A Queens Garbageman and an Endangered Language
October 23, 2011 8:22 AM   Subscribe

I was amazed to find there were people I could speak Irish with, while picking up their garbage,” said Mr. Shevlin,

My Dad used to hang around the Breezy Point/Rockaway area when he was young and I spent some time there as a kid. It was known as the "Irish Riviera,' so it stands to reason there'd be some Gaelic speakers around.
posted by jonmc at 8:51 AM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I really loved this story, thanks for posting! There's nothing more attractive and inspiring to me than people with a serious passion for something.

That said -- and even as I acknowledge that Shevlin himself identified explicitly as a blue-collar guy, and that his employment as a "bin man" is what gives this story the spice required to make it into the NY Times -- I'm a bit uncomfortable with the way the journalist framed the story as such an unlikely one. I mean, yeah, it's hard when working a full-time job to make the time and find the resources to aggressively pursue a learning project of this nature. But I'd find it just as unlikely if an I-banker was doing this. We're such a weird society insofar as there's a working, unquestioned assumption that "intellectual pursuits" necessarily only appeal to the affluent: that it takes money to have intellectual curiosity. And because that assumption is the not-so-silent yet totally unquestioned premise of this article--indeed, the very basis for its "interest" quotient--I consider the article itself to be yet another instantiation of the problem.
posted by artemisia at 8:53 AM on October 23, 2011 [17 favorites]

Great little story. Thanks to their paywall, I don't go to nytimes so much anymore, but this was a great use of one of my 30. Thank you for posting!
posted by nevercalm at 9:01 AM on October 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

I was hoping "Polishes His Irish While Collecting The Trash" was a euphemism. I'm not sure what for, but I was hoping it was one. I found the article pleasing regardless.
posted by cjorgensen at 9:18 AM on October 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Thanks; this is getting sent abroad.

One of my best friends IS Irish, and grew up speaking exclusively Irish until she was 3. Her family has always been very passionate about preserving and promoting the use of Irish -- the couple times I've visited, and stayed with the whole family, it was like an Irish immersion course, and I think I picked up a couple phrases purely through osmosis. She started teaching me Irish when we started out as pen pals at age 12 (I still sign off all my letters to her with "slán go fóill", which she told me in her very first letter was basically "see you later").

She was grumbling recently about how one of the parties in the recent national election; right now all national documents, street signs, etc. are in both English and Irish, and a couple years of Irish are mandatory in secondary schools (kind of like how most high schools require at least one year of French or Spanish or something), and one of the parties was thinking about dropping a few of those requirements. So she's gotten a little disgusted about what looks like a decline in Irish use in Ireland. I suspect that hearing that people elsewhere are still passionate about it will cheer her tremendously.

(Despite her efforts, I really only know how to say about seven or eight things. But one of them let me catch the Irish that Glen Hansard used in the beginning of his Oscar Acceptance Speech -- that "go raith maibh mille mille agat" right at the beginning is "thanks a million" -- so that was cool.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:26 AM on October 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

...there's a working, unquestioned assumption that "intellectual pursuits" necessarily only appeal to the affluent...

And the way it works in reverse is even more toxic. "REAL Americans revel in ignorance!" is the entire basis of the GOP message to the masses.
posted by DU at 9:29 AM on October 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

From the article: ...and writing that he was seeking “grá mo chroí,” or “the love of my heart.” She responded in Irish and Mr. Shevlin was so impressed, he suspended his “No Jersey girls” rule.

Well, he is used to picking up trash. *ba-zing*

In all seriousness, though, this is a really great read. I wish them grá go deo.
posted by hanoixan at 9:44 AM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just sent this to all my buddies in the Irish language class!

I get what you're saying artemisia, but in some ways, a guy like this actually has more opportunities to practice Irish, while driving the truck, chit-chatting to people on the streets, etc. We "intellectuals" in office jobs often don't have that kind of freedom. My poor boss would blow a gasket if I spoke to him in Irish on the job!
posted by LN at 9:48 AM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

"He admired the way Gerry Adams, the president of the political party Sinn Fein, could mix Irish with English in speeches"

This is quite amusing, as Gerry Adams is sort of notorious for his dodgy Irish speaking skills.

Anyway, maith thú, Ed. Good for you.
posted by knapah at 10:16 AM on October 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

He certainly speaks it better than six of the seven current candidates for the Irish presidency, as a debate last week proved. And one of them is an American citizen! If Shevlin can sort out a passport, it is honestly not too much a stretch at this stage to imagine him running in 2018.
posted by rollick at 10:24 AM on October 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Rumour has it that in Sinn Féin's offices in Stormont, they have "Go raibh maith agat, a Leas Cheann Comhairle" (Thank you, Mr Speaker) written out phonetically on the wall.

As an electoral aside, I'm glad Michael D is keeping the gaeilgeoir flag flying in the election, the field is really pretty shoddy on so many levels.
posted by knapah at 10:47 AM on October 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

For some reason that headline sounds amazingly dirty. I have no idea why.
posted by Naberius at 10:57 AM on October 23, 2011

Naberius, my thought exactly. There is a lot of American slang I’m not familiar with, so I was almost expecting a completely different kind of article.
posted by wachhundfisch at 11:08 AM on October 23, 2011

EmpressCallipygos: She was grumbling recently about how [..] right now all national documents, street signs, etc. are in both English and Irish, and a couple years of Irish are mandatory in secondary schools [...] and one of the parties was thinking about dropping a few of those requirements.
More accurately: Irish school students are required to pass Irish at aged 18, must study the language for all of high school, and are not permitted to attend an Irish university without a passing grade in it [*].

One of the party leaders before the last election (the one who won, incidentally) suggested that denying people access to a third-level education because they don't speak Irish might be counterproductive and was something worthy of revision. Not least because it has sod-all bearing on whether you're any cop at Physics, and shoving a dismally-taught language down people's throats tends not to engender all that much fondness for it.

I find it quite interesting, being born a citizen but raised elsewhere: you want to support the language in principle but arriving as an adult there's no way to pick it up without spending wads of cash, and it's really not the done thing to suggest that there's a class snobbery here in shoving another hurdle in front of the urban-resident children of parents who never got a shot at college themselves, and may be 10 or 15 generations removed from their last non-Anglophone ancestor.

[* Actually it's not compulsory at 'Leaving Cert', and the now-PM said so in one of the debates, and was leapt upon for this faux pas. Turns out he was correct. It's moot though, since all schools require their students to carry it on and no University here will let you in without it.]
posted by genghis at 11:38 AM on October 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Maith an fear!

genghis, you can get an exemption if you have not lived in Ireland for any substantial period of time - I had several friends who spent some of their childhood abroad and did not have to do it to go to university. I believe Trinity College does not require Irish; but all the NUI colleges do.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 2:29 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Out of curiosity, is anyone familiar with what dialect "cé hé bhfuil tú?" is from? It's something I hadn't specifically seen before. I know in my Connacht schools we got "Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú?", and I was under the impression "Conas a tá tú?" was the Leinster standard.
posted by rollick at 2:34 PM on October 23, 2011

Ah, a bit of googling answers my own question: it's an abbreviated "Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú" apparently -- unsurprising considering his immersion experience in Galway.
posted by rollick at 2:43 PM on October 23, 2011

Replace every occurance of Irish and Ireland with Spanish and Mexico, and this doesn't make the new York times.
posted by empath at 3:53 PM on October 23, 2011

The difference, empath, is that Spanish is not an endangered language, and people in Spain weren't ever prevented from owning property if Spanish was all they spoke.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:13 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

The teaching of Irish in Irish schools is shocking. The syllabus assumes you'll pick up perfect conversational Irish through repetition/osmosis/magic, then drops you in the deep end of mediaeval Irish poetry and literature. I finished school in 1999, vowing to never speak Irish again, more fluent in French after 5 years of teaching than Irish after 13.
posted by kersplunk at 4:53 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I keep hearing about how terrible the teaching of Irish in schools is. I've never heard anything good said of it. Is this because of resentment of its compulsory status? If not, why has something so potentially central to the national culture been left in this state so long?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:20 PM on October 23, 2011

The teaching of Irish has been left in the hands of the Christian Brothers for 80 years and it's taught like Latin or ancient Greek. Conjugation tables and translation exercises and freakin' Peig to struggle through. It's only spoken as a native language in the Gaeltachts out west, so it's hard to see how to involve kids learning in Dublin with any sort of living Gaelic tradition.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 5:31 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

it's taught like Latin

Presumably because of the hugely successful revival of Latin as the worldwide language of everyday life ... yeah, I get that the teaching methods are terrible, what I don't understand is why they persist if this is as universally acknowledged as it seems.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:46 PM on October 23, 2011

This is an interesting article I remembered reading a few years back and just dug up.

"Cá Bhfuil Na Gaeilg eoirí? *

Gaelic is the first official language of Ireland, with 25% of the population claiming to speak it. But can that true? To put it to the test, Manchán Magan set off round the country with one self-imposed handicap - to never utter a word of English

(*English translation: Where are all the Gaelic speakers?)"

The only note of hope is the bit about the kids coming through the gaelscoileanna (totally Irish-speaking schools), perhaps teaching has come on a bit since the old days.

I'm from Northern Ireland and didn't get the opportunity in school to learn Irish until I was 12, which was too late really, and then three years later, when I had to pick the subjects to study at GCSE level, Irish dropped off my list. French and other subjects took priority for pragmatic reasons. I still regret not keeping it up, like many I have a cúpla focal, but that's about it.
posted by knapah at 6:03 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

A related, and utterly delightful, 9 minute film:

Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom

The story of a young Chinese convenience-store clerk who prepares for his new life in Ireland by teaching himself its official language -- and the surprise he discovers when he gets there. (Subtitled in English.)
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 6:18 PM on October 23, 2011 [11 favorites]

I actually can read Irish some. Staying in the hostel, several of the young ladies who spoke and read some because of school were amazed that I could speak and read better than your average Irish person from Dublin. The first time in Ireland this was a HUGE help because before I had cataract surgery, the signage 'as Bearla' was not readable 'cor ar bith', whereas the old letters Irish language signs were visible.
I love that 'Yao Ming Is Ainm Dom' there seems to be some fascination among Chinese people for Irish things.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:40 PM on October 23, 2011

Oh it needs to be understood, Gerry Adams is a 'Jailtacht speaker'! He learned his Irish out of AP/RN's Irish lesson series.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:44 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Stephen Fry did a ten minute segment on Irish for some documentary series recently. Not as deep as I'd've liked, but charming!
posted by rollick at 5:19 AM on October 24, 2011

Harvey Kilobit: The teaching of Irish has been left in the hands of the Christian Brothers for 80 years and it's taught like Latin or ancient Greek.

I don't know how they teach Latin and Greek, or indeed Irish now, but I know in the late 60s I was taught Irish with text books like "Dick agus Jane agus Spot". Presentation Brothers, not CBs, though I imagine if anything they'd be more conservative (though us little kids were mostly taught by nuns, with the scary brothers in the background). We also had a comic about St Patrick all in Irish. More effort seemed to be put into teaching us Irish than other subjects.

The thing I noticed was that I was top of the class in Irish (I'm a Scot) and second was an English student. An Irish student going home with a report card that showed an aptitude for Irish would be in trouble unless their parents were GAA/SF types, especially in Dublin. Irish was not a subject the locals wanted to do well in.
posted by GeckoDundee at 7:49 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

*embarrassed cough*

I owe it to my friend to correct this mistake: I mangled the Irish I wrote here. The proper rendering is "Go raibh mille mille maith agat".

Thank you. Or, "go raibh maith agat."

posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:03 AM on October 24, 2011

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