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A Twist for an Ancient Tongue Trying to Survive

April 24, 2005|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

AN SPIDEAL, Ireland — Generations of English-speaking tourists who have used this pretty village of thatched cottages as a jumping-off point for the pleasures of the wild Connemara region have known it as Spiddal.

But a new government policy means that the settlement, which boasts spectacular views of Galway Bay and the Aran Islands in the distance, will be known only by its Gaelic name, An Spideal.

As of March 28, all English versions of place names were eliminated in the Gaeltacht, the pockets of Ireland where a majority of people still speak Gaelic. English no longer has official standing on signposts, legal documents or government maps. (For now, until the sign-makers get cracking, officials are just covering up the English names.)

It is the latest official gesture in support of the Irish tongue. But is it too little, too late? In the midst of an economic boom that is both encouraging and threatening Gaelic's popularity, many advocates for the republic's "first official language" are worried.

"It is terrible how things are going," said Seamas O Cualain, an 82-year-old enthusiast of the language of his forebears, which is almost always called Irish on this island to distinguish it from the Scottish form of Gaelic. "The language is dying in the Gaeltacht."

The lilting tongue, which arrived in Ireland with the Celts centuries before Romans reached the British Isles, has an alluring sound, aspirated consonants and a rich trove of poetry and folklore. Just a few words have moved into English: "smithereens" and "leprechaun," for example. But something of its musical syntax is captured by Irish English, as in the phrase, " 'Tis himself that's coming now."

The change in the place names makes sense, advocates say. The English versions, put down by government surveyors in the early 1800s, are mostly nonsensical phonetic approximations of Gaelic words.

Spiddal, for instance, has no meaning in English or Irish. But in Irish, An Spideal means "the hospital," a name that derives from the village's having once been the site of a leper colony.

Another egregious example is a spit of land with the bowdlerized English name of Muckanaghederdauhaulia. In Irish, it won't be much easier to spell: Muiceanach idir Dha Shaile. But at least it will have a meaning: the point between two tides.

Tourist maps, however, will continue to carry English place names in the Gaeltacht -- which includes parts of seven counties -- alongside the Irish.

The changes are a way to encourage Gaeltacht residents who may be wavering to hang on to their language by showing it its due respect, said Deaglan O Briain of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in Dublin. "Official Ireland [is] saying to people in the Gaeltacht areas that we do recognize that you are there, and your language exists."

O Cualain, meticulously dressed, with glassine skin, blue eyes and a shock of white hair, met a reporter in his neat cottage, the fireplace aglow in his cozy study cum dining room. He is, he said, part of a generation of native speakers trained as teachers in Irish-only preparatory colleges.

The goal was for these graduates to spread the language across the island, bringing the dying tongue back to life in all of the 26 counties that secured de facto independence from Britain in 1922. The idea was promulgated by W.T. Cosgrave, leader of the Irish Free State, the nation's first incarnation as a republic.

More than 80 years later, a debate rages about the efficacy of those efforts, prompted in part by the Irish-language commissioner's recent criticism of the teaching of the language in public schools.

Students must study Irish for 13 years, from kindergarten through high school, receiving more than 1,500 hours of instruction in all. Yet many still graduate without fluency, says Commissioner Sean O Cuirreain.

He is a government official who acts as an ombudsman for Irish-speaking citizens and monitors government departments' implementation of Irish-language policy from his office in An Spideal. O Cuirreain believes that the country could do much better and that teaching methods should be reviewed.

On the other hand, he sees positive signs -- such as a recent trend of parents outside the Gaeltacht sending their children to all-Irish-speaking schools.

Five percent of Irish children are in such classrooms, he said, while an Irish-language TV station gets 100,000 viewers a day, and people listen to pop music on a 24-hour Irish-language radio station.

In all, 1.57 million -- or nearly 40% -- of the nation's 4 million people say they speak Irish, and 337,000 (counting schoolchildren) say they use it daily, according to the latest census figures. In the Gaeltacht, 60,000 people employ it each day.

But at a restaurant in An Spideal called An t'Sean Ceibh (The Old Pier), where a fresh sea breeze wafted through the sunlit bar as patrons sipped pints and ate Irish stew, Soracha Ni Chonghaile admitted that she wasn't always among those.

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