Dia duit. Misha Keri. Tá mé go maith. Conas ata tu?
If you were confused about how to pronounce these words, join the club.
“Don’t look at the words when you’re trying to pronounce them,” my Irish language professor told us on the first day of class. “It won’t help you at all.”
Sadly enough, there are few Irish speakers left in the country. When the British imposed Penal Laws on the Irish, part of these included a law making the Irish language illegal. Slowly, Irish was pushed to the west, which now contains the only Gaeltachts, or places where Irish is natively spoken in daily life.
A resurgence of pride in the Irish language occurred during the Celtic Revival of the early 20th century when W.B. Yeats and the other connoisseurs of Irish culture promoted Celtic art, literature and culture. Even today, the Irish language is seen as a matter of national honor, and the government has recently tried to revive the language. Every student must take Irish in primary and secondary school and must pass an Irish exam to attend university. Irish and English share the title of official language, and every street sign, information notice and public document is written in both. School children can visit the Gaeltachts for a summer and spend several weeks at special schools or with Irish speaking families to immerse themselves in the language. Driving through the Achill Islands, I passed one of these schools, a white building that seemed to blend into the rocky, sloping landscape. The schools aren’t in session this time of year, but I imagine that a bunch of students speaking Irish amidst the cliffs of the west coast would be just about the most Irish thing you could see.
That being said, not very many people here actually know how to speak Irish. Whenever I tell people I’m learning the language, they raise their eyebrows and immediately laugh about how little they remember from school themselves. Usually they’ll tell me their name and ask me how I am, then laugh and shake their heads at a loss. Last week, our class toured Croke Park, the home of hurling and Gaelic football, and when our teacher told our guide about our Irish classes, he laughed.
“What you need to do while you’re here,” he said, “is go into a grocery store or somewhere and do all your transactions with your American accent, then at the end say ‘go raibh maith agat’ (thank you). The looks you’ll get!”
Now, the Irish language is seen as an identifier of the Irish culture, something that makes them distinct. There is a deep pride in the fact that the Irish have their own language that is theirs alone. That’s another thing. Nobody in Ireland calls the native language Gaelic. If you call it Gaelic, it’s actually a sign that you don’t know what you’re talking about. The language is Irish. The Spanish have Spanish, the French have French, the English have English and the Irish have Irish. But in reality, you can get by with one Irish word while you’re on the island: Sláinte!