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.

Dó Énglísh spéákérs not féél á bít léft óút?

Of course, you can turn into a bit of a Fada Fascist. You read the most wonderful novel but realise that the author has left a fada or two out and you rage against their lack. You have been denied your fair share of fadas. It can be hard to take, after all why pick on the poor fada? It is there for a reason.

However, after a lifetime of reading books in Irish, you simply accept that fadas will go astray. Losing a few fadas in a book is rather akin to what poteen makers used to do – shake out three drops of freshly distilled poteen to placate the little people. Lost fadas are simply offerings to the Holy Spirit or the Muses – pick your inspiration – to remind the author to be humble and to remind the reader that no human art form is without fault.

Still, the book is there. It sits solidly on the shelf. It is your anchor in a sea of dolphins. You know that there must be Irish speakers out there because one of them has written a book that you have gone along to an actual bookshop to buy and brought home and sat down and read.

You are Columbus, Magellan, Niall (!) Armstrong on the moon. You have done something extraordinary; you have read a book in Irish – you have sat in communion with a text in a language that no one hears spoken and, you have been, like, sooo spiritual.

Good for you! Maith thú! The book is read. You feel epic! You are so readabookinirishdotcom.

Why bother reading in Irish? says the English speaker. (Why bother reading anything? says I.) You might be happy eating boiled potatoes all your life but I like a little variety in mine. I like a little taste of something different. You do know that there is more to life than boiled potatoes? I have nothing against boiled potatoes; some of my best meals have included boiled potatoes. Still, spaghetti and meat balls are nice for a change, or a stir fry, or a curry.

I have another Irish-language book to read. It’s about astronomy. I don’t know much about the stars. Hopefully, I will have learnt something by the end and, hopefully, found a few new words in Irish.

Why read in Irish about the stars?

Why read anything about the stars in any language if you never intend to look up at the sky? @POMuiri

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