A rather small country in the Northwest of Europe, Éire has begun to pull above its weight in the media we consume. Sally Rooney alone turned gloomy Dublin into an intriguingly brooding city on the pages of Normal People. Derry Girls brought viewers back to the last decade of the Troubles. The lively, yet surprisingly insightful, dialogue in The Banshees of Inisherin gave a breath of life to Irish emblems — sea cliffs, fields of sheep, and pints of Guinness.
The entertainment industry has called this surge (along with the fact that almost 25 percent of actors nominated at the Oscars this year were Irish) “The Green Wave.” Ireland has become a backdrop to our media, both on-screen and in real life, globally exporting Irish authenticity through actors, storytellers, and pieces of media. Such a phenomenon seems like it’s some new takeover of Hollywood, but a look at history tells us otherwise. The first Irish-American president, John F. Kennedy noted this spread of Irish culture when he said, “Most countries send out oil or iron, steel or gold, or some other crop, but Ireland has had only one export and that is its people.” The Irish diaspora is one of the largest, with almost 15 times the number of ethnically Irish people living outside of the country than within its borders. The over-the-top celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day in major American cities hint at this insistence on shared Irish heritage between people who have never set foot in Ireland.
What is new, however, about this influx of Irish literature and visuals in our media is a resurgence of the Irish language. Irish, often misnamed Gaelic, has historically been the language of the Emerald Isle. The shared perception of Irish culture has hardly ever gone beyond leprechauns and rainbows, and it certainly has never shown the way that Éire was robbed of its culture in a centuries-long process. Only now is Irish in use in a mainstream way. The first of its kind to receive such attention, the Irish language film “The Quiet Girl” received an Oscar this year for Best International Feature Film. Normal People actor Paul Mescal was praised for giving an Irish interview at the BAFTAs. More and more people are learning about the historical significance of Irish.
What does this say about the importance of representing marginalized languages in our media? It seems like the discourse lately has been highly focused on centering race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and sexuality, but we’ve left out something vital. Languages, especially those that have historically been pushed to the fringes, whether through colonization or the maintenance of power structures, are still relevant. They hand us a new lens and point to perspectives that aren’t always evident in our mother tongues.
According to the latest Irish census, almost 40 percent of the Irish population can speak Irish, but very few (1.7 percent) do so on a daily basis outside of schooling. Out of 24 official EU languages, Irish is the least used. Despite this, there’s been a more concentrated effort in recent years to teach Irish in the school system in order to preserve the language’s historical and cultural relevance with new generations.
Irish was the primary language spoken in the country until the 19th century, when British rule caused its steady decline. In an attempt to anglicize the population, penal codes were enforced. Irish was banned from schools and government offices, and fines were given for speaking Irish in public. Historically, the use of Irish has represented a retaliation to British colonization efforts.
Over the last decade, Irish has meshed with the political discourse to form something new. The Belfast-based hip hop band, Kneecap, has released multiple tracks in Irish, including “C.E.A.R.T.A” (Irish for “RIGHTS”) and “Get Your Brits Out”, amongst others. They find new ways to use Irish, often singing about republicanism and “life for youth in west Belfast”, merging Irish youth culture with an ancient language. Similar efforts have caused an “urbanization” of Irish, where those from the Gaeltacht (rural areas) now have an almost completely different dialect.
What this shows us is that it is possible to keep endangered languages alive, especially as a way of representation. In the case of Irish, its very use demonstrates an act of resistance, a statement. Families who speak Irish natively have historically been hesitant to raise children in Irish. English meant power, the language of opportunity, careers, and mobility.
Oftentimes, the simple act of using a language, rather than the content of the sentences themselves, can bring power to the marginalized. Like Irish, the indigenous language of Quechua has always been disproportionately used by the most socioeconomically disadvantaged in Peru. And similarly enough, Quechua-speaking families have long known the economic opportunities that speaking Spanish can bring. Last year, former Peruvian president Pedro Castillo caused political controversy when he spoke Quechua in public. To see a person so high up in politics speaking an indigenous language brought strength to communities that have never been wholly represented in government.
Besides being a tool of resistance, language represents culture, heritage, and emotions in a way that representations of ethnicity or nationality can’t always encapsulate. It’s sometimes not enough to just have ethnic diversity in the media we consume. Language can open our minds to ways of thinking that we wouldn’t otherwise obtain. Manchán Magan, an Irish author, has written books about looking at the natural world through the ancient Irish language. “Discover five words to describe the stages of dawn and change your experience of sunrises forever,” he says. In the context of environmentalism and the link between colonialism and climate change, these ancient indigenous languages can bring new perspectives to how we live with the land.
Some might argue that it’s nonsensical to add another “element” of representation to our list of diversity in media. It’s true. Walls of subtitles are discouraging, at best. Those fighting for a more ‘globalized world’ argue that English is the key to more interconnectedness. But language is more. The Green Wave has gone beyond just putting more Irish names in the headlines. Its shining element is that it brings the ancient Irish language back to modern contexts and into the entertainment industry, through storytelling. It shows us how language can be attached to emotion, reveal our similarities, and seep into all kinds of cultural contexts. Language is the intersection between history, culture, and ancestry — it’s identity. If we really want to hear new perspectives and tell new stories, then the key is to use these languages. It’s not just about preserving them, but about taking their roots and using their vocabulary, syntax, and phrases to change our current perceptions of the world around us.