Friday, August 13, 2010

Irish spoken here

Among the many interesting experiences we had in Ireland was a visit to Inisheer (Inis Oírr in Irish... that will become important in a minute). This was interesting in part because it involved a short voyage on a ferry (read: little boat) that nearly did myself, my child and my parents in -- as my father commented, "the Ritchies are not seafaring folk" -- and in part because it demonstrated what a dedicated population can do with a bunch of rocks and several thousand years. See photo in previous post. Another fascinating aspect of life on Inisheer, however, is that it is not, primarily, carried out in English.

The Aran Islands, you see, are an Irish-speaking region... and they don't mean Irish for cutesy purposes. The people actually speak it. We heard many locals having conversations in Irish, from the horse-and-wagon-tourist coach drivers waiting for customers to a group of young boys who appeared to be discussing the coming Premier League season. ("Irish words-Irish words-'Blackpool'-Irish words," etc.)

Experiencing an actual "An Ghaeltacht," as Irish-speaking regions are termed, brought into stronger relief just why the Irish are so concerned with preserving their language. From Irish-language schools to a network channel devoted entirely to Irish-language programming (if not content... the kid watched "Dora the Explorer" in Irish one day), preservation of spoken and written Irish is a significant preoccupation of the Irish state.

The Aran Islands are remote, rocky outcroppings off the Galway coast. One could make an argument that given the peripheral nature of these and other Irish-speaking regions, preservation of the Irish language is a misuse of scarce government funds. Rather than peripheral outposts, however, perhaps it would be more instructive to think of the Aran Islands as the last, vital center.

Ever heard the term "beyond the Pale?" This doesn't refer to pasty skin; rather, it is a historical reference to Ireland outside the centers of English colonial influence, largely in the southeast, from about the 1500s. The "Pale" was civilization; to be "beyond the Pale" was to be Irish in culture and in language -- and by extension, a lower class of being, treated in a manner that we would later see afflicting the Native Americans once England made contact with them.

English is the primary spoken language in Ireland, yes; it is also a colonial language. A flawed heritage does not necessarily render the thing itself unsavory, or most of us could hardly look ourselves in the mirror. However, the Irish preoccupation with an Irish language is a commitment to remembering that Ireland's heritage is something unique. Preserving and encouraging Irish preserves and encourages independent identity. For a country less than 100 years removed from colonialism, that is an important thing.


Anonymous said...

I always thought it was called gaelic. Do they called it "Irish" in Ireland?

Laura Gifford said...

Yup, they call it Irish -- why that and not Gaelic I'm not 100% sure, since "Ghaeltacht" indicates an indigenous connection to the term. I've also heard (not in Ireland, but more generally) the term "Irish Gaelic." I think by using "Irish" they're differentiating from the form spoken in Scotland and from Celtic-derived languages used elsewhere. Of course, when my mom mentioned to the older man who owned our second cottage that Meredith had watched Dora in "Gaelic," he didn't bat an eye... makes me wonder if perhaps the use of "Irish" only is a newer phenomenon.