Kian Ely runs by the big tent, squealing as his feet brush through the grass. He looks like any four-year-old. But when he opens his mouth, almost no one at his school back home or anywhere else but here could understand him.
This is the one place where everyone knows the language Kian is speaking. Hang a left at the hand-painted Gaelic sign, and in a grassy field off a rutted dirt road you will find a merry band of linguistic masochists – people who take pleasure in the torment of mastering the Irish tongue.
There's no question it's a hardship: they're devotees of a language that counts fewer than 1,000 native speakers in this country, and even one of the most fluent among them describes it as "terrifically frustrating." Its antic logic dictates that even a simple sound, "will," be spelled bhfuil.
But no matter the headaches, a small community is drawn here, to a small patch of land in a tiny Ontario town where Gaelic acts as a lifeline to their history, their culture and to the Emerald Isle itself. This is the Canadian Gaeltacht (gail-tuck), a word that signifies the little pockets of Ireland where Irish is still spoken. These 62 acres contain the first Gaeltacht outside of Ireland, where they're fighting to keep the language alive. Kian, who as a baby spoke some of his first words in Irish, represents their best hope.
"He's our native speaker," says Kian's mother, Melinda, who drove here with her family from Rossie, NY, for the third year in a row. Ms. Ely's husband, Bob – the Irish one in the clan – has been speaking nothing but Gaelic to Kian since he was born, while she speaks only English.
"People like to connect with their roots. There's a sense of pride in that identity," says Sheila Scott, one of the founders of the Canadian Gaeltacht and assistant director of the Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute at the University of Ottawa.
In 2006, Ms. Scott and her husband, Aralt Mac Giolla Chainnigh, pooled their money with that of other contributors from Canada, Ireland and the United States, and bought the land in Tamworth, an area about 30 km north of Napanee, settled originally by Irish immigrants fleeing famine.
Nobody lives here permanently, but the Gaeltacht has language weekends, an arts festival, and each year a sort of Irish-language summer camp for adults – one week in August when participants gather for language classes, Irish dancing, music and games of Gaelic football. Because the land does not yet have any buildings, most people pitch tents.
"I grew up without running water. This is no big deal," 76-year-old Bridget Guglich says, pointing to the tent she has been sleeping in all week. She is from County Mayo, but in half a century in Canada, she lost the Irish tongue. She has been studying for eight years, and coming to the Gaeltacht every year since it opened.
It might be easy to laugh off the quirky group that converges on an empty field to camp out and learn a language many people would consider to be in its death throes. There has been a vibrant movement to protect Gaelic in Ireland since the late 19th century. Today, Gaelic is taught in schools, and families often send their children to a Gaeltacht during the summer.
"People are looking more and more to the language as something very central to the Irish identity," Mr. Mac Giolla Chainnigh says. "…When people are here in Canada, they can't go to Ireland any time. They can't just go to the Gaeltacht. We have something here now. ... That's very special."
The Canadian Gaeltacht has got noticed. In 2009, Ms. Scott and Mr. Mac Giolla Chainnigh travelled to Ireland to accept the Global Gaeilge Award, which honours groups that promote the Irish language outside the country. The prize came with 5,000 Euros, which has gone toward bringing teachers over from Ireland to help out with the language week every year.
"It gives great inspiration, the work that you are doing in Canada, to people in Ireland that are working to promote Irish culture," the Iridh President Mary McAleese wrote to the community in a letter (in Gaelic, of course) on Canada Day this year.
In the shade of a large tent, Donall O Duill, a 24-year-old graduate of the Gaelic studies program at the University of Toronto, plays the Uillean pipes, a type of bagpipe with no mouthpiece that requires pumping air with both arms while manipulating the pipe's keys. "We call it wrestling the octopus," he says laughing.
Organizers are trying to raise enough money to build cabins and other buildings for lessons and gatherings (for now, they borrow some classrooms in a high school in nearby Erinsville for some classes, and rent out the legion hall in Tamworth for their closing-night céilí.) They hope to create something similar to the Gaelic College in Cape Breton, a community dedicated to the Scottish dialect.
It also allows those of Irish descent to foster a link with their own history.
"My bhean chéile over here, she got involved in trying to get back to her roots," says 65-year-old Dan Anderson, looking fondly at his wife. They drove 10 hours from Rhode Island to be here. Even though he has no Irish heritage, Mr. Anderson is arguably the more effusive of the two.
"I call him my wild Irish wannabe," says Jackie Anderson, who is clad in a neon-green t-shirt that reads An bhfuil tusa ag labhairt liomsa – or "Are you talking to me?"
Ms. Anderson's favourite relative, her grandmother, landed at Ellis Island in 1907 – part of the diaspora that has spread the language thinner and thinner across the globe. But communities like this strike back against the belief that Gaelic is a dead language, and help to keep that history alive, she says.
"If my Maimeo – my grandma – could only see me now."
But it will be up to the younger members of the Gaeltacht to keep the movement alive. By the time Kian goes to college, will he want to keep speaking the Irish his parents fought to instill in him?
"The language, I don't think it's in danger of dying any more, but it needs some effort to keep it going," Ms. Ely says. "There's no better way than to teach the next generation."
Basic Gaelic phrases:
Hello: Dia duit (jee ah gwitch)
Hello (when speaking to more than one person): Dia daoibh (jee ah deeve)
Hello (response to one person/many people): Dia's Muire duit/diaobh (Jee iss mwurra gwitch/deeve)
Welcome: Fáilte (fall-cha)
100,000 welcomes: Céad míle fáilte (kayd meela fall-cha)
How are you?: Conas atá tú (kun-uss ah taw too)
I'm well: Tá mé go maith (taw may guh-maw)
I'm not well: Nil mé go maith (neel may guh-maw)
Thank you (speaking to one person): Go raibh maith agat (go rev mah ah-gut)