The Present and Future of the Irish Language

By Melina Kompella
On Thursday, September 6th, the Irish Studies Program welcomed seven experts on the Irish language for a panel discussion on its present and future. Colm Ó Riain, from the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, moderated the conversation and offered a brief historical introduction on the Irish in San Francisco, most of whom came in the 1850s, during the Gold Rush. In 1905, in fact, the Irish community in the Bay Area raised ten thousand dollars for the promotion of the Irish language and sent that money back to Ireland. However, when the 1906 earthquake struck in San Francisco, the money was sent back to California in a significant demonstration of support from the Irish community in Ireland, solidifying the relationship between these two communities joined by a shared language and culture.

The panel brought together experts from tech, media, business and higher education. Many of the panel members, including native Irish speakers Caoimhe Ní Chonchoille, a multimedia journalist from Irish television network RTE; Tom Fitzgerald, founder of online Irish language bookseller Litrí; and Imelda White, lecturer emerita of Celtic Studies at UC Berkeley, referenced the relationship between language and family, culture, and heritage. The power of the Irish diaspora manifests itself through language, allowing Irish speakers to form a strong community. However, speakers noted that the health of the Irish language seems to be waning, facing issues of funding and legislation, even within Ireland.

On the other hand, social media and new technologies, such as panelist Myk Klemme’s app and "online Gaeltacht" Love.Irish, are giving new and existing speakers more access to language-learning materials and online speaking communities. Kevin Scannell (Professor of Computer Science at Saint Louis University) talked about some of his research on the development of technology for Irish and Celtic that helps speakers of indigenous and minority languages use their language online. Originally from Donegal, Pádraig Ó Maoilreánaigh, creator of the electronic dictionary and pronunciation guide WinGléacht and contributor to Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla, also discussed some of the challenges faced by the Irish language in the digital realm.

During the engaging Q&A, many of the 50 audience members were curious about Irish language-learning resources in the Bay Area. To a question on the role of websites in teaching Irish, Imelda White responded that different websites suit different learning styles, offering options that reach a larger set of language learners. Another platform for spreading the Irish language, mentioned by an audience member, is music. The panelists referred to cultural centers and programs for the Irish language and diaspora, many of which are funded by organizations in Ireland that are very eager to support the formation of cultural and speaking communities. In general, it seems as though minority languages are undergoing a rebirth as new platforms make them more accessible to a larger audience. The Irish Studies Program here at IES is pleased to serve as one of these centers for contemporary Irish culture and linguistic exchange.