If you’re like most of the world’s population, the only time you think about Ireland is once a year, over a pint of green beer that matches your leprechaun costume. But Ireland’s rich tradition is alive and well both inside and outside of the homeland—and the Irish can tell you this in their native Irish language to prove it.
Last week, over apple cider and Barmbrack cake, about twenty people gathered in a mahogany-paneled basement theater of the center on 51st Street in Hell’s Kitchen. The guests, all members of the Irish Arts Center of New York, huddled in small groups in the dimly lit room, exchanging words that haven’t been spoken in this city for nearly a century.
Chatting in Irish (or Gaelic, as it’s referred to west of the Atlantic), members celebrated All Hallows’ Eve, a holiday that draws its roots from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain.
“Rather than only concentrating on classes, we have events, show films in Irish, eat traditional food, play games,” said Murieann Ni Chiv, a teacher at the center, dressed in a silver wig and flowing dress for the occasion. “It’s more than just learning a language—we’re trying to teach about the culture and our heritage.”
In a city known for its rich cultural diversity, the Irish community is no exception. Classes in Irish language have been cropping up all around the city. Along with the Irish Arts Center, Irish organizations like NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House, the Aisling Irish Community Center in Yonkers, and the New York Irish Center in Queens offer films screenings, performances, and language classes to their members—whether they be immigrants from Ireland itself or simply New Yorkers interested in connecting with their Celtic roots.
“The fact that is that, if you’re introduced to a language, you’ll learn a lot about the culture of that country,” said Peadar Hickey, a Dublin-born teacher at the New York Irish Center. Every Tuesday night, Hickey leads a language class in a back room of Rocky Sullivan’s bar in Red Hook, followed by Irish music performed by Hickey himself and other musicians. “The idea is, they come for the classes first, then stay for the music—to get a pint and maybe practice speaking with each other.” The bartender will even understand if you order your Guinness in Irish, too.
Although New York has seen the language’s resurgence of late, in Ireland it’s a different story. While Irish, or Gaelige, is the nation’s official language, it has been on the decline since the eighteenth century following the colonial invasion by the British, who outlawed the language. The Great Famine of the 1840s contributed to a loss of many native Irish speakers as well—there were only about 680,000 left by the census of 1891, compared with 4 million in 1835, according to the Gaelic League of New England.
Ireland’s 2011 census reported that just 1.7 million of the country’s 4.5 million residents speak Irish at all, and only 11% speak Irish every day outside the educational system (the language is compulsory through high school). While this is a significant increase from 2002’s meager 8%, it’s still a far cry from the pre-invasion days, when the language was spoken principally.
“It’s a terrible thing for a country with the history we have to lose the language,” said Hickey, whose strong brogue is a quick giveaway for his Dublin roots. “But there’s a reason the Irish language is gone. The story of Ireland is not a nice story.”
Especially in New York City, Irish language classes have seen a huge revival in the past decade. NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House offers courses in history, culture, music, and language—from elementary conversational classes to advanced graduate ones—and even hosts summer study abroad course in Dublin.
“There is a huge Irish population in New York,” said Pádraig Ó Cearúill, a native speaker from County Donegal and Irish language lecturer at the Glucksman House. “And there, surprisingly enough, is a sizable Irish-speaking community, also.”
Ó Cearúill, who instructs a variety of students with backgrounds from around the world, incorporates history, folklore, and music into his classes to help students learn a language that they likely won’t use very often in the real world.
“The fact that it’s an endangered language is a good reason to learn it in the first place,” he said. “It makes it special in a sense—it means you’re contributing to keeping it alive.”
While the language is often seen as a way for Irish Americans to connect to their Gaelic roots, some teachers are looking at ways to modernize Irish and appeal to a younger crowd. Ashley Davis, a Kansas-born Celtic musician and Irish speaker, has used music to contribute to the recent Irish language resurgence.
“Music is something you feel, you don’t have to understand it,” said the University of Limerick alum, who now calls Hell’s Kitchen home. “That’s the beauty of keeping it [language] alive through song—thank goodness so many of our songs survive, passed on through Irish tradition. Were lucky for that.”
Back at the basement theater on 51st Street, Irish teachers and students alike were enjoying the sense of community the language has been fostering throughout the city. Some spoke in fluent Irish, while others managed just a few words.
“There’s something special about the language itself that conveys the soul of the people,” said Connor MacAogain, one of Ni Chiv’s students. “You can really get in one layer deeper.”