Friday, May 24, 2013

Listening to the Irish

by Sheila Connolly

Long before my County Cork series saw the light of day, I started taking Irish language classes at a local Irish cultural center.  The classes were offered by an organization called Cumann na Gaeilge, which translates to Friends of the Irish.  I spent five years of Thursday nights trekking to the center, and emerged with a rather rudimentary knowledge of contemporary Irish, plus a few memorized poems and songs.  No fault of the instructors—it's a notoriously difficult language to learn.  In truth, mostly I went to listen, since both my primary instructor and more than half the people in the class were Irish-born (which does not necessarily mean that they learned the language in Ireland in their early years), and I wanted to absorb the speech patterns and inflection.

Due to internal conflicts, Cumann na Gaeilge split apart in the past year, and my former instructor founded a new group, Ar dTeanga Dhuchais, which means Our Native Language, to offer language classes.  Somehow I found myself agreeing to be treasurer of the new group, mainly to keep some contact with the language.  Recently we held a meeting at an Irish pub in Boston.

I was the only American-born person at the table of five.  I knew two of the people there, and the other two were strangers to me.  I mostly listened, and after a while I wished I'd had a recorder with me, because what I saw unfolding was exactly what I've tried to include in my irish-based series.

First a stranger (Irish) walked up and started a conversation with Seamus, one of the men at the table, asking if they'd met before.  They hadn't, but it turned out that Seamus's brother had worked in the same union as the newcomer (all but one of the men are now retired from one or another of the building trades).  Then there ensued a long conversation amongst them men about what other contacts they shared, covering a few decades.  There was a strange aside when the newcomer was somehow reluctant to reveal his surname, at least until everyone (or at least the men) had established his bona fides.  (It turned out to be Keneally.)  And then this segued into where each had come from and when (but not why) and who and what they knew back in Ireland.

And I'm sitting there still as a mouse, gobsmacked (another good Irish phrase—"gob" means mouth in Irish) by what I'm hearing, because it's exactly what I wanted in my book, and here I am hearing it like it was a script, or something I wish I'd written.  These men are decades removed from "home," and yet they're still talking about where they came from.  Not on a grand level, but about details—about waiting for the tides, and curraghs (a kind of small boat I'd only read about), and harvesting kelp not for food or fertilizer but to dry and use in weaving. About neighbors helping neighbors when the seas were too rough to travel to the mainland from the little islands off the west coast. About families maybe none of them knew, but they knew about from others.

All the elements I've seen in Ireland—as an American outsider—were there:  the attachment to the land, the connection to a network of people, the way of establishing not "if" but "how" they connect with an Irish stranger. All rolling out in front of me, unasked. 

I'll be in Dublin again on Sunday. I can't wait.


Leslie Budewitz said...

Delightful. Looking forward to tales of your travels -- I presume the visit to Dublin is on your way to joining the group traveling in Italy.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sheila,
Enjoy your trip! We're thinking about going back soon.
I tried learning some Gaelic on my own a few years back, and basically threw in the towel (the language "gobsmacked" me). I'm no slouch at languages--fluent in Spanish, some remaining reading abilities in French, German, and Russian--but Gaelic won and I lost.
While there are no direct connections to Eire in my novels, in my Doctor Carlos series of SF short stories, he bandies about our region of the galaxy in the starship Brendan. And, of course, my predilection for Guinness and Jamesons is featured at my web site.
All the best,