This post is republished from my professional blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in October 2012.
I have warm memories of sitting in a pub in Malin, on the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal. The population of this village is only 122, and I’m pretty sure most of them were there that late afternoon. It was raining outside—blustering, really—but we were all snug inside. The Irishman had his tea and was watching the game; I had my feet propped up, alternately sipping tea and whiskey. (Highly recommended.)
I love sitting in a busy place and listening to (OK: eavesdropping on) the conversations around me, little snatches of this and that, meaningless without context but still entertaining. The accents on Inishowen are very thick and Scottish-sounding (to an American’s ear) when folks are speaking English, but as I sat there listening, I realized I was hearing Gaelic (that is, Irish) spoken in natural conversation for the first time. I couldn’t understand a word.
Welcome to the Gaeltacht.
The term Gaeltacht refers to the Irish (Gaelic)-speaking regions of Ireland. Here the road signs are exclusively in Irish, and 75 percent of the people who live here speak it as their first language. There are three principal Gaeltacht regions in the Republic: Kerry, Galway, and Donegal (which is the largest). Historically these were the more rural and remote areas as well.
Nowhere was this more in evidence than in County Kerry, 340 miles to the south and west of Inishiowen. Lying 5 kilometers off the tip of the Dingle Peninsula, the largest of the Blasket Islands (there are six) was inhabited continuously for at least three hundred years, although no one lives there now. It was a hard life—no electricity, no running water, a three-mile crossing to the mainland, weather permitting, followed by a five-mile walk by road for a priest, or a twelve-mile walk to reach a doctor—but in this isolated location, the Blasket islanders retained their own culture and tradition—at the very heart of which lay their continuing use of the Irish language.
“Discovered” in the early 1900s by scholars who were delighted to find perhaps the only outpost of Irish speakers who could not speak English and who had (not coincidentally) a rich storytelling tradition, the islanders were encouraged to write their life stories in their native tongue. This yielded a priceless literary legacy, dozens of books that are still in print today. Three of the most notable are are Machnamh Seanamhná (An Old Woman’s Reflections, by Peig Sayers, 1939), Fiche Bliain Ag Fás (Twenty Years A-Growing, by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, 1933), and An tOileánach (The Islandman, by Tomás Ó Criomhthain, 1929).
Irish enjoys constitutional status as the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland. This manifests itself in challenging signage and other ways, too, like the all-Gaelic-all-the-time television channel. The e-mail that comes to me from the Irishman’s place of business is always followed by this:
This email and any files transmitted with it are confidential and intended solely for the use of the individual or entity to whom they are addressed. Tá an t-eolas sa ríomhphost seo agus in aon chomhad a ghabhann leis rúnda agus ceaptha le haghaidh úsáid an té nó an aonáin ar seoladh chuige iad agus na húsáide sin amháin.
When I look at that second sentence, I don’t even know where to start. Gaelic is not easy, not self-evident: the word taoiseach—which means “chieftain” or “leader” in Irish—you’ll recall, is pronounced TEE-shock. You have probably pronounced an Irish name or two, like Seán (John), Liam (William). You’ve heard of Sinéad O’Connor, whose given name is pronounced shin-ADE. But this is not much help when you’re presented with Is tuairimí nó dearcthaí an údair amháin aon tuairimí nó dearcthaí ann (Any views or opinions presented are solely those of the author).
It does help when one’s traveling companion enjoys the role of Chief Instructor and Sometime Tour Guide. I constantly pester the Irishman with requests for the pronunciation of Gaelic names and terms. There are a myriad of them in any museum in Dublin—say, the National Gallery. After he’d had enough one day, he resorted to an answer any parent will recognize: the next time I asked, “How do you pronounce …?” he replied, “What do you think?” We were standing in front of The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife. (Here’s the painting; it’s a well-known event in Ireland’s history, wherein one of Ireland’s Norman conquerors married a local girl related to the high kings of Ireland, thus solidifying the Norman [French] hold on the country.) I’m proud to report that I figured it out—pronounce this EE-fah. If you say it out loud, you’ll hear the English version of this name: Eva.