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From Belfast to Texas

As Irish Gaelic grows in the diaspora, it struggles against centuries of politics in Ireland.

by Josh Azar

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Everyone knows that green is the color of the Irish, but a year ago on February 15, 2014, Dublin went red. Some 10,000 protesters in the Irish Republic’s capital symbolized their fury by dressing in red and carrying signs emblazoned with the slogan Dearg le Fearg, which is Irish Gaelic for Red with Anger. They were protesting unequal treatment, lack of public services, and scarce available resources for perpetuating one of the world’s oldest extant vernaculars. Two months later, in Northern Ireland’s capital of Belfast, Irish Gaelic’s supporters staged a similar demonstration. Yet, unlike in the Republic, Irish is not an official language in Northern Ireland, so protesters demanded a language rights act to their demands. Now, more than a year later, that demand might finally be met.

These protests were just another in a string of efforts to undo the damage done to the language by centuries of oppression, politicization, and apathy. Gaeilge, as the language is called in Irish, is finding new strongholds. From parliaments to pubs, from classrooms to boardrooms, the language is resurging. But the action isn’t only in Ireland. Enthusiasts from New York to Texas are setting up language classes, playing and listening to traditional Irish music, and creating their own gaelicized communities. In Canada, that means literal construction, as a dedicated group tries to build the first Gaeltacht – the word for an Irish-speaking area – outside of Ireland. While the language’s connections to a distinct national identity might be deepening political potholes in Ireland, for many in the diaspora, it’s a way to connect with historic family roots. For others, it helps them cultivate a deeper understanding and appreciation of Irish music and culture. For still others, those with no Irish heritage or association whatsoever, to master the language becomes a fulfilling intellectual pursuit.


In Northern Ireland, however, the push to revive Irish Gaelic is more than an isolated passion or pastime. On January 13, 2015, the country’s Minister for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilín, announced a public consultation period between February 10 and May 5 for a possible Irish Language Act, introduced by Sinn Féin, the nationalist political party. In Irish, the act is known as the Acht na Gaeilge. If passed, the legislation would give Irish official status in the North. Each proposal is outlined in an official document that includes historic information and statistics relating to Irish speakers, along with a request for  respondents to answer 10 questions and send their feedback either by email or snail-mail to Ni Chuilín’s office. A member of Sinn Féin, she has been advocating for the language for years.

The act’s proposed provisions include the creation of the office of Irish Language Commissioner and a requirement that courts and government agencies offer services in Irish. Currently, they are offered only in English.

Once the replies to the consultation have been collected, they will be read, analyzed, and presented to the Northern Ireland Assembly, which will then vote. The entire process could take several months, and there is no set timeline.

The Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. Courtesy of (Albert Bridge) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Non-citizens of Northern Ireland or those abroad, no need to despair: “All views and opinions are of value,” writes Ní Chuilín in the document’s foreword, “and I would encourage anyone with an interest in the Irish language to take the opportunity to participate in this consultation and ensure that your voice is heard.”

Although support has been strong from the nationalists, who identify as Irish, there has been swift and fierce backlash against the proposed act from those at the other end of the country’s political spectrum, the unionists, who identify as British.

These deeply entrenched identities have been centuries in the making. The Anglo-Normans first arrived in southern Ireland in the 12th century. They intermarried with locals, and some settlers even began to speak Irish. As the years passed, the English feared the local Irish culture was subsuming their own. To keep these Anglo-Normans English, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, acting under the authority of King Edward III, drafted and enacted a series of laws in 1367 called the Statutes of Kilkenny. These laws, in part, forbade the speaking of Irish by any Englishman, or “any Irish living amongst the English.” Since the Gaelic people beat the English to the Emerald Isle by more than a millenium, “English living amongst the Irish” might have been more accurate phrasing. The statutes institutionalized English as a privileged language, and banned Irish.

In spite of this, the North remained a Gaelic stronghold, and so at the beginning of the 17th century, English and Scottish Protestants appropriated Gaelic land and settled there during the Plantation of Ulster. In the centuries that followed, there were several failed rebellions against the colonizers. But it wasn’t until an uprising in 1916 that a successful war of independence was launched. The rebellion itself was another failure, but it led to a shift in public opinion. War broke out three years later between the guerilla nationalists known as the Irish Republican Army and the British, culminating in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922, a pact between the British government and what was then the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Féin.

But those talks hardly constituted a negotiation. Then-Prime Minister David Lloyd George made the United Kingdom’s position clear: either accept our terms unconditionally, or the war begins again. The Irish were in no shape to fight an all-out war with England, so they agreed to the creation of an Irish Free State made of the southern 26 counties. The UK kept six in the North, making official the ethnic divided begun by the Plantation of Ulster. Its effects on the sense of national identity are still being felt.


Jim Allister, who leads the Traditional Unionist Voice party, called the proposed language act “merely another stage in Sinn Féin’s plan to erode the Britishness of Northern Ireland.” Last year, Gregory Campbell, a member of a different unionist party, said his colleagues would never agree to such an act.

It’s no surprise that Campbell would be against a law to promote the Irish language. In the Northern Ireland Assembly, there is a question-and-answer period, during which its members can question the ministers on various topics or projects. When it was Campbell’s turn early last November, he stood and mocked the nationalists who often begin their questions in Irish with the phrase, “Go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle,” which means “Thank you, Mr. Speaker.” (A rough pronouncer would be guh ruh my uh gut, kee-ow-n ko-wer-luh.)  “Curry my yogurt, can coca coalyer,” was how Campbell began in parody.

Minister Ní Chuilín took offense and refused to answer his question. She called his comment “pure ignorance” and said that his conduct was “not befitting members of this chamber.” Jokes at the expense of the language were not new, and she was fed up with them. Later, Campbell appeared with a cup of yogurt, extending the offense and outraging Irish language enthusiasts who found his actions demeaning. Campbell even received a death threat.

Such extreme reactions are familiar to the Irish; they were common in the days when religion was catalyzing local conflict. In the late 1960s, the skirmishes were not between legislators but among paramilitary groups, British soldiers, and the local police. They turned Belfast and Derry into war zones. Over 3,600 were killed and thousands more injured as random casualties of war or as victims of targeted attacks. The cities became sharply divided along religious lines: Catholics, who were generally seen as sympathetic to the Republic, and Protestants, who allied themselves with the UK. Colloquially, the Irish called the conflict “The Troubles,” and they continued for nearly 30 years until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, negotiated between the governments of the UK, Ireland, and the top political parties of Northern Ireland.

In 2006, a follow-up pact called the St. Andrew’s Agreement affirmed the necessity of an Irish language rights act. Westminster obligated itself to draft the legislation if the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont fails to pass one. Since odds are against the bill’s passage, Sinn Féin is expected to call upon Westminster to hold up its end of the deal.

Sinn Féin is urging fulfillment of the 2006 agreement. But with memories of IRA attacks less than two decades old, unionists are reluctant to cooperate with Sinn Féin, which in the popular imagination has not entirely lost its association with the IRA, even though the IRA is officially inactive and Sinn Féin cut ties with the group long ago.

As Catholic-Protestant tensions in Northern Ireland have waned, Irish Gaelic has become the new arena for proxy battles over national identity. While language rights might be the nominal stakes, the real issue goes much deeper.

“They’re terrified of equality for the Irish language,” one Northern Ireland civil servant in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure told me. “Because with equality, you’re not the controller. You’re an equal party.” He believes that attacks on the language are just a front for a deeper anxiety. “Language, being one of the biggest demarcators of who you are, or your nationality, in particular, I think it’s a very easy target, because it’s so, so different. It’s a very easy target for people who are insecure.”

Those who speak Irish provide a way for others to guess a person’s political sympathies, much like one’s religion did during the Troubles. “Traditionally, here, people would use the terms Protestant / Catholic,” he said. “I personally don’t like using the terms Protestant / Catholic because I believe we’ve been tricked into thinking that it’s a religious struggle. But it’s not. It’s nationality. It’s British / Irish.”

Identity politics aside, critics of the legislation have also raised the issue of funding. The government in Northern Ireland is in the process of a radical restructuring to curtail costs, including plans to cut in half the staff of 30,000 civil service employees who serve a total population of only 1.8 million Northern Irish. Under terms of an agreement signed before Christmas 2014, the current 12 governmental departments must be reduced to nine before the elections of 2016.

That same civil servant spoke to me about the anticipated costs of the proposed act. We spoke on condition of anonymity, since his department has put an unofficial gag order on its employees until the bill can come to a vote. “The cost of the consultation itself is about 10,000 pounds, maybe a bit more,” he told me. But the cost of actually implementing all of the proposals would be much higher. “You can either look at it as reparations for damage done to the Irish language, or as money coming out of services.” Critics see it as the latter. They say that Irish is not a priority right now, that there are much better uses for the money.

“To implement everything that Sinn Féin have put into this document would be extremely costly,” the civil servant said. “I think that Sinn Féin, knowing that it was going to be defeated, they wrote an all-out, gung-ho consultation. They want the kitchen sink, absolutely everything.”

“I think that Sinn Féin, knowing that it was going to be defeated, they wrote an all-out, gung-ho consultation. They want the kitchen sink, absolutely everything.”

If the bill had not been so all-encompassing, he said, “it might’ve had a better chance of going through. But because they know fine rightly that this has absolutely not a snowman’s chance in hell of ever getting past the Assembly, or the Executive, they decided, ‘Ach. Well, fuck it. We’ll just ask for everything. And sure they’re gonna turn it down anyway. And this way we can be seen by the Irish language community as doing our utmost.’”

That is not to say that the unionists don’t engage in some of the same constituency pandering. I asked that culture department employee what he thought of Gregory Campbell’s “curry my yogurt” remarks. “Gregory Campbell,” he said, “whether or not he is a bigot or sectarian, he’s voicing an opinion that he knows will get him re-elected next year.”

But despite the political posturing from both sides, support for the Irish language in Northern Ireland is growing. A survey organized by Conradh na Gaeilge, an organization in Ireland founded in the late 19th century to promote the language, found that 54 percent of Northern Irish think services in Irish should be available. In 2011, the government in Northern Ireland launched a campaign known as Líofa, which means fluent, to raise awareness of the language. Its original goal was to amass 1,000 signatures of people who promised to become fluent in Irish by 2015. When that goal was met ahead of the deadline, program directors increased it to 2,015 people by 2015. But again, they underestimated interest and increased the number to 5,000, and then to 10,000. In early March, the day after I spoke with the head of the program, he said 20,000 was now the target.

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Eibhlín Walsh teaches in a Belfast gaelscoil, a school where all the learning happens in Irish. She said she has seen “a big Irish language revival over the last 30 years.” She herself attended Belfast’s first-ever gaelscoil and remembers the way other children on the school bus would look down on her because of where she studied. “We were a minority,” she explained, “and people often thought us a little strange or queer for choosing to speak Irish.” Now there are more than 20 gaelscoileanna in Northern Ireland, and for the last 30 years they have received government funding. She said these Irish language schools still carry a stigma, but Walsh thinks they bring important value. “My experience of Irish-speaking schools is that they are places where children’s voices are heard and each child’s individuality is respected and nurtured.”

Rising interest in gaelscoileanna aside, the most recent census indicates that fewer than four percent of the population can speak, read, write, and understand Irish. Less than a quarter of a percent of those surveyed described Irish as their main language. Darren Ó Dochartaigh, who now works as a personal language tutor to Minister Ní Chuilín, used to work with children, taking them on tours, teaching them Irish place names, and acquainting them with their Irish heritage. “I lasted for about a year teaching teenagers before I realized I loved Irish more than I love teenagers,” he laughed. He found it horrifying that so few children even knew that Irish was a language. “They’re not taught that it exists”, he said. “It’s part of rewriting history. It’s part of choosing what you want your children to know.”

Hilary Mhic Suibhne, a professor of Irish at New York University, agreed. “Irish has always been tied up in politics, unfortunately,” she said. It has been an identity marker since the 19th century. “You would learn to speak Irish and you would listen to Irish music,” she said. “It was part of a package that meant you were truly Irish.”

Glucksman Ireland House, home of NYU's Irish Studies department

Glucksman Ireland House, home of NYU’s Irish Studies department.

But Mhic Suibhne thinks politics should not be a consideration. Irish, she said, is “a language. It’s for communication. I don’t think it should matter to anyone whether a unionist from Northern Ireland is speaking Irish or whether it’s a republican from the south of Ireland speaking Irish.”

Ó Dochartaigh expressed a similar lament. He said that since many IRA members would speak Irish in jail as a way of passing messages the guards could not understand, the language has taken on some unfortunate associations. “They equate this now with terrorists,” he said, “and they don’t realize that Irish is simply a medium of communication, and that it doesn’t belong to anyone. We can’t hate Arabic because of what IS do, or we can’t hate the Russian language because of Stalin, or German because of Hitler. We can’t hate a language because of the people who speak it.”

The language still has its clandestine uses, it turns out. This past February, around the same time the consultation period in Northern Ireland launched, an Irish journalist discovered that a large number of pornographic videos had been hiding on YouTube for months, in clear violation of site policy. To avoid the moderators, the pornographers used Irish language names.


The unionist-nationalist divide in Northern Ireland also reaches the Republic. Mhic Suibhne, who grew up in County Limerick, knows the split well. Her father was a dedicated Irish speaker. “I think even our last conversation was in Irish, when he wasn’t well,” she recalled. “My mother was from a different tradition in Ireland. She was from more of a unionist tradition.”

Her mother was ambivalent about the importance of speaking of Irish Gaelic. When Suibhne’s acceptance at a local gaelscoil arrived in the mail, her mother failed to mention it..“She just didn’t think it would be of any use,” Mhic Suibhne said. “There are generations of Irish people who think Irish is of no use.”

At the other end of the spectrum are those who are enthusiastic about the gaelscoil option. In early April, RTE reported that 43 percent of primary gaelscoileanna and 25 percent of secondary schools are over-subscribed. Parents must face rigorous interviews to win their child one of the coveted admission spots. As Mhic Suibhne explained, “A lot of people, even if they don’t speak Irish at home, they want their children to go to a gaelscoil, because apparently they do better, you know, in a wide range of subjects if they’ve been through a gaelscoil.”

Dorothy Ní Uigín is a professor at the National University of Ireland, Galway. She isn’t a native speaker of Irish, but has decided to raise her children with Irish as a primary language, and has enrolled them in gaelscoileanna. “They’re generally seen as being better than the English-medium schools,” she said. “And the lead tables will show consistently that the Irish-medium schools do better. This isn’t a surprise for several reasons. It is beneficial to speak more than one language, but also what you find in a lot of the gaelscoileanna is that the teachers are very dedicated.”

Ní Uigín was first drawn to the language because of the nationalist leanings of her family. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 that divided the country into the Republic and the North also caused a 16-month civil war, between the Free Staters who approved of the treaty, and the so-called Diehards who thought the partition was tantamount to abandoning their northern neighbors. Ní Uigín’s grandfather, Michael Canavan, fought on the side of the Diehards. He and several others burned a police station. His compatriots were all executed, but because the Free State government couldn’t definitively prove Canavan’s involvement, he was imprisoned for a year and a half instead.

Ní Uigín says she has “mellowed out,” however. “I became more sensible. I think I realize that the language in itself has so much to offer. It’s quite a beautiful language just as a means of expression. There doesn’t need to be more than that, you know. So for my own children, I don’t harp on about the political reasons for choosing to speak Irish, or the nationalistic reasons for choosing to speak Irish to them. I just want it to be their language, that they speak Irish, that there’s no problem, there’s no issue, there’s no baggage.”

“I just want it to be their language, that they speak Irish, that there’s no problem, there’s no issue, there’s no baggage.”

Though Ní Uigín makes an effort to speak Irish with her children at home, not all of her family does. “My brothers and sisters, they understand Irish, but they don’t really speak Irish. So the children’s extended family is mainly English speaking,” she explained. “It’s hard, and my children understand everything but will probably respond more in English to me, even though they’re in all Irish schools.”

English has long since supplanted Irish as the default language in Ireland. This can make the all-Irish goal of the gaelscoil difficult to achieve. I spoke with Sinéad Ní Mhullaoidh, a gaelscoil teacher in the Republic, County Galway. “Sure we have some children coming in with no Irish at all,” she told me, “so there’s that kind of struggle between the Irish and English. Because you know English really is . . . Irish is a minority language. You just don’t hear as much. So there is that struggle there. Children tend to just lean toward English. All children are bilingual in the school, but anyone that just has one language, it’s English.”

English’s shadow darkens the gaelscoileanna in other ways as well. “There is a lack of resources for all-Irish schools,” Ní Mhullaoidh said. “I taught in an English school. You can just log on and get any amount of resources in English for any subject, any topic you’re covering in class. Any topic. Anything. You can’t do that in an all-Irish school, you know? There’s that kind of conflict there again, you know, ‘I might use a bit of that English source, hmm.’ But you do try and do everything in Irish, but, like, we just don’t have the resources.”

She also expressed frustration with the Irish curriculum in English-medium schools. Since the foundation of the Free State, Irish has been a mandatory subject in public schools. But this hasn’t produced many fluent speakers. In fact, it may have had the opposite effect. “I think most of the people who’ve gone through the education system resent Irish,” Ní Mhullaoidh said. “It’s just not working, and they’ve had to endure it for eight years.”

Mhic Suibhne summed up the problem with compulsory Irish classes nicely: “Irish people have never been good at accepting anything that’s compulsory.”

Despite Irish being Ireland’s official first language under Article 8 of the country’s constitution, only 40.6 percent of the population reported being able to speak Irish in the latest census. Less than two percent said they used the language daily outside of the education system.

Mhic Suibhne believes the main problem is a lack of economic incentive. While the unemployment rate for daily Irish speakers is a few percentage points lower than for the general population, the kinds of jobs where you can use Irish are few. For those who study Irish through college, “their choices are fairly limited to becoming a junior school teacher, a high school teacher, or a college lecturer. So they might become a writer or poet, but it’s not that easy to make a living as a writer.”

A bilingual street sign in Galway City, Ireland.

A bilingual street sign in Galway City, Ireland.

Some Irish speakers also find employment as translators. Because Irish is an official language in the Republic, all government documents must be made available in Irish. “But how many people read those reports in any language?” asked Ní Uigín during our conversation. “For example, the electricity supply board. They’re obliged by law now to have their annual report in Irish and English. I don’t know anyone that reads the annual report of the electricity supply board. People don’t really care. What we’re doing, in my opinion, the money is being spent in the wrong places.” Instead, he  believes that more money should be going toward Irish language resources for students, such as textbooks.

A translator who works for the Northern Irish government questioned the value of having every government document in both languages. “I shouldn’t be saying this because it puts bread on the table,” he said, “but for all the documentation to be translated into Irish, all the legislation and everything that passes through Stormont, I think that’s a waste of public service meself. And in my answer to the consultation, I’ll be saying that.”

In Mhic Suibhne’s view, the best chance for Irish to survive would be wider acceptance in the workplace. As an example, she pointed to the bilingual cafes in Dublin and the work of Foras na Gaeilge, a cross-border organization whose mission is to promote and develop the Irish language. “What Foras na Gaeilge is trying to do now,” she said, “is to get companies to have a sign up if they’re willing to do their business in Irish. Like, ‘Irish is spoken here. Fáilte roimh Gaeilge anseo.’”

Along with its work running programs in Ireland and Northern Ireland, Foras na Gaeilge partners with organizations outside of Ireland as well and provides funding for organizing Irish language events. One of its programs is called Gnó Means Business. It’s a play on words, since gnó in Irish literally means “business.” It provides incentive to businesses to use Irish with grants of up to €12,000, or £8,000, and match-funding of up to €3,000.


While visiting the island of Inishmore, off the western coast of Ireland, I ducked out of the rain and into a small souvenir shop. Inishmore is the largest of the three Aran Islands, where Irish is widely spoken. As I wandered around the store, I heard the girl behind the register speaking softly in Irish to her mother, who was busy with her knitting. They switched back to English whenever a customer approached. When I walked up, the girl told me my price, and I responded in Irish by asking if they took credit cards. With a look of surprise, she responded, in Irish, that indeed they did. Her mother looked up at me curiously, and the three of us then chatted in Irish for a few minutes. They asked me how I learned Irish, and why I was there.

The cliffs of Dún Aonghus on the island of Inishmore.

The cliffs of Dún Aonghus on the island of Inishmore.

As it happened, I was there to study Irish. I had won a grant from the Ireland-United States Commission for Education Exchange, sponsored in part by the Irish government. For three weeks, I lived in a house in the small town of Carraroe, in County Galway, studying Irish six days a week with 20 other North Americans. There were three others from United States who had won the same grant, and the rest were from various provinces in Canada, winners of a similar grant given by the Ireland-Canada University Foundation.

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Carraroe, County Galway, Ireland. Photo by Amelia Varteresian

Carraroe, County Galway, Ireland. Photo by Amelia Varteresian.

Carraroe sits in the Gaeltacht of Connemara, the largest of the Gaeltachtaí. The house where I stayed is owned by Pádraig Ó Mhullaoidh and Baba Uí Mhullaoidh, who are the parents of Sinéad Ní Mhullaoidh, the gaelscoil teacher who finds maintaining the school’s goals such a challenge. (Sidenote: Just a little language training to make sense of the short words that appear before last names. Like Abu in Arabic, they are part of a naming convention in Irish to designate family relationships. Ó Mhullaoidh means “grandson of Mullaoidh.” Ní Mhullaoidh means “daughter of the grandson of Mullaoidh.”)

Every morning, Baba would wake me and my housemates to a massive breakfast. As we ate, Pádraig would make his way up the road from their home to join us for tea. He would always ask me how I was, how my girlfriend back home was, and if we were still in love. When I replied that we were, he would shake his head and mutter “craiceáilte,” which means “crazy.” One morning Baba caught her husband and asked him in Irish, “Aren’t you still in love?” He shrugged his shoulders, so she snatched his breakfast plate from his hands, and he chased her around the living room trying to get it back. When he finally caught hold of her, he made her dance with him while he hummed.

Patrick O’Reilly was another housemate during my stay, a 26-year-old MFA candidate in creating writing from the fishing village of Renews in Newfoundland. He had his own take on the experience of living in the Mhullaoidh household. “Anytime Padraig came by I knew it was going to be a blast,” he said. “He really was one of those entertainers. Everything we said to him, he’d immediately turn into a song, or he’d have a poem.”

Pádraig is 79-year-old stone mason with an unruly crop of white hair, long sideburns, and a moustache. His vitality belies his age. He was born on the island of Inishtravin, not far from Carraroe. His accent was so thick that even when he spoke English, which he rarely did, it was hard to understand him. An Irish speaker from birth, he didn’t learn English until the age of 17, when he went to England looking for work.

“See the thing is,” he said, “why should we speak English, like? Aren’t we different, like? Isn’t it nice to have our own language?”

“See the thing is,” he said, “why should we speak English, like? Aren’t we different, like? Isn’t it nice to have our own language?”It pleased him to see a new generation taking an interest in the language and he would revert to English only when it was clear a visiting student couldn’t decipher what he was saying. Irish, he’d say with a wink, is “the only language in the world the devil doesn’t understand.”

Pádraig regularly shared his poetry at a pub called Tigh Kitt, in Casla, the next town over from Carraroe. The pub sits on R343 by Furnace Road. Every Thursday night, it hosts a music session that goes well past closing time.

“It’s this tiny little room,” was the way O’Reilly recalled it months later, “with very old furniture. Old tables and things. And they’ve got all sort of weird bric-a-brac all over the walls. And up in the rafters, there’s these hunting traps, and snowshoes, for some reason. All sorts of crazy stuff. You can tell it’s just been there for decades and it’s just accumulated. I remember looking up and thinking the cobwebs looked antique.”

In the front of the room, an impromptu band played a dancing tune to a crowd of people getting drinks and asking each other, “cén chaoi a bhfuil tú?” There are three dialects of Irish and each has a different way to ask, “how are you?” In Connemara, the dialect is Connacht. While the band plays instrumental tunes, the protocol is chat, drink, and be as boisterous as you please. But when someone sings, the room falls silent. The song and its story must be respected. Ruairí, the local who was leading the session with his acoustic guitar, hushed the crowd. O’Reilly, my housemate, had offered to sing.

Nervously, O’Reilly wiped his hands on his pants, cleared his throat, and took a sip of his Guinness. He explained that Rosie O’Rourke over there had requested he sing this song tonight, and when a pretty girl asks, one must oblige. The crowd nodded in agreement. In a Dylan-esque moan, he sang a song made popular by the Anglo-Irish band, The Pogues.

“One summer evening, drunk to hell,

I stood there nearly lifeless.

An old man in the corner sang

Where the water lilies grow.”

He didn’t sing in Irish Gaelic that night, though others did. He told me that he had often frequented sessions such as this one back in Canada and they are what drew him to the Irish language. “I’d go to these sessions,” he said, “and hear people singing in Gaelic, Irish Gaelic. I was always very impressed by that.” He enrolled in a year’s worth of Irish classes while still an undergraduate at St. John’s in New Brunswick. His university’s Irish Studies department had been sending students to Ireland on scholarship for some time to study the language.

“I’d wanted to go to Ireland ever since I was a little kid,” O’Reilly said. “I figured I’d never get the opportunity again to get over, see the country, and study over there. So once the funding kicked in, everyone around me said, ‘You have to go. You’d be stupid not to go.’”

The crowd broke out when he finished his song with cries of “maith an fear!” Good man! He stroked his thin beard and leaned back into the deep red cushion of the bench behind the musician’s table, his small blue eyes taking in every detail of the room. Once back in Canada, he reconciled with the girl who broke his heart just before he left for Ireland. About half a year later, he was moved to propose to her in the midst of a discussion about grammar. She made a point so eloquent that he thought, Well, I’ll just need to marry this girl. She said yes.

That night back in Tigh Kitt, Rosie O’Rourke kneeled at O’Reilly’s knee to record his tune on her cellphone. At 18, she was one of the youngest students in the program. She had applied for a travel scholarship through the Celtic Studies Faculty of her school, the University of Ottawa. Though she was born and raised in Ottawa, Ontario, both grandparents on both sides had emigrated to Canada from Ireland. All but her paternal grandmother, who is from Belfast, came from Limerick, where the Irish language is strong. “My grandfather speaks Gaelic and I thought it was real interesting,” O’Rourke said. Interesting to listen to, maybe. But not something she’d bothered herself with much. “Honestly, I thought it was a pretty useless language, because it’s not really spoken in Ireland, as far as I had known. I didn’t think it would be of use to me.” But once she started learning the language, her feelings changed. “I really want to become fluent,” she said. “I love that I’m Irish. I love Ireland. I kind of want to move here.”

A building on the University of Ottawa campus where Irish language classes are held.

A building on the University of Ottawa campus where Irish language classes are held.

After O’Reilly’s song, the band kicked up again. Geni Beretton, a 28-year-old from Sherbrooke, Quebec, sat in. She was on the tin whistle, racing through a reel. In between songs and sips, she chatted in Irish with the session leader.

“I think these are the two great motivators for North Americans who learn the language,” Beretton said. “Either they have Irish ancestry, or they’re interested in the culture, and it just comes with it.” For Beretton, who doesn’t have a drop of Irish blood and is a native French speaker, the latter brought her to Ireland. “When I finished my Master’s in saxophone, I was so fed up of practicing jazz,” she said. “So that was my little reward. I thought, okay, I’m gonna buy myself a whistle, and a book, and teach myself how to play the whistle.”

She fell in love with the simple instrument. “I wanted to hear more Irish music, so I looked it up on the Internet and I found not only whistle music, but a lot of songs. I couldn’t recognize the language but I knew there was a Gaelic language spoken in Ireland, so I just went to YouTube and typed something like ‘Irish language Gaelic,’ or something like that, and I found some lessons.” She was fascinated by the unusual spellings and grammar. At first, she thought it would be too hard. “It’s so far away from my own language. But then I was kind of hooked, and I thought it would be an interesting challenge.” She found a classroom in San Diego that posted videos of all its lectures online, along with printable handouts, and so the French-speaking Quebecer learned Irish alongside some Californians.

But Beretton’s connection goes beyond the music. “Being part of a community where the minority language is spoken,” she said over Skype from her home in Sherbrooke, “that gives me another way of connecting with Irish people, with Irish speakers. Of course, French here is way stronger than Irish is in Ireland. But I know how they feel, I know how it feels to want to have services in your own language and struggle to get them.”

She recalled receiving forms to fill out for a new job with the central Canadian government. All her previous correspondence with them had been in French, but when the paperwork came, it was in English. “It really affected me,” she said. “I felt like my right was broken.”

For native Irish speakers in the Gaeltachtaí, that’s the reality every day. There is constant English immersion from radio and television. Although the number of Irish speakers in the country as a whole has increased, the Gaeltachtaí are shrinking, and their primary characteristic—that Irish is the majority spoken language in their midst—is threatened. For example, by percentage of total population, Carraroe has more daily speakers of Irish than anywhere else in the country.Still, that percentage is only 61.7. Of all the Gaeltacht areas, 68.5 percent of those surveyed in the 2011 census said that they could speak Irish, a drop from 70 percent in 2006, the year of the previous census.

In 2010, the government launched a “20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language 2010-2030.” One of its aims is to increase the number of Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht by 25 percent. The plan had bipartisan support at the time, but the government has since been restructured, leaving the initiative’s future uncertain.

In March of 2011, the government of the Republic was consolidated, as will soon happen in Northern Ireland. In the Republic, Gaeltacht Affairs has joined tourism, sports, environment, heritage, local government, community, and equality under one administrative umbrella instead of the previous three, drawing criticism that it is receiving less specialized attention than it did when it was in the smaller unit.

This has bred a pessimistic attitude among the locals. Pádraig, despite the eager foreign students in his home, still worries about the future of the language. “I say, in a thousand year’s time, when I’m smoking my pipe and having a bottle of poitín out there on the veranda, and I’ll be speaking Irish, I don’t think anyone will understand me.”

“I say, in a thousand year’s time, when I’m smoking my pipe and having a bottle of poitín out there on the veranda, and I’ll be speaking Irish, I don’t think anyone will understand me.”

His daughter, Sinéad, piped up. “There is just a huge pressure,” she said, “because we’re trying to live side by side with a majority language, one of the biggest languages in the world. There’s always going to be a pressure. And it’s not unique, it’s the same with every minority language in the world, it’s just . . . there’s a huge pressure from the majority language.”

His wife expressed her hope that the language can endure. “Because I’ve had it since the cradle. My mum and dad had it since the cradle,” she said, “and my grandfather and great grandfather had it.” She believes that in the Gaeltacht, there will always be Irish.

Sinéad was less optimistic. “I wouldn’t be too hopeful,” she said. “I really think the government needs to have some kind of intervention in the Gaeltacht. Because if you don’t have a Gaeltacht, the Irish language is dead, really. I do think it’s under tremendous pressure at the moment, and I hope, I really hope that I’m wrong, but I don’t think the future looks too bright.”

“Oh, you’re very negative, the two of you!” her mother scolded.

But they aren’t alone. Early last year, the Irish Language Commissioner Seán Ó Cuirreáin stepped down from his role, citing government failures to promote the language as the reason for his resignation.


Across the Atlantic, the future of the Gaeltachtaí takes on a different, controversy-free cast. Follow a long, wooded road just north of Tamworth, Ontario, to 298 Gilmore. The way there is lined by thick woods on both sides, and the main street has no lights. The area is not exactly bustling (“Why would anyone want to go to Tamworth?” the border guard had asked me). Beyond a small, metal gate stands a lone house, and past that, expansive fields and wilderness that roll back for 62 acres. At the entry, black letters on a white metal sign spell out “Gaeltacht.”

Gaeltacht Thuaisceart an Oileáin Úir - The Permanent North American Gaeltacht

Gaeltacht Thuaisceart an Oileáin Úir – The Permanent North American Gaeltacht

On June 16, 2007, an organization called Cumann na Gaeltachta held opening celebrations for a new initiative. In attendance was Éamon Ó Cuív, former Minister of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in Ireland, who congratulated the group on opening “a Gaeltacht in Canada, the first outside of Ireland,” the first and only one, in fact, in North America. Eight years later, the land is still largely undeveloped, but the Gaeltacht’s founders have big plans. They haven’t let the site’s lack of permanent buildings stop them from hosting programs. Every summer since they “opened,” they’ve held a week-long Irish language immersion event at a cost of $260 Canadian, tuition and meals included. Some attendees stay in hotels about 20 minutes away, while others bring a tent and camp out in the fields of the Gaeltacht. Geni Beretton has attended twice, and spoke so highly of it that I decided to see it for myself.

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Aralt Mac Giolla Chainnigh, the organization’s chairperson, pointed at a sloping stretch of grass as we stood together in the Gaeltacht on a cold January night. “It’s kind of an outdoor amphitheater,” he explained, and said that for their 2016 Oireachtas, a big festival that draws about 200 people each year, “we’re thinking of running a Gaelic Woodstock.”

As we traipsed around the grounds, through woods and over hills to a chorus of unseen porcupines, raccoons, squirrels, and even wolves, along streams and in open fields, Mac Giolla Chainnaigh continued to point out the sites of planned buildings: here, the bookshop; there, a museum. Other planned buildings include guest cabins, sports fields, and a property manager’s residence. His voice quivered with excitement. “So many things that you can actually see and visualize on the ground,” he said, “and so much better than pointing at clouds in the sky,” he said. “ Then no one believes it’s ever going to happen, eh? So much potential to grow here.”


Aralt Mac Giolla Chainnigh with his wife, Sheila Scott, and her father, Patrick Scott

Aralt Mac Giolla Chainnigh with his wife, Sheila Scott, and her father, Patrick Scott

In 2006, eighty contributors formed a second organization to purchase the land for $60,000 and lease it to Cumann na Gaeltachta for the cost of the annual taxes. Cumann na Gaeltachta will develop the property and run all of the programming.

The Gaeltacht’s business plan lays out its vision for future developments as well as potential sources of revenue. “We’re in a generation now where not only do we make no money ourselves, we’re actually contributing annually a lot of our own money just to make things work,” he said. “But to expect another generation to come along and to be attractive, there has to be some kind of financial incentive.”

After the tour, Mac Giolla Chainnigh took me to the home near the gate of Stephen and Julie Raynor, the first and only current residents of the North American Gaeltacht. Their house sits on a two-acre plot they own adjacent to the Gaeltacht, but in practice there is no division between them.

“It’s not the fanciest house in the world, as you can see,” Stephen said. “But it’s comfortable, and it’s well built. It was just nice to be out of the city and in the quiet of the country, and the house just seemed to fit. When we first walked through it, there was no going back and asking, ‘Well, should we do this? or that?’ There was no going back and asking. We just kind of said, ‘Yeah. We like it.’” His wife agreed.

Stephen told me that they would need half a million dollars to get the first main building up, and that they’ve been consulting with a contractor planning it out. “The zoning’s been changed on the property already to allow that,” Julie said.

Stephen and Julie Raynor

Stephen and Julie Raynor

Irish language enthusiasm actually has a long history in Canada. Back in 1890, the combined population of Irish Gaelic speakers and Scottish Gaelic speakers exceeded the numbers of English and French speakers, and a bill was proposed to make Gaelic a third official Canadian language. It was defeated, but support for the language has remained strong.

Oscar Mou, vice president of the University of Ottawa Celtic Club, told me that the university offers two levels of Irish classes. The first level averages 60 new students every year. Like Beretton, Mou too had attended the North American Gaeltacht’s summer program, and hopes to keep the project alive when the time comes. “These people are all verging on retirement or have done so already,” he said, a problem that Mac Giolla Chainnigh had also pointed out. “So I don’t think I have a choice but to take over, because I want to see these things go on.”

Mou does not have any Irish heritage. He was born in Canada, and his parents were born in Taiwan. He was just interested by the sound of the language and its unique grammar, and decided to add it to the six other languages he speaks fluently. No surprise he is a translation major at the University of Ottawa, with a Celtic Studies minor. He has been to Ireland, however, and studied in the Gaeltachtai there. He noticed a clear difference between the North American Gaeltacht and the Irish Gaeltachtai. “A lot of people are scared to learn Irish because it’s a political language,” he said. “But growing up in Canada, it really didn’t matter if you were Catholic or Protestant, or Muslim or Sikh. It just wasn’t a thing.”

Oscar Mou

Oscar Mou


It’s been 22 years since the NYU professor, Hilary Mhic Suibhne did what Irish people have been doing for centuries: she moved with her family from Dublin to New York. “We were coming for a short period, for two years,” she said, “and I decided, well, I better continue with my Irish because we’d be going back home and my sons would be at school in Ireland, and I didn’t want to lose track of it.”

One day, she was at a post office buying a stamp, when a man overheard her Irish accent and asked her if she spoke Irish. They began conversing in Irish, and it turned out they lived only a few miles apart, so they decided to start a weekly conversation group with a few other people.

Mhic Suibhne was half a year into her meetings with the group when she was asked if she would help out with classes at a cultural center. A third friend joined, and the classes grew. Irritated by the management structure at that location, she set up her own adult education school at Iona College in New Rochelle. From there, she took a job teaching Irish at Vassar College, and eventually made the move to NYU.

Glucksman Ireland House, the building where NYU conducts most of its Irish Studies classes, is a center for the Irish language in New York. The facility regularly holds Irish language immersion days, and twice a year sponsors a concert of traditional Irish music, including songs with lyrics in Irish.

The House also holds lectures on various topics in Irish Studies and welcomes a wide range of guests, from acclaimed Irish author Colum McCann to renowned traditional singer Iarla Ó Lionáird. A few years ago, the President of Ireland himself came to visit.

Mhic Suibhne regularly works with Daltaí na Gaeilge, which means “pupils of Irish,” a non-profit organization that promotes the use of Irish, and operates in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. “There’s a group in San Francisco. There’s a group in Portland, Oregon,” Mhic Suibhne said. “Here and there are these little groups of people that are interested in using the Irish language.” They all organize their own classes, and hold immersion events and other programs.

“There’s also book clubs, here and there,” Mhic Suibhne added. “There’s one in New York.” I found one such group in a place one might not think to look: Texas.

boot-dividerEight people trickled into the makeshift classroom at the back of Lucky Dog Books and found seats on vinyl or upholstered armchairs. A wooden coffee table with a lace doily sat in the middle of the room. John McGuire chose a seat next to me. We had agreed to meet a few nights earlier at Trinity Hall Irish Pub, just north of downtown Dallas, for the pub’s Thursday night Irish music session. He told me about the Saturday afternoon Irish Gaelic classes he attends in the nearby town of Garland.

Lucky Dog Books, where Irish classes are held in Garland, Texas

Lucky Dog Books, where Irish classes are held in Garland, Texas

Jeff Wigley, the teacher, opened a new package of dry erase markers and set up the whiteboard on a rickety easel. In his hand he held a green textbook, Gaeilge Gan Stró. Irish Without Stress. Half of the people were there for the first time, and two had no previous knowledge of Irish, so Wigley started with the basics. Hello. My name is X. How are you?  Wigley joked about the Munster dialect that McGuire and I were speaking. His preferred dialect is Ulster. While teaching the personal pronouns, he stopped with a grin on the second person plural. “I love this one,” he said, “because it shows the Irish are very Texan. They have a word for y’all.”

Garland, Texas, where Lucky Dog Books is just off exit 12 of the LBJ Freeway, doesn’t look much like Ireland. It’s a lot flatter, and not nearly as green, although the rain that January day had a real Galway afternoon feel.

As it happens, Texas has a number of Irish language enthusiasts and groups. In North Texas, there’s the Dallas Forth Worth Gaelic League, a non-profit organization that keeps a booth at the North Texas Irish Festival and organizes classes in Ovilla, Lewisville, and, of course, Garland.

The Lucky Dog Books classes started in the 1990s, although Wigley didn’t begin attending until 2001. “I started to want to do something to exercise my brain beyond work, and a new language sounded interesting,” he said. The previous teacher, Seamus Hickey, contacted the used bookstore and its manager agreed to allow the group to meet in its space without charge. Hickey got too busy to run the classes and Wigley stepped up. About five or six years ago, he took over teaching all three classes: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. The classes run back to back, and are an hour each.

Wigley is not a fluent speaker, so the classes are run more as study groups than lectures. By the advanced class, the line between teacher and student blurs, and only a handful of regulars attend. When I visited, they took turns reading passages in Irish from a murder mystery and then tried to translate them. McGuire, sitting beside me, pulled out a packet of trail mix and slumped in his seat. Ted Strain, one of the regulars, had an Irish dictionary on his phone, and the group referred to it regularly. The stalwarts joked often with the ease of longtime acquaintances as they stumbled their way through the novel. “The majority of people who come to class drop out after one or two sessions because of the difficulty of learning a language so dissimilar to English,” said Strain. “It’s almost like learning Klingon.”

Jeff Wigley

Jeff Wigley

boot-dividerOne day when I was in Carraroe, I visited a ruin. Nearby was a cemetery on an elevated piece of land. The headstones cast shadows onto a beach below, where a woman was walking, speaking Irish to her toddler. I thought to myself, there’s a symbol if ever I’ve seen one.

Later I learned that Aralt Mac Giolla Chainnigh, who took me through the nascent Gaeltacht in Canada, had attended the red Dearg le Fearg protest in Dublin. He noticed that “while there was that underlying current of anger, it was a festival, no doubt about it. People were enjoying themselves.” He was given an opportunity to address the crowd. “It was time to listen to the people, that the Irish language will succeed whether they like it or not,” he said. “So do the politicians want to be remembered as heroes of the national language, or as traitors?”

The lines are fuzzier in Northern Ireland, where so many during the Troubles shared the IRA’s dream of a united Ireland, but disapproved of the IRA’s methods. It’s hard to call someone a hero while they’re blowing up civilians, no matter how much you like their cause. The shooting may have stopped, but the people are still divided.

The Republic and the North must decide what role Irish will play in their futures. Back in Carraroe, Pádraig had crossed his arms, reclined on his leather sofa, and repeated a popular saying I’ve heard from many different people. “Tir gan teanga, tir gan anam.” A country without a language is a country without a soul.



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