Joe McHugh: Jump in and talk Irish like I did
I made my mind up. I’m going to immerse myself in my native language
Minister of State with Special Responsibility for Gaeltacht Affairs Joe McHugh: “Irish is all around us and I believe we all have a role to play. My advice to anyone thinking of going back and learning the language is: take the leap and go for it, it’s in our DNA and it’s part of who we are.” Photograph: James Connolly/PicSell
I always threatened to go back but the excuses always outweighed the positives. Not enough time. It’s too difficult. Afraid to make mistakes. Bad experiences learning grammar. Can you speak Irish? Tá brón orm, níl mé ábalta Gaeilge a labhairt! Fifteen years in politics, this was my standard reply. Last summer things changed. An Taoiseach Enda Kenny gave me an opportunity to represent the Gaeltacht community as Minister. I’ll never forget the moment he offered me the job. I predicted the next 48 hours and it didn’t shape up too well. Again, after 15 years in politics, you learn to predict what might happen next. Interviews in Irish, speeches in Irish, meetings in Irish.
Through the storm of the first 24 hours, I made my mind up – I’m going to do this. I’m going to immerse myself in my native language.
Having been offered the job mid-summer, I had a few weeks to give it a solid effort. Dictionaries by the bed, téarma.ie on hand, grammar books in the kitchen, CDs in the car, you name it. I surrounded myself with aids.
During a few days’ break in Birr, I sought out a Fanad native to engage in my local dialect. I recall encountering an 80-year-old Irish man living in Australia, who had gone back to learning Irish the previous year and I remember that giving me great encouragement – “ní bhíonn sé riamh ró-mhall”: it’s never too late.
Wonderful weekMy first wonderful week in Gleann Cholm Cille included a two-hour chat – as Gaeilge – with An tAthair Éamonn Ó Gallachóir in a back kitchen in Kilcar explaining the meaning of “An chloch is mó ar mo phaidrín” – my first priority.
I received a very positive and warm response from my parish in Mevagh. A neighbour I had lived beside for many years spoke to me in Irish for the first time and I remember that was a window-opening moment. I entered a new world. A world where everything was different. Language was suddenly more about describing things, explaining things. Not just a communication tool where I learned familiar phrases, like “fáilte romhat” but more than that. “Go ndéana a mhaith duit” – all the best to you. Not just doing my best but doing my seven bests – “mo sheacht ndícheall”. Where Maam Cross became An Teach Dóite; where An Fál Carrach became Na Croisbhealaí; where the comharthaí bóithre became alive to me for the first time.
Irish was all around me. Before the appointment, I was like most people in Ireland – aware of the language. Now I could see it, learn from it, experience more than I had realised. Things started to make sense. The energy around me was positive and I wasn’t on my own. So many people contacted me with their own experiences and stories.
Daunting prospectSpeaking Irish and making mistakes was an extremely daunting prospect, especially when you’re doing so in public. However, it’s only by doing it, and making those mistakes, that you learn from them.
Irish is all around us and I believe we all have a role to play. My advice to anyone thinking of going back and learning the language is: take the leap and go for it, it’s in our DNA and it’s part of who we are. It’s a journey worth taking and one you won’t ever regret. This is a journey without a destination, one of discovery and responsibility. We have an obligation to pass the torch to the next generation. The child on our knee will have another child on their knee, from one generation to the next – “ó ghlúin go glúin”.
Jump in, you won’t be on your own. You’ll meet many more doing the same thing and taking the same risk at different stages.
If the excuses continue to outweigh the positives, go for the positives anyway, it will be the right road, “an bealach ceart”. To all the people who have been with me since the start of my special journey and still are today: Go raibh míle maith agaibh.
Joe McHugh TD is the Minister of State with Special Responsibility for Gaeltacht Affairs