July 25, 2000

Gaelic Comes Back on Ireland's Byways and Airwaves

BALLINAHOWN, Ireland, July 18 -- From this isolated region of rock and bog on the wind-blasted western edge of Ireland, there rises a television tower more than 100 feet into the air. Its purpose is to make the ancient Irish language ready for prime time.

The adjacent building -- so modern for this setting that it stands out like a NASA station planted on the moon -- is the headquarters for TG4, a government-financed television station whose purpose is to promote and celebrate Gaelic. Spliced between the classic movies and top-40 music shows broadcast in English, there are cartoons, news, soap operas and even a situation comedy in Gaelic, the lilting language that continues to fight for its life.

The station, with a staff whose average age is 23, has brought a certain edge to an ancient language. Perhaps as a result, the number of its viewers has doubled in the last year, to about 2 percent of a market that includes the BBC and the dominant national station, RTE.

On a larger scale, the station's modest success reflects Ireland's recent warming to a language that had been in sharp decline over the last two centuries. Once perceived as the tongue of the poor and uneducated -- those from the "back of beyond" -- Gaelic is coming to represent the self-confidence born of recent economic and cultural success.

Gaelic, it seems, has become chic. At the very least, said Cilian Fennell, TG4's programming director, "resistance is lowering."

Pubs and shops are rechristening themselves with Irish names. Men once known as Patrick now call themselves Padraig (pronounced POH-rig); women named Mary now prefer Maire (pronounced MOY-ra). Thirty years ago, Ireland had about a dozen primary schools that taught in Gaelic; now it has 134 all-Gaelic schools, with 21,000 students.

"It's a confidence thing," said Eamon O Cuiv (o CWEEV), the Irish government's junior minister overseeing the growth of the language and the grandson of one of modern Ireland's founding fathers, Eamon De Valera. "More and more people are realizing that it is a functional language, as much as English is."

Although Europe has largely been moving in the direction of removing national boundaries, local cultures and languages have been reasserting their strength. Historians say that more people appear to be interested in protecting minority languages and asserting local differences than at any other time in the last 100 years.

Programs supporting the use of local or regional languages have been growing in France, Spain, the Netherlands, Wales and Finland.

When the Irish Free State was established in 1922, its Constitution designated Gaelic as the national language. Since then, the government has tried, more diligently at times than at others, to resurrect a once-dominant language that had been sidelined by English, emigration and the potato famine of the mid-19th century.

The success of those efforts was modest. Although taught as a mandatory course in the country's schools, the language came to be seen as a hindrance, particularly to those who emigrated to the United States and England. English was perceived as the language of power, Gaelic as the language of poverty.

Gaelic, or Irish, came to be used more often as a symbol than as a means of communication. For some it was associated with Sinn Fein and the nationalist movement; for others it was a battle cry for those who felt that the country's rural nature was being subsumed by development. Some came to see Gaelic as a statement by people who wanted to flaunt their devotion to Irish custom.

Even today, proponents of the language do not entirely trust figures from the 1996 census indicating that 43 percent of the people in Ireland claim to have some competence in Gaelic -- up from about 33 percent in 1991. They say that people who understand Gaelic do not necessarily speak it with any regularity. Besides, they say, the language will never flourish when the best textbooks are published only in English, when even government forms written in Gaelic are hard to come by.

There is also concern that Gaelic is waning in the corners of Ireland where it has traditionally been the language used at home. Development of those rural areas -- which include this stretch of County Galway called Connemara -- is coming at the expense of Gaelic.

The affluent who are buying summer homes here bring their English as well as their BMW's. Natives who left during the recession of the 1980's are returning with English-speaking spouses. And, of course, English-language television continues to seduce.

The government has several agencies dedicated to cultivating Gaelic, and it recently set up a commission to determine the extent of its decline in those areas.

[But a taste of the task before the government came on July 20 when a witness in a high-profile corruption case exercised his right to respond in Gaelic to questions put to him in English. The judge became so frustrated with the young interpreter's misinterpretations that he began to translate the testimony himself.

[Nor is everyone enamored of the continuing obsession with Gaelic. "After 80 years of concerted linguistic social engineering, we are probably seeing the last generation of native Irish-speaking children in those few and fast-shrinking Gaeltacht areas," Kevin Myers, a columnist for The Irish Times, wrote on July 21. "Irish will soon be spoken as Latin was in medieval Europe, a learned language of a cultural elite."]

Gearoid O Tuathaigh (GAR-od o-TOO-hig), a professor of modern Irish history at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and a leading advocate of Gaelic, said that while the language continued to struggle for its life, the recent signs of resurrection were encouraging -- and very much deserved.

First there is the beauty of the language itself, he said, so rich in metaphor and natural wonder. Terms of endearment include "macushla," which means "my colt," and "machree," which means "my heart." Instead of saying "I love you," a Gaelic speaker would say, in effect, "I am melting for you."

Gaelic is also seen as a key to decoding Ireland's history, starting with the very names of villages and parishes. Mr. O Tuathaigh offered as an example the village of Geesala in County Mayo. In Gaelic, its name means "the breeze with salt upon it."

At the very least, he said, Gaelic "has established a living presence in the information technology world and in communications." One example is TG4, which sees itself not as some kind of manifestation of government guilt but simply as a television station broadcasting in Gaelic.

The other night, for example, the station showed "The Seven Year Itch," the 1955 comedy starring Marilyn Monroe, in English. Immediately after the movie, there were several programs in Gaelic, including a blind-date game show.

The lineup reflected the elementary tactic of hooking an audience first, explained Paul Gallagher, the station's chief executive. "And then we try to hold on to them."

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