Twenty years ago, before my first trip to Ireland, I began the list of the things I would need – not my many material necessities (toiletries, spare underwear, or the 1996 print edition of Lonely Planet Ireland) – but with my one immaterial hope: language, the Irish language, Gaeilge.
As a twenty-four year old graduate student, I needed a second language for my PhD and chose Gaeilge. Aspirational and inspirational study. Though I am Irish-American (all but one great-grandparent immigrated from Ireland’s west coast), my Irishness, then, was defined by my name, Kerry, my Catholic school education, my Aran sweater, and my St. Patrick’s Day, Guinness-inspired toasts of Erin Go Braughs! and Sláintes!
My dissertation advisor, friends, and family all roundly asked in bewilderment, “When will you ever need Irish?” It was, in other words, an impractical, absurd course of study attempted via cassette tapes and a textbook. Out of 4.2 million Irish citizens, only 1.7 million speak Gaeilge, and of this group, only 73,803 speak Gaeilge on a daily basis and live in Gaeltacht communities in Counties Galway, Clare, Cork, and Mayo, all on the west coast.
So there was no practical need for any Irish in order to wander Dublin, Galway, or even remote villages like Gleann Cholm Cille (Glencolmcille) in Dhún na nGall (Donegal), unlike the basic Italian or Arabic needed to find my way through Rome’s winding neighborhoods or Marrakesh’s medina, or even Spanish to navigate menus in my favorite Houston hole-in-the-wall taquerias.
A bewildering language, too. Intricate grammar rules: nouns declined for number and case, and classified by gender; verbs declined for person and number; inflected prepositions; initial consonant mutations for plurals; adjectives that follow nouns; and syntax that follows verb-subject-object order. Listening to cassette tapes? Words were indistinguishable and ran together in one unbroken melody, more song than sentence, rising and falling in its cadences and rhythms. And without a native speaker as my teacher? Impenetrable, dense consonant clusters and fadas, ie, the village of Achadh Dhíobhóg (Aghayeevoge).
My first attempt at Irish? Mostly intellectual hubris, but when I listened language tapes or to traditional music, I felt an inexplicable ache, as if the lilting, throaty sounds were part of my DNA – a third strand intertwined in that double helix. Language, its sound and structure, shapes how we see the world and how call ourselves into being in this world. All but one of my great-grandparents were native Irish speakers, so I couldn't help but wonder if residual traces were part of my cellular memory.
After a year of diligent study, I could translate a few easy sentences from Gaeilge to English, but couldn’t say Go raibh maith agat (thank you) and Failte romhat (You’re welcome) with any confidence. I conceded defeat and put my carry-on in storage and my dreams on hold.
Twenty years later, I arrived in Limerick on a five-month Fulbright teaching fellowship. Beyond my official academic purpose, I was determined to learn Irish, or at least cupla focal (a few words). Limerick is Ireland’s third largest city, though not usually on the average American’s “Best of Ireland” tourist itinerary. Before the Celtic Tiger boom in the nineties, Limerick had high unemployment, poverty, and crime, and earned (perhaps unfairly) the gritty nickname “Stab City.” Most Americans know Limerick through Frank McCourt’s grim depiction of his childhood in its slums in Angela’s Ashes. But Limerick is also a resilient city, having survived various invasions and colonization by the Vikings, the Norman-French, and the English.
Related: Dos and don'ts in Ireland
Limerick was not my second or third or fourth choice after Dublin, Cork, or Galway, but always my first as it is my ancestral home. In 1914, my then sixteen year old great-grandmother, Annie O’Connor, left Limerick on the steamship Celtic, leaving behind her parents, her six siblings, the crowded tenement beside a pig slaughterhouse on Palmerstown Street where she was born and the two room, two-windowed cottage on a farm in Newcastle West where she grew up. She arrived in New York and never returned to Ireland. She died when I was five, so I have few memories of her except of her warm, shaky lilt, her brogue, the sound of her home that she carried with her.
I lived across the street from the Shannon River, a five minute walk from my great-grandmother’s tenement, and each morning, rain or shine (though more often rain or rain) I settled with a coffee on a bench and marveled at the riotous caterwauling gulls or wandered down the boat ramp into the muck, ankle deep in it, observing what lived and drifted beside me, around me, through me. Swans, cormorants, plovers, gulls, terns, ducks, dragonflies and damselflies; in the darker deep, salmon, smelt, pike, trout, and eels.
I attended Irish mass Sunday mornings at St. Michael's church, one of the first five original parishes in Limerick, founded in 1650, rebuilt in 1801 in its present location on Sráid Damnhaigh (Denmark Street), and my great-grandmother's first church. Not for the catechism, but for the language. On my first Sunday before mass started, an elderly man came up to me in the pew and introduced himself as "Michael." I told him this was my great-grandmother's church and I was living in Limerick for a few months.
"Welcome home," he said, and clasped my hand. "We welcome you home."
But church wasn't my only connection to the past and present Ireland. I'd been struggling in community Gaeilge classes, and it was recommended I start lessons with a tutor to help me untangle the strings of consonants and winding grammatical structures. Three mornings a week I walked up Clancy’s Strand, crossed the Sarsfield Bridge, and then up O’Connell Street for Irish lessons with my 89-year old teacher, Dónal O’Ceallaigh.
On the way, I took a deliberate detour through my great-grandmother’s neighborhood, trying to see what she might have seen and what she never returned to see. I listened for her ghostly footfalls inside of mine and tried to move through the world inside her language, whispering the rudimentary names of everything I could name as Gaeilge: crann (tree), éan (bird), eaglais (church), leanaí (children), báisteach (rain), tuar ceatha (rainbow).
Though Dónal was hard of hearing and occasionally stammered, his blue eyes were clear and appraising. He told me that he was born in 1930 in the upstairs bedroom in this very house, and that his father was born in 1880 in Limerick’s Irishtown, my great-grandmother’s neighborhood. “Maybe our families have known each other before,” he said. “It is like that here. Is teaghlach amháin muid (We are one family).”
Dónal always waited for me with the front door open and with an effusive smile. “Dia duit! Conas tá tú? An raibh siúlóid mhaith agat?” (Hello, how are you? Did you have a good walk?)
“Dia duit,” I’d reply. “Tá mé go maith! Tá sé ag cur báistí ach álainn.” (I am good. It is raining but beautiful.)
Dónal refused payment (though I brought raisin scones), explaining that at his age, he was just happy that I was carrying the sounds of Gaelige forward. “In that way, our language does not die, though we do. And me before you,” he said with a wink.
At our first lesson, I pulled out my Irish dictionary and my two decades old textbook from my backpack. Dónal laughed and told me not to worry about grammar and spelling or what the words looked like on the page. “You will see them and feel them in your ears and mouth,” he said. “You’ll learn in the way we all learn language as children – by listening to each other and repeating what we hear. You’ll learn by necessity. We are just trying to understand each other, aren’t we? Not pass tests. We have a saying as Gaeilge: Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste, ná Béarla cliste. Yes? Broken Irish is better than clever English.”
One morning, Dónal read aloud Seamus Heaney’s poem, “The Toome Road, ”
Sowers of seed, erectors of headstones…
O charioteers, above your dormant guns,
It stands here still, stands vibrant as you pass,
The visible, untoppled omphalos.
His index finger underscored each word across the page and finally stopped on the last word: omphalos.
“What do you think he meant by that?” he asked. “I am wondering and wondering.”
“The center,” I said, and pointed to my bellybutton, “it is always here.”
“Yes,” he said. “But is Ireland the center? Language? Our language, Gaeilge? Or are we the center, sitting here together? Hmmm. Ar ais ag obair! Back to work!”
Dónal was resolute in teaching me the Irish names of places I’d been traveling to and through: Luimneach (Limerick), Abhainne na Siobhainne (Shannon River), Olscoill Luimnigh (University of Limerick), Oileáin Árann (Aran Islands), Cille Airne (Killarney).
“Cille Airne,” he said, “means church of the sloes – blackthorn. Killarney? The phonetic English spelling?” He laughed. “Means nothing. Do you know Lemonfield, a few kilometers from Limerick? Lemons don’t grow in our potato fields. But the English translated our sounds: Léim an Fheadh. Lame-on-fia. Lemonfield. The Irish? Léim an Fheadh: the place where the deer jump across. A sound that leaps out of our land, a word poem.” He leaned over the table and said, “Say it with me. Léim an Fheadh, Léim an Fheadh, Léim an Fheadh.”
And so I did. He was so close that I felt his breath on my cheek and how his breath carried a resonant story. Léim an Fheadh – an incantation summoning me to hear and to see – field and water and animal and muscles and hooves and light and flight and air and here and gone. So much is lost when we are careless with our sounds.
This was why Dónal watched my mouth making those new shapes and sounds, and it was why we spoke together, in unison, my mouth mirroring his and my hesitant soundings swept into his confident depths. And when I struggled? He took my hand in his and said, “Sshhh, mo stór. It will come. The language is already in you.”
Across those months, Dónal and I were the best of travelling companions: we moved through a language together, off-road, off-map, on a loose itinerary. Learning to listen and to speak in another language is not a passive, rote exercise but an active, intimate exploration, an incantation that calls us into being and into relationship with each other and the world.
In our easy conversational back and forth, in Dónal's fluency and in my stumbling, I heard my great-grandmother speak to me in the language of her home, Luimneach, across one-hundred-and twenty-five years distance; I heard Dónal summon his own eighty-nine years of stories anchored to this home and to his family here in Luimneach; and I heard my own voice resonate inside this ancient language that, like me, like Dónal is still here.
Can you hear how Gaeilge is a language of incantation binding us and the world through sound and rhythm? Just listen, yes, try to listen, to the Song of Amergin, first spoken (invoked, incanted!) in early Irish around AD 400 by the poet and druid Amergin Glanglun when he first arrived on the shores of Kenmare Bay, and written down (recorded!) around AD 1100 in the Book of Invasions:
Am gaeth i m-muir I am the wind on the sea
Am tond trethan I am the stormy wave
Am fuaim mara I am the sound of the ocean
Am dam secht ndirend I am the bull with seven horns
Am séig i n-aill I am the hawk on the cliff face
Am dér gréne I am the sun’s tear
Am cain lubai I am the beautiful flower
Am torc ar gail I am the boar on the rampage
Am he i l-lind I am the salmon in the pool
Am loch i m-maig I am the lake on the plain
Am brí a ndai… I am the word...
Am brí a ndai. I am the word.
In a 1941 translation of this poem, R.A.S. Macalister notes that brí is a form of bruigen, hill. Ndai a form of duine, a human being, but it is also a play on dánae, poems. Am brí a ndai: I am hill, I am word, I am poems.
Towards the end of my months in Luimneach, Irish language circuitry in my brain began to connect and I felt electrified and moved through my days and nights speaking and dreaming in my ragged Gaeilge. As in all other things, Dónal was right: I began to hear and see and feel Irish without having to think of words or sound them in painstaking rote remembrance.
"Tá tú go hiontach, mo stór," Dónal said, at the end of every lesson. (You are wonderful, my love.)
A friend told me that mo stór, my love, my darling, was an old fashioned endearment, not used much anymore. "How lovely," he said, "to hear you say it."
"Tá tú go hiontach, mo stór," I said to Dónal.
"Tá tú go hiontach, mo stór," I said to Luimneach.
"Tá tú go hiontach, mo stór," I said as Gaeilge.
I am at home now, back in the United States, but I am also at home in Luimneach. I am still learning Irish via Duolingo, textbooks, podcasts, and YouTube videos. My dog Connor, while no great conversationalist, patiently listens to me as I practice for my return (not twenty years hence, but in six months’ time and arís agus arís eile – again and again).
“An raibh tú go maith nó dána?” I say to Connor when I return home from work (Have you been good or naughty?). He wags and gives me a happy lick.
Conchobhair (Connor) in Irish means “lover of hounds.” He is also named for my Luinmneach O’Conchobhairs – the O’Connors of Limerick who came before me.
But more: I am still learning from and listening to and speaking with Dónal. He does not have internet or cell phone, so every few weeks, we exchange letters as Gaeilge. Always mo mhúinteoir (my teacher), Dónal sends my letters back with his highlighted corrections and gentle advice: “Ná cuir strus ort féin. Mura dtuigeann tú na focail, fág iad ar leataobh.” (Do not stress yourself. If you don’t understand the words, leave them aside.) Every few months? We chat on the phone as Gaeilge. Happy convergence: this morning before sitting down to finish this essay, I called him on his ninetieth birthday!
“Dia Duit! Lá breithe sona dhuit mo chara!” I said. (Hello! Happy Birthday my friend!)
“Ahhh, Kerry! Mo stór!” he said, and instantaneously, I was sitting beside him in Luimneach and he was holding my hand.
Recently, I asked my friend and Irish novelist Dónal Ryan why he persists with Irish, why it is important to him as a writer and as well as an Irish citizen. In other words, I asked him, “Why is Gaeilge da bomb?”
He said, “Gaeilge is important to me firstly in a kind of one-dimensional, nationalistic way. It bolsters my sense of being part of a discrete group, distinct from the rest of the Anglophone world. It's like a cosy secret, a way of being one up on our monoglottic former oppressors.
"There's another thing that makes me love Irish, especially the open-hearted, non-fascistic Irish of the not-quite-fully-fluent speaker who was taught well in school and maintained an interest: the warm sound of it, the way it softens consonants and lengthens vowels, the beautiful rhythm it imposes on every sentence, whether spoken fluidly or in broken clauses," continued Ryan.
"The language is all about us – nearly every information sign and road sign in Ireland is in both tongues, yet Irish is roundly ignored by most people," he notes. "And I don't blame anyone for their animosity or resentment or straight up hatred – we all have bitter memories of interminable conjugations, of the dreaded módh coiníollach (the conditional form)."
"Irish was forced upon us by diktat and under threat of force just as English was forced on our forebears. And after thirteen years of daily lessons most of us left school with barely a word. I was just lucky to have had a teacher called Martin Scully who could teach stones to speak Irish.”
Agus táim t-ádh agus beannaithe (And I am lucky and blessed) to have a teacher called Dónal O’Ceallaigh who teaches this stone to speak Gaeilge.
At the end of every letter, Dónal signs off with the following slán go fóill (farewell for now): Scríobh arís agus le grá, mo stór. (Write again and with love, my love, my darling.)
And so I do: Am brí a ndai. I am hill, I am word, I am poems.