Tracing Irish Gaelic in the Emerald Isle's Gaeltachts
BY J R Patterson
29th Nov 2023 Travel Stories
10 min read
Ireland's native language is alive and well in the Gaeltachts, the island's western-most regions where the sounds of Gaelic ring out over the Atlantic
Language is music. Each tongue has its particular cadence, rhythm and tone, and finds a natural partner in one musical form or another.
German is a march. Italian carries the trills of baroque chamber music. The Irish language, when I first overhear it in a pub in western Ireland, reaches my ears like an old hymnal, its chordal tang ancient and elegiac.
The men upon whom I’m eavesdropping are bent forward, as though discussing mortality—until they burst out laughing and drain their pints. It leaves me feeling, in the words of Irish writer Maurice O’Sullivan, “like a dog listening to music.”
I see this as tús maith—a good beginning, a chance to see a familiar place anew. Ireland has become part of the global community, but the Gaeltacht regions, or An Ghaeltacht, are the root from which the shamrock has bloomed; deeper, darker and full of ortha an dul amú—the charm of concealment.
My ancestors were forced from the country by famine and land reforms during the 19th century, when the Gaeilge language (also known as Irish Gaelic) was at its nadir. The lingual tie to their homeland was severed, but in Ireland a steadfast few still hold their end of the link.
"I see this as tús maith—a good beginning, a chance to see a familiar place anew"
Wanting to know what I might glean from hearing that ancestral sound, I’ve come to the shredded western coast, from Dingle to Connemara to Donegal, where one can still catch those hymns in the air.
It’s no coincidence that the coast is where the Irish language retains its strongest hold. While English became dominant among both emigrants to the New World and the Irish who lived closer to Dublin, in the western part of the country the native language remained the connection to Gaelic culture.
Today, a coordinated effort among governments, schools, historians and enthusiasts safeguards these social and linguistic traditions. While almost 2 million Irish now claim to speak some aspect of the language, only about 70,000 speak it daily outside the education system.
The majority are found in the counties of Galway, Monaghan, Donegal and Kerry, where I start my journey.
Searching for Ireland's tongue in the Dingle Peninsula
My first stop is the Dingle Peninsula, a finger of land sticking out into the Atlantic. The town of Dingle was once a parochial fishing village, its crooked lanes stacked with lobster pots and gillnets.
It’s had a touch-up lately; between the bright facades of jumper shops and galleries hang gilded signs advertising catch of the day.
“We’re the last of the Mohicans out here,” a man tells me in the Dingle Pub, the cream of his Guinness spilling over the lip of the glass.
There’s a feeling of the end of things, but also one of hope: the belief that newfound enthusiasm for the language—and quality restaurants, bookshops and festivals—will keep the area alive.
On this early autumn day, the town bustles with walkers and window shoppers who move to the drone of an Irish dirge that streams from the pub until well into the night.
The next morning, I awake in my room at An Capall Dubh (The Black Horse) guesthouse. Owner Helena Curran serves me eggs laid by her own chickens, cursing the madra rua (red fox) that stole one of the flock in the night.
Curran was raised speaking Irish. “The language is alive here,” she says.
"We’re the last of the Mohicans out here"
She has certainly made it a part of life at her inn. Moving briskly between the tables, she pours coffee and serves plates while giving guests tumbling language lessons. I ask what phrase will best serve me during my time in Ireland. “All you’ll need for now,” she says, “is míle buíochas.” A thousand thanks.
When I tell Curran of my plans to hike out to Dún Chaoin, the westernmost point of the peninsula, she gives me a gáire glic, a sly smile. “The whales are in, so keep a good lookout,” she says. “The water’s like a sheet of glass today.”
It is distant and beautiful. Reaches of azure stripped with white extend in a flush expanse toward the green rise of the Blasket Islands and, beyond, the spectral form of the Skellig Islands.
Now abandoned, the Blaskets were once home to a thriving literary community; the Irish-language canon was bolstered by islanders Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Maurice O’Sullivan and Peig Sayers, whose autobiography, Peig, was once the bane of Irish schoolchildren.
After a pint in Dún Chaoin, I take the Mám Clasach Road to the village of Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, the roadside hedged with fuchsia, loosestrife and quaking-grass shaking in the wind. The sloping hills are like the bumps of a rumpled bed, the fields laid down like the patchwork of an uneven quilt.
Walking through the countryside gives good perspective, but the blue skies are often overtaken by sudden squalls, the wind bringing blocks of rain that flatten the land and leave me cold and drenched. Because public transport in rural Ireland moves at a pre-industrial pace, I switch to a car and drive north.
What are the Gaeltachts?
The Gaeltachts are vague geographical areas, generally delineated by where Irish remains the predominant language. They are deeply rural, with advertisements for horse cutting and tractor repair tacked onto telephone poles.
For years, their remoteness meant they leaked muscle and brain power, with youth leaving for better opportunities in Dublin or overseas.
Today, though, the Gaeltachts are using their language as a strength, to sustain a resurgence that prior generations would have found unthinkable.
On the seaside promenade in Galway, I stop to chat with a man I hear speaking Irish into his phone.
“Twenty years ago, I would’ve had to emigrate,” he says. “Now, there’s work here. People are building homes, raising their children and sending them to Irish schools.”
"There is a word for the roof of a dog’s mouth (carball) and the clacking of pebbles moved by seawater (súitú)"
He pauses and smiles. “It’s not contrived, if you catch my meaning. The language, it’s not a conscious thing. It’s just who we are.”
There is a feeling among the people who speak Irish that the language is priceless, like a precious stone kept in the pocket. It’s wonderfully exact. There is a word for the roof of a dog’s mouth (carball) and the clacking of pebbles moved by seawater (súitú). Muirleadh is the act of chewing up small crabs and spitting them into the sea for bait.
It also imparts the true character of the landscape. During the 19th century, when Irish was replaced with English, the knowledge and legends within place names became confused.
There’s no circular rock at County Galway’s Roundstone village, but there are seals, as conveyed by the original name, Cloch na Rón, or “Rock of the Seals.” Nearby An Cheathrú Rua—“The Red Quarter” for the local population—was anglicised into Carraroe, a nonsense word.
Remote life in Connemara, from woolmaking to gteic
After a night in the city of Galway, I drive west into Connemara, the largest of the Gaeltacht regions.
At the Ionad Cultúrtha an Phiarsaigh cultural centre in Ros Muc (“Peninsula of Rounded Hills”), my guide, Daíre Óh Ainmhire, shows me a map made by Tim Robinson, an English cartographer who travelled to western Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s to document the Irish names of places.
“Here’s the real Ireland,” he says.
The communities where Irish is still strong, such as Leitir Mealláin and Carna, largely depend on fishing, but stocks have declined.
The solution has been technology: the internet, far from disrupting life, has allowed people who left to find work in the city to return. Coworking spaces known as “gteic digital hubs” have sprung up in small towns around the Gaeltacht.
At the gteic in Carna, local development officer Mairín Ní Choisdealbha-Seoige tells me “‘blow-backs’—people returning to live in the Gaeltacht—have become as common as ‘blow-ins,’ people moving here for the first time.”
History weighs heavily on the Gaeltacht, and I visit the Emigrants Commemorative Centre in Carna to explore my own. The centre gives descendants of Irish emigrants a place to reconnect with ancestors through thousands of documents, records and photographs.
"As with most Irish speakers I meet, Coyne has strong tírghrá, or love for her country"
Over ham-and-salad sandwiches in the cafeteria, I sit with a group and discuss Ireland’s historic connection with America—the packages of clothes and money that were sent east from those resettled relatives, the slivers of peat sent west like pieces of totemic incense.
At some point, I realise those around me are speaking English for my benefit. Language can be a concealer of secrets, but it’s more often used to include. Whenever I let my attention waver, they slip in a phrase or two in Irish, careful not to exclude me but finding comfort in their cradle-tongue.
The comfort of custom is an inherent part of maintaining traditions. The next day, driving through the low hills of north County Galway, I turn at a sign for Joyce Country Wool. Here, at a small holding on the fringe of Loch Na Fooey, Carina Coyne teaches visitors how to process wool the traditional way, from the raw fleece of her sheep.
“My ancestors lived on eggs and socks, just over there,” she says, pointing out the window to a small lime-mortar cottage. Beyond that, a flock of sheep moves across the hillside, elongated and squeezed by border collies.
As with most Irish speakers I meet, Coyne has strong tírghrá, or love for her country. She cards and spins fleece as her forebears did and walks the hills of Connemara to collect ingredients with which to dye her handspun wool.
Strung around her shop are skeins tinted red with meadowsweet, ochre with onion skins, yellow with gorse, green with nettle.
“Nothing bright,” Coyne says, handing me a burly sweater. “Put this on, and you melt into the land.”
The fightback against Irish Gaelic's decline
Northern Connemara presents landscapes grander than I thought Ireland could hold. Dry-stone walls snake up hillsides like geoglyphs waiting to be translated.
The Twelve Bens and Maumturks ranges rise from green leas to rocky tops, the valleys between strung with lakes and ponds.
Country manors such as Screebe House, Ballynahinch Castle and Lough Inagh Lodge maintain airs of antiquated grandeur, with hunting dogs snoring on the carpets and grand paintings hung over soot-stained hearths.
At dusk, I stop at the Inagh Valley Lodge. Lit by the falling sun, the slopes of Binn Bhriocáin blush like a golden pyramid.
That night, over dinner, I read Manchán Magan’s Thirty-Two Words for Field. From the next table, a man leans over and asks me to explain my breacadh, my scribbling notes. He doesn’t ask it that way, though, as he’s lost his Irish.
"Being in the Gaeltacht fills him with díláthair, the feeling of something missing"
“It’s not quite Chinese,” he says, “but I’m terrible with language.”
Growing up in Dublin, he’d maintained a certain level of schoolboy Irish, but it was like a rusty bicycle. “I can remember how to ride, but it’s better I don’t get on the thing.”
Being in the Gaeltacht fills him with díláthair, the feeling of something missing. “Hearing it spoken so beautifully makes me wish I could.”
Many of those I meet who have lost the language confide such laments.
Educational facilities are trying to curb that loss. Students from across the country can study in the Gaeltacht at schools such as Carna’s Coláiste Sheosaimh, where they can immerse themselves in the language.
Along with a youthful vigour, the students, with their rising enrolment, prove that Irish has a future.
When words fail us in the Donegal Gaeltacht
In Donegal, one of the farthest Gaeltachts from Dublin, many of the bilingual road signs have the English place names struck out with red paint.
At An Bun Beag, I meet up with friends, and together we drive north into a sylvan landscape touched with clouds. The hillsides are scarred with peat cuttings, the white bags of earthen bricks like flocks of swans.
Here and there, ruins of stone houses poke through the moss and heather. These carcasses of history heighten the silence, and we go quiet so that we might not break the hallowed calm.
As Seamus Heaney wrote, “When you have nothing more to say, just drive/For a day all round the peninsula.”
That is just what we do. To Dún Fionnachaidh, where we tip freshly shucked oysters to our lips, filling our mouths with smoky brine.
To the promontory of Horn Head, where the deceptively smooth land rises to meet the sea with sheer cliffs.
And to Lough Beagh, where the bright sunshine makes sparkling tinsel of the slips of water that trickle down the granite slopes of the Glendowan Mountains.
"Many of the bilingual road signs have the English place names struck out with red paint"
That night at the Teach Hiúdaí Beag pub, we listen to the sound of Irish rising from the tables. As the bartender, Magnus, pulls me a pint, he speaks about his childhood in the village. He is only in his early twenties, but Irish is his first language.
I tell him I’ve heard the concern across Ireland that children raised primarily in Irish have trouble adapting to English, that it slows their education and cognition.
Magnus scoffs. “It was no bother at all,” he says. “I was like a sponge.”
Around one table, we sense the growing promise of music. First, two young boys with a guitar and an accordion arrive. Then two women draw out their flutes. There’s a man with a drum, and a girl appears with a fiddle. Soon, there are a baker’s dozen of musicians.
Each tune begins tentatively, a fiddler quietly drawing her bow until others join in turn. The songs swell, the players urging each other on, in competition with the rowdy crowd. Then, a lone woman’s voice breaks through the cacophony.
Her words are strange and mournful. The lamenting tune carried by her flat alto spreads through the room, which has hushed to listen to this rare and beautiful hymn.
From Hemispheres, copyright © 2023 by Ink for United Airlines, hemispheresmag.com
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