I sent my own kids to a Gaelscoil, where the only language allowed is Irish: partly so that they would never find it as difficult as we did, and partly so that they’d have a strong sense of national identity – their dad is British. It worked: they spoke fluently and easily by the time they changed to an all-English school at the age of thirteen or so. (It also made it much easier for them to learn a third language, but that’s another story.)
The funny thing about Irish is that all over the country there are adults yearning to possess it (and loads, it has to be said, who don’t wish to ever utter a word in Irish again). No matter how much they may have hated learning it at school, there are many who wish they hadn’t been so short-changed (it’s not taught in a way that makes us fluent when we leave), and who wish they were in on the act. I’m one of those people. While my kids attended their all-Irish school, I took every opportunity to practice my Irish until my confidence slowly built up, and now I can speak it fine, if not perfectly. But I can tell a joke that everyone laughs at – and I don’t think because my words are so ludicrously put together – and, on a much deeper note, I can feel something when I speak irish that has no equivalent in any other language.
When I hear someone speak Irish, I don’t judge them by their accent, because it’s just an “Irish” accent. It’s only if they launch into English that I suddenly feel conscious of where they are from. And, although we will always have an Irish inflection when we speak English, there is no such thing as an Irish person having a “bad” Irish accent. No matter how you say it, it’s right, because you’re Irish. It’s yours.
I have just joined a “ciorcal cómhrá” – conversation circle – and we plan to meet every Wednesday evening for a couple of hours. We meet in the community centre of our parish, Ballinderreen, in Co. Galway. We all defend ourselves pretty well, and there are people there ranging from very rusty to totally fluent, but we are there for the same reason. We love to speak Irish. It’s a very friendly and relaxed group.
Tonight, we started off with something really nice. We sang a song called Baidín Fheilimí, a song from Donegal which sings the praises of a beautiful little boat belonging to a man named Feilim. First it talks of how lovely the little boat is, then in the second verse it tells how Feilim went to Tory Island, and then in the last verse it tells of how the boat was broken on Tory Island. This must have happened to countless other fishermen through the ages, but for some reason none of us could work out, the fate of Feilim and his little boat was commemorated in a song forever.
After we sang the song, we had a table quiz, which was full of jokes that you could only get if you had some basic Irish. I got ten out of ten in one round! (Not in the others.) Then we had a lovely cup of tea and some biccies, which is when I drew the quick sketch you see here.
So there you go, a very brief introduction to the heart of Irish-language circles!
I had a phone conversation with a lady in England yesterday. I had tried to buy some stuff for my kids’ Christmas stockings and there was a bug on the checkout page.
(Note: I am not in the habit of being ready a month and a half in advance for Christmas, but I was buying stuff for myself anyway…obviously.) Here’s an extract:
Lady: “Is that Northern Ireland or Southern Ireland?”
Me: (Pause) “The Republic of Ireland.”
Lady: (Pause) “Sorry, Northern or Southern Ireland?”
Me: (Longer, passive-aggressive pause, barely audible sigh) “The Republic of Ireland.”
Lady: “Northern or Southern?”
Me: “The Republic.”
Lady: (thinking) We’ve got a right one here. Out loud: “We only do phone sales to Northern Ireland.”
Me: (in my head) Eejits.
There is no such place as Southern Ireland. Folk in Britain think that just as there is a Northern Ireland, so must there be a Southern Ireland. There is not. It’s just Ireland. Northern Ireland and Ireland. If you really must define it further you may say the Republic of Ireland. No one else in the entire world says Southern Ireland. Nor Eire, for that matter. Nor “Gaelic”. It’s called Irish.
I told Marcel about the conversation I had had with the lady on the phone.
“You should have explained that there is no such thing as Southern Ireland,” he said.
“I didn’t want to,” I said. “People hate to be corrected.”
“The way you approached it was far more annoying,”” he said. “Offensive, in fact.”
“I made it very obvious,” I said, “in the Irish way. No one was told they were wrong, but I think the lady was less than open to new ideas.”
“She would have appreciated being educated,” he said.
“So…” I said, trying to put it another way, “if she had said “Which part of the Soviet Union do you live in?” and I’d said, “The Soviet Union hasn’t existed since the 1980s,” she wouldn’t have been annoyed that I’d pointed out her ignorance?”
“No,” he said. “She would have been grateful that she, a lowly call centre worker, had had the benefit of your superior education.”
And in case anyone thinks I have a superior education, apparently there IS a coast in Poland, as I found out from my fellow Irish speakers last night. They were very polite about it, and no one expressed shock at my ignorance, but I did go very red, and had to hide behind my sheet of lyrics to Báidín Fheilimí. Yes, I had heard of Gdansk, but I hadn’t really thought further than that.
Bet the lady on the phone knew about the coast in Poland.
Here endeth the lesson!