A Word for Irish!

Irish (Gaelic) is the ancestral language of the more than 70 million people of Irish descent living in various parts of the world. Spoken by an estimated 6 million people in 1841 it is now the preserve of barely 100,000 native speakers in its Irish homeland. However, it has had a seminal influence in the development of Irish literature in English and is still written, published and read by its loyal supporters.

Irish is a great language because it is the language developed and spoken over many centuries by a great people, the ‘indomitable Irishry’, who, scattered to the four winds by poverty and tyranny, have created what a RTÉ / BBC television series some years ago called “The Irish Empire”. It is an empire of hearts, of minds, of a collective memory vividly expressed in two great languages. The enforced world‑wide dispersal of their once empoverished and marginalised people has given their national festival, Saint Patrick’s Day, the number 2 spot (Christmas, of course, remains the unchallenged number 1) in the list of the world’s best‑known and most popular celebrations.

In Elizabethan times an English official, charging his subordinates to take all necessary measures to eliminate Gaelic, said:

“The speech being Irish the heart must needs be Irish too.”

That English official was very nearly but not quite right because there is, in fact, another way of understanding his words:

“The heart being Irish the speech must needs be Irish too.”

It was Irish hearts and minds who, over a period of about 2000 years, made their language great.

In The Times (London) on Saturday 31 May 2003, columnist Ben MacIntyre, writing of the gradual destruction of Scottish Gaelic, a close relative of Irish, said:

‘That...is the essence of language: to frame the world through individual eyes, and local words. Gaelic defined a specific way of looking at the world.
The great 18th-century Gaelic poet Donnchadh Bàn MacIntyre...wrote of this vital cultural perspective: “Chan fhaca tusa i leis na sùilean agamsa.”: “You have not seen her with my eyes.”

For Donnchadh Bàn the words of his Gaelic tongue were the eyes through and with which he saw ‘her’ and everything else that mattered.’

Can anyone match that remarkable tribute?

Well, perhaps Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, the Lancashire‑born lass who has become one of the most celebrated and well‑known writers in Irish ever, gets pretty close:

“Irish is a language of enormous elasticity and emotional sensitivity; of quick and hilarious banter and a welter of references both historical and mythological; it is an instrument of imaginative depth and scope, which has been tempered by the community for generations until it can pick up and sing out every hint of emotional modulation that can occur between people. Many international scholars rhapsodize that this speech of ragged peasants seems always on the point of bursting into poetry.”

(‘Why I Chose to Write in Irish: The Corpse That Sits Up and Talks Back’, in The New York Times, 8 Jan. 1995; quoted at US Navy Academy Irish Literature Website)

If you have it already you are privileged, if not, learn it if you can find the space and the time.

By Barry Tobin

An Ghaeilge – Nod don Eolach!

A version in Irish of this article...

Nascanna don Ghaeilge

Gorgysylltiadau i’r Wyddeleg / Links to Irish.

Old Words my Parents Knew.

Abhaile / Home / Hafan