I shouldn’t be writing this. I have better things to do. I am enduring another bout of RSI so I am typing very slowly and gently and trying to keep my left thumb away the spacebar entirely. My left thumb is triggering again; and I have arthritis in both thumbs, for which I wear thumb braces when I type. (I tried voice-activated stuff when I went through this before – a much worse bout lasting months – almost two years ago. But using my voice to write is not the same; the software didn’t like my accent; there were too many mistakes that I had to correct by hand anyway; and I like the physical act of writing, either by hand or keyboard; how it slows down your thoughts; how you can organise your thoughts as you go). So now I’m also taking painkillers and resting regularly. But I’m miserable if I don’t write. So I’m writing.
This is the morning after the Big Drama. I don’t write about this stuff. I’m not interested in this stuff. As far more experienced commentators than me have said, this place is addicted to drama. Ordinary mundane politics, if there is such a thing, seems beyond us in this part of the world.
So why am I writing this? Because, when I heard yesterday morning that there was a prospect of the Irish language getting formal recognition in legislation, I was glad. I was tearful. I was relieved.
Which, superficially, is weird. I don’t speak much Irish. My mother was fluent because she’d been educated through it. My father was self-taught, and used to take himself off to the Donegal Gaeltacht at intervals to immerse himself, especially after he’d retired. He could read it, but his spoken Irish was poor. Nevertheless, he’d a small library of Irish books, some dating back to the 1940s. Many were printed in Gaelic type, which has largely fallen into disuse. A few years before he died in 2008, when he was in the early stages of dementia, he organised himself to donate that library to an Irish language organisation in Derry. It may have been this one. A young woman arrived and filled a van with his books. I was embarrassed because I happened to be in my parents’ house at the time, with no knowledge that this was about to happen. Also, the young woman turned out to be the Irish language assistant in the school where I was then teaching. While admiring my father’s ability to face into the task, the recognition of what was to come for him that it showed, and his bravery in confronting it, I felt exposed. I was also hurt that my Dad had not thought to offer me any of the books before passing them on. That probably reflected both his impression of my lack of interest in the language; and the fraught nature of our relationship. The latter was exacerbated by his early stage dementia and my own exhaustion from the responsibilities that the ill-health of both my parents conferred on me. I also had a demanding job, and a yearning to write that there never seemed to be any time for.
I was interested in the language. How could I not be? I was surrounded by it. It was in all the place names of my parish. It had left its mark in the syntax and grammar of the spoken English of my community (the one, the both, the every). It was used in my home. When I was little, my parents conversed in it when they didn’t want their children to understand what they were talking about (it was, I suppose, handier than telling us to leave the room). Unfortunately, in a strange parallel of the way the language has become a conflicted issue in Northern Ireland/the North, it was also a bone of contention between them. And my parents contended a lot.
Both of them were 1920s babies, and each was shaped profoundly shaped by those times. I was never told the details, but snippets slipped out. A paternal grandmother, it was hinted, who had been in or at least attracted to, Cumann na mBan – certainly, her brother was interned in Ballykinlar – I have inherited his autograph book; and a paternal grandfather who emigrated post-partition and didn’t return for decades. My father lived several years of his childhood in New York. He came back to Tyrone in 1933 and, at his new school in Omagh, he wrote his name as “Seamus”. (He had been “Jimmy” in New York. His first name on his birth certificate is “James”). He was known as Seamus for the rest of his life.
My mother grew up in Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary. Her father was an early recruit to An Garda Síochána. She remarked often to me how strange it was that, during his long service, he was never posted elsewhere. Something to do with with having witnessed some subversive activity, and he was kept in the one place in case the perpetrator ever came back. The veracity of her musings is something I have no idea about. The silences in my family stretch a long way back.
Despite being educated at second level in Falcarragh Co Donegal (she hated the place – I think it was here; the fact that numerous online searches have yielded little information seems telling), my mother did not favour Ulster Irish. To be fair, she was also, subsequently, educated through Irish at Carysfort College, Dublin, which probably crystallised her Munster (or Leinster?) Irish. My father’s Irish was of Ulster. This led to long, let’s call them passionate, arguments between them, about how to say the thing right. Saying it right was very important. Despite my flair for language, it scared me. Getting it wrong could lead to a dismissive rebuke from my father; and or an accusation of taking his side from my mother. To this day, my German is better than my Irish.
And yet, and yet … there were greetings. Salutations. Expressions of affection. Lullabies. I have so so many cards from my parents written to me in Irish. When my father spoke to me as “a Mháire” (my fetch-name, as I like to now think of it, after hearing Ciaran Carson discoursing), the almost-snarl of his pronunciation wasn’t just his Tyrone accent; it was the deepest way he could express his love, and the emotion growled through it.
For me, as a child, Irish belonged to my parents, and it was something I could not live up to. I kept falling short. So I sidled away. And yet, I was always listening for it, ears pricked with longing.
Some years back, after my parents had died, I was asked to write a poem about the townlands of the area I grew up in, the Glendarragh Valley, in Co Fermanagh. I had hoped the poem would eventually make it into my third collection, but that could be a while yet. However, as best as I can say it, this is why Irish is important and why it deserves the same kind of acknowledgement as is given to other minority languages in the UK. And it belongs to us all. As the critic Jonathan Bate somewhat said it in his marvellous book, The Song of the Earth, we dwell in language. So here it is.
Homelands of Glendarragh
The modern Irish for townland = baile fearainn = land associated with a town or home
The names are survivors, relics;
seepage of a forgotten language
that signs the features of an altered
land. So many oaks: the entire
valley, gleann darrach, thick with them;
then the ancient forest’s slow fragmenting
as our Neolithic forebears axe it
into the big wood, doire mór; the little grove,
doire beag; the oak ridge, druim na rallach.
The forest teases with its remnants:
the snorts of Dernacapplekeagh’s blind
horses pricking our ears as we strain
to trace them, while they sidle into shadow.
The clearances let the land’s shape emerge:
all those druims amassing in English
as Fermanagh’s drumlins. Here, each one
is individual on the tongue: Drumbrick’s
badger; Drumcose’s cave; Drumcrin’s tree.
Even the interruptions get special mention –
Drumadraghy’s ridge between two fields.
As the drumlins settle under pasture, tillage,
a people’s seasonal labour claims them:
Drumboarty for the milking; Drumcahy
for chaff; Drumierna for the weaving.
Some take a family name: Catháin; Macalara.
In different times – druim Samhna; druim na croise –
some become holy. From Lack’s, Aghaleague’s,
bedrock bleakness, among the stones
of Carn, Edenacloy, a grace, a grá,
bonds soil and soul; the clay of Cornacrea
grows tall; Glenarn blossoms; Gortgeeran
ripens; Oghill’s sacred yews are constant.
Work mends Edenaclaw’s fence, levels
Aghama’s field, tills around Killycappy;
flesh is scraped from Rosscolban’s scallops;
the pigs at Muckros are slaughtered, cured;
but leisure delights in the wildflowers
speckling Bracklin, the high waterfall
at Ardess; and ease, affection, pleasure,
linger in the soft meadows of Mantlin,
Gorteen’s diminutive; leirg caoin.
Out of such reverie, an artist’s gaze
fixes buí to Letterboy, rua to Knockroe,
liath to Leaghan, crón to Croneen.
Idleness, rivalry, gathers the boys
at Edenamohill. Everyone’s heard
of the droves that river the valley
over at Stranadariff, their fine
brown bulls. Cattle make a man’s wealth,
a woman’s dowry. Raiding is a rite
of passage, a way of life. Neighbourly
feuds and forts spring up all over the country:
simmering fires at Camplany; solid
resistance at Cahore; Dooraa’s dark
patience; Ederney’s calculation;
the bloody eruption at Roscah.
Local epics yield to a different kind
of strongman. Macartan gains the ear,
the woods, of the druids. Lios aingeal
intercedes, tullach na gclog appeals:
at Mullanasaggart, Kilsmullan, Scrinney,
new legends are planted, another sacrifice
worshipped; but a people’s piety, a grafted
tongue, won’t mask the semantics
of origin. Deeper than Tubrid’s well,
the dinnseanchas of a pagan past
breaks from the bogs of Moneyvriece,
branches out of Crevenish. Homely
as Colaghty, particular as cluain Aodh;
a native land traversed in an Sunday afternoon’s
ramble through the fields; an accent swerves,
softens, on the sound: the mouth holds history.
(in memory of my mother & father)