Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A Farewell to Irish

 Well, not quite, but...

Recently I've decided that I'm going to give up my efforts (which I've pursued for several years now) to gain fluency in the Irish language. It just seems futile.

My ambition was to attain the level where I could get an article published in an Irish language publication. However, this seems more and more unattainable to me.

Grammar is my great obstacle. I can conduct a conversation in the Irish language fairly well. Nobody cares very much if you make mistakes in conversation. As long as you can keep the ball in the air, that's the main thing. But writing is a different ball game entirely.

The abstract study of grammar completely flummoxes me. For instance, every noun in Irish is gendered male and female, which has a big effect on how they are used in sentences. I can't imagine how anybody ever learns the gender of every single noun they use. It seems to me like having to learn the chemical composition of every object you come into contact with during the day, before you are allowed to touch it. I suppose it's done by a kind of intuition. I don't have that intuition.

I don't even understand English grammar! I've never understood the distinction between "to whom" and "to who", and all that stuff. And yet English has always been my strength. It was by far my strongest subject in school-- I got a fair amount of acclaim for it. A schoolfellow I met again, a few years ago, told me: "It was like being in school with Seamus Heaney". And yet I was mediocre, at best, when it came to Irish, French, and German. (My German teacher once wrote "I'm afraid this is rubbish" on my homework. She was a notorious battle-axe, but I think she was probably fair on that occasion.)

I'd always suspected it was simply a lack of interest that made the difference. I was, of course, interested in getting good grades in those other languages, but I wasn't very interested in them for themselves. All my leisure reading had been in English-- and though I've always felt poorly-read, in truth I'd read a lot by my early teens, comparatively speaking.

But I'm not so sure that it was simply a lack of interest, any more. I grew ferociously interested in Irish, in recent years, and I read a huge amount in it. I read so many of the back issues of Irish language journals, in the library, that I eventually found it hard to find an article (I mean one that interested me) that I hadn't read at least once already. But the magic never happened.

I forgot to mention that all my schooling, up until the age of eighteen, was in Irish language schools. So I have experienced countless hours of hearing Irish spoken by fluent Irish speakers, all through my formative years. (The teachers were fluent, that is. The kids spoke a kind of patois, and always spoke English when unsupervised.) And yet I've still never been fluent.

Why am I relatively good at English, but bad at all other languages? Is it simply because English happened to be my first language? Sometimes I wonder if it's more than that, if English is somehow congenial to my mind. Perhaps it is the lack of gendered nouns! (As soon as I write those words, I find myself fretting that there may actually be gendered nouns in English. How would I know? Well, if there are, I've never needed to know about them...)

I'm pretty good when it comes to vocabulary. I love learning the vocabulary of a different language because, in some ways, it's like experiencing the world anew. The poetry of words in any language is intoxicating. But when it's an unfamiliar language, it has the added lustre of discovery. If mastering a language was just a matter of learning a vocabulary, I think I'd do it very well. But it's a lot more than that.

I still think the preservation and revival of the Irish language should be a top priority for the Irish people. Really, there's no point talking about our Irishness-- which we do incessantly-- if we aren't going to take it seriously. Nothing can replace the language.

But I think I've done as much as I can, in my case. I do intend to keep my Irish up, by regular reading, but it will no longer be my main focus. I think I have to concentrate on my strengths. Life is so short, and we can only do so much.


  1. As I was saying on the ICF, Maolsheachlann, congratulations on all your efforts on the language over the years. It's inspirational.

    I was very mediocre at French in secondary school, and it wasn't until a friend encouraged me to take some Latin classes at university that I really came to understand grammar and how it works. No had ever bothered to explain to me previously such things.

    I completely agree with your final statement about the importance of the language. The last time I was home, the most poignant thing I witnessed was two guys in a pub who were clearly new to the language trying to have a practice conversation with each other. I really admired their courage and bravery.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Karl.

      Maybe I'm just wresting with grammar in the wrong way, but I honestly suspect my mind just doesn't work that way.

      I agree, those two foghlaimeóirí making the effort are definitely worthy of praise, especially since it was in a public house-- indeed, in a public house!

  2. No intellectual activity has so much dull routine in the early stages as learning a language. The same for learning the piano, maybe, with the difference that the young pianist has his favorite Mozart pieces to look forward to. What is the 11 year old learning French to look forward to? Not Proust, I don't think. So off we go with le chat est noir and other such imbecilities. The only help for this is a brilliant teacher, and in languages these are rare. (Why?) To be able to converse in Irish is an enviable skill, though.

  3. I sometimes think of it this way. Languages seem to have more initial drudgery than any other form of learning. Two reasons for this: the grammar, and the banality of the content (le chat est noir). Learning the piano is as bad, it might be argued. But the piano learner can have his favorite Mozart or song always before him as a goal. With language this is all much vaguer. Why does one actually learn a language? Doubtless brilliant language teachers can overcome these problems, but they in my experience are few and far between. Your ability to converse in Irish is one many of us envy.

    1. Well, the drudgery of grammar in unique to me. It's not just drudgery, it seems impossible. But, yes, I am glad I have at least some conversational level.

  4. I read this with sorrow. I see you have tried so, so, so hard for so many years.

    So many thoughts here. I really want to say more soon, I hope very soon. I hope.

    I will just add I was recently deeply moved by Irish Masses in Donegal. So much so that I came back and started looking into the rudimentary basics of Irish.

    Which is a bit ridiculous given that my language abilities are not unlike your own, even if I did finally make immensely rewarding breakthroughs in French

    1. I'm sorry I forgot to reply to this, Roger. Thanks for the kind words. It will be interesting to learn how you progress in Irish, and I'm glad you've made strides in French. Yes, I have also been very moved by Irish language Mass.

  5. Grammar is a set of rules which can be understood and learned. There is a "Teach Yourself Irish Grammar" book which is easy to comprehend and has practical exercises. It really should not be such a great problem if you apply yourself.
    You do need one-to-one lessons as well to check you are doing things correctly and to practice what you have learned in a "live" sort of situation.
    Seems a shame to just give up after all the time and effort already put in.
    Defeatism is not a virtue.

    1. I agree defeatism is not a virtue, but we also have to use our gifts and energy to the best effect.

      I'm not giving up Irish completely, I do intend to keep up the level I had attained, so I don't think all the effort is wasted.