“Ar mhaith leat briosca?” asks Paul Ferris, offering a student a Fig Newton.
“Ba mhaith,” she replies,
All across the room at this Saturday morning Irish language teach-in at Glucksman Ireland House at New York University, beginner students mimic Ferris (“Would you like a cookie?”) and the student (“I would”), before practicing the Irish for thank you: “go raibh maith agat”.
In this most polyglot of cities, it makes sense that there are classes, book clubs, music nights, and conversations in many foreign languages. But the Irish versions of these language sessions play an especially important role. For many people learning a new language is a fun hobby, but for Irish learners the stakes are a lot higher. They are helping to keep an endangered language alive.
Irish is the first official language of Ireland, but in 2011 UNESCO listed Irish as a ‘definitely endangered’ language. Irish is a form of Gaelic, a language group that also includes Scottish Gaelic and Manx, but is distinct from both. According to the 2011 Irish census, 1.7 million people out of a total population of around 4.5 million said they could speak some Irish, but only 77,185 said they speak it outside of school. Although Irish is spoken as a native language in Ireland’s western ‘Gaeltacht’ regions, like Galway and Donnegal, and Irish lessons are mandatory in public schools, English is still the dominant language.
But since the Gaelic revival, a nineteenth century movement to protect the Irish language and Irish Gaelic arts and culture, people have been fighting to keep Irish alive. Last the year the Irish Times reported a ‘mini revival’ of the language, as worldwide interest grows and more students are pursuing the language to higher levels.
Irish language roots run deep in New York City. The first Gaelic newspaper, An Gaodhal, was printed not in Ireland, but in Brooklyn in 1881. In 1857, New York diarist George Templeton Strong described hearing Irish women singing a lament, or ‘keening’, at the death of two workers. “It was an uncanny sound to hear, quite new to me,” he wrote in his diary, “Our Celtic fellow citizens are almost as remote to us in temperament and constitution as the Chinese.”
Nicholas Wolf, a historian at NYU, is trying to track some of this history with a crowd-sourced project called Irish Speakers & the Empire City, using newly released data from the 1910 U.S. census. That headcount was the first to ask people born outside the U.S. what their first language was, and around 250,000 claimed Irish as their mother tongue.
Wolf offers an online tutorial for anyone who wants to help analyze census data block by block to find out where those Irish speakers lived. “We get an interesting mix where people are resident in the same block or even in the same building,” he says. In that sense, the early 20th century Irish-speakers were no different from their immigrant neighbors, clustering together in communities, says Wolf. “They’re also part of the larger national story,” he says.
More typical today are New Yorkers who don’t grow up with Irish, but decide to learn it – for a variety of reasons. For Regina Robinson, it started after her father passed away eight years ago. As she went through family papers belonging to previous generations, she came across documents she recognized as Irish, “but I couldn’t read it and I couldn't understand it.”
Eight years later, Robinson has mastered Irish well enough to teach evening classes at the New York Irish Center in Long Island City. “To be able to sit down and sit a song in Irish -- it just made feel like, ‘Wow I can do this!’” she says, “It did make me feel much more connected.”
One of Robinson’s students is Dr. Charles Cushing, 81, a naval architect, whose grandfather took part in the famous Easter Rising of 1916, when Irish nationalists staged a rebellion against the British government in a bid to establish an Irish republic.
After years of travelling the world on ships and being exposed to many different languages through his business, Cushing finally decided to learn Irish. “If not now, when?” he asked himself. “Call it solidarity with the spirit of Irish nationalism,” he says.
A younger generation of Irish-Americans are also finding their way to the language. “I’ve been kind of obsessed with the culture and music since I was a kid,” says Sarah Commet, 27, a student at the beginner class at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House. When she visited Ireland five years ago, “it felt like home.”
But despite the vibrancy of the Irish language scene in New York, Irish is still in danger. Many question the point of keeping a dying language alive.
“Every language has its own kind of genius, some area where it’s doing something quite special or quite intricate,” says Ross Perlin, of the New York-based Endangered Language Alliance. For Perlin, the loss of a language means that “a huge variety of both very practical and very artistic, religious, historical and ecological knowledge is lost.”
“If you love language,” he says, “you have to care about these thousands of natural experiments in creating human language that the different communities have made over thousands of years.”
According to the United States Census Bureau, there are an estimated 20,590 Irish speakers in the U.S today, but perhaps the cluster of beginner students at classes across New York will soon add to that number.
Hilary Mhic Suibhne, an Irish instructor at the Glucksman Ireland House, ends her class at the open day with this Irish proverb: “Beatha teanga í a labhairt.”. It seems to sum up the fight to keep Irish alive in New York City and across the world: “The life of a language is in speech”.