Irish Gaelic Is Actually Becoming Cool In Ireland

Grindr, Saghdar agus Cher is a modern play about hook-ups, dating apps and going on a bender. But the most current thing about it may be that the piece, staged by LGBTQ+ collective Aerach Aiteach Gaelach, is performed entirely in Irish.

“We just wanted to show that these things are happening in Irish,” co-writer Ciara Ní É says of the drama, which lands in Dublin this week. “We have slang, we have messy nights, and it’s all as Gaeilge” – that is, in the Irish language. “It’s real in that sense,” she continues. “These things happen around the country regularly.” The title only barely needs translating (“saghdar” means cider), but the show itself is unapologetically in the native tongue. “It has English subtitles. We do try to be accessible,” says Ní É.

Across Ireland, English is playing second fiddle to Irish in emerging arts scenes. Even though fewer than 2% of the population speak it daily, Irish is hip; the preferred language of young poets at bilingual spoken-word nights such as REIC (which Ní É runs) or Seanchoíche (meaning storytelling). It is being blared out in metal, techno and hip-hop. The language is key to Kneecap, Belfast’s balaclava-sporting hip-hop trio who rap about craic and cocaine, primarily in Irish. There’s a sprinkling of English in their rhymes, but only to be playfully antagonistic, as on the track Get Your Brits Out.

Kneecap’s post-Troubles bantz – the three all grew up in peacetime Northern Ireland – is resonating further afield. In January, they roared into Utah on the roof of a Northern Irish PSNI Land Rover for the Sundance festival, where their eponymous docudrama played to rave reviews (Screen Daily called it “the bomb”) and won the coveted audience award – the first Irish-language winner at the festival.

Cinema is fast become the Irish language’s calling card internationally. Last year, An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl), became the first Irish-language movie to be nominated for the best international film Oscar, marking a big staging post for a Celtic renaissance.

Shifting perceptions … Paul Mescal at the 2023 Baftas. Photograph: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/BAFTA/Getty Images for BAFTA

Irish culture has always travelled well but there is a remarkable confidence in it right now. The big progressive gains of the past decade from referendums on equal marriage and abortion, plus the receding of painful theocratic and political histories, have fostered a space for artists, and a young generation to shape a new kind of national identity. It has emerged in the English-language music of Lankum or the Mary Wallopers or the work of recent Booker winners, Anna Burns and Paul Lynch. Irish actors, meanwhile, abound in awards season; last year the cast of The Banshees of Inisherin, now Cillian Murphy, the first Irish-born best actor Oscar winner.

The Irish language is an intrinsic part of this cultural renaissance. Murphy ended his Oscars speech with go raibh míle maith agaibh (thank you) – a small gesture perhaps, but not insignificant given how second nature its usage is becoming, tied to what Murphy, in his speech described as his identity as “a proud Irishman”. It is also proving wildly popular. A clip of Ireland’s hottest acting export, Paul Mescal, speaking in Gaeilge to Irish language broadcaster TG4 at the 2023 Baftas has been watched 3.4m times. His modest conversational Irish sparked many more column inches about the role of the Irish school system in producing a new generation of speakers. Irish is compulsory in state-funded schools but has a bad reputation – the language as chore. The alternative Gaelscoils, which operate entirely in Irish, and which Mescal attended, have taken off since their introduction in the 1970s, as part of efforts to keep the language alive.

There are several former Gaelscoil pupils in the new cohort of Irish speakers. Two of Kneecap, for example, went to Belfast’s only secondary level Irish speaking school. But others, like Ní É, discovered the language herself. The emerging Irish media landscape on radio and TV helped (“I grew up thinking Irish was a modern language,” she says). The broadcaster TG4 was key – since its launch in 1996, it has provided a platform for Irish language culture.

But TG4’s most recent development, a film initiative, has had a profound impact on the way the language is encountered. “I wanted to create the experience of actually going to the cinema and watching a quality Irish language film,” says TG4 director general Alan Esslemont of the Cine4 initiative, devised in 2017 with Screen Ireland and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. The first fruits, acclaimed Irish famine drama Arracht and An Cailín Ciúin, an adaptation of Claire Keegan’s English-language novella Foster, showed there was a thirst for it, the latter taking a record-breaking €1m at the Irish and UK box office. The success has a knock-on effect, says Esslemont. “We [TG4] have an influence on the language. And one of the core things we can do is create status and prestige for the language.”

‘A quality Irish language film’ … Cine4’s Arracht. Photograph: Arracht/Macalla Teo/PA

A flurry of Irish language films since have provided Irish cinemagoers with that rare thing: an everyday experience of the language. Most of Irish life is conducted in English, a legacy of colonisation. One of the defining features of the new Gaelic culture is the fierce pride it inspires. Defunct in modern life, Irish was seen as out-of-date, the stuff of exams and mass-going. The new movement fights back against this thinking. The Kneecap movie’s main plot is about saving the language from its demise. “For a long time, people thought Irish belonged to school and Catholicism,” says Ní É. “There’s a reclaiming of our own language, of our own selves. A kind of a push back against a colonised mindset.”

For some people, Irish has become integral to the expression of their everyday lives. “Kneecap was born of the need to represent that identity,” band member Móglaí Bap told the Observer. “[We were part of] this weird first group of young people in an urban setting in Belfast to really speak Irish together socially … sharing the words and the youth culture, and taking recreational drugs, and all that melded together.” For the band, Irish is a living language to which they give a new lease of life inventing terms for modern ideas – usually drugs – that it doesn’t have the words for. There is no equivalent in Irish for MDMA, for example, so Kneecap created their own: 3CAG or “3 chonsan agus guta”, which means “three consonants and a vowel”.

Artists are drawn to Irish because it feels so box-fresh. Irish language music can be wildly experimental; hip-hop from Kerry-based rapper Súil Amháin, progressive metal like west Cork’s Corr Mhóna or the Belfast-based Huartan’s “tradtronica”, traditional songs set to electronica. “When you’re writing music [in English], you feel like you’re doing something that’s already happened,” says Cian Mac Cárthaigh, founder of the IMLÉ collective, which blends electronica and R&B in the first language. “With Irish, there’s so many ways to say the same thing. The language is so rich, and depending on who is singing it, it can be totally different. I feel a kind of freedom in Irish.”

Eurovision possibles … Róisín Seoighe Cian Mac Cárthaigh of IMLÉ Photograph: Cathal Mac an Bheatha

Irish language music is still pigeonholed, says Mac Cárthaigh, with airplay still reserved for special occasions like St Patrick’s Day. But internationally, the appetite for minority language art is changing. IMLÉ soundtrack a Netflix show out later this year and the collective’s latest US and European tour dates have drawn a diverse crowd, not just Irish abroad supporting a band from home. On a global stage, Irish helps artists stand out. Kneecap’s cartoonish cultural specificity helped cut through. Local Eurovision fans have been encouraging IMLÉ to enter the competition, in the hope an Irish language entry would stand out. “If the music is good it will translate,” says Mác Carthaigh, who doesn’t rule out a run in 2025.

Irish language cinema looks set to flourish in an era where subtitles are not a barrier to international success; next up from Cine4 is a horror film in the vein of Stranger Things, and a children’s movie. TG4 has just launched a children’s channel and is looking to Europe for future drama co-productions; Irish has been an official EU language since 2022. Still, there is a lot of ground to cover before Irish crosses over into the everyday; for that, the language’s advocates agree that the state has a responsibility to invest in it in public life.

Culture can only achieve so much but what it can do is make the language feel alive again, and worth fighting for. “People are seeing we do have our own culture and it’s actually really cool,” says Ní É. “Especially because people are getting so Americanised, a lot of people have a cringe toward that. If we’re going to be on a world stage, do we want to be the same as everyone else? Or do we want to preserve and be proud of our own culture?”

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