Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

‘Irish is my language, no matter where I am in the world’

Emigrant group @WCBIreland to join #LáDearg social media campaign defending Irish language today

Sat, Apr 12, 2014, 00:00


Sorcha Ní Mhealláin

“Isn’t it funny?” I said to Jill, sitting on a grassy bank overlooking the River Tejo in Lisbon “that we both winded up teaching English after all that.”

Jill and I had met on our Erasmus year in Germany and immediately found sanctuary in our mutual “Irishness”. Six years later we find ourselves both living in new cultures again, both struggling to bridge the gap between that comfortable, familiar “Irishness” and a new way of life in another country. Myself in Lisbon, Jill in Fidenza; a small town on the outskirts of Parma in Italy. Both with the prospect of alienation on the horizon.

Earlier that evening we had been the victims of exclamations from foreign friends on how quickly we talk in English and had been called upon to check grammar, syntax and pronunciation from the international party. And all over a half a dozen bottles of red wine.

“Isn’t it funny?” I said to Jill “that we have come to somehow promote a language we have so often taken for granted.” Being an “English-speaker” abroad is a very different thing to speaking English in Ireland. You are a frustration and an inspiration. A frustration in that “You speak too quickly” and “your English is too good to understand, too complicated, too native” but equally you are an inspiration because you have the key to fluent English, the strived for, the slogged for, native English.

So when they ask me on a Saturday night when I’d rather be samba dancing “Why is it like this in English, why is it like that?” I want to say “I don’t know; it’s not even my language really.” And there are thousands of young Irish people teaching English abroad  juggling this bilingualism, this semi-tense relationship with representing the English language.

Jokes aside, I think my frustration at being seen as an “official representative of the English language” is largely down to me feeling that English is not the language that I really represent.

I like speaking English. I can express myself in English. English is useful in my life and has offered me opportunities to travel and develop my career. I don’t have any problems with English except for the fact that it’s not the full picture. I’m not just an “English-speaker” and frankly, I’d rather not answer your questions about the minutia of English grammar but ask me about An Tuiseal Ginideach and sure, we’ll have another pint…

“Nach bhfuil sé greannmhar?”

And when Jill and I meet on these different adventures, in different places we speak as Gaeilge not because we want to slag off someone’s fake tan in a language they don’t understand, or to raise the curiosity of potentially rich, handsome suitors, we speak in Irish because it makes us happy.

Speaking Irish makes me feel like myself, like that first summer in Gaoth Dobhair aged 12, like the soft lulling vowels of my granny’s voice saying “anseo a Shorcha”, like my dad listening to ceilidh house on a Saturday night in the car home.

When I speak English I speak Irish-English but Irish does not call for this hyphenation. It belongs to my country, my history, my ancestors. This will be true wherever I am in the world.

Having left and been left without a vote, there is no political avenue for emigrants who share this same sense of identity to express solidarity with the language movement back home. Though we can’t march, like many have in recent weeks and will today, we can still demonstrate what Irish means to many of us. That’s why I, and other members of the emigrants organisation We’re Coming Back, are sharing our stories on social media today in solidarity with the Lá Dearg demonstration, through the Twitter handle @WCBIreland. That is why I ask emigrants like me, living in every nook and cranny of our beautiful world to get on board. To tell us about you and your Irish, to tweet it, to spread it, to share it. Because Irish is ours.

When Jill left, I was running late for the metro again. “Nach bhfuil sé greannmhar?” I wrote to Jill on Whatsapp, “No matter how early I get up I am always late for the metro.”

And then I returned to my conversation about the changing price of potatoes in supermarkets of late (at least I think that’s what he was saying) with my friendly neighbour on the metro.

Running to the school gates I met a group of my students. “Dia duit Professora!” they grinned holding napkinfuls of pastries.

“Nach bhfuil siad greannmhar,” a dúirt mé féin liom.