The language St. Patrick must have learned in order to evangelize the Irish hasn’t always been looked on very favorably by other people. Under the British repression that lasted hundreds of years, Irish Gaelic was actually banned from the country of its origin. Fast forward and you find a bit of a revival of the Emerald Isle’s mother tongue. It is estimated that only about 130,000 people speak the language fluently, but over a million are believed to understand it to one degree or another.
We English speakers may find it difficult to understand why anyone would go to the trouble of learning a language spoken by such a relatively small number of people. But this betrays our lack of understanding of the strong nationalist spirit still very much alive in Ireland. Even though it is still only a minority in Ireland who speak Irish fluently, it is seen as a symbol of national pride and unity.
One of seven original Gaelic languages, Irish has taken many hits over the years. Besides the British ban on speaking the language in public, the great Irish famine of the 1840’s wiped out 20-25% of the entire Irish population, including a good number of native speakers. Many of these also emigrated to the United States and other English-speaking countries.
Even the fact that many Irishmen fought alongside the British in the Great War (WWI) didn’t do much toward reviving the fading language. Nor apparently did Irish independence in 1922, even though there are a number of areas designated as Gaeltacht, or Gaelic-language areas.
In recent years, however, a revival has begun to be seen springing up in urban and rural areas alike. The government now favors those learning Irish with different sorts of grants, and Irish colleges give students a 10% boost in their grades for studying in Irish. Tens of thousands of Irish youth attend summer colleges in the Gaeltacht, living with Irish-speaking families.
Irish Gaelic today is not only the official national language of Ireland, but since 2007 has been one of the 24 official languages of the European Union. And chances are, when you venture into any Irish pub (one more thing on my bucket list), you’ll hear the irresistible sound of Irish music sung in the mother tongue.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day — and sláinte! (To your health!)
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