Oscar success puts ‘endangered’ Irish language center stage

by mcardinal

Thousands of miles from the glitz of Sunday’s Oscars, the first Irish language film to earn a nomination is sparking renewed interest in a native tongue spoken by so few it is considered endangered by the United Nations cultural agency.

Competing for best international feature, “An Cailín Ciúin” (The Quiet Girl) last year became the first Irish language film to gross more than 1 million euros ($1.06 million) at the UK and Irish box office. It has remained a fixture in cinemas across English-speaking Ireland.

Director Colm Bairéad says the success feels like it is boosting a language he grew up feeling self-conscious about because of its rarity. Raised in a bilingual household, the Dubliner’s father would make a point of shouting across the street in Irish when calling his children in for dinner.

“It took me a while to accept that actually to be given another language and to be given our native language was a beautiful thing and a gift really,” said Bairéad, who raises his two young sons in Irish with his wife and “An Cailín Ciúin” co-producer Cleona Ní Chrualaoi.

“When you have a language that is becoming part of the cultural landscape, that really helps. I think it’s certainly leading to a slight shift in mindset and hopefully one that will be lasting.”

While Irish is taught as a compulsory subject all the way through to the end of high school, just over 70,000 of Ireland’s 5 million population speak it at least once a day according to the most recent census.

But Irish is thriving in the arts. It is now difficult to find an Irish language director such is the demand, said Cúán Mac Conghail, whose award-winning films “Arracht” and “Róise & Frank” received funding through the same government-backed initiative as “An Cailín Ciúin”.

Mac Conghai’s production company, which creates everything from Irish language children’s programs to dating shows, has more than doubled its number of staff in the past decade. He is noticing fewer hang-ups about the language in general.

A clip of Oscar-nominated Irish actor Paul Mescal dusting off his own rusty Irish on the red carpet at the British Academy Film Awards went viral last month and was viewed over 1 million times.

Even some comedy clubs are giving Irish-only stand-up a go.

“I think it’s a way of seeing the language isn’t just something academic or something historical in a museum. That’s what I love about it,” said Louisa Ni Eideain, a tech sector worker and fluent Irish speaker who was one of four performers at a trendy central Dublin pub.

While two friends dragged along to other shows have signed up for language classes, Ni Eideain’s son has no local secondary school to continue his all-Irish primary-level education, highlighting the challenges in encouraging wider use.

“We can’t just as a country cash in on things like the Oscars. There are still some fundamental policy issues that need to be addressed if we’re really serious about making sure the language is vibrant for the next generation,” Ni Eideain said.

Copyright 2023 Thomson/Reuters