Please welcome today’s guest writer, Nathan Suhr-Sytsma (’04)
“I graduated from Calvin in ’04 (so I’m no longer, alas, under thirty), finished a PhD in English at Yale in ’12, and am now working as an assistant professor at Emory University. I live in Decatur, Georgia, with my wife Mandy, also a Calvin alum, recent English PhD, and Emory faculty member! When we’re not reading books, talking about books, or trying to write about them, we can usually be found running around after our energetic toddler son, Rowan.”

When I dove into the Atlantic on an overcast Monday in northwest Ireland earlier this month, I thought my body was going to freeze stiff. But after a couple frantic minutes of front crawl, I started to appreciate being at water level. It’s not often that I get to feel greenish-gray waves lifting me beyond gravity’s grasp for a moment at a time as they roil in from the intermittently visible horizon. I’d come back to the village of Gleann Cholm Cille, in County Donegal, to study—and to be surrounded by—the Irish language. (Irish Gaelic, as it’s often known in North America, is known in Ireland simply as Irish—both in order to make a political statement about the centrality of the language to national identity and to distinguish it from Scottish Gaelic.)

Oideas Gael, a school and cultural center established about thirty years ago, hosts dozens of adult language learners each week throughout the summer. I was there along with about sixty others, attempting to speak Irish to each other over breakfast in the houses we shared, spending five hours of the day in language classes, singing Irish-language songs or trying to follow dance instructions at a céilidh in the evenings, and then, of course, whiling away the night chatting as Gaeilge in the pub. As I found myself caught up in the rhythm of the week and in the flow of half-remembered phrases, I began to think that being immersed in another language feels something like being in the ocean. Once you get through the initial fear and shock, it’s an addictive feeling.

Above the beach at Gleann Cholm Cille perches a stone tower built in the early nineteenth century as part of a line of signal towers to warn against an invasion by Napoleon. Having been steeped in the Bible as a child, it’s hard for me to see it without thinking of the Tower of Babel. One way to read the Babel story is as a story about the fall of language—or the fall into languages. In such a world, language can become a divisive force, linguistic difference both an excuse for oppression and a product of it. In northwest Ireland, as in many other parts of the island, British rule produced an image of the Irish language as inextricable from poverty, if not sedition. The death or emigration of millions of Irish speakers during the mid-nineteenth-century Great Famine, itself arguably a result of misrule, has made it difficult for the language to recover.

The Irish language continues, by many accounts, to decline as a living tongue. The number of people who speak it as their primary language of daily business is somewhere in the tens of thousands; most of them live in small communities along the west coast of Ireland. Decades of requiring Irish children to learn the language in school have arguably made it as many enemies as friends. On the other hand, the number of Gaelscoileanna—Irish-immersion schools usually located outside of Irish-speaking communities—has grown exponentially since the 1970s, although they can be criticized as the preserve of the middle class. A debate about the future of the language in my class at Oideas Gael made me see how impossible it may be to revive a language through schooling. But hard on its heels, the teacher played us a Youtube video that shows how new media can at least help to overcome the perception of the language as hopelessly old-fashioned. Produced by Coláiste Lurgan, one of many such colleges where school kids can go during the summer for language immersion, this Irish-language cover of Fun.’s hit “Some Nights” still gives me goosebumps.

While the Irish language may or may not be long for this world, there are now Irish speakers and learners all over the world. Such international interest has puzzled those I’ve met at Oideas Gael, especially when the interested party is, like me, of Dutch extraction rather than Irish! Why would someone struggle to learn a difficult, perhaps dying, language without the ties of nation or family? For some people, traditional Irish music or dance is the gateway drug. That was partly the case for me, too. More importantly, though, I got hooked on Irish writers like W. B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney as a student at Calvin and wanted to be able A) to pronounce the names of their contemporaries who wrote in Irish B) to have some sense of what translators were doing with these Irish-language writers’ work. Since then, I’ve become convinced, too, that a “minor” language can provide a corrective view from the margins on a world dominated by English and a handful of other languages.

Returning to church back in the US, I remember that the church year is still being counted in terms of Sundays after Pentecost, also known as Ordinary Time. Pentecost, when the apostles spoke in unfamiliar tongues, can be read as an extraordinary overcoming of the language barriers erected at Babel. Is it going too far to think that places like Oideas Gael, which celebrate nearly forgotten languages, are realizing a small part of the Pentecost story in ordinary time?


  1. Avatar

    No, it’s not too far. It’s beautiful.

  2. Avatar

    The news this morning that Seamus Heaney had died makes this post especially pertinent. Thanks, Nathan.

  3. Caroline Higgins

    currently swimming in Hungarian and pondering how mysterious and strange it is that we communicate through the same mouths and tongues in so many different ways. thank you for this beautiful post!


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