While canoeing the great lakes of Mazury, my eldest daughter turned to me and said she would like to learn Irish. Come, come Lilly, I said. There are many other languages for you to master, tongues useful for travelling such as Spanish or Russian. Or why not German where unlike Irish, the laws of grammar can actually be applied coherently and logically? I even offered Italian as an alternative. Not really a language at all, more a catalogue of food names. It is well known that 90% of all Italian is gesticulation, the world’s noisiest body-language, its value essential, no more so when shrugging your way through Rome or grimacing whilst being robbed at knifepoint by Camorra street urchins in Casal di Principe.
But no, with true donkey stubbornness, she insisted on Irish, Ireland’s majority language. Or it was, at least until the mid 19th century when it was purposefully and wilfully thwarted by the rulers of Britain who engineered ‘The Famine’ of 1845-52, killing a million and forcing another million on death-boats to America. Those who remained were evicted from the land and relocated to cities where English became the essential tool of survival.
This is how Irish became a minority language in its own country. Of course, ‘The Famine’ wasn’t really a famine at all, the name is erroneous. Its correct historical title is ‘The Great Hunger’ as there was more food in the country then than there ever has been. But it was guarded from an impoverished Irish peasantry when the potato blight killed their staple food source.
I often wonder what would have happened if a similar scenario befell Poland in the 19th century? Go on, be honest. A quarter of your population aggressively and horrifically removed? Then, simultaneously, your culture and traditions systematically erradicated with an exactitude and diligence that only the world’s greatest Empire can enforce? Tell me, what language would you be speaking now?
Or in the 20th century, if Hitler hadn’t made his Halt Order at Dunkirk, a folly that cost him the war, would there be a Polish language? Imagine the possible resulting scenario; growing up in Poland with German as your first language, the means by which you interact with entertainment and culture, and perversely, the means by which you engage in your Polish traditions and values. Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? And the only thing which would make it worse would be if your German rulers fostered an extreme hatred in you towards your native Polish to the extent where it was seen as a backward, idiotic practice. But this is the schizophrenic sensibility we Irish are trapped within, this boisterous little nation who have influenced the culture of the world in the language of our once greatest enemy.
At present both Lilly and Malina speak English and Polish and are learning French. I have negated Irish from my life and that of my daughters based on the qualification that it isn’t useful. Only 3% of Ireland’s population speak Irish as an everyday practicality despite it being a compulsory subject in all secondary schools. It is a dying language that when spoken has all the charm of a crow eating itself in a chimney… And yet somehow it seems important that I acquiesce to my daughter’s wishes.
Sure, perhaps her commitment to the Irish language will be a folly, a laborious luxury which her still childish mind does not fully comprehend. But in the face of accepted bland corporate subservience, it could be a mighty declaration of her heritage, who she is and who I forgot I am. As parents, we are keepers of a flame. We guard it and we pass it on.
To not do so would be negligent. It would limit the intangible mysteries which govern our journey. I speak of course about the imagination, the soul and the values of our antecedents. My daughters would not be here if it weren’t for those who came before them, those lucky ones who survived ‘The Great Hunger.’ They never met their grandfather Peadar Mór, he who taught me Irish when I was four. They never met their great-grandmother Kathleen who left the side of a Kerry mountain at seventeen to nurse in London. They never met their great-grandfather Peter who had a ticket for the Titanic and thanks to the great de Búrca trait of being late, missed the liner’s last stop at Cobh in County Cork.
But through the Irish language and my teaching of it, there is a chance they can meet something of their ancestor’s spirit, their soul, their flame and these two little girls living in Poland, can be Irish.