Twenty years ago, while living in Washington, D.C., I decided to take lessons in Irish. Americans would call the language Gaelic, but the Irish do not. I have dual citizenship, and I was interested in speaking Irish with my relatives in County Mayo when I visited. "Beannachta i," or "a blessing to you," was the first expression I learned.
Of course, speaking and writing Irish has its limits. Before the 1830s, it was the common language of at least 90 percent of the Irish people. But when the English imposed the instruction of their own language in the Irish schools, Irish declined significantly.
Since that time, Irish has been overshadowed by English as the language of trade, commerce, literature and the law. Today Irish, the decline of which is portrayed by playwright Brian Friel as the torch in the Celtic twilight, is probably not spoken by more than 100,000 people who use one of its dialects in regions of Waterford, Cork, Kerry, Connemara, Donegal and Mayo.
It is a tongue-twisting, throat-clearing, aspirant-filled, eclipsis-ruled Indo-European-related language. As a beginning speaker, I found I was playing tag with its slippery rules, which seemed to dart in and out of the strangely spelled, odd-sounding words.
Early on in my instruction, I didn't ask too many questions. I spent time memorizing vocabulary and responding to the teacher's prompts on pronunciation. Naturally, the ancient Irish stories of Cu Chulainn and other heroes are beyond my abilities in their original language.
In fact, I was hard put to keep up translating the "modern" exercises in my textbook. A hundred years ago, the Irish language still was linked closely to the land. I'm sure more modern texts have updated examples. But as I was learning Irish, these were some of the conversation stoppers I translated:
"Where is Thomas O'Donoghue's threshing-machine working?"
"Give me the lowest stool, and I shall put my back against the wall."
"People sometimes go to the public-house after the fair."
"Where is the new cow byre? It is beyond the turf rick."
"Did you notice the big trees beside the road as you came from Mass?"
"Give us two glasses of whiskey, if you please."
"The heaviest hammer is the best hammer."
"The doctor likes to do his best for all."
"What can't be cured must be endured."
I paged on in my primer: "We shall all die, but we do not know when or where (Gheobhaimid go leir bas, ach nil a fhios again cathain na ca hait)."
I suppose these examples say something about the charm and simplicity of the Irish in the old days. On this side of the Atlantic, many I know spend their lives ignoring the inevitable, suing doctors and generally avoiding all pain.
It can be fairly said that there is a limit to where such gems of conversation might be spoken. On the other hand, I would not recommend that the editors of Irish texts replace all of their homely examples with such as "The bishop made a plea to the Unionist leaders at the Belfast funeral," or "May I show you some Waterford Crystal?"
There are certain gems that require no change. "Deirtear nach ualach do dhuine an leann" is one of them. It means "Learning is no burden for any man." I know there will be a time and place for that. The uses of Irish are endless.