Festival lifts Gaelic identity across threshold of the dark


OPINION:A direct line stretches from ancient Tara to the sean nós, yarns and chat of Oireachtas na Samhna, writes CILIAN FENNELL

IT IS the time of Samhain and I am heading south to Killarney. Every year at this time I find myself on the road to somewhere. The reason – Oireachtas na Samhna. It has been going on now for well over a century but, in reality, it has been going on for thousands of years since its original incarnation at Tara. I am part of a tribe, and the tribe is on the move.

Oireachtas na Samhna, or the Oireachtas, as we call it, is the annual gathering of the Gaels. A festival which will be attended by 10,000 people from all Gaeltachts and beyond, and which will host some of the most prestigious competitions of our traditional arts. Sean nós singing and dancing, storytelling and oration, lúibíní and many others. Champions will be crowned this weekend, immortality bestowed. Hundreds will gather in hushed halls to hail new heroes and the families and communities that produce these champions will claim title to nobility.

Samhain is there since the beginning. It was the annual feast of Tara, where hundreds of thousands gathered to celebrate the last harvest. The word literally means summer’s end, the threshold of the dark. It is the time when we are closest to the otherworld, when the barriers between us and our ancestors soften. Our immediacy fades. We briefly become aware of the eternal.

I will meet people I haven’t met since last year’s Oireachtas. No matter. The distance of time or space is made redundant by the story we share. We’ll pick up where we left off. Like a family which meets for a wedding or an anniversary, familiarity will bathe us, and our handshakes, hugs and greetings will be as joyous as they are authentic. We’ll all be conscious of the significance of our gathering and put our best side out.

Language is more than communication. It is expression too. It provides us with another way to see the world, another way to make sense of it. And it is universal. Irish speakers of all backgrounds and ethnicities – from America, Japan, Russia, Africa, Australia, Canada and other countries are heading for Killarney right now. The Oireachtas is our festival. It’s what we do. It is our Haj, our Ploughing Championships, our novena, our Oxegen.

Culture is created by the stories we tell about ourselves, the rituals we carry out, and the symbols we hold dear. The Oireachtas has the complete menu. But it has more than cultural value. Each year towns and cities from around the country bid for the right to hold the Oireachtas. A DCU study from 2008 concluded that it was worth over €5.5 million to the city for the weekend. Gaeilge is a business too. Its value to the economy is real as the language schools, cultural tourism organisations and music promoters will testify. A recent survey in Galway showed that Irish was worth €136 million a year to the city.

I was too young to remember my first Oireachtas, but I still have the T-shirt. There are some who will be attending their 60th, some attending their first. Parents will bring children, as their own parents brought them. It gives us a sense of belonging, and that sense of belonging gives me meaning. It helps define me.

I switch over to Raidió na Gaeltachta. Anticipation fills me as I sing along to the songs and laugh at jokes only the Gaels get. But as I morph into my other self, a familiar sadness invades as the separation that lies in difference overcomes me. Because what should be a blanket of comfort is also one of alienation. As you become one thing, you stop being another.

I am from Connemara and live in Dublin. Most of my days are spent bilingually. And if I’m honest, there is an identity issue. When people discover that I’m an Irish speaker, two responses are usually triggered. Either I’m told, almost secretly, wistfully, that they would love to be speaking Irish too but they never got the chance. Or more disturbingly, I am asked if I think I’m more Irish than others.

Although I know what they mean, I resent having to defend something I was born into and it makes me uncomfortable. These thoughts taint my anticipation. And then, slowly, the answer comes to me. It’s not quite Damascene, but it is an internal settlement that gives me peace with my identity.

Of course I am not more Irish. I am no more Irish than my very good Jewish-Irish friends, my Anglo-Irish friends, my Dublin 4 friends or my Corkonian-Irish friends. I am no more Irish, because Ireland belongs to us all.

I am just more Gaelic. And as others celebrate their holidays and customs, I celebrate mine. It is normal and healthily human that communities carry out those rituals that signify belonging, tradition and identity. This helps us orient ourselves in a random world, it helps us express ourselves and it helps us find the joy that union with others brings.

At the Oireachtas, this is done with love for self rather than disdain for the other. I am no fan of forcing Irish on others; that doesnt work. Very few minorities win popularity by attacking the majority. That is only common sense. Minorities win respect and love when we show our value to society. When we display the contribution we can make to the whole, not the needs we have ourselves. The TG4 story is testament to this. By making such a valuable contribution to the cultural wealth of Ireland, and by telling Irish stories authentically and with love, TG4 turned antagonism into respect.

Publishers, community groups, merchandisers, language activists and other Irish-language businesses come and lay out their stalls at the Oireachtas. Radio, television and print media swarm in the richness of the attendance. It will be twittered and Facebooked ar nos na gaoithe. We are all aware of how lucky we are to be able to broadcast to the world. Irish language organisations like Foras na Gaeilge and Udarás na Gaeltachta convene board meetings at the Oireachtas. Ministers and dignitaries pass through, and the academic and cultural giants of Gaeilge hold court to a willing audience. Television shows, films and books will be launched.

The Oireachtas is full of sensation. The loaded, fertile silence that hushes as a sean nós singer closes their eyes and brings us to a place we yearn for, the wry smile as a point is scored in rich colourful Irish, the unconscious yelps and stomping when the dancer takes to the table, the eye-watering laughter at the Agallamh Beirte and the raucous energy of 1,000 people freaking out to the accordion of Padraic O Shea. It is primal, it is dúchas and timeless.

Oireachtas na Samhna has survived for 140 years. It has seen rebellion, civil war, boom and bust, ebb and flow. It has never been healthier. It is still a vibrant and moving expression of our deepest most human Gaelic selves. And I feel lucky to be going.

Cilian Fennell is a communications adviser and media trainer at Stillwater Communications

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