The Irish language and culture – where zealotry and indifference exist side by side
IN a supermarket in Indreabhán the other evening I listened to the elderly woman before me in the queue as she chatted with the check-out girl, thrilled to understand them. The customer was asking if she could leave her shopping for an hour or so, when someone would collect it. The check-out girl nodded. "Tá sé sin sound," she said.
At this eruption of the diabolical Béarlachas, I found myself silently revolting.
It was like a noxious contaminant had entered the flow of sounds I'd been enjoying. The women continued talking, effortlessly shifting from Irish to English as though the languages were fused in their left hemispheric cortexes.
I was interested in my own self-righteousness. I'm not even a good speaker of standard Irish, and yet, here I was, demanding perfection of people who speak Irish freely and lovingly as an organic part of their lives.
I'm in the Gaeltacht to keep a promise to my daughter, Róisín, who's just done her Leaving Cert after 14 years in Irish-speaking schools. She's anxious lest her present fluency becomes eroded, so we've pledged to make regular trips to Connemara to keep us in a state-of-grace.
Some 19 years ago, I met with the historian Theodore Zeldin (author of, among other works, 'An Intimate History of Humanity').
As we parted, I confided that I was about to attempt to reboot my spoken Irish – having signed up for night classes at Gael Linn. He expressed surprise, asking: "Why not learn Chinese instead?" – his point being that it was more sensible to acquire the tongue of a vastly populated coming superpower than the dying phrases of a marginal ethnicity on the western periphery of Europe.
I remember proffering two explanations. One was: "I'm Irish, not Chinese." Here, for the avoidance of doubt, I wasn't proclaiming allegiance to an inherited cultural nationalism but simply observing a fact of my own particularity. I also confided that I was soon to become a father, and wanted to give my child the option of speaking Irish or not speaking it.
I uttered no word of English to Róisín until she was three. At bedtime I read her Irish versions of fairytales, like Lúidín ó Laoi and Rapúnsal. She responded in her own version of Béarlachas ('No way leaba!') but came to love Irish far more than I did. She now has the fáinne óir, and speaks like a native.
Last week I listened to her being interviewed with some fellow Leaving Cert students by Máirín Nic Iomaire on Raidió na Gaeltachta, and was slain in the spirit by hearing her discourse about hip-hop as Gaeilge before singing in English a blues song she'd written with her boyfriend, 'Ain't Got No Blues Blues'.
Like many others I reacted when young against the fundamentalism of the language revival, biting off my tongue to spite my gob. Unable to think past the ideology to the beauty, I bought into the widespread disparagement of the language that became trendy in the 1960s. Nowadays I hear Latvians and Poles chattering in the streets and wonder what I was thinking of.
After I completed that Gael Linn course – emerging if not exactly líofa, at least reasunta maith – the first thing that became clear was that there was nowhere in Dublin to continue speaking Irish, other than a café with immigrant waiters and a late-night drinking den for dandruffed zealots.
In these circumstances, a fanatic's heart seemed essential – to stand four-square with like-minded souls against the dreaded Béarla. In this and other aspects of Irish culture, zealotry and indifference subsist side by side. All or nothing; usually nothing.
Today, my Irish has lapsed back into a desolate wilderness of dropped ellipses and half-remembered phrases. I experience frissons of shame and envy whenever I encounter someone who speaks it well. Because I went on about it a bit that time I went to Gael Linn, I sometimes get asked to do interviews in Irish and usually have the good sense to decline. Last year I unwisely agreed to deliver a speech in Irish about the current state of Ireland, provoking one of the great disasters of my professional life. I wrote it in English and the organisers had it professionally translated but the script arrived rather late and my delivery stumbled over every second word. Bhí sé go huafásach ar fad.
The English worked hard to destroy Irish but never hit on the scheme of teaching it to every school-going child from four to 18, thereby guaranteeing that most students would be unable to speak a coherent sentence in the end. Such has been the achievement of state-sponsored efforts to preserve Irish.
My response in the supermarket in Indreabhán the other night was the default zealotry manifesting in spite of myself.
Although I knew those two women would be capable of speaking in totally uncontaminated Irish, I could not indulge even their ironic lapsing into the use of English words.
Róisín has no such issues. For her and her friends Irish is a language to be spoken, not a badge of honour. They're proud to speak it and irritated that almost nobody else does.
They think all these Poles and Latvians should by now have shamed us into the night schools.
For them, moreover, Irish comes without baggage – rendering it piquant that Róisín wears her fainne on her shoulder bag, not on her lapel as a weapon for poking people's eyes out.