In Ireland, Few Safe Havens for an Ancient Tongue ; A Dispute over Irish-Only Road Signs in Some Towns Highlights the Language's Weakening Grip

Article excerpt

On this tiny, wind-swept island at Europe's western edge, a shopkeeper makes a proud gesture toward the radio, which blares the midday news in an ancient, dying language.

Irish Gaelic is still the native tongue of some 55,000 people who live mostly along the west coast. But it is under siege. Even Inis Meain, one of three Aran Islands off the coast of County Galway famed for old-fashioned ways, is no longer a safe haven.

"Irish is in trouble," says Cuomhan O Fatharta, Inis Meain's sole shopkeeper. "When I was young, you had to learn English in school because there was no TV. I couldn't really speak English until I was 12, but now the kids are all picking it up young."

As Ireland's mother tongue struggles to survive, the government has stepped up its contentious efforts to save the language, known here simply as Irish.

The European Union (EU) gave Irish a symbolic boost when it recognized it as an official language on June 13, three decades after Ireland joined the union. Road signs in the scattered Irish- speaking towns and islands - known collectively as the Gaeltacht - have posted place names exclusively in Irish since April. And new Gaeltacht housing developments must reserve homes for Irish speakers.

Critics call these tactics costly shenanigans that only engender resentment against a language that schoolchildren must study for 13 years. The minority who become fluent have little chance to speak Irish outside the Gaeltacht.

"For the majority of students, the Irish language now exists for the sake of perpetuating its own death grip on the school system," columnist Louise Holden wrote recently in The Irish Times.

Yet on Inis Meain, Mr. O Fatharta says the road sign kerfuffle won't last. Tourists will adapt, he says, and such forceful government action is essential to sustain the language. He points to the success of state-supported Irish-language radio and TV, which have grown in popularity, and the invasion of students who come to County Galway to study Irish every summer.

"People want to learn the language," he says. "That's why they keep coming."

In mostly English-speaking Galway City, pubs serve as a place for people to speak Irish. At Taffees, where traditional Irish bands play every night, an encouraging sign at the bar says, "Irish spoken here. …

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