Institiúid Teangeolaíochta Éireann; the Gaeltacht Ministry is but a few minutes away. At 27 Merrion Square are the editorial offices of Anois, a new Irish-language Sunday tabloid with a circulation of 30,000. Throughout Dublin there exist several hundred organizations promoting Irish in one way or another.

Cynics disparage the Gaeilgeoirí as an elite and self-perpetuating caste. There was and is a grain of truth to such charges, as there always seems to be whenever public policy anywhere sets aside a portion of the national treasury to promote one kind of behavior, however laudable, over another. But the force of such criticism has diminished since 1973, when the government discarded proficiency in Irish as a prerequisite for obtaining either a leaving certificate or a government job. (One still needs Irish to attend the national university or a professional school, and the Gaeilgeoirí contingent in academe seems determined to hold the line.) While Irish-language instruction remains mandatory for all students at every grade level, the state in many other respects has drawn back from coercion. The Irish question has thus in some measure been depoliticized.

And as it has been depoliticized, a goodly number of Dubliners seem to have decided that the Irish language is quite serviceable, that it suits them well indeed. No one is quite sure what that number is—10,000 people? 30,000? 50,000?—but a friend, who teaches at University College, Dublin, speaks of the emergence of a sort of urban Gaeltacht. The urban Gaeltacht does not consist of tangible, geographically defined communities, but it is no less real. It is characterized by social networks of families and friends, many of them close-knit and durable. The urban Irishspeakers tend to be drawn from the highest socio-economic groups rather than willy-nilly from all classes of society. With the Gaeltacht succumbing to a perhaps terminal malaise, the Irish language is manifesting a distinctly New Class aura. One Irish-language specialist, Hilary Tovey, reported a few years ago, “Language revivalists are beginning to say that while the Gaeltacht is still important, it may be what happens in Dublin over the next decade will be the deciding factor for the fate of the language.”

There were, of course, always good reasons why city-dwellers might find Irish attractive. Outside of the Gaeltacht, proficiency in Irish has always brought preferment—and therefore correlated highly with upward mobility. It still does. One won’t find many Irishians among small-town retailers or blue-collar workers anywhere in Ireland. One finds them among that class of people who were brought up to realize that proficiency in Irish—at least, proficiency at age eighteen—was something of a boon. But why continue (or, for that matter, start) using the language at home? The answer doubtless involves the country’s growing acquaintance with Europe, with electronics, and with ecumenism—and therefore leads to another, more fundamental question. What makes us Irish? There is real concern in Ireland about the identity issue, one that the Irish in America, comfortable in their ethnicity, rarely have to face.

“Basically,” Pádraig Ó Riagáin, of the TI E, told me, “the government by the mid-sixties was growing tired of the whole language issue. It kept up a commitment to the Gaeltacht, but as far as the general public was concerned it pressed many of the laws on the books less than forcefully. Essentially, the government’s attitude was, ‘We’re not going to experiment anymore. If the public want the Irish language, they can have it, but they’ll have to convince us that they want it.’ In effect, the state during the sixties and early seventies was realigning itself with what it perceived to be popular opinion. It pulled back in the educational system. Schools where Irish was the medium of instruction, and where children tended to become most proficient in the language, were turned into ordinary public schools. There were more than two hundred Irish-language primary schools outside the Gaeltacht in the early 1960s. That number had dropped to fewer than twenty by the mid-1970s.

“And then the situation started to turn around. There has always been a large element which passively supported the state’s efforts as far as the language was concerned, and identified with the state’s objectives, but which otherwise wasn’t very actively involved. Now, with the state pulling back, the pressure was on. You started getting a new interest in schools. This was not a predicted outcome. Parents began withdrawing their children from the ordinary schools, where Irish was just a course, and setting up new schools, where instruction of all kinds was in Irish. There are twelve of these schools in Dublin now, and half of them were set up since the mid-1970s. My own children go to Scoil Lorcáin, in Monkstown. Sure, they get a bit of ragging from some of their friends in the neighborhood, but there are two other families on our street with children in the same school. And having Irish gives a child a certain advantage, like being able to talk to your brother or sister about someone else in a language that other person doesn’t understand.”

I took a bus out to Monkstown, which is twenty minutes from the city center, out along the southern shore of Dublin Bay. The neighborhood is an affluent one of stucco houses with lush gardens behind high walls or hedges. Palm trees grow on many properties—an anomalous presence in a country that looks directly across the sea at Labrador. Scoil Lorcáin is situated on a Monkstown hillside, with a view of the bay. It looks from the outside like any modern elementary school in the Western world. Inside, the walls are brightly decorated with children’s drawings and colorful posters. The only obvious difference between Scoil Lorcáin and a private school in the United States is that the language of instruction, play, crisis, anger, and bliss happens to be Irish. There are 400 students in Scoil Lorcáin, and there is a long waiting list for admission.

RÓisín Carwood, who has been the principal there since 1976, took me around the building. Carwood is a native Irish-speaker from Kilkieran. Her husband is a Dubliner who started studying the language seriously at the age of seventeen. Irish is the language of their home. Carwood is a pleasant, relaxed woman—a teacher, not a zealot—and she seems to have an easy way with both the children and the staff. “Most of our pupils do not know Irish when they come here, but they are speaking fluently within a few months,” Carwood explained. “After a child is enrolled, we expect his parents to begin using Irish at home. With English all around us, that is the only way we can hope to instill the language. If a child is heard speaking English in school, we call in the parents right away. You have to nip this in the bud, or it will spread throughout the school. We get a lot of cooperation. Obviously, parents are interested in the language, or they wouldn’t send their children here. But beyond that, they know we provide a good education. Irish-language schools have a reputation for quality because the commitment of their teachers is so high.”

Carwood took me in and out of several classrooms. The children stood at our approach and answered questions, in Irish, put to them by the principal. “An bhfuil tú ag obair go dian?” (“Are you working hard?”) “Sea!” came the affirmative reply, in unison. “Cé mhéid díbh a bhí namh i Meiriceá?” (“How many of you have ever been to America?”) A score of hands went up.

Irish-language schools generally boast a low student-teacher ratio and are reputedly less authoritarian than other schools in the Republic. In one class I visited at Scoil Lorcáin, a rather freeform dramatic presentation was about to begin. The children were milling about, jabbering in Irish, indulging in horseplay. They wore costumes. One lad displayed a bicycle helmet covered in tinfoil. Another had a box over his head with holes cut out for eyes. A third was resplendent in a black cape and black mask. (When asked by Carwood, he gave his name as Darth vader.) The teacher explained that the play was about astronauts and outer space. “The traditional language and literature of Irish is centered on the farm,” she said. “If we’re going to expect the children to use Irish in their daily lives, we have to expand its range. So we spend a lot of time doing things like this.” The range of Irish has expanded to embrace, among many other words, okay, which I heard being used continually at Scoil Lorcáin by both teachers and students. Since Irish has no real word for yes (sea, which is the colloquial substitute, actually means “it is”), this neologism seems marginally justified.

The day I visited Scoil Lorcáin was also a day for teacher-parent conferences. As I waited at the bus stop to be taken back to Dublin, a mother and her daughter walked by. I had seen the woman collecting the child at the school. They were laughing together, and as they went past I realized that they were speaking Irish. Their happy, bonded chatter was unselfconscious and utterly disarming.

How long vignettes like that will be a part, even a small, coddled part, of the Irish scene remains a matter of conjecture. But the Irish people seem to want the language to survive, and a majority seem willing to put up with a certain amount of inconvenience if a minority will use a certain amount of Irish. Speaking Irish may be Ireland’s version of living on a kibbutz—hardly appropriate for a whole population but somehow fundamental to the character of the country. By using Irish, novelist Máirtín ó Cadhain once wrote, “I carry around two thousand years of that dirty old sow which is Ireland.”

—Cullen Murphy