As I’ve gotten older, one of the greatest envies I have developed is the ability to speak fluent Irish. I grew up, like most people, regularly cursing the drag of learning a language that I perceived to be merely a historical artefact. Younger me could only be thankful for the fact that I wasn’t made to attend a Gaelscoil, as I viewed such institutions as bizarre and merely a hindrance to gaining a well-rounded education through the only language I thought mattered – English.
I can only blame this narrow view on youthful naivety, and the fact that it was objectively “cool” as a school-goer to dislike and condemn most academic subjects. I am glad to have grown out of this restrictive mindset and to have developed a deeper knowledge not just of the Irish language itself, but of the wonderful contribution it grants to contemporary Irish society and to my own individual experiences.
But, try as I might, I couldn’t escape the colourful threads that bind to create such a vibrant Irish-speaking community. Perhaps it was undertaking the rite of passage of being shipped off to the far-flung lands of the Gaeltacht for two weeks in my young teens where I had an unexpected amount of fun. Returning to school, my interest in the language grew marginally upon the assignment of an Irish teacher for my leaving certificate who was not only young and good-looking but had a sense of humour that would make anyone want to tackle the tuiseal ginideach. In college, the two best friends I acquired are both beautifully spoken Gaeilgeoirí.
And so, I yearned to be a part of the language. I managed to leave secondary school with a relatively good level of Irish (in leaving certificate terms, at least), and yet, despite my love for the language and ability to hold a conversation, I am saddened to admit that I rarely indulge in the wonders of the tongue.
Our collective psyche possesses some innate fear of that which we hold full native ownership over
It is an affliction that I know I am not alone in – a fear of wandering into the realm of a language that, in some ways, doesn’t feel entirely my own. My lack of grammatical fluency and my need to take my words that bit slower continuously deters me from taking the many opportunities to bring Gaeilge into my everyday life.
It is a well-known discourse in this country that many of us hold our tongues out of fear of making a mistake and being ostracised for our lesser standards. It seems as if our collective psyche possesses some innate fear of that which we hold full native ownership over. I could delve into why I think this phenomenon is grounded in 800 years of colonisation, during which time we had reason to genuinely fear that which was our own, but I’ll leave that for another day.
The fear of chastisement for speaking a sub-par level of Irish or missing a séimhiú here or there is, I believe, somewhat justified but, more often, imagined. Where there is any community, there is almost always a minority who like to gatekeep those who haven’t reached the highest level of perfection, and the Irish community is no different.
If you spend long enough on Irish-speaking Twitter, you will eventually come across one or two people who feel the need to correct the most minor of mistakes. But they are the far-reaching exception. In fact, I have known that all along. In my recent endeavours to enjoy Irish on a more private level (free from my irrational fears), I have interacted with many social media pages and podcasts as Gaeilge, and the same message consistently prevails – everyone is welcome, no matter the level.
What does it matter if I get mixed up between uachtar reoite (ice cream) and uachtarán (president) and end up inadvertently saying that I know we’ll sell lots of presidents at work today because of the good weather
And yet, despite fervently encouraging myself and others that “is fearr Gaeilge bhriste ná Béarla cliste” (broken Irish is better than clever English), almost every time I go to thank my bus driver with a “go raibh míle” or start a conversation with my Irish-speaking friends as Gaeilge, something tugs me back into the English lexicon. I have identified this frustrating occurrence as a standard case of imposter syndrome, that I am merely wearing the mask of a language I can’t “properly speak”. And so, the self-perpetuating cycle repeats time and time again.
Of course, this common adversity does no favours for the endurance of the language. So, I am making a personal point of no longer giving in to this flawed notion. I will continue to send Snapchat voice messages to my friends as Gaeilge, even if I do get mixed up between uachtar reoite (ice cream) and uachtarán (president) and end up inadvertently saying that I know we’ll sell lots of presidents at work today because of the good weather (I did this once).
A particularly handy use of the Irish language is utilising it in foreign countries to speak about the people around you without being understood. That is, until you’re holidaying in Kerry and forget that it doesn’t work there as you receive a look from the individual you’ve just been talking about (I’ve done this also).
Despite my clumsiness when it comes to engaging with Irish, it contributes significantly to my sense of identity and quality of life. Of course, aspects like correct grammar, pronunciation and syntax are crucial to any language but, while they are there for good reason, are not absolutely crucial when it comes to taking part. In fact, immersion is the best way to learn.
I believe our collective relationship with the language requires a great deal of mending and, while I think a school education that is more focused on everyday spoken Irish than incredibly depressing Irish literature would be a massive step in the right direction, choosing to contradict our own misconceptions about the language is a great start.