Irish Gaelic's great American ally, Séamus Blake--an interview
By: Brendan Patrick Keane | Published Tuesday, March 9, 2010, 1:40 AM | Updated Friday, September 9, 2011, 9:33 PM
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. In the clip embedded to the left of this paragraph, Séamus discussed the attitudes towards the language by the people and the government of Ireland. Lip-service was discussed and the controversies that arise in the area of funding, and Gaelscoileanna construction. Séamus describes a conference in Belfast that brought together people from all over the world to discuss Irish attitudes towards native culture, and the seeming obsession in modern Ireland with making Ireland seem less Irish, except in areas of tourism, where Irishness is a valuable product sold to Irish Americans and other visitors, especially in the cities. Americanization is discussed, and how this relates to the Irish American assimilation process, where Séamus Blake's Irish parents did not pass on their heritage to their kids. We discuss the Bronx from his day, and how then Séamus escaped this assimilation force, to retain and regain his heritage. He describes his trip through the Folk Revival and how the era of tradition revival affected Irish American attitudes to their culture, and how New Age Celtic stuff came about. This is compared then to the projects of John Millington Synge, and Flann O'Brien to look at Irish culture realistically or satirically. The sentence that gets cut off at the very end of the clip was: "now it's called organic."
We spoke about the de-population of the West in Ireland and the "New Irish" or undocumented that leave home to set up a new life in this country. Séamus speaks as he prefaces "generally" about New Irish attitudes towards Irish Americans and the Irish who came before them. They are better educated, he describes, but there is an offensive posture that is taken normally against Irish Americans. We discussed the feelings and ideologies involved in being snobby against Irish Americans as a knee-jerk stereotyping. Examples are given. Séamus's term "stage American" is discussed as a literary stock character, that fits an Irish sense of self. The economic relationship between Ireland and the United States is also discussed. Irish American claims to a heritage from Ireland that is larger than the one generation of people that live in Ireland or who are from Ireland gets aired between us, as are assimilation issues of imitation and authenticity. The examples of James Baldwin in Africa or Jews visiting Israel are invoked as a way to understanding post-colonial conditions that affect both Irish and Irish Americans, especially of the first generation raised in America by Irish people, such as Séamus and myself.
Séamus Blake's education is a lesson in the growth of Irish Studies programs across universities in the United States and the world. Blake studied at Trinity College in Dublin, took classes with Máirtín Ó Cadhain, in whose funeral he walked. He stitched together an Irish Studies program himself from various disconnected courses and when it came to write papers, he would chose Irish subjects. Today, Irish Studies is no longer a hodge podge thing, and it is because early scholars such as Blake persisted despite the lack of institutional support to craft the program from personal study interests. We talked about the Irish language community in New York City, and the problems that separate learners and teachers. The Internet is described as a community, but the physical community is questioned. Daithí MacLochlainn's Club Leabhar, and Angela Carter's book shop are invoked, as was the habit of Irish speakers to meet for dinner in NYC not so long ago, and conduct the conversation in Irish, with no problem of esteem raising its objection, as would happen in Ireland as Angela would note, where speaking Irish in public would be frowned upon. The theoretical Irish language community is described as burgeoning, with centers of Irish culture becoming more welcoming to Gaeilgeoirí such as at the Irish Arts Center on 11th avenue, and the New York Irish Center in Long Island City and at Ireland House off Washington Square Park. The problem remains however, in finding a place in New York where you can expect to hear Irish spoken, and speak it without fear of rejection or prejudice. We grapple with trying to understand how such strong hatred for the language seems to track it like a hunting dog wherever it tries to pop up in public life. Anglophonic prejudice is described as it relates to Irish speaking and speaking of Native American languages. Hebrew revival is compared to Irish where young Israelis were at the heart of it, and nowadays with young Irish people having many fewer hang-ups than were normal in the past.
The conversation will continue, and next time with more Irish on my part. Know this about Séamus Blake: he has been broadcasting bi-lingually in Irish since 1978. He has lived on the Árainn Islands and was a Fulbright scholar for two years at Dublin's Trinity College. He has been a teacher and lecturer at Queens College, NYU, John Jay College and The Gaelic Society of New York. Currently, he is a tenured professor at Nassau County Community College; the Irish Language Editor of the quarterly academic journal 'New Hibernia Review;' and the senior bibliographer of the Celtic section for the annual Modern Language Association bibliography. Less than a year ago, Irish America magazine named him with Bono, Van Morrison and Gabriel Byrne on the Global Top 100 list for his towering achievements and contributions to Irish American heritage, which, comes from Ireland and can persist, as it has with him so tirelessly, here in a new world.