Nuala Woulfe: How I fell in love with the cúpla focal

Nuala Woulfe on how, when she least expected it, she fell in love with her native tongue.

Over the last two years a strange thing has happened to me – I have started to fall ‘in like’ with the Irish language and there’s nobody more surprised than myself.

Like many of my generation, I cursed Peig Sayers under my breath, learnt poems by heart that meant nothing to me, dissected the archaic goings-on of Diarmuid and Gráinne and when I got my hard-won honour in Irish, ditched the language for good.

Bar the odd word in a foreign country, where I didn’t want my conversations understood, I had no use or time for Irish ever again. All that changed two years ago when my eldest was in sixth class and her teacher started to give her a seanfhocal (an old Irish saying) to learn every week.

“What’s this week’s?” I’d ask her. “Aithníonn ciaróg, ciaróg eile, one beetle recognises another, you know like English, it takes a rogue to know a rogue,” she might say.

As the weeks went by I was struck by the rich images in Irish expressions. For example, Níl aon tinteán ma do thinteán féin, there’s no hearth like your own hearth, is a warmer, more detailed image than the usual English, ‘there’s no place like home.’ Gaelic, I finally understood is another way of thinking. A wolf is a mac tíre, not just a predator but a son of the land, an owl is ulchabhán, a whitebeard – the descriptions were fascinating and I couldn’t get enough.

At the same time as my seanfhocail education was budding I was beginning to write an historical fiction novel, set in Tudor England but with Anglo-Irish and Gaelic nobles as characters. It was only through research I realised the Anglo-Irish in the 16th Century by necessity would have had fluent Gaelic, so I started writing Gaelic expressions in text. Suddenly Irish was becoming useful and relevant in a way that poems and novels for my Leaving Cert never were. I was developing my own relationship with my forgotten Gaelic tongue and doing it my way, in a way I enjoyed.

Just as the seanfhocail were giving me information about the way my ancestors might have thought- Gaelic placenames told me about a region’s history. In West Cork over the summer I passed a sign for Schull and realised the English gave no information but the Irish, An Scoil tells a visitor that this was a centre of learning. Today I live in Nenagh, Tipperary. Again, the word Nenagh conveys no information but its Gaelic name, An tAonach, meaning the market, would have told a visitor in days gone by that this was a place of trade. So it is right across the country, Gaelic placenames give information but English names, unless they are an exact translation, rob meaning.

Nuala Woulfe, Nenagh who has fallen in love with Irish again. She also believes that Irish place names reflect local areas better than ‘makey up’ names like Coolaholloga
Nuala Woulfe, Nenagh who has fallen in love with Irish again. She also believes that Irish place names reflect local areas better than ‘makey up’ names like Coolaholloga

Of course Brian Friel’s play, Translations, captures this point exactly. Friel’s funny, but clever story tells how Ireland became anglicised, often haphazardly. In his play, Druim Dubh, meaning Black Shoulder becomes Drumduff. Ireland’s gaelic landscape always told a story – it was a map of information but translations can border on the ridiculous. Every day I pass by a place called Cúil Chalgaigh, anglicised to Coolaholloga. To me, the English translation sounds like a place in Hawaii.

But I’m no fanatic, I’m just a ‘normal’ person who’s taken a bit of an Irish detour, yet I know I’m not the only one. I’m friends with a very ‘normal’ dad who took improve Irish classes & a very ‘normal’ Irish mum who recently took her family on an Irish adventure holiday in the Donegal gaelteacht.

Bookings manager, Kaye Morrissey at University of Limerick’s Activity Centre, where UL run a bilingual week-long gaelteacht for teens, believes more people are becoming interested in Irish because it’s becoming ‘normalised’. “We’ve seen here that when Irish is learnt without pressure, when it’s not contrived, people will speak it naturally,” says Kaye.

This ‘natural’ emphasis is also promoted by Comhchoiste Ghaelteacht Uibh Ráthaigh in Kerry where fun activity holidays for families are on the rise. “Some families have even come back several times,” a spokesperson said. For me, for now, my only Irish adventure continues with my eldest, who’s currently in second year doing honours Irish. Sometimes we discuss vocabulary for her essays and the rusty cogs in my brain are remembering (slowly) the words, verbs and phrases from my past.

Today I also get some fabulous gems on Twitter from the friendly @theIrishfor and @seanfhocalAnLae. I’m not sure about taking any Irish classes - though if Des Bishop can get from zero to fluency - I guess we all can improve, and as for bundling the family off for an activity holiday through Irish, well I couldn’t see that ever happening – but then again, you never know.


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