At primary school, I spoke a great deal of Irish. All the day-to-day interactions of the school were in Irish. My best friend from school spoke Irish at home and I spent a lot of time in her house. I didn’t think of Irish as a subject at which I could be good or bad, it was just part and parcel of life. I didn’t have views about the Irish language. It was just there, like English, something you were surrounded by. It had no status in my mind as a “language”. It was not like exotic French or German which my parents spoke when they didn’t want us to understand them. Irish was homely, domestic, natural, easy and not at all exciting. Unlike, I now realise, the parents of many of my contemporaries, my parents spoke good Irish and were fond of the language. Although we never spoke Irish at home, they would often quote bits and pieces of Irish poems and use the odd word here and there. Only the other day, I was telling my mother about a mural the boys had done in school entitled “Anois teacht an Earraigh” and she was into the second verse of the poem before I could stop her.
When I was 12, I started secondary school. A lot of things happened that year. I moved house. I moved school. My best friend dumped me (alas, but so it was): I used to follow her around mournfully like a whipped puppy/a depressed ex-girlfriend (delete as you feel appropriate). Obviously, this meant I was no longer spending a great deal of time in her house. I became a gloomy teenager. I met French and we fell in love. One of the things I didn’t particularly notice at the time was that my relationship with Irish changed too. Irish was taught very differently at secondary school. It did not in any way infuse the school environment which was firmly anglophone. The idea that you might bring a message from one teacher to another in Irish was ludicrous. My first Irish teacher at secondary school was perfectly competent but suddenly I was learning Irish in a very overt way and it was new to me. For the first time I became conscious of a huge hostility towards Irish from my peers. They hated Irish, they hated Peig though we had yet to encounter her unique brand of pessism (her book begins “I am old woman now with one foot in the grave” and goes downhill from there). Anxious to be liked and regardless of my positive experience to date, I hated Irish too. I fervently envied the girl who came home from America aged 12 and was therefore exempt from studying Irish.
At age 15, I was sent to the Gaeltacht for a couple of weeks. This was a moderately successful outing. It was my first time meeting Dubliners in any significant numbers and I was astounded at how poor their Irish was – worse than mine even after three years of steady decline. The authorities said that you would be sent home, if you spoke English and I was convinced that the bean an tí was listening to our every word. This made me very nervous as an intense 13 year old Dubliner would regularly buttonhole me to talk about SALT: it was the 1980s, we all thought there was going to be a nuclear war but no one more so than him. Alas, his vocabulary was insufficient to ask for more milk at breakfast let alone talk about nuclear extermination and I was very tense as he expounded on the difficulties in English. Many Irish people have fond memories of the Gaeltacht as where they had their first kiss but I was a timid convent girl and all I can record is that it was the first place that I held hands with a boy (for clarification, not the 13 year old Dubliner but a 15 year old Cork boy). I returned to Cork, if not with renewed enthusiasm for the language, certainly with a firm sense of my own genius as benchmarked against my Dublin peers.
I have absolutely no recollection of what grade I received in Irish in my junior certificate (or “the inter” as it then was). This is startling when I recall how much energy and angst I invested in this examination at the time. I started in fifth year with no very great enthusiasm for Irish but still ready to give it a go as an important part of my plan to maximise my points for college. Fate was not destined to favour me. I did not like the Irish teacher I had for the last two years of school. He was indifferent to me. He had his favourites and on these he lavished attention. The rest of us were left to sink or swim. With the help of a grind from my cousin, I floated near the surface. Certainly, the long monologues which my teacher favoured were no help. He would, in English, tell us about his relationship with his wife “never let the sun go down on a quarrel girls” – banal advice that, frankly, was less important than that of our biology teacher who said to us, banging his metre stick between each word, “Remember BANG you BANG can BANG get BANG pregnant BANG at BANG any BANG stage BANG of BANG your BANG cycle.” Since I and many of my peers had just progressed to holding hands with members of the opposite sex, that advice was not relevant to many of us at the time but let it be noted that in all the time I was in school, only one girl got pregnant and she had transferred in from another school after the end of compulsory biology classes. I digress. In two years, we received exactly two pieces of written Irish homework (two essays, since you ask) which might have entailed some out of class work for our Irish teacher. He enjoyed speaking about relationships and made us squirm in our seats by addressing in detail matters a middle aged man ought, in my view, to gloss over when speaking to a room full of 16 and 17 year old girls. The biology teacher, mentioned earlier, covered human reproduction without a joke or a double entendre and nobody squirmed. You might be terrified in his class but, at least, you weren’t embarassed.
To be fair to my Irish teacher, the curriculum did seem to give him significant opportunities to talk about sex. We did Pádraic Ó Conaire’s short stories. They must have been very radical when they were written in the early 20th century and I am mildly curious to revisit them now, but at the time, they were dull and difficult. My teacher got great mileage out of Nóra Mharcais Bhig. If memory serves me, this is a story about a young woman who went off to London and made her fortune. Her father called his boat after her, possibly with remittances she sent home. Everything was rosy but then she came on a visit and it transpired that she was making her money from prostitution. Well, you can see that this offered scope to my teacher’s particular genius. We also did a story about Salome and John the Baptist. The teacher focussed very much on the sensual nature of the dance which led to John losing his head. Another set text was Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Gráinne. Again, to be fair, there was a lot of material for our man to work with. The plot is that a handsome warrior and a young Princess elope and are chased all over the place (material ripe for Disney, I now realise). It seems to me that a great deal of our time in class was spent speculating on when Diarmuid and Grainne might have consummated their relationship and there might, perhaps, have been scope for other discussions. My favourite set text was “Stair na Teanga” or the history of the Irish language. In part that may have been because there was so little opportunity to work sex into the discussion on the text. However, it was also about the history of language and where it came from and that is something that I am still fascinated by. I can remember the illustration in the text showing the Indo-European languages spreading over Europe and Finnish and Hungarian with their own special arrow (subsequent coversations with Finns and Hungarians have revealed, disappointingly that those roots are so far back that neither group can understand a word the others say).
On balance, however, it would be fair to say that I sat my Leaving Certificate and said goodbye to Irish without a hint of regret.
Irish popped up again when I wanted to qualify as solicitor. There was a test of basic Irish. If the idea was that this was to ascertain our ability to do conveyancing through Irish, I cannot feel that the test was in any way adequate. However, easy and all as it was, it did nearly give me heart failure and I worked diligently on the set texts and duly passed. I again said my goodbyes to Irish with considerable relief and something approaching bitterness. Why was the first national language always torturing me?
Subsequently, Irish only featured in my life as a useful thing to have, if you felt that you were being ripped off by a taxi abroad. Then you and your Irish friend could speculate on whether this was the case in the first national language secure that no one else on God’s earth would understand you.
Then, I met my loving husband. My husband is from Dublin. My experience in the Gaeltacht made me certain that his Irish would be poor to dreadful. In fact, when it came up, it turned out his interest in languages extended to Irish. He spoke very good Irish and had been a member of the Cumann Gaelach in college. You might think that I would have been impressed by this. If so, you haven’t been concentrating, I mocked him for his interest in the Irish language.
Life continued. We had children and then we moved back to Ireland. While we had been away a phenomenon had been growing. Irish was becoming trendy. Young women with glossy make up and straightened hair were to be seen on television every night of the week speaking in Irish. Parents were choosing to send their children to Irish language schools. I waw unmoved. I thought that this was madness. On our return to Ireland my focus was on maintaining the children’s French and I had no intention of sending them to an Irish language school. But then, events conspired against us. We had been imprudent; we had not put our children down for a local school at birth. There was a Gaelscoil with places not too far away and the principal seemed nice, so we decided to give it a go.
As I watched my children acquire fluency in Irish something struck me in a way it had never done before. Irish is a language. I love languages; I am fascinated by them, why would I hate Irish? Every day, I go into the children’s school and speak, very mediocre, Irish to the teachers and the principal. I attended an event where the moderator, though from Dublin, spoke beautiful Irish; I thought why would I not want to be able to speak our first national language like that? I started to listen to Radio na Gaeltachta (which is very dull and quite hard to understand and full of details of funerals in the west of Ireland, but never mind). I suddenly realised that there were two Irelands – the main one, where I lived, and a very small rural Irish speaking one. Something that really existed, that wasn’t quite the dead letter I had thought that it was (though watch this space, the death of the native Irish speaking Gaeltacht is regularly announced). I thought to myself, this is a language I can learn with minimal extra effort. I already have the basics, I just need a bit of work. The cultural background which it takes time and effort to acquire in other languages? I already have that. How lucky is that? I saw Des Bishop learn Irish. Good Irish. If an AMERICAN can do that, why on earth can’t I? I am surely starting from a stronger position than Des Bishop. My mother’s father’s family were native Irish speakers – not my grandmother’s though as she married down – her family were “above the Irish”. As you can see the status of the language has varied over the years.
So, I looked into it. Having grown up in Cork, I had no awareness at all that Irish had different dialects. The Dublin children, God help them, all know that Irish has different dialects as their teachers come from all over the country. Only Munster people teach in Cork. Munster Irish pronounces the ends of words, Connemara Irish (which seems to have superior status in the minds of Dubliners) does not and nobody can understand Ulster Irish as they don’t open their mouths while speaking. So, in Irish “he was not” is “ní raibh sé” in Munster Irish that would be pronouced “knee rev shay” in Connemara Irish they would say “knee row shay”. Now, you must understand that “bh” is pronounced “v” in Irish, so Munster Irish is, clearly, better in every way. There is a feeling abroad, however, that pronouncing every letter is a bit anglicised and really, the best Irish is only loosely related to the words written on the page and the rules of pronouciation. Insert growling sound here. Incidentally, I thought you might like to know, Irish has no word for no. You have to repeat the verb every time. Some people think that this is part of its charm.
So, I have views on Irish dialects, I attended a short Irish course. And now I’ve got a teach yourself Irish course book out of the library. I heard a good programme on Radio na Gaeltachta on Saturday. Where will it all end?