Speak Irish

In Brief

Haines' "loud voice" addresses the "wondering unsteady eyes" of the milkwoman, declaiming some Irish to her, but she does not understand a word of it. Gifford notes that Mulligan’s mocking question, “Is there Gaelic on you?,” is a “west-of-Ireland, peasant colloquialism for ‘Can you speak Irish?’” The old woman's “Are you from the west, sir?” refers to the Gaeltacht, those isolated regions in western Ireland where Irish remained (and still remains, though these regions have shrunk) the native, vernacular language, spoken by residents either solely or in conjunction with English.

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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 ("Is it French you are talking, sir?"), and that an Englishman visiting the country as a tourist should instruct the native inhabitants in the necessity of reviving their cultural heritage, and be mistaken for a native of the Gaeltacht. Couched in these ironies, one can almost certainly hear Joyce’s impatience with the Gaelic League and the turn-of-the-century Revival more generally.

Haines knows some Irish. Stephen too seems to know at least a little, judging by his patient, teacherly question to the old woman. Mulligan probably does as well. But the populace at large does not share this accomplishment of young university-educated urbanites. For most, Irish is a foreign language, and the Anglicization of Irish speech and writing is a fait accompli. (Since independence from Britain in 1922, however, the Irish government has mandated Irish language instruction in the schools, and has attempted to make the nation functionally bilingual, like Québec in Canada.)

Joyce respected the English language as a medium which had produced so many great works of art and learning; he took the hard-headedly realistic view that English was in Ireland to stay, and set out to become one of the greatest prose stylists ever to write in the language. Nonetheless, he despised the fact that his people had been linguistically colonized, 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. For both men, British culture is an accepted fact. But both respect the perpetuation of native racial traditions, and make marks 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 “however basically English” (116). Within the recognizable syntactic frames of this familiar language, though, 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.

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