Tongues are loosened at Esperanto conference in Galway

WHAT DO Peig Sayers, Pádraig Ó Conaire’s little black donkey, Hungarian school children and 1916 leader James Connolly all have…

WHAT DO Peig Sayers, Pádraig Ó Conaire’s little black donkey, Hungarian school children and 1916 leader James Connolly all have in common? All have a strong link with the language of Esperanto, which is the subject of an international conference in Galway this week.

The European Esperanto Union congress has attracted some 150 speakers from 28 countries, and is co-ordinated by a committee including Irish diplomat Seán Ó Riain.

Esperanto practitioners from Russia, Cuba, North America and almost every European state will meet, chat, listen, mark the language’s 125th anniversary and visit the Aran Islands.

Ó Riain learned the language in three months as a dare, when based in the Irish Embassy in Australia. “An Esperanto conference was coming to Sydney and I was told I could learn it from a book . . . which I did,” he said.


Hungarian second-level students are the only EU citizens to have realised its many benefits, he points out, as Hungary’s education system recognises proficiency in Esperanto towards points for university.

He believes Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn should consider a similar move, as its simplicity gives students “confidence” in language learning, and it would be of particular benefit to potential early school leavers who might decide to continue study.

Two of the 1916 proclamation signatories, James Connolly and Joseph Mary Plunkett, acquired it, and subscribed to its fundamental ethos of peace and friendship, based on equality.

Irish Language Commissioner Seán Ó Cuirreáín, who is due to address the congress today, also notes that parts of Peig, along with Ó Conaíre’s M’Asal Beag Dubh and the writings of Máirtín Ó Cadhain and Muiris Ó Suilleabháín are available in Esperanto.

Ironically, the translations may read far easier than the original versions, as the language has few grammar rules and no exceptions or irregular verbs.

Both conference patrons, President Michael D Higgins and Minister of State for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton, have sent tri-lingual messages of support to the congress.

As Mr Higgins observed in his message, “in a world where conflict is still all too pervasive, this message of peace based on parity of esteem between different peoples remains as relevant and as valid as ever”.

Ms Creighton also entered into the spirit of the occasion with her message conveying “cent mil bonvenoj” or “céad míle fáílte”.

Esperanto may not be indigenous, but it does have several native speakers, Mr Ó Riain notes. Current German ambassador to Russia Ulrich Brandenburg was “reared on it from childhood”, he says. It was Mr Brandenburg’s appreciation of language for both educational and cultural purposes that led to the EU giving Irish official recognition, says Mr Ó Riain.

Esperanto: Kio estas gxi? Esperanto: What is it?

“No mother tongue could ever hope to become international,” wrote a contributor to the British Medical Journal in April 1904, “and nowadays we are much too busy to acquire a colloquial knowledge of Latin”. Far preferable, in his view, was a particular artificial language: Esperanto.

Time seems to have vindicated his choice. Created at the close of the 19th century, Esperanto remains the most popular of the various constructed languages with as many as two million speakers. The language’s great appeal is its simplicity: Esperanto’s creator, a Polish eye doctor named Ludwig Zamenhof, supposedly claimed that the entire grammar of the language could be learned in an hour.

His assertion may not be far off: the official rulebook, the “Fundamento Esperanto”, denotes the alphabet, parts of speech, verb forms and general rules in only a few pages. In fact, students might prefer learning Dr Zamenhof’s language to English: Esperanto excludes silent spellings such as “debt” as well as irregular verbs. The vocabulary, for its part, is an amalgamation of French, German and other European languages.

Hello is “saluton”; thank you is “dankon”. For readers more curious as to what the attendees of the Galway conference will sound like, Esperanto is accessible not only through Zamenhof’s works, but also Google Translate.

A multilingual dictionary may be found at


Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times