A parent’s love of language: “you have to take your inspiration from where you find it…”

Back in the 80s, I remember an elderly aunt in Beechmount telling me about the day her mother told her to fetch my grandad from the Donegal shore of their small farm, and her remarking that ‘she spoke us, as she always did, in Irish, and we replied in English’.

It was only then it struck just how immersed my own father must have been in a language I sweated tears to get my head round as a kid and teenager in a very English speaking Holywood. It also struck me just how suddenly and genuinely without care it could be lost.

The reclamation of the language for some us has powerful emotional drivers many of which are not in the least large p political despite appearances to the contrary. If I am not Gerry Adams’ greatest fan, I’ve always admired his frequent use of that rusty ‘jailtacht’ blas.

Beagán ar bheagán, as the saying goes.

My mate Dom was born in Clare Limerick, but grew up in Welsh speaking Anglesey. And, now in England, he’s bringing up his boy if not in Welsh, then with the language as a foremost feature of his young life. He offers four very personal reasons why:

Firstly, even though I was an immigrant to Wales, I realised when I did finally travel to the former Holy Roman Empire and other mildly exotic parts of the world that I did actually identify myself with Wales and Welsh people, that I did have some knowledge of Welshness – even if as an outsider. I was maybe a bit like those colonial types who grew up in Kenya or Sri Lanka and were caught between the mother country and the locals – fish that swam comfortably in neither water. I am, as my bio suggests, living at least partly in the Wales of the mind.

Secondly, and perhaps this is related to the first answer, I feel that a language is a tremendously valuable thing to let die out. There are languages in places like Australia that are almost literally on their last pair of legs, as the final native speaker is old enough and unique enough to breath the last living words of that language any time soon. With the disappearing language goes a whole view of the world, a whole philosophy encoded in the very words themselves that is almost impossible to replace. I frequently feel the need for continuity and this is one of those times.

Thirdly, I like Welsh – the way it sounds in my half-stopped ears and feels in my clumsy mouth. There are some great words and ideas, and I love the fact that knowing there is more than one language early in life means you understand that much more quickly that a chair isn’t a “chair”, it’s something some people call a “chair”. If that makes sense.

The secret fourth reason (a secret reason only dimly perceptible to myself) is that it feels a clever thing to do and all the more so for my complete inability to perform the task. I like the sense of difference, of awareness of alternatives that it can lend. But like I say, that’s a dark path of thought I chose not to follow in public…

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  • I recall reading a story about a famous person, can’t remember his name, who said that he visited the west of Ireland, early 1800s I think. He reported that he came across a young lad and started asking him questions in Irish. The young lad replied to them all in English. So he asked the young lad if nobody thereabouts spoke Irish to which the young lad said “Shure isn’t that what I’m speaking?”

  • GEF

    Two women from the west of Ireland were sitting on a Dublin bus talking away loudly in Irish. Sitting behind them was an elderly Dublin woman. She leaned over between the two women and said ” If you want to talk away in that foreign language you should go back to your own country”.

  • Republic of Connaught


    “If you want to talk away in that foreign language you should go back to your own country”.

    Dublinese is a foreign language to most Hiberno-English speakers.

  • JR

    My Grandmother spoke Irish but it wasn’t passed on to my mother. When I was young I always wondered why, i resented the fact that I could have had it for free. It wasn’t until I had kids of my own that I realized how challenging it can be to pass on Irish, even with all the resources my Grandmother didn’t have. ie, a wife who is also fluent in Irish, TG4, Raidio na Gaeltachta, the hundreds of books available, the irish medium education etc.

    It is however one of the most if not the most rewarding thing I have done in my life.

  • harold

    I thought of the value and uniqueness of Irish today when hit by a sudden squally shower when out walking. It came from the north-west, as they usually do.

    “Tháinig sé aniar aduaidh orm” is the Irish for

    a) It came on me from the north-west

    b) I got an unpleasant surprise.

  • It came on me unawares according to Google Translate.

  • antamadan

    My parents hadn’t Irish but I got it in school and around, and yet in America as a student I spoke English-only to Irish-speaking Gaeltacht fellow-workers even though I understood them speaking amongst themselves. I regret this very much now. Later in England, seeing a sign in an Irish club for an Irish-speaking circle mid-week, I made my way there and got cold-feet at the last minute when the barman pointed me to a few people in the corner.

    Today, that seems crazy as I now talk to Irish-speakers everywhere without a problem. (A (Writing and spelling is a problem because I didn’t try in school) , and it’s something I really am happy about. I wonder is this a more widespread problem. Someone once said that many Irish people say they ‘can’t speak Irish’, yet if they had that much Chinese, if asked they would say ;I have a bit of Chinese’/
    PS Agree with Mick re Adams. His Irish isn’t bad. I can certainly understand him;(and I can also understand the very odd ulster unionist/ unionist background person that I hear on RnaG or read in Irish-language publications

  • JoeHas

    Great comment about the chair, that makes a lot of sense to me. Learning a language is about more than communicating with others, it teaches critical thinking. In his books Terry Pratchett attributes ‘second thoughts’ to some of his characters – an ability to think about what you are thinking. I’ve always liked that idea.

  • ayeYerMa

    Things must be getting desperate given the new government-funded TV ad being broadcast, which tells us that using a misspelt version of the English word “crack” is “speaking Irish”.

  • Mick Fealty

    You just stick with said appearances AYM…

  • socaire

    I think that the problem with all bigots is that they work back from the answer. In other words, they choose somebody/something to hate and despise and then work out why. I don’t know if it is superiority or fear but equality is a no-no. I know people who have no Irish and are probably too lazy to learn it and they ‘justify’ their own failing by disrespecting everything associated with Irish. The teacher was a monster, the school was a dump, Irish is too parochial. As they age this is expanded. Way of life, poverty, religion – you name it. Eventually this narrow mindedness can be applied to other cultures and colours and over time we end up with a well rounded narrow minded 100% bigot – from simple beginnings.

  • Son of Strongbow

    Calling someone, particularly someone born on the island of Ireland, who happens to have no interest in the Irish language a “bigot” is itself an expression of bigotry.

  • socaire

    You miss my point SoS. I’m saying that from little acorns of intolerance big oak trees of bigotry grow. And, if you are a racist b*st*rd (which of course you’re not) and I call you a r*cist b*st*rd, that doesn’t make ME a rac*st b*st*rd. A lot of people born in Ireland have no interest in Irish. Some don’t want to learn. Some don’t see the need to learn. We all have reasons because if we haven’t, then we are unreasonable. N’est-ce-pas?

  • Greenflag

    I once acted as an interpreter for two so called English speakers . I was about 17 at the time and was working on a summer job in London for the long school holidays .

    The Scotsman was Glaswegian a few years older than I and it took me about a week to decipher his ‘brogue ‘ .The Cockney was in his 40’s and used a lot of rhyming slang etc . These two from what I remember never spoke to each other directly .Each would always ask me what’s the other saying ?

    Nowadays of course I’d charge them for the service . Actually the first time I heard Irish being spoken by native speakers was in London when I happened across two Connamara men speking the language like I never heard it in school . It was about 4 years after that that I heard Irish spoken in Connamara in small townland near Casla (Costello) beyond Spiddal .

    Learning more than one language is now recommended as an excellent strategy with proven results against the onset of aging /dementia / reduced cognition etc .

    But whatever language you choose to learn keep away from Hungarian It’s related to Martian I’m reliably informed 😉

  • Son of Strongbow

    No I don’t miss your point at all. Looking back at the thread it’s pretty obvious why you decided to introduce your view of what makes a bigot at the time you did.

    In any case your thesis is deeply flawed. Bigots and haters don’t choose their targets at random. They don’t wake up one morning and say to themselves ‘from today I hate blue-eyed people’.

    They don’t go from zero to bigot. There has to be some ‘history’ to their mindset.

    Perhaps they ascribe some attitude or attribute to blue-eyed people that they dislike, or perhaps they have what they perceive as a negative experience with an individual blue-eyed person and go on to believe all blue-eyed people are the same.

    Of course none of the above needs to have any basis in reality.

    In many cases the ‘hate’ is instilled by third parties, but even then I would contend the ‘reasons’ come first as foundations on which to build the bigotry edifice.

  • Son of Strongbow


    I should declare an interest here. I have very blue eyes.

  • socaire

    I hate people with blue eyes.

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    “It is however one of the most if not the most rewarding thing I have done in my life.”

    Bravo, hats off for the effort.

    It’s quite sad to watch a language die a slow death e.g. my ex fiancé is from the Outer Hebrides (one of they Gaelic Free P’s that provokes raised eyebrows and scoffs of disbelief).

    She and her sisters were completely immersed in the language, even the pet dog only responded to commands in Gaelic.

    Yet somehow through the years they became more and more detached from it and now they (much to their regret) have only a faint grasp of the tongue and none of their kids have any grasp whatsoever.

    A shame.

    So well played on the effort front.

  • Mick Fealty

    ,Good God, can people just be nice to each other for once?

  • socaire

    This is ‘nice’, Mick

  • Greenflag

    ‘even the pet dog only responded to commands in Gaelic’

    Some years ago I worked with a chap from the Hebrides whose mother could speak no English just the Scots Gaelic .He said she could converse and be understood by a Donegal Gaeltacht speaker 90% plus but had more difficulty with Connamara Irish and even more with the Cork/Kerry dialects .

    At the time I was in Connamara the young lads referred to a local donkey by the name of ‘Fido’ Welby . Welby was the family name of the donkey’s owners and they were all Irish speaking . Welby is a name that originally came from Lincolnshire in England so how that branch ended up in Connamara speaking Irish is anybody’s guess . Great people iirc and I recall a mouth watering broiled sea trout at one evening’s dinner which I’ve never forgotten or tasted the like .

  • JR

    Am Ghobsmact,

    Yea, the state of gaeilic in the Hebrides is sad. I was over there last summer on Lewis for a few weeks learning Gaeilic, None of the people we encountered under 35 spoke any Gaeilic and almost everyone over 50 spoke Gaeilic. The lady we stayed with told me she spoke no english until she was 7 yet none of her 3 kids or grand kids had a word of Gaeilic. I was told that there was only one family in the locality whos children were being raised with gaeilic.

    A lady we were chatting to told us that when she was in school in the 60’s they were not allowed to speak gaeilic and constantly being told to learn French instead, that it would be much more useful, I had to laugh when the lady said in her broad Scottish accent “Looking back it was daft,” before adding wistfully “I’ve never even been to France”

  • Politico68

    Great post Mick, this should make us all smile