In Ireland, few safe havens for an ancient tongue

A dispute over Irish-only road signs in some towns highlights the language's weakening grip.

On this tiny, wind-swept island at Europe's western edge, a shopkeeper makes a proud gesture toward the radio, which blares the midday news in an ancient, dying language.

Irish Gaelic is still the native tongue of some 55,000 people who live mostly along the west coast. But it is under siege. Even Inis Meáin, one of three Aran Islands off the coast of County Galway famed for old-fashioned ways, is no longer a safe haven.

"Irish is in trouble," says Cuomhán Ó Fátharta, Inis Meáin's sole shopkeeper. "When I was young, you had to learn English in school because there was no TV. I couldn't really speak English until I was 12, but now the kids are all picking it up young."

As Ireland's mother tongue struggles to survive, the government has stepped up its contentious efforts to save the language, known here simply as Irish.

The European Union (EU) gave Irish a symbolic boost when it recognized it as an official language on June 13, three decades after Ireland joined the union. Road signs in the scattered Irish-speaking towns and islands - known collectively as the Gaeltacht - have posted place names exclusively in Irish since April. And new Gaeltacht housing developments must reserve homes for Irish speakers.

Critics call these tactics costly shenanigans that only engender resentment against a language that schoolchildren must study for 13 years. The minority who become fluent have little chance to speak Irish outside the Gaeltacht.

"For the majority of students, the Irish language now exists for the sake of perpetuating its own death grip on the school system," columnist Louise Holden wrote recently in The Irish Times.

Yet on Inis Meáin, Mr. Ó Fátharta says the road sign kerfuffle won't last. Tourists will adapt, he says, and such forceful government action is essential to sustain the language. He points to the success of state-supported Irish-language radio and TV, which have grown in popularity, and the invasion of students who come to County Galway to study Irish every summer.

"People want to learn the language," he says. "That's why they keep coming."

In mostly English-speaking Galway City, pubs serve as a place for people to speak Irish. At Taffees, where traditional Irish bands play every night, an encouraging sign at the bar says, "Irish spoken here." Yet many native Irish speakers feel uncomfortable speaking their language outside their hometowns, a self- consciousness that experts say prevents the spread of Irish as a spoken language.

Irish has been declining for centuries, since families hoping to better their prospects made children speak English instead of Irish. Hoping to reverse that trend, the nation's founders made Irish the primary language and a core school subject after independence from Britain in 1921.

Yet today, just 43 percent of Irish citizens say they can speak the language, and only 1.4 percent are native speakers.

Michael Faherty, who rents bicycles to tourists on Inis Meáin, says he is realistic about the language's hold on the young. "They're turning to English now," he says as he fixes a bicycle to a background of traditional Irish music. "It's more fashionable."

Irish language activists want a bilingual nation. Some blame a curriculum that focuses on grammar and rote memorization, rather than teaching conversational Irish. Others say that the complex language must be modernized, following Israel's success in reviving Hebrew.

The growth of Irish-language schools, or gaelscoileanna, has lifted hopes for the language's survival. Outside Gaeltacht areas, 52 Irish-language elementary schools have been created since 1993, bringing the number to 120. And more books are being translated into Irish; students can now read Harry Potter in the old language.

The lucrative field of official Irish translation is also booming, thanks to a law passed two years ago that requires all government documents and services to be provided in Irish. The new EU designation created a need for dozens more well-paid Irish speakers to translate EU documents and interpret at parliamentary and ministerial meetings. Yet the government says it can't find enough to keep up with the work.

An elderly woman on Inis Meáin, wearing a traditional long dark skirt and shawl, spoke wistfully about her native language.

"I don't know who will speak the Irish after the old people are gone," says the 80-year-old woman, who did not give her name. "The youngsters are all learning English, too much English."

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