Ireland Cheers Paul Mescal for Embracing Irish Language

Paul Mescal, the Irish actor nominated for an Oscar for his performance in “Aftersun,” is a familiar figure on red carpets. But on Sunday at the British Academy Film Awards, he did something he had never publicly done before: He spoke Irish.

Mescal, 27, was walking the red carpet in London when he stopped to talk with TG4, an Irish-language public broadcaster. The interviewer opened the conversation in Irish, also known as Gaelic, and the actor nervously followed suit.

For a man whom the BBC had erroneously identified as British only a few weeks before, it was quite a moment. The two-minute interaction, posted on Twitter, has been viewed one million times and set off a conversation across Ireland about the state of one of Europe’s most endangered languages.

“I found it very emotional,” said Eithne Shortall, an Irish author who lives in Dublin. “The whole country is bursting proud of Paul Mescal.”

The interview resonated in Ireland, where many want to speak the language but may find themselves short on confidence, Shortall said. According to the 2016 Irish census, the latest for which numbers are available, 39.8 percent of the Irish population can speak Irish, which is down from 41.4 percent in 2011. Of the 1.7 million people who said they could speak the language, only 73,803 — 1.7 percent of the population — said they did so daily outside an educational setting.

“I’m sorry about my Irish — it was much better when I was in school,” Mescal said in Irish during the interview. “It’s slightly lost on me now.”

Irish is a mandatory subject in primary and secondary schools in Ireland, said Deirdre Ní Loingsigh, director of the Irish Language Center at the University of Limerick. As a result, almost all Irish people have a “cúpla focal” — a few words — but some are reluctant to use them. Shortall said seeing Mescal himself being hesitant to speak was encouraging.

“A lot of the reason we can’t or we don’t is we’re nervous, and we’re kind of embarrassed,” Shortall said. “Maybe there’s a feeling that because it is our national language, we should be able to speak it better than most of us can.”

Mescal wasn’t the only Irish actor who spoke Irish at the BAFTAs. Brendan Gleeson, a well-known Gaeilgeoir, or fluent Irish speaker, also gave an interview in Irish, while Colin Farrell, his co-star in “Banshees of Inisherin,” slowly backed away and was relieved to quickly find someone who would ask him questions in English.

“Shame on me,” Farrell, who is also Irish, said.

Mescal’s viral clip appeared against the backdrop of the so-called Green Wave — also affectionately referred to as Ireland’s going Oscar Wild. Twenty-five percent of this year’s acting Oscar nominees are Irish, according to The Los Angeles Times, and this is the first time an Irish-language film has been nominated for an Oscar, with “The Quiet Girl” up for best international feature film.

“The language is almost like the central character of our film, you know, it’s been silenced over many years,” Colm Bairéad, the director of “The Quiet Girl,” said in an interview. “There’s something quite appropriate about the fact that the year where we have the most nominations in our history, our language is also part of that.”

Irish, a Celtic language closely related to Scottish Gaelic, is the oldest spoken language in Western Europe, according to Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, a professor at Concordia University’s School of Irish Studies in Montreal. While Ireland was occupied by Britain, speaking Irish was often punished; when Ireland signed its Constitution in 1937 — after gaining independence in 1922 — Irish was designated as the national language, with English considered a second official language. Factors such as mass migration stemming from the Great Famine and present-day emigration have contributed to the language’s decline and led to the creation of Irish-language schools across the country, Ó hAllmhuráin said.

Irish is currently considered “definitely endangered” by UNESCO. Shortall said part of the issue is the way the language is taught in schools, which is more academic than conversational. Bairéad said that as a result, Irish had failed to feel like a “living language” to many people and that had contributed to the country’s complex relationship with its native tongue.

“Irish people do have a yearning for this expression of ourselves, as a people, that belongs to us,” Bairéad, who was raised bilingual, said. “This is a mode of expression that is ours, and that we can reclaim, but it takes a certain level of commitment. And when you see people like Paul being willing to do that, that’s inspiring for people.”

The Irish have a phrase, “Is fearr gaeilge bhriste ná béarla cliste,” which translates to, “Broken Irish is better than clever English” — an idea that Mescal has come to embody, Shortall said.

Mescal’s example has motivated her to speak more Irish, even if she needs to mix in the odd English word.

“I really don’t think you can overstate how great this is for the language, to have someone so visible, young and cool speaking Irish,” Shortall said.

As the interview wound down on the red carpet Sunday, the journalist asked Mescal one final question: Would he ever consider acting in an Irish-language film?

“Yeah, absolutely,” he said — in English.

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