In Glencolmcille (III)

(part I) (part II)

Seamus is a big elderly American of Irish descent. He is in level 2. Of course he takes the car to drive around the corner to go shopping. On the third day he has a puncture. One of the locals helps him out. In the shop I hear him, his voice booming, ask the shopkeeper how to thank his benefactor. ‘So what would he like? Shall I buy him a bottle of whiskey?‘ The shopkeeper and his son don’t say much. ‘He doesn’t drink,’ their answer is barely audible. ‘Well how about a box of chocolates?‘ Shoulders are shrugged. ‘Well, should I give him money? How much would be appropriate?‘ Seamus is at a loss. He doesn’t understand that you don’t talk about such things. His best bet would have been to pay the man a visit, and quietly leave a small present on the table.


Seamus takes Birgitta and myself for a drive around the area. We go up Bun Glas, a pass over the mountains. It is a scary drive, the fog is out and thick as peasoup. On the summit you’re supposed to have a beautiful view of the cliffs of Slieve League. But today we can hardly see the back of our hands. Seamus takes pictures of everything he sees. Even the fog doesn’t escape from his viewer. ‘I brought plenty of film, so I can show the folks at home.‘ His wife did not want to come along. Later in the Rusty Mackerel in Teelin – a famous pub the heart of the Gaeltacht – he starts telling us about how he used to beat his children. He didn’t know any better, he says, his father used to beat him too, and the nuns were no better. He confesses some more. Both Birgitta and I feel a little embarrassed. We feel we’ve just arrived in an Oprah Winfrey show. We’re not used to this American frankness. On the way back he asks us what language we speak in our countries. Dutch and Swedish, of course. ‘And do you speak it well, with your parents?’ He thinks the entire world speaks English. A few days later we take him along to see a formation of three pre-Celtic passage graves. When the sun sets, the light shines through the openings of the three graves. ‘Is that a fort?‘ he asks. ‘It’s a grave. Two thousand b.c., Seamus!‘ ‘Oh really?‘ he says and takes a picture. Then he’s off. Pre celtic times don’t mean much to someone whose own constitution’s just a quarter of a century old.


Thomas keeps word and takes me to see Dun Alt, the fort on the cliffs. He remembers a lot of what the professor told the archeology group, and now he tells me. He doesn’t get along too well with our teacher, Ainne. He knows all the answers, but the words are stuck in his mouth once it is his turn. He decides to stay another week and hopes to get a suitable teacher. After a week we all speak a little Irish and we all have the flue. Liam was right, we are amazed at our own progress. We have learnt eight out of eleven irregular verbs. Ainne praises me for pronunciation. We are told our group, level 1, have done an amazing amount of work, We’ve done a semester’s worth of material, in one week. Level 1 is jealous of our progress and together we are jealous of level 3, when we hear them talk during the ‘diasporacht’ the discussion on Friday evening. We all swear we’ll come back the next summer. We all say we’ll study when we get back home, find a course, or teach ourselves with books and tapes.

The week ends with a ceili, a party in the local community hall. Oideas Gael has found a little old man to play accordion for us, so we can do a set dance. He’s paid in drinks. Michael drags me up the dance floor. ‘But I have a fever,’ I say. ‘To hell with that! Dance!‘ He says. I don’t understand the steps and figures of this dance. But it is fun. The Derry group comes in as well. Plastic carrier bags full of drink on them. When the music stops all kinds of people take the stage to bawl their out of tune ballads. Everybody’s drunk, and none of them can sing Nobody listens to them anyway. They’re busy. Ag caint, ag caint, ag caint. Talk, talk, talk. That’s Ireland, a nation of compulsive talkers.

The next morning we’re nursing our hangovers in the class room. Ainne asks us what we want to do. ‘I want my last three irregular verbs!‘ I say and get what I want. Then we all say good-bye outside. Addresses are exchanged. We vowto write each other. Only a few will actually keep those promises. Ainne has a sudden burst of emotion and affection and rushes to press all our hands. She thanks us. The course was an eye-opener for her. She finds teaching adults much more rewarding. I say good-bye to Glen and travel along the west coast for four weeks. Whenever I can, I try to practice what I’ve learnt. I can decipher the gravestones on the Aran Islands, and I can order a cup of tea or a Guinness. Reactions vary. I can see it in their faces: "How dare she talk our language?" or "At last someone who takes the trouble to learn our ways."

The owners of the hostel in Galway where I stay are from Achill Island, which until recently was a Gaeltacht. They have just opened their hostel and are enthusiastic and interested in their guests. ‘Declan,’ the woman says, ‘This is Caroline. She’s done a course in Irish!‘ Declan tests me: ‘An bfhuil Gaeilge agat?‘ ‘Ta cupla focal agam,‘ I say, ‘I have a few words.‘ ‘Ta focal go lore agat!‘ He praises me ‘You’ve plenty of words.’ In Carrick, in the heart of the Gaeltacht, I try to get a smile from my ‘ban an ti’ – the woman of the house. When she serves dinner, I say – dramatically – ‘Bradán!‘ She looks at me and says: ‘Is that what you call it in your language?‘ ‘No, I say,’ surprised by her reaction, ‘That’s Irish!‘ ‘Oh, ‘t is, yes, ‘t is,’ she says, and walks away and still hasn’t smiled. And then it’s time to go back to Dublin. Culture shock awaits me. Apart from the raging traffic, the smell of the Liffey and the smoke coming from the Guinness brewery, there is the total lack of the language. ‘Go raibh maith agat’ I thank the bus driver as I get off. She looks at me as if I’m soft in the head.

Oideas Gael website.

One thought on “In Glencolmcille (III)

  1. I think I feel shame. You’ve probably seen more of my culture than I have. If you’d been in school here you’d be turned off Irish. I know I was. Most people my age were as well. You have to read old literature and stuff, and learn verbs. It’s taught like English is, as though we know it already. But we don’t. To us, it’s French, or Spanish. And that’s how it should be thought – but it’s rammed down our throats in school, and we shy away. The northern language is the language of my ancestors – my grandmother speaks it fluently. Being a southerner myself I can’t make head nor tail of it – it’s totally different to the language I learned, leaving out accents I learned etc etc. Interestingly, my great-grandmother from Antrim was an O’Neill – the last of the O’Neills living in the north who can claim a direct line back to the last O’Neill (Hugh) to declare his line to the high throne – he lead a rebellion with the O’Donnell clans against Elizabith I in the late 1500s and was defeated. The line is still in existance, but the descendants are all Spanish now – most of the family fled there when Hugh was defeated.
    said tomcosgrave on March 21, 2002 12:28 AM

    Coulda known you’d appear here, Tom. :) I hated Irish in school too, but in my second year of attending a summer college (up the road from Glencholmcille, in Gweedore), I suddenly became fluent. It lasted a few years, although I can get it back by speaking as gaelige for a few minutes. But yeah, it’s taught really badly.
    said Drew Shiel on March 25, 2002 02:37 PM

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