Speak Irish

Speak Irish

In Brief

When Haines's "loud voice" bids the milkwoman be silent, her "wondering unsteady eyes" gaze on him as he declaims phrases in some unfamiliar language. She asks, "Is it French you are talking, sir?" No, it is the language of her own people: "Irish," also known as "Gaelic." It is, of course, ironic that the woman who has been symbolically identified with Ireland should have no understanding of its native speech, and even more ironic that the Englishman Haines should have come to Dublin to proclaim that "we ought to speak Irish in Ireland." The Irish language was approaching extinction at this time, preserved only in certain remote western regions known collectively as the Gaeltacht. When the old woman learns that Haines is speaking Irish she asks, "Are you from the west, sir?

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Gifford notes that Mulligan’s mocking question, “Is there Gaelic on you?,” is a “west-of-Ireland, peasant colloquialism for ‘Can you speak Irish?’” When the old woman says, "I'm ashamed I don't speak the language myself. I'm told it's a grand language by them that knows," Mulligan replies in his breezy way, "Grand is no name for it... Wonderful entirely." He appears to know a little Irish, and Stephen too seems to know at least a little, judging by his patient, teacherly question to the old woman. But the populace at large, including the country people who might romantically be supposed to be in touch with traditional ways, does not share this accomplishment of young university-educated urbanites.

Couched in the ironies of this exchange one can probably hear Joyce’s arm's-length attitude toward the turn-of-the-century Revival. In Wandering Rocks he has Jimmy Henry, a clerk in City Hall, complain about the constant efforts to declare Irish the official language of Dublin: "Hell open to christians they were having, Jimmy Henry said pettishly, about their damned Irish language.... Damned Irish language, language of our forefathers." The parallel efforts of organizations like the Gaelic League to revive the speaking of the language make Stephen impatient in part 5 of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He has taken a few classes in the language, as his friend Davin notes, but he refuses to be swept up in the enthusiasm of his fellow university students. Joyce himself dropped out of an Irish class taught by Patrick Pearse, Ellmann notes, because Pearse "found it necessary to exalt Irish by denigrating English, and in particular the word 'Thunder'—a favorite of Joyce's—as an example of verbal inadequacy" (61).

Joyce respected the English language as a medium which had produced many great works of art and, figuring that English was in Ireland to stay, he set out to become one of its greatest prose stylists. But he abhorred the linguistic colonization of his people, and he despised them for acquiescing in the subjection. In a 1910 essay titled "The Home Rule Comet" he wrote of Ireland that "For seven centuries she has never been a faithful subject of England. Neither, on the other hand, has she been faithful to herself. She has entered the British domain without forming an integral part of it. She has abandoned her language almost entirely and accepted the language of the conqueror without being able to assimilate the culture or adapt herself to the mentality of which this language is the vehicle. She has betrayed her heroes, always in the hour of need and always without gaining recompense. She has hounded her spiritual creators into exile only to boast about them. She has served only one master well, the Roman Catholic Church, which, however, is accustomed to pay its faithful in long term drafts" (Critical Writings, 212-13).

In A Portrait, Stephen talks with the dean of studies of Belvedere College about the English word “funnel” and the Irish equivalent “tundish” (unfamiliar to the dean) which Stephen has grown up with:

The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.
Later, he discovers that both words are in fact English:
That tundish has been on my mind for a long time. I looked it up and find it English and good old blunt English too. Damn the dean of studies and his funnel! What did he come here for to teach us his own language or to learn it from us? Damn him one way or the other! 
In Ithaca, we learn that Stephen does in fact know a little Irish. He recites a snippet of ancient Irish verse and writes down several of its characters for Bloom’s benefit, and Bloom recites a bit of the Song of Solomon and writes down several Hebrew characters for Stephen’s. Both men accept the pervasiveness of English culture but respect the perpetuation of native ethnic traditions, cherishing words that are (like the Mosaic tablets in Aeolus) “graven in the language of the outlaw.” 

Some scholars have regarded Finnegans Wake as Joyce’s revenge on the English language, and the book amply supports this view. There can be no question that its exceedingly strange writing is “basically English” (116), but within the recognizable syntactic frames of this familiar language the author plants countless volatile bits mined from dozens of other languages, which explode normal English at every turn. If Wakespeak were to catch on, it would “wipe alley english spooker, multaphoniaksically spuking, off the face of the erse” (178). All those spooky English speakers, mouthing a multiphonic dialect that reduces them to puking more than speaking their language, would be wiped off the face of the earth, wiped off the erse language, wiped off the Irish arse.

The actual course of Irish history has proved somewhat different. Although the Gaeltacht continued to shrink throughout the 20th century, the government now mandates Irish language instruction in the schools, radio and television networks have developed channels where no English is spoken, and many street signs have gone bilingual. Eventually, perhaps, the island will look something like Québec.

John Hunt 2011

The Gaeltacht in 1926. Source: en.wikipedia.org.

Official Gaeltacht regions in 2007. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Penguin paperback edition of Finnegans Wake.