Twelve years ago, my wife and I were passing thru the small town of Ballaghaderreen in County Roscommon. It is actually on the county line with County Mayo and was “moved” from County Mayo in a re-arrangement of administrative lines at the end of the 19th century. Even in 2018, there is some resentment.
Anyway, it was our intention to visit a small heritage centre at Frenchpark, a village about five miles away. The heritage centre is dedicated to Douglas Hyde, academic and folklorist, a founder of the Gaelic League and the first President of Ireland. He died in 1945.
Hyde was brought up in Frenchpark. His father was the local Church of Ireland rector and the family was part of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy in the west of Ireland.
But Douglas Hyde was an odd fish. The servants spoke Gaelic. And young Douglas was fascinated by the words and the stories and threw himself right into the Gaelic revival in late Victorian times.
The story is told that Douglas went to the market in Ballaghaderreen and reprimanded a boy- trader who was shouting in English.
“Cant you speak Irish” asked Dougie.
“Shure isn’t it Irish I’m speaking” replied the boy-trader.
A variation of this anecdote is told by Gaelic speakers to demonstrate the parlous state of the Irish language at the end of the 19th century.
My take is that I am on the side of the youngster in Ballaghaderreen.
Which brings me to Ballaghaderreen in 2006. Driving in from County Mayo, there is a square….or more accurately a triangle in the town. The road-sign to Frenchpark was unclear. I was 90 per cent certain of the route (I had been before) but my wife insisted that I get out of the car and actually ask someone.
I asked a young man. But he wasn’t very sure. He was from Eastern Europe and his English wasn’t very good. …although better than my Polish, Czech and Hungarian. So I went into a local shop, bought two “99s” (ice cream) and the young woman behind the counter pointed the way to Frenchpark. She was Czech and her English was perfect.
Ballaghaderreen…huh. As we drove the five miles to Frenchpark and the grave of our first President, we laughed about how Douglas Hyde would be turning in that grave.
Was that young Czech-born woman speaking Irish in much the same way as the boy-trader, nearly a century and a half previously.
The revival of the Irish/Gaelic language has been a priority for all governments from Independence. It is regarded as the first National Language. It is our First National Hypocrisy. And our first National Failure.
A few words might explain it. It is easier explained in a bi-lingual way.
I am English. I speak English. I am Irish. I speak Irish.
So in the English language, there is no distinction between the nationality and the language. But say the same words in “Irish” and this is how it looks. Forgive any spelling errors as I don’t speak more than a few words and phrases and I am not going to do Google Translate.
Is Sasanach mé. Tá Béarla agam. Is Éireanach mé. Tá Gaeilige agam.
So in Irish we actually make a distinction between nationality and language.
For all the emotion associated with the Irish language, I don’t understand its totemic importance to Sinn Féin. Id love to see the Irish language flourish but I am not sure that it is as central to my identity as an Irish person that many nationalists and republicans claim.
I spent sometime in S. Korea. I got a real understanding of cultural differences. It’s not just doing things a bit differently, but how you think. They had their language suppressed and were forced to speak Japanese. I found them reasonably magnanimous towards the Japanese. They understood the importance of their language. Ghandi also wrote extensively on the importance of language. We are just too backward to take it back also. I haven’t heard anyone call for Irish to replace English and having bilingual kids is a proud thing for me. I’m absolutely rubbish at retaining languages and I’ve been trying to learn Irish for years with limited success but I would 100% get behind anyone promoting it. My current fav is duolingo on my phone, loving the Irish app on it.
I probably should have held this post until I had totally worked out the form that Part Two would take.
I think I had four Irish teachers in the five years to O Level and I think that is fairly typical. Its great to have one GOOD teacher all the way thru but I think that for most people school was an up and down experience. There was no real feeling of affection. Of course that was 1963-1968 when there was no real connexion to the later Troubles.
I have tried to learn it on several occasions since and it just doesn’t work for me. I have almost a resentment about people who speak it easily.
Look out for Part 2.
Great read. I’m an American with no Irish blood in me, but I married a Carlow lass, so now I live in this lovely wet country. To help learn more about the culture I decided to take Irish class. 8 classes in and I barely know how to say hi. But what I have learned is a better understanding of how it works. I am glad I am trying. Everyone I tell laughs and says why bother.
We have friends though who only speak Irish in the house.
I hope you and your wife have many happy years here. As I go around the country on my free travel pass, I often wonder what our new citizens, new residents and tourists make of us.
Someone once told me that Irish people speak English but we think in Irish.
I think we like to play with words and people like Behan, O’Casey or Joyce and the rest are in a way showing off how many “foreign” words they know.
Thanks. I just picked up In the name of the Fada with Dez Bishop. I love that its everywhere, yet when I chat with people and ask about their Irish, they scoff. Why learn it. Yet they all know some. Perhaps if the schools thought it more conversational, and less the writing side, more people might speak it.