But for these students, and for kindred spirits in America and Ireland, the Irish language has emerged as an improbable passion.
As the Irish diaspora prepares for St. Patrick’s Day, the Hibernian tongue, once at the brink of extinction, is enjoying a modest revival. A 2009 survey by the Modern Language Association found enrollment in Irish-language classes in the United States numbered 409 students, compared with 278 in 1998, 58 in 1990 and 28 in 1980. Classes at Catholic University drew 18 students this year and 20 last year, the largest enrollments in recent memory.
Catholic may be the only college in the Washington region that has ever mounted a significant Irish language program. The effort is one of the oldest in the nation, funded through an 1896 gift of $50,000 from the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
“I actually put my Facebook page into Irish,” said Bridget McCarthy, 19, a sophomore from Howard County who plans to major in archaeology — Irish archaeology. “It will probably be easier to learn the ancient language if I learn the modern one,” she said.
Irish, or Irish Gaelic, has resurfaced as a subject of scholarship in classrooms and social conversation groups after gradually disappearing from everyday vernacular in pubs and homes.
Waves of immigration planted hundreds of thousands of Irish speakers in American cities in the 19th century. They died off, and their descendants fled to the suburbs, seeding the collapse of traditional Irish American culture.
Irish declined in Ireland, as well; generations of British rule drove the number of native speakers below 100,000. But now the language is enjoying a renaissance. Irish-language immersion schools have sprung up across Ireland in recent years, spawning a new generation of young, bilingual Irish adults.
The gaelscoil, or Irish-language school, has proven inordinately popular among Ireland’s elite, and many schools keep waiting lists. A report in the Irish Times newspaper said the movement had taken hold there not only in remote hamlets but also with affluent helicopter parents swept up in a “post-Riverdance cultural zeitgeist.”
“There’s kind of a seismic change taking place in Irish identity,” said Traolach O’Riordain, director of Irish studies at the University of Montana. “It’s more common to hear the language spoken in cities now, compared with 30 or 40 years ago . . . These kids are coming out and they’re forming Irish-speaking clubs and associations.”
Ronan Connolly, 31, taught at a gaelscoil in his native Monaghan, Ireland, before coming to the United States four years ago. Now he functions as a sort of one-man Irish heritage society. Connolly took over the Irish course at Catholic in the fall. He also teaches Irish classes out of an office in Friendship Heights. In his short time in Washington, Connolly has coordinated an annual Irish film festival, produced an Irish music podcast series and played Gaelic football with the D.C. Gaels.