New Lines for an Old Language

by Patrick Vergara:

In Episode 17 of the first season of The O.C., Marissa breaks up with Ryan because he is jealous of her friendship with Oliver, a new transfer student. But to teenagers watching the show in Dublin, she breaks the news to him in Irish.

The stars of this American TV show, which is dubbed for Irish TV, are some of only a few voices speaking Irish today. There were once an estimated two million or more Irish speakers in Ireland. Today, only 20 to 70,000 people are considered fluent.

Through its Irish-language script, the TV show Aifric brings Ireland's historic language to a new generation (Courtesty TG4).

Concerned with the decline, the Irish government has enacted various language preservation measures. Irish lawmakers banned the use of English place names on official road signs and ordinance maps on Ireland’s western coast, the language’s geographic stronghold. The government funds home stays to bring students to Irish- speaking towns and offers optional Irish-only schools. Yet these measures are small-scale and self-selective, for the most part reaching only those who are already committed to the language’s preservation. For a countrywide linguistic revival, Irish must be integrated as a dynamic part of modern life.

“When I was growing up, Irish was considered a rural thing, a backward thing,” explained Breandán Ó Caollaí, deputy consul general of Ireland. For much of the 20th century, the language was dismissed as a symbol of the poor Ireland that so many had left behind. Ireland’s economy has experienced a dramatic revival, but the language has yet to capture the new generation. That is where Marissa and Ryan come in.

With many countries in the British Isles facing similar linguistic declines, advocates of Irish may learn from neighboring nations’ attempts at integrating indigenous languages into popular culture. Wales, for example, has a burgeoning popular music scene, with alternative rock and rap artists often performing in Welsh. Some Irish musicians, like the indie band Kila, have likewise turned to Irish. But they are the exception. Irish lyrics are used, but in the traditional communal, improvisational music of Ireland, not in nationwide contemporary broadcasts. Ó Cáollaí suggested that when it comes to music, Irish is “almost buried under the weight of tradition in some respects,” inextricably tied to traditional tunes. The sheer force of the traditional music scene and its association with Irish may keep the language from taking off in the modern music world.

The O.C. was brought to Ireland through a more promising tool— the television station TG4. Established in 1996 by the Irish Broadcasting Service, TG4 broadcasts exclusively in Irish. While TG4 began with government support, the station’s popularity made it commercially viable. Since 2001 it has been independently owned, investing over 20 million euros per year in Irish language broadcasting.

The key to TG4’s popularity lies partly in its wide array of foreign programs. But many people—not just traditionalists—cringe at this model. Matthew Shipsey, a sophomore in Yale College who learned Irish in high school in Ireland, has strong convictions about the language’s role. “Irish needs to fit into Irish culture,” he explained, in order to prevent what he called a “parasitic” relationship with otherwise dominant continental and American cultures.

But TG4 does provide alternatives to these foreign imports. Keith Coleman, a student at Trinity College dublin, enjoys the station’s traditional Irish sports programs. “If there’s ever an option to watch a Gaelic football or Hurling match in Irish as opposed to English, I always choose Irish,” he said. Coleman is just the audience the government hopes to attract: he learned fluent Irish from his Irish-language school. Coleman’s father is not fluent, yet he also prefers to watch the matches in Irish. “The Irish commentators seem more passionate about the game, which makes for really good entertainment,” the son explained.

One TG4 program, Aifric, has proven that Irish can be the common language of a new generation in Ireland. This program chronicles the life of a dublin teenager who moves to rural West Ireland with her quirky urban family. Targeted at adolescent viewers, the show deals with themes similar to those on The O.C., but it is scripted from the start in Irish. Perhaps Aifric—Irish in content and communication— is the perfect means for the language’s rebirth. As Aifric’s characters grow up in Irish, a new generation of Irish speakers may do the same.

Patrick Vergara is a sophomore History and Spanish double major in Silliman College.