Reflections on the Irish language by a world traveller
The Irish language has always been a huge part of my life. Since the day I was born, Irish was being spoken all around me and although I have travelled far and wide, I always use my cúpla focal at any given opportunity.
Growing up, I was lucky enough to be living in a Gaeltacht area, or Irish-speaking area of Ireland. County Meath was never renowned for Gaeltacht areas unlike the West, Kerry or Donegal were, but back in 1937, the Land Commissioner bought my great-grandparents’ land in County Mayo. In exchange for the house and land in the West, they were given a house and farm in County Meath. Many other families moved into the area from various Irish-speaking areas around the country and thus our very own Gaeltacht in County Meath was formed. My grandmother was just 11 years old at the time. Listening to her stories about moving her whole life over to County Meath is one of my most cherished memories from my childhood. I have been, and still am incredibly proud of my grandparents. The move to the other side of the country was not without its challenges and the locals greeted some of the families that moved to the area with disdain. However, they persevered, making an Irish community and leaving a legacy which we, as a community, still have today. I am thankful every single day that I was lucky enough to grow up speaking Ireland’s mother tongue, Gaeilge.
There have been a few poignant moments over the past few years that made me realise how strongly I feel about the importance of retaining this part of my identity. While in university, back in 2013, a prominent journalist for one of Ireland’s leading publications spoke out on a well-known current affairs programme about the Irish language. He claimed it was a dying language, with no real purpose. Furthermore, he claimed it was not part of the culture of the Irish people. An anger sparked inside of me that I didn’t realise I had. I would not stand for this. I would not let anyone speak ill of something so important to me. Irish was so much more than just a language for me. Irish for me had shaped the person I had become. I was determined that it would always remain a part of life, my culture and my heritage. I slept badly that night, the journalist’s words infiltrating my thoughts as I tossed and turned. When I arrived at University the next morning, my thoughts were suddenly clear. I was going to take action. I found a quiet corner before pounding the keys on my laptop keyboard for the next hour. I let every ounce of emotion I felt spill onto the page and finished by sending what I had written to the editor of the publication the journalist in question worked for. A sense of calm descended upon me. I was content I had taken action and didn’t even think that my words may actually appear in print the very next day. When they did, I felt proud. Proud that I stood up for what I believed in. I was also amazed at the amount of support I had gotten. There were many like-minded people like me out there. I was not alone in wanting to preserve the Irish language.
Fast forward a few years to 2016, my partner and I found ourselves travelling through South-East Asia for an extended period. I’m not quite sure how it happened but we found ourselves slipping into a habit of speaking Irish every day. Sometimes for a short while, sometimes for extended periods. I realised how much I had missed speaking it and I enjoyed and appreciated the exchanges more than my partner will ever know. Having experienced the death of my father the previous year, I was feeling lost. I felt like I had lost my connection to the Irish language. The man who had taught me my first words as Gaeilge was no longer here. But these exchanges, no matter how small or simple, reignited my passion.
Now, I find myself on the road again, here in Australia, and speaking Irish daily once more. Last week, I went on a literary tour of Melbourne with one of my oldest friends. I stumbled upon a book by Bill Bryson, acclaimed travel author, as its title, The Mother Tongue caught my eye. I began to flick through pages and couldn’t believe my luck when I saw the mention of my very own Gaeilge. My delight was short-lived however, when I read what Bryson had to say about my beloved language. He spoke of how the Irish language was ultimately doomed and would not live beyond this century. He referred to it as a dying language and even said it was wrong to lament the death of such languages as it was not exactly an undiluted tragedy. That ire that I had long forgotten was quick to surface once more upon reading these words. I have always admired Mr. Bryson but could not fathom how such an educated man could speak so flippantly about minority languages dying off.
Although reading his words angered me at first, I really must thank him, as my passion has once again been reignited. I do not think I am alone in my desire to keep this beautiful language alive. Irish has been a part of me since the day I came into this world and it is something I will keep with me for the rest of my life. I have words from the Irish language etched onto my skin as a tattoo. I have taught Irish to those struggling with the language and needing extra tuition. I’m on the local Irish committee in my community at home in Ireland to ensure the language is well and truly alive. I’m also the annoying god-mother who insists on buying her godson Irish language books in an attempt to start him learning from a young age! (He’ll thank me when he’s older!!)
There is an old Irish phrase, Tír gan Teanga, Tír gan Anam. This translates to ‘A country without a language, is a country without a soul’. Personally, this phrase is something that has always resonated with me. I have pride in my country and pride in my language. While visiting the National Museum of Australia in Canberra just this week, I came across a quote written on one of the displays: ‘Country is not just a place you can visit, it’s also something you carry around inside you’. This quote, from Dr Greg Lehman of the University of Melbourne gave me hope. Hope, that there are many like-minded people out there who have pride in their country and language. Pride in the Irish language which in turns drives a desire to use and encourage use of it.
Whether you are fluent or only have that cúpla focal, use them. Use them as often as you can. Have confidence in your ability and don’t let fear hold you back from using what is a gift to have. Let’s keep this beautiful language alive in every corner of this world.
Maith an cailín thú, Katie.
Tá mé bródamhail asat.
There are three sociolinguistic tribes in Ireland: those who speak Irish for the love of it (like Katie), those who don’t and won’t speak it but who appreciate it as a symbol (the majority) and those who quite sincerely see no point in Irish in what is, after all, an English-speaking country. Irish is not dying, but clearly it has lost all critical mass among young people in the Gaeltacht, those like Katie notwithstanding. Its future is elsewhere, in the heterogeneous network of urban speakers, and even to some extent abroad. Its greatest problem is its invisibility (except on signposts). Visitors rarely encounter it and it has little public presence. As a school subject it is plagued by problems. Appeals to the plain people of Ireland to use what Irish they remember meet with little success. Enthusiasts like Katie are bound to be disappointed, and yet they are invaluable. They practise what they preach, and persevere.
Molaim go mór thu a Katie. Is poncanach mé a labhair Gaedhilg amhain le mo bheirt pháiste is iad a fás aníos, anseo i Meiricéa. Anois tá mo bhean chéile ar a seacht ndícheall ag iarraidh Gaedhilg a labhairt. Agus an dá ghirseach ag canstan na Gaedhilge ‘e ló is ‘e oidhche eadarthú fhéin is linne. An duine thuas an t-uasal Ryan, (de lucht a bheagain dochais) bhail, níl fhios agam ca’l sé in a chónaidh ach mas i mBAC é, tá Gaedhilg le cluinstin, le léigheamh, is le fagháil gach áit. Agus borradh mór uirthí anseo i Meiricéa, le ranganna fud fad na tíre. Tá sí á teagasc insna ollscoltacha le blianta. Éist le fuaim na h-abhainne is gheobhfar breac.