One of the things that attracted me to the US was the diversity of both the landscape and its people. And when I talk about people, I mean the huge mix of nationalities, cultures, and languages. When it comes to the topic of languages, sometimes it can be an advantage to speak (even to a limited degree) a language which is not widely known, such as my native Irish, a.k.a. Gaelic. Like all good things in life, this, too, can have some funny unintended consequences.
Even though Ireland has a very small population (around 4.5 million), we don’t seem to be too far from each other in any given place around the world. One could be in Perth, Alaska or New Zealand, and I can guarantee, without a doubt, someone there will Irish.
Two summers ago, on a bus journey through downtown San Diego, my friends were having a conversation in broken Irish about a good-looking fella sitting across from them. “Tá sé go maith ag lorg!” they complimented, thinking no one else could understand them. The whole time they were giggling. This error in judgment soon became very clear when the bus came to a stop; the handsome gentleman got up, approached my friends and politely said,
“Go raibh math agat” (“thank you), he said, smiled, and walked off.
I’m sure you can imagine my friends’ faces: they were as red as an Irishman’s hair. They realized that although being able to speak in a foreign language is great, sometimes one can end up with the dreaded foot-in-mouth syndrome.
Another phrase we use back home, which has caught us out a few times is, one of our more well-known phrases, “póg mo thóin.” Translation: “Kiss my ass.” I was shocked one night when under my breath I muttered this, along with few other choice words, to someone who was being quite cheeky. They instantly turned around: “Hey! I know exactly what that means!”
Talk about getting an elephant’s foot stuck in your mouth!
Although I’m nowhere near fluent in Gaelic, speaking in Irish has come in handy several times over the past few months. To put it nicely, it helps keep certain, well most, conversations discreet. It usually works most of the time—until it doesn’t.
Admittedly, while I was in school, learning the language was more of a pain the “thóin” than anything else. Since leaving and traveling to different countries, I’ve quickly realized how valuable it can be to have. Even while here I’ve been asked a number of times to translate the Irish language and even on occasions my English! (People still look at me like I’ve lost it when I ask, “Where’s the bin!”)
While it’s great to have Gaelic, the history of our language is quite sad. Between the 1600s and 1900s, the Irish language was forced into decline when England occupied Ireland. However, in the 19th century, a revival of the language took place. Although Gaeilc wasn’t used as fluently as before, it became the first official language of Ireland and has since been taught as a compulsory subject in schools around the country.
It seems though that even some others of different nationalities have had an interest in learning our language over the years. When I was in my last year of secondary (high school), I went to tutoring to help pick up my grade. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was astonished when an Indian professor walked into the class and spoke better Irish than the lot of us put together.
Once at a dinner in Italy, our waiter immediately started speaking to us in Irish; we were stunned at his fluidity. He asked us to help out with a few phrases. My dad joked that we were on an “Irish break” and were interested in learning some Italian. The waiter smiled and replied, “No can do. I’m Egyptian.”
Similar to the many cultures around the world, it’s important that both older and younger generations keep our language alive, especially coming from our history. A lot of friends and family who have left the country have made the effort to stand out. A lot of them now put their names on Facebook into Irish. I’ve done the same in my columns. Although a few weeks ago, my cousin blasted me out for having my name spelled incorrectly—it was missing a very important “h” in “Shúilleabháin.” The name without it becomes masculine—very bad error on my part!