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Radio show leads the way for Gaelic comeback

By Cristian Salazar
Associated Press Writer / April 18, 2009
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NEW YORK—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" (MEEE'-leh FAWL'-tcheh), 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 European Union. 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."

Blake said he began to learn the language while growing up in the South Bronx.

He said his father -- "an Irish countryman to the day he died" -- would go to a neighborhood store and pick up a newspaper published out of County Clare, Ireland, where his parents had grown up in the village of Kilbaha. "They nearly came out of the sea water, for God's sakes," Blake said. Together, he and his father would read a column about farming written in Irish.

But it wasn't until he was a teenager and in college that Blake began to seriously study the language. He later spent time in Dublin on a Fulbright scholarship and lived on the Aran Islands in Galway Bay with an Irish-speaking family. He has spent much of his career teaching and in broadcasting.

"Mile Failte" -- the title means "a thousand welcomes" -- went from being 10 minutes to one hour about 16 years ago. The show, which is recorded at WFUV-FM's studios on Fordham University's campus in the Bronx, has an estimated 6,500 listeners on Saturday mornings, according to Arbitron, said a spokeswoman for the station. The show also is streamed online.

Blake said he tries to be optimistic about the future of the language.

"There's a phenomenal literature in it," he said. "There's a phenomenal folklore in it."

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