Generations of English-speaking tourists who used this pretty village of thatched cottages as a jumping-off point for the pleasures of the wild Connemara region have known it as Spiddal.

But a new government policy means the settlement, which boasts spectacular views of Galway Bay and the Aran Islands in the distance, will be known only by its Gaelic name, An Spideal.

As of March 28, all English versions of place names were eliminated in the Gaeltacht, the pockets of Ireland where Gaelic is still spoken by a majority of people. English no longer has official standing on signposts, legal documents or government maps

It was the latest official gesture in support of the Irish tongue. But is it too little too late? In the midst of an economic boom that is both encouraging and threatening Gaelic's popularity, many advocates for what is commonly referred to as the republic's "first official language" are worried.

"It is terrible how things are going," said Seamas O Cualain, 82, an enthusiast for the language of his forebears, which is almost always called Irish on this island to distinguish it from the Scottish form of Gaelic. "The language is dying in the Gaeltacht."

The lilting tongue, which arrived in Ireland with the Celts centuries before Romans reached the British Islands, has an alluring sound, aspirated consonants and a rich trove of poetry and folklore. Just a few words have moved into English: smithereens, leprechaun. But something of its musical syntax is captured by Irish-English, as in the phrase: " 'Tis himself that's coming now."

The change in the place names from English to Irish makes sense, advocates say. The English place names, put down by government surveyors in the early 1800s, are mostly nonsensical phonetic approximations of Gaelic words.

The name Spiddal, for instance, means nothing in English or Irish. But An Spideal means "the Hospital" in Irish, a name that derives from the village having been the site of a leper colony early in its history. Another egregious place name example is a spit of land with the English bowdlerized name of Muckanaghederdauhaulia.

In Irish, it won't be much easier for foreigners to spell: Muiceanach idir Dha Shaile. But at least it will have a meaning: "the point between two tides." Tourist maps, however, will continue to carry the English names alongside the Irish place names.

The changes are a way to encourage Gaeltacht residents who might be wavering to hang on to their language by showing it its due respect, said Deaglan O Briain of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in Dublin. "Official Ireland [is] saying to people in the Gaeltacht areas that we do recognize that you are there, and your language exists."

O Cualain, meticulously dressed, with glassine skin, blue eyes and a shock of white hair, met a reporter in his neatly kept cottage, a fire in the fireplace of his cozy study cum dining room. He was, he recounted, part of a generation of native speakers trained as teachers in Irish-only preparatory colleges.

The goal, promulgated by the Irish Republic's first president, W.T. Cosgrave, was for these graduates to spread the language across the island, bringing the almost-dead tongue back to life in all of the 26 counties that secured effective independence from Britain in 1922.

More than 80 years later, there is a debate raging about the efficacy of those efforts, prompted in part by the Irish- language commissioner's recent criticism of the teaching of the language in public schools.

Students are required to study Irish for 13 years, from kindergarten through high school, receiving more than 1,500 hours of instruction in all, yet many still graduate without any fluency, said Commissioner Sean O Cuirreain.

O Cuirreain, the government official who acts as an ombudsman for Irish-speaking citizens and monitors government departments' implementation of Irish-language policy from his office in An Spideal, believes that the country could do much better and that teaching methods should be reviewed.

But he sees positive signs for Irish -- such as a recent trend for parents outside the Gaeltacht to send their children to all-Irish-speaking schools.

Five percent of Irish children are in those classrooms, he said, while an Irish-language TV stations gets 100,000 viewers a day, and others listen to pop music on a 24-hour Irish-language radio station.

In all, 1.57 million of the Irish Republic's 4 million people claim to speak Irish, and 337,000 (counting schoolchildren) say they use it daily, according to the latest census figures. In the Gaeltacht, 60,000 people use it daily.

But at a restaurant here called An t'Sean Ceibh (The Old Pier), where a fresh sea breeze wafted through the sunlit bar as patrons sipped pints and ate Irish stew, waitress Soracha Ni Chonghaile admitted she isn't always among them.

"It's dying," the 23-year-old said of the language. "I would speak it with my family and with the older customers who come in here, but I don't speak it with my friends. It's not the norm."

But O Cuirreain believes that Irish, in contrast to the vast majority of the other 6,800 languages in the world, is on course to survive at least through the next century -- thanks to continued government support and its core of thousands of Irish men and women who still use the language daily in their lives.

"We should not be complacent about that . . . but we should take a certain degree of comfort that we have a fighting chance," O Cuirreain said.