Canada

Bringing back‘The Gaelic’

Once close to extinction, the ancient tongue is on its way to a comeback in Cape Breton

John DeMont September 13 1999
Canada

Bringing back‘The Gaelic’

Once close to extinction, the ancient tongue is on its way to a comeback in Cape Breton

John DeMont September 13 1999

Bringing back‘The Gaelic’

Once close to extinction, the ancient tongue is on its way to a comeback in Cape Breton

John DeMont

Entering the Cape Breton village of Mabou—4 ½ hours northeast of Halifax in a fast car—it is hard to believe this is North America on the edge of a new millennium. There is a captured-in-time quality to the white church steeple, the quaint wooden homes and the stretch of calm, curving harbour. At noon in the Red Shoe Pub, someone is already at the piano pounding out a Scottish strathspey, a rhythmic, evocative dance tune just like the ones brought to the area 300 years ago by the original emigrants from the Highland Clearances. When an oldtimer wearing overalls enters, nods at Leslie McDaniel, the manager, and mutters uCiamar a tha thwT—Gaelic

for “how are you?”—no one bats an eye.

In Mabou, the ancient tongue is called “The Gaelic.” Its roots go straight back to the Celts, a warlike people who, for 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, held sway over Europe from modern-day Ireland to Turkey. Today, the only remaining areas outside of Europe where Celtic languages have been spoken for unbroken generations are the Patagonia region of Argentina, where descendants of Welsh immigrants still speak their old tongue, and Cape Breton Island, where residents continue to use a brand of pure Scottish Gaelic that traces its origins back to the original Highland settlers.

No wonder, then, that alarm bells went off in the 1980s with the realization that the 75,000 Cape Bretoners who claimed Gaelic as their first language at the turn of the century had shrunk to fewer than 1,000. It helps explain why a recent revival of interest in the language is such a welcome har-

binger for an island where roots and tradition matter. “If the Gaelic goes, it is like a people dying,” stresses Frances MacEachen, the managing editor of Am Braighe, the islands Gaelic cultural newspaper, which she runs from her home on the outskirts of Mabou. “You are not just losing a language. You are losing a piece of your memory.”

In Mabou, at least, the melodious memory is still very much alive. Here, radios and CD players pound out the Gaelic-tinged lyrics of the Juno Awardwinning Rankin Family—Mabous most famous clan—or the haunting old-world songs of Ontario-born songstress Mary Jane Lamond, who lives nearby. On summer evenings tourists and locals raise the roof at church hall ceilidhs, Cape Breton hoedowns, where they can hear the words and music firsthand. Each weekend, they crowd the Red Shoe Pub to join Gaelic song sessions and to hear the old-time singers engage in “jigging,”

perhaps best-described as Gaelic scat.

Mabou Consolidated School offers the only Gaelic high-school class in North America. (The University College of Cape Breton in Sydney, a twohour drive north of Mabou, has a fullfledged Gaelic faculty.) A handful of local families even try to get by speaking only Gaelic at home. “It is a wonderful thing to see all this interest,” declares Maureen MacKenzie, a Gaelic teacher at Mabou Consolidated who speaks the language as much as possible with her husband, Ronald, and their two sons, Kenneth and Calum. (Their two oldest children, Angus and Sine, are already fluent; Angus attended college for two

years in Scotland, where Sine is currently studying.)

This is a far cry from the old days in Cape Breton when speaking Gaelic was viewed as a sign of backwardness—and teachers turned harshly on any student who dared utter a few words in the classroom. What happened? For one thing, the same widespread interest in genealogy that swept the Englishspeaking world after Alex Haleys book Roots was published in 1976. At the

same time, the realization that a distinctive Gaelic culture was in danger of extinction acted as a call to arms on Cape Bretons west side, where placenames like Glencoe, Strathlorne and Dunvegan underscore the areas Scottish roots.

Parents, community elders and teachers came together to keep the culture alive. It helped that the Rankins, Lamond and fiddling sensations Natalie MacMaster and her dark alter ego,

punk-Celtic fiddler Ashley Maclsaac, became stars, making the culture undeniably “cool” for a younger generation of Cape Bretoners. But there are other reasons for its revival as well. “I just like to be able to talk to the old people in the community,” says 18-year-old Leanne Beaton, who studied Gaelic at Mabou Consolidated and is planning to continue the subject at Saint Francis Xavier University in Antigonish this month.

No one in Mabou is saying the language’s precipitous slide towards oblivion has been halted forever. But the Gaelic bug does seem to be spreading. The Nova Scotia department of education plans to introduce a Gaelic studies pilot course in some Cape Breton and mainland high schools this month. And more than half of Am Braighes 2,500 subscribers now live outside of Nova Scotia. “It is a language that has a deep connection with people—whether they grew up hearing it or not,” stresses MacEachen. To that, the language’s growing band of converts would only add “ Taing do Dhia\” Which, in the old tongue, means “Thank God!” EH1

Scottish revival?

Is Gaelic on an upsurge? There are signs that it is, although the revival is still in its infancy. The new Scottish Parliament has appointed a special cabinet minister for Gaelic. But proponents were disappointed that a bill to establish the official status of the old tongue, as the \Wlsh won in 1993, was not among the symbolic first pieces of legislation brought in by the new government. Nor was provision for the language included directly in the

government s new education bill. Still,

The Scotsman newspaper reports that the past 20 years has seen a revival of the language large enough to at least stem the tide of extinction. There are approximately 70,000 Gaelic speakers in Scotland, with 8,000 learning the language on their own and some 2,200 primary-school pupils being taught in 70 state schools. There are also some 60,000 residents of Ireland whose main language is Irish Gaelic, and perhaps as many as 500,000 others there with some grasp of the language.