An Irish Village's Push to Keep Gaelic Alive

Modern Ireland's founders hoped that Gaelic, the native language of Ireland, would remain the country's dominant tongue throughout history. That hasn't happened in much of the country — but Anthony Kuhn profiles one Irish village that's working to keep the native language alive.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, one man's private grief in the midst of a war zone.

First, this--a dream from the founders of modern Ireland: restore the Irish language to its former vitality. This is something you still hear talked about, albeit mostly in English. Some Irish do say the language is reviving, but others warn it will be dead in a generation. No English-speaking area of Ireland has reverted to Irish, except for one small village. NPR's Anthony Kuhn visited and filed this report.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

Seventy years ago a couple dozen families bicycled all the way from Connemara on Ireland's then poverty-stricken west coast. They settled here in Rath Cairn Village in County Meath some 35 miles northwest of Dublin. Their vision was to establish an enclave of Irish-speaking, harp-playing Catholic farmers. That vision lives on in the stories and music that are taught at the village's primary school, including a traditional tune called "The Old Hag with the Money."

(Soundbite of music with Irish lyrics)

KUHN: Over at the pub in the village center, longtime resident Sean Curran says that, thanks in part to the school, Rath Cairn's Irish culture is stronger than ever.

Mr. SEAN CURRAN: There are 170 children now who are going to the primary school in Rath Cairn. When I was going to the school in Rath Cairn, there were only 60 or 70. They're all speaking Irish. They can sing, they can dance, they can act. That is more than we could do when I was their age.

KUHN: Ireland's Constitution specifies Irish as the country's main language, and one and a half million of Ireland's four million inhabitants claim to speak it. But experts say only around 200,000 people use it on a daily basis. Rath Cairn is in one of the few remaining Irish-language enclaves, or gaeltachs, where people actually conduct their daily business in Irish.

(Soundbite of gaeltach activity)

KUHN: Paraic Mac Donnchadha is the head of the village administration next to the pub. He says that the language and Ireland's strong economy has drawn people to the community and increased the number of Irish speakers.

Mr. PARAIC MAC DONNCHADHA: I believe the parents in this country at the moment are doing a lot of thinking. Twenty years ago they weren't able to think where to send their children, what to do with them. They just want to rear them and that they would have enough to eat. But now, with the independence they have, they're saying, `Well, I would like my children to be speaking Irish.'

KUHN: The government has made Irish classes mandatory at elementary and high schools, but few students graduate with a working knowledge of the language. It's also begun an ambitious program to provide government services in Irish. Deaglan O'Briain is in charge of Irish-language policy in the ministry that oversees the gaeltachs. He says that many people don't know that government services are available in Irish.

Mr. DEAGLAN O'BRIAIN: I was 20-something years a civil servant, and I had an opportunity to transact official business with a customer on average less than once a year through years past when nobody wrote to us in Irish, nobody rang--telephoned in in the Irish language.

KUHN: Critics say government efforts have done little to stem the language's decline. The creation of the gaeltachs reflected a utopian vision at the time of Ireland's independence from Britain, and some say it's an idea whose time has past. Donncha O'hEallaithe is an Irish-language expert at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. He says there's no point in trying to revive the language where it's already died.

Mr. DONNCHA O'hEALLAITHE (Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology): Really there can't be any kind of a realistic approach to the protection of the Irish language and the survival of the Irish language until the whole revival mentality is ditched. I think it's time for closure on the revival. It was an unrealistic project at the very beginning of the stage.

KUHN: Back in Rath Cairn, people are preparing for feasting and music to celebrate their community's 70th birthday. Kolmo Malage(ph) plays his melodeon for broadcast on Irish radio.

(Soundbite of Irish music)

KUHN: Rath Cairn does have a slightly utopian feel to it, but its survival is anything but assured. With a population of only around 350 people, development of the surrounding countryside could eventually wipe out its proud traditions. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.