Irish Tongues Are Wagging in U.S. Classrooms

Author: Arts and Letters

DUBLIN — For generations, Irish schoolchildren have grown up despising Gaelic, this country’s native language and a mandatory subject from kindergarten through high school. But these days the language, which most people here simply call “Irish,” is experiencing something of a renaissance.

Irish-language schools and an Irish-language television station are booming in popularity, despite Gaelic’s seemingly unpronounceable strings of consonants. And now the language’s supporters, who have long bemoaned the impending death of the ancient tongue, have set their sights overseas.

The government department responsible for promoting the language began a fund last year that will dole out grants, of up to $36,000, to help international colleges establish programs teach Gaelic. This fall, the local branch of the Fulbright program will, for the first time, send native-speaking teaching assistants to American universities.

“Their immediate response was: ‘Yes, yes, yes! We can’t get enough teachers!’ " said Carmel Coyle, director of the Irish Fulbright Commission.

Four assistants are going to colleges with Irish studies programs — New York University, Boston College, Notre Dame and the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

In some ways, Ireland is catching up. Of the 51 universities outside Ireland that teach Irish, 29 are in the United States. The Fulbright program has sponsored foreign language teaching assistants to work and study at American universities since 1968. Those modest one-year fellowships have generally gone to teachers of perennially popular languages, like Spanish and French, and more recently are going to languages like Arabic, Hindi, Turkish and Urdu.

Still, a language that has few practical applications besides deciphering road signs in Connemara and reading old Irish literature is a less obvious choice.

Slightly more than half of Irish language students at Notre Dame are descendants of Irish immigrants, a result of what Christopher Fox, director of the university’s Keough Institute for Irish Studies, called “the third-generation effect.” Societal bias meant that earlier generations “couldn’t be ethnic in America,” he said in a telephone interview. “Now it’s O.K., and they want to connect.”

Mr. Fox added, “The Irish language is seen as one way of doing that.”

But Gaelic also appeals to students who are interested in linguistics, the preservation of indigenous cultures, or the role languages play in international politics, Mr. Fox and other university professors said.

And there are those who simply like Irish culture.

Meghan Donaldson, 22, a senior at Notre Dame with no Irish roots, studied French and Spanish before she decided to take Irish this semester, after spending time abroad in Ireland. She also got involved in Irish organizations on campus, like teams that compete in traditional step-dancing and in the sport of hurling.

“It’s geared toward learning the language rather than passing the tests,” she said. “They make it a lot of fun.”

Notre Dame first taught the language in the 1860’s, but stopped offering courses in the 1950’s. Since it restarted the program in 1994, student interest “has been astonishing,” Mr. Fox said. The number of students enrolled in Irish-language classes has jumped to 296 from 114 in three years.

That enthusiasm certainly surprises people in Ireland.

“It’s a big battle for kids here to learn their national language,” said Aibhistin O Coimin, an Irish-language teacher at Wesley College, a school in Dublin encompassing the American equivalent of kindergarten through Grade 12.

Mr. O Coimin, 27, is going to teach at Boston College this fall as part of the Fulbright program.

“They think it’s odd,” he said, referring to the reaction of his class that he would be teaching in the United States. “They think it’s very strange.”

Ms. Coyle said the fellowship recipients “go out as ambassadors for the country.”

But with a bit of reverse psychology, the government wants the program to improve attitudes here, too, with the rationale that, if American students like it, it must be worthwhile, said Deaglan O Briain, a policy officer in the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

“We can raise the perceived status of the language at home by showing that it’s taught abroad as well,” he said.

Originally published by Brian Lavery (in The New York Times) at on June 14, 2006.