One for sorrow, two for joy, magpie Irish gets us by

Because my conversation with a fellow student of Irish in Donegal was so limited, we were forced to live in the present


Last week two old magpies were sitting on an ash tree drenched with red berries. I don’t know if they eat berries or were just having a discussion about the coming winter. The man who delivered the firewood for the stoves had threatened to take a chainsaw to the spruce trees.

“I hate those bastards,” he said. “And if one of them falls, it could take the roof off the house.”

There was no point in trying to tell him that I couldn’t cut the big spruce because the old magpies have been lodged up there for years, but I agreed to allow him to cut a small one because I need to keep the stove going since I can’t afford to buy a windmill yet.

When he was gone I sat looking out the window, and it dawned on me that Sliabh an Iarainn beyond the lake might be an example of the genitive case in Irish, which was something I hadn’t considered before. It felt reassuring to know that I hadn’t wasted the summer dawdling on a Spanish beach, sucking cocktails through a straw. Au contraire, I was in Donegal, studying Irish with a teacher from Belfast who had a PhD in grammar and who spoke about the genitive case with the singular passion of a warrior in the new Islamic State examining the hem of a woman’s dress.

VIP Gaeilgeoirí

Many important people go to Donegal in the summer to learn Irish. Bishops, government ministers and various eccentrics from the world of television, all incognito, wandering around the rocky beaches with open-neck shirts, bare feet and their sandals carried in one hand.

One day I was sitting at the back of the classroom with a grammar book on the desk when a new student slipped in to the seat beside me – a strong-featured man with hair turning grey and the curiosity of an eagle.

“A Mhíchíl,” he said, “is it yourself?”

(That’s just a translation.)

“It is me, surely,” I replied.

We didn’t speak in English so our conversation was limited. At the coffee break we shared a plate of ginger nut biscuits and chatted about the upcoming Armagh-Donegal match.

“Will you be looking at the match?” I wondered.

“No,” he replied, “I am not looking at it. But perhaps I might be in it.”

That sounded like he was on the team, and I could see why Armagh were the underdogs if they were fielding players in their mid-50s. But then he corrected his grammar.

“Accept my apology,” he said. “What is being said with me is that I am going to the game. I will be looking at the match from the stage.”

“That’s amazing,” I said.

Shell-shocked veterans

We talked our magpie Irish each morning like shell-shocked veterans of our long lives and our own private catastrophes, because we were stuck with the limited phrases of our school days.

“The day is good today.”

“Yes. The day is amazing.”

When it rained, he said, “It is raining today.”

And when it was overcast I was able to say, “It is cloudy today, and there will probably be a strength of rain by lunchtime.”

“You have the truth there,” he replied, admiring my fluency. Little did he know how devoted I am to the weather forecast on TG4.

I longed for a more complex conversation. I wanted to know how he had fared in the world over the decades and I wanted to talk to him about ageing and depression and all the other anxieties of modern life.

But it couldn’t happen. We were forced to discipline our tongues and find pathways towards each other in simple sentences. We couldn’t get personal, in the way old friends usually do, by gossiping about the past. Instead we relied on the landscape for small talk. And we tried to avoid the future tense, the continuous past and the notorious conditional tense simply because we didn’t have the verbs at our fingertips. Instead we held to the exquisite condition of being in the present moment.

“Are you good today?”

“Yes, today I am good.”

And like a haiku, the changing sky became a metaphor for how we felt, and the weather outside the window carried our emotions. We narrowed ourselves into small phrases. We bent the empirical world to our own capacity for expression. “Lá breá,” began to mean everything.

We had fallen by accident into a state of Zen. We were alive and human and sitting in each moment like magpies on an ash tree.

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