The Irish language: hope through the words of a poet

by Ger Killeen

This is an excerpt of a talk given by Killeen at the annual Irish Language Day at Marylhurst University, May 18, 2013.

One of the most thumbed-through of the books I own in the Irish language is a dictionary: An Irish-English Dictionary compiled and edited by The Rev. Patrick S. Dinneen in 1904. I have other Irish-English dictionaries which are more useful to me than Dinneen’s, dictionaries that are printed in standard Roman type, unlike Dinneen’s which retains the half-uncial lettering and unreformed spelling in which Irish was written for centuries; dictionaries which have kept up with the times and can tell me the Irish words for “injection mould” and “file transfer protocol”; dictionaries laden with all the serviceable, civil service-concocted words necessary for communicating the intricacies of the bureaucratic machinery running the modern Irish state. These are all valuable dictionaries in their own right, and I depend on them almost daily. But I don’t love them the way I do Dinneen’s; I don’t take as much pleasure in them; and they are not nearly as heartbreaking.

I open Dinneen at random and my eyes are drawn to the word cairríneach which I’m told is the word used in West Kerry for “a frail scythe.” I flip on and come across luch meaning “shreds of extraneous matter in tallow that is being melted down.” And further along there’s tothbhuarach “rushes pounded and prepared for the making of a spancel.”

Personally, I’ve never heard anyone in the present-day Gaeltacht, the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland which lie mostly along the northwest, west and southwest coasts, use any of these words in ordinary, everyday conversation. They are among many hundreds — perhaps thousands — of words which, though they have a dictionary existence, are passing or have passed from the living speech of native Irish speakers. These particular words come from a world that was pre-industrial, isolated, and conservative in custom and religion. They lived on the tongues of people who farmed smallholdings of fairly poor land, of cattle-raisers and sheep-herders, of fishermen and carpenters, of thatchers and farriers.  And they join whole classes of words that have gone silent in the speech of the Gaeltacht — the names of plants, of weather phenomena, of finely observed character traits. They join, too, the traditional songs, poems and stories that are forgotten or half-forgotten by living people and have gone to their rest in the archives of the heroic collectors of folklore and language data.

“To imagine a language,” says Wittgenstein, “is to imagine a form of life.” And the form of life conjured up from a survey of Dinneen is so remote from the life of the present-day Gaeltacht, never mind the rest of Ireland, that the language itself seems almost as alien as Sanskrit. Long gone from the daily life of the Gaeltacht are the net weavers, the tailors, the cobblers and the blade sharpeners along with their rich hoards of specialized craft terminology.

At this point now the sociologically-minded person might produce a sheaf of woeful statistics about the status of Irish as a spoken language and, depending on her relationship to an Ghaeilge, might prophesy its imminent disappearance with the kind of equanimity historical linguistics reserves for Tocharian or Gaulish, or, might fall romantically into the idiom of pure lament: “Mo mhíle trua, mo bhuairt, mo bhrón…” “Och, ochón!”  (My thousand pities, my grief, my sorrow…Alas, alas!)

I, however, am going to call to my side a different spirit, one canny enough to understand how endangered the Irish language is, and yet one uncannily bold enough to try to turn the wake into a wedding. I’m going to take a look at a few poems of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, one of the foremost contemporary Irish language poets, and see what they might mean for us as learners and speakers of Irish, see if there’s inspiration and strength we can draw from them.

In her New York Times article, Ní Dhomhnaill talks about the current language situation in Ireland:

At some level, it doesn’t seem too bad. People are warm and not hungry. They are expressing themselves without difficulty in English. They seem happy. I close my notebook with a snap and set off in the grip of that sudden pang of despair that is always lurking in the ever-widening rents of the linguistic fabric of minority languages. Perhaps my mother is right. Writing in Irish is mad. English is a wonderful language and it also has the added advantage of being very useful for putting bread on the table. Change is inevitable, and maybe it is part of the natural order of things that some languages should die while others prevail. And yet, and yet…

And yet, and yet, indeed. On some level, I sometimes think we allow a certain unconscious belief in absolute historical determinism to color our views of future possibilities. The Irish language in a globalized economic system and a global iPod culture, surely it’s all downhill from here?

And yet, and yet… Frank O’Connor claimed that Gaelic culture could be characterized by “the backward look,” an Irish tendency to retrospective anticipation, to looking at the past (not the present) as indicator of the future. Of course it depends on where exactly you look. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill sometimes looks back into the amazing Irish poetic tradition for tropes and hopes of the flowering of the vastly improbable. She has often mentioned, for example, as one of her poetic forebears Eibhlín Dhubh Ní Chonaill, the 18th-century poet who composed one of the greatest love poems and elegies in Irish ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire,’ (The Lament for Art O Leary).

Composed at a time when Irish was on the verge of being abandoned by large sections of the population, this poem is a miracle of lyrical intensity, a fully realized sumsumption of the entire Gaelic tradition of the caoineadh, the lament and a miracle of survival, living on well into the 19th century in the oral tradition of West Kerry, indeed all of Munster:

Mo chara thú is mo thaithneamh!

            Nuair ghabhais amach an geata

            D’fhillis ar ais go tapaidh,

            Do phógaís do dhís leanbh,

            Do phógaís mise ar bharra baise.

            Duraís, ‘A Eibhlín, éirigh i d’ sheasamh

            Agus cuir do ghnó chun taisce

            Go luaimneach is go tapaidh.

            Táimse ag fágáil an bhaile,

            Is ní móide go deo go gcasfainn.’

My friend and my delight, when you went out the gate you came back quickly and kissed your two infants. You kissed me on the tips of my fingers and said ‘Eibhlín, stand up and put your work aside fast and soon, for I am leaving home and I might never be returning.

Listen to the echos of this (and much more) at the end of a poem called Dún ‘Stronghold’ by Ní Dhomhnaill:

Ach níl in aon ní ach seal

            i gcionn leathuaire

            pogfaidh tú mé i mbarra éadain

            is casfaidh tú orm do dhrom

            is fágfar mé ar mo thaobh féin

            don leaba dhúbailte

            ag cuimhneamh faoi scáth do ghuailne

            ná tiocfaidh orm bás riamh roimh am.

Everything lasts but a moment. In half an hour you’ll kiss the top of my forehead and you’ll turn your back to me, and I’ll be left on my own side of the double bed, remembering in the shade of your shoulders that death will never come to me before my time.

With a poem like this we can be certain that death will never come to the Irish language itself before its time, and there’s an energy and musicality in Ní Dhomhnaill’s poem that while full of literary nuance is also full of the vigor of the spoken, everyday language. Anyone who has spent a night in a pub in Ballyferriter or Spiddal knows that spoken Irish has a vital, earthy, fluent existence that really can’t be captured in the “native speaker” statistics such as those piled up in Reg Hindley’s book The Death of the Irish Language.  The numbers game isn’t the whole story.

Ní Dhomhnaill wonderfully and humorously and bitingly catches something of the continued vitality of the spoken language and its importance for literature in a poem called ‘Claoninsint,’  literally, ‘Indirect Speech’:

Tá’s againn, a dúradar,

cár chaithis an samhradh, a dúradar,

            thíos i mBun an Tábhairne, a dúradar,

            cad a dheinis gach lá, a dúradar,

            chuais ar an dtráigh, a dúradar,

            níor chuais ag snámh, a dúradar.

            Canathaobh nár chuais ag snámh?

            Mar bhí sé rófhuar, a dúradar,

            rófhuar do do chnámha, a dúradar,

            do do chnámha ‘tá imithe gan mhaith, a dúradar,

            bodhar age sámhnas nó age teaspach gan dúchas

            gur deachair dhuit é a iompar, a dúradar.

We know, they said, where you spent the summer, they said, down in Crosshaven, they said, what you did every day, they said, you went to the beach, they said, you didn’t go swimming, they said. Why didn’t you go swimming? Because it was too cold they said, too cold for your bones, they said, for your bones that are turned to no good, they said,  not able to cope with hardship, with your unnatural high spirits, it was hard for you to handle, they said.

Here and elsewhere in the work of Ní Dhomhnaill, and indeed in the work of many other Irish writers who choose to be mad enough to continue writing in Irish, the corpse is certainly sitting up and talking back, even singing back. From the margins, from the scarcely acknowledged gaps and discontinuities in the mainstream anglophone culture in Ireland, is coming a whole range of discourses that in refusing to shut up or be shut up opens up a profound questioning of cultural values and to some extent is producing, in literature, at least, a kind of hybrid vigor as English language Irish writers try to take in the insights of such a critique. Issues not only of language, but of gender, of colonization, of genre, of the social position of the writer—all these are informed and deepened by the practice of poets like Ní Dhomhnaill.

As I reach the end of this talk, I realize that whatever questions I’ve raised here, I haven’t so much given answers to them as much as align myself with a series of hopes I find compellingly interlinked in the poetry of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Among them would be the hope that out of the maelstrom of postmodernity the vivifying differences of languages, cultures, genders and spiritualities can retain their unique virtues without descending into chauvinsim and exclusivity. Is it too much to hope for a reasonably bilingual Ireland a generation from now?

Want to experience the Irish language yourself? Robert Burke and Ger Killeen will co-teach two weekend immersion courses in fall 2013. Dates and times to be posted in the course schedule this summer.

Ger Killeen is a writer and instructor in the Department of Culture & Media at Marylhurst University. His interests include modern poetry, Celtic literature, the poetry of mysticism and critical theory.

Photo: RTÉ Presspack