There is a language called Irish, Gaeilge, or Gaelic. It is not a version of English as spoken by Irish people — rather, it is one of the 10 oldest languages in the world still spoken, even though less than a million people speak it.
Gaelic is the official language of the Irish State and is recognized officially by the European Union as a true language of Europe. It is a beautiful language that is full of words of feelings and emotions, full of prayers and wisdom, full of description and words for rain.
And believe it or not, it has given many words to the English language. Only last week, I heard one of the morning Washington radio hosts say that there were “potholes galore” on some part of the Beltway. Galore comes directly from the Irish “go leor” and means “many.”
Many Americans have a story of family immigrating from Ireland. My family did the same, but then, we moved back to Ireland. Mom and Dad thought that we would be staying in America and had gone through all the motions of getting proper work, visas, and green cards for the children (Michael and I) in the late 1950s. We came back to Ireland when I was 4 years old.
I don't remember my first time speaking Irish, but there must have been a day when I stumbled over a word or two. There must have been a time when I tried a phrase with my conspicuous Boston drawl, which I had acquired while we lived on Dorchester Avenue, in Boston in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Mom believed that as a family we would return to the Boston, so she did her best to keep me away from the Irish language. To that end, she farmed me out to my grandmother, in Cong, County Mayo, where John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” was filmed, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.
There, I learned to speak English properly (my granny on my mother’s side was originally from Cornwall in England). That “proper” English was what I would bring with me in case we returned to Dorchester Avenue in Boston. Little did I realize then that Cornish English would be a foreign language in Boston, where “rubbish” was “trash,” a “footpath” was a “sidewalk,” and (oddly) “the boot” where you put your luggage in back of the car was known as “the trunk.” To a young boy such as myself, even the name ‘Boston’ itself was a confusion, because there was a townland not far from us in the west of Ireland called Boston, just a few miles away from Cornamona, in Connemara.
In 1963, Dad came home from America to stay. He bought the old schoolhouse in Cornamona, where his uncle Thomas lived. We planned to move there from Dooras, where Granny O’Sullivan was, and where Gaeilge was spoken. My dad (Michael John) was a fine carpenter working on the boats and ships in Boston Harbor. When he arrived in Ireland, he converted the old schoolhouse in Cornamona into our new home. I remember finding under the old floor boards the small framed slates (little chalkboards, Americans might call them) that students had once used. We were going to live there, right beside the church and the new school.
It was the early 1960s. We had moved to Cornamona in Connemara, Ireland, from Dorchester Avenue, and life would never be the same.
There was no Frigidaire. It would be a number of years before such a thing came to Connemara, so we had to do with a tin cold-cabinet in the hollow near the house to keep things chilled. There was no washing machine, so Mom had to hand-wash our clothes. We were missing many other amenities besides.
Dad missed the company of coworkers, but he began building his own wooden boats — traditional larch and oak vessels for the lake beside us, Corrib boats, and with his skill and craftsmanship, he soon had a little business running.
I attended the local school. English was the spoken language of the country, but Irish was the first language of the state, and in Cornamona, it was also the language of the schoolyard, the language of cursing, and the language of play.
The children of Dubhachta, Crimlinn, and Baile Dubh Loch, villages around Cornamona, dictated that. I didn’t mind. I didn’t even know that I was in a so-called Gaeltacht area — a part of Ireland where Gaelic is the natural spoken language.
I must have just picked up Irish. I don't remember being silent. It is more likely that I was chastised for talking too much at school. So I spoke Irish, however stutteringly, with a Boston accent. I began speaking it in the schoolyard, in play, and in the mutinous mutterings of the pupils. Irish was not the lingua franca of our family home in Cornamona, so I switched between languages after school and at home spoke English only.
I don't remember learning Irish. I don't remember my first time understanding that there was more than one word for everything, that “window" was “fuinneog” (fw-in-eog) or that “caca milis” (caw-ka mill-ish) was 'sweet cake', and that our ‘orchard’ — from which the schoolchildren surreptitiously pilfered fruit — was referred to as “ullord” (ool-ord-th). That last one made more sense as Irish, since it means “apple garden.” At that age, perhaps a new language just takes hold of you. I was fluent by the age of 10, and I spoke Irish with a distinctive Connemara dialect. I must have missed the first time I strung a sentence together. I have no memory of it, but Irish language seeped into my being, and I became proficient. I loved this new language of mischief and mystery, a language of great pathos and unequivocal descriptions of feelings and emotions.
At age 12, I was sent to a live-in high school in Tuam, in County Galway outside of the Gaeltacht. English was the spoken language of that area. My Irish teacher at the high school thought that Irish was my first language, and he would even defer to my correctness as Gaeilge (“in Irish”), although he could mock my dialect as being definitively “Joyce Country.” He had no idea that my English was Bostonian, and I never made him any the wiser.
Nowadays, I find it hard to remember in which language my conversations occurred. Nor can I be sure how a piece of writing will emerge from my mind — in which language it will appear.
However, I do remember my first attempts at writing in Irish. It was for my own children. I was trying to capture a complex emotion: how the first child, a girl, would deal with the arrival of the second child, a boy. All this was in the words of the first child. It came out as a simple poem, translated line-by-line as follows:
An Strainseir (The Stranger) / “Fuair Mamai leanbh nua (Mam got a new baby) / san ospideal inna (in the hospital yesterday) / dearthairin nua domsa (a new brother for me) / - ni thuigim fos ce he.” (I still don’t understand who he is.)
I was brought up in the Gaeltacht. For that, I will be eternally grateful; I was given the gift of a second language, another way of looking at the world.
Today, the Gaeltacht is anywhere Irish is spoken freely. But I didn’t say fluently — Irish can be spoken by anyone from the Taoiseach of Ireland (Leo Varadkar), for whom Irish is a third language, to the diaspora all over the world. The Irish ambassador to the U.S. in Washington, Dan Mulhall, is a fluent speaker of Irish.
The “digital Gaeltacht” is alive and well on Twitter and in the social media space. And there are “pop-up Gaeltachts” all over America, from Idaho to New York, where people come together to speak Irish for a day or two. And Irish, as one of the minor languages of Europe, is making a comeback despite all the odds, with the aid of the U.S. Fulbright Commission, and despite British efforts to wipe out the language over hundreds of years.
My own world has come full circle. The Irish Republic celebrates 100 years since its first parliament in 1919, and I will be there when the American Conference of Irish Studies meets this year in Boston.
In the meantime, I am fortunate to be in Washington D.C. as a Fulbright Learning and Teaching Assistant, teaching Irish at the Catholic University of America — the only university in Washington that makes the Irish language available to its students as a credit course.
Although English is my first language, Gaeilge will always be “gar do mo cheann, gar do mo chroi, agus gar do mo bheal” — “near my head, near my heart and near my tongue.”
Art O Suilleabhain is a Fulbright Learning and Teaching Assistant, teaching Gaelic at the Catholic University of America.