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Rescuing the Irish language

by Sheila Gardner
Nevada Appeal News Service
Patrick Mulreaney and Paul Murphy work on the multimedia Internet Irish dictionary that are building March 9, 2006, at their office in Minden, Nev. (AP Photo/The Record-Courier, Shannon Litz)
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Climbing the stairs to the second floor of the Carson Valley Motor Lodge registration building, a visitor might overhear the following:

First voice: An unintelligible snippet of conversation followed by rapid keyboard clicks and laughter.

Second voice: More chatting that sounds like gibberish to the untrained ear, more keyboard clicks, and more raucous laughter.

If you follow the sound of the voices to the makeshift office, you can find Patrick Mulreany and Paul Murphy chipping away at Mulreany’s life’s work: a multimedia Internet Irish dictionary that its author hopes will last for a thousand years.

What’s Greek to you is Gaelic to these two who formed a friendship that crossed continents to bring them together in Minden’s historic Wennhold house.

For the past 25 years, Mulreany has been working on the dictionary from his home in Smith Valley.

Since Murphy’s arrival from Dublin earlier this month, Mulreany moved his operations to the second floor of the stately brick home that serves as the registration building for the Carson Valley Motor Lodge.

Mulreany isn’t trespassing.

He and his wife, Jeane, built the Carson Valley Inn in 1984 and acquired the old house for the motor lodge registration building a few years later.

Mulreany set up his 1991 DOS workhorse computer system on a dining room table.

A copy of the Irish Times is on the floor; a can of peanuts and a bag of dried cranberries appear to be the only sustenance in sight for the team that works from 9 a.m. to at least 8 p.m. every day, a schedule Mulreany has followed for the past 2.5 decades.

Mulreany considers himself the software half of the operation, but Murphy said he has great respect for Mulreany’s command of the Irish language.

Mulreany, 62, was born in County Donegal, Ireland, and learned Irish as a child. He and his family moved to San Mateo, Calif., in 1959.

Murphy, 55, on the other hand, grew up in New Jersey and moved to Ireland in 1997. He lives in Dublin where he studies the language and works for the government translating English and Irish.

“The first purpose for this project is to save the language in perpetuity,” Mulreany said.

Estimates indicate that only 10 percent of Ireland’s 4 million population speak Irish as well as 25,000 people in the United States.

Irish language studies are offered at several universities in the United States. There is a Celtic studies group at the University of Moscow.

Murphy said he was amazed at the work Mulreany has done.

“I can’t praise him enough,” Murphy said. “He’s done an unbelievable amount.

There are many things the dictionary is not, Mulreany said.

“It’s not a translator,” he said. “It’s strictly for someone familiar with the language.”

Mulreany launched the project from Irish language textbooks that are decades old.

The most recent Irish dictionary was published in 1977 and nothing has been done since, Murphy said.

Besides his Irish heritage, Mulreany’s computer expertise led him into the project.

In the late 1970s, firms were locating in Ireland to produce computers.

“There was a kind of resentment among the native Irish speaking people that these factories were encroaching. And there was a feeling that the Irish people were unsophisticated,” he said.

“My first purpose was to save the language in perpetuity,” he said. “And I wanted to show that technology and language were not mutually exclusive.”

Mulreany and Murphy insist that the language is not as difficult as English.

“We’re trying to demystify the language,” Murphy said. “It seems hard because people are not being exposed to it.”

For example, Irish does not throw verbal curves to language learners like English does with examples like “rough,” “though,” and “through.”

Irish is considered an agrarian language.

“It’s down-to-earth, associated with the earth, very romantic, very basic,” Mulreany said.

Mulreany’s dictionary will include a pronunciation guide with male and female speakers, thesaurus, video, animation, pictures and he created his own font to replicate the Irish alphabet.

Mulreany has no interest in putting the dictionary on paper.

“I didn’t want to be in the book publishing business,” he said.

If the dictionary were published, Mulreany estimated it would fill 12,000-15,000 pages.

He believes it will be kept alive on the Internet and hopes to make it available for “a modest fee.”

“It will be much more user-friendly online,” he said. “There will always be a program. It will be much easier to update on disk. In 100 years, what we’re doing today will be done at the molecular level.”

Mulreany wrote most of the computer programs for the dictionary, expanding the project as capacity grew.

He hopes to have the pronunciation guide online this summer.

“But I say that every year,” he laughed.

Mulreany works on the project every day.

While some might suggest 25 years is a long investment in time, Mulreany expressed surprised time has passed so quickly.

“When you figure you’ve got 9,000 adjectives and you can enter one word in a minute, all of a sudden you look up, and six weeks are gone,” he said.

Visitors to the Carson Valley Inn today will be able to see a sample of Mulreany and Murphy’s work.

One evening during a break, they decided to translate the Inn’s annual St. Patrick’s Day feast into Irish.

One man’s meat is another’s “marteoil shaillte is cabáiste, anlann raidise fiáine.”

They had a bit of fun with the translations, working in a couple of jokes and puns.

“English is a language from the head and brain, Irish comes from the heart,” Murphy said.