At least 176 languages are spoken in New York City, though some say as many as 800. New York’s police department is said to have more speakers of Arabic than the FBI has. Still, amid this Babel, one does not hear much Irish, and this in a city that experienced waves of heavy Irish immigration.
But this morning at St Agnes Church, a small chapel almost hidden on East 43rd Street, St Patrick’s Day mass was said in Irish by Father Aidan O’Driscoll, visiting from Cork. The church was packed with what seemed an equal mix of Irish and Irish-Americans. (Some curious New Yorkers also strolled in, lured perhaps by the piper playing Irish music outside the church door.) Translations were handed out so everyone could follow along. During the “Our Father”, or the “Ár nAthair”, the colleague who accompanied me noticed that part of the translation differed from the usual one used in Catholic churches:
Agus maith dúinn ár bhfiacha
Mar a mhaithimidne ár bhféichiúnaithe féin
The translation read
And forgive us our debts
As we forgive our own debtors
She reckoned the Irish government, the beleaguered beneficiary of an €89 billion bail-out from the EU, must have had the words changed.
One does not hear Irish spoken much in Ireland either, except in the Gaeltacht, the Irish-speaking regions, or on TG4 (TG a Ceathair), the Irish language television station. Although Irish is the first official language according to the Irish constitution, just 42% of the 4.2m people living in Ireland can speak some of it, and only 3% use Irish as their household language. The language, all agree, is vulnerable. Once the Irish finish school, few remember more than a few words and phrases, despite 1,500 hours of study over 13 years. Eighty or so years of trying to revive the language through compulsion, partly thanks to stuffy and conservative pedagogy, have failed.
Fine Gael, during the recent election campaign, proposed ending compulsory Irish in the Leaving Certificate cycle, a series of exams broadly equivalent to Britain’s A-Levels. At the time, Mary Hanafin, a Fianna Fail minister, said that this would be “an act of cultural vandalism.” Opponents point to Britain, which, in 2002, dropped compulsory study of a modern European language. As a result, less than half of British students now study a modern European language. Interestingly, a February poll found that 61% of young people are in favour of compulsory Irish, while those older than 55 were considerably cooler towards it.
Fine Gael has since backed off its proposal. Instead, Enda Kenny, Fine Gael’s leader and Ireland's new Taoiseach (prime minister), has announced an audit of the curriculum and a "thorough reform" of Irish teaching. Seán Ó Cuirreáin, an official language monitor, has suggested splitting Irish into two courses. One would emphasise the basics and practical communication for non-native speakers. The other, for the more fluent, would focus on literature and language history. Despite cries that the language is dying, Irish is thriving in spots, albeit mostly middle-class spots, thanks to the growth of Gaelscoileanna, Irish schools.
Perhaps Ireland should take a page from Francisco Franco’s book. He suppressed Catalan beginning in the 1930s. Today, the language is flourishing, with some 9m speakers. Making Irish risqué, rather than required, might be the way for us all to have a better blás.
Picture credit: Paolo Camera (via Flickr)