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Do You Speak Gaelic?

“Ar mhait leat brioska?” asked a student, handing another cookie. “Ba mhait. Go raihb maith agat,” another replied.
The room was packed with more than 50 students who were attending La Gaelige: Irish Language Day at the Ireland House at New York University on a recent Saturday.

According to the teachers at N.Y.U. and other schools, there has been a renewed interest in the old Irish language known as Gaelic in recent years. The classes are populated by people whose Irish families have been in the United States for generations. And, curiously, by some recent Irish immigrants who never mastered the language when they lived in Ireland. They see these classes as a way to stay connected with their Irish heritage much like other recent immigrants will seek out Irish pubs, Irish churches and Irish hurling leagues.

“I learned it [Irish] before, but I thought it would be an opportunity here–when I saw they had the classes to improve it, I thought it would be a good social outlet with the Irish community and the Irish American community,” said Christopher Fox, a law clerk from Ireland who moved to New York in January and is enrolled in a Gaelic course.

There are currently 11 institutions in New York City that offer Irish language classes.

“We just added Irish 5 this fall,” said Rachael Gilkey, Director of Communications, Education and Outreach at the Irish Arts Center, in Midtown Manhattan

Most classes at the center have seen their numbers growing since last year. Irish 3 for instance, went from zero students in Winter 2011 to eight students this Fall.

“Most people who are learning Irish do it as a continuing education subject either in colleges or at cultural center where they are teaching Irish classes,” said Hilary Sweeney, a N.Y.U. Professor who has been teaching Irish since 1998.

According to Sweeney, the language is developing as undergraduate course in many universities around the country.
This growing interest is partly a reflection of the growing number of Irish people who migrate to New York every year in search of employment. Immigration experts say that the increase is due to the troubled Irish economy.

“We probably see about 300 people come through these doors every week,” said Agnes Delaney, the Chairwoman of the Aisling Irish Community Centre in New York in an interview with WCBS News. “More and more are coming, especially for the last four years, since 2008, when the economy in Ireland started to go down.”

Many economists say that Ireland is making progress economically but that it still faces a number of years of continuing austerity, so many Irish people decide to move elsewhere. Despite the growing difficulties to get a visa, the United States and especially New York, is still a top destination after Canada and Australia.

“Immigration is really restrictive now to get in. Often people come by themselves; it’s not them with a group of friends,” Fox said.
Fox started to take Irish classes at the Irish Arts Center right after he arrived with a H-3 visa, a non-immigrant visa allowing aliens to attend a traineeship in the U.S. The 25-years-old graduated from Law school in Ireland in 2009, and worked as a law clerk before moving to the U.S. The tough economy in his home country is a main reason why he wanted to get a job overseas.
Learning Irish has been on his “before he turns 30 to-do-list.” “Now it’s the first time I don’t have exams. So I wanted to learn it,” he said.

Due to the increasing number of classes offered, long-time Irish-American want to try as well.
“Right now there seems to be a lot of excitement about the Irish language. So I was interested because of that. On the internet there’s been a lot of talk and excitement about the language,” said Jason Roe, a student from Texas.

Roe said he would not have taken Irish if he had not had ancestors from Ireland.
But for many immigrants, it takes a while before they reconnect with their culture. Many say the process of becoming an American citizen is stressful and it takes years before they can focus on connecting to their culture.

“Very often we have second generation Irish immigrants who are coming to class,” said Murieann Ni Chuiv, an Irish teacher at the Irish Arts Center.

Ni Chuiv moved from Ireland to New York in 2009 and she was surprised that the language was so popular. She already teaches six classes, so the Irish Arts Center will hire another teacher next quarter to deal with the growing enrollment. Ni Chuiv said two-thirds of her students have a link to Ireland.

“My family had spoken the language way back but it was never passed on,” said Dan Maher, a New Yorker with deep Irish roots who is taking a class at the arts center.

“It is growing in America. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that the Irish government really started treasuring the language,” Maher said.

Irish became an official language of the European Union in 2007 and it has been given official status outside of Ireland next to English. About 30% of the population can speak Irish and 5% use it on a regular basis. Gaelic used to be spoken by millions of people but was reduced to some tens of thousands speakers. The important decrease frightened the Irish population which decided to support the language and make sure it remains alive in the twenty first century.
“Even for those who don’t speak it they recognize that legally it’s our fist official language,” Fox said.

One Response to “Do You Speak Gaelic?”

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