Irish language flourishing at home of the Fighting Irish

by Tom Coyne

In Ireland, the Irish language is viewed by some affluent citizens as a peasant language that should be allowed to fade into oblivion.p. But here in the land of the Fighting Irish, where students pay nearly $40,000 a year to attend the University of Notre Dame, the little-used language is enjoying a renaissance.p. “There are a lot of kids here who are the grandchildren of the very successful and the very rich, and their grandparents were taught to forget about their Irish past,” said Eamonn O Ciardha, program director at Notre Dame’s Keough Institute for Irish Studies . “Now these kids are back and they want to know about their language, they want to know about their history, they want to know about their culture.”p. The institute, established in 1993, allows students to examine everything from the language to James Joyce’s Ulysses to Irish history and dance.p. John P. Harrington, president of the American Conference for Irish Studies, said Notre Dame offers something other top programs, such as Boston College and New York University, don’t.p. “I think Notre Dame is unique in that it has done the best job in integrating both Irish and American perspective,” said Harrington, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “They’ve done a good job of creating Irish studies as a genuinely international subject area, which is what it is.”p. This year, 882 undergraduate students are taking at least one class in Irish studies, including 155 in Irish language and 60 who are Irish studies minors. That’s up from 2002-03, when 150 students enrolled in Irish studies classes and 96 students signed up for Irish language.p. Katie Scarlett O’Hara, a sophomore from Topeka, Kan., counts herself among those trying to recapture a bit of her past. Her father was born in Ireland, but raised in America.p. “My dad is 100 percent Irish and really proud of it,” she said.p. Her father doesn’t know how to speak Irish, but Katie O’Hara is learning – partly because of her heritage and partly because she would like to speak the language when she studies in Dublin next year.p. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Here in America, here’s what we’re doing. We respect it. We think we’re Irish too,”’ she said.p. O’Hara said the most difficult part of Irish is the pronunciation as different letter combinations make different sounds than in English.p. “I studied French for seven years, and at least in French the same letters kind of make similar sounds. In Irish certain combinations are totally different,” she said. “The language is very guttural, messy and thick.”p. Students in her Beginning Irish class break into groups of two, asking and answering questions.p. “Ar mhaith leat Ferrari?” one student asks (Would you like a Ferrari?).p. “Ba mhaith liom Ferrari,” another student answers (I would like a Ferrari).p. Instructor Brian O Conchubhair (pronounced BREE-an O KAHN-uh-coor), who is from Tralee in County Kerry, said it’s easier to teach Irish in America because students take it because they want to. In Ireland, it’s compulsory.p. “Here they come willingly. They want to recapture what their parents, grandparents, great grandparents lost or discarded,” he said.p. O Ciardha (pronounced O KEER-uh) said many Irish readily gave up their language when they arrived in America.p. “We left our language on Ellis Island,” O Ciardha said. “It was part of the trauma of the famine and the fact that, for generations before the famine, the Irish people had been told that their language was barbaric, that it was a badge of stupidity and ignorance and that it was no good for them anywhere else in the world.”p. O Conchubhair hopes the current generation will help change that perception, both here and in Ireland.p. “The more global Ireland becomes, the more successful Ireland becomes, there is a danger that Ireland becomes less and less Irish, that it becomes some multinational industrial complex where we speak English and we watch Hollywood TV,” he said. “We’re losing that which made us distinctive, that which created a distinct culture and the great writers of the 19th and 20th centuries.”p. O Ciardha believes the Irish language will survive.p. “The death of the Irish language has been foretold since the 1840s, but it’s still hanging in there,” he said.

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