Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Me and General Robert Lee

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


My "leisure reading" is once again devoted to Irish language material, and I mean to continue with this indefinitely.

Since my temper is both sceptical and romantic, I find myself in a bit of a quandary when it comes to the Irish language. The sceptical part of me insists that a language is a language is a language, that no language is any more or less poetic than any other, and that there's no justification for the idea (common amongst Irish language revivalists) that all sorts of spiritual and ancestral virtues would be unleashed if we managed to revive Irish.

In this regard, as in so many others, my romantic side comes out to play...but my sceptical side is allowed a veto, and always makes use of it.

Well, sometimes my romantic side gets out of control. Sometimes I really do fancy that the Irish language is especially poetic-- that there's something particularly soft and melodious about it.

One example is embarrassingly clichéd and touristy-- that is, the phrase Tir na nÓg, pronounced Tir na Nogue. Wikipedia describes Tir na nÓg as "a supernatural realm of everlasting youth, beauty, health, abundance and joy". It features most famously in the story of Ossian.

Well, I'd never been especially interested in the story, and the phrase's use is rather hackneyed-- there's a child-care centre with this name about three minutes walk from my back door. It was also the name of a café about five minutes walk from my back door (indeed, the café was almost as elusive as the real Tir na nÓg, since its opening hours were absurdly limited, and it closed down almost as soon as it opened.) Now, I've always been of the opinion that something being hackneyed doesn't necessarily make it bad, but it does make it (paradoxically) easy to overlook.

Anyway, I found myself pondering the name as I was wandering along, and suddenly I realized what a beautiful name it is-- it's very pleasing on the ear. I'd never really thought about it before. I just took it for granted.

And I also felt a sense of excitement that it was a genuine piece of folklore-- that, once upon a time, people who walked the same piece of ground I was walking would have used it all the time. Again, I somehow had never really thought about that before. It had simply seemed like a name in books (and on shop signs).

Then, today, I was reading a novel in Irish, and I came across an extended introspective passage in which one character ponders her place of origin, and whether it could fairly be termed "remote"-- or rather, iargúlta (pronounced eer-goolta). (A dictionary defines the word as "backward, remote, isolated".) The character is defensive about this accusation, and comes up with several reasons why her home should not be considered iargúlta.

I wouldn't share her defensiveness, though. Although I do have sentimental feelings for Dublin, it has nothing to do with Dublin being the capital of Ireland-- the "big smoke". I always thought it was very boring and obvious to live in the capital, or in any kind of central hub. The idea of living in a far-off, remote place seems much more poetic, much more exciting. (Tennyson wrote: "The words far, far away had always a strange charm for me.")

I love films such as Big Miracle and Whiskey Galore!, set in remote places.

But what a beautiful word it is! Iargúlta. It has a definite magic, and in my opinion expresses the poetry of its concept better than any English word. (I like hard g's, and I like "oo" sounds very much. The long "oo" sound seems to fit, since it emphasizes distance, length-- it even makes me think of the wolves howling outside Castle Dracula.)

This sort of reaction happens quite a lot. Quite often, I come across a particular word in my Irish reading, and my inner sceptic is overpowered for a moment. But very quickly regains the upper hand, and once again my inner romantic is kept in place. So shall it be always. Or shall it?


  1. i can remember in my day we always suffixed children's names with og especially if their father or uncle or grandfather had the same name which is rare now anyway

    1. When did such people stop being "óg", if ever?