Book review: Coming Home — One Man’s Return to the Irish Language

This book is not just another book explaining why we do not speak our own language, and why we should, and how we might. 

Michael McCaughan

Gill Books, €14.99

It is also, as the title says, the author’s personal odyssey back to the Irish language as well as being a kaleidoscope view of the state of the Irish language today, warts and all. 

In the end, Michael McCaughan is somewhat optimistic, in spite of all the reasons he sets out in the book why he should not be.

Surprisingly, the author tells us that he has only recently learned that Irish was “once spoken by all the inhabitants of the island”. 

What language does he think was spoken here before the Normans arrived? Much of the book seems to be written for a foreign audience as many simple Irish words and expressions are translated into English. 

Tongue in cheek, he tries to find a hidden meaning in Irish grammatical structures instead of looking for equivalents in English.

‘An múinteoir tú?’ instead of meaning ‘Are you a teacher?’ means ‘Teacher you?’. He, again tongue in cheek, compares it to Tarzan language, ‘Me Tarzan — you Jane!’ This appears to be for the benefit of his foreign readership.

In the context of the centenary of the Easter Rising, foreigners who are nationalists in respect of their own country, such as Catalans or Estonians, are always surprised to learn that only a minority of the rebels who were out in 1916 could speak Irish.

The author rightly praises Liam Ó Cuinneagáin of Glencolmcille in Donegal for the wonderful work he has done for Irish over decades. He also praises the Ó Riadas, father Seán and son Peadar, as well as Flann O’Brien. 

He discusses the Galltact, the Gaeltact and even the Jailtact (in Long Kesh), among many others. Gaelbores come in for special opprobrium, pedants who choose the most inappropriate time to correct someone’s grammar or accent.

Probably the most interesting part of the book is about the inroads that Irish is making in unionist areas in the North, especially in east Belfast under the leadership of Linda Ervine. 

Ervine has tasted the delights of Irish and apparently for her there is no going back. 

Her riposte to Gregory Campbell MP is worth repeating. After he publicly ridiculed Irish, she merely pointed out that Campbell means “crooked mouth” in Irish.

The author might have mentioned that in 1688 the Apprentice Boys who shut the gates in Derry spoke Irish, or that in the early 20th century Linda would have felt right at home with many other prominent Protestant Ulsterwomen learning and speaking Irish.

The author has included a few gems, eg, that the necessary ingredient for a successful gaelscoil is “the total indifference of the state”. 

Referring to the Jailtacht, he makes the point that these captive learners were only exceeded “by those captive learners serving time inside the school system in the Republic”.

Another is the poet Nuala Ní Dhomnaill describing her own bilingual life “as a kind of civil war going on inside her between two warring factions that left her constantly exhausted.”

The author is a journalist who has travelled extensively in Latin America. He has rendered a service writing a book about Rodolfo Walsh, an Argentinian writer of Irish heritage who was gunned own by the military there during the dictatorship in the 1970s. 

He had less success in another book extolling the virtues of the Hugo Chávez regime in Venezuela.

This interesting book will be enjoyed by all who have a grá for an Ghaeilge.


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