The Irish Language

_April 14th_. John Alphonsus Mulrennan has just returned from the west of Ireland. Europe and Asiatic papers please copy. He told us he met an old man there in a mountain cabin. Old man had red eyes and short pipe. Old man spoke Irish. Mulrennan spoke Irish. Then old man and Mulrennan spoke English. Mulrennan spoke to him about universe and stars. Old man sat, listened, smoked, spat. Then said:
    –Ah, there must be terrible queer creatures at the latter end of the world.

–James Joyce, _Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man_

Peig's Grave In Dingle and Connemara, the road signs–bilingual elsewhere–lapse into monoglot gibberish for Tim. These are Gaeltacht, or Irish-speaking regions.
    “What does that one say?” he asks, exasperated.
    “‘Bridge Out Ahead’,” I say, and giggle. Actually, it says Slow Down: _tóg bog é_, literally, take it softly.

Sometimes he tries to read the signs in broad, slow Canadian, which makes me laugh more. This language does not yield easily (my name is written “Dearbhaile” in Irish). It is full of conditional tenses, inflected nouns, and strange sub-dialects. It can sound Scandinavian, sometimes even like Hebrew. There are no words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’, which accounts for our national reluctance to commit. “Are you well?” we say, and “I am”, is the answer.

Irish language study is compulsory in state schools. Those born here are not admitted to university without a second-level qualification in _Gaeilge_, and regardless of your subject, you may not teach in the Irish education system without it (to the frustration of otherwise-qualified EU nationals). Given that we study it every school day for fourteen years, our competence on graduation is generally low.

In Dingle I visited the handsome grave of Peig Sayers, scourge of my generation of secondary school students. She was one of the last remaining islanders on the Blaskets, and her whiny-old-lady memoirs were compulsory exam material. She didn’t exactly speak to our new Ireland. Over two years of study, we defaced our textbooks by doodling “PEIG” into “BITCH”. My friend Seán, one of the most talented teachers I know, sighs now at the slog of forcing Irish on us:
    “Teaching English at least you know that some of them love it, and they’ll remember those books. With Irish you have to lift them up and carry them through the exams.”

Old man in Dingle Walking from Ventry Harbour around to Dunquin, we met an old man limping down the road. He wore a rusty black suit and sandals with his socks.
    “God be with you,” I said to him in Irish, and he seemed delighted.
    “God and Mary be with you,” he said, “and where are you from?”
I stuttered that I was from Limerick and Tim was from Canada, edging up on the limits of my language after such a long absence. He pointed out the Great Blasket Island, which we couldn’t miss, and Inis Tuaisceart beside it, _an fear marbh_, the dead man. Inis Tuaisceart does indeed look exactly like a man stretched out for a wake; a _memento mori_ in a part of the world rugged enough not to need one.

Our friend rolled up his trouser leg. He had to take a walk along the road every day now since the house collapsed and his knee was so badly injured. The operation was last year, and he didn’t feel healed yet. Did I see the scar? And what were our names? His name was Pádraig O’Bríain. Was I cold now, wearing that big ski jacket and hat and it a fine day?

He had very little English. I answered him in halting pidgin. I’d had fuller conversations in the Ecuadorian Andes than I could manage here.

Afterwards, Tim asked if I thought it was right that Irish was required in school. I don’t know. I can’t imagine seeing our road signs as he does. The English transliterations mean nothing, but the Irish names underneath tell the stories of our places. Though people were forced to learn English in the era of the Penal Laws, the native language was smuggled through into English. It is the direct translations from Irish that make the English spoken here unique in its rhythms and constructions. Knowing Irish gives me a much deeper sense of the layers of this place.

Then again, I pick up languages easily and enjoy feck-acting about with words. Not everyone does. I wouldn’t have studied it if it weren’t compulsory, and I don’t know if it should be forced on everyone at great state expense. There is outcry here at present that Irish -is about to be struck off the list of official- will not be added to the list of EU working languages. The enlarging union will be swamped with tiny languages. Minority languages seem isolating to me, no matter how good the Scandanavians and Dutch are at speaking TV English. I feel lucky that my mother tongue opens up the world. Irish is a luxury; worthwhile, but still a luxury.

As Tim observed in Connemara, “Everything is in Irish around here, until they want to sell something. Then they don’t bother with anything but English.”

12 thoughts on “The Irish Language”

  1. You say “Irish is about to be struck off the list of official EU languages” but that’s not the case. It is an official language for treaties, etc. but it is not a working language, meaning that simultaneous translation to and from Irish is not provided in the European Parliament. I don’t think a change in status is planned.

    I’m between two minds as to whether raising its status to “working language” would be a good thing. It would provide jobs for Irish speakers, and would certainly produce lots of new Irish-language material. And if Maltese, with less native speakers than Irish, is going to be a working language, then Irish should be too.

    But this all costs money. Our money. It might be better to invest in other ways to revitalise Irish *here in Ireland* so that there is a genuine demand for the Irish language in the EU in the future.


  2. As an American with a husband from the Gaeltacht of southwest Donegal, it appeared to me that the older generations feel very strongly that if the Irish language were not to be thrust down the throats of the younger ones that it would be lost and with it a very important part of your cultural identity. However, it seemed that only a small minority of students cared enough to remember anything more than, “May I go to the toilet?” once they left school. I haven’t been to Ireland in four years, but there was an Irish language radio and television station the last time, not to mention that the language continues to be taught in schools. What more could the Irish do to revitalize their own language? How can you make the majority of the younger generations not take it for granted?
    I have a young niece and nephew in Donegal who have not yet started school. It will be interesting to watch their progress when they do. I am trying to teach my own little ones what little I know from the brief time I studied the language myself. My husband, however, can only say, “May I go to the toilet?” My children, most likely, will not spend any of their childhood in Ireland apart from a summer vacation here and there. It is more important to me than their father that they know their connection to their Irish heritage. Why, though, is their father so disinterested? Is this a symptom of an immigrant trying to assimilate into a new culture? It baffles me.


  3. I’m in two minds about enforced learning of it in schools.

    On the one hand, I hated learning it there, and it took me 10 years to get over my antipathy to the language as a result. (Mind you, I’m now a keen fan.)

    On the other, if it was not taught at school, I’d have no doubt it’d disappear into “dead language” status in no time at all.

    I think the Gaelscoile — secondary schools where the entire curriculum is taught, and daily life is lived entirely _as gaeilge_ — are a fantastic idea, though. They really have worked beautifully.

    PS: day-to-day, I do use it — it’s great for private conversations with another speaker, and the confusion of an english speaker attempting to deal with the different pronounciation rules is always good for a wee titter — like Aoife pronounced “ay oh iffy” 😉

    Mind you, the pronunciation rules for written gaeilge at least aren’t as confusing to english speakers as Cherokee looks:


  4. Amy —

    “May I go to the toilet?” — lol! “an bhfuil cead agam dul go dti an leithris”. That was drilled into us — I can still remember it, the sing-song style we were taught it with, and its fellow phrases, “dia duit a dhuine uasal” (“God be with you, important person”, for a teacher/headmaster/schools inspector visiting the classroom) and “slan leat a dhuine uasal” (“goodbye to you, important person”, its reciprocal).

    The traditional school curriculum for teaching Gaeilge was a disaster. Very few people came out of it with a love of the language, and most of them only kept that with outside help (e.g. from their parents). Frankly, it was a chore.

    Mind you, I don’t know anyone who grew up in a Gaeltacht, so I can’t really generalise about your husband’s experience here 😉 But the above applies for most everyone who grew up in english-speaking parts of the republic.


  5. I think that the only hope for the Irish language is for it to grow steadily more fashionable. You can already see that happening with signs in bars and restaurants, and with the upper middle classes turning Irish-language schools into status schools.

    It’s interesting to compare the situations of Welsh and Irish. Irish is compulsory in schools, badly taught, and spoken by a shrinking minority; Welsh is not compulsory in schools and yet is growing and thriving. Why is that? I don’t know, but it seems to indicate that compulsory learning of the language, while there may be arguments for it, is not *necessarily* the way to preserve it.


  6. Thanks for the comments, guys. David, thanks especially for the clarification on the working language issue; I hadn’t fully grasped that.

    Irish is definitely a chi-chi status thing in the upper middle classes, as I found out when I went to UCD. I spoke fluent Munster Irish back then and the _blas_-free, trendy Blackrock Irish used to drive me nuts. “Yeah, roiysh, go n-eiri an bothar leat, okay?” 🙂

    All-Irish schools do fabulously well, which simply demonstrates that the best predictors for academic success are parental attititudes and a motivated peer group. I wish them luck, and wish I knew how to bring that sense of purpose to language teaching in all-English schools. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful Irish teacher, who made sure that Liam O’Flaherty’s _Dúil_ is still my favourite book of short stories in any language.


  7. Amy, Good luck with your efforts teaching your kids Irish! It might be worth sending them to Irish college (language camp) for a few weeks when they’re older. I never went, and still regret missing out on the formative experience of first snogs at a céilí.

    As for your husband: I think it’s common for some emigrants to want to forget Irish heritage as part of the assimilation process. I certainly did at one point, and I see it strongly in others now. Judging from previous generations, they change their minds in their seventies!


  8. When I was in secondary school in late 60’s, early 70’s, Irish music, dancing and culture were all as uncool as uncool can be. An offer from the Irish teacher to organise uileann pipe lessons was laughed out of class. Irish was the province of repressive religeous, republican, anti-British pointy headed bigots. And this was in a relatively liberal Catholic boys school.
    Suddenly Irish music became cool; Planxty, Horslips, ets.
    Ten years ago the dubious Mr. Flatley made Irish dancing cool.
    The time for then Irish language may be coming.
    Knowing the contrary Irish psyche, the best way to restore it would be to ban it.


  9. Thanks for the lessons

    Ive wanted to know the language for twenty years. consider that my granma told me “An dock and doris to ye” was what you said on new years , when every one left…… a Parting Glass?
    Still clueless, searching….bw


  10. I learned Middle English so that I might read Chaucer, both in and from books. I learned Old English so that I might read Beowuld, both in and from books. I read neither aloud now. I can’t read either in books. I learned them both to teach them in universities. I wasted a lot of time. Probably irrelvevant. Yeah, probably irrelevant.


  11. William/bill –

    What your grandma said was ‘deoch an dorais’ which phonetically is ‘juck un durish’ (or sounds slightly similiar to that). ‘Deoch an dorais’ literally means ‘drink of the door’ which means to have one last drink before everyone departs. There is a similar phrase in English: One for the road. I hope that helps. Slán go fóill.


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