‘The Quiet Girl’ at the Oscars shows the Irish language’s surprising resurgence
Ireland is famous for its literary output, claiming four Nobel laureates in literature and countless other significant novelists, poets and playwrights. Its contribution to the musical world is also renowned. Film-making in Ireland has been in the shadow of these other cultural successes.
That may all be about to change. At this year’s Academy Awards, there are three movies with strong Irish connections up for Oscar consideration. Martin McDonagh’s tragicomedy “The Banshees of Inisherin” has been nominated for nine awards; Irish actor Paul Mescal has been nominated for Best Actor for his leading turn in the British drama “Aftersun”; and the finest in this year’s crop of nominated international films may be “The Quiet Girl.” The tiny, independent production from Ireland is in contention for Best International Feature Film.
Film-making in Ireland has been in the shadow of other cultural successes in literature and music. That may all be about to change.
“The Quiet Girl” is an adaptation of an acclaimed novella by Claire Keegan: Foster. It is a disarmingly serene film about a 9-year-old girl that beautifully and devastatingly explores loneliness and the transformative power of human connection.
It is also almost entirely in Irish.
Irish, often called Gaelic, is a language easy to overlook; when it is considered at all, it is assumed to be in a terminal decline, rendered irrelevant in the modern world and particularly in Dublin, an Irish city that has become a vibrant hub of global finance largely because of its fluency in a lingua franca inherited from the English. Indeed, the dismissal of Irish is not uncommon even in Ireland, where political spats intermittently flare up over whether or not efforts to sustain the language should continue.
But what “The Quiet Girl”—“An Cailín Ciúin” in Irish—reveals is that the public and private efforts to revitalize Irish are working. This was demonstrated recently in a most unusual context: the red carpet outside the BAFTAs, the British Academy of Film and Television Awards.
Approached by a journalist from the Irish-language television station, TG4, Mr. Mescal engaged with a stumbling but effective Irish. The clip instantly went viral back home. A week later, Mr. Mescal was sitting down on the couch of the most prominent Irish chat show, “The Late Late Show,” for a conversation encouraging people to use their cúpla focail (“a couple of words”) in everyday contexts.
Seán Ó Ceallaigh spent 47 years working with the Irish-language civic group Gael Linn. He retired during the pandemic but remains actively involved in Irish-language initiatives across the country. Mr. Ó Ceallaigh is ebullient at the health of the language in 2023, after decades of mostly bad news. Even Covid-19 could not halt the rising numbers of Irish speakers. Gael Linn adapted to the pandemic by moving its Irish-language classes online and has seen a dramatic growth in the numbers of students enrolling.
“The Quiet Girl”—“An Cailín Ciúin” in Irish—reveals is that the public and private efforts to revitalize Irish are working.
“All you have to do is look at the amount of new schools there are, coming on stream,” he says. Across Ireland, a vast network of Irish-language primary schools has been established over the last generation, and when there is a cohort of fluent Irish-speaking primary schoolchildren, invariably an all-Irish secondary school or all-Irish seam within a mostly English-speaking secondary school follows. The result has been a critical mass of people who, even if they are living and working primarily in English, have Irish as a foundational aspect of their education.
Mr. Ó Ceallaigh describes a virtuous cycle of many small initiatives or developments that together add up to a rejuvenation of Irish more than a century after its obituaries were first written. Alongside the blossoming of all-Irish education, the Irish government established the aforementioned TG4 to produce and broadcast television in the native tongue.
A generation on, that has created a thriving ecosystem of artists and experienced producers whose output is of a global standard, albeit in Irish. “An Cailín Ciúin”is just the first such production to reach a global audience.
Mr. Ó Ceallaigh suggests the next most likely Irish language phenomenon will be Kneecap, a gifted hip-hop group from Belfast who primarily rap in Irish. (This popular Kneecap video is not safe for work, especially if you speak Irish!) And alongside these evolutions, the enthusiasm for the old Irish culture persists.
Summer courses in the Gaeltacht, regions of Ireland where Irish is the primary tongue, remain a rite of passage for contemporary Irish teenagers, and old forms of expression are enjoying new vitality. Ó Ceallaigh reports that “with Sean Nós [literally an “old style” of song] and Irish dancing and that kind of thing—they would have 600 students down competing at the Oireachtas na Samhna [the leading annual Irish language festival] every year.”
A virtuous cycle of many small initiatives or developments that together add up to a rejuvenation of Irish more than a century after its obituaries were first written.
Proinsías Mac Brádaigh, S.J., is based in Portadown in Northern Ireland. He edits a quarterly publication in the Irish language, An Timire, and runs a publishing house called Foilseacháin Ábhar Spioradálta (Spiritual Content Publications). He notes the particular role played by Christianity in Ireland in keeping Irish alive when it was in its most precipitous decline in the 1800s by saying Mass “as Gaeilge.”
Into the early 20th century, during the period cultural historians call the Gaelic Revival, committed Jesuits and those working in Jesuit schools played a central role in recovering, preserving and republishing the classics of Irish literature, which at that time ran the risk of being lost. “The church has been active,” Father Mac Brádaigh says, and continues to be, within the broader context of a quietly flourishing linguistic renaissance.
New initiatives such as “Pop-Up Gaeltachtanna”—where Irish speakers descend on a pub and turn it into a Gaeltacht for the evening—fill him with hope, but beneath it all there has been a philosophical shift in efforts to restore the language. “After independence, there was a whole generation who spoke ‘correct’ Irish,” Father Mac Brádaigh says. “In their desire to promote the language, they would correct you. That didn’t go down well, naturally. But that time has passed. People can speak the Irish now as they have it.” Without a fear of offending Irish purists, “people can develop fluency in the language, and, more importantly, enjoy it.”
“There’s something new happening,” says Father Mac Brádaigh, who has coined a phrase to describe it: “An Teanga Ceilteach.” Teanga means language and Ceilteach means healthy, yet the phrase contains two other words—Ceilte is "hidden" and Ach is "but."
Thus, he says, “it’s a language that is hidden, but it is not hidden,” a language that is thriving even as many presume it is dying. The Irish language is “beginning to put its head above the parapet, and it’s not being shot down.”
During the Gaelic Revival, committed Jesuits and those working in Jesuit schools played a central role in recovering, preserving and republishing the classics of Irish literature
This year’s blossoming of Irish film reflects a deeper rejuvenation of the Irish language. And in the philosophical shift that Father MacBradaigh observes, there might be some learning for the Irish church. Leaving behind last century’s preoccupation with flawlessness but helping people develop fluency in Christianity through enjoying what it means to be Christian may be the wiser path.
It is no spoiler to say that “An Cailín Ciúin” closes with an ambiguous ending. But even if its producers do not pick up a statue in Hollywood this week, the future of the language it promotes now seems far more certain.