On St. Patrick’s Day, it gets scary, because today we’re all Irish, which many seem to think involves getting drunk ― and such a lot of drunken brutes you’ve never seen, unless you were here the year before. This includes my wife, Yoko, who plans to spend the afternoon on 5th Avenue at a party of Irish FBI guys. Go figure. Hope they’re not serving sake.
But as I was saying… among all those drunken would-be Irishmen, you’ll hear not one word of Gaeilge (Irish) other than “erin go bragh,” which apparently isn’t even real Irish. I’ve only heard the real language spoken once, a few years ago at O’Neil’s, a real Irish bar on 3rd Avenue, and beautiful was the sound indeed. Sad to say, though, despite the best efforts of the Irish government and the dedicated enthusiasm of the Irish people, the language is fading away.
Irish has had its ups and downs in the past, in line with the ebb and flow of English conquests over the last millennia. The potato famine of the 1840 didn’t help either, killing millions of poor, Gaeilge –speaking potato-eaters, while sparing wealthier English speakers. The famine effectively starved the country of its language. Ireland’s population and its native language have yet to recover to this day, and Gaeilge is now spoken by a vanishing few in its native country.
It is the primary language of just 3% of the Irish population, with somewhere between 40,000 to 80,000 speakers. But even in the western areas of Ireland where Irish is considered a vernacular, in a linguistic region protected as the Gaeltacht, daily usage is on the decline.
Irish speakers come in two flavors: dwindling numbers of traditional native speakers in the Gaeltacht; and urban speakers of varying fluency, many who speak it as a second language, with various degrees of accomplishment. The dialects of the urbanites and Gaeltacht speakers are diverging as the urbanites tend to simplify the phonetic and grammatical structure of the language.
“The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs estimated in 2007 that, outside the cities, about 17,000 people lived in strongly Irish-speaking communities, about 10,000 people lived in areas where there was substantial use of the language, and 17,000 people lived in “weak” Gaeltacht communities; Irish was no longer the main community language in the remaining parts of the official Gaeltacht. Complete or functional monolingualism of Irish is now restricted to a handful of elderly within more isolated Gaeltacht regions as well as among many mother-tongue speakers of Irish under school age.”
Even as usage declines, the language remains one of great literary beauty and vibrancy, and as English speakers, we are blessed with its wonderful influence on our language. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve only heard it spoken once, sitting on a Sunday afternoon in O’Neil’s on 3rd Avenue, and it was beautiful to hear, with those lovely rhythms familiar to anyone who’s enjoyed the cadences of an Irishman telling a tale in English.
So a toast today, my friends, to a fine language, Gaeilge, and to those who sing its song. May it not go the way of the snakes on that Emerald Isle, when good St. Paddy drove them off (another fine story, that, snakes and language, for another day).
Gaeilge go Brách. (And if I’ve got that wrong, please send me a note and I’ll fix it. I’ve got to post this soon or miss my St. Patrick’s Day hook entirely.)