A magical vision is hidden in the Irish language – we need to rediscover it
A single word can unlock the richness in our lives, landscapes and ways of seeing
The Irish language derives from a world in which the unseen is as real as the seen. Photograph: Istock
What if we’ve been looking at Irish through the wrong lens all these years? Rather than it being a subject that causes heartache in schools might it actually be a periscope into our psyche and our souls? A path towards an entirely fresh way of seeing reality, transforming existence from a predictable and quantifiable 3-D dimension into a vacillating, multi-dimensional realm with the potential of bleed-throughs from other parallel worlds.
First, there are some truths about the language that need to be acknowledged, though the grammarians and language academics might not agree. 1 Irish derives from a world in which the unseen is as real as the seen; 2 it acknowledges the existence of other dimensions; 3 it is based on an understanding that nature and the land are vibrant, sentient beings; 4 at its most potent can be a language of incantation, meaning that it has (or might have) the potential to summon up wishes, behaviours, people and things.
These are bold claims, I realise, and whether any lofty academic linguist would agree is debatable, but let me explain with some examples of the many Irish words and phrases that can upend your way of seeing reality. Words like sclimpíní, for example, which conveys the effect of lights dancing before one’s eyes – either real light or the supernatural; those glimpses we get through the veil of what lies beyond. A single word like this can shift one’s frame of reference radically, to question all one’s assumptions and offering the potential of a more holistic and limitless way of thinking and being.
Cáithnín is another fine example of how a single word can unlock the hidden richness in our lives and landscape. It means a speck of dust, a husk of corn, a snowflake, a subatomic particle and a miniscule smidge of butter, or anything tiny that gets into the eye and irritates it. But, most evocatively of all, it also means the goosebumps you feel in moments when you contemplate how everything is interrelated and how tiny we are in relation to the whole, like that feeling when you realise, or, maybe, remember, that we are all one – all unified.
In this way, cáithnín, becomes like a koan or mantra – a single word that brings you right around the universe from the infinitesimal to the infinite. It becomes a reminder from our past about how we once related to our environment and community, and how we might do so again.
Another example is scim, which means a thin coating of tiny particles, like limewash on a house or dust on a mantelpiece. These are good practical, pragmatic meanings that any lexicographer would be comfortable with, but there are other more nebulous ones which might prove more challenging for the limited claustrophobic way of thinking that we now ascribe to in this age of empirical reasoning and narrow-mindedness. For example, scim can mean a fairy film that covers the land, or a magical vision, or, best and most alluring of all, succumbing to the supernatural world through sleep.
Just consider that notion for a while and you get a sense of the gateways, wormholes and rabbit warrens that the Irish language allows us access to, should we dare open ourselves to it. Might our world in its current state benefit from a language that allows for fairy films that cover the land, a language that offers the potential of being whisked away to the supernatural world through sleep?
Surely children would be more intrigued if, as well as teaching them that ceantar means region or locality, we also teach them its equal and opposite, altar, which means the other realm, the netherworld. After all, this way of seeing the world is instinctive to the young, who have no problem accepting the potential of the alternate dimensions of Narnia beyond the wardrobe or Hogwarts beyond platform 9 ¾ of Kings Cross Station.
Consider the word crithir: its basic meaning is a particle or a spark of flame or light, or the tiniest portion of something, but it has other meanings that can act as a wedge to prise open perspectives that would otherwise remain hidden. For example, it can refer to the vulnerability and insubstantiality of solid objects; such as a swamp, or the trembling of the land in an earthquake, or the crumbling surface of ploughed land when dry after rain. Crithir means all these things.
This notion that our world is not as rigid or dense as we like to believe, has become more relevant with our growing awareness of quantum physics and how electrons are forever materialising, then dematerialising and reappearing somewhere else. All we really know is that our bodies, fields, mountains and stars are elementary particles, vibrating and fluctuating constantly between existence and non-existence – swarming in space, even when it seems that nothing is there. The fact that any solid, dependable mass that starts to quiver or falter can be referred to as crithir makes it an ideal term for the unpredictable and infinitesimal particles that we have delineated as the building blocks of all life.
These concepts are a bit bamboozling to all of us, but they might be easier to an Irish speaker who is already comfortable with the notion that a word like púicín can mean a supernatural covering that allows otherworldly beings appear unseen in this reality (as well as being a blindfold, a goat muzzle and a tin shade put over a thieving cow’s eyes). As an aside, the Irish for bamboozling is meascán mearaí, which also means going astray into other dimensions.
Now, with regard to this incantatory quality that Irish may possess, the best way of seeing it is through the first words ever composed by an Irishman, The Song of Amergin, which our chief poet and druid, Amergin, is said to have recited upon arriving in Ireland on the 1st April 700BC. He immediately begun uttering an incantation, summoning up the world that we intended to create here through his words. Ancient languages, when spoken by shamans and sorcerers, seemingly had this ability to not only describe an item, but help condense it from a parallel amorphous world of potential into a tangible, crystallised reality.
Language of unity
Amergin’s first stanza “Am gaeth i m-muir, Am tond trethan, Am fuaim mara”, (I am wind on sea, I am ocean-wave, I am roar of sea) clarified the interrelation between this world and all other planes of existence – physical and spiritual. It was a declaration of the unity of all things and it’s what, more or less, everything in our lives has been based upon ever since. We’re all here because of Amergin – his incantation summoned us into existence, or at least propelled us forward. And ever since we’ve been here – farming, fighting, mating and, eh, baking.
Yes, baking. As a way of delving deeper into these issues I’ve created a show called Arán agus Im, in which I summon the powers of wild yeasts and invisible bacteria to perform alchemy on milled grain and water, transforming them into bubbly universes of sourdough bread. In the show, which the Abbey Theatre is touring to Limerick, Cork, Galway and Dublin this summer, I’ll be baking bread and delving deep into language issues, while the audience get to perform their own alchemy, creating butter from cream to spread on my fresh bread made of grains grown in Ireland.
The Abbey will also be touring my show Gaeilge Tamagotchi in which I bestow rare and endangered words upon members of the public who agree to nurture and nourish them, words like lóipín, the cloth fixed on a hen’s claws to stop it scratching the earth or the pieces of jute put on a donkey’s hooves to keep them from slipping on frost. Or seithreach, the wistful voice of a mare calling for her foal, or the sound horses make when they meet after an absence.
The truth is that Irish is an ideal tool to help reorientate us back to what we have forgotten about our connection with the world around us. Its arcane structures and lack of clear rules can make it feel chaotic and uncontrollable, but therein lies its power. If we dare to dive in and escape the grips of its more pedantic gate-keepers and spirit-crushed naysayers, there are worlds of new perspectives and experiences awaiting.
Arán & Im and Gaeilge Tamagotchi tour to Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick, 20-21st July; Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 17-18th Aug, Town Hall Theatre, Galway 14-15th Sept; Cork Opera House, Cork, 21-22th Sept. abbeytheatre.ie