An Irishwoman’s Diary on ‘Gaeltacht-sur-Seine’

Paris hosts an Irish-language week

 

When Ciarán Mac Guill moved to Paris 20 years ago, the accountant from Dundalk intended to “go native”. But he ended up exploring the city with a fellow Irish speaker, and kept running into other Gaeilgeoirí.

The Gaelic Athletic Association made Mac Guill their treasurer. The French publisher Assimil asked him to write an Irish-language phrase book a decade ago. It has sold 15,000 copies, is now in its fifth edition and is being translated, word for word, into Polish. The French website L’Évangile au quotidien sought Mac Guill’s help to publish the Bible in Irish.

Seven years ago, TG4 came to Paris to shoot a documentary called Thar Sáile, about Irish-language speakers abroad. “They asked questions like, ‘How many are you? Where do you get together?’” Mac Guill recalls. “It was collective shame.”

The TG4 experience inspired Mac Guill, Fr David Bracken, then chaplain of the Irish College, and Maebh Enright from Belfast to found “Gaeltacht-sur-Seine”, which prides itself on being “the smallest Gaeltacht in the world”, with 350 members.

The club meets informally on the last Tuesday of the month at The Quiet Man pub in the Marais, to talk over wine, cheese, bread and charcuterie. “We use the Gaeltacht taliban rule – Béarla ar bith,” says Mac Guill. “Nothing but Irish. If you let in any foreign speech it would quickly dissolve.”

About 25 people attend on average. Among the regulars are a young Frenchman with an Irish girlfriend, an older Breton man with an Irish wife, and a handful of French people who are studying Irish at the Irish College or the Sorbonne. A Brazilian with an Irish girlfriend showed up once.

For a week this month, “Gaeltacht-sur-Seine” blossomed into “Samhain-sur-Seine”. Mac Guill credits Amanda Bane, the cultural attache at the Irish Embassy, with giving him the idea, by hosting a mardi gras reception for Irish speakers last winter. “We realised we could get 100 Irish speakers together in one place,” he says.

During the first ever Irish-language week in Paris, the Irish College screened two Irish arthouse films, Sweet Cake and Lip Service. Some 120 people attended a céilí at a pub next door to the Moulin Rouge. “The building was set up for the can-can, so we had laser beams going around,” Mac Guill laughs.

From the 17th century until the 19th century, priests trained abroad, in Irish colleges across the Continent. They spoke only Irish for two days a week, so they wouldn’t forget the language. “You can be a Catholic and not speak Irish, and you can be an Irish speaker and not a Catholic,” Mac Guill notes. Yet the church has done much to preserve the language, he says, citing, for example, priests involved in the Gaelic Revival.

On November 9th, as part of “Samhain-sur-Seine”, the new Irish-language Mass was held in the Irish College. “The bishops in Ireland went back to the original Mass in Latin and corrected it,” Mac Guill explains. “We had 150 Mass cards flown over from Veritas bookshop in Dublin.” Ciarán Michael, the six-month-old son of Irish diplomat Caitríona Doyle, was christened. “We’re pretty sure it was the first baptism in Irish ever in France,” Mac Guill says. Doyle’s mother, a retired Irish teacher, travelled from Arklow.

Mac Guill claims the Irish and French languages have more in common than Irish and English, in part because “Ireland, Spain, Portugal and France all spoke Celtic until the Romans came.”

The Irish patronymic prefix “Fitz” is the way the Normans pronounced “fils”. The words for heart: coeur and croí; egg: oeuf and úbh; health: santé and sláinte are derived from the same roots. Place names in France such as Verdun include the Irish word dún for fort. The “gal” in Donegal is the same as “Gaul”, meaning a foreigner.

Mac Guill is both an emblem of Irishness in France and a fully integrated member of French society. He has worked for French companies, has more French friends than Irish friends, and even marches in French street demonstrations.

“I didn’t come to France to be Irish. It was an accident,” Mac Guill says. Anglo-Saxon residents of France tend to “go into a ghetto and stay there”. Not the Irish. “Within three months, Irish people have gone native,” Mac Guill continues. “Especially Irish speakers, because they’ve already had the experience of learning another language. When you have a meeting with French and Irish people, the Irish go into French at the drop of a hat. I don’t know any Irish people in France who can’t speak French.”

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