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Losing part of what we were, as Gaeilge

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'Bounty of knowledge': Manchán Magan. Photo by Michael Keegan Dolan.

'Bounty of knowledge': Manchán Magan. Photo by Michael Keegan Dolan.

Thirty-Two Words for Field by Manchán Magan

Thirty-Two Words for Field by Manchán Magan

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'Bounty of knowledge': Manchán Magan. Photo by Michael Keegan Dolan.

Every once in a while you come across a book that is very different from anything you have read before. It is one of life's great pleasures. The oddest of books was sent to me during lockdown and it made me think afresh about a lot of things. It is called Thirty-two Words for Field - Lost Words of the Irish Landscape by Manchán Magan. It may be one of the oddest titles I have seen in some time but it does what it says on the tin and a lot more.

When a culture loses its language, it loses a lot more than the ability of people to communicate. Words get lost when they refer to things that people no longer know about. Delving into words tells us a lot about the past and how Irish people used to live. It is like the old line about how many words the Eskimo have for snow. They need them. We just need snow, slush, maybe blizzard, and "country has come to a standstill".

The Irish language Manchán is talking about is a much more extensive thing than the smaller bits of the language that still exist today. Reading the book made me think a lot about my own relationship with the language.

In the two-teacher model school I went to in Kilkenny, both teachers, Lena Wray and Tom Groves, continuously switched from English to Irish and back again. We never learned that Irish was 'difficult'. It always surprised me when my Dublin friends and relations at a young age had already absorbed that learning Irish was a waste of time. In Kilkenny we never learned grammar or irregular verbs. They just happened and we used them correctly in conversation without ever thinking about it.

Going to secondary school in Dublin, the attitude could not have been more different. We waded though an exam curriculum designed to make you hate what had become just another 'subject'. By the Leaving Cert, I had lost most of my conversational ability.

When I lectured at Trinity, I was interested in psycholinguistics. I was ashamed at a summer school in New Mexico, where I was surrounded by people wanting to know how to say this or that in Irish, by how much I had forgotten. I resolved to do something about it and signed up for a four-nights-a-week spoken Irish class. There were about 10 of us and a great teacher and we all loved it. On the Thursday nights we retired to a nearby Irish club for a drink and more caint as Gaeilge and a few laughs.

One such night, we were approached by a man who had been sitting at the bar who demanded to know how we could laugh when there were Irish people being murdered by the British in our country. That put an end to that pleasure.

The problem remains that there are very few people to even talk a few sentences to in my circle of friends and acquaintances. I did have several foreign holidays with a fluent speaker and we always found it useful when we wanted to talk about people nearby without them understanding. I could hold my own in that type of conversation, a bit like Irish soldiers abroad, I believe.

When I presented the morning programme on KCLR, I did the occasional bit of an interview for something like Seachtain na Gaeilge in Irish and my producer, Eimear Ní Bhraonáin, would coach me beforehand. But apart from that, it was English all the way.

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Thirty-Two Words for Field by Manchán Magan

Thirty-Two Words for Field by Manchán Magan

Thirty-Two Words for Field by Manchán Magan

 

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Manchán's book, for which you don't need a word of Irish, is a fascinating insight into our changing culture. Looking across the fields from my house, I can see hundreds of fields. Once upon a time they had names that summarised their features, myths and history. Sadly, most of these memories are now lost.


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