| 3.9°C Dublin

Medb Ruane: With hearts on sleeves leaders embrace their mother tongue

Tir agus teanga. The poet Máire Mac an tSaoi called Irish the language of the heart. English was for the system, but Irish was about voicing the soul.

Eamon Gilmore, Enda Kenny and Micheal Martin must have been polishing up the glottal sounds for TG4's three-way leaders' debate as Gaeilge but would they wear their hearts on their sleeves? We were about to find out.

Images of Ireland's sovereign past dappled the set behind them, drawn from scraps of Leinster House, Doric columns and what looked like the GPO.

A harp framed Eamon Gilmore's backdrop. As though by osmosis, he quickly mentioned 1916.

The possible dynamics of the three-way, after RTE's five-way and TV3's two-way, were tantalisingly heightened by moderator Eimear ni Chonaola, who is the first (and likely the last) woman to appear in authority alongside these strapping men.

Enda Kenny's eyes glinted as he spoke to her in that soft western way they use north of Connemara. His body swung round to face her but no flirting went on.

Instead, he'd taken the opportunity to turn his back on Micheal Martin, who had to crouch like a Tour de France cyclist to navigate Enda's shape.

Ah yes, 1916. Gilmore was addressing his target market. Still wearing a red tie (dappled this time), he sat neatly behind the swerving counter where Enda was gradually blocking the FF man. His ringless hands stayed under control until he began to count the points of a policy plan, when his right thumb kept pointing upwards, suggesting he felt on top and on form.

The Fíor-Gael didn't need English sub-titles to translate the chat, which flowed as well as you'd expect from two ex-teachers and a former republican socialist.

The rest of the world could see how relaxed with each other the men were becoming.

Gilmore kept his eye on Kenny like a beast who is ready to pounce if he must but suspects there's no need. Kenny, meanwhile, spread himself across centre screen and began invading Martin's physical territory.

Apart from an unfortunate rustling through his notes as the topic of fishing rights began, Kenny seemed to have persuaded himself he was in pole position. His head went tsk-tsk whenever Martin spoke.

Martin wound up the energy -- and brought back that curious clawed right hand -- to warn how Fine Gael would destroy the language and the Gaeltacht economies.

Kenny kept his composure even under accusations that would have been hanging offences in former years.

Gilmore's body moved to challenge Kenny on the key question of whether Irish should remain mandatory for the Leaving Cert, while the harp behind him stayed dumb.

And as crucial issues of Ireland in the world yielded to age-old topics such as the survival of the language, Shannon Airport, local tourism and the Bean a Tí, the men looked like they were enjoying themselves.

Safe ground at last.

Irish Independent