Current Affairs The Irish Language - An Ghaeilge

Not One Small Victory But Three


Some days it is nice to be reminded that the Gaelic languages are not just national languages, but international ones too. So to three stories that highlight those who embrace our native tongues in far distance lands, as well as closer to home, and for whom it represents much more than a mere form of communication.

From the New York Times a story showing that it is never too late – or too far – to learn what it means to be Irish:

“THE jolly trash man was going about his route in the Rockaways, Queens, when he spied a woman in front of her house.

“Cé hé bhfuil tú?” he greeted her.

Naturally, the woman replied, “Tá mé go maith.”

“Ceart go leor,” the trash man shot back.

This exchange — roughly: “How are you?” “I’m fine.” “Ah, grand!” — was in Irish, the Gaelic language that survives only in parts of Ireland — and to a lesser extent, along the garbage route of Ed Shevlin, 51. The route winds through the Belle Harbor section of the Rockaways, where conversations were once commonly conducted “as Gaeilge.”

“I was amazed to find there were people I could speak Irish with, while picking up their garbage,” said Mr. Shevlin, a New York City sanitation man — a “fear bruscar” in Irish — who began studying the language a few years ago.

In June, the Fulbright Commission for Summer Language Study awarded him a grant to study in Ireland — the only trash collector on a list heavy with doctoral candidates and university professors. The Sanitation Department allowed him to organize his vacation weeks in order to stay with an Irish-speaking family and attend the National University of Ireland in Galway for a month long immersion program similar to one he completed in 2009. Mr. Shevlin is working toward a bachelor’s degree in Irish studies at Empire State College in Manhattan, and studying Irish at Lehman College in the Bronx at night. He is eligible for retirement from his sanitation job in less than two years, and he plans to earn a master’s degree and begin teaching at the college level after he retires.

On weekends, Mr. Shevlin invariably travels to Irish-language and cultural events with his girlfriend, an Irish-speaking teacher from New Jersey he met on the dating Web site — by using the screen name GaelicSpeaker, and writing that he was seeking “grá mo chroí,” or “the love of my heart.” She responded in Irish and Mr. Shevlin was so impressed, he suspended his “No Jersey girls” rule.

Mr. Shevlin is pursuing his studies like someone making up for lost time. He developed a drinking problem at age 14 and dropped out of high school, but earned his equivalency diploma at age 30 and took the civil service exam. For years, he tended bar locally and in the 1980s opened the Raintower Tavern with two friends who were firefighters. After losing many friends in the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, he found himself playing drums at dozens of funerals and memorial services, and his alcohol problem worsened.

But a month after the attack, he abruptly quit drinking and has now been sober for nearly 10 years, which leaves him more time to study Irish.

“Tá sé mar atá sé,” he said while finishing up his trash route. “It is what it is.””

From Scotland and the Stornoway Gazette another tale of the power of the language to tie one of the Gaelic Diaspora to their ancestral home and the positive effect it has had:

“AN Comunn Gàidhealach has recognised American student Leah Jaques at this year’s Am Mòd Nàiseanta Rìoghail (The Royal National Mòd) by presenting her with the prestigious Gaelic Learner of the Year award 2012 sponsored by Royal Highland Society of Scotland.

Texas born Leah has been recognised for her learning of the Gaelic language in a studious career which spans two years.

A second year student of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in Skye, 34 year old Leah started her love affair with the Gaelic language after moving to Glasgow in 2006.

She took Ùlpan classes to learn the language as well as a Gaelic course at Stow College in the city. Leah also supplemented her learning by volunteering as a classroom assistant at Sgoil Ghàidhlig Glaschu (Glasgow Gaelic School).

John Macleod, President of An Comunn Gàidhealach said: “This award reinforces the international appeal of Scottish Gaelic and the success of Ùlpan Gaelic learning courses as well as the attraction for international students to study further education at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.””

And finally, from the Guardian, a review of the final chapter (perhaps) in one man’s love affair with a place, a language and a community:

“Visitors to Ireland, and indeed the Irish themselves, find startling the contrast between the eastern edge of the country and the western. To travel the hundred and fifty miles or so from Dublin and its lush surrounding counties to the flinty peaks and rocky shores of Connemara is to voyage from a more or less familiar present into a mysterious, enduring antiquity. Tim Robinson remarks that of all the words in the Irish language, “the most potent are sean, old, and siar, westwards or backwards in time or space”. Certainly that westward journey is still a vivid emblem stamped on the collective Irish psyche.

“To Hell or to Connaught”, as every Irish schoolboy knows, was the choice offered to the natives by Cromwell’s land-grabbing soldiery, and many a subsequent native son has considered in his heart that only in the west does the true Irish reality survive – impoverished, desperate, hardy and authentic. However, the notion of the “spirit of the nation” preserved in a wild, much-storied place can be a dangerous one. Nationalism, smugly self-assured and at the same time quivering with ressentiment, has wrought much havoc in Ireland, as we know.

Robinson takes his title from Patrick Pearse, leader of the 1916 rising, who cleaved to the west for spiritual sustenance and nationalist inspiration, that real and envisioned west where he “was to build, write and plot, and to foresee his death”. To a friend one day Pearse spoke of the inspired possibility of instituting in Connemara “a little Gaelic kingdom of our own”. It is a telling phrase, indicative as much of Pearse’s gentleness and romantic Lilliputianism as of his grand fantasies of kingship and regal splendour.

Over the past four decades Robinson, artist, cartographer, writer, has devoted himself to a project that is nothing less than an attempted recuperation of what can claim to be the last stronghold, if that is the word, of Irish-speaking Ireland. Born in Yorkshire, he moved to the Aran Islands in 1972, and later settled in the village of Roundstone on the Connemara coast, where he still lives. Over the centuries Ireland has been host and haven to a number of remarkable Englishmen-gone-native, most of them true lovers of the country, a few of them embittered fanatics. Robinson is certainly to be numbered among the former.

Now he gives us a detailed evocation of the heart of Connemara, stretching westwards from Galway city, the area known as Cois Fharraige (“beside-the-sea”), up to Maam and down again to the villages, ports and the bewilderingly various archipelagos of that southern-facing coast which with some delight he describes as “anfractuous”, a word borrowed from that great borrower TS Eliot.

In celebrating the marvels of the little rugged world that is Connemara Robinson strives, in John Updike’s lovely formulation, to “give the ordinary its beautiful due”. As he says, “that the world is explicable is miraculous, and so explanations need not be the undoing of miracles”. He is that rarest of phenomena, a scientist and an artist, and his method is to combine scientific rigour with artistic reverie in a seamless blend that both informs and delights. One intends no slight by saying that he loves Connemara, “this strange, self-obsessed countryside”, as only an outsider could. He is keenly alive to the perils that lie in wait for the unwary immigrant. “Sometimes,” he writes, “in this bicycle-powered world of roadside and hearthside conversations I felt I was inhabiting my own nostalgic fantasy of bygone Ireland.””

In this centuries old struggle it can be even the smallest of victories that inspires one to go on. But having three…

Sí an Ghaeilge Athghabháil na hÉireann agus is í Athghabháil na hÉireann slánú na Gaeilge.

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