Molly Keane writes a love letter to her native language, and talks about how Irish isn’t ‘dead’…
To grow up in Donegal is to grow up with the familiarity of An Ghaeltacht signs when you enter the rural pockets wherein An Ghaeilge is the predominantly spoken language. I grew up speaking no Irish at home. My parents never had any. They decided to send both of my brothers and I to a Gaelscoil, an Irish speaking primary school, not just because they wanted us to learn the language, but more because it was the only non-Catholic school in the area. I remember feeling very lost for the first few weeks of Junior Infants because I was propelled into a situation where I was being spoken to and I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said. It’s hard to fathom how a model like that works with learning a language, but when your survival instinct kicks in, your brain doesn’t give you the option to sink instead of swim.
One in four people in the last census claimed that they could, and do, speak Irish, but a study carried out in 2007 indicated that Irish would be dead as a community language in the Gaeltacht by 2027. A lot of Irish speakers in the country don’t seem to bother with these statistics, though. ‘Irish is dying’ is a commonly used phrase, but speak to anybody who is an Irish speaker and they’ll tell you that it’s booming and more alive than ever. On Árainn Mór Island off the Donegal coast, I sat down with esteemed seanńos singer Jimmy Canavan, a Connemara native. He doesn’t think that Irish will ever be dead, because it’s a part of your soul as a person of this country to speak Irish. He believes that even if you don’t speak a word of it, you feel and understand the importance and significance of it. ‘Soul’ is something that is referred to frequently amongst Irish speakers. It’s the feeling that when you speak it, hear it, or are immersed in it, something feels right. It is something that is ‘unique, complex and primal’, in the words of Manchán Magan.
Irish is the most popular language for learners in Ireland on the Duolingo app, and, astoundingly, the sixteenth most popular language for learners on the app worldwide. The combination of language apps and the rise in emigration of younger adults in this country has considerably awakened an interest in learning the language, both here and abroad. Apps like Duolingo are making it fun and enjoyable to learn Irish, which is the polar opposite of how most would describe their memories of learning it in the school setting. With emigration often comes a longing to deepen the personal relationship you have with your identity and with that, your Irishness, and connecting with your country’s native language is a powerful way to do so. Fascinatingly, the number of people learning Irish now far outnumbers native speakers living in the Gaeltacht.
The sense of community that comes with speaking Irish is something that makes it reason enough to cherish, hold on to and keep at the forefront of your everyday life. When you speak the language, you are welcomed with open arms into communities and villages in the most rural corners of this small island. You can visit Inis Meáin and watch as the locals play the ancient game of Cead every St Patrick’s Day, which feels as though you are temporarily transported back in time. You can overhear two complete strangers speaking Irish to each other in a bar or a shop and instantly connect because you are all equally as thrilled and surprised to hear others speaking the language in an everyday setting. You can spend some time in Gaoth Dobhair and have an older gentleman sing you a song or perform a recitation that was passed down through generations of his family. You can make friends with people you otherwise never would cross paths with at Pop-up Gaeltachts. You can feel it as a teenager at the Gaeltacht, an Irish rite of passage, when the Céilí hall is filled with a chorus of laughter.
We also have a young generation interested in learning the language because we have artists such as Kneecap and writers like Manchán Magan making it ‘cool’ again. Kneecap are pioneers of Irish-language rap, a genre previously very much untapped. To see young crowds in their thousands singing a chorus of rap As Gaeilge is an incredible thing. In Northern Ireland, Irish has only very recently been given protected status, and although Kneecap’s need to use the language is of course political, it’s mostly instinctual. They want to save the language that they are so proud of, and spark excitement in doing so with their anti-establishment nature and message. Manchán Magan sparked a profound interest in Irish people and indeed on a broader scale with the release of his book ‘Thirty-two Words for Field’, highlighting the nuances, complexity and wonder of the language in all of its beauty. The ancient words for fields and feelings in Manchán’s books are on one hand reminiscent of a vanishing past, but on the other hand are immortalised relics of ancient Ireland. Incredibly, they allow us an insight into our ancestors’ alternate ways of being, thinking and feeling.
The Irish language is the oldest vernacular language in Europe. It’s not just a language however; it’s an art form and a poetic device in and of itself. It’s a way of being, a means of expression, and a sense of identity and self. It’s a way to honour the lives of our ancestors who fought for centuries to keep it alive. It’s a feeling of home on the other side of the world, the same feeling as a warm cup of tea.
It’s that ‘meitheal’ – a community spirit, a coming together of people for the greater good.