To Seamus Blake’s immigrant parents from Ireland, the language of prosperity was English.
So when they learned of their son’s teenage interest in their native Gaelic, Blake said they asked him: “What good will that do you?”
What it did was turn him into an evangelist of the endangered language and the voice of the only radio show regularly broadcast in Irish Gaelic in the New York area.
“I became kind of a fanatic,” Blake said in his rich Irish accent on a recent Tuesday before setting to work on the weekly broadcast of Mile Failte, the show on WFUV-FM that he has hosted since 1978.
Blake’s show offers an aural portrait of the surprising vitality of a language that UNESCO has deemed “definitely endangered.” Irish Gaelic belongs to a branch of Celtic languages that includes Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Breton and Cornish.
In the last two years, Blake’s Saturday morning show has featured music ranging from Afro-Celtic funk to reggae, as well as storytelling and interviews — all in the language that generations of Irish immigrants like his parents had once considered moribund.
“It has never been a dead language,” Blake said, adding that one of the main goals of his show is to demonstrate how Irish Gaelic is used today. There are also on-air language lessons.
These days, the language appears to be on a rebound. In the past decade, Ireland’s government has ramped up efforts to spur its use as a national language and, in 2007, the Irish language was granted official status in the EU. Media, business and online enterprises have all emerged to cater to Irish speakers.
In another sign of how the language continues to survive and evolve, Facebook, the popular online social network, said it would soon launch an Irish Gaelic version of its site. The translators are debating translations of such terms as “gift shop” and “mobile phone.” Perhaps more importantly, there has been a cultural shift in the way that the language is perceived.
“Twenty or 30 years ago, preserving or using the language outside of Irish-speaking regions was fairly radical and definitely on the fringes of Irish culture,” said Thomas Ihde, a professor at the Institute for Irish-American Studies at Lehman College. “Today, the Irish language is seen as hip and part of mainstream Ireland.”
Recordings of Blake’s shows are in the archives of the institute, part of the City University of New York.
Ihde said it’s no longer unusual for Americans to learn the language. He cited the examples of New Jersey-born Greg O’Braonain, who writes for an Irish soap opera, and New York-born comedian Des Bishop.
Karen Reshkin, a fiddler in Chicago, said she and her husband, a guitarist, began learning the language in 2001 at an Irish cultural center so they could understand the lyrics of Gaelic songs they played.
“The spelling system is actually very methodical,” said Reshkin, who also has an Irish-language blog. “But when you learn it, it’s very intimidating.”