Irish Gaelic's great American ally, Séamus Blake--an interview


Séamus Blake's Míle Fáilte is New York City's only bi-lingual Irish Gaelic radio program, broadcast from his native Bronx across the tri-state region and across the world via an archive of his broadcasts available on-line--here. His program is chock full of media from the universe of Irish language music and literature, while connecting up the Gaeilgeoirí and their friends to what's the latest from Ireland's most interesting cultural movement--the re-popularization of our heritage's language.

I sat down with Séamus in Manhattan to learn about his life, his family from Clare and to pick his brain for better insight into the Irish language movement. I've broken the interview, which was four hours of enlightening conversation, into morsels that you can play and listen-in on yourself.

In the first clip embedded below this paragraph, I asked Séamus to speak to me about his family from Clare. His parents were emigrants from the west of the county to the South Bronx where he grew up. He speaks about John Walsh's study from 1926 on Irish speaking in that area of Ireland, and on the extensive Gaeltachtaí in that era, which numbered nine counties at the time. Blake's family were in the middle of the language shift that would reduce Ireland's Irish-speaking community dramatically during, ironically, the post-colonial period. Economic factors and psychological issues of self-worth affected parents who felt it advantageous to speak little or broken English to their children, rather than their native language. Bi-lingualism was not understood, or rejected as an option. He speaks of the Gaelic League and Seán Ó Tuama's analysis of the learning community from middle class Ireland and their relationship to the dialects spoken natively by people living in the west. He speaks about the caighdeánach and the standardization of the language, and great writers like Máirtín Ó Cadhain who wrote in his own dialect, and was Blake's teacher at Trinity.

I asked Séamus to tell me more about Irish language publishing which by all accounts is a major success story in the strange see-saw that is seeing Irish gain more and more confidence in all areas of media, while native speakers are still under constant pressure from the larger society to conform to Anglophonic hegemony in Ireland.

He describes the literature of the Gaeltacht, the publishing renaissance, and the relationship this had with Gaelic League city-dwellers who were grappling to come to terms with love for a language that rested in the minds of people from the country, with values in many ways alien to them. He speaks about the process in modern media, on radio and television, where many of the issues of caighdeánach (standardizing Irish) and dialect are worked out by putting Donegal speakers and Connemara speakers, for example, together in the same broadcast. Italian as a model for maintaining dialects and a standard language is discussed.