As those of you who know me are well aware, I’m what one might call a militant Gael. I’m Native Irish, and part of a community of Irish speakers who have lived on this island (and in these islands) for the last five thousand years and more. Contrary to popular myth, current academic opinion holds that the Celtic peoples emerged from the network of scattered communities that lived along the Atlantic seaboard of Western Europe, from the tip of southern Spain to the point of northern Britain, during the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. The Irish Sea was the cradle of one dialect of these early Celtic speaking peoples that gave us the closely related Gaelic languages of Ireland, Scotland and Mann – both ancient and modern.
This sort of heritage gives one a longer view on life and history than the average Westerner (European or otherwise). So for instance from my perspective I can see that the English language in Ireland is only a recent phenomenon. Of the last 5000 years of Irish history English has been a majority language for just a 150 years, and that largely as the result of An Gorta Mór or the Great Famine of the mid-1800s, which denuded the island of its Irish speaking majority through death and exile. Remove well over 2 million people in the space of eight years and of course things are going to change – and change dramatically (the only other comparison in European history for the next century-and-a-half is the dramatic social, cultural and linguistic effects of the Holocaust, particularly in central and eastern Europe).
So it’s frequently with amusement (not to mention bemusement) that I greet those fellow (English speaking) citizens of Ireland who sometimes challenge me for speaking the Irish language. It comes in a variety of confrontations (or comments). Sometimes it is said in a jovial manner, as if I was some strange eccentric or hobbyist. ‘What, you’re into Irish? You speak it, like, really? And have an Irish name too?’
Sometimes it is with admiration, usually of the wistfully longing kind. ‘You speak Irish, yeah? Are you fluent? That’s so cool. I wish I could speak it but… [insert here reason why he/she is unable to speak Irish and why he/she wishes they could and would if only...].’
Sometimes it is with wariness or even trepidation, as if I stood there with an assault rifle in one hand and the Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla in the other (a revolutionary image that I’m not entirely uncomfortable with). ‘You’re a Gaeilgeoir? Yeah, I love Irish too, wish I could speak it, really do. It’s awful that I don’t. Sorry. But really great that you do [speak it on my behalf so I don’t have to – and please don’t think I’m not one of the good guys like you].’
Sometimes, and more often than it used to be, it is with downright hostility – hostility bordering on violence.
It was an encounter of the latter kind that I had this morning, while getting phone credit in my local shop. After being served by an impossibly tall Polish shop assistant and handing over my twenty euro note, I took my credit slip with a cheery ‘Go raibh maith agat’, as I sometimes do, receiving a pleasant nod in return from behind the counter (my experience of foreigners in Ireland, living and working here, is that they are frequently more tolerant of our native language than many of the alleged natives) and turning away I was stopped in my tracks by a, ‘Do you speak Irish then?’
This was not from the assistant, or his colleague, but by another customer, who stepped out in front of me. Irish, well, a citizen of Ireland, medium height, late twenties, a paunch fighting to escape a red soccer jersey (not of any Irish team, I believe, though I’m not exactly knowledgeable about these things) and baggy ghetto-style jeans (and worn ghetto-style too – intentionally or not).
‘So? Do ya?’
Throwing caution to the wind, and succumbing to the belligerent Gael inside, I answered in the positive – and waited for his reaction.
I didn’t have to wait for long.
Soon I was learning that this unhappy bunny hated the Irish language with a passion bordering on a mania, that it is was a complete waste of money: a dead language spoken by a dead people. A veritable monologue of bitter complaints followed leading up to a potentially perilous question. ‘So, I suppose you think you’re more Irish than me because you speak your Irish, then?’
I was going to point out that it was everyone’s Irish, not just mine, but rather than beat around the bush I gave an honest response.
Oh dear. Having frequently come across the literary metaphor of someone turning red with rage, but never having actually seen it in real life, I can now say I have done so – and then some. Bulging blood vessels, eye-popping snarls, bared teeth, here it was in all its 3D glory.
Over the next five minutes I was called everything from a ‘Provo bastard’ to a ‘murderer’ to a ‘fascist’ to a ‘Nazi’. I was told to fuck off to somewhere where they spoke Irish (I thought that was Ireland but maybe he meant Newfoundland?) and take my ‘dead language’ with me (I was going to ask if speaking Irish made me a Zombie then, but he didn’t look like the type for philosophical musings). I was loudly informed that he was more Irish than me and that Ireland was an English country (I think he meant English-speaking but maybe that was a Freudian slip – and since he was spitting in saliva-heavy outrage I thought it perhaps unwise to correct him).
Among the many pearls of wisdom he imparted to me was that Irish was a language no one nowhere in the world spoke. It was dead: a dead language that no one spoke. This made his next few statements somewhat incongruous. Irish was the language of the culchies (bumpkin country folk – he was a Dubliner) that they only spoke ‘in the west’ and ‘out there’ (not sure where out there is, but my impression is he certainly didn’t view as being anywhere near Dublin city). Irish wouldn’t get anyone a job or keep ‘da ‘conomy’ going and was a colossal waste of resources.
This was then followed by the ‘fact’ that only ‘snobs’ like me spoke it anyway, that we sent our kids to the ‘rich Irish schools’ in our ‘fuckin’ mercs and beamers’ and that we ‘look after each other’ and kept ourselves ‘in jobs’ and that there was plenty of jobs for people like us.
Then came the news that he was sick of hearing the Irish language, the way ‘yous’ had young people’s heads twisted into thinking it was their language and they are ‘all’ speaking it now (the living young people, I presume – not the dead young people – who are, you know, dead).
Finally his tirade was topped by another I dare you question, ’Go on say it again, say that that you’re more Irish than me. What makes you think that you’re more Irish than me?’
‘I speak Irish?’
Finally the intervention of the shop assistants (both of whom were clearly nonplussed by the whole affair) brought the man to an infuriated halt whereupon he turned heel and stormed from the shop, littering the air behind him with a few choice, and entirely Anglo-Saxon, swearwords.
The Polish dude from behind the counter (all 7ft of him) shook his head and laughed. ‘You Irish are crazy. You have your own language like us but you don’t speak it and when one of you do speak it another one attacks him. Crazy Irish’
Indeed. Crazy Irish.
Crazy English-speaking Irish.