“At a dimly-lit bar in Washington DC, a smattering of professionals gathered around a table to drink beer and speak Irish, with levels of varying success.
They all represented current or former students of Ronan Connolly’s Irish language classes. Mr Connolly, an Irish native, has been teaching evening Irish classes for more than two years.
The students live thousands of miles away from Ireland. Some haven’t visited in years, if at all. The group is not much bigger than a rambunctious family dinner party. Their language skills vary from fluent to very basic. But at a time when scholars are pondering the fate of the Irish language, could these American students play any role in its revival?
Wales, for instance, organised its big campaign for language revival in the 1970s, and boasts a higher usage rate.
“Welsh speakers have got a good relationship with the language. Of people who cast themselves as fluent, 85% use Welsh every day. Compare that to Irish, where 20% use it every day,” says Meirion Prys Jones, executive director of Bwrdd Yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Board).
Irish language has rarely lacked support or enthusiasm from both the government or the Irish population in general. But while most residents polled want to see Irish thriving, many fewer actually speak it.
That’s starting to change. For the past 10 years or so, interest in Irish has been in an upswing, with a renewed emphasis on Irish media and Irish education.
“A lot of people are going to the educational system to learn Irish – not just learning it as a subject, but learning how to communicate and learn in Irish,” says Brenda Ní Ghairbhí, acting manager for Seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish language week). She also notes strong growth in extra-curricular Irish language societies.
But for language activists, the language is still under threat, with too few people speaking Irish regularly, and too much English being spoken in the Gaeltacht areas or regions, the concentrated communities where Irish is the primary language.
“There is a huge amount of fresh interest in speaking the language,” says David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at Bangor University, North Wales.
“That’s great, but it’s really late. There is a question mark as to whether it’s too little, too late.”
That’s where Irish language interest from American and other non-Irish students may help play a role. Their affinity for the language, coupled with their distance from Ireland, has helped create virtual Gaeltachts.
“When I go on Facebook, people are writing in Irish,” says James Cooney, 30, one of the students in Mr Connolly’s class. A native DC resident, he keeps up on his Irish through online correspondence, local meet-ups, and language-immersion vacations to places like the North American Gaeltacht outside of Ottawa, Canada.
The increased use of Irish online and around the world could help amplify the power of the language in a time when the concentrated geographical areas are on the decline.
“The biggest thing that an endangered community can do to ensure that its language survives is to have a very strong presence on the Internet. All over the world these virtual speech communities are becoming a reality,” says Prof Crystal, author of the book Language Death.
These virtual communities also help those with Irish ancestry connect with their roots, providing a new audience for the language.
“Language learning is easier now, in terms of resources. Finding niches on the internet is so much easier, and that’s a wonderful thing,” says Mr Connolly. “In this day and age of everyone being so connected, people want to remind themselves of what makes them different. For some people, that something might be Irish heritage.”
Still, Mr Ó Brádaigh warns that while interest in learning Irish is on the rise, the Irish-speaking communities that shape and protect the language are on the brink.
The ratio of Irish learners to Irish speakers is greater than any other language in the world, he says. “There’s a worldwide network of Irish speakers, but the native speaker areas are under severe distress.
“In some ways, we spend too much time on learning, and not enough time addressing the Irish speakers we already have.”
And that is the most important point of all.