Manchán Magan decided to take a trip around his country and speak its native language. Nothing remarkable about that? Ah, but he’s Irish, in a country where 25% of the population claims to speak the language of that name but in fact… well, let him tell it:
I chose Dublin as a starting point, confident in the knowledge that in a city of 1.2 million people I was bound to find at least a few Irish speakers. I went first to the Ordnance Survey Office to get a map of the country. (As a semi-state organisation it has a duty to provide certain services in Irish.) “Would you speak English maybe?” the sales assistant said to me. I replied in Irish. “Would you speak English?!” he repeated impatiently. I tried explaining once again what I was looking for. “Do you speak English?” he asked in a cold, threatening tone. “Sea,” I said, nodding meekly. “Well, can you speak English to me now?” I told him as simply as I could that I was trying to get by with Irish.
“I’m not talking to you any more,” he said. “Go away.”
He had similar experiences trying to get a drink (“‘Did you not hear me, no?’ the barman said menacingly”), information from the tourist office (“‘You don’t speak English, do you?’ he asked coldly”), and so on, and he and the reader are getting pretty depressed, until:
I might have been tempted to give up the journey entirely had it not been for something that happened during the radio phone-in. I was rapidly approaching a point of despair when some children came on the line. I found they spoke clear and fluent Irish in a new and modern urban dialect. They told me how they spoke the language all the time, as did all their friends. They loved it, and they were outraged that I could suggest it was dead. These were the children of the new Gaelscoileanna — the all-Irish schools that are springing up throughout the country in increasing numbers every year. While old schools are being closed down or struggling to find pupils, the Gaelscoileanna are having to turn people away…
These children were reared on Irish versions of SpongeBob SquarePants and Scooby-Doo on TG4 . They had invented Irish words for X-Box and hip-hop, for Jackass and blog. They were fluent in Irish text-speak and had moulded the ancient pronunciations and syntax in accordance with the latest styles of Buffy-speak and Londonstani slang. I realised it was they I should have turned to for help on the streets. The children filled me with renewed confidence as I left Dublin and took to the road…
I found that unexpectedly moving, and the whole piece is wonderful and worth a read. I found it via a MetaFilter post, which also links to the website of the TV series, where you can see YouTube excerpts which are also well worth your time (especially the one where he starts out testing people’s knowledge on the street with flash cards and then “goes out busking, using the filthiest, most debauched lyrics he can think of to see if anyone will understand”); the guy is cheerful and resilient, and makes you want to learn the language yourself. (Oh, and the title of this post means ‘rebirth’ in Irish; it’s used at the end of the Guardian article. I’d pronounce it something like AH-vri.)