I always look forward to Seachtain na Gaeilge. It is the one week in the year when I never speak Irish. After all, I roll the language rock up the hill for the other 51 weeks and do not see why I should bother when the summer soldiers and Johnny-come-latelys all begin to annoy me to death and start their sentences with: “How do you say in Irish…?” I am sorry but you mistake me for someone who gives a francach’s tóin.
Yes, Seachtain na Gaeilge is like Christmas when all the turkey-and-ham Catholics turn up for their annual Mass, take up the pews from the regular, actually believing, Catholics, and leave the place feeling vaguely better about themselves. It is the perfect time for this long-suffering Gaeilgeoir to sit back and watch while the born agains try again.
That is not to say that you won’t get something out of Seachtain na Gaeilge. Far from it. The big danger is that you will get something from it – a sort of STI – Socially Transmitted Irish that, like herpes, could well be with you for the rest of your life. Irish is highly infectious and, like many infections, could lead to you having to seek medical help – though in the case of Irish, it will be psychological help that you will be wanting, so it will, for cinnte and for sure.
First, people start abusing you verbally when you say you speak Irish. They say: “no one speaks Irish and it’s a waste of time and money and pointless and we would be better spending the money on a space programme and going to Mars and taking it over and let’s see how the Troika get their money back when we are all on Mars, armed with nuclear weapons.”
And you will answer by going all metaphysical on your opponent with vague and heartfelt pleas to the “soul” of the nation, and the literature and the Gaeltacht and Gaelbabes. And they will say: “Soul, me arse. Can you sell that to the Troika? My Mars’ plan is better than your auld Irish – although you do have a point about the Gaelbabes. They are hot.”
You will make that argument for the rest of your life. Time and time and time again until, after a lifetime of Seachtain na Gaeilge, you find yourself grey beyond your years and finally deciding that the ABC1s are right – Irish culture is about buying as much as you can and a fortnight in the Algarve – golfing!
Of course, Seachtain na Gaeilge has had its big successes. The Normans were all French speaking when they invaded Ireland but they took part in Seachtain na Gaeilge back in the 14th century and decided to give up French and go with the Irish. Undoubtedly, it is a pity that the Normans did not appreciate the opportunities that bilingual education offered but there you go. In their defence, foreign travel was limited to invading other countries at that time.
Admittedly, it is unlikely that you will be riffing with the Holy Spirit at the end of the Week of Irish but languages can bring about changes in you that are both profound and subtle. You start asking yourself little questions and then you buy a dictionary from Conradh na Gaeilge and then a beginner’s language course. Those pimps will feed your habit remorselessly until you are standing in Harcourt Street screaming at the top of your lungs: “Oscail an doras! Oscail an doras! I gotta have some! Give me a grammar book before I burn the place down!”
You might discover that the language has been hiding in plain sight, that your prejudices were entirely wrong, that you were – gulp – not just as clued in as you thought. Then again, you might just decide that it’s all a bit of fun and not bother again until next year to say “Póg mo thóin”.
Whatever happens, don’t worry. The language will still be there. It is always there. Waiting for the unwary, the curious, the innocent, the ignorant, the lost, the foolhardy.
(A shorter version of this article appeared in The Irish Times, Saturday, 03 March, 2012)