Nostalgia for the past drives a new wave of Irish learners, keeping Irish alive amidst changing traditions and cultural re-assertion
I FIRST saw Mount Errigal when I was twelve years old. I was nominally a Donegal boy for I had been born by the border on the Inishowen Peninsula. But this was fifty miles east of Errigal on flat land, in what feels like a different geological zone.
I had an immediate sense that this awesome peak must be the heart of Donegal, that you could no more say you had been to Donegal if you had not gaped in wonder at Errigal than you could say you had been to London if you had not crossed the Thames at Westminster or travelled on the tube.
I went there to improve my spoken Irish, sent with other school-kids, to the Gaeltacht, the Irish speaking area of northwest Donegal.
Last week I was back at the foot of Errigal for the launch of a poetry book By Cathal Ó Searcaigh, a tribute to what he calls the Sacred Mountain.
We gathered at the Dunlewey Centre by the lough’s edge in the Poison Glen. It was a strange hbrid of a building, apparently an extension of an old cottage. There were breeze-block walls and an old cottage fireplace with china dogs on the mantelpiece. Bare wooden beams held up the roof and a half attic overlooking us.
O Searcaigh read his Irish language poems and was followed by Stephen Rea reading them in translation. Neil Martin played, for the first time in public, his four part cello piece in tribute to the mountain.
There were songs in Irish from local sean nós singers.
Judging by the numbers that laughed at jokes told in Irish, about half the audience was fluent in the language.
But this was not the Donegal I remembered from my Gaeltacht days.
Then the area was impoverished. That was part of the appeal. I had slept in a cottage bedroom with seven other boys in bunk beds. The night was eerily silent, and the room totally dark when the lights went out, but for a luminous plastic statue of the Virgin Mary on the mantelpiece. One of the boys would freak us out by picking up that icon and moving it about, making it look as if it was floating in the blackness.
There was no running water in our cottage and the toilet was a bucket in a shed at the end of the garden with a plank over it and a hole in the plank.
Some of the fascination with that part of Donegal was a sense of an older Ireland having survived, and frankly many of us grew up cherishing those memories and naively trusting that the area would never change, that its mission was not to change.
The Gaeltacht area was charged with preserving the Irish language and culture. As schoolboys we had been under orders to speak only in Irish while we were there.
But on my trip to Errigal for the book launch I saw the Gaelic culture in retreat.
The hotel receptionist had a little sign on her desk to inform us that she spoke Irish, presumably for guests who preferred to engage with her that way.
But I heard no Irish spoken around me. In the restaurant the music blaring was eighties rock, Deacon Blue and Wham. This was curry night.
Driving up we had seen many of the road signs defaced to remove the English forms of town names. So someone is protesting meekly at the decline.
Yet, anyone who had come direct to the book launch in the Poison Glen would have been impressed by a vibrant Gaelic culture there. Here were native speakers from whom the language flowed like a living stream, musically. There usage was unlike the chunkier delivery you hear among people who learnt Irish as a second language, whose words are separately enunciated and don’t just run into each other as smoothly.
But Ó Searcaigh spoke of the loss of Irish-speaking communities at the foot of the mountain. He said that the Irish language had been a language of rural life and agriculture and that this was waning.
Yet one impact of the Gaeltacht had been that city boys had acquired a romantic attachment to the language. Many had returned to learning it in adult life, perhaps nostalgic for their first trips to the Gaeltacht as young teenagers let loose for the first time. They had been motivated by their love of a dying west and, in some, a determination to revive the language as a means of asserting a distinct Irish national identity.
Many who had been through the prisons as members of the IRA had learnt the language there, not just to reinforce the argument for breaking with Britain but also to outwit the screws who wouldn’t understand what they were saying to each other.
There wasn’t the slightest intimation in the Poison Glen that night that the language had anything to do with national identity or a political tradition. Ó Searcaigh accepted that it was moving from its native place around Mount Errigal and becoming an urban language to be heard on the Falls Road. The new learners have changed the language to fit their own world.
And that, Ó Searcaigh was saying sadly, is inevitable evolution.