I was at a wedding earlier this week, where I met many of my partner’s family for the first time. One particular relation I met was my partner’s uncle, a retired teacher from County Kerry. He’s known in the family for being a Gaeilgeoir, an Irish speaker, and so my partner joked that he would warm to me quite quickly, because I was also a Gaeilgeoir.
“Scott has a cúpla focal as well”, my partner announced to his uncle, no more than a few seconds after being introduced to him. ‘Cúpla focal’ is Irish for ‘a few words’, but he soon learned — much to his surprise and delight — that I had more than a cúpla focal, I was ‘líofa’ — fluent.
The Irish-speaking uncle was thrilled to have a conversation in Irish with me that evening at the wedding’s dinner, and asked all about how I came to be fluent in the minority language, and how often I used it. Since finishing university, I’ve used the language on a weekly to daily basis, including when I worked for a unique department of the BBC in Belfast, where Irish was the daily working language of the office.
Irish is my second language, but it has been a part of my life since I was roughly ten years old, when I became fascinated by it. I would’ve regarded myself fluent by the time I was about 17, a time when the language would’ve been a big identifier for me. I was an Irish-speaker first, a gay guy second, and an Irishman third.
Over the years, the terms and labels I used to identify myself fluctuated in their priority. The language started as the ‘important’ label, then it swapped places with my sexuality, and then both lost out on top position as I dismissed both, and accepted myself for being simply me; an introverted guy from Dublin who hates crowds but — ironically — likes being in the spotlight every so often.
Still, my mastery of Irish was, and is, something upon which I place value. My fluency in Irish meant that I found a niche for myself when starting to work in the media. Any literature I’d write, such as poetry or blogging, would’ve gotten noticed by literary circles quicker in Irish than if I wrote in English. In short, being fluent in a minority language, spoken daily by no more than 3–5% of the Irish population, was actually a massive asset to me.
And yet, so many people regard the Irish language as useless, dead, moribund, and pointless.
To many, it’s quite fair to say that with the way Irish society is currently structured, there aren’t many opportunities to use or speak Irish. We don’t see the language on much product packaging or advertising, unlike Canada, which makes French almost as equally visible as English in predominantly Anglophone areas. Wales is also better than Ireland in terms of visibility for its respective language, even though the public’s attitudes and gripes with Welsh are somewhat similar to Ireland’s situation. In general, minority languages suffer the worst from that old phrase; out of sight, out of mind.
For all the issues, problems, and challenges that it faces, I still love using it, like at the wedding this week. I love meeting up with the odd friend from college, having a coffee in Dublin or London, and launching into Irish without even considering the option of using another ‘mainstream’ or ‘useful’ language, like English. I love picking up the phone and hearing someone start off a conversation with me in Irish, whether it’s an employer, a friend, or just my mother (who only has a cúpla focal, but uses what she has). I love seeing businesses, like cafés, use a bit of Irish on their signs or menus, because it feels inclusive. I can’t say that I feel included, per se, because English is still my first language, but it’s still kind of heartwarming when others make the effort.
In an unexpected way, Irish is far from ‘useless’ in that regard, because it brings everyone in Ireland together, even those from a different background other than Ireland. From the ‘Fáilte Abhaile’ (Welcome Home) sign at Dublin Airport, to the wordplay memes I see on Facebook, to the random “Slán” (Goodbye) or “Go raibh maith agat” (Thank you) you might hear from people on the street, hearing, speaking or using Irish makes me feel at home, regardless of where I am. They say ‘home is where the heart is’, and I always feel at home whenever my partner uses his cúpla focal with me. He’s sometimes nervous using it, he might need to ask about something grammatical, and he’ll sometimes forget a fairly common word, but once he starts, whether we’re in Dublin, Nottingham, or even Toronto, I feel at home.
That’s how powerful, useful, and valuable Irish is to me. That’s why I use it. That’s why I love it. Because is liomsa í — it’s mine.