Even with an ocean between them, people of Irish descent, Native Americans and First Nations find that they share a history of oppression, as well as a desire to reclaim their heritage by bringing their languages back to life and passing them down to future generations.
People display the flags of Ireland and Canada while posing with the sign for the Gaeltacht Cheanada, in Ontario, Canada (Photo: Oireachtas Gaeilge Cheanada Face Book page)
TAMWORTH, Ontario — With their roots stretching back to a land oppressed by colonization, many Irish in North America are finding more in common with the native people of the continent as they work to breathe new life into the language of their homeland.
“Something extremely valuable was taken away from my family in a violent manner. If I don’t try to reclaim it, then it wasn’t very valuable to begin with,” said Dr. Aralt MacGiolla Chainnigh, an astrophysicist at the Royal Military College of Canada and founder of the Permanent North American Gaeltacht, where the Irish language is spoken throughout the community and Irish traditions and culture are preserved.
Feeling that something was missing from his life, MacGiolla Chainnigh began studying the language of his heritage about 25 years ago. He started out by buying a book and a tape, and he said it then became obvious that he needed to converse with fluent speakers.
“It ties together history and identification with ancestors,” he said. “There isn’t a more authentic identification than language. It embodies worldview and philosophy.”
The Gorta Mór (Great Famine) was a time of mass starvation and disease in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. More than a million of Ireland’s people died, and another 2 million fled.
“The British created starvation,” MacGiolla Chainnigh said. “British landowners in Ireland thought the famine was not a bad thing. It cleared the land of the people. It was genocide. Ireland withstood 300 years of genocide.”
Blight destroyed the potato crops, but the land was still producing large amounts of food that the British forced the Irish to export, leaving Irish families to starve.
“The (Irish) system was democratic, not a feudal system like the British and Normans,” he said. “A chieftain was not an owner of land. The land was understood to be the possession of the people. A chieftain in a sense would be married to land and knew the ancient ceremonies.”
Celtic physicians, known in Irish as liaig, were supported by the hereditary tenure of lands granted to them by the chieftains in exchange for providing medical services to the community. When English colonization stripped them of their land, they left the country.
Those who stayed suffered from the loss of luibh gort (local herb gardens) that supplied a region’s people. Penal laws forbid Irish people from practicing their traditions and speaking their language, and they could not receive an education or preserve their medicinal knowledge in writing to pass down to the next generations.
“They could not hold land and couldn’t even own a horse,” MacGiolla Chainnigh said.
Most of the Irish in the United States arrived during the Great Famine, leaving a land where the Gulf Stream brings rain but not freezing temperatures, coming through Canada but not wanting to remain linked to the British Crown. Bands regrouped in North America.
Canada was still British North America at the time and accepted landings in the eastern port. MacGiolla Chainnigh’s family stories tell of those who may have come back up from Atlanta amid an impending sense of violence just before the Civil War broke out.
By World War II, anglicized Irish words such as clan (clann: children), galore (go leor: plenty), smithereens (smideríní: bits), so long (slán: farewell), and smashing (is maith sin: that’s good) became part of the North American lexicon.
When the people of North America understand this language movement, they’ll understand the native struggle, MacGiolla Chainnigh said.
Gaeltacht Bhuan Mheiriceá Thuaidh: The Permanent North American Gaeltacht
The Permanent North American Gaeltacht, located 20 minutes from the Tyendinaga Mohawk territory in Ontario, is the only officially designated Irish-speaking area outside of Ireland.
Spearheaded by MacGiolla Chainnigh, the network of Irish-speaking people purchased the 60-acre parcel of land in southeastern Ontario in September 2006, hoping to eventually establish a teaching center and residences there. Founded in 1826, the town of Tamworth was originally settled by Irish immigrants during the famine.
The Gaeltacht Cheanada (Canada’s Gaeltacht) opened on June 16, 2007. The opening ceremony was marked by speeches by Declan Kelly, then-Irish ambassador to Canada, representatives of Irish language education in North America and Ireland, and Éamon Ó Cuív, then-minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in Ireland.
Other speakers included representatives of Tyendinaga’s Mohawk language program and Comhaltas Ceóltoirí Éireann, a global group that promotes traditional Irish music.
Visitors and participants come from as far as Texas, New Jersey, California and British Columbia. They speak of ancestors who couldn’t bring with them the landscape of their homeland or many of their relatives, but they could keep their language and bring their music that carried remembrance of the sea and winds.
“They abandoned language and tradition to blend in, and learned English because survival depended on acquiring English,” said MacGiolla Chainnigh. “But pride in being Irish remained.”
He said the Gaeltacht language teachers meet with language groups among native peoples, who are also working toward revitalizing their languages and trying to pass them on to their children.
First Nations in Canada experienced the same assaults of forced boarding schools, which had been established by the government and run by missionaries, as the Native Americans and the children in Ireland. By the 1920s the same numbers of Indian and Irish children attended state-regulated schools, according to Michael C. Coleman’s 2007 book, “American Indians, the Irish and Government Schooling.”
“Irish is an ancient language, much less changed than other languages,” said MacGiolla Chainnigh. “The English language is a mix of influences. Romans invaded England. Normans came and the Vikings before them. A quarter of English words have a basis in French.”
The language contains a different worldview, he said. For example, the expression “I am angry” translates to “anger has come to me” in Irish.
“It’s not something I am, and implies how to rid it, how to weather it,” he said. “Or saying ‘I am cold’ or ‘I am a man.’ There is the same structure. But if cold, I can become warm. Warmth has come onto me. The verb for being a man remains the same.”
The Irish language also have two different words for green — one for the color of manmade objects and another for the green occurring in nature.
“Students say they see a culture that belongs to them and they have a chance to take hold of it,” said Traolach O’Riordain, director of Irish Studies at the University of Montana. “They say, ‘We are Irish, we have a sense of being Irish, we feel there’s a language that isn’t being passed down to us.’”
An Irish-American youth group will perform at University of Montana during this holiday season, singing music entirely in the Irish language of their ancestry.
Montana is extraordinary in the Irish experience, O’Riordain said.
“The majority of immigrants came to cities like New York,” he said. “But in these cities there was already a power struggle. Not in Montana.”
At a time when signs in store windows read “No Irish Need Apply,” an Irish man named Marcus Daly acted as a traditional Ceann Fine (head of family) and recruited Irish people to Butte, Montana, to give them jobs in the copper mines.
“He employed the Irish,” said O’Riordain. “They proved what the Irish could achieve. They built towns. They sent their children to school, who became doctors, teachers, lawyers, politicians.”
O’Riordain came to the U.S. in 2001, at the invitation of the Montana Gaelic Cultural Society, to feed the growing interest in learning the language of his homeland.
“Because of the interest here, we approached the University of Montana to create a class,” he said.
He began teaching the Irish language at the university in 2005 with about 10 students. As interest grew, the university opened an Irish Studies program based on the vision of the Gaelic Cultural Society.
“Then something very creative happened,” said O’Riordain. “The Irish government got involved with Irish-Americans.”
Then-President of Ireland Mary McAleese visited with a $43,000 check from the Irish government to help launch the program in 2006. More than 400 college students and about 20 high school students are currently studying Irish language, history, culture, literature, dance or drama through the university.
“The language is spoken as a consequence, but it also brings about gifts,” O’Riordain said, noting that students of the language are also traditional dancers, musicians, storytellers and historians.
O’Riordan travels with a group of students to Ireland every summer for a cultural immersion experience. They step off the plane across the ocean and greet the people in Ireland in Irish. In turn, musicians, storytellers and dancers come to the university.
“There’s a very strong connection to Ireland,” said O’Riordain. “We try to develop that relationship.”
The tribes on the island of Ireland in the 17th century were dominated by the English monarchy, which brought a centralized government that destroyed the bonds of native clans and their chieftains and disrupted the passing on of language.
“Their experience was never one of compromise,” said O’Riordain. “They had a sense of ‘We can do what we set out to do’ to this day, or we wouldn’t have this conversation. They were a people committed to remaining Irish and were not going to surrender their identity.”
Older people today can still speak Irish words and phrases, he said. Seventy years ago there were pictures of Ireland hanging in homes. As time passed, the words and pictures had no substance of identity until the recent surge in language reclamation.
“Stories have been preserved between the two lands, in some cases to the detail,” O’Riordain said.
He mentioned a story he heard in Montana about a man who had died in a mining accident. Three men came to the front room where the man’s body was laid out, then they went to the kitchen to get three chairs. “It was the same story I heard in Ireland, the details were exactly the same,” he said.
In the early stages of the Irish migration to North America, there was a strong bond between the Northern Cheyenne, the Irish, and the Crow, Dakota, Blackfoot, Salish, Assiniboine peoples in what is today a shared history of survival and resurgence.
O’Riordain once attended a mass and heard hymns sung in the Dakota language.
“The style was so similar to Ireland it sent shivers through me,” he said. “I almost thought I was back in Ireland.”
An bhfuil Gaeilge agaibh?: Do you speak Irish?
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw native activists asserting indigenous identity in both Ireland and North America. The Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League) was founded in 1893 to counter anglicization, and the group campaigned to have Irish included in the school curriculum. The gathering of clans was reinforced in 1989 through the formation of Finte na hÉireann (Clans of Ireland) to maintain a register of clans.
In December 2006 the Irish government passed a 20-year strategy to help Ireland become fully bilingual, encouraging use of language in everyday life and in government meetings.
That same year, the Fulbright Commission in Dublin began supporting Irish language learning and teaching in the U.S. It was also designated as the coordinating body for Irish language learning in the U.S. by Ireland’s Department of Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht.
According to U.S. Census data, there are 39.6 million Americans who report tracing their ancestry to Ireland — almost seven times the entire 6.3 million population of Ireland.
Emma Loughney, administration officer of the Fulbright Commission in Dublin, Ireland, said the commission’s research identifies just over 50 third-level institutions and about 90 community-based groups that offer Irish language classes in the U.S.
“In addition to funding Fulbright Awards, the Commission funds 10 universities and several community groups,” Loughney said. “And to date, six U.S. students have received the U.S. Fulbright Award to post-graduate students fluent in Irish to complete a Master’s degree at an Irish university.”
Loughney said about 1,200 students were enrolled in Irish language classes in the U.S. during the 2013-2014 academic year through the Fulbright, up from 900 in the previous academic year. Participating U.S. institutions include University of Notre Dame, University of St. Thomas, University of Montana, Villanova, University of Connecticut, Catholic University, Elm’s College, University of Montana, Drew University, and New York University.
“The increase in learners is due to increased offerings from the universities and varied motivations from the learners, which include wanting to connect to Irish heritage and culture, expanding research language skills and learning a non-Romance-based language,” she said.
Giorraíonn beirt bóthar: Two people shorten a road
Nine Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistants (FLTA) were selected to go to the U.S. for this academic year. The Fulbright FLTA Awards are non-degree grants for Irish citizens who are fluent in Irish to teach the language and enroll in courses at a U.S. college or university for a ten-month period. The awards are sponsored by the Department of Arts, Heritage & the Gaeltacht and the National Lottery.
FLTAs also teach Irish at community events and initiate Irish cultural events. For example, this year Fulbright FLTA Claire Dunne and her class at Notre Dame participated in Comhrá14 — a world record for the longest Irish language conversation in the world. Groups from all over the world took part in a non-stop relay conversation circle for 169 hours, which streamed live online.
The Ireland-United States Fulbright Commission for Educational Exchange also runs the Gaeltacht Summer Awards. Now in its fourth year, these awards are grants for U.S. citizens who are currently studying the Irish language in the U.S. to participate in Irish language courses in the Gaeltachtaí of Ireland for two to six weeks.
This year, 61 U.S. citizens from across the country were awarded grants to study Irish in Ireland’s Gaeltachtaí, including 41 undergraduates, postgraduates and professionals, and — for the first time ever — 20 secondary school students.
“The Gaeltacht Summer Awards scheme offers U.S. citizens an unparalleled immersion experience in Ireland,” said Loughney. “The courses also offer excursions, traditional Irish music and storytelling in some of Ireland’s most picturesque locations.”
Erin go Brách: Ireland forever
“People want to know their genealogy and how their families lived,” said MacGiolla Chainnigh, of the Permanent North American Gaeltacht.
Language brings that awareness, he said.
“Why is this important? Would I be better off just being comfortable and making more money? When I see native communities doing the same thing, even when we can’t articulate why, we see this need is something in the human spirit,” he explained.
Storage cabins, a road and a dock have been built at the Gaelacht in Canada since 2007. There are also plans for a learning center and residential accommodations. An immersion weekend and intensive classes are held once a year in nearby Kingston, and two events at the Gaeltacht include storytelling and singers — including a full week of camping when teachers come in from Ireland.
“People come in from all over the U.S. and Canada,” said Dr. Ruth Wehlau, a professor of Medieval Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, who also teaches introductory and conversational Irish.
“I have no Irish background,” said Wehlau. “But my husband is Irish-Canadian. He took me to a music and dance event where there was a sign-up sheet for language classes that Aralt was teaching. We signed up and got involved.”
Wehlau’s focus of study is on endangered languages.
“Because of colonial empirical history of England, English became widespread,” she said. “There needed to be a standard English in a world of global industry. I make a distinction between identity and language. I don’t think that Irish identity is threatened in any way.”
Some traditions continue, like storytelling or naming a child, but because they’re often translated into English, they’ve lost the true Irish-language aspects.
“St.Patrick’s Day became a thing to do to become drunk and run around in green hats,” Wehlau said. “Clinging to ethnic remnants but losing the meaning. I want to encourage my students to have a scholarly interest — quite different than just trotting out the bagpipes as a cultural inheritance.”
A group of 27 Irish speakers from the U.S. and Canada went with MacGiolla Chainnigh to visit Ireland’s Irish-speaking regions in October. When the group from Ireland visits Oireachtas Gaeilge Cheanada (Irish language festival) at the Gaeltacht site each year, they plant an oak tree to commemorate cooperation, encouragement and commitment between the two groups across the ocean to keeping the language alive for future generations.
In Irish culture, when a tribe cleared the land for a settlement they left a tree in the middle, known as the Crann Bethadh (Tree of Life) that embodied the well-being of the people. Chieftains were ceremonially condoled at the sacred tree firmly rooted in earth with branches reaching upward, connecting with the heavens in the symbolic interwoven pattern of nature and heaven.
“We’ve gone through a lot of the oppressions we’re seeing in the world,” MacGiolla Chainnigh said. “When we see we’re not different, when we identify with that, we’ll be able to move forward.”