June 29, 2013 | Irish

Searching for Irish (the Language) in New York

In which I talk to a nice woman from Ireland.

I haven’t exactly found Irish speakers in New York, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t here. This has been a terribly busy month workwise, and I confess it is one of my most delinquent months for language study since I began this project.

My sincere apologies to the Irish language, which I think is terribly appealing and which I hope to see more of in the future.

Last weekend I tracked down an Irish-speaking woman, Aoife Cooney, but she was about to get on a plane and go to Ireland for two weeks. There was no time to meet in person before her departure, so we talked on the phone instead. 

Many Irish Immigrants Live in Woodlawn in the Bronx

Many Irish Immigrants Live in Woodlawn in the Bronx

Aoife (pronounced roughly EE-fuh) is 27, came here from County Westmeath in Ireland two years ago, and teaches Irish classes on Saturdays to children at the Aisling Irish Community Center in the Bronx. She could not have been lovelier on the phone.

It was obvious in what Aoife said, and how she said it, that she feels a profound connection to the Irish language. Even though she did not grow up in one of the Gaeltacht regions, which are the parts of Ireland where Irish is spoken in daily life, she went to a primary school where the instruction was all Irish, and then a middle school that had some Irish instruction as well. Her high school was conducted in English.

From what I’ve heard, it is common for people in Ireland to complete the compulsory Irish training in school, pass an Irish test to get into a university, and then forget about it. That did not happen with Aoife, who sometimes even spoke a little Irish with her parents and is now passing the language on to a younger generation.

Language intimacy is a profound and potent thing. It is what I think a lot of people miss out on here in the United States in an age when grammar and language structure receive scant attention in so many schools. I am talking about English for the moment. People aren’t taught to…caress the language. There is a connection to words—to this very fundamental sign of civilization—that you get only when you really, truly explore a language’s pathways and crevices.

Aoife, who by the way has a Master’s degree in Irish, seems to have that kind of intimacy with the Irish language. I mean, I can’t test her skills, but the affection with which she spoke about it moved me.

Now, her experience isn’t necessarily typical.

Since starting Irish at the beginning of May, I have asked a number of Irish people here whether they spoke it, and face-scrunching has been a common response. They remember a little, but not a lot in many cases, and I would guess it is, as for almost all people who study foreign languages and forget them, a little painful to be reminded of the loss. Plus there are other complications with Irish study; the undertaking is not met with uniform enthusiasm back home, since not everyone is convinced of its utility.

It is a beautiful language, though.

I asked Aoife where in New York I could go to find Irish speakers. She said she never hears people speaking Irish outside of her classes. That actually made me feel a little better; at least it wasn’t totally my fault that I haven’t been finding them.

People from Ireland live in all five boroughs, but for a concentrated Irish community, she recommended I go to the Woodlawn section of the Bronx, which abuts the southern end of Yonkers.

So I am going! I have to get there tomorrow, before Irish stops and Yiddish—the 17th language of the project—starts.

Comments (2)

Diane • Posted on Sat, July 06, 2013 - 10:52 am EST

Hope you found people in Woodlawn with whom to speak Irish!  In my experience with Welsh in Washington, D.C., the difficulty of tracking down speakers and learners oddly helps make people more determined to connect with each other once they’ve found a means to do so.

By the way, this weekend finishes off the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which this year has featured Endangered Languages, including people of the Garifuna ethnic group.  Thought you’d be interested:

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, July 13, 2013 - 12:40 pm EST

Thank you so much for the link, Diane! Well, Woodlawn was heavily Irish but not exactly heavily Irish-speaking. No surprise there! I need a trip to Ireland for this one, I think!

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