#PR the Irish Language Can’t Buy

If you haven’t heard of Cólaiste Lurgan, you must have been living under a rock. Comprised of a group of students from an Irish language summer school in Galway, the youngsters (I can say that now I’m 30) have clocked up a tonne of media coverage over the last year or more, largely due to their cover versions of popular songs translated into Irish.

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Their rendition of Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” alone has amassed over 4 million views on Youtube. In fact, the YouTube channel has over 47,000 subscribers and all their videos have been viewed over 12 million times.

It’s an internet phenomenon for this part of the world. And their latest song, a cover of Vance Joy’s “Riptide”, also looks set for pop success in Ireland.

So how did we get to the point where Irish Language is “cool”? And by cool, I mean there are throngs of young people who look like they’re dressed to go to a musical festival and instead they’re bopping their hearts out to pop songs in words that were waning in popularity across Ireland.

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The decline of the country’s native tongue began hundreds of years ago when the Industrial Revolution saw people move to the towns and cities where English was the predominant language. Then, of course, the Great Potato Famine (1840’s) saw the death and emigration of millions.

In recent times there have been efforts to address the decline. Irish became the first language of the Republic of Ireland according to their Constitution. School pupils had to learn it. But there remains a widely held belief that language must be ‘acquired rather than forcibly learned’ in order to survive. Most of my friends “down South” resented learning Irish, seeing it as boring and, ultimately, useless.

Being from “the North”, the Irish language carries an air of controversy. Between arguments over funding for Gaelscoileanna (Irish speaking schools) and costs involved in replicating public documents in both Irish (recognised as a minority language) and Ulster Scots (recognised as the local dialect), not to mention issues with the so called Irish Language Act, the language can often be seen as a divisive topic for politicians to debate and use against each other, rather than a relevant issue in young people’s lives.

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Yet here is the language being utilised, reinvigorated for a younger generation, being celebrated with pride and spread with a viral nature most PR campaigns can only dream about. So why has it worked? My guess is it’s a culmination of a few elements:

  1. Firstly, the fact that the young people themselves are driving it. Having worked with young people in the past, even in my twenties (which isn’t old!), it was obvious that no-one knows this group like they do. They’re also tapping into popular culture and music, merging the gap between the old and forgotten and the current.
  2. Then you have their genuine passion for the language and for music, which is something that can rarely be forged or forced. These young people are learning the language because they want to, not because it’s forced on them.
  3. Add to that the ease with which aspiring musicians can produce, record, and promote their own materials nowadays using technology and social media and you have a recipe for success with little financial backing.

Promotion of the language may remain a contentious issue in Northern Ireland, but in terms of promoting it as an important part of the culture and history of Ireland, Cólaiste Lurgan must be praised for doing what no government, campaign or lobby group has been able to do before them; breathe life and youth vitality into a dying language brand.

I can’t understand a word of it, but their enthusiasm is infectious and I like it!

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