Speaking Irish in New Zealand, to my Maori-Irish son

There’s a special connection between Irish people, Irish speakers and Maori. It’s another reason why Aotearoa feels like home

Gillian Cotter with Mahia: the full version of his name means “the murmuring of home’’

Gillian Cotter with Mahia: the full version of his name means “the murmuring of home’’

 

We named him Mahia, in the Maori tradition of naming a baby after a place that holds significance and importance to the family, or whanau. In our case, based on the west coast of New Zealand in the small surfing town of Raglan, our son’s name is a nod to his papa’s genealogy, or whakapapa, on the east coast.

In its full version Mahia means “the murmuring of home’’, which is relevant on so many levels to Chris and me. We knew all along that this was what he would be called, but it was only after he was born that his name made utter sense to me.

My connections to the Irish language go way back. I was educated at a national school run by a very proud, proactive and strong Irish-speaking woman from west Cork. Her influence over me, although she may never have known it, has been immeasurable in the many ways her behaviour allowed me the privilege of seeing what precious treasure having our own language was: the nuance of it, the fluency, the beauty; the way in which a direct translation often never existed. The English language falls short at so many points. From her I learned about the magic of the language, the filíocht.

My fascination led me to pursue my undergraduate degree in Irish at University College Cork. There I found friends who came from homes with Irish as their first language, and I was inspired and awed by the depth and expanse with which they could express themselves in their native tongue. I had found a community, a tribe, a collective understanding of my love for the teanga.

This realisation came back to me years later, seated in a lecture theatre in New Zealand. Our lecturer, speaking about the Pasifika students we would meet in our classrooms, said he believed that people who speak more than one language have more than one way of seeing the world. It resonated with me on a very deep level.

There is a special connection between Irish people, Irish speakers and Maori. Their kohanga reo and kura kaupapa are modelled on our Naíonra and Gaelscoileanna. I cannot begin to describe the pride I felt at a conference five years ago when, after introducing myself, I was approached by a group of Maori women who wanted to thank me for what Ireland had done for the revival of the Maori language, in giving them a model to follow. “It is a taonga” – treasure – “from your home to us.” Once again I had another reason for Aotearoa – New Zealand – to feel like home.

I hear the same depth of experience, strength and fire in the karanga of Maori women, that I do in our Sean-nós. I could not be further from home, but when I hear them sing, I am transported. I recognise a collective pride, a sense of belonging, a calling back. The cadence, the rhythm, the pain and the power. In so many ways, we are the same. Sometimes, it feels as no surprise to me that this is where I’ve ended up.

In this house, made up of an Irish woman, a Maori man, and a little boy with a bit of both of us thrown in, it makes my heart glad to listen to Chris mirror the songs he has heard me sing in Irish, or to hear him, out of the blue, utter a phrase that only an Irish speaker could know.

Mahia is now 18 months old. This is his home, and it is only right that he should learn to know and love and speak the language of this land. But when he rides his rocking horse the only song he wants to hear is Trup, Trup, a Chapaillín.

I know instinctively that the filíocht is in him too. And it makes my heart glad to know that he, like me, will have a foot on either side of the world, and will be connected, in an authentic way, to what it is to be Irish.

This connection goes deeper than words and defies every lazy stereotype and cliche about who we are as a people. My little Irish Maori, who cannot yet speak, just gets it. How beautiful this is for me to see.

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