Mise agus an Ghaeilge


To mark Seachtain na Gaeilge, which begins on Monday, we asked 10 Irish speakers to reflect on their relationship with the language

Harry McGee, Irish Times Political Correspondent

“When you hear a Connemara speaker sing the language your heart soars”

Before Christmas I accompanied my mother, Eithne Conway McGee, to the annual dinner of Acadamh na Lianna, a group that brings together Irish-speaking medical doctors. The Acadamh has existed for more than 40 years, and my mother was a founding member. They made a presentation to her that night, and she made a shortish acceptance speech, which was the story of her life and her lifelong passion for the Irish language.

At the heart of her story was her father. In the early years of the last century, Thomas Conway joined the Gaelic League in Co Meath and became smitten with Irish. And later, as a student teacher, he cycled the purgatorially long road from Meath to the Ballyvourney Gaeltacht, in Co Cork, each summer to perfect it. As did my grandmother Margaret, who also became a schoolteacher.

“With such utter dedication, how could I have not followed Irish all my life?” she said.

Unsurprisingly, my mother and her seven siblings were brought up with Irish in the Gaeltacht of Ballivor, Co Meath, went to all-Irish schools (in her case St Louis’ in Monaghan town) and still speak Irish to each other.

It was the same for our family. My sister, my two brothers and I all grew up in Salthill, Galway, with Irish as our first language, attended Irish-language schools and were immersed – or was that drowned? – in the tobar of Irish language, Teaghlaigh Gaeilge, the GAA, Irish dancing and Irish music. We spent most weekends in a bungalow in Connemara’s Cois Fharraige.

Topsy-turvy Salthill had its share of distractions to take you away from Gaeilge bhinn bhlasta. I had bouts of indifference with the language in my teenage years and a long spell when Galway English infiltrated my syntax. In the Jes, we had our own distinctive blas.

I remember my dear late friend Jimmy Ward being outed by a classmate.

“A mháistir do lig Seamus Mac an Bháird fart.”

“Brim mar a ghlaonn muid air,” arsa an Máistir, before giving poor Jimmy a slog.

And my father, Michael, a Donegal man, once became exasperated with my poor grasp. “What’s that?” he asked holding up the tongs.

I didn’t know.

“An tlú, an tlú, an tlú,” he roared. The word was never forgotten.

I love Irish because it’s a wonderful tongue, and when you hear a Connemara speaker sing the language your heart soars. Such lovely expressions – i lar an aonaigh, bata agus bóthar, ní sin an cloch is mó ar a phaidrín, tá braon ar an ngaoth – have no equal in any other language. My sense of Irishness derives hugely from the language.

My own daughter, Sadhbh, is 18 months old, and I speak Irish to her all the time in the hope that Irish has nested somewhere in her double helix too. If she uses the word “tongs” I’ll never mind, though I’d like if she could use “tlú” too.

Tsedey Zewdu, 18-year-old student at Dominican College Sion Hill, in Blackrock, Co Dublin

“When you teach something solely for an exam it pulls the heart out of it”

I started learning Irish when I was nine. I came here from Ethiopia about 11 years ago. Throughout primary school I wasn’t actually very good at it, but once I got to secondary school it became one of my best subjects and favourites to learn. I’m in sixth year now.

My friend and I spend every Irish class talking in Irish all the time, and when we’re not in class we talk Irish to each other, because she has a huge interest in doing teaching, and you need Irish for that.

I think what I would change is not to teach it solely for the sake of the exam. When you teach something solely for an exam it pulls the heart out of it. You should be taught to love it for the sake of loving it, not just to get points.

Una Mullally, “46A Gaeilgeoir”

“I’d feel ridiculous if I mimicked Peig every time I opened my gob”

I had virtually no Irish as a 12-year-old going into first year at Coláiste Íosagáin in Stillorgan, Co Dublin. As the smallest person in the school, I was shoved against lockers and crushed in various rushing melees until I learned the words “stop ag brú”. So, technically, I had mo chuid Gaeilge beaten into me.

Speaking English at Coláiste Íosagáin was strictly forbidden. The senior pupils would stand up on the bus, instructing “Gaeilge le do thoil” if the bolder young ’uns were heard spouting Béarla or “Béarlachas”, the mishmash of English and Irish that became common among pupils. Their current favourite phrase is “Ó mo Dhia!” instead of “OMG!”

We were met with suspicion by pupils from other schools. “Don’t youse all get extra points in the Leaving?” they’d inquire with a tinge of resentment. Yeah, well, come back to me when you’ve spent two years trying to learn chemistry and German as Gaeilge.

I don’t quite know why I kept my Irish up after school; it must be as I like the language.

I remember overhearing a snide remark about my “46A Irish” when I started working in Irish-language television. It was hurtful. After all my efforts to keep my Irish up, the Gaeilgeoirí of Connemara, west Kerry, Rathcairn or elsewhere would never accept me.

To native speakers, my Irish might sound as grating as Québécoise does to someone from Bordeaux, but I’d feel ridiculous if I mimicked Peig every time I opened my gob to spout a cúpla focail.

Nevertheless, I take pride in being a Gaeilgeoir. I’m flying the flag – yes, even if it’s the Stillorgan dual-carriageway flag – for those who aren’t saturated in the language from birth but make a conscious decision to take it with them beyond the textbooks.

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic, Irish Times Paris Correspondent

“For 18 years, Irish was my natural, unthinking instinct”

If it’s true that Freud believed the Irish were the only people for whom psychoanalysis was useless, he probably came to the conclusion after overhearing a debate on the Irish language. The topic is so complex and emotionally charged that you take up the pen to write about it feeling like the hapless draughtsman tasked with drawing up a joint greetings card from the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Outside the Gaeltacht, Irish-speakers have two countries: home and the classroom. These are the places where the language tends to flourish, where a whole mental universe can be built around it. So it was for me.

I was raised through Irish. It was the first language I learned, the one I spoke at home and at school. Circumstances meant a lot of French was spoken in the house as well, which made us fluent in three languages.

Growing up with a couple of languages is commonplace around the world. What’s strange about Irish, apart from it being a minority language scrapping for survival in an environment dominated by one of the world’s strongest, is that opportunities to use it start tapering off once you leave school.

For 18 years, Irish was my natural, unthinking instinct. Then English suddenly became the language of the working day, and it had to be acquired – not like a foreigner acquires it, but learned all the same. At college I’d often have to look up words.

These days, I work in French and write in English, but I speak only Irish with family and some friends. All the terminology from subjects I learned at home or at school – science, maths, geography and so on – comes to me first in Irish. The same goes for domestic words. There are terms, like hot press or living room, that will never sound right.

There can’t be many native speakers who aren’t torn between gratitude for the privilege they have and painful awareness of the language’s historic decline. True, the atmosphere has transformed in recent years thanks to the success of TG4, the growth of Gaelscoileanna and the fact that Irish has been uncuffed from the dead hand of political opportunism. Thousands of children speak better Irish than their parents and have easily absorbed the idea of being idir dhá chultúr. But make no mistake: Irish is on the critically endangered list.

Having the language doesn’t in itself make your view any more insightful or true, of course. But it does make you alert to all sorts of echoes and resonances, many of them vital to understanding the arc of the country’s history and culture. When you have Irish, you hear it all the time in turns of phrase, place names, cultural references and so much else. Like any language, it’s a way of thinking, a window – or should that be a mirror? – into a world that is otherwise clouded or closed.

Pól Ó Muirí, Irish Language Editor of The Irish Times

“You mistake me for someone who gives a francach’s tóin”

I always look forward to Seachtain na Gaeilge. It is the one week in the year when I never speak Irish. After all, I roll the language rock up the hill for the other 51 weeks and do not see why I should bother when the summer soldiers and Johnny-come-latelys all begin to annoy me to death and start their sentences with: “How do you say in Irish . . .?” I am sorry, but you mistake me for someone who gives a francach’s tóin.

Usually, people start abusing you verbally when you say you speak Irish. They say: “No one speaks Irish and it’s a waste of time and money and pointless and we would be better spending the money on a space programme and going to Mars and taking it over and let’s see how the troika get their money back when we are all on Mars, armed with nuclear weapons.”

And you answer by going all metaphysical, with vague and heartfelt pleas to the “soul” of the nation, and the literature and the Gaeltacht and Gaelbabes. And you will make that argument for the rest of your life.

That is not to say that you won’t get something out of Seachtain na Gaeilge. Far from it. The big danger is that you will get something from it, a sort of STI – socially transmitted Irish – that, like herpes, could well be with you for the rest of your life.

Admittedly, it is unlikely that you will be riffing with the Holy Spirit at the end of the Week of Irish, but languages can bring about changes in you that are both profound and subtle. You start asking yourself little questions and then you buy a dictionary from Conradh na Gaeilge and then join a beginner’s course.

Those pimps will feed your habit remorselessly until you are standing on Harcourt Street, screaming at the top of your lungs: “Oscail an doras! Oscail an doras! I gotta have some! Give me a grammar book before I burn the place down!”

Then again, you might just decide that it’s all a bit of fun and not bother again until next year to say “Póg mo thóin.”

Máire Bhreathnach, bean an tí at Coláiste Chamuis, Baile na hAbhann, Co Galway

“The students who come all have a little bit of book Irish”

Irish would have been my childhood language, so it’s been Irish all my life on everything. My daughters went to school in Spiddal, which was all through Irish, and my grandchildren are all Irish speakers.

Irish is very popular and well spoken here. In the schoolyard next to me they’re speaking Irish. Right now you can hear them up the pitch playing football speaking Irish.

The students who come to this Gaeltacht all have a little bit of book Irish. They get up in the morning and have your breakfast with you. You chat, you might have a lonely one and you’d coax her; you talk about life in general with them, tell them what’s happening in the news. Then they go to school, and their classes are all through Irish.

Generally the ones who come are sincere about their Irish, they’re very good and you form a lifelong bond with them. I certainly do, anyway.

You have to come into the household to learn Irish. At the end of the day, Irish is our language, so the students see how we live and get on with our family and friends and neighbours. It’s a totally different way of life for them to see, but a lot of what goes on in a rural area of a Gaeltacht is completely different to what they’re used to anyway.

Alex Hijmans, Dutch-born Irish-speaking journalist and writer living in Brazil

“I wanted to study a language – but not a boring one”

Road signs with unpronounceable names – for a Dutch teenager, anyway – were my first experience of the Irish language. It was the summer of 1988, and I was 13 and reading the map as the Hijmans family criss-crossed Ireland on a camping holiday. Dún Laoghaire: how do you even start to get your tongue around that one?

It’s 1993. I’ve just done the Dutch version of the Leaving Cert and find myself in Gleann Cholm Cille, in southwest Donegal, learning that mad road-sign language. Why? I wanted to study a language – but not a boring one, such as English or Dutch. I wanted a challenge.

Irish people, especially non-Irish speakers, thought I was insane. I thought they were missing out on something.

It’s 1995, and I’m a foreign-exchange student in Gaillimh. I never went back to the Netherlands. Three years later, having finished an HDip in media through Irish, I set foot in an Irish-language newsroom for the first time. That one was in An Cheathrú Rua.

In 2007 my stint in Ireland came to an abrupt end when matters of the heart took me to the other side of the planet. I’m now the only Dutch-born Irish speaker in Salvador, Brazil. But my love affair with Gaeilge continues, as a journalist and, increasingly, as a fiction writer. I write every day. And one of the languages I write in every day is Irish. Those mad vowel clusters still press all my buttons.

Aoife O’Connor, 15-year-old secondary-school student from Ramelton, Co Donegal

“I love that I can understand it so well now”

I began learning Irish when I was four, when I started at primary school in Letterkenny. I think I was learning it for about four years before my family moved to the US. In New York there was an arts centre we went to, and they had an Irish course on Saturday that we would go to, to keep it up.

Then I came back to Ireland and started back up in the Gaelscoil in Letterkenny. It took me a while to understand what everyone was talking about, but when you’re speaking it all the time you pick it up again.

It would be just in school, really, that my friends and I would speak it, although sometimes when we’re down the town and we don’t want people to understand what we’re saying we’d speak it.

I love it. I love the fact that I can understand it so well now, the same way you’d understand English, that I’m fluent. I’d say I’ll keep it up beyond school.

It’s nice to have something so “Irish”, that if people ask you, ‘Oh, you’re from Ireland: can you speak Irish?’ you can say, ‘Yes, yes I can.’ ”

Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh, TV presenter

“At times it’s racist . . . No other culture would tolerate it”

I came to Dublin when I was 15 from a small Gaeltacht in Meath, and the Irish language wasn’t cool at all. Then, crazy as it may sound, the Hothouse Flowers came on the scene, and it became cool – and then became uncool again when I was 18.

When I was a teenager the reaction was, and still can be, “Stupid language: what’s the point?” Then the adult versions: “It was beaten into me”; “you’re all mad ’RA-heads”; and my favourite, “You get a grant for everything.”

My response is: I am so sorry, and that is all terrible, but guess what – I am the minority here, and, however difficult it was for you, it has been and still is a struggle just to respond to all of you. At times it’s racist. Nobody ever calls it that, but no other culture would tolerate it. There has been a huge demise in the promotion of our language and Gaeltacht existence. I heard Paul McGrath during the week on radio, talking about the Irish language, and he was inspirational. Yet I would be scared to ask the people of Ireland [if they were] for or against the language. I fear it would be against. But, hey, I will battle on and wait for the next wave.

Aoife O’Connor, Blathnaid Ní Chofaigh, Máire Bhreathnach and Tsedey Zewdu spoke to Una Mullally

President Michael D Higgins ‘Theastaigh uaim go mbeadh teacht ag an saol mór ar an teanga’

Bhí an Ghaeilge tábhachtach dom i gcónaí agus is amhlaidh i gcónaí. D’fhoghlaim mé mo chuid Gaeilge i gCúige Mumhan ach tar éis dom socrú síos i nGaillimh bhí ar mo chumas dul i ngleic leis an teanga ar bhealach níos cuimsithí agus d’éirigh liom mo ghrá don teanga luachmhar, shaibhir iontach seo a chur in iúl. Tá tionchar nach mór ag an nGaeilge ar mo shaol ní hamháin ó thaobh tréithe inspioráideacha na teanga de ach tugtar léargas níos fearr ar an meon Éireannach trí mheán ár dteanga dúchais.

Is iomaí dán agus leabhar Gaeilge atá léite agam agus is iomaí dráma atá feicthe agam trí mheán na Gaeilge a thug léargas dom ar ghnéithe dár n-oidhreacht, dár gcultúr agus dár bhfeiniúlacht, rudaí a bhaineann go dlúth le saibhreas na Gaeilge labhartha.

Bhí bunú TG4 nó Teilifís na Gaeilge, mar a tugadh air ar an gcéad dul síos, ar cheann de na héachtaí is fiúntaí agus is seasmhaí a rinne mé le linn mo shaoil pholaitiúil mar Aire Ealaíon, Cultúir agus Gaeltachta. Bhí sé ar intinn agam ardán agus guth a thabhairt dár dteanga dúchais.

Theastaigh uaim go mbeadh teacht ag an saol mór ar an teanga – chun í a scaipeadh go forleathan lasmuigh den Ghaeltacht agus í a thabhairt isteach cois teallaigh mhuintir uilig na hÉireann. Ní haon comhtharlú é go bhfuil méadú tagtha ar líon na nGaelscoileanna i gceantair uirbeacha agus go bhfuil níos mó daoine ná riamh ag dul i ngleic leis an nGaeilge.

Is iad ár dteanga, ár n-oidhreacht agus ár gcultúr a chomhaontaíonn muid agus is iad seo na tréithe a dhéanann idirdhealú eadrainn agus ár gcomharsana ar fud na hEorpa. Is í an Ghaeilge saintréith ár n-uathúlachta agus seans go mbíonn meas níos mór againn ar an teanga nuair a théimid thar lear.

Is breá linn uilig cúpla focal a bheith againn fiú mura mbíonn cumas maith nó cumas ar bith againn sa Ghaeilge. Is í an chúis atá leis seo ná go bhfuilimid bródúil as teanga shaibhir dár gcuid féin agus go dteastaíonn uainn go mbeadh an méid seo ar eolas ag an saol mór.