Learning My Father’s Language

I made a vow to teach myself Irish, the language my mother struggled to learn, so that my daughters may learn it too.

The Connemara region in Ireland
The Connemara region in Ireland (Shutterstock)

My mother achieved real competence in Irish, and then gradually lost it. Her exertions were motivated by unrequited love, her ambitions, and even her politics. After she died, I found all these great propaganda pamphlets from the early 1980s, with titles like “Britain’s War Machine in Ireland.” All of them aimed at Irish Americans like herself. But it was hard, in the exurbs of New York with a dying mother and a growing son, to keep up the social circles that support a language. And gradually even we stopped using the ornamental bits of it.

This article was adapted from My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home, by Michael Brendan Dougherty.

And right now, the ornamental bits of it are almost all I have. When I’ve gone through my cycle of rebel songs, I have tried soothing this baby girl by counting in Irish. Or whispering, over and over, “Mo chroi, mo thaisce.” My heart, my treasure.

Patrick Pearse once wrote a fantasy of what Ireland might be like one century after his time. He envisioned the Ireland of 2005 as a warmer place, because the bogs had been drained. And he envisioned it as a country in which the Irish language was restored totally. Only a few schools still taught English as a second language. With the collapse of the British Empire in the 20th century— he was right about that!—the English language lost its importance. In his dream, the Irish Parliament in 2005 was debating a bill for making the study of Japanese compulsory in seaport towns in Ireland, owing to its utility as a commercial language.

The story didn’t go that way. I wrote to you earlier, Father, about the plunder of Ireland. How the English have robbed Ireland not just of its wealth, and of many of its lives, but of its sense of self. After the famine, the Irish mind awakened to the possibility of losing even the memory of itself. And it responded with a self-conscious attempt at cultural revival.

What most people say is that the Gaelic cultural revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries produced a lot of good and some great literature in English—Yeats, Joyce, and so on. And the revival of Irish sport under the Gaelic Athletic Association was a crushing success. I know because I can listen live to the broadcast of Mayo and Dublin fighting to a draw in Gaelic football on my smartphone. But we are supposed to conclude that the language revival was doomed, and possibly destructive to have tried. In his book about the history of the Irish language, Aidan Doyle concludes, “Anybody who sets himself an impossible task is bound to fail. My contention … is that by the time the Gaelic League was founded, it was too late to reverse the language shift. If this is correct there was never a real possibility of Irish becoming a majority language in Ireland again.”

So should we all have a laugh at Pearse? Currently there are more than 400 million native English speakers in the world. Some estimates say that nearly one in five people on the planet is studying or speaking English as a second language. In many places, studying English is compulsory. The numbers for Irish are not so encouraging. I remember the day I began contemplating the current estimated number of native Irish speakers: 35,000.

A little while after I made my vow to learn Irish, my father-in-law took me to Colorado for an event commemorating the World War II company his father was in, the one that cut up through Europe from Anzio and eventually liberated Dachau. At the hotel in the morning, instead of doing a little lesson of Irish on a website I was subscribed to, I was reading The Irish Times, with the latest report on how the Gaeltacht, the various regions of Ireland where Irish is still spoken daily, was dying. By 2025, Irish will cease to be a majority language in the Gaeltacht, it said. The latest studies showed that once the percentage of Irish speakers in these areas fell below 67 percent, Irish would become a language of the old; the young would fail to develop freedom of expression in Irish and would instead form their identity and self-conception as English speakers. This is a disaster for the language for obvious reasons. The Gaeltacht is where almost all serious students of the Irish language finally finish acquiring it. The few tens of thousands of native Irish speakers today already struggle to support the compulsory learning of the hundreds of thousands of students of the language in Irish schools. And most of these students will fail to acquire it anyway. Beyond that, the Gaeltacht still has some pull as a physical and spiritual heartland of the nation, the repository of true Irishness.

Contemplating this report, I had some questions. Why the hell was I trying to learn Irish? It takes real effort to learn a language, and often a decent chunk of money too. I got up from the desk and thought about that number. Thirty-five thousand native speakers, and I spent a couple of hundred dollars on kids’ books and dictionaries, and a subscription learning website. Thirty-five thousand native speakers, and none of my actual Irish family members is counted among them. Not one of them is even in the half million or so who are categorized, generously, as competent second-language speakers of Irish. Thirty-five thousand. If I go through with this, I am a madman.

I got into a little tour van that was going to take us to the sights for that day, and I sat next to a man named Randy Palmer. He had a big, round Oklahoman accent, and his baritone voice made him sound like a Plains-state version of David Carradine. He was a member of the Kiowa nation and a veteran of the Vietnam War. Because I was thinking about languages, I asked him if he spoke the language of the Kiowa nation. He didn’t. He said that a few of the young people were interested in it. So then and there, I furtively started researching on my phone. There are only 12,000 Kiowa living. And a generous estimate is that there are just 100 speakers of the Kiowa language. None of them speak it as a mother tongue. Like most Native American languages, it had no writing system until long after most people had abandoned speaking it. The very first orthography for the language wasn’t developed until the 1920s. And talk of attempting a language revival really only started in the past five years. I have since been cheered to discover that at least one children’s book has been published in Kiowa. Instead of 35,000 Irish who have known the language from their cribs within Irish-speaking communities, the number is zero for Kiowa. All Kiowa grow up speaking English with big Plains-state accents.

That night, Palmer played a CD recording of the Kiowa Black Leggings Warrior chant for the 157th Battalion’s annual military ball. That was the Kiowa language as it exists right now, completely fossilized. And in that form it moved many young men to tears. Here was the tongue of a people, and a nation, disappearing from the face of the Earth. And when the party ended late that night, I went back to my bed in the hotel, plugged earphones into my phone, and listened to a live, morning news radio show in Irish.

You see the difference? One is purely ceremonial. The other is fit for radio broadcast and current events.

Pearse was more right to imagine Irish as a living language in this century. It is alive in a way that Kiowa isn’t. I sincerely hope one day, if my great-grandchildren have an interest in Native American languages, they can pull up a live internet radio stream in the Kiowa language. Perhaps we can program computers to produce these even if the Kiowa language revival fails among the 12,000 living Kiowa today. But Irish still survives. And it is this way because of the revivalists. When Pearse and other language activists came to the Irish language, it was heading where Kiowa is now.

The truth is that there are more people who are literate in Irish today than two centuries ago, when our best estimates are that 20,000 Irish speakers had any literacy in their mother tongue, even if more than 2 million were fluent speakers of the language. The decline of Irish happened for many reasons. It was the aim of the English government to destroy it. Sir Edmund Spenser observed, “The speech being Irish, the heart must needs be Irish.” Even in the 16th century, the Irish would use their native language to resist English rule. As the Tudors sent their ministers to rule, they found not just the Gaelic Irish, but the descendants of the Normans refusing to speak in an English language they knew, just to annoy and frustrate the will of their rulers. “Though they could speak English as well as wee, yet Commonly speake Irish among themselves, and were hardly included by our familiar Conversation to speak English with us, yea Common experience shewed and my selfe and others observed the Citizens of Watterford and Corcke having wyves that could speak English as well as wee, bitterly to chyde them when they speake English with us.”

During the time of the penal laws, Irish was the language of the most-fierce resistance to English rule. The Irish nationalists who spoke in English tended to be reformists, republicans, and modernizers, and spoke of “improvement” with language meant to appease English rulers. But Irish-language poetry teemed with Jacobite fury and dark prophecies about the English being brought low into disgrace as scholars of the Irish language retake their place at the top of society. They were close to right. Eventually the authority of the English did decline. And while I wouldn’t say Irish scholars are at the top of society, they at least get positions on TV and radio now, and the occasional column in The Irish Times.

In 1800, about half of a population of 5 million Irish people were Irish speakers. By 1851, only 23 percent of almost 7 million Irish could speak the language, but many of these were bilingual and preferred their children to speak English. From what I can tell, it is very likely that my mother’s Irish ancestors spoke Irish when they left Donegal for America.

By the mid-19th century, it was obvious that English was the language of the future. It was the language in which the state and the courts operated on Irish people. English was the language of education; Irish was banned in the national school system. It was the language in which Irishmen found opportunity and freedom in the British Empire and America.

And so Irish was kicked down from its perch. It was once a high-status language, with bards and monks guarding it. Now it was the language of the poor. Even Irish speakers, if they had the most rudimentary English, would sometimes choose never to speak Irish to their children. These parents purposely deprived their children of the intimacy of a common household language in order to give them economic opportunity.

Despite all this, by the late 19th century, some Anglo-Irish elites, like the descendants of Vikings many centuries before them, found themselves adopting the Irish language as part of their identity. One of these men was Douglas Hyde, a Protestant who saw that previous efforts at Irish national self-assertion were entirely deficient in their appreciation of culture. “Just at the moment when the Celtic race is presumably about to largely recover possession of its own country, it finds itself deprived and stript of its Celtic characteristics, cut off from its past, yet scarcely in touch with its present,” he wrote. For Hyde, as for so many others, the Irish language was a romantic endeavor. It was a way of enacting their Irishness that went some ways beyond the grubby transactionalism of liberal societies.

When the Irish compare the language revivals of Hebrew and Irish, they are tempted simply to despair of Irish ability. The similarities are hard to miss. Each language movement talked about itself as an attempt to recover their respective nation’s manhood. Each featured people who changed their names as they adopted or matured into nationalist politics. Just as Edward Thomas Kent becomes Éamonn Ceannt, Golda Meyerson becomes Golda Meir. And each of the language revivals was meant to foreshadow and undergird the building of a viable nation-state.

But paradoxically, the fact that Hebrew was a fully dead language gave the Zionists some advantages over the Irish. Hebrew had several competitor languages, all of them weaker or repulsive. A few Zionists believed that they should concede to reality, and that German would be the lingua franca of the Jewish state. Others turned to Yiddish, the language of Jewish ghettos, but which also symbolized exile and hybridity. Being a dead language, Hebrew had no baggage of failure or low social status; it was not considered a language of the poor, or of any Jewish enemy. Jews living in Palestine spoke a number of languages, and they needed a common commercial language.

By contrast, the Irish language was associated with illiteracy and backwardness. And it had one competitor: English, the most important commercial language on Earth. Irish had no special role in religion, the way Hebrew did. The Catholic Mass was in Latin. Irish Protestantism was in English.

Being human, the Irish revivalists made their own blunders along the way. There’s the story of James Joyce, who took a class on the Irish language and Irish mythology and became disgusted at the teacher’s strenuous denunciations of the English language and how he exaggerated the glories of Táin Bó Cúailnge. Joyce retreated to studying Norse mythology instead. The teacher of that Irish class was Patrick Pearse.

But even if the revival failed to make Irish the majority language of Ireland again, Irish is now a language that can be used to write news stories and academic articles, and deployed in schoolyard taunts. In the 20th century, the Irish language grew the ability even to critique its own assigned role as the treasure house of some true, and truly set apart, Gaelic pastoral ideal. Although I’m not yet sure about the accuracy, I laughed my ass off when Alan Titley translated some earthy Irish cursing as “holy fuckaroni” in his English version of Cré na Cille. Maybe some things are best to leave in Irish.

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.

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.

There were only a few people my age at the weekend. There was Antoin, a young teacher who grew up in West Belfast. And Megan from Boston. They knew each other from previous academic conferences on Ulster’s culture. But they accepted me, for that weekend at least, as a friend. I know this is sickening for an Irish person like yourself to read, but of course I made fast friends with the man from Belfast. How typical. How obscene. It was Irish Americans who wear their Irishness so lightly—a pin asking for a kiss—romanticizing or even financing men in the Falls Road, who wear their Irishness as a ski mask. Alas, Antoin and I couldn’t help it. We both have that thing, of having grown up outside of the Republic, in very different situations, where Irishness must be asserted. But not too loud. It is customary at Daltai na Gaeilge to prepare a “party piece,” a song, or a poem—preferably in Irish. Antoin, Megan, and I all tried to duck this for drinking and arguing about the Rising.

The night went on, and most of the party retreated for bed. But the drinks flowed on, and something started to happen to the three of us. I believe it was something around each of us that started to crack. Something like the encasing that our common culture imposes on us. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can say with some assurance that mass media were my primary teacher growing up. And it taught me and my friends how to conform with one another. It slipped under the table to me a lesson that sincerity is a kind of weakness. That it will be used against me. And that any sentiment at all, anything that could expose you to the danger of ridicule or the genuine possession of an emotion, should be double- and triple-Saran-wrapped in irony. I suppose we do this for safety somehow, as if unwrapped passion itself is so flammable, it would consume our little worlds at the instant we exposed it to open air.

I was getting drunk. And so I grabbed Antoin at one point, and quietly I sang to him a very silly song I know about Ulster, “The Old Orange Flute.” He let out big gulps of laughter and an almost maniacal smile. And this new mood descended on the room. Now, for everyone there, I was made to sing the things I sing my daughter. I tried “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.” I don’t have a voice for real work on the stage, but for a bar or night like that one, it’s pretty good. And then Megan, in a crushingly tender soprano, sang “She Moved Through the Fair.” Here it was: We revealed to everyone left, and maybe even to ourselves, that we, yes, the young ones, were romantics too.

Antoin got up and recited by the Bobby Sands poem, “The Rhythm of Time.” By the time in that poem when “the undauntable thought,” “screamed aloud by Kerry lakes, as it was knelt upon the ground,” Antoin was sobbing openly and unashamed before us. When was the last time you saw a man in his mid-20s reciting a poem in front of people he just met and croaking out the words through tears?

Yes, all these things were in English. But I believe we were there because something about the Irish language, for us, sets it apart. By the 1960s and ’70s, hopes for the complete revival of Irish had been diverted into something more humble, but with radical implications. Preserving Irish took on the character of a voluntary and local resistance to globalization and the reordering of all culture by commerce. Its preservation requires the courage to embrace an identity that could not be bought and sold. I think that is why the experience of coming together to learn this language subtly encouraged us to shed this cumbersome emotional armor, this generational pose of ironic distance from everything, even ourselves.

And to shed it means to recognize the deeper truth about my little foray into this quixotic “useless” language. The die-hard clerical Gaelic Leaguer Reverend O’Hickey complained of the failure to preserve the language: “Are the Irish people going to endure this? If so they deserve the worst that has ever been said of them. They are a people without spirit, without national self-respect, without racial pride, a poor, fibreless, degenerate, emasculated, effete race—eminently deserving of the contempt of mankind.” I know how the culture around me wants me to respond to a statement like this: with a knowing, dismissive snort. If I’m to respond to it intellectually at all, it is as an academic. “Well, O’Hickey is echoing common tropes about masculinity and nationalism and such and such.” If I am to respond the way my education would prompt me, I would say that O’Hickey is being intolerably absolutist.

What the culture insists I am not supposed to do is read those words and feel an honest conviction flooding my heart and stealing my breath. What I am not supposed to do is make vows to wake up your grandchildren each morning with “Tà an maidan ann. Múclaígí anois, a thaiscí!”

Many language learners say that they find a new personality in their second language. Already I can see that the Irish language gives me access to another part of myself, one that doesn’t feel so needful of admiration, that doesn’t couch itself in layers of irony and hide behind hand-waving verbal acts of self-creation. I’m determined to learn Irish, because it forces me to be a child and to grow up again. It allows me to become the kind of person who can utter simple convictions and mean them: I bought those Irish-language books for my daughter, because my mother bought the same books for me. I struggle to learn the Irish language, because she struggled to learn it. Because she wanted me to learn it. Because our little routine at night was for her to tell me to “dún un doras,” and we would exchange an “oíche mhaith!” before I went to bed. Because the history of being Irish is setting yourself an impossible task, then failing to do it over and over again, until one day it is accomplished. My mother tried. I will try again. This isn’t mere sentiment. The speech being Irish, the heart must needs be Irish.

It might cost a little money for me to learn a dying language, to graft it onto the tongue of the man of this house. But then the transaction stops being commercial. My children learn it freely, something Irish that is not a product or a brand that fades, but that becomes its own treasure, letting us live off the wealth it generates over a lifetime.

And I can already see the returns coming in. None of your household fits into the category of “competent speakers.” You have told me about the image of Irish speakers that you had in childhood, of women that smelled like turf fires, and men that smelled like their fishing nets. You’re no good with it, you say. But that is what everyone says. When I have tried my few words of Irish at Dublin Airport, I get the distinct sense that the people working there would rather that an American try to sneak a gun past them than a few words of Irish. They look genuinely pained or even threatened. I know that Irish people can have a genuinely complex relationship with this language that they almost understand. They want it to continue to exist, but they never use even the few words they have.

But when you and your daughters visit, and see these little children’s books lying around, you pick up these books and read them to her. All of you dare yourself to do it. My intention was that my daughter learn Irish, but through her, I’m beginning to think all of you have a chance.

This article was adapted from My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home, by Michael Brendan Dougherty.