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Services in English are outdrawing the Gaelic sessions, the minister said afterward. Other islanders told me they were worried that the toll of emigration—everyone had tales of relatives past and present leaving—and the decline of crofting, the family practice of raising crops and livestock on small plots, would finally bury the language. But the most pressing problem, it seems, is that for the younger generation, a whiff of country bumpkin rises off the ancient words. While I was interviewing Christina Morrison, 83, in her home, her middle-aged daughter interrupted from the kitchen. "It's not cool to speak Gaelic. The fancy people in town look down on us." The old woman nodded and admitted that even her grandchildren are a tough sell. "I give them ten pence if they answer in Gaelic."

Learning Gaelic does have economic benefits. In a cafeteria in Stornoway, the only town on the island, I met a dozen college-age islanders who through Comunn na Gàidhlig, a government-funded agency promoting Gaelic, worked at summer jobs using their bilingual skills. They were interning at places like the BBC radio station, which broadcasts 65 hours of Gaelic programming a week, and the local arts council. Most hoped to make a career out of teaching Gaelic, and all vowed to raise Gaelic-speaking children. "But amongst ourselves, we mostly speak English," confessed one young woman, Jayne Macleod. "Anymore, Gaelic is the language of schools and old people."

When I rode the ferry back to Skye, I noticed that the shipboard announcements were only in English. Christina should have been aboard with her change purse.

During the Celtic glory days of old, water routes converged on Ireland. From its shores came merchants, missionaries, soldiers of fortune, musicians, and in 1607, the last of the Gaelic aristocracy, including my ancestors, the Uí (Gaelic for "descendant of") Néill, who were fleeing English troops. Befitting this busy, water-coursed past, the ferry I took to Ireland was no slow boat to a rustic past but a high-speed catamaran rushing to a cosmopolitan future. For most of the passengers, crossing the North Channel from Stranraer, Scotland, to Belfast, capital of Northern Ireland, Celtic no doubt meant Celtic Tiger, a brand name of success given to the booming economy of the Republic of Ireland. Irish in both the north and south are gloating that—finally—they've caught up with England and the rest of Western Europe, embracing the one-size-fits-all notion of modern prosperity.

Poet Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, like a true Celt, resists the homogenizing forces of the time. He speaks and writes in the Irish language, which in parts of his native Belfast still comes across as fighting words. "Here the language itself is viewed as a taunt just by the fact that it's still spoken, that it's survived," said Mac Lochlainn, a thin, jeans-and-T-shirt guy with close-cropped hair.

Mac Lochlainn talked to me on safe ground, inside the Cultúrlann, a steepled red-brick church converted to an Irish-language center in the working-class Catholic neighborhood of Falls Road. He did not learn Irish from the cradle. He picked up threads of it from a Christian Brothers school and from family friends and visitors from the Gaeltacht, the areas in the republic, mostly on the western fringe, where Irish hangs on as a community language. His poems often marvel at the dissonance of sounds between the majority and minority languages, as when he flirts with an Irish-speaking woman whose "puckety-pocking words" show up his "sluppity-slip-slapping" drunken talk in English.

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