Growing up on the outskirts of a tiny Irish village – which itself was outside of a town and far away from any city or urban centre – meant I spent my early years in a homogenous community, rarely if ever confronted by questions of ethnic, religious or national identity. Now that I’ve left, I walk through a metaphorical minefield, attempting to uncover what it means to come from where I have, questions of home set out before me like tripwires: “Where are you from?” Easy. Got it! Ireland. “So, do you speak Irish, then?” I guess. My balance begins to falter. Voice very much wavering with hesitant panic, waiting for what is to come. “Say something! It’s such a nice language!!!” C-c-conas … atá t-tú? My throat closes up and my brain goes blank. Before long, cultural pride becomes private shame and my degree in Arabic and French seems like treachery, a cardinal sin committed against a tongue whose influence seems to fade daily, like a questioning of intention, of loyalty, of personhood.
I’m not great at Irish but it’s not that deep, right? Well, centuries of foreign occupation, settlement, colonisation, imperialism and outright discrimination on all fronts – linguistic, religious, ethnic; I could go on – have constructed a system wherein a language means more than just its words. Its grammar, its syntax, its dialects become symbols of survival, of the complexity of Irish identity, of the independence of a nation. I wish it wasn’t so; that a language could be spoken innocently by small children in playgrounds as they taunt each other during a harmless game of tag, without native speakers being labelled by one ex-politician and well-known radio presenter as “cultural terrorists”. There is something to be said for the impact of physical movement on the Irish (and other) language(s). For instance, Gaeilgeoir communities in the south of Ireland uniquely emphasise the last syllable of words, a result of French invasion in the 12th century and the subsequent mixing of stress patterns. Elsewhere, the American expression “You dig” developed because Irish immigrants, monoglots of Gaeilge, frequently used the expression “An dtuigeann tú” (pronounced: On Digg-An Too), meaning “Do you understand?” when they interacted within their new communities.
On the question of Irish language and the issue of my personal identification, I try my best to keep up with Irish language every day, and to interact with the amazing online community promoting the beauty that is Gaeilge to timelines, newsfeeds, and dashboards across the world. By involving myself in debate, discussion, and conversations regarding the Irish language, I feel more and more affinity with the identity of an ‘Irish speaker’, or gaeilgeoir, but usually prefer, nua-chainteoir, meaning “new speaker”, or someone who learned their Irish as a ‘foreign’ language. Yet, there is something missing. The daily use of language in a casual setting. The way I long to call up my parents and start off with “Haigh! Cén chaoi a bhfuil sibh?” and not any English equivalent. I’m finding that as days pass, my identity is not just that of a budding Irish speaker but of someone intent on reversing the dominance of the English language, the final form of British imperialism. With their movement around the world, invading 171 of 193 current member states of the United Nations, the British Empire pushed English on the world like a disease. It was them, not us, who were cultural terrorists, imposing foreign languages onto peoples native tongues, to interrupt rebellion, ease their rule over locals, and in keeping with the French, all for a certain “mission civilisatrice”.
I’m not alone in feeling this, far from it. The movement for improving the status of the Irish language in Ireland and across the globe is as a diverse as it is determined, with campaigns like pop-up Gaeltacht sessions, drama, art, music, etc. One such campaign is REIC, a multilingual spoken word initiative organised by Ciara Ní É (@MiseCiara), who graciously offered her time to tell me more about the project. While the events help to support efforts to get people speaking Gaeilge, she told me, they also challenge people’s perceptions of what the language is and what it can be used for, tackling ideas that see Gaeilge as traditional or archaic. For me, one of the most important things that Ciara mentions is the post-colonial mindset of our very own Irish government, who fails to see its own language as worthy of respect and legitimacy.
Everything begins and ends with language. One cannot argue that point without employing words, speech, signs, codes, patterns, conjugations and so on. These ramblings are not meant to be an end point for linguistic identity discussions, but rather part of a larger process of questioning and redefining ideas, of coming to terms with what our words mean beyond meaning. Engaging with the first official language of my country, Éire, is not just a campaign on my part to be able to impress people at parties (but I don’t know if it would, either way) but it is a project that seeks to respect where I have come from, to support Gaeilge as a modern tongue and to finally figure out mo fhéinaitheantas.
*Illustration by Hazel Laing*