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DISTANT SHORES WHERE THE IRISH LINGO LINGERS; Canadian isle home to 'lost' tribe of Gaelic speaking folk.


IT'S the isolated Guinness-guzzling community where the native Irish tongue has been under threat from the English language.

But this isn't the western reaches of Donegal.

It's Cape Breton, Canada - 2002!

Unknown to many Irish scholars, this craggy windswept island is home to the largest Gaeltacht Irish speaking community outside of the oul sod.

The hardy souls play the fiddle and the bagpipes, partake in set dancing sessions - and drink plenty of stout.

It's connected to Nova Scotia via a causeway built in 1954 and is home to 200,000 people.

And like Ireland, the pubs are the focal point of social life, the good people of the area are God-fearing - and the once native language was set to be a thing of the past.

Local man Sam McPhee, who runs the Gaelic college of Celtic Arts and Crafts, said the decline played heavy on the hearts of locals, but explained that a major fightback was starting to pay off.

He told us: "During the early 1900s more than 50,000 people in Cape Breton spoke Irish as their first language.

"Sadly in the intervening years that number has dwindled a lot."The people who settled here were poor, resulting in Cape Bretons migrating to the mainlaind.

"Sadly the language was looked down upon and seen as useless if you wanted to get ahead in life."

One of the first families to settle on Cape Breton were the McNeills who hailed from Beara Island, Co Cork.

Such was the similarity of the landscape that when they first arrived in 1803 they must have felt that they had landed in another part of Ireland.

In the years that followed thousands of Irish Highland Scots and people from the Outer Hebrides islands settled on Cape Breton.

Those with money could afford a passage to Boston and New York.

For the poorest of the poor though, travelling steerage class - six to a bunk - Nova Scotia was about as far as their money would take them.

Cape Breton has preserved an extraordinary wealth of 19th Century music, dance and weaving skills, which have all but vanished elsewhere.

But the government of Nova Scotia Island have traditionally followed a policy of promoting the two official languages of the province: English and French.

Like Ireland of the past, the Irish language was seen as a badge of inferiority and of no practical use in the wider world.

The situation on Cape Breton began to change in the late 1980s however, when it started to dawn on the islanders that they were in danger of losing for all time their unique identity.

The native Irish speakers were growing older with each passing year and their children were more at home with the culture of MTV and fast food joints.

Sam MacPhee and a group of like-minded scholars decided to try and save the culture.

With no money to speak of, they lobbied tirelessly for government and federal grants to hold exhibitions and fund college courses on Gaelic culture.

Their tireless efforts paid off.

"The courses have grown in popularity and now more than 50 per cent of our students travel here from America.

"We are also working on having road signs in Irish.

"On a recent trip to Ireland I was delighted to see everything from road signs to airlines named in Irish which made me feel the language is something very much alive and protected.

"That's something we very much hope to achieve here," said Sam.


HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Beautiful Cape Breton, Canada, is home to the largest community of Gaeltacht Irish-speaking people outside of Ireland; 39 SHADES OF GREEN: Sam McPhee is fighting to preserve the Irish heritage in Cape Breton which looks so like Ireland
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Comment:DISTANT SHORES WHERE THE IRISH LINGO LINGERS; Canadian isle home to 'lost' tribe of Gaelic speaking folk.(News)
Publication:The People (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Aug 25, 2002
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