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February 26, 2005
Is Gaeilgeoir M ... ach Clint Eastwood?

It isn't every day that I see the Irish language mentioned in the pages of the New York Times, and today's op-ed article by Wes Davis, an assistant professor of English at Yale, marks the very first time I've seen it form the basis of an opinion piece anywhere outside of Ireland. I've studied Irish for almost four years now, although I've cut back my scholarship (such as it was) while I've been blogging. I read and write Irish passably well for a first-grader, I suppose, and speak it less well than that, but I take pride in that bilingualism.

Davis makes the same point in his review of the language's use in the new Clint Eastwood film, Million Dollar Baby, a use of which I had no knowledge until now. MDB has attracted rave reviews and tremendous controversy over its somewhat-concealed treatment -- some say endorsement -- of assisted suicide. I have not yet seen the film but plan on doing so, either in the theaters or on DVD. Davis avoids that controversy to focus on the Irish language and how it speaks to the other themes of the film:

Before the bell has sounded at the start of her first title fight in Clint Eastwood's Oscar-nominated film "Million Dollar Baby," the scrappy, big-hearted boxer Maggie Fitzgerald, played by Hilary Swank, finds herself cheered into the ring by shouts of "Mo Cuishle," the Irish Gaelic moniker she's been given by her manager, Frankie Dunn, played by Mr. Eastwood.

The name is a shortened form of the phrase "A chuisle mo chro," "O, pulse of my heart," or as Frankie will put it more concisely, "My darling." But Ms. Swank's character doesn't know that yet and neither do we. All we know is that the words emblazoned - and some argue misspelled - on the back of her robe are important to a lot of people.

If Davis reports this correctly, it's certainly misspelled. It should be Mo chuisle and the pronunciation changes as well, as the hard C changes to the guttural ch that people may find more familiar in German, such as Bach. That's hardly important to the film, of course, but it does demonstrate Hollywood's lack of effort in ensuring the accuracy of plot devices.

Davis goes on to explain how the language supports the film thematically, which of course is the larger point:

That sort of popular reaction makes sense. In the shorthand of the film, the Irish, scattered by hardship in their home country but strangely united by the trials that threw them apart, stand for a culture of underdogs, and the language that was once the common idiom in Ireland becomes the watchword of the movie's romantic idea of the hero.

As Maggie's boxing career builds to its climax, Mr. Eastwood hinges the movie's emotional peaks on the longing held in the Irish language. The most moving of these moments occurs when Mr. Eastwood's character finally reveals the meaning of "Mo Cuishle," and when he translates W. B. Yeats's "Lake Isle of Innisfree" from the little Irish-language book he carries like a talisman throughout the movie.

Many of us who study the language are drawn to its nature as a long-held secret, a victim and ultimately a survivor of oppression and well-intentioned neglect. In truth, Irish has begun to thrive again in small measure, with a surfeit of websites devoted to its promotion and education, a native language radio service in Ireland that streams to the Internet, and a global network of Irish language support groups that work tirelessly to push for a full revival of Gaeilge (pronounced gyail-gyuh). I belong to one such organization, Gaeltacht Minnesota, which has given free weekly instruction in Irish for over twenty-two years in the Twin Cities area.

If what I have read about the ending of Million Dollar Baby is true, then perhaps Eastwood made a mistake in using Irish for his theme. It's true that the language will ever be associated with underdogs and the oppressed, but especially in the last century, it also stands for tenacity and overcoming apparently insurmountable odds to survive and thrive. Despite having every excuse to allow Gaeilge to commit suicide through apathy, it has refused to die -- and now it has a worldwide following, albeit still tiny. If anything, the history of the Irish language provides a metaphor for the unique value of each life, not any deliberate mercy killing, no matter how justified it might be.

UPDATE: For those interested in learning Irish, here are a few links to get you started. T m ag foghlaim Gaeilge le ceathair bhliain anois, agus is bre liomsa an teanga beo -- t sil 'am gurb mbre libhse freisin! (I've studied Irish for four years now and I love the language [lit., the living language] -- I hope you will love it too!)

Gaeilge ar an Ghrasn - Motherlode of links
Beo! - Irish-language magazine geared to learners
Dalta na Gaeilge - Well-organized site with lots of links and educational material
Irish Books and Media - the best place to buy Irish-language learning materials in the US
Gaeltacht Minnesota - More links and great tips on the language

Gaeltacht Minnesota will have its annual all-day Irish language workshop on April 23rd, at least tentatively. Due to work commitments that day I will not attend, but if you can make your way to the Twin Cities area that day, I heartily recommend it as an easy introduction to the language. The price is reasonable and the relaxed atmosphere guarantees everyone has a good time.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at February 26, 2005 10:16 AM

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