Siobhan de Paor
Fite Fuaite: An Teanga is an Tír
Interwoven: The language and the land
Le Chéile Journal
Tír gan teanga is tír gan anam is repeated every time the subject of ‘the future of Irish’ comes up.
It means a country without a language is a country without a soul and it's an uncomfortable thought for a people who don’t speak their own language. After the famine genocide in 1847 when Irish was finally relinquished as the mother tongue for its association with the horrors of a million emaciated corpses, was a part of our soul lost too? And if so, can it be retrieved?
Language is much more than a mode of communication. Language is the repository of the shared experience of a tribe. It holds the ancestral memory, knowledge and ideology of its speakers. It is a collection of frequencies each acting with particular effect on the body and mind. At a deeper level it is vibratory key that can stimulate the organs, meridians and dna.
On the mysterious origins of language, Plato and Pythagoras theorized that speech arose in response to the essential qualities of objects in the environment. In the naming of their place, native peoples created native tongues, so it was that the land begot language and two were forever inextricably linked.
Ancient Ireland was densely forested with giant broadleafs - oak, ash, yew, birch - and so naturally enough our first alphabet, the Ogham, was based on tree names Modern Irish as a descendant of Ogham is then, quite literally, rooted in Ireland..
Ireland is the most densely named country in Europe . It is also one of the most sparsely populated. This suggests that our ancestors were intimate with their environment. That they esteemed nature to the degree that every rock, stream and field, was worthy of a name.
And indeed, when the hierarchical model of centralised power of the Roman Empire was conquering the bodies and minds of European nations in the 4th and 5th centuries BC, the Celts of Ireland stood as an ideological opposite. The Celtic world view acknowledged that the welfare of the tribe was wholly reliant and interwoven with the welfare of the land. The land was personified in the Goddess and routinely praised and thanked for her abundance. Authority was merit-based and bestowed on the king by the land herself in a ritual cosmic marriage.
This view of Nature as a sentient nurturer, as a Mother, is stored in the Irish language.
There followed hundreds of years of persecution of the land, the language and the culture of the Celts. The great oak forests of Ireland were cleared to build the British fleet – the strength of the old oak ironically facilitating the rise of the same empire that would later brutally suppress the language of the trees.
Irish children sent to a British industrial school system were punished for speaking their own language and the association between Irish and pain was first made in young impressionable minds, an impression which persists today.
Place names were not translated but Anglicised so that their original meaning was lost to violent phonology. And places like Kill Darach the Church of the Oak became Kildare obscuring forever the fact that it was a place of worship. Obscured also was the practical information, such as the soil conditions of Cill Darach, which people would have determined from knowing the tree it supported.
So we lost not only the oak, but the word for oak, the kinship with the oak and the knowledge of the oak.
Ach tá an darach beo fós. San iarsma.
Ireland has just 2 per cent native woodland cover; the lowest in Europe, and by coincidence or providence, just 2 per cent of Irish people are Gaeilgeorí, native speakers.
Tá an tír is an teanga fite fuaite le chéile.
When English replaced Irish as our spoken language; there occurred a rupture in the national psyche in which we lost the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors, along with the traditional worldview and connection to the land.
The evidence that we have lost the knowledge of our environment which was inherent in the alphabet of the trees, is everywhere. But most starkly perhaps in our lack of a native cuisine. In Ireland there grows an abundance of wild edibles. How many Irish people can testify to the melt-in-your mouth quality of nettles, the lemony zest of sorrel, the bitterness of a dandelion leaf, the umami of nori, the cheese and onion flavour of pepper dilisk, the mushroominess of a plantain leaf, the potent mustard of sea rocket? How many have tasted the sweetness of cleavers in water or reddish roobis tea of the hawthorn tree? I could go on and on. The Irish back garden is gastronomic dream by any standards but ask any Irish person to name a traditional Irish dish and they’ll hestitate, and ponder, and maybe offer ‘bacon and cabbage?’ or no, ‘beef and guinness pie? Boxty?’ I’ve never even had boxty. The damp-intolerant potato is an import. Lidl supermarkets sell blackberries and apples in plastic containers in Autumn while they drip from the brambles and trees just outside.
We were declared a republic in 1934 but the degradation of the environment initiated by foreign colonizers continued under national government as globalisation and corporatism replaced colonization to the same end.
‘They never abolished slavery,
they just polished slavery
and called it a job,
called your leisure, a jog
but its murder on the knees
and we’re dying on our feet.’
Dubbed the US gateway to Europe, Leaving Certificate Geography teaches us as teenagers that our ‘an English-speaking population’ is one of the great advantages in attracting foreign direct investment to Ireland thus increasing our GDP and boosting our economy.
What we are not taught in school is that in opening up to foreign money we have further opened up to the homogenisation of culture that comes with it; as local retailers disappear from the shop scape to be replaced with brands like Starbucks, Subway and McDonalds. And so corporations finish what colonialism started.
As traditional cultures worldwide fend off ‘Americanisation’, some have fared better than others. In Ireland, where language, the first line of defence is long since breached, we are particularly vulnerable to outside influences. The land mirrors this as the 40 shades of green of the countryside are being subsumed into one bright nitrate-boosted green. And those wild patches of brambles, gorse and heather, precious habitat declared ‘unimproved lands in-eligible for the EU farm payments’ are being rapidly forested as monocultures under a lucrative government subsidy that actively encourages the planting of non native species over natives. The dark needled floor of sitka spruce plantation supports no life and provides a metaphor of what a foreign tongue might do to the fertile soil of our imagination.
Táimíd fite fuaite leis an tír is an teanga
Wild Irish Retreat was built on this premise of interconnectedness between land, land dweller and language. If we are to witness the grand return of Nature to her natural state, then we must travel with her, barefoot and bold as natives, speaking the language she bequeathed us on the first day.
Rewilding on one level will eventually nessecitate rewildng on all levels.
It is one of a growing number of efforts to heal the rupture by taking Irish out of the classroom and into the nature where she belongs. We substitute poetry for grammar, compulsion for coercion and reverence for rules. We tell our tales of shame, pain and oppression and let the salty Atlantic lick our ancient wounds.
We forage, swim and hurl, through our broken and brilliant native tongue. And because a tír gan teanga is tír gan anam, the practicalities are all in service to the goal of spiritual recovery. Rituals little and large, pervade the days and on the second night, we throw songs, prayers and water on the hot rocks and as steam they all rise. It is a ceremonial sweatlodge according to our own contemporary Celtic voice and each one is different as we rediscover and reinvent our unique spiritual tradition.
Táimíd fite fuaite leis an tír
Since beginning Wild Irish Retreat in 2017, in a hundred conversations and a thousand messages more, we have witnessed a strong and pervasive desire among Irish people to speak Irish. Yes, the number of native speakers is declining but the number of urban speakers is increasing and will continue to increase. I do not forsee a return to a monolinguistic Irish Ireland, but a bilingual version where English may be the language of commerce and Irish the language of creativity. Full fluency is not a possibility for much of our generation. This will come naturally later on, le cúnamh dé, to our children or grandchildren. But even those with no Irish can act to restore Irish to the social and spiritual settings of our life by using Irish greetings, which in Irish is a beannacht, a blessing, by using your original names and placename, by learning an Irish song or poem. These actions will go a long way in calling the soul shards back from exile.
Our heritage is not lost. For nothing real can ever be lost. But it is dormant and requires certain conditions to awaken. Create those conditions in your life. Reach out, virutually, physically to connect with th growing community of urban Irish and dip into the treasure trove of works they are creating. Manachán Mangan, Seamus De Barra O’Sulleabháin. If we are to restore our environment to its natural wild state, we must restore ourselves to that same natural wild state - before colonialism and corportatism had their wicked way - a state that speaks Irish.
We are desperately in need of a new ideology. A view that does not see nature as a thing to be used and abused. But a view that recognises nature as nurturer of mankind, as a sentient generous mother. This worldview is stored in the Irish language and will automatically come alive in the hearts and minds of people as they begin to speak it.
This recognition of the important role of Irish as an ecological language in an ecological crisis will grow as more people read Trinity Proffessor Mícheal Cronin’s recently published An Gaelige agus an Eiceolaíocht which points out the great absense of Irish in our government’s response to climate change.
And this is just one way in which the revival of the Irish language could shape the future of Ireland.
Do you think there might be a link?
between the oaks and the ogham
Between the trees and tongue
Between the song and the sung
When they felled Cill Darach
and then called it Kill Dare
Did you think it was far off
that they’d try hunt down the hare
but she was too fast
and so she did outlast
the great genocide
to wait the turning of the tide
and a return of the time
when Irish men speak Irish
and oaks fill the horizon