But not all. When my wife and I came to visit your home for the first time, we traveled all around Ireland. And the strangeness of Irish place-names impressed themselves on my wife. Why did so many place names have these ungainly English syllables: clon, beg, bally, kil, and carrick? You know they are Irish, do you ever think about them? Suddenly the whole country comes alive. English sometimes collapses them. The cill in Kildare is a church, the “church of the oak.” But the cuill in Kilcogy is from a forest. Clon is a meadow, and so Clonmel becomes a “meadow of honey.” Tandragee in Northern Ireland is from the Irish Tóin re Gaoith, or “backside of the wind.” When you get behind Feltrim in Dublin, you discover the “ridge of the wolves.”
More than a century ago, P. W. Joyce wrote, “This great name system, begun thousands of years ago by the first wave of population that reached our island, was continued unceasingly from age to age, till it embraced the minutest features of our country in its intricate network.” And yet, many Irish people are unaware of the way the names around them point to landmarks, and beasts, and climate. They’ve become deaf to the land.
Read: The costs of English-only education
I recently read an Irish commentator saying that every bit of money spent on the Irish language was wasted. Maybe it’s sad that languages are in Darwinian competition with one another, he sighs, but some die. Irish-speaking people died too quickly. Their literary rates failed to keep up. We entered into a commercial age, and Irish was not commercial. Irish people are happy to speak English. In fact, they speak it better than the English. So, let it go.
But the evolutionary game doesn’t always end so cleanly. Some creatures decline in one environment, but they don’t die. They adapt. And I think I caught the barest glimpse of how Irish has adapted itself and can survive lean times in the current environment.
Something like a quarter of a century passed between the time you gave me a hurl and the time I entered a hurling pitch. I experienced another 20-odd-year gap closing earlier this year. I attended a weekend immersion Irish language course in rural New York, run by Daltai na Gaeilge. When I arrived, the organizers asked if I had ever been to one of their events before.
Yes, I admitted, when I was four and five years old, with my mother. I showed a few of the older women pictures of my mother and me from that time. And they remembered us. They remembered her. I have occasionally been recognized in the street or in a bar for my disreputable career as a pamphleteer. But this was the first time in my adult life that a stranger recognized me as the son of my mother. And knew my mother because of what language she chose to speak.
I was put in a class made up mostly of children. I was made to relearn what I had known and forgotten as a toddler. We counted, and practiced saying “Hello” and “How are you?” For me, this is the hardest part of learning a language. The humiliation of being a child again. I make my living with words and I can be astonishingly vain. Learning Irish as an adult means screwing up the simplest things, like counting from a haon to a deich.