Québécois

The Irish Language In Montréal

There’s a surprisingly lengthy article in the Montréal Gazette newspaper by feature writer, Kate Sheridan, on the growing number of Irish-speakers and learners in Québec’s largest city, and the cultural organisation, Comhrá, which is bringing them together.

“Siobhán Ní Mhaolagáin has been teaching the language in Montreal since September, when she first arrived to accept a year-long position as Concordia University’s Ireland Canada University Foundation Irish language scholar. Comhrá had restarted its Irish language courses in the summer and when organizers asked if she’d like to teach their classes in the fall and winter, Ní Mhaolagáin said yes.

“People in Ireland sometimes don’t believe that I’m over here teaching Irish,” she said. “I’ll say, I’m heading off to teach Irish in Montreal. And they’ll be like, ‘Why?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, there are Irish speakers in Montreal.’ And they’ll say, ‘You’re having a laugh.’ “

In Montreal, about 20 people attended a satellite event, which Ní Mhaolagáin helped organize, to celebrate the Irish language with music, dancing and movies and to speak it as much as they could muster.

Twenty people may not sound like a crowd, but within Montreal and across Canada, people who speak the language have worked to build a community.

“The problem with learners abroad is that you can’t be immersed in the language. It’s really hard,” she said.

However, that hasn’t seemed to deter Montrealers. “Since I’ve arrived, the amount of Irish language and culture that I’ve experienced has been phenomenal,” she said, both in Montreal and in Canada as a whole.

Like most newcomers to Montreal, Ní Mhaolagáin also had some expectations about the French side of the city. The sheer amount of French spoken in Montreal and in the rest of the province was still surprising. “It is phenomenal to see,” she said, “it’s nearly an example of what could be done with the Irish language back home.”

“I knew there was French spoken, of course. But I thought it would be more like a Gaeltacht,” she said, referring to established zones where the Irish language has a particularly strong presence.

Most are within Ireland. There is one exception. Located on 62 acres just outside of Kingston, Ont., the Permanent North American Gaeltacht is the first of its kind outside of Ireland and symbolic of Canada’s particular history with the language.

Canada can also boast the only Irish place name outside Europe — that is, a name for a place made with Irish words, not just transliterated like Ceanada (Canada) or directly translated like Nua-Eabhrac (New York). That place is Talamh an Éisc, on the east coast of Canada. In English, it literally means “land of the fish.” It also means “Newfoundland.”

Quebec also has a deep history with Irish people and the Irish language. Ní Mhaolagáin said she feels the Québécois and the Irish may even share a certain mindset about a language’s importance: Tir gan teanga, Tír gan anam. A country without a language is a country without a soul.

Today, both anglophone and francophone families in Quebec have Irish surnames.

However, census records indicate that the majority of Irish emigrants were not anglophone — they spoke Irish.

“Most of the Irish who arrived before and during the Famine period were, in fact, Gaelic speakers. Anyone who left the West of Ireland before 1850 were Gaelic speakers,” said Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, the Johnson Chair in Québec and Canadian Irish studies at Concordia…

In Ireland, at least, “the Irish language is ag bláthú, it is flourishing and thriving. From when I was a child to now — oh, my, the difference,” Ní Mhaolagáin said. “The attitude toward the language has completely changed. Which is brilliant.”

But Comhrá’s future and the future of the language itself in Montreal may be determined by similar forces: whether people push for the language and make it a part of their lives, as speakers, students or organizers. Ultimately, the survival of Irish in Montreal will likely come down to people coming together, as they did for Gaeilge 24, and having a conversation — a comhrá.”

You can read the full article and watch a video clip here. Or you can visit the Comhrá website to get more information on the group, which has been working in the Montréal area since the 1990s. Alternatively you can find them on Twitter and Facebook.

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3 comments

  1. You would be pleasantly surprised (as I was) to find how many Irish speakers there are in Canada and the States. In addition to Irish emigrants and their descendants, I’ve met Native Americans and Americans of African descent who speak Irish, Very heart-warming. And humbling.

  2. It would be fantastic for something like this to happen in Australia, given our own Irish heritage. I haven’t got my hopes up though.

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