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In the documentary, writer and director Jeremiah Cullinane follows Irish poet Gearóid Mac Lochlainn on a journey to Lithuania. Mac Lochlainn, who speaks and writes in both English and Irish, discovers the history of mid-19th century Lithuanian book smugglers, who kept the Lithuanian language and culture alive despite Russia's best attempts to eliminate both during a 40-year ban on Lithuanian words.
The smugglers carried newspapers, books and any printed materials they could get their hands on, along with other contraband like tobacco and alcohol, from areas that were then parts of Prussia eastward into Lithuania. They risked being discovered and shipped to Siberian labor camps, or executed, for their transgressions, but for many years those who could spirit Lithuanian words into the tyrannized land were the heroes of the Lithuanian people, and children there still learn about how the book smugglers helped preserve the language they speak.
The Irish poet is clearly fascinated from the film's onset with a culture that fought to keep its language alive instead of adopting that of its oppressor. His journey is a complex one, navigating through his feelings of admiration of the Lithuanian people and shame and confusion by his nation's neglect of its own language - feelings that are, I think unfairly, thrust upon him repeatedly during his trip.
Even Vidziunas tells Mac Lochlainn that his identify is an illusion, that he's not truly Irish when he speaks English, and this rigid adherence to a language-equals-culture doctrine sets Mac Lochlainn on an introspective quest to understand how he fits into his own culture.
The film itself does an excellent job at raising, if not always at answering, questions about how a culture defines itself in relation to language.
At one point, Mac Lochlainn points to an older Lithuanian book he read that clearly depicts a Jewish character as a grotesque and stereotyped outsider, and asks Vidziunas if too much nationalism couldn't sometimes be a bad thing. Vidziunas has no reply, and the issue -- of how much pride in one's pure heritage begins to border on dangerous xenophobia -- isn't raised again. In the end, Mac Lochlainn -- and the audience -- has learned a lot about book smugglers and how important Lithuanian language is to the people there, but we are all left wondering if he feels better or worse about his own country's culture as a result.
At the root of the film and round-table discussion and audience comments that followed was really the question of how to encourage young people to learn a language, without which they could easily thrive in the social, political and business worlds. In Wales, the successful growth of the Welsh-speaking population is attributed to its tie-in with Welsh culture. Ireland has been attempting to do the same thing for decades, and while Irish has seen a resurgence, the current state of the economy reinforces the notion that if you want a good career, you'll probably have to rely on English. The Irish Times reported in March of this year that the number of Irish speakers in the country had increased by more than 7 percent since the previous census, bringing the total to 1.77 million. But out of those numbers, only 1.8 percent (around 32,000) said they spoke it daily outside the education system, reflecting the reality that Irish isn't the official and most-used language of the country, no matter how valued it may be.
Economic realties of different cultures were largely left out of "Book Smugglers," and in the end that's the main difference between the two countries represented in the film. In Lithuania, everyone speaks Lithuanian. Parents don't have to chose whether or not to teach their children the native language, they just learn it and live their lives surrounded by it. It's not a challenge.
In Ireland, people must decide if they want to be an active part of language preservation that could take a turn toward extinction in a matter of generations. It's a challenge and a choice, and even Irish speakers from the Gaeltacht learn English, as well. And that certainly makes them no less Irish than me, a sixth-generation Irish American who can't speak a word of Irish and has been to my ancient homeland exactly once, but who still bleeds green. WG
What the panelists were able to do that the film could not was put the questions of language into modern and practical context. Muireann Ní Chuív, who grew up in the Gaeltacht (an area of Ireland where Irish is the first and more commonly used language) with Dublin-born parents who appreciated the ability and right to speak in Irish, said that while she can't imagine her life without the Irish language, she isn't necessarily "more Irish" than anyone else born there.
"I'm an Irish speaker, living in the Bronx. I speak Irish to my husband, my work is all through Irish mostly," Chuív said. "But someone who is maybe in Wicklow, in Ireland, who at the weekend goes to see a football match, goes to Mass, would play [an old Irish sport], who goes to step dancing, would go to a seisiún in the pub -- am I really more Irish, as someone who lives in the Bronx and goes to a Mexican restaurant every other night?"
Fluent Irish speaker Daithí Mac Lochlainn, an Irish-American who runs the New York Irish Language Book Club, pointed out that comparing the Irish language to the Lithuanian isn't exactly an even match. Irish was stigmatized for a long time as the language of poverty, and one of the biggest reasons for the language dying out and struggling in its revival is that parents would force their children to learn English so that they could get out of their dead-end towns, into the business world and abroad to become successful. He pointed out that even when Irish peasants were coming to America in droves in the mid-19th century, many of them could speak Irish, but they couldn't read it, making the preservation of the language that much more fraught.
What the panelists all agreed on was the need to preserve older languages - and that it's impossible to define any person's national and cultural identity solely by their ability to speak a certain language.
This feature was edited by Gerry Regan and produced by Joe Gannon.
Copyright © 2012 by Megan Finnegan Bungeroth and GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.