Adopt an endangered Irish word and become a guardian of Gaeilge
Anglicising Irish words sapped them of meaning. Let’s reclaim our mother tongue so that it can cast its spell on us again
Manchán Magan: offering at-risk words to anybody willing to care for them, to nourish and nurture them, to slip them into sentences and to named loved ones after them
If you put a baby seal amid adult seals, or a fawn with deer, or a kid with goats, they recognise their mother’s voice instantly and head straight for her. That’s what is meant by mother tongue, an aural umbilical cord – “chord” even, in this case – that connects us to the sounds most intimate to us. Their rhythms and frequencies cast a spell over us, offer a triangulation point from which to orient our world. Without it we can feel somewhat lost or lacking.
Irish was the first language I heard. Words like “a leanbhín gleoite” (O gorgeous child) or “a bhuachaillín bhig” (O little baby boy). When I was sick, sad or sleepy these terms soothed me. A stóirín mhín, a mhaicín séimh, a ghráidhín gheal.
Now that I’m all grown up these sounds should have less potency, but I am embarrassed to admit how evocative they still are. They are intimate reminders of the unconditional love my parents radiated. Last year I fell truly in love with a woman, and when I wanted to express my feelings to her it was terms like these I reached for first. But, of course, to her they were merely schoolroom vocabulary, with none of the resonances and references they acquire in the nursery. I tried resorting to their English equivalents – sweetheart, lovey dove, honey pie, ducky wuck – but they felt alien; they stick in my craw.
I heard once that songbirds learn their repertoire from their parents. Only once they’ve learned all the songs are they able to find a mate. I began to feel like a songbird that had been taught a different repertoire. Few were able to return my call.
Sixty years ago Seán Ó Ríordáin touched on the issue in a radio interview (in Irish), saying, “one cannot create poetry of the quality that Tomas Ó Rathaille collected now. A perfect medium was available then, one that could convey every emotion perfectly. It was a united, monolingual world then. Now it is a divided, bilingual world. It was a community life. Now it is solitary.”
The disconnect between language and life in Ireland runs deep. There is something so evocative about calling a stone a cloch. There’s the knowledge that when our ancestors picked up the same stone thousands of years ago, this was the term they too used. Cloch is the word our people chose, and we’ve been using it ever since. It’s not a stone, not to the people of this island, anyway. Cloch is what it is.
When you borrow the terminology of another ethnic group it can feel like wearing someone else’s shoes. They don’t quite fit. The area south of Killiney, for example, is called Na Clocha Liatha, not Greystones. And, for that matter, Killiney is not Killiney but Cill Iníon Léinín. Whether or not you want to acknowledge it, these terms have an invisible thread weaving back through time to the Celtic-cultured people who inhabited our island 2,000 years ago, and to the waves of settlers who came before them.
Tim Robinson captured it all in a masterful remark: “Irish placenames dry out when anglicised like twigs snapped off from a tree.” These desiccated anglicised versions make us foreigners in our own land, unable to decipher that Donaghmede means Domhnach Míde, “the Holy Place of Míde”, or that Tandragee, in Co Armagh, comes from Tóin re Gaoith, “Backside to the Wind” – a reference to its sheltered location.
Perhaps, it’s too late to be making such arguments. Has the capall already bolted and been replaced by the English “horse”? No, for the absence of Gaeilge isn’t Béarla, the absence of Gaeilge is this: silence. Whether this is a phase, an all-out tragedy or an opportunity isn’t yet certain, but we owe it to ourselves to at least acknowledge the situation honestly rather than to simply lament its loss or to bitterly blame the Government and education system.
Gaeilge has been the aural expression of our existence, the linguistic code that reared, informed and animated so many of us for centuries; as a society we are free to cast it aside, but if that is its fate it ought to be done consciously and honourably rather than the shameful, hypocritical way we are doing so at present.
If we do choose to safeguard it, it’s up to all of us, not just the few language zealots or appointed officials. As a way of developing the idea of us all getting involved as guardians I have created a public ritual called Gaeilge Tamagotchi, in which I encourage members of the public to take on guardianship of an endangered word. The ceremony is performed in a specially commissioned alembic, transmutation chamber of Irish linen designed by Tom de Paor.
Gaeilge Tamagotchi: how you can help
In Gaeilge Tamagotchi I ask members of the public to take on guardianship of an endangered Irish word. I have selected some of the 4,400 words in Irish to describe people and am offering them to anybody willing to care for them, to nourish and nurture them, to slip them into sentences and to name loved ones after.
Are you willing to breathe life back into a dying Irish word? If you think you are capable of adopting the likes of toirpín (a small, thickset, lumpen figure), nuallóg (a scut of a guy), sceidhtéir (a capricious muppet), tamhadán (a lazy good-for-nothing), come to Gaeilge Tamagotchi any time between 3.30pm and 6.30pm, September 9th-12th, at Project Arts Centre, as part of Tiger Dublin Fringe.