Traditional language of Ireland experiences revival

| Tuesday, March 5, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Dia Dhuit! Sláinte, Lá Fhéile Pádraig!

Saying “God be with you! Cheers, happy St. Patrick's Day!” in Ireland's national language takes more than adopting a corny brogue.

And, careful with that pronunciation — English phonetics don't dictate every word. For example, “dhuit” is pronounced gwitch.

With a revived interest in Irish Gaelic known as Gaeilge (gwayelga) happening both in-country and around the world, more people are learning to speak a language previously associated mainly with the country's past.

At the University of Pittsburgh, Dublin-native Marie Young teaches a six-level course to students interested in learning about Ireland's culture, connecting with their own ancestry or just looking to expand their global awareness.

According to the US Census, there are 34.5 million people with Irish ancestry nationwide. There are more than 244,000 in Allegheny County.

“For the amount of Irish-American connections here, it's an added connection to home,” Young says. “It's an opportunity for a cultural tie to the past.”

All Ireland natives must learn Gaeilge during their schooling. There are 350,000 native speakers, predominantly in Northern Ireland. While the majority of people speak English, as well, there are three regions in the north, west and south of the country where Gaeilge is considered the more-prevalent language.

Interest in the traditional language is growing with a younger generation, Young says.

There is a television channel with programming only in Gaeilge — Teilifis na Gaeilge. The Irish government is providing more funding to better the Gaeilge education students receive in school, and more colleges are increasing their Gaeilge course offerings.

“They don't want to lose it,” Young says. “There's a fear it will be lost.”

To hear real Gaeilge, a tourist in Ireland has to get out of the city, Young says. It's mainly spoken by natives in the country.

Young's goal is to equip her students with enough confidence to be able to pull up a stool next to one of those natives and carry on a conversation.

The students are of varied backgrounds and majors. Some take the class as a language requirement. Others signed up after hearing how much fun a friend had learning Gaeilge.

Alex O'Neill, 20, a senior political science and communications major from Scott, took the class to connect with her family's Irish heritage. She admits the pronunciations were a tad intimidating at first, particularly that tricky “gwitch.”

“At first, we were all so confused and thought we'd never get this,” she says. “But Marie really helped us through. She's a fabulous teacher.”

In a recent class, students chatted about the day's current events — everything from Evgeni Malkin's concussion to Jennifer Lawrence's Oscar tumble — all in Gaeilge, with Young occasionally interjecting to teach them a new word.

When Erin Long, 16, a freshman from Lebanon, Ohio — who skipped a few grades to get to college early — struggled to tell the class about the pottery she painted that weekend, Young helped her learn the phrase “chuir mé peaint ar” — to put paint on.

“This class is one of the reasons I came to Pitt,” Long says. “I love Irish culture, and when I heard about this class, I said, ‘I have to go to Pitt.'”

The students took a minute to learn “Lá Fhéile Pádraig!” in honor of the upcoming holiday.

While Americans tend to reduce St. Patrick's Day to green beer and shamrock shakes, the holiday is a more conservative event in Ireland, Young says. It's a religious holiday commemorating St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, and the arrival of Christianity in the country.

Many Ireland natives are envious of the spectacle Americans produce each year, Young says, but do not appreciate the shortened expression of “St. Paddy's Day.”

“And green eggs and ham?” Young says with a smile. “What's that about?”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or

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