Níl Gaeilge agam but I’d like to try

Summer is coming, which means my annual attempt to learn Irish is almost here. Like an Irish summer, this usually lasts a few hours and ends in a downpour of self-loathing.

I can’t speak Irish. This is a source of frustration for my Gaeilgeoir wife. The Irish language plays the same role in our relationship as it does between Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster. I am a constant disappointment, or An Disappointment Mór to give my full name.

At dinner with the in-laws I play the role of Miguel, the hapless Spanish exchange student who spends ten minutes plucking up the courage to ask for water. I try to involve myself but it is difficult when the extent of my conversational skills amounts to “oscail an fhuinneog le do thoil”. Winters are particularly tense.

Gaeilgeoirs are a tough crowd. They have a zero tolerance approach towards mistakes. You offer a stuttered pleasantry and are met with an explanation about why the habitual present tense drops the third i, lengthens the first o and turns the h into a noise that sounds like you’re being strangled by Patrick Pearse’s holster.

I have made efforts to learn. I enrolled in a night course, which only compounded my humiliation. I sat in between a South African woman and a French man. Having studied Irish for a total of four hours they embarked on conversations that I – with a mere 2,300 hours under my belt since the age of four – was struggling to comprehend.

In my defence, Irish does seem to be needlessly difficult. Take the word ‘play’. In English you play sports, you play music and you play games. In Irish, you imirt sport, seinm music and súgradh games. Silent letters present another challenge. Most letters in Irish seem to be silent, a bit like our emotions and grievances.

Then there’s the fada, our pesky friend who lords above us and rains confusion at every opportunity, like a grammatical David Davis. English speakers regard accents as design quirks invented by Euro-types with notions, but they change the meaning of words. ‘Éire’ with a fada means ‘Ireland’ but without the fada means ‘burden’, which goes to show that whoever invented these things at least had a sense of humour.

Irish people who can’t speak Irish adopt one of two positions. The first is to portray linguistic incompetence as an ultra-modern lifestyle choice. “There are no jobs in it”, they say, having enthusiastically learned German, a language vital for communicating with Germans over the age of 40 and the people of southern Namibia.

These market-orientated hipsters have a grá for talking the language down. They ridicule Irish for adopting some modern words from English. They say this in English, a language invented as a compromise so as the French who ruled England could understand the Germans who lived there. In fact, far from appropriating English, most modern situations are given their own Irish words. Take ‘turscar’, the term for washed-up seaweed. Its modern interpretation is ‘email spam’. English doesn’t even have a term for washed-up seaweed, so take that Cromwell.

An equally popular position is to blame the education system. “They made us read Peig”, they say, citing a book that has not featured on the curriculum for several decades. It’s possible to blame lots of things on the education system – a lack of critical thinking, crushingly low self-esteem, an inbuilt national predilection for violence – but plenty of students had plenty of bad teachers and still managed to master the rote learning tasks asked of them.

The real reason we can’t speak Irish is because we are conditioned not to try. Let’s pretend we made children learn about computers but took every moment to remind them that it was pointless because, sure, don’t the English have perfectly good abacuses we can use. Anybody who liked computers would be called old fashioned and accused of being in the IRA. Children would not pay much attention to computer class.

Well, I like computers. I think they sound interesting and even if they have little practical application I’d like to know how they work. This summer I’m going to learn. It’s time to know how to close the fuinneog.

Published in The Times Ireland Edition, April 12th 2018.

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