Speak Irish

Speak Irish

In Brief

When Haines' "loud voice" bids the milkwoman be silent, her "wondering unsteady eyes" gaze on him as he declaims phrases in some unfamiliar language. She asks him, "Is it French you are talking, sir?" But no, it is the language of her own people: "Irish," also known as "Gaelic." (There are Irish and Scots versions of Gaelic.) It is, of course, massively ironic that the old woman who has been symbolically identified with Ireland should have no understanding of its native speech, which was approaching extinction, preserved only in certain remote areas known collectively as the Gaeltacht. And more ironic still that Haines is not "from the west," where most of these areas were, but an Englishman come from the east to proclaim that "we ought to speak Irish in Ireland."

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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 (probably about as much as he knows of the "ancient Greek" of Homer and Xenophon), 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, which was working to revive the speaking of Irish through organizations like the Gaelic League. He presented that impatience in part 5 of A Portrait of the Artist in Stephen's refusal to be swept up in the enthusiasm for learning Irish language and mythology. But as Davin reminds Stephen there, Joyce did take a few Irish language classes. He dropped out, Ellmann notes, "because Patrick Pearse, the instructor, 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 so many great works of art. He took the hard-headedly realistic view that English was in Ireland to stay, and 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 their colonial subjection. In an early essay called Home Rule Comet he wrote, "For seven centuries Ireland has never been a faithful subject of England, nor on the other hand has she been faithful to herself. She almost entirely abandoned her language and accepted the language of the conquerer without being able to assimilate its culture or to adapt herself to the mentality of which that language is the vehicle."

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. Since independence from Britain the government has mandated 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.

JH 2011
The Gaeltacht in 1926. Source: en.wikipedia.org.
Official Gaeltacht regions in 2007. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Penguin paperback edition of Finnegans Wake.