This paper examines the experiences and motivations of ‘new speakers’ of Irish in the United States. ‘New speakers’ of Irish refer to those whose first language is not Irish but who use the language regularly and fluently. Based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out among Irish speakers in five locations across the United States, the paper begins by describing the language backgrounds of participants. It goes on to analyse their use of Irish and their motivations for learning it and considers the links between practice and ideology. Although Irish heritage and culture are often strong motivating factors for Americans to learn Irish, not all learners are Irish American and only some advance to a level of competence high enough to adopt Irish as family or home language and/or attempt to influence the language ideologies of others. High and active competence is linked to deep personal dedication and is achieved despite significant obstacles facing those who wish to become new speakers of Irish in the United States. This research is part of a broader European project about the practices and ideologies of ‘new speakers’ from a range of languages.
The aim of this paper is to describe and analyse the language practices and motivations of ‘new speakers’ of Irish in the United States. ‘New speakers’ are understood as regular and fluent users of Irish who did not acquire it as a language of initial socialisation in the Gaeltacht, the traditional heartland of the language where Irish is still spoken, to varying extents, as a community language (Ní Bhrádaigh et al. 2007). Due to the key position of Irish as a core curriculum subject in primary and post-primary education in the Republic of Ireland, the majority of new speakers begin to acquire it at school. However, there are increasing numbers of new speakers outside Ireland due to the proliferation of opportunities to study Irish abroad.
Based on an ethnographic methodology involving participant observation and semi-structured interviews, this paper focusses on the narrative histories of a sample of US-born Irish speakers. They did not attend the Irish educational system and therefore learned Irish through other formal means, often as adults and predominantly in the United States. The research is part of a broader project examining practices and ideologies of new speakers of Irish in Ireland itself and of new speakers of minority languages in a variety of European settings (O’Rourke et al. 2015; O’Rourke and Walsh 2015). While new speakers may be perceived as playing an important role in the development of minority languages, their claims to ‘speakerness’ can be challenged by discourses which tend to idealise native speech. Due to such discourses, the experiences, trajectories and ideologies of new speakers of Irish have not been studied as closely as those of traditional speakers (O’Rourke and Walsh 2015). Coupled with this marginalisation has been a tendency to overlook the existence and lived experiences of new speakers of Irish outside Ireland. By shedding light on such international new speakers, this paper attempts to bridge that gap.
Millions of Irish immigrants, many of them Irish speakers, have settled in the United States since the nineteenth century. A particularly large influx of Irish speakers was recorded following the Great Famine of the 1840s which disproportionately affected the Irish-speaking poor. However, many Irish-speaking immigrants ‘concentrated their efforts on mastering English, the language of their new land’ (McGowan 1994: 4) and suppressed the language with which they were most familiar. Although traditional Irish speakers persisted for longer in certain urban areas where there were high concentrations of immigrants (for instance Boston), the majority of Irish-speaking incomers shifted to English within a generation or two (see also Kallen 1994; Ní Bhroiméil 2001).
Recent census data illustrates that 22,279 people speak Irish at home in the United States, making Irish the 76th most common home language (of a total of 327). Of these, 3,455 people or 15.5% spoke English ‘less than well’. The highest concentrations of speakers are in Massachusetts, New York, Illinois and California (United States Census Bureau 2010). There is no information as to whether speakers were born in Ireland or in the United States. However, the states with the highest concentrations of Irish speakers have traditionally been favoured destinations for Irish emigrants, which suggests that some immigrants continue to maintain Irish after they arrive in the United States.
The teaching of Irish at universities has received a significant boost in recent years due to the work of the Fulbright Commission in Ireland which provides grants for Irish citizens to study or teach Irish in the United States, and for US citizens to do the same in Ireland. In 2011, the Commission reported that Irish was taught at 51 higher education institutes and 36 non-academic institutions (such as Irish Centres or branches of Conradh na Gaeilge ) in the United States (Ireland-United States [Fulbright] Commission 2011: 5). In 2009, the Modern Languages Association reported that 406 third-level students were studying ‘Irish’ or ‘Modern Irish’, placing Irish in 27th place among the 277 less widely taught languages surveyed, higher than Modern Greek or Czech (Furman et al 2010: 31). 
Before embarking on fieldwork, Irish language organisations in both the eastern and western United States were contacted and their assistance sought with identifying fluent speakers who would be interested in participating in the research. Using a snowballing approach, a list of approximately 20 individuals was compiled. The criteria for selection were functional fluency in Irish (based on the speaker’s self-assessment), not having acquired Irish as a home language and not having received formal education in Ireland. Therefore traditional speakers of Irish who had emigrated from the Gaeltacht or other Irish-born fluent speakers who had learned Irish at school or elsewhere were excluded from the sample.
Fieldwork was conducted over a 2-week period in five locations in 2013 on both the east and west coasts of the United States. In keeping with previous methodology of the new speakers project, fieldwork was based on participant observation and semi-structured individual biographical interviews. Not all individuals identified initially were available when fieldwork began but it was possible to conduct 13 in-depth interviews with eight men and five women. Participants ranged in age from 37 to 71 with the majority over 50. Almost all identified as Irish-American. The interview protocol was designed to elucidate information about the speaker’s language background, their practice of Irish and their ideologies around the language and the Gaeltacht. Some interviews were supplemented by additional reflections or clarifications provided by the participants themselves at a later stage. Although all participants had identified as ‘fluent’, or been presented as such when the fieldwork was being prepared, the interviews revealed a spectrum of competence ranging from intermediate to advanced. Some of the less advanced speakers switched to English for sections of the interviews, or code-mixed regularly due to lexical gaps. Others were confident speakers of more idiomatic Irish and one participant was a highly competent speaker of a variety close to a traditional Gaeltacht dialect. Three of the 13 participants reported speaking Irish to their children and/or to partners.
In addition to interviews, participant observation was conducted in informal (conversation circle for intermediate learners) and formal (immersion weekend for fluent learners) educational settings. Approximately 50 people were present at these events, including some of the interviewees. Notes and photographs were taken in these settings and documents and other printed materials related to the Irish language and the participants were gathered.
The interview data was transcribed according to the protocol attached to this article. Errors in the original Irish or codeswitching to English were not amended and remain in the extracts which follow. Coding of transcripts identified several themes and sub-themes related to the linguistic background of speakers, their practice of Irish and their ideologies towards it.
The first section of the data analysis will concentrate on the language background of participants, the ways in which they acquired Irish and their current language practices. The second section will discuss their motivations for learning Irish and provide a general overview of their ideological disposition towards the language. A more comprehensive analysis of the ideological positioning of this group is beyond the scope of this short paper.
As required by the selection criteria, none of the participants had been raised with Irish as a home language, and all reported English as their first language. Two participants reported being very interested in languages from a young age and having learned a number of languages other than Irish during their school years. Three interviewees had some exposure to Irish in their youth. Participant A1,  a 65-year-old man, remembered hearing his grandparents speaking Irish to each other in their home. They were native speakers who had emigrated to the United States from the Donegal Gaeltacht:
The parents of participant B1, a 71-year-old woman, emigrated from Ireland to the east coast. Although they spoke only English, she recalled that their English was heavily marked by Irish and that her great-great-grandparents had been native speakers:
The parents of participant B2, a 53-year-old man, also emigrated from Ireland. His mother had attended Irish-medium education and was competent in Irish in her youth, and his great-grandmother was a native speaker.
All three participants referred to Irish-speaking grandparents or great-grandparents who emigrated from Ireland in the nineteenth century, or whose children left Ireland subsequently. Almost all the other participants mentioned more distant Irish ancestors who were even more likely to be Irish speaking. Emigration disproportionately affected Irish speakers as they comprised the poorest cohorts of society who left Ireland to seek a better life in the United States, particularly in the large cities of the northeast (McGowan 1994). Rapid language shift was common, leaving future generations monolingual in English, but their linguistic heritage was an important point of reference for the descendants of those immigrants who participated in this study (see Section 5). Participant B2 was also influenced by the revivalist policy of the Irish state as his mother and a family friend had both attended Irish-medium education. In conclusion, both native speaker heritage and language-in-education policy in Ireland influenced the linguistic background of a minority of the sample and most participants were aware of the likelihood of Irish-speaking ancestors.
All of the participants began by studying Irish in the United States, occasionally through self-tuition but usually by taking a course at their university or in their local Irish Centre. Interviewees based on the east coast took advantage of the better provision of Irish courses there and all had attended residential immersion weekends. Participant B1, who began learning Irish in her 40s, described the importance of the weekend courses:
Participant C1, a woman in her 50s, began with self-tuition, took up Irish classes in her area and ‘broke through’ when she took a Gaeltacht course in Ireland:
Participant B2 also attended Gaeltacht courses in Ireland but stressed that he had learned most of his Irish in the United States:
Participant D2, a 48-year-old who is raising his son with Irish, also combined classes on the west coast, self-study and a trip to the Gaeltacht:
Participant A2, a 60-year-old man, began learning Irish in his 20s at courses in Irish Centres in the city where he lived. However, he was advised by a visiting Irish language enthusiast that he should go to Ireland and live with Irish speakers in a city for extended periods:
A2 returned to Ireland on several occasions and spent an extended period of nine months in the Gaeltacht. His variety of Irish contained very many traditional features from that area and he was the most competent of all the interviewees. He spoke Irish to his children and teaches Irish in the area where he lives.
This data illustrates that Irish is acquired by a combination of self-study, immersion courses in the United States and trips to the Gaeltacht, although the latter is neither equally accessible to all speakers nor deemed by them to be essential. Practical constraints such as short holiday time or the cost of travel to Ireland limit the opportunities to spend extended periods in Ireland and it is significant that the majority of the participants had not spent longer than a few weeks in the Gaeltacht during their lifetime. Participants made the best of whatever resources were available to them and often displayed impressive diligence and commitment to achieving functional fluency or beyond, linked sometimes with powerful ideological motivations to learn Irish (see Section 5). Unsurprisingly, the sole participant who had spent an extended period living in the Gaeltacht had acquired a native-like idiom and was the most competent speaker of all. However, all participants were capable of maintaining a conversation entirely or mostly in Irish and they had overcome substantial obstacles of geography or cost to become speakers due to a desire to achieve fluency.
There was wide variation in current language practices among participants, reflecting their own competence but also their sociolinguistic circumstances as scattered speakers of Irish in English-dominant environments in the United States. Participant E1 is a fluent speaker but has access only to dispersed Irish language networks in a large city. He explained how he uses self-tuition materials on an ongoing basis:
D2, one of the more competent speakers in the sample, describes how his practice of Irish was fairly limited until the birth of his son a few years previously. He decided to raise the child with Irish as his first language, thereby creating a daily opportunity to speak the language:
A2, a highly competent speaker, also adopted Irish as one of the languages of his home, alongside English. When his children were born, more than 20 years previously, he decided to speak Irish to them and to his wife:
Participant B4, a 59-year-old fluent speaker, is actively involved in Irish language events and in the promotion of Irish. As well as participating in an Irish-speaking circle of friends, Irish is his home language:
Participant C1 is a 60-year-old woman who has organised Irish language courses in her area and teaches the language to other learners. She speaks Irish fluently and uses many traditional Gaeltacht features. In this extract, C1 describes her ongoing efforts to create and sustain her own Irish-speaking network in order to use Irish as much as possible:
At the other end of the spectrum, participant C2, a less-fluent 63-year-old woman, explained how she keeps regular Skype appointments with other similar learners in the United States:
Therefore practice of Irish varies from the occasional to the frequent, based on the person’s circumstances and motivations. There would appear to be a distinction between those whose use of Irish is limited to occasional social contacts and see it more as a hobby and those who wish to make it a common language in their homes or social networks, as much as is possible given the sociolinguistic context.  Some participants had very limited opportunities to use Irish beyond a circle of one or two friends or Irish language events such as conversation circles or immersion courses. Various methods to practice Irish were reported, ranging from printed self-tuition materials and literature to online resources and social media. Others regularly sought out the company of Irish-speaking networks or friends, sometimes native speakers from Ireland, in order to use their Irish as much as possible. A smaller number of more committed and highly competent speakers used Irish as a home language (or in parallel with English) and were raising children with Irish or bilingually. Some of the more competent speakers were themselves teaching Irish to other learners.
Language practice is intimately linked with ideological and motivational factors (Spolsky 2004, Spolsky 2009), some of which have been touched on already. Although beyond the scope of this paper to examine the language ideologies of this group in detail, the next section examines their motivations for learning Irish.
With the exception of two people, all participants identified as Irish-American.  Some participants’ parents had been born in Ireland and emigrated to the United States. Others had Irish-born grandparents or more distant Irish ancestry. Irish heritage was singled out as a powerful motivational factor for learning Irish. A1, a semi-fluent speaker, described how learning and speaking Irish reminds him of his grandparents, native speakers from Ireland:
In a conversation subsequent to the interview, A1 reported that his grandparents were surprised at his interest in Irish and tried to teach him individual words. However, when his grandfather attempted entire conversations with him, his grandmother interjected with: ‘why are you bothering with that pagan language?’ He believed that this revealed their contradictory views: although they wanted to teach a little Irish to their grandson, it was not important enough to ensure that he would acquire a conversational ability in it (field notes).
B4 drew explicitly on his Irish-American heritage as a reason for learning and using Irish, arguing that knowledge and use of the language should be a central part of Irish-American identity:
However E1, a fluent speaker whose grandparents had emigrated from Ireland, was critical of the failure of many Irish-Americans to engage with Irish in a meaningful way:
Of the estimated 38 million Americans claiming an Irish-American heritage (Ó Broin 2011), only a tiny proportion can speak Irish. Although not all descendants of immigrants maintain their heritage languages, language shift among Irish speakers in the United States may have been more extreme. Contemporary Irish America is no doubt aware that the majority of the Irish population does not know Irish and that there is no communicative need to maintain or learn Irish if travelling to the home country. In this sense, the small cohort of Irish-American new speakers represents a minority view that active use of Irish is an important part of their identity (Ihde 1994: 78–80).
When asked about their identities, three participants identified as ‘Gaels’ [Gaeil], a term which connotes a sense of belonging to or affinity with the ideal of an Irish-speaking Ireland, as opposed to the current sociolinguistic context where English is overwhelmingly dominant. This may be referred to as a Gaelic (as opposed to an Irish) identity.  Two examples are provided below. When asked why he spoke English to his children, A2 replied:
This was B1’s response when asked if Irish was her language:
Although the sample is small, use of ‘Gael’ as an identity marker is significant because it is no longer common among Irish speakers in Ireland. Irish has two words to describe an Irish person or thing: ‘Éireannach’ (a noun referring to an Irish person or an adjective qualifying something related to Ireland) and ‘Gael’ (literally ‘Gaelic person’; the adjective ‘Gaelach’ signifying something related to the Irish language). ‘Gael’ and ‘Gaelach’ were the common historical terms to describe Irish speakers (in opposition to English speakers). Following the foundation of the Irish state in 1922, Irishness became more closely associated with speaking English and the Irish language retreated to just one of a variety of symbolic manifestations of Irish identity. Possibly because only one adjective – ‘Irish’ – is used in English to refer to both the language and the nationality, and given that most Irish speakers do not claim a separate identity to Irish people in general, ‘Éireannach’ now predominates over ‘Gaelach’ among Irish speakers. As they are not Irish residents and may not have a claim to Irish citizenship, it may be easier for Irish-American new speakers of Irish to claim ‘Gaelach’ rather than ‘Éireannach’ as their primary identity.
Aspects of traditional Irish cultural heritage, in particular traditional music, were identified by several participants as triggers for the learning of Irish. Participant A3, a woman in her 60s with only very distant Irish ancestry, recalled being very curious about all matters linguistic, including Irish, in her youth. She was particularly interested in folklore and went on to take Celtic Studies at university:
C1 was one of only two participants who could not say with certainty that she had any Irish-American heritage, but she had experienced a strong emotional connection with Irish music and the Irish language while in Ireland. In the following extract, she described her first experience of visiting the Gaeltacht before she had begun to learn Irish in earnest:
Music was also an important motivational factor for D1, a 51-year-old unaware of any Irish ancestry. She was one of the less-fluent speakers in the sample, reverting to English for parts of the interview:
Despite her lack of fluency, D1 spoke about Irish in deeply emotional and spiritual terms and it was clear that she had expended a great effort in acquiring the language to date.
D2 reported only very distant Irish ancestry but was one of the more highly competent speakers of the sample, probably aided by his decision to speak Irish to his son (see Section 4.2). Irish had become a means of connecting with Irish people, despite his awareness of the sociolinguistic reality that not everyone in Ireland shared his interest:
It may be significant that D2 uses ‘Éireannach’ rather than ‘Gaelach’ when referring to Irish identity based on language. His sense of becoming ‘kind of Irish’ (‘Éireannach... giota beag’ rather than ‘Gaelach’) could illustrate empathy with Irish people who struggle to reclaim their heritage language. ‘Éireannach’ for him may be a more appropriate term than ‘Gaelach’ for someone who has attempted to acquire Irish but whose primary identity may not be based on the language. D2’s decision to speak Irish to his son may also reveal the perception that Irish is a threatened language and needs new speakers:
Other participants also revealed an awareness of the weak position of Irish as a community language.
This paper reveals a variety of backgrounds, practices and motivations in relation to new speakers of Irish in the United States. Most of the participants reported only distant Irish ancestry, a minority had Irish-born parents or grandparents and a smaller minority reported no Irish-American heritage at all. Practices ranged from occasional social use within limited learners’ networks to more regular and widespread use including the adoption of Irish as a family language.
The strongest motivation to learn and speak Irish was Irish-American ancestry, although it is clear that this alone does not predicate an interest in the language, let alone a desire to make active use of it. Motivations and practices were interlinked in the sample, with some participants demonstrating considerable dedication to becoming new speakers while others were clearly less committed. The less engaged speakers appeared to view Irish as a hobby, important in terms of their identity but not crucially so, whereas others were deeply committed to Irish as a form of self-actualisation and were creating opportunities to use it at every turn, sometimes in their own families.
Therefore, while most participants referred to the extrinsic motivation of Irish-American heritage or related factors such as Gaelic identity and traditional music, this is only part of the story. Some participants appeared to draw on deeper and more powerful intrinsic motivations such as sustained personal commitment and dedication in order to become or remain new speakers of Irish, often in the face of considerable financial or geographical difficulties (for instance cost of courses, lack of learning resources or distance from the Gaeltacht, etc.). The greater the personal dedication and effort expended, the higher the competence attained. This in turn seemed to spur speakers onto the ‘next level’ of commitment, for instance deciding to raise their children in Irish and/or attempting to manage the language practices and beliefs of others (Ní Dhúda 2010).
The data suggests that strong intrinsic motivation and considerable dedication are required to become and remain a new speaker of Irish, particularly abroad where the opportunities for socialisation are even more limited than they are in Ireland.
John Walsh’s fieldwork in the United States for this paper was funded by the Irish Research Council’s New Foundations scheme (2012). The writing of this paper has benefitted from ongoing discussion on the theme of ‘new speakers’ as part of the COST EU Action IS1306 entitled ‘New Speakers in a Multilingual Europe: Opportunities and Challenges’ (http://www.nspk.org.uk). The authors wish to acknowledge the assistance of Gearóid Ó Duinn, MA (University of Limerick and Villanova University), who helped organise fieldwork in the United States. They also thank Dr Liam Ó hAisibéil (NUI Galway) who transcribed interviews.
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