Concern has grown so great that the Galway County Council, a local government authority, is currently considering a controversial rule that would bar non-Irish-speakers from building homes along a 60-mile (100-kilometer) stretch of scenic coastline in the county's Gaeltacht.
Native Speakers Won't Give Up Without a Fight
But on a recent Friday evening in Ballyferriter's Tigh Uí Chaitáin puba warren of narrow rooms thick with tobacco smoke where the talk, in Irish and English, flowed as freely as the stoutthe mood seemed far from dolesome.
Sitting at a small, fireside table under a portrait of Patrick Pearse, the early 20th-century Irish nationalist and ardent Gaelic advocate, was none other than Cathal Ó Searcaigh. A moon-faced man of unbridled energy from County Donegal, many hail Ó Searcaigh as one of Ireland's foremost poets writing in Irish today. He had traveled to Ballyferriter at the invitation of local residents to read his work.
Sorting through a small reef of papers as he prepared for his reading later that evening, Ó Searcaigh paused to reflect on the importance of the Irish language with a visitor. "The window to the world is so very different through Irish," he said.
An hour or so later, 22 area residents packed the rough wooden benches and chairs in a small basement room behind the pub for the evening's reading. Among them were Padraig Ó Fiannachta, an Irish-language scholar and Catholic monsignor from nearby Dingle town, and Mícheál Ó Duláine, a school teacher whose protests some 30 years ago against government plans to close a local Irish-language primary school landed him briefly in jail.
Ó Searcaigh and other local poets read their work in Irish and sometimes in English. Muireann Ní Amhlaoibh, a young woman in her 20s, played slip jigs and airs on a traditional wooden flute between readings, which continued until closing time.
If nothing else, the evening symbolized the passion Irish speakers hold for their language and provided at least anecdotal signs that they won't give up their native tongue without a fight.
Youngest Generation Will Determine Fate of Irish Language
Irish faces no risk of dying out in the near- or medium-term. Language experts say Gaeltacht communities and 80 years of government-mandated Irish instruction in primary and high schools throughout the country have managed to stabilize the language and ensure its passage from one generation to the next.
But language advocates say the degree to which Irish is freely spoken is now at stake. More than anything, the attitudes of Ireland's youngest generation towards the Irish language will determine its fate, they say.
"What's killing Irish, or any language today, is three words: That old Irish," said Father Mícheál Ó Dochartaigh, a Gaelic advocate and parish priest in Beaufort, a small village in County Kerry.
Sean McConn, a student at Galway Mayo Technical Institute, was born in Athleague, a small village in County Galway outside the Gaeltacht. Taking a break from his job at an Internet café in Galway, he shared his views of the Irish language with a visitor. "You only hear old people speaking it, unless you're way out in the Connemara," he said, referring to a rural Gaeltacht region in County Galway. "Rarely would you see a young person speaking Irish today."
Irish was not spoken in McConn's community nor at home. As a result, McConn said, he struggled to learn the language at school. "I would like to be a native speaker, [but] if you don't enjoy it, you don't want to learn," he said. "I'm 24 now. Learning it would be pointless."
Unlike McConn, Pól Ó Loideáin, 21, was born into an Irish-speaking family in Carraroe, a strong Irish-speaking community about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Galway. Ó Loideáin says that while his parents spoke Irish exclusively during their upbringing, he speaks both Irish and English. "Even though I speak Irish with a lot of my friends, it is a dying trend," Ó Loideáin said.
"I can see it with the younger ones coming up, it's become less and less often that they'd be speaking Irish to one another," he said. "Around the Connemara itself, you can see the perimeters are closing in the whole time. The Gaeltacht is getting smaller."
Louis de Paor, an Irish-language poet and director of the Center for Irish Studies at the National University of Ireland, Galway, said he thinks the Irish-language community does itself a disservice when it compares the present state of the language to its historical heyday or idealistic visions of the future. "I think we're unduly harsh on ourselves," he said.
But de Paor adds: "I don't think the Irish language is entirely a personal choice yet. If you choose to [speak] it, it is a political choice as much as anything else. You find yourself becoming an activist despite yourself because of the lack of equality between [Irish and English]."
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