Teaching the Irish to speak 'Irish'

"Tir gan teanga tir gan ainm." Roughly translated, says Gaelic-speaking Ted Galvin, that means, "A country without a language is a country without a name."

And that philosophy is reason enough for Mr. Galvin, a national school teacher during the winter months, to pour his energies into the Colaiste Na Mumhan -- the Munster Irish college -- each summer.

His goal as the college's director: to help give the 1,000 Irish children who enroll each summer what he calls "a basic knowledge in the Gaelic language."

While all students in this country study Gaelic as part of their required school curriculum, the college aims to provide them with a keener sense of their own Irishness. "Irish," says Mr. Galvin simply, "is our native tongue."

The college itself, founded in 1904 and now housed in drab gray-and-salmon buildings among the almost alpine beauty of the Shehy mountains, is a curious blend of teaching institution and summer camp.

The largest of nearly 50 such colleges located in the "Gaeltacht," or Irish-speaking, areas scattered across Ireland, it brings together boys and girls aged 10 to 17 for three- week sessions of language classes, sports, and Irish dancing -- all of it, ostensibly, conducted in Gaelic.

And although there is a good deal of English chatter when the 19 staff members are out of earshot, the Gaelic does seem to be taking hold. Freckle-faced boys complain to the director about unfairness on the playing fields in slow but competent Gaelic. And one girl, asked by this correspondent to translate a plaque on a park wall, read it off with ease before dashing away with her friends in giggles to play "camogie" -- a sometimes ferocious Gaelic sport resembling both lacrosse and field hockey and called "hurling" when played by boys.

Although less than 5 percent of Ireland's population lives in the Gaeltacht, Irish officials estimate that some 30 percent has a reasonable grasp of the language, with as many as 75 percent able to comprehend the Gaelic radio and television programs.

The language has been required in the national schools since 1921, the year of Irish independence from Great Britain. Before that, says government spokesman Pat Hennessy, "The Irish language if not actively discouraged was barely tolerated." The goal now is bilingualism. "Nobody aspires any more to reverting to being a largely Irish-speaking nation," he adds.

Why, then, keep the language alive?

Mr. Hennsessy compares it to Welsh, Scots, Hebrew, and French Canadian -- languages that do not replace English but provide a cultural identity to their speakers. For the Irish, still smarting from centuries of oppressive English rule, the very non- Englishness of the tongue is appealing.

"Language is more than just a vehicle for information," Mr. Hennessy says, adding that Gaelic "isn't just a utilitarian subject -- it's making the man."

The emphasis on teaching it, he freely admits, is a "promotional effort" heavily supported by state funds.

Which, no doubt, is why the streets of this tiny hamlet with its hand-cranked telephones are awash with more than 450 students from all over Ireland on a sunny August afternoon.

When they come, each pays only 53 Irish pounds ($111) for the three-week session, meals and bed included.

And when they leave, they salute one another with a phrase that spotlights the close relationship between Gaelic nationalism and the pious Roman Catholicism for which the country is noted. "Dia is muire dhuit," they say: "God and Mary with you."

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