Using Gaelic to practice his gift of the gab certainly got his kinsmen’s Irish up.
DUBLIN — Gaelic — or irish, as we call it here — is the first official language of Ireland. (English is second.) And 41% of the population claim to speak it. But could that be true? To put it to the test, I set off across Ireland for three weeks in the summer of 2006 with one self-imposed handicap — to never utter a word of English.I chose Dublin as a starting point. The sales assistant in the first shop I went to said, “Would you speak English maybe?” I tried repeating my request using the simplest schoolroom Irish that he must have learned during the 10 years of compulsory Irish that every schoolchild undergoes. “Do you speak English?” he asked again in a cold, threatening tone. Sea
(pronounced “sha”), I affirmed, and nodded meekly. “I’m not talking to you any more,” he said, covering his ears. “Go away!”
I knew the journey was going to be difficult, just not this difficult. Language experts claim that the figure of fluent Irish speakers is closer to 3% than the aspirational 41% who tick the language box on the census, and most of them are concentrated on the western seaboard, in remote, inaccessible areas. What I had not factored for was the animosity. Part of it, I felt, stemmed from guilt. We feel inadequate that we cannot speak our own language.
I decided to visit Dublin’s tourist office, which, presumably, was accustomed to dealing with different languages. The man at the counter looked at me quizzically when I inquired about a city tour. “Huh?” he said, his eyes widening. I repeated myself.
“You don’t speak English, do you?” he asked coldly. I was already beginning to hate this moment — the point at which the fear and frustration spread across a person’s face. I asked if there was any other language I could use, and they pointed to a list of seven flags on the wall representing the languages they dealt in. To be honest, I could speak four of them, but I had promised myself not to, not unless it was absolutely necessary.
I might have been tempted to give up the journey that first day had it not been for some children who called into a radio station I was on that night in Dublin. They spoke fluent Irish in a modern urban dialect. They were outraged when I suggested the language was dying. These were 10- and 12-year-olds reared on Irish versions of “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Scooby-Doo” on Irish-language television. They had Irish words for Xbox and jackass and had molded the 2,500-year-old language to the styles of Valley-girl slang.
For them, the Irish language is not associated with poverty and oppression. They are unburdened with the sense of inferiority that previous generations have felt since the British labeled it “a backward, barbarian tongue” and outlawed it in our schools in the 19th century. The Irish, or at least the half of the population that survived the Famine, realized that their only hope of advancement was through English, and they jettisoned the language in a few decades.
I left Dublin with renewed hope. Outside the capital, people were more willing to listen to me, though no more likely to understand me. I was given the wrong directions, served the wrong food and given the wrong haircut, but I was rarely made to feel foolish again. Even in Northern Ireland, on Belfast’s staunchly British-loyalist Shankill Road, I was treated with civility, though warned that if I persisted in speaking the language, I was liable to end up in hospital. In Galway, I went out busking on the streets, singing the filthiest, most debauched lyrics I could think of to see if anyone would understand. No one did. Old women smiled, tapping their feet merrily as I serenaded them with filth. In Killarney, I stood outside a bank promising passers-by huge sums of money if they helped me rob it, but again no one understood.
In January 2007, Irish became an official working language of the European Union, taking its place alongside the 23 other official languages. It was a huge vote of confidence by our European neighbors, and it seems appropriate that Irish people should now decide, once and for all, what we want to do with our mother tongue. Should we stick a do-not-resuscitate sign around its neck and unplug the machine, or else get over our silly inferiority complex and start using the bloody thing?
As the children might say: Cuir uaibh an cacamas! — say it kur OO-uv un COCK-a-mus — meaning, “Just get over it!”
Manchán Magan is a writer and documentary maker. The TV series of his journey around Ireland speaking Irish can be see at manchan.com.