The Irish Language

I’ve an essay on RTÉ Arena this week and it’s about the Irish language.
There’s a fantastic poem by Biddy Jenkinson after the essay – Cumann na bPíobairí.
Biddy is a poet, short story writer and dramatist who writes in the Irish language.

The text for the essay is below but if you want to hear the poem too, have an old listen here…!rii=b9_20956703_1526_22-03-2016_



irish language

I haven’t considered reading a poem in a second language since secondary school. But I happened upon an article in the newspaper archives by the late Nuala O’Faolain, written after she attended an Irish language event in Westport. Admitting to a limited grasp of gaeilge, she told how this didn’t detract from her enjoyment of the poetry, paying particular tribute to the poet who writes under the name Biddy Jenkinson.  Curious at how it would read, I found a book of Biddy’s work in the library and despite a meagre understanding of Irish, immediately, I could appreciate the harmony between words, the form of the poem and in my own clumsy way I could get a taste for the rhythm.

Over the years, I’ve heard Irish described as harsh or ugly. It’s been slammed as a dead language. People offer reason upon reason for not learning it, complaints which are anything but new. In 1961, the president of Cumann na Sagart stressed that its revival would be more successful if people stopped shadow boxing around the reasons why it should be revived. He went on to say that the ‘majority’ wished to have Irish as a language spoken with ease and confidence rather than grammatical formulae and specimen essays. This is one point I continually hear these days, some 50 odd years later.

When I remember Irish in school, I think of essays written in the past tense, usually centred around a dog and a bike and always ending with me running ‘ar nós na gaeoithe’.
I see fat books of verbs and an English to Irish dictionary for every word to be translated into a sentence of gibberish. But language doesn’t show itself off textbooks or manuals. It blossoms in poetry and prose. It comes alive when spoken and sang. You don’t memorize a language. You live it.

My daughters attend a local gaelscoil where allowance is made for limitations and mistakes when speaking Irish. It hasn’t taken long for them both to surpass my knowledge.  I see it in the cheeky sideway glances when I try to help with their homework and the correction of mispronounced focals. I might not have succeeded in learning the native tongue just yet. But I’m more aware of it now, more willing to give it a chance.

When I hear statements of how the print book is dead or that radio passed away when the television was born, I think of how Mark Twain quipped that ‘reports’ of his death have been ‘greatly exaggerated’.  If the Irish language had a voice I’m sure it would be uttering the same thing. Or to quote Nuala O Faolain on listening to the words of Biddy Jenkinson,

“In what sense is Irish, as they say- dead, if new life like this poetry can be born of it.”