Author Felicity Hayes-McCoy’s love of the Irish language is entwined with her love of the Dingle Gaeltacht. She explains how the language flavours her life and home, and how you can taste it on your own visit to Ireland.
A few weeks ago I spent a noisy night leaning on the top of a piano struggling to sign books. It was my own book launch, a night of music, stories, crowds and craic, held in Murphy’s pub in Ballyferriter, eleven miles back west of Dingle town. Fiddlers jostled with flute players, pints were downed, songs were sung, and we all ate a helluva lot of smoked salmon. At one point, in a brief moment of calm, I looked across the room and saw my commissioning editor who’d flown in that afternoon from London on her first visit to Ireland. Perched on a bar stool, she was holding court among a vast, cheerful crowd of drinkers who were apparently battering an argument to death. She was clearly having a wonderful time. But she was also looking mildly shell-shocked. Because no-one in the crowd around her was speaking a word of English.
She’d known in advance of course. So she was fine. But as I looked across the room I remembered her reaction when I first pitched her a book about crossing the Conor Pass at seventeen and falling for the place, its traditions and the Irish language. ‘There’s an Irish language?’ ‘Yes.’ Pause. ‘Not just an Irish accent?’ ‘No.’ ‘An actual Irish language?’ ‘Yes’. Long pause. ‘Wow’.
It’s not an unusual reaction. Despite all those bilingual signposts, visitors to Ireland often come and go without noticing we have our own language. But we do. Here in Ireland it’s called Irish, never Gaelic. It was once spoken throughout the whole country. And along the western coastline, in rural areas called Gaeltachtaí, it’s the language of everyday life.
I grew up in Dublin, spoke English and loved books. I went on to study literature and now I write plays and books myself. But my first childhood memories are rooted in a world in which people shared their experiences without writing things down. The roots of that world can still be tapped in places like , where my granny’s people came from. And in western . And at the end of the , where I live now. In these remote, beautiful areas, ideas, skills, beliefs and traditions have been passed on across thousands of years in the Irish language. It’s a living oral tradition preserving a Celtic culture once shared across all of Europe.
For my editor on the night of my book launch, sudden immersion in the Irish language was fine. (Having read my book, she was well prepared!) But if you’re looking for less full-on exposure, you can sit in a corner and hear Irish spoken by the locals in most Gaeltacht pubs. Or tune your car radio to Raidió na Gaeltachta anywhere in the country and hear traditional tunes and songs presented in the soft, musical language to which they belong. Or switch on TG4, the Irish language television station, in your hotel room or B&B, and watch programmes with English subtitles. You can even sign up for a language course and enhance your experience of Ireland’s stunning western seaboard by tapping into its ancient Celtic past. Or checkout one of the online sites like Bitesize Irish before you get here, just to give yourself a flavour of what to expect.
Whatever way you choose to encounter it, there’s a deeper, richer experience of Irishness to be had all around you if you feel like tuning in.
The House on an Irish Hillside is Felicity Hayes-McCoy’s memoir of her personal relationship with the Dingle Peninsula. It features in RTÉ Nationwide show on 20 August – watch online via RTÉ Player (Felicity’s part starts at 7.32)
For more, read our guide on the languages of Ireland, including Northern Ireland’s Ullans.