Mary McAleese: Speaking Irish enriched my sense of identity

Irish life came into view in Technicolor as soon as I comprehended the language

Former president Mary McAleese. Photograph: Frank Miller

Former president Mary McAleese. Photograph: Frank Miller


One hundred years ago the republican movement and the Irish language movement were closely linked in the minds and hearts and lives of many Irish people.

“Not only free but Gaelic as well; not only Gaelic but free as well.” This was a familiar slogan at the time.

To most of the founders of the Irish State, the Irish language was an intrinsic part of Irish identity.

The Irish language is an important part of my own Irish identity, and always has been, even before I could speak Irish.

The language itself, its vestiges and influences, play a significant part in Irish life.

Our placenames are firmly rooted in the rich soil of our linguistic heritage.

They surround us. Each Irish place name is the distillation of a long narrative, a history of our people, and enriches us linguistically and culturally.

The English we speak in Ireland is heavily influenced by Irish. Where else would you hear: “I’m only after doing it”, or “Is it yourself that’s in it?”

These phrases come word for word from Irish and are a seamless part of everyday life, carrying with them a memory of times we did not live in; but those who did shaped us and our world.

I was born and reared in Ardoyne, in north Belfast. My father was from Co Roscommon, and during his brief years at school he was educated through Irish. His parents’ English was liberally laced with Connacht Irish.

I heard it before I heard Ulster Irish.

My mother did not speak Irish to us but her younger brothers, who were educated by the Christian Brothers, did.

They often spoke it among themselves when speaking of things we children were not supposed to hear.

Irish was not taught in our parish primary schools at the time, so my parents sent us to schools outside the parish, where it was taught.

The girls went to the Convent of Mercy and the boys to the Christian Brothers. Later I studied Irish at St Dominic’s High School and spent many a wet summer in the Donegal Gaeltacht.

I lived in a part of Ardoyne that was predominantly Protestant/Unionist/ British in its identity.

The tensions between competing identities made for an unsettling conflictual environment, but did not prevent the growth of strong inter-religious friendships that endure to this day.

But there was a going of different ways, of looking to very different sources, drawing from other wells. I went to Irish dancing, took part in feiseanna, wore a fáinne, played camogie.

My Protestant friends did none of these things.

Use of the cúpla focal was even more common in Co Roscommon, where my father’s parents lived, and where I spent part of each summer.

His cousin, the late Columban Father John Joe McGreevy, a wonderful Irish scholar, sometimes dropped by to chat. When he did, no English was spoken.

I remember being so proud of him, and knowing, without understanding why, that in that tiny house on the Carrow Ard, something profound, beautiful and natural was happening . . . and changing.

Irish presidency

Many years later, as president of Ireland, I incorporated Irish into every speech I made while on official visits abroad.

I was often approached by expatriates who told me that hearing the Gaeilge again made them feel proud and close to home.

The cúpla focal can go a long way to make an exile feel connected to both today’s and yesterday’s global Irish family.

Lots of Irish people have what they think is only a smattering of Irish. But it is remarkable how that seemingly small vocabulary quickly expands and develops when you decide to re-engage with the language.

That is what happened to me. After university my engagement with Irish was intermittent, but when I took it up seriously again, words, phrases and sentences came tumbling, stumbling back, as if awoken from sleep.

If you haven’t used Irish for some years, you may be afraid to take that first step; afraid of failure, of getting mired in the rules of grammar; afraid of the effort it takes to kick-start the learning.

Don’t let those fears hold you back. You will have lots of support and encouragement along the way.

The learning road is full of adventure and fun, new friendships, new insights; and the rewards are great.

My own efforts blossomed when I became president. I worked very hard to become as fluent as possible.

I revelled in the literature, the poetry, the songs, the placenames, the narratives.

Comprehension of the language revealed so much that had been hidden from me except in translation.

Now I saw the creativity, the beauty and the artistry at first hand. It was like transitioning from black and white television to colour. Irish life came into view in Technicolor.

My understanding of Irish identity was enhanced and enriched every step of the way.

The skin of identity became more comfortable, a better fit. From the language, the discourse and the culture of Gaeilge there developed a sense of a circle completed, a wound healed.

Do I feel more Irish than when I spoke no Irish? No. Do I feel I know my identity more intimately and convincingly? Yes.

Is my life better for re-engaging with the Irish language? Definitely.

It has been the gift of gifts, a remarkable source of endlessly renewable energy in my life; and I cannot imagine how poor my life would have been without these past 20 wet craic-filled summers in the Donegal Gaeltacht.

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