Dublin Castle, Scene of Our Lesson on the Irish Language
Home in Dublin this summer, I made a point of taking tours I'd not done previously, today with the express purpose of learning more about Irish history. Did you know that the Irish language is one of the oldest in the world? It's a thousand years older than English. Alan Swaine, my tour guide for the Original Dublin Free Walking Tour, helped me out. If you've ever taken a free walking tour, in any city around the world, you understand the premise… there's no "cover" charge to start, and you pay what you feel the tour was worth. As Alan told us at the beginning, "Just double or triple your daily wage, and give me that." While he may have been joking, I think this masterful guide is worthy of that pot o' gold at the end of each rainbow.
The Irish language is difficult to understand despite Gaelic languages existing in various areas of Europe. The closest to Irish is Scottish. The furthest, perhaps, is Welsh, which Alan agrees, is off on its own. There's also Manx, the Isle of Mann, and Cornish Gaelic. The reason it's become so uncommon has roots in colonialism. When the Irish were conquered by the English, one of the goals of colonialism was to remove the language from the culture. A form of Hiberno-English developed over time.
It's important to understand the immediate difference. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet and only 18 in the Irish. Essentially, Alan tells us, they "got rid of" the ones they didn't really need over time. So there's no J, K, W, X, Y, or Z. K sounds too much like "c" and was considered redundant. "Why do we need two letters with the same sound? Get rid of it." Out went the "k." The w, x, y, and z aren't used very often. Get rid of them, too. The J, I think, is a little more interesting. In the monasteries, monks' calligraphy made the J look like an S, so out went the J.
The letters, when combined, don't have the same sound we may hear in English. The "ch" for example, makes a "thw" sound. They don't have a "th" sound together, they use one or the other so "Thirty-three and a third" sounds more like "torty tree and a turd."
Using names to demonstrate seems to be the easiest. John – change the J to an S and it becomes Sean. So any Sean with any spelling in the world derives from an Irish John. Jack … well, that's a derivative of John, so also Sean. This can be confusing. Alan remembers being told at a store he's very familiar with that they'd seen his Uncle Jack. He has a Great Uncle Sean, he told us, known to his dad as John, but known to his friends as Jack. Hmm. It can take a while to figure it all out.
There aren't always direct translations. My daughter, for example, is a Jacqueline. I hadn't realized it'd be such a challenge. The one reference I found changes it to Séamaisíona. It sounds like "shame-a-sheena." I think I like Alan's recommendation of Shanna or Sinead instead.
Another more common direct translation is William. There's no W so that's dropped. That leaves illiam, that sounds like ileum, so let's drop the i and the l, too. That leaves … Liam. Liam Hemsworth, Liam Neeson, Liam Payne. I have an uncle and a nephew both named Liam. Lovely.
So, that's the alphabet and name translation.
What's happened to the rest of the language?
Despite 14 mandatory years of study in school, less than 150,000 of the 7M Irish inhabitants (North and the Republic) speak fluent Irish today. Even Alan, a substitute Irish teacher during the pandemic, claims he's not fluent. While the focus remains on writing and poetry, Alan agrees it's important to immerse yourself in the culture and speak it to have the best experience.
He tells me it's difficult even for him to practice when he heads to the West. "They hear my accent, know I'm from Dublin and answer me in English," he says.
Dingle has the largest concentration of speakers of the Irish language while Connemara is the largest region. They've monetized it now so you can go for classes, for say €300 a week.
When you understand the way people are identified, especially in rural Ireland where the families tend to stay for generations, you may realize you have some cousins nearby.
For example, Alan may introduce himself at home as Alan McMichal. Alan, son of Michal. Mc or Mac could be used, or an O to identify as, say the grandson of Francis. When you're in a country whose population of only a half million people, your neighbors are probably going to know Michal and they're definitely going to know Francis.
Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, sire of all future O'Brians
Brian Boru is the most famous Brian in Irish history. So, if you're a descendent and you use the name of your most famous forefather, you're going to be an O'Brian. Whether you spell it with an "a" or an "e," Alan tells us, you're all descended from this Brian.
Alan regaled us with stories of Jameson, Guinness, and Kennedy, all returning to a solid Irish base.
And the Denelli family in Italy? They're all O'Neils from the North, left the Ulster Plantation in northern Ireland during the Flight of the Earls.
On Irish street signs, both English and Irish are present. As you go out to the country, you see the Irish word bóithrín. The Irish word for cow is bó. A bóthar was a cow path and a bóithrín, a little cow path. You'll see it, especially on the roads in the west, and realize that Brian Boru was "Brian who has many cows."
Slainte is a common word to hear at any Irish bar. It's the Irish equivalent of "cheers." Slan is the equivalent of goodbye. There's not a real, non-religious, way to say hello or goodbye in the Irish language. The formal way to say hello is Dia dhuit which translates to. "God be with you." The proper reply is "God and Mary be with you." Then you could reply, "God and Mary and Joseph be with you." It sounds as though it could be exhausting, or a fun game, as you continue through all the saints. Sounds like a good way to keep your memory sharp, trying to remember them all in the order originally said.
Starting Point for the Original Dublin Tour with Alan Swaine
Alan stopped us short with his quick Irish, "Dia daoibh agus fáilte roimh go mBaile Átha Cliath. Alan is ainm dom agus cead mile fáilte go Éireann."
Would you say, "yes," "no," "thank you," or "bless you"?
The direct translation is: "Hello everybody and welcome to Dublin. Alan is my name and a hundred thousand welcomes to Ireland."
Because one is never enough.
When in Dublin, do your best to catch Alan's tour. This discussion was the tiniest of sections, held on the balcony over Dubh Linn Garden and is a snatch of what you'll learn as an "oh, by the way" from these extremely well-trained guides.