A feature by Irish-language poet Julie Breathnach-Banwait ( ed: this is a revised version of an article that first appeared in The Journal (WA)
Upon hearing the words ‘Fáilte go Ospidéal na h-Ollscoile, Gaillimh’, I stopped in my tracks. Had I heard that correctly? ‘Welcome to University Hospital Galway,’ it repeated. Then again in the Irish language. I could feel myself getting emotional, not because I was entering the all too familiar hospital that had served my family, my neighbours and my community since my childhood, but because it acknowledged the very existence of a language that was hardly ever heard in my city when I grew up. Things were changing.
I am bilingual. I wasn’t always. I grew up with the Irish language; everybody in my house spoke it; everybody in my extended family spoke it; everybody in my community spoke it. It was a Gaeltacht. It is what the Gaeltacht is about. We got on with our lives, we played, ate together, danced and sang, played musical instruments, squabbled with siblings, visited neighbours and relatives who did the same thing and no questions were asked. The world seemed clear. The questions started later in life or when we went to the cities and were asked to convert and change our language to English, sometimes politely sometimes not so much. We got used to the requests, ‘can you please say that in English?’ or the statements ‘We speak English in here’ or ‘I’m afraid we don’t speak that language here’.
After some time we didn’t need to hear this, we learned through observation and perception, to convert and blend in when needed, we learned that many were not comfortable with the language we spoke, we learned that the city that we were meant to be part of did not really cater for us in our own language. It belonged to the English speakers. The local doctor did not speak Irish, the priest learned it as he went along mostly from engagement with the locals, the hospitals did not provide medics who could speak Irish, we learned to rely on ourselves for support and thus we did. The sociologist Charles Cooley’s phrase comes to me when reflecting on who I was when I was young: ‘I am not who you think I am: I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am’
I had a feeling we were different. I queried how so. I was unsure of what I thought everyone thought of us. Children have a knack of becoming more self-aware as they grow. As a young child one does not reflect on the language one is speaking; it is merely a vehicle for communication. I did not know that I was an Irish speaker until I was told by a non-Irish speaker. I remember asking my Mom if I was an Irish speaker and she told me I was, in fact, and that was just fine. I wanted to learn more about what that meant as it seemed to me at that point that many people outside of my community found this odd and sometimes a little intriguing. Telling someone you are an Irish speaker usually results in long responses about how amazing the language is but that they don’t know any, or it is met with a deadly silence that speaks more.
As the Irish language was and still is a compulsory part of the Irish curriculum, students came in their droves in the summertime to Gaeltacht areas from non-Gaeltacht areas to increase their fluency. We were asked to only speak Irish to them and to support them with the learning, I wondered why, and what they spoke in their own homes, and when would I be going to their communities to avail of a reciprocal service. The questions of language and identity started to intrigue me. I began to question why and when I moved beyond a certain radius, I had to keep changing the language that I did not know I was speaking.
Off I went to school. I quickly realised that I could learn another way of communicating at school. Through English. I ran home and told my Mom all about it and she told me she already knew it, could speak it herself too and that it wasn’t that big of a deal. I was shocked, how could she have kept this from me? She said it didn’t matter and people could speak any language they wished as long as they were not hurting anyone. My Mum, forever the peacemaker, added that to the end of most sentences ‘Chomh fada is nach bhfuil tú ag cur isteach ná amach ar éinne eile’ (as long as you don’t put in nor out on anyone else). After further investigations I realised my Dad could speak it too and my siblings if they wanted to. In fact, nearly everyone in the community could, many having spent chunks of their lives overseas in London, Boston or Chicago.
Pieces of the bilingual identity started to merge together. As I grew and became more and more exposed to the English spoken in Ireland, I began to feel like two people, switching between two languages effortlessly, speaking about one thing in English and noticing how it changed as I shifted to expressing myself in Irish. Many issues that we discussed in English did not seem relevant in the Irish language. Some words could not be translated so needed to be described instead. I began to realise how much languages shape who we are, how we think, and what we think about.
Then I grew up and moved away for university and work. This happens. I became immersed and started to fade into the English-speaking world. Time passed and I became engrossed and had succumbed. The gnawing of being two people every now and again reared its ugly two heads and led me to explore my identity even further. Psychology seemed a suitable career; social constructionism began to intrigue me as one of the main perspectives in psychology: how we construct our world, our lives, our beings. How assumptions of our reality are shaped and moulded by shared understandings, and the impact of culture and language on these constructs. Having two languages made this even more complex and a whole lot of fun.
We emigrated to various places, none of them Irish-speaking funnily enough. Our daily language in the home and in the workplace was English. A dominant different identity grew. I visited home every now and again and I needed to attune my ear each time to convert to Irish. It came every time, rather effortlessly in fact, until the gaps widened between visits. I didn’t notice it slipping at first until a young girl came to stay with me here in Australia. She was a native speaker from my community. From the first moment she entered my house she spoke to me in Irish. It felt normal, natural and comfortable. I could feel the ease slipping over me in due course. I awakened to the uncomfortable idea that my Irish had been dormant, waiting for me to shake it from its 20 plus year slumber, brush the dust off it and put it to work.
So I did. I switched on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta, started watching TG4, downloaded apps, pulled Irish literature books out of old boxes, joined social media groups and immersed myself into the language as much as I could. Being rather curious by nature I started to look under every rock ‘go bhfeicfinn céard a d’fheicfinn’ (to see what I could see). Then I sat down and started writing poetry, something I had dabbled in during my twenties but put to one side when real life kicked in and demanded my full attention.
When I get asked ‘Why do you write in Irish?’ the above seems like a rather long-winded response which is likely to frighten off the most curious of people with the best intentions, but this is why. I must admit I get asked this question a lot. Apart from the fact that the Irish language is a beautiful language full of emotion that speaks my soul and my whole being, that it is woven into the fabric of my entire person, that it is an inextricable part of my identity, that it is the connection to my beautiful place of rearing, that it is an ancient soulful, powerful, melodic language, that it brings me back to the carefree time of my youth, that it is how my formative constructs about life were first created, that it reminds me of my Mum and Dad and community, apart from all of that, why wouldn’t I? It is as natural to me as the air we breathe and the water we drink.
I suspect that English speakers are not asked why they write in English? Or the French in France? I would like to propose a social experiment that asks question and notes the responses. It would seem a rather obvious question. It is a given that people use the language that they have. Generally I write to calm the clamour of my mind. I write to focus. I write to remember. I write to forget, to reflect and to learn. To gather my thoughts in some sort of cohesive way and make them look as if I have a level of control over them, which curiously takes place through the process of writing. I write in Irish to remind myself of who I am, to make a connection with myself, to become whole again, to grow that second person I have always been, that I let sleep for so long. I write in Irish to balance myself lest I tip over and lose myself into the English-speaking world with which I sometimes struggle to connect. This is why. This is why I write in Irish. It is the language of my people, my tribe, my soul and my land. It comes directly from the gut. I describe this connection to the land in one of my poems ‘Ceangal’ (Connection):
Is ón gcréafóg dhubh
A stróiceadh mo chorp
Ní liomsa na clocha aoil liath
Ach is leo mé
Ní liomsa an portach prásach
Ach gur rug sí mé
Gur dhoirt sí mé ó
Chumhdach na broinne.
It is from the dark soil/That my body has been ripped/The limestones are not mine/But I am theirs/ I do not own the soft bog/But it spilled me/From the safety of its womb.
The language owns me. It has made me who I am. It cannot be pulled from me or me from it. We are stitched and woven together on the complex tapestry of the mind. This is why the words ‘Fáilte go Ospidéal na h-Ollscoile Gaillimhe’ had such an impact. The real question is ‘Why wouldn’t I write in Irish?’
Julie Breathnach-Banwait is a psychologist, poet, writer and mother from ‘Ceantar na n-Oileán in Connemara, Co. Galway. She has lived in Western Australia with her husband and her son for over a decade. She recently published her debut poetry collection Dánta Póca through Coiscéim in Dublin. Her poetry has been published in Tinteán (Melbourne), in An Gael (New York) and on idler.ie . She recently appeared as a guest speaker at Óbhéal Cork Poetry Event with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Two of her poems (Rotorua and Uluru Khata Tjuta) are published in the January 2021 edition of Comhar Literary Magazine, Ireland. She publishes regularly in ‘The Irish Scene’ in Western Australia.
Dánta Póca was reviewed here in Tinteán October 2020.