This Europe: Sex, soaps, murder and mayhem gives kiss of life to dying Gaelic language

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The Independent Online

Who will be murdered next in this sleepy-looking village in the west of Ireland? Will the scheming local TV reporter, Caitriona, or the sinister publican, get their comeuppance? How about the latest love-child? And are Tom and Jack, the gay couple in charge of the restaurant, really part of the community?

The answers can be found if you tune in to the Irish-language TV station TG4 whose flagship drama, Ros Na Run, has gripped thousands of Irish viewers and breathed new life into what many saw as a dying language.

The tilt in the soap's storyline towards youth, sex, murder and mayhem amid the purple heather and glassy lochs of Connemara is typical of a station that has radically rethought approaches to Ireland's native tongue, in a move to stem its steady slide towards oblivion.

At TV headquarters in rural Co Galway, the accent is on the young and hip. At 41, I feel a relic of the age of steam. There is not a dark suit, tie, navy-blue dress, or even an Aran jersey, in sight. Instead, the newsroom is a blur of lithe folk in headscarves, bangles and student gear. There's no audit on the mean age of this team but I'd put it at about 25, which must make it one of the youngest television stations in the world.

"We don't segregate ourselves from the older generation," Linda Ni Ghriofa, the station spokesperson, said. "Irish TV in the 1960s tended to be about people making curraghs. We are trying to relate more to real lives."

Gaelic has formed part of the Irish broadcasting diet since TV got going in the 1960s. But it gained a tweedy, homespun image, and people over 40 smirk at the memory of programmes watched at school where headscarved crones spun by the fire and old men chanted patriotic poems.

The project to revive Irish after independence bore the footprint of the country's long-time leader, Eamon De Valera, who hoped the expulsion of the British might lead to the restoration of an imagined rural, Celtic idyll. A deeply religious puritan, Mr De Valera - notoriously - hankered for the sight of "comely maidens dancing at the crossroads"; the language movement has been struggling to escape that association since.

But a mass of laws enforcing Irish as the first language has failed to realise Mr De Valera's vision. While more than 1.4 million claim knowledge of their ancient tongue, the core that truly lives through Irish is fewer than 100,000.

After TG4 was set up in 1996, the station decided to change the view that made Irish equivalent to being old by hiring a gang of youthful unknowns. Old warriors who had carried the Gaelic banner in the media were pensioned off.

Linda worked in a pub in Germany before joining the station. The weather reporter worked in a primary school. "Our biggest decisions were to site the station far from the metropolis and to showcase new talent," Padhraic O Ciardha, the TG4 deputy director said. "We wanted to surprise people that the Irish language could be young, attractive, and risk-taking. The most dangerous risk was the new faces." Although Ros na Run has become TG4's big hitter, sport runs a close second. Mr O Ciardha spotted a public appetite for Gaelic athletics club matches, not then shown on TV, and bought the rights. It was a big success. The use of Gaelic by sports commentators, on soaps and in rap music has given it a new currency as a language for youth.

But not everyone is a fan. The Irish language movement, begun by a clergyman's son in the 1890s, produced generations of high-minded writers who saw themselves as guardians of a holy grail. Barra de Bhaldraithe, son of a famous Irish linguist, fumes at "the trendy scene in TG4" in his cottage a few miles from Spideal.

"There are actors on Ros na Run who don't know what they are saying," he said. "They are just reading their lines. You have one actor not knowing what the other is saying."

TG4 attributes these criticisms to sour grapes and to an unwillingness to accept that the language is changing. "We are not language police," Mr O Ciardha added. Now his bright young team plans for the day when TV in Irish will be accessible to viewers in Belfast, Kilburn and Boston, Massachusetts.

"For so long [Irish-speaking] people have seen modern communications as the enemy of the language," Mr O Ciarda said. "But if we have the technology to send top-quality programmes from An Spideal to Holloway Road, there is a message there: technology is our friend."