Can Irish survive beyond sláinte?

March 17, 2011

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(Photo courtesy of the Univ. of Notre Dame)
University of Notre Dame Irish language professor Brian O’Conchubhair.

There’s no doubt “sláinte” will be heard in Irish pubs throughout Chicago on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s the favorite Irish-language (Irish Gaelic) toast for those who hoist pints of Guinness. But beyond St. Patrick’s Day, a linguist worries about the language’s long-term survival.

“The challenge is to have Irish survive more as just a few calcified phrases like ‘sláinte,’ speckling our English language and have it as a living, modern language,” says Brian O’Conchubhair, a native of Ireland who is now a professor at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

Irish isn’t the dominant language in Ireland: English is now king. O’Conchubhair says Irish may not even be the second-most spoken language in Ireland. Depending on how you count speakers, that distinction could go to Chinese.

This is despite the fact that Irish is the island nation’s official language, and documents from the European Union still must be translated from English into Irish.

O’Conchubhair, who was in Chicago for St. Patrick’s Day, says the Irish language took a big hit following the Great Potato Famine of the 1800s. People left Ireland in droves for the U.S. Those who remained began to speak English--primarily because it was viewed, O’Conchubhair says, as the language of prosperity. The language was seen as the tongue of rural people or the elderly.

O’Conchubhair says it’s unclear why Ireland didn’t become a bilingual society, embracing both Irish and English. He says it’s not uncommon to have English-speaking young people unable to communicate with older relatives, who may only speak Irish.

“It would be much easier to be a monoglot English speaker in Dublin who knows no Irish than someone who is willing to say they are bilingual,” O’Conchubhair says.

However, Irish saw a resurgence in the 1990s, especially among young people. O’Conchubhair says they viewed it as hip.

“There are more Irish speakers now in the urban based areas in Dublin, Cork and Limerick who speak Irish socially, who use the Internet, who listen to the radio and the TV stations through the Irish language,” O’Conchubhair says.

As that resurgence continues, the debate over whether Irish should be preserved sometimes gets heated.

“If you want to start an argument in an Irish pub, raise the issue of the Irish language: Is it a waste of time? Is it the unique culture gem that needs to be protected and nourished?,” O’Conchubhair says. “It’s a hot-button issue. Always has been, always will be.”

O’Conchubhair planned on celebrating St. Patrick’s Day at a Chicago pub, where he hoped to also catch a championship game of Gaelic football, a sport that shares similarities with soccer and rugby.

Here, WBEZ’s Michael Puente asks O’Conchubhair more about the Irish language, how it fared during the days of the “Celtic Tiger” economic boom, and why an Irishman decided to study his own language and heritage from the confines of Notre Dame.