Wednesday, January 9, 2008

iTunes Podcasts in & about the Irish Language

Going to Apple’s store, you can download a variety of Irish-themed content. “One Minute Irish” from and the Radio Lingua Network, boasts professional quality studio production, and true to its name, host Eoin takes you carefully through basic phrases. So far, it’s at the absolute beginner’s stage, and it looks as if it’ll work its way “ad aspera per astrem. “Learn Irish” (also known as: Learn4FunGaeilge) has but three lessons up, and these lacking the fidelity and polish of the other podcast. The one I sampled had a conversation with a learner studying for her Leaving Cert; I daresay my Irish bettered hers. This after thirteen years?

Her predicament captures the dilemma of a state-sponsored “official” language that few speak daily. At iTunes, listen to a related podcast from RTÉ hosted by historian Diarmaid Ferriter. (I reviewed his massive “The Transformation of Ireland” account of the past century on Amazon.) In a series that spanned half of 2006 and the first part of 2007, “What If?” tackles the big possibilities of modern Ireland. One of which– happens to be on 1 April 2007, ironically-- “What if the Irish language had not been compulsory?” Hugo Hamilton, who was raised speaking in the home only his mother’s German and his father’s Irish, as readers of Hugo’s fluent memoirs (in his third language!) “The Speckled People” and “The Harbor Boys (in the US– better is the overseas title “The Sailor in the Wardrobe”) will know well, tells of his father’s insistence that “What use is a full stomach and an empty heart?”

Meaning, at what price has anglicized Ireland abandoned its heritage? Michael Cronin (whose “Irish in the New Century” I reviewed for Amazon) speculates how the compulsion worked only against Irish speakers: all have to know English in Ireland, after all, He and Hamilton agree that the excuse that “Peig” had been beaten into many of their generation in school and so they hate Irish blah blah cannot sustain itself. Cronin thinks that Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s characterization of the guilt Anglophonic Ireland suffers over its loss of Irish leaves the nation with “scar tissue.” Cronin and Hamilton agree that no one laments, at least as vociferously, how Maths and Religion were also learned once at the end of a slap or a paddle! Cronin holds that what held Hamilton back from integrating with the “real” Ireland outside his Dún Laoghaire door was the fact that the individual reasons for learning and reviving and valuing Irish were not taught– the disconnect with the rest of the society, and a state caught up in resurrecting Irish along with the military vs. constitutional strategies for unifying the island post-1922 persisted.

There’s always risk that the multicultural surge that has swept over Ireland will diminish Irish even further, but perhaps true to RTÉ and the liberal establishment’s own ideology, this does not appear to threaten Cronin anymore than tricultural Hamilton. They also find that, when 167 languages are now spoken in Ireland, that Irish must find a new role: one of many options. I am not sure I agree; I recall a letter reprinted on to the effect that the immigrants into America did not feel compelled to learn Algonquin or Cherokee. Yet, as they show with a Chinese immigrant telling of how her classes in Irish have allowed her to open the door into its cultural heritage, perhaps a handful of the hundreds of thousands who have entered Ireland in its boom will pay attention to this living legacy. Cronin, Ferriter, and Hamilton appear confident that in a non-compulsory Irish Ireland, the ancient language will survive, somehow. But, can the toil of a few adults like myself, a few schoolkids who like it, and a few more thousands suffice?

We have to embrace the means for spreading its use. Cronin wrote of how ecological and linguistic conservation ally. In cyberspace, perhaps we can make our own Gaeltachtaí; the Irish government today’s funding teachers to go to Amerikay to instruct we colonials, and one man’s Canadian effort to found a little enclave in Ontario for we on this great continent to go and study and perhaps live has begun. Concurrently, iTunes niche may be small, yet these initial efforts may grow. There’s no other choice. The small revival, as with Welsh across the Celtic Sea, may indicate that schools can inculcate in a few of those who must study Irish a love of the tongue. If even Cornish and Manx can command the attention of a little band of devotees, perhaps, if no more widely successful than I hate to admit Esperanto or Latin, the language may endure– perhaps more as an avocation than a means of cradle-to-grave communication.

My Irish might have been as poor as my algebra if I had lived there. I wonder as I use that calculating skill not at all but struggle in middle age to master a semblance of my ancestral tongue. As Cronin wrote, we who speak English will determine if Irish joins the 90% of languages estimated to die out this century. So, I try my best to use this technology for you who read this to promote and to share my own cautious but persistent commitment.

Image: from Colman Ó Raghallaigh's "An Táin" graphic novel which won the Oireachtas na Gaeilge Young People's Book Award in 2006. [P.S. to Lee Templeton: Yes, as this illustrator'd agree, Selma Hayek as Maeve's a great casting choice for the fillum. Barry Reynolds' style favors a rather Native American-meets-hieroglyphic posture, perhaps fitted for our Lebanese-Mexican starlet.] Hard to find an image that matches today's theme, so a plug for this fine novel's appropriate for any learner or lover of Irish. I could not find the Irish-language publisher (they also print children's books, other graphic novels, and popular tales for teens like "Punk" & "Ecstasy" by Ré Ó Laighléis) when I went through Claremorris one day; perhaps it's out of a converted barn or a former convent! See the Cló Maigh Eo website:

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