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.)


  1. Seriously, people go read the article, there’s a wonderful and a very helpful list of Gaelic phrases at the end.
    Which reminds me: “a thaisce” = darling (vocative)? What happened to “a chéadsearc”?

  2. So, that Haines guy was wrong trying to speak Gaelic with the old milk maiden. He should have tried his luck with one of Stephen Dedalus’s pupils.

  3. I’m interested that the Irish-language schools are considered to be so much better than the English-language schools. It was also true in Wales until recently (it’s levelling out a bit now, though), and whatever the reason for it (I can think of one or two), it’s got to be good for the language.

  4. Most of the middle-aged Irish people I know thought I was crazy for learning the language and claimed they couldn’t remember a single word they were forced to learn as kids. It does seem like at least some of the younger generation will keep Irish alive, though. There are a few native and near-native speakers my age around here who are really supportive of the program and happy to help us practice.

  5. That’s really touching. 🙂
    Really, the lesson to walk away with is not that Irish is dying, but that Dubliners are rude. 😉

  6. Proserpine says

    There was a similar show on the BBC Welsh language channel S4C about a year ago, called Popeth yn Gymraeg. The concept was the same, and the host kept a blog about his experiences. I wasn’t able to view all of the episodes, but it seemed significantly more upbeat than the Irish version.

  7. At first glance I read the title (of your posting) as “Athrabeth”.

  8. Another lesson to walk away with is that you should do it using an American acent when you speak English, or maybe something else as recognizably foreign.

  9. duine eigin says

    Dubliners have always been torn between being the metropolis of Ireland and being a provincial centre of the British Isles. Independence did little to change that. When I moved there from “down the country” I was struck by how many expressions they used which I would have considered English-English: “bleedin'” instead of “feckin'”, “bloke” instead of “guy”; “arse” instead of “ass”. As I’ve been told more than once, Dublin was founded by Vikings and then settled by Normans and English: they’ve never spoken Irish in The Pale. I suspect the influx of immigrants may give another push to the Gaelic revival, as an expression of nativism. I hope the immigrant children will learn the language as part of the process of assimilation. They won’t be the first to become “more Irish than the Irish themselves”.

  10. “Guy” is for me, absolutely the best word for that usage (though of course I say “dude” to be cool sometimes). “Bloke”, “chap”, “fellow” all seem terribly affected and archaic. But I have no Irish background and have never though of the word as Irish. Much the same for “ass” and “fuckin”, pronounced slightly differently.
    Perhaps the XIXc Irish diaspora overwhelmed the former American slang the way Yiddish did later.
    On the west Coast of the US “guy” can be unis*x, especially in the plural.

  11. This guy steve is a prudish m*therf*cker.

  12. duine eigin says

    I never thought “guy” or “ass” were specifically Irish, just that the alternatives were specifically English. “Arse” certainly was not historically specific to Dublin, but I think it has persisted longer there in the face of Americanisation in the provinces, with “ass” at its head (as it were). I avoid words which sound markedly English or markedly American, though when forced to choose I usually go with the U.S. I suspect many Irish do likewise; but there are some fine calls as to how redolent a word is of an undesired dialect. “Feck” of course is Irish, not in origin but as a (fully conjugatable) minced form of “fuck”, usable in front of your granny. Usable _by_ your granny.

  13. I always thought of ‘guy’ specifically American, and I am amazed at how common its use seems to be in Britain.
    The same is more true of ‘ass’. I see it as often af ‘arse’ in British blogs, at least. What I don’t see i ‘ss’ used as a derogative suffix – “You about a ignorant-ass m.f-er!”

  14. “As I’ve been told more than once, Dublin was founded by Vikings and then settled by Normans and English: they’ve never spoken Irish in The Pale.”
    Nope. They certainly have. Irish was quite resilient among lower classes until nineteenth century, and it certainly had some footing among the higher-ups until seventeenth century. Before that, English blow-ins were constantly complaining about the encroachment of the Irish language among n-th (n > 1) generation Anglo-Irish.

  15. Addendum: place-names in and around Dublin are hardly less Gaelic than anywhere else.

  16. Popeth yn Gymraeg.. seemed significantly more upbeat than the Irish version.
    Indeed, and Ifor ap Glyn didn’t get any of the negative reactions this guy/chap/bloke did, even when he hid the camera. Even in Cardiff, which is as Anglicised as Dublin.

  17. “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.


  18. Thanks @M, that’s a cute little movie! Great craic!

    (But seriously! There are Chinese yoof who can’t manage a knife and fork?)

Speak Your Mind