by Dymphna Lonergan
Tinteán’s August 2021 edition included an article by Perth-based Julie Breathnach Banwait on why she chooses to write in the Irish language. It begins:
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.(https://tintean.org.au/2021/08/10/why-do-you-write-in-irish/)
By August 2021, Covid19 was a reality for most of us and the beginning of lockdown restrictions. For many this meant needing to find new ways for entertaining ourselves at home. There was a rise in streaming services and usage, some people took up musical instruments again and some started. Others did more creative writing, and some started to write creatively for the first time. I was one of those, and I was writing creatively in the Irish language, 16,000 miles from my native home and with only school-based Irish. I needed more resources than I had at the time, and for the first time turned to technology for help in writing in Irish. The following is what I learned about the process of writing in Irish in Australia.
Gaelgram.ie is run by the affable Diarmaid MacMathúna operating out of Dublin. ‘It quickly detects many spelling and grammar mistakes, making helpful suggestions and even automatically correcting common mistakes to speed up your writing.’ It was through Gaelgram that I found my weakness in using the genitive. It seemed that almost every one of my inputs contained an ‘unnecessary use of the genitive’, a judgment I found confronting at first, especially when there was no suggested correction. In time, though, I worked out that the problem was my poor spelling and that using technology for language purposes is a two-way process. Your job is to develop sufficient knowledge so as to be able to detect problems in the technology. As the old saying goes, ‘a good worker does not blame his (her) tools’, or as the Bard said ‘the fault Dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves’. So, I needed more tools, and I needed to become a better worker. For the latter, I started to read more Irish language books and taking note of grammatical constructions I might use.
No doubt many hands will go up in the air in alarm at the idea of using the translation apps systems currently available to us, but some of my beginning Irish language students want to write in Irish as part of their learning, and I encourage this. I advise them to put their Irish language piece into Google Translate but not to think that it is correct because Google Translate’s translation is to their mind exactly what they wanted. I caution them to take the English translation provided by Google Translate and then ask it to translate that into Irish. Then they can compare what they wrote in Irish and what Google Translate wrote. There may be errors still, but these we sort out in our class. Google Translate’s limitation, of course, is of course is context. If you have just one character in a story, a female, and you write chíor sí a chuid gruaige instead of chíor sí a cuid gruaige you will get ‘she combed his hair’. This is startling, but also instructive. It is these experiences that teach you to be more careful in using Irish grammar correctly.
I only learned recently about the translation option in Microsoft Word, but in my opinion, it is not as good as Google Translate where accuracy is concerned. It does have an advantage, though, over Google Translate in not having wordage limitation. You can only input 3900 characters in Google Translate at a time whereas in Word you can ask it to translate the entire document (go to the Menu bar to the drop box search section ‘what do you want me to do?’ and ask it to Translate. A side bar will pop up and you can select Irish to English.) You can then create a two column Insert and place this translation next to the Irish language one you have typed, and check for problems.
One difficulty in writing in Irish with school Irish from the 1960s as a base, is sometimes not being quite sure about a word and its use in contemporary writing. Added to that is the complication of the dialectal variations. When I was at school, most of my teachers were from Cork, so many of my words are no longer popular in Irish today. I can search for my word in Gaois’s Corpus of Contemporary Irish, a collection of Irish language texts in digital format and also search for another variant. For example, the Irish word for ‘honest’ can be macánta or ionraic. The word macánta is what I use and has 840 examples in the Corpus; the word ionraic has 632 examples.
https://www.teanglann.ie/en/ this is a wonderful online resource of digitized Irish English and English Irish dictionaries including Niall Ó Dónaill’s Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla. It also provides a pronunciation guide for most words in three dialects. At a recent pop-up Gaeltacht gathering at the Botanic Gardens in Adelaide, I was speaking with an Aran Islander who was using the term buachaill aimsire for the waiter when others were using freastalaí. The latter is the term I usually use and come across today in writing, but I remembered buachaill aimsire too from my school days. We puzzled for a moment as to the connection between the word for weather and time (aimsir) and the word for a waiter. Ó Dónaill gave us the answer and reinforced for me why I love how this language provides a link to our early years and also a different worldview, as we discussed how time was connected to service in the Gaeltacht areas.
I use my own hard copy of Foras na Gaeilge’s 2020 Concise English Irish Dictionary (at 1776 pages ‘Concise’ is surely a misnomer), but it is also available in digitized form at https://www.focloir.ie/ from the Irish language promotion agency. The collection of Irish-language and English-language word definitions is extensive and up-to-date. It was here that I finally found the Irish term for ‘speed dating’ for one of my stories. You can also read essays on dialect variations and common translation problems.
Its ability with the Irish language is limited, in my experience so far, but this AI tool is fun to play with.
For example, I asked it to write a short poem in Irish about the weather. It provided this, along with an unasked-for translation into English:
Aistear na haimsire,
Gaoth agus fharraige,
Féachann na scamaill,
Ag dul trasna na spéire.
Báisteach ag stealladh,
Agus teas sa ghrian,
An aimsir atá ann,
Is álainn í go deo.
The journey of the weather,
Wind and sea,
The clouds watch,
Moving across the sky.
Rain pouring down,
And warmth in the sun,
The weather that’s here,
Is forever beautiful.
I could use this in my class as a discussion point, and we could work on improving it. We might debate whether the verb féach is the best option for ‘watch’.
Apart from poetry, you can ask it to write a certain number of words for a certain level of user. In eight seconds it gave me a fifty word piece in Irish on ‘clouds’, and then translated them to English
Scamaill, léiríonn siad dathanna éagsúla ó ghlas go donn. Bogann siad ó áit go háit, agus léiríonn siad scéal an aeir. Is féidir lucht féachana scamaill a bheith faoi dhraíocht, agus is iontach an radharc iad i lár an tsamhraidh nó nuair a théann an ghrian faoi.
Clouds, they show different colors from green to brown. They move from place to place and they tell the story of the sky. Cloud watchers can be under a spell, and they are a wonderful sight in the middle of summer or when the sun sets.
I then asked it for fifty words on ‘clouds’ for a beginner. Here it is
Scamaill atá sa spéir. Féachann siad difriúil agus bogann siad timpeall an domhain. Bíonn scéalta ag na scamaill, le huaireanta bíonn siad donn agus uaireanta bíonn siad bán. Is féidir linn radharc na scamaill a thógáil ón talamh. Is áit fairsing spreagúil iad scamaill sa spéir.
Clouds are in the sky. They look different and move around the world. Clouds have stories, sometimes they are brown and sometimes they are white. We can observe the clouds from the ground. Clouds in the sky are a wide and inspiring place.
My class could discuss the differences in the reading levels. We could then discuss the difference between Scamaill atá sa spéir and Tá scamaill sa spéir (which is the regular construction).
Finally, I asked ChatGPT to write me a piece on the topic of this article. Here is some of the advice it offered:
Writing in Irish can seem like a daunting task, especially for those who did not grow up speaking the language or have not had much exposure to it. However, with some guidance and practice, anyone can learn to write in Irish and enjoy the rich culture and history that comes with the language.
Finally, don’t be afraid to make mistakes! Writing in a new language is a learning process, and it takes time and practice to become proficient. Take the opportunity to learn from your errors and continue to improve your skills.
In conclusion, writing in Irish is a rewarding experience that allows you to engage with the language and its rich cultural heritage. With dedication, practice, and immersion, anyone can learn to write in Irish and appreciate the beauty and complexity of this unique language.
I hope that I have encouraged you to write in Irish, either as a way of reviving or maintaining your skills, or simply as another way of learning. ‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has wisdom, power and magic in it’.(Goethe) Or in Irish, bain triail as, have a go!
Dymphna is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective and holds academic status at Flinders University, South Australia. Her first book of Irish short stories As Gaeilge was published in 2022 and her latest Scéalta Arís is about to be released. Both are published by immortalise.com.au