_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_
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.”
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.”