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UWM's John Gleeson Speaks Up for Irish

Keeping alive a love of language

Mar. 14, 2012
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John Gleeson believes in the Irish language.

"The language contains, as Joyce said, the conscience, memory and soul of the race, the stories of the culture and, with them, the philosophy of life," says Gleeson, co-director of UW-Milwaukee's Center for Celtic Studies.

"In Donegal there is a Gaeltacht [Irish-speaking area], home to an old guy, Weaver. He's a culture guy, knows all the stories and legends and lore," Gleeson continues. "On the bus, out on the tip of the Slieve peninsula, there was this gap between the mountains, where you could see the Atlantic. The waves were really blowing. He turned to me and said, in Irish, 'Manannán mac Lir's horses are running through the fishermen's garden.'"

Manannán mac Lir is the Celtic God of the Sea, the waves are his horses, and the foam breaking the top is the horses' manes.

"How beautiful is that?" Gleeson asks. "Irish provides many of these. 'A man never wore a nicer necktie than the arms of his child.' There are so many little examples of the richness and the poetry."

Gleeson learned Irish in his native Dublin. "Dublin is not an Irish-speaking part of Ireland," he explains. "But my mother spoke it and taught me. I wasn't good at sport or art. I was good at Irish. So I stuck with it. I love it. It's a wonderful language. It has the oldest tradition of vernacular outside Latin and Greek in Europe. The earliest written poems date to the sixth century."

Today, however, Irish is a language under threat of extinction. "Thankfully, we have good poets writing in it," Gleeson says. "The Irish also do a decent job of putting it on street signs, train cars, radio stations and the like. There's a special government department devoted to Gaeltacht jobs, to keep the talent in small but vital industries like fish farms and software. The government also creates teaching aids for each of the European Union languages. The effort is put into it."

Gleeson is doing his fair share, too. "I love keeping it alive—studying and teaching it," he says. "People say, 'Why bother teaching Irish to American kids? They're never going to use it.' First, you don't know that they won't. But more importantly, in a day of homogenization and globalization, it's important to learn a philosophy other than feral capitalism."

The UWM Celtic Studies program benefits from a good relationship with the Irish government, according to Gleeson. "The minister for culture visits UWM every year—after he goes to Irish Fest. I even took our dean to Ireland about 10 years ago," he says. "We currently get a grant from the Irish government, too—and in fact, we put the idea to the minister, and ours was the first program to get it.

"Now UWM is the model for about 50 colleges around the world teaching Irish," he adds. "Some places you'd expect, like Notre Dame and Boston College, but also St. Thomas [Minnesota], and Columbia University, Fordham, and NYU in New York. There are also schools in Europe—Leipzig, Poland and Oslo, for instance."

In addition to coursework, Gleeson says, the center takes students to Ireland every year and organizes and hosts regular events, including concerts, a Samhain (Halloween) celebration, last fall's Celtic film festival, and February's Irish Language Day. The latter included Irish-language classes and workshops, singing and dance instruction, and a seminar by Deirdre Ní Chonghaile on music and song in the Aran Islands, one of the country's most famous Gaeltacht. A seminar honored Douglas Hyde, founder of the Gaelic League and Ireland's first president, who traveled to Milwaukee in 1906.

"Right now, we've a special exhibition at the library devoted to [Irish Nobel Prize Winner William Butler] Yeats. It came from the National Library of Ireland, courtesy of the Irish government," Gleeson says. "And, of course, we're making preparations for St. Patrick's Day. Our celebration will take place March 15 in the Union Concourse. There will be music, dancing and exhibits. You should come. Everyone should learn more about Lá Gaeilge, the 'language of heaven.'"

For more on the Center for Celtic Studies and related events, visit www.uwm.edu/celtic.


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