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Soap operas and storytelling


A look at novel efforts to nurture Gaelic

There seems to be a desire, innately, to see yourself in a story. Whether you are watching yourself on screen in terms of racial or cultural identity, sexuality, body type, disability, or even locale, we want to see ourselves reflected on screen, in storytelling, and in the culture at large. We know that fiction plays an important part in representing people and culture, from their foods to their homes to their languages and traditions. Media plays a critical role in preserving those cultures.  But how can you turn to media when if your language may be on the brink of extinction?

One of the oldest spoken languages in existence, Irish (sometimes called “Irish Gaelic”) is believed by many to be on its last legs: vanquished in a long death via 700 years of British colonialism. The language had managed to survive as a daily, spoken language in remote rural pockets of Ireland, known today as “Gaeltachts,” or Irish-language-speaking regions. These regions are spread far apart from each other, which historically made the formation of a unified Irish-speaking community difficult. Young people are also in part to blame according to many, with a quasi-English version of Irish (an Irish version of “Spanglish”) becoming increasingly popular among youth due to social media, music, TV, books and films all being mostly in English. To many, Irish is sputtering out rather than thriving, but Irish language media is proving instrumental in the maintenance of the Irish language and culture.

One creative line of defense comes from a rather unexpected place: the soap opera. While soaps are often ridiculed and considered too campy to be cool for teens in the United States, Ireland’s favorite and longest running soap opera, Ros na Rún, presented solely in Irish, is so popular among Irish youth that high schools are incorporating it into their curricula to bolster Ireland’s mandatory Irish-language lessons. This “soapification” of Irish language classes includes specific lesson plans based on the weekly soap, sent to Irish teachers across the country, that ask questions about the most recent episodes to encourage students to watch and absorb the language through the show. The show is viewed not only across Ireland, but also by Irish people around the world, who can view it via cable TV or online.

Using soaps to promote Irish

A set for the soap opera Ros na Rún, a leading effort to use TV to help preserve Irish. Photo by Meredith MacLean

For most of the 18th and 20th centuries, the Irish language was treated by English dominant society as a backwards remnant of “ignorant” country folk. Sometimes, Irish speakers purposely did not speak Irish outside of the home due to feelings of shame and inferiority created under the yoke of colonialism. Pop culture and media, especially those attracting large youthful audiences, can do a lot to change perceptions of people, places, and languages. Shows like Ros na Rún illustrate that the Irish language can keep up with the modern interests of young people. Dealing with all the drama, trauma, controversy and theatrics of any other soap opera— The Irish Times notes that the show presents “teenage pregnancy, wife-beating, gay marriage, rape and adultery.”

In meeting with Mairead Campell, the show’s production manager, and touring the set of Ros na Rún, we learned just how difficult this variety of preservation is. Finding actors who speak fluent Irish and fit the necessary casting types requires nationwide casting calls. Additionally, as is traditional of soap operas, the show is in a near-constant state of production due to the heavy airing schedule, with months reserved for filming and months reserved for production resulting in a very tight turnaround schedule which can be extremely demanding on the actors and crew. Ros na Rún might be instrumental in a new era of promotion of the Irish language, but it’s by no means a new show — as TG4, the nation’s Irish language television station’s longest-running show, Ros na Rún has been around since 1996 airing for 27 seasons, longer than many of its viewers have been alive. In that sense, it’s also a bridge between past and present: attracting both today’s youth and people who were young when the program first began airing. And with English subtitles available, the show attracts large English dominant audiences, exposing them to the sounds and customs of Irish.

Standing on the set of Ros na Rún, our first visit to a professional TV production studio, we were impressed with the show’s emphasis on making things authentically Irish — from the the fake rural ‘petrol station’ and grocery store, which appeared to be perfect recreations of ones we saw during our study abroad stay in the Gaeltacht region of Carraroe, to the radio station and iconic bar, reminiscent of the real bars we’d been to and the actual Irish radio station – Raidió na Gaeltachta – we had visited a few days earlier.

In bridging generational gaps and international gaps, it is also important to preserve the roots of the Irish language so it can continue into the future. Irish-speaking elders are concerned about the use of “proper” Irish, the kind not interspersed with those aforementioned English slang words or “botched” English verb-subject orders that increasingly are heard among younger Irish speakers. While Ros na Rún prioritizes that proper Irish be spoken on the show, we learned that due to a shortage of fluent Irish speakers in the advertising world, product ads on Irish speaking TV often leave much to be desired, plagued with inaccurate or slang Irish that can tarnish the programs being sponsored by the advertisers. Native Irish speakers feel that the good being done to teach proper Irish via shows such as Ros na Run is undone when the entire nation is exposed to “bad” Irish on television ads.

Storytelling, too

But all hope is not lost. Another way Irish language is being preserved is offline, off-radio, and off-network — through the art of traditional storytelling, which has been making a comeback. Folklore and storytelling are important in many cultures, but especially for the Irish, who are renowned for their storytelling skills, this format is an important tool for both linguistic and cultural preservation. We met with Máirín Mhic Lochlainn, the nationally acclaimed Storyteller-in-Residence at the University of Galway, who shared an evening of traditional Irish folktales with us. Her stories, handed down to h er by her father, paint a vivid picture of the Emerald Isle: they explain the mythical origins of Irish lake formations and make jokes about religious habits. They connect to stories about the saints and warn children of virtues and morals. Mhic Lochlainn, a respected elder, travels throughout Ireland sharing these stories in person, on television, and on the radio with audiences young and old as a way to preserve both the language and the cultural traditions and values.

While the tide is turning (10 or 20 years ago, teenagers were embarrassed to speak Irish in public) the effects of English dominance linger in the younger generation. Maybe their Irish speaking parents never taught them Irish, fearing it would not help them to advance. Maybe their vernacular is constantly in competition with or adulterated by Instagram or Twitter, where English-language content dominates the pop cultural landscape. Maybe young people drift off, bored, in their Irish classes, considering the language to be already dead. But storytelling is a tradition that still has a magical allure to many. As we sat around the table – a group of English speaking students visiting from Rutgers –  we listened to these stories first in English and then in Irish.  Though we could not understand Irish, we noticed how the storyteller’s face and mannerisms changed when she began speaking in her native tongue. She lit up the room, all animation and spirit!  We were rapt, listening to the musical rhythms and inflections of the language. These stories require love to tell, and the love that the Irish people, especially elders, have for the Irish language is the real fuel to the fire in Irish folk stories.

The future is uncertain. Today, young native Irish speakers hold more positive feelings towards Irish than in generations past, but they are also more wont than in the past to incorporate English while speaking Irish, or to use ungrammatical Irish. Among the Irish speakers we met with, there seemed to be a consensus that “proper” Irish will morph into a modern English-infused creole, but even if the language changes, there are many people who want to keep Irish alive, in one form or another, as a key component of Irish identity. There are still stories to be told — and those stories demand a language that captures all the beauty and history of the culture. In between her stories, as the sun set behind us in the room where we sat, Máirín Mhic Lochlainn pondered the difference between Irish and English: “I’m not able to tell [stories] the same way in English. I don’t think I’ll ever have it in English,” she said. “It’s in there in Irish.”

About Post Author

About the Author

Meredith MacLean

Professor: Regina Marchi
Class: Irish Media, Politics, and Cultural Survival

As someone who loves writing and stories, the chance to see the influence of everything from significant myth to favorite modern TV shows' impact on Irish language and culture was amazing. Investigating some of my favorite media through the lens of such an urgent need for cultural preservation was fascinating, heartbreaking and an inspiration to carry Irish language and culture forward.