There is an old Irish saying that a land without a language is a land without a soul.
Over the past couple of years, while working on the smallest of the Aran Islands, I tried to imagine how sad it would be if the last native Irish speaker passed away.
Imagine the thousands of years of oral traditions, of myths and legends, of connecting with our ancestors and the land around us which would be lost forever.
Imagine how meaningless our place names would be if we only had the Anglicized versions, and not the Irish names which connect to the wisdom of our elders and tell us so much about where we are from.
Irish people do not have a keen understanding about the terrible impact colonization, and emigration, have had on our relationship with our own language.
I will never forget watching a TG4 documentary, presented by Tommy Tiernan, a couple of years ago in which brilliant Galway poet Rita Ann Higgins revealed the dismissive way in which her father looked at the language he grew up with in Connemara.
After a regular family outing to visit her cousins in the Gaeltacht one Sunday, Rita Ann asked him — not unreasonably — why they never spoke Irish in their home in the working-class suburbs of Galway city.
“Ná bac le teanga an bochtaineacht,” he told her.
Don’t bother with the language of poverty.
Years later, Rita Ann has taken back her native language by writing brilliant poems ‘as Gaeilge’ which are every bit as powerful as her pieces through the medium of English.
In Shantalla, on the other side of Galway City, I had friends whose parents hailed from the Connemara Gaeltacht. It was clear from the way they spoke that English was their second language, but it was also clear from their reluctance to speak Irish with us teenagers that they had some sort of inferiority complex.
Sometimes, they would only express themselves in our beautiful native language when inhibitions would decrease thanks to a few drinks in the pub.
How sad was it that they did not want to converse with their own children in the language their ancestors spoke for hundreds, if not thousands, of years?
In East Galway in the 1950s, poor men from Connemara used to line up at the side of a street in Athenry in order to be hired as farm labourers.
The farmers around Caltra, Ballymacward, and Menlough were not rich by any means, but they had enough half-decent land to be able to hire labourers from west of the River Corrib.
At the time, there was next to no employment in Connemara. The men and women of the area found work on the streets of Boston or Birmingham, London or New York, and some of those who stayed behind managed to make a few quid by helping out the farmers on the other side of the county.
Sometimes, they’d sleep, like animals, in the shed behind the family home. It’s not as though the farmers had much space to accommodate them, with large families of their own to feed. My grandmother, for example, had nine children.
My mother, who spent four decades working as a primary teacher — and developed a great “grá” for the Irish language — used to tell us as children about the great merriment she and her eight siblings used to take from ridiculing the poor English of their own hired hand from Connemara.
Known as a ‘spailpín fáineach’, the same man returned to them year after year and became friends with all the family.
Instead of marveling that he spoke a language which was endangered, colonization had impacted on the minds of the children so much that they thought his poor English was something to be ridiculed.
Even though I never met that man, I thought of him recently as I finished up a two and a half year job on the beautiful Gaeltacht island of Inis Oirr.
I thought of how lucky I was to spend two summers in a house where Irish was the first language, marveling at how our ancestors who spoke Irish had a completely different way of looking at the world.
For example, if I was angry, I’d say: “Tá fearg orm”.
Literally, that means “anger is upon me”.
In Irish, anger (or any emotion) is seen as a temporary state which comes upon a person, rather than something more permanent. “I am angry,” literally, just does not have the same meaning.
How lucky was I to spend two years and four months in a place where our beautiful native language continues to be spoken with pride and joy every day?
Tourism and the co-operative movement have transformed the economy of the islands, where visitor numbers are only set to increase thanks to the success of ‘The Banshees of Inisheerin’.
It wasn’t always like that for the people of Aran and Connemara who only saw a future, or an escape from poverty, in the United States or the United Kingdom. Those who did manage to get away would often save and save so that a younger sibling could follow them.
The poorest part of the country offered no hope of a bright future and a beautiful language which somehow survived centuries of colonization was seen more as a hindrance than a joy to be treasured.
“You can’t eat scenery,” I once heard an old Connemara man say.
On Inis Oirr, it was a joy to hear the children speak Irish naturally in the playground overlooking Galway Bay, Inis Meáin, and the South Connemara coastline.
It was wonderful to hear my landlady, in her 80s, invite the neighbours in for a drop of tea or brandy and a fireside chat on a winter’s night. They would talk for two or three hours, gossiping about life on the island, and nobody would reach for the remote control to turn on the TV. Conversation is still an art form to be treasured on the island.
When the TV did come on, it was great to see my landlady getting the news of the world in her own language, on Nuacht TG4. When she was young, and the only prospect of a job was across the Irish Sea, the idea of sitting down to watch the evening news in her own language must have seemed like a pipe dream when few people, if any, had televisions.
I once caught her watching coverage of the death of the Queen of England on British TV last September but, in mitigation, she had spent ten years of her adult life working in Manchester.
That only led to some good natured banter, “as Gaeilge”, about her republican credentials. Our sense of fun seemed to be magnified by gentle ribbing in our native language.
On Inis Oirr, I reveled in seeing traditional musicians launch into pulsating sessions in the island’s three pubs and hearing them converse ‘as Gaeilge’ between the songs.
I marveled at the young people of the island, who converse with the tourists in the language of the colonizer at their places of business, but still take the time to make ‘Tic Toc’ videos ‘as Gaeilge’ for their friends.
For the most part, the young people of the island see their Gaeltacht heritage as something to be treasured in a way which would have been unthinkable even to my generation a couple of decades ago. The opening of an Irish language secondary school in the 1980s ensured the island was not bereft of teenagers throughout the long winter months.
For centuries, the British tried to persuade us that Irish was a language to be ridiculed, to be banned from the schools, and to be ignored; something to be forgotten in order to move on in life or to secure a decent job elsewhere.
On Inis Oirr, it was joyful to see Manchán Magan, author of ’32 Words For a Field’, spend a full weekend morning contrasting the vocabulary of the Kerry Gaeltacht with the words used by the people of the Aran Islands.
For Irish-American dance artist Maureen Fleming, a chance to spend a month on an Irish-speaking island was a profound experience after she had spent years exploring pre-colonial cultures in South America, Japan, Korea, and Africa.
“I had never heard of the Great Famine and I found out that my great-grandfather came from Co Monaghan in 1851. He was fleeing the famine. He came with his father. I have been involved in Japanese, Korean, and African culture, and there is always at the end of the day the feeling that ‘you are not part of us’,” she told me during an interview for a blog on Inis Oirr.
“For me, to come here and to hear people talking as my grandmother’s people talked, seeing her face, the faces of people who look like her, it is just connecting to that land. No-one can say to me that I don’t have a right to be here. I can connect completely with this place and not feel any kind of awe.”
She surrendered to nature during photo shoots around the island, learning the value of letting go of control. As the wind howled in from the Atlantic, she could feel the past in the voices of the people and found it moving to hear Irish being spoken so naturally every day.
Another visiting artist, Patrick O Laoighre, wrote beautiful, haunting songs in his studio overlooking the sea and Inis Meáin, as much inspired by hearing the islanders converse in the pub as the stunning landscape around him on Inis Oirr.
He loved listening to conversations ‘as Gaeilge’ in Tigh Ned, talking to the islanders, and writing down the beautiful sounds of Irish words.
Like “macalla”, the Irish word for “echo”.
“I just don’t get the same feeling with English words,” he told me. “There are things in my mind and I might not be able to say them ‘as Gaeilge’ because I might not have the words, but at the same time I can’t say them in English because they just don’t make sense!”
Yesterday was International Mother Language Day.
According to UNESCO, 230 indigenous languages became extinct between 1950 and 2010. Every couple of weeks, an indigenous language dies somewhere across the world.
Wouldn’t it be tragic if we — as Irish people — lost our ability to converse in a language which offers us a connection to our ancestors, our land, the nature all around us, and our souls?
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