Speaking Irish


The most common question that pops up in my website correspondence (and yes, apologies, I know the contact form is down at the moment), concerns my use of Irish (language) in the books I write. A few people have quizzed me specifically on (a) why I do it and (b) is it really necessary.

I suppose, for me, these aren’t really questions I’ve ever particularly asked myself and it’s actually a bit hard to answer. The truth is you always have to be a bit politic when discussing the Irish language in Ireland because there’s some extreme views on the topic. A small (but vocal) proportion of Irish people were forced to learn Irish in school, failed at it miserably and have resented it ever since. That grudge is worsened by what they see as preferential treatment for people in the Gaeltacht (those areas where Irish is still the first language) who receive grants/subsidies to support the preservation of the language. As a result, it’s often impossible to have a rational conversation with them on the topic.

On the other extreme, you also have a number of fanatical gaelgóir who feel that, as the native language, EVERYONE should be speaking Irish at ALL times. Again, it’s also hard to talk with these people.

Obviously, the sane view lies somewhere in the middle and, to be fair, that’s where most Irish people stand. There’s a great fondness for An Gaeilge amongst most Irish people. That’s certainly been my experience. The ones who hate it are usually to be found complaining bitterly on the internet to anyone who’ll ‘listen’ (or not).

All the same, having passed through the Irish educational system (and survived) and having seen some of the government grant/subsidies used to preserve the language, I really have to shake my head at the overall inefficiency of many of the services provided. Nothing new there! If you depend on a government department to resolve an issue of importance, you’re really wasting your time.

In any case, that’s neither here nor there. For me, using Irish is really just a reflection of who I am and what I believe in. I’m not really what I consider a gaelgóir (a native speaker). I wasn’t brought up speaking Irish, I don’t come from a Gaeltacht and, to be honest, the fact that I’ve been living overseas and restricted to speaking predominantly with my kids, means my vocab has suffered and diminished over the years (fortunately the presence of our Grúpa Cómhrá here in Wellington has helped remedy this situation ).

Despite the fact that I’m based in New Zealand, we speak Irish at home (me and my kids, that is, although my Maori partner also understands everything we say). Occasionally, we forget that we’re a minority, though. On Christmas Day we had a visitor at the table and although we usually revert to English when this happens, the look on his face when we started yacking ‘as Gaeilge’ was pretty funny. Having conversed in English as part of a large group for over twenty minutes, he was completely thrown when a large proportion of us suddenly – and, for him, inexplicably – started yabbering in some incomprehensible language. When we finally stopped laughing at his reaction, he confessed that he’d thought he’d suddenly gone mad. He hadn’t even known the Irish had their own language.


Irish Folklore: Water Values


Two words that most Irish people know – no matter how limited their Gaelic vocabulary – are ‘uisce beatha’: the Irish for ‘whiskey’. Uisce beatha – as everyone loves to explain ad nauseum – literally means ‘water of life’. Most Irish people are pretty proud about that description. It’s a cool intellectual construct after all, based around a relatively cool product (unless, of course, you’ve overindulged). What’s not to like?

Respect for water as an important necessity of life is a common theme in most early cultures. If you delve a little deeper into the reasoning behind that, it’s quite easy to see why. On the most basic individual level, water is required to sustain life (i.e. if you don’t replenish your body fluids, you die. If you don’t wash, no one will want to have sex with you).

At the most basic early social level (tribe/community) water was also a fundamental essential for the cleaning and preparation of large volumes of food, transport, farming, etc. All early settlements of any size were invariably based near a supply of water for this reason.

Because water was so important in a physical sense, our ancestors also acknowledged this importance in their spiritual practices. Those areas where water emerged from the earth (springs, wells, lakes, etc.) were considered sacred spaces in that they were believed to serve as a conduit for bringing imbas (esoteric knowledge) into the physical world. During the early medieval period in Ireland, many rivers were believed have an association with a specific female river deity (Bóinn for the Boyne, Sionnann for the Shannon etc.) although these were probably all manifestations of the original Land Goddess (generically referred to as Mother Earth in modern parlance). These sites were venerated and votive offerings were often made there. This is why so many of our archaeological treasures have been recovered from ‘watery’ (or ‘previously watery’ places).

If you move across time to our more complex contemporary society, you can see that the value system for water had changed dramatically from what it was 1000 years or even 100 years ago. Most western societies, take it for granted that homes will have a reliable supply of water through home plumbing. If there’s a shortage of supply, it’s simply pumped in from elsewhere.

Over time, this easy availability has resulted in water being devalued from sacred resource to simple commodity (such as electricity, communications inputs etc.) delivered through a tap. Although we retain many aspects of our ancestors reverence for water through our spiritual rituals (baptisms, holy water at church fonts etc.), this is quite a significant change in mindset.

The biggest disjunction of all, however, occurs at the higher, more powerful levels of society (government /commercial institution) where water’s only perceived to have value when it has some kind of input to – or impact on – power (political or financial). To some degree, this is probably why such questionable decisions that impact on local water supply are being made. Over the last few decades we’ve seen increasing disregard for local water supply as a result of uncontrolled industrial/agricultural pollution and fracking driven by commercial interests and facilitated by governments.

Needless to say, this is a  simplistic description of how changing value systems and structures can have a detrimental effect on a society. Nevertheless, when considering aspects of modern society it’s often useful to take a step back and consider what our ancestors might have thought. With respect to water, although there’s no doubt they’d be impressed by the technological advances made over the last millennium, you can’t help but imagine their alarm at a society that treats what they would have considered a fundamental necessity of life, with such disdain.