My adventures in Irish

Stumped by the Irish language's complexity, a new learner dips into its history and her own.

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    Road signs on Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry.
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Last summer I worked at a Dublin-based magazine. As a lowly intern, one of my jobs was covering the front desk when the receptionist went to lunch. It wasn't bad. I listened to the radio, read the news, and signed for mail. The only trying task, actually, was answering the phone.

All I had to do was transfer the call or take down a message. The problem: Through a muffled phone, the brogue does not sound like English. And once deciphered, Irish names are not easy to spell. A few particularly challenging ones: Aoife (EE-fa), Niamh (NEEV), Saoirse (SEER-sha), Eoin (OH-in), Cillian (Kill-EE-ann). Once, I had to ask a caller to repeat his name four times before I realized he'd been saying "Thomas."

In person, the Irish English accent isn't nearly as hard to understand as on the phone. Unless, that is, it's not English at all.

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Though only a tiny percentage of people – most of them in the very rural south or west – speaks Irish fluently and regularly, it is the country's first official language. Every road sign reads first in Irish, then English, as does all public text: city bus timetables, statues, and museum exhibit descriptions. All primary school students take daily Irish lessons.

At first, I thought it odd that the government puts so much effort into a language no one speaks anyway. Then I learned its history.

The Irish language hasn't always been a mainstay. In the late 19th century, it had become almost obsolete, a cause for persecution under British rule. But after an early 20th-century cultural nationalism movement, the language became a source of motivation, a savior, to politically disenchanted citizens. It became a catalyst for freedom.

On Thursday nights, just one hour for six weeks, I took an Irish language class.

Right away it became clear that, despite my adorably enthusiastic instructor, I'd never grasp more than very basic phrases, nor use what I learned in the real world. Still, it was interesting, romantic even, to study the language my ancestors spoke.

As in English, Irish words often do not sound the way they're spelled. There are at least two or three pronunciations for almost every word, depending on the dialect. I won't start with the language's complicated grammatical meanderings. Here are some basics:

Nora is ainm dom. That means, "Nora is my name" (pronounced "Nora es anyum dum").

Tá mé i mo chónaí i mBaile Átha Cliath faol láthair. "I live in Dublin at the moment" (pronounced "Ta may aye ah-ho-nee aye malia aha clee-a fwee lar").

My favorite aspect of the language is the way it handles emotion. Whereas in English one would say, "I'm angry," in Gaelic the phrase is Tá fearg orm, which directly translates as "I have anger on me." I like how emotion doesn't consume one's being. In the Irish language, anger, sorrow, and shame never define a person; they're just temporarily in one's possession. The same goes for everything: fatigue, hunger, happiness, and excitement.

Though English remains the country's primary mode of communication, the Irish do use a few Irish words in everyday life, more so when they don't want tourists to understand them. For example, it's taoiseach (pronounced "tee-shuck") for "prime minister," and garda for "police." Craic is another common word. It means "fun" or "news" in Irish, and is pronounced like the lethal drug, crack. People often ask "do you have any good craic?" or "how was the craic at the pub last night?" It's not a term I recommend using in the United States.

Even once I'd learned a little Irish, I still couldn't use it out in public. The second I said anything, even in English, everyone knew I was American. Saying craic or sláinte (pronounced "slahn-cha," meaning "to your health" or "cheers") just felt phony, like something embarrassing tourists do to fit in with the locals. But my Irish language lessons were not for naught.

In 1926, my great-grandmother left Ireland for the US. Though she died when I was very young, I remember visiting her quite clearly: her bright-red front door and the roses in the back garden, her old-fashioned stove, and the blue candy bowl in her living room. She drank tea constantly and told stories about my dad when he was a boy.

Most of all I remember her brogue, still strong after 70 years spent in Chicago, so distinct that even her pet parakeet spoke with an Irish accent.

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