I sat at a table along the wall, sipping a cup of hot tea and trying to kill off the chill of a rainy Irish winter night.
Two old men — most likely in their eighties — sat by the pub’s fireplace, tam-o’-shanters atop their heads, pipes in their mouths, and glasses of dark, foamy Guinness in their hands.
An inveterate people watcher by trade, I watched and listened as they talked. It was clearly not the first time these two men had sat together by that fire. Did they meet nightly? Weekly? For decades?
I would love to tell you what they talked about, but I don’t know.
Every word was in Irish.
My mother’s grandfather came from this part of Ireland, County Clare in the west, a region where the Irish language never died out.
There are still people there for whom Irish is their first language.
Thus, Irish people told me, almost certainly my great-great grandfather would have spoken it (and probably English as well) before coming to America in the 1870s.
Listening to the two old men that night in 2003, I felt myself back in the 19th Century, listening to my great-grandfather.
The Irish language is enjoying a revival. According to an article in the Irish News this week, the education system is seeking more speakers who can teach all subjects in the Irish language.
In other words, they are not just teaching Irish in otherwise English language schools, they are opening more schools where instruction is entirely in Irish.
The numbers are small but growing. “In 2006/07, there were 3,660 children at Irish (language) schools. This increased to 5,873 in 2016. (Studies) predicted that by 2021, this would rise to 7,220 — an increase of 97.23% from 2006,” according to the Irish News.
Irish language is mandatory at all schools in the Republic of Ireland (the 26 counties outside of Northern Ireland, which remains part of the UK).
But research and the Irish people I met say few people remember it after they leave school. Thus, the move to immerse students in the language in Irish-language schools.
The number of native Irish speakers — those for whom it is the first language — are dying off. A 2017 article about the census indicated that new Irish speakers now outnumber the native speakers.
About 10% of Irish people say they speak the language daily or weekly.
Lessons are more readily available now, and of course we have the internet — a great boost to efforts to preserve languages around the world.
With my love of languages and of Ireland, I had to have a go at it, as they might say. It is so different, and the spelling and pronunciation so counter-intuitive, I knew I would never “learn” the language, but just want to explore it a bit.
As expected, I picked up only a few phrases and got nowhere with the alphabet, but it was a fun experiment.
On this Paddy’s Day, why not go on the internet and search up some YouTube videos of people speaking Irish?
You might even begin taking lessons and end up speaking Irish with old men in an Irish pub.
William P. Warford’s column appears every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.