‘I never thought I’d be using my cúpla focail so much abroad’
Seachtain na Gaeilge: Speaking Irish in . . . Graz, Austria
Anne Gibney: ‘Irish has suddenly become cool, at least in this corner of Austria.’
I can definitely be counted among the Peig haters of this world, but many moons ago, as a five-foot-nothing blond student travelling alone around Europe, the cúpla focail came in very useful, especially for keeping unwelcome advances at bay.
I remember one particularly persistent chap who tried to chat me up in every language he could think of, but I stuck doggedly to my standard reply, “Ní thuigim focal tá a rá agat” – “I can’t understand a word you’re saying” – with emphasis on the first syllable of the word “focal”. He ruefully gave up when he finally realised what he was up against. “I knew it!” he said. “You’re Norwegian, aren’t you?”
Now, 35 years later, I live in a small town near Graz with my Austrian husband. We moved here five years ago after living in France for nine years. Our son grew up trilingually, speaking English to me, German to his papa and French at school. No room for the cúpla focail there, you might think. But phrases such as “dún an doras”, “oscail an fhuinneog”, “an bhfuil airgead agat?” and the ubiquitous “bí ciúin” also became part of our day-to-day conversations.
Like a lot of people living abroad I make an effort to hold on to my national identity, and I wanted to pass some of it on to son. We use certain Irish words simply because they sound so much nicer than the English, German or French equivalents. In our household, for example, we don’t wear gloves or handschuhe: we wear láimhíní. Ispíní and eochracha are other favourites of ours.
It was through working as a native English speaker in Austrian schools that my grá for the cúpla focail was truly rekindled. It started with my first lesson in a secondary school. I was asked to introduce myself and tell the kids a little about Ireland.
“Áine is ainm dom. Is as Baile Átha Cliath mé,” I began, in front of an open-mouthed teacher and a classroom of bewildered children. After my Irish introduction I told the kids in German that their teacher would translate. It got the point across that Irish is not a dialect of English, as many people seem to think.
I now use Irish in the classroom often. If my primary-school pupils need to go to the loo during class I insist that they ask in English. If they whinge about how difficult it is I tell them what I used to have to say at school, while dramatically crossing my legs and wiggling around uncomfortably: “An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas, más é do thoil é?” This always elicits peals of laughter and shouts of “Say it again!”
I often explain the fun facts about Irish: “You can’t have a smartphone in Ireland,” I tell them. “You can’t have a pet, or a computer or pocket money.” That gets their attention. “In fact you can’t ‘have’ anything, because there’s no verb ‘to have’ in Irish.” Even better: “When you ask your parents if you can stay up late they can’t say ‘no’. There’s no ‘no’ in Irish.” And so on.
I read extracts from children’s stories; I play videos of Gaelic games with Irish commentary. The kids love hearing Irish, and I love teaching them about it. More than once I’ve heard an Austrian schoolchild say, “Forget English – I want to learn Irish!” Irish has suddenly become cool, at least in this corner of Austria.
I never thought that I’d love the cúpla focail so much, or that they’d become such a part of our lives.
Junior, who was just four when we left Ireland, is now 18 and recently moved into a flat of his own. I rang him a while ago to tell him that I was going to Dublin for a few days. “Do you want me to bring you back anything?” I asked. “Yeah, great! Can you get me some Tayto please? And some ispíní?”
This article is part of a daily series for Seachtain na Gaeilge about keeping a love for Irish alive in foreign places. For more see http://bit.ly/1QS42SS