I’ve written several times about the potential of the Irish language for cultural tourism in Ireland, particularly with visitors from the United States, Canada and Australia. Now here is some more evidence of the interest in our native language by people living in North America, via the Washington Post:

“Fifteen students gathered inside a basement classroom at Catholic University on a recent evening to ponder a laminated vocabulary list that looked like some language instructor’s cruel joke.

The words were jumbles of seemingly random letters, strings of unpronounceable consonants, like the work of a touch typist who inadvertently plants his fingers on the wrong keys.

But for these students, and for kindred spirits in America and Ireland, the Irish language has emerged as an improbable passion.

As the Irish diaspora prepares for St. Patrick’s Day, the Hibernian tongue, once at the brink of extinction, is enjoying a modest revival. A 2009 survey by the Modern Language Association found enrollment in Irish-language classes in the United States numbered 409 students, compared with 278 in 1998, 58 in 1990 and 28 in 1980. Classes at Catholic University drew 18 students this year and 20 last year, the largest enrollments in recent memory. [ASF: I’ve been told by those working in the area that the figure for those taking Irish language lessons in a school-room setting in the US is expected to approach 1000 students for 2012 and is largely limited by a lack of trained teachers and resources. The numbers learning online in the United States are far higher, up to 5000 or more]

Catholic may be the only college in the Washington region that has ever mounted a significant Irish language program. The effort is one of the oldest in the nation, funded through an 1896 gift of $50,000 from the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

The gaelscoil, or Irish-language school, has proven inordinately popular among Ireland’s elite, and many schools keep waiting lists. A report in the Irish Times newspaper said the movement had taken hold there not only in remote hamlets but also with affluent helicopter parents swept up in a “post-Riverdance cultural zeitgeist.”

“There’s kind of a seismic change taking place in Irish identity,” said Traolach O’Riordain, director of Irish studies at the University of Montana. “It’s more common to hear the language spoken in cities now, compared with 30 or 40 years ago . . . These kids are coming out and they’re forming Irish-speaking clubs and associations.”

Ronan Connolly, 31, taught at a gaelscoil in his native Monaghan, Ireland, before coming to the United States four years ago. Now he functions as a sort of one-man Irish heritage society. Connolly took over the Irish course at Catholic in the fall. He also teaches Irish classes out of an office in Friendship Heights. In his short time in Washington, Connolly has coordinated an annual Irish film festival, produced an Irish music podcast series and played Gaelic football with the D.C. Gaels.

No one was more surprised than he at the success of the Irish classes. “I had come across this notion that Americans aren’t interested in learning other languages,” he said.

Substantial Irish programs exist at New York University, Notre Dame, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Montana, whose five-year-old program now serves 187 students.”

With a renewed focus on tourism in Ireland one wonders if the Irish state will ever wise up and start to tap this great reservoir of potential visitors, just as France, Spain, Portugal and Israel have done, or will we forever remain blinded by the anglophone necrophilia of the powers that be.

4 comments on “Irish In America

  1. James Todd

    “Notions” about Americans from non-Americans are notoriously inaccurate. It doesn’t surprise me that there’s a rising level of interest in the Irish language, especially in the Irish-American population, anymore than it surprises me that a friend of mine who has French heritage has been taking French lessons via Rosetta Stone.

    Add that to the fact that most Americans are extremely interested in other cultures, and this isnt a surprising story at all.


    • Agreed, James. The stereotypes about Americans often fall flat in reality. The rise of interest in French in the United States is very interesting. It seems to be gaining popularity in Louisiana with the modest growth of French medium schools (see here).

      With the projected change in demographics towards a “Latino United States” over the next five decades I wonder what will be the major language of the US by 2060? English or Spanish?


  2. You can study Irish AND Scots’ Gaelic FREE at An Claidheamh Soluis/The Celtic Arts Center in the San Fernando Valley – north of Los Angeles. Every Monday night, people gather for the longest running Trad music Seisiún in Southern Calif. Irish language class is at 7PM, followed by free ceili dance classes, and the session. All are welcome, and people of all ages attend the music and dance part of the evening. ACS has been offering these classes – as well as award-winning theater, concerts, and more, since 1985.

    http://www.celticartscenter.com for more information. (Irish classes are also available at our sister organization in New York, The Irish Arts Center.)


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