Reading a book in Irish

The page turns and no one is offended

The planet Jupiter passes from behind the moon. photograph: joe st leger/the irish times

The planet Jupiter passes from behind the moon. photograph: joe st leger/the irish times

Mon, Aug 4, 2014, 15:44

I read a book in Irish this morning. You will not have noticed – anymore than I would have noticed you reading in English. It was a good book, a little collection of essays, which I found informative and reflective.

Am I to be pitied for reading in Irish? Did I achieve anything? (My reading in Irish did not force the language down your throat, did it? BTW, good luck trying to criticise me for reading in Irish without sounding like a book-burning Black Shirt.)

The poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi once spoke of “Gaeltacht na leabhar” – the Gaeltacht of the books. She was speaking, if I am remember correctly, about how old books helped to enrich one’s Irish. She is right of course. Books do help with deepening your understanding of language but, even more so, with the imagination.

Perhaps, just as importantly, books are physical manifestations of the language’s existence. You will often hear people say – and not without good cause – that they spent time in Ireland or the Gaeltacht and heard no one speaking Irish. That is a fair enough comment. The Irish speaker is a bit like a dolphin – you know that they are out there in the water but that does not mean that you will actually see them in the waves.

The Irish book, however, is like an anchor, a physical, unmoving entity that tethers you to the language through all the storms. You did not hear anyone speak Irish while in the Gaeltacht but, look, here is a collection of fairy tales or some stories about Fionn Mac Cumhaill or a novel from a man who lives in Conamara.

Listen to them now. Take them home with you. Put them on your bookshelf so that people might see them. After all, what is a bookshelf but a nerd’s way to display his prowess? You won’t find the heads of rhinos on the walls of many book readers but you will find books that speak of a different kind of stalk.

There are the “fadas” of course – the síneadh fada. You notice them all the time at the start and then not at all. You notice them when they are not there – or when they are in the wrong place. Patrún is not the same as pátrún. “Patrún” means “pattern” while “pátrún” means “patron”. That wee fada makes all the difference and, if you were to read the word “patrun”, you would just ask yourself has the author misspelt “patrún” or “pátrún”?

Confusing? Absolutely – but just think about the workout your brain is getting juggling all these possibilities!

The one nice thing about fadas is that they appear only on vowels. You don’t have to worry about consonants. Accents on consonants would be very Scandinavian – and while the Vikings left us place names, they did not manage to leave us accents on consonants. Still, as a reader of Irish, it can, on occasion, be a bit strange to read in English and nót hávé fádás ón wórds.

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