Ancestral languages, my efforts to learn Irish, and book of the week: Motherfoclóir

Dia duit! (Irish for hello).

Where to begin today… well, I think I mentioned before about trying to learn Irish on Duolingo… which is infuriating (though made better when one learns that the website version of Duolingo has grammar notes even though the app version leaves you high and dry). I started that in early 2020, quit after a few weeks, then started again somewhere in the late summer.

Since then I have found better resources on YouTube such as Séan Mór, Learn Irish, and Bitesize Irish, joined a Facebook group for Irish learners, and am even currently doing the free Irish 101 course from Dublin City University via and I feel like I’m making headway… but of course I have a long way to go.

Why Irish? I’m basically half mick, lol… so it’s my ancestral language. (I used to think it was just a quarter Irish, but then we found out the “Scottish” quarter was actually Northern Irish Orangeman.)

And I do think it’s a good thing to learn your ancestral language; it’s part of being in touch with your roots which has all sorts of personal benefits, and it helps preserve and enhance cultural diversity.

I dunno when if ever I’ll get around to using any of this but I feel like I ought to learn my ancestral language(s) anyway… that said, Polish from the other half of my DNA is not going well and is on the back burner for now, possibly forever. And I confine my learning of Old Norse to watching Jackson Crawford on YouTube teaching about the language and the sagas etc.

But Irish seems more accessible to my brain now, and it’s good that it’s a language on the rise.

It’s been interesting to see some of the comments on the FutureLearn website with people’s ideas of why they’re learning Irish. One thing that surprised me was seeing the word “decolonize” so much… normally I laugh at that sort of shit, but then again… in this instance I guess I sorta agree and it lines up with the whole “learn your ancestral language” thing.

(I’m collecting U2 memorabilia and now I’m not disagreeing with the whole “decolonize” thing… these might be two of the seven signs of the apocalypse…)

Besides, there’s the matter of why was it deemed necessary to squash Irish in favour of English only? My friend in India learned English and Hindi in school, and grew up speaking another regional language at home. Why couldn’t the Irish do the same as the Indians such that we couldn’t have just learned Béarla (English) at school and continued to speak Irish at home? Instead, it seems there was political pressure to kill it, aided and abetted by the population loss of the famine and the accompanying diaspora. (I recall seeing something on some group from 100 years ago formed to promote the use of English only, and the Wikipedia page sure didn’t have many Irish-sounding names on it, lol…)

One hears of parents who wouldn’t speak Irish to their kids at home because they’d been conned into thinking it would hold them back somehow, rather than give the kids two languages to speak and think in. (Well, my father did the same with Polish… only he often seemed to expect that I would somehow learn to speak Polish regardless of his indifference to teaching it to me.)

Only since Independence has there been a move to reclaim Irish and promote its use, and this seems to have especially grown since the 70s, though of course the numbers aren’t what they were in the early 1800s before the Famine and the emigration waves that followed it.

I’m definitely just a beginner when it comes to learning Irish politics and history, but still. As the old Bubbles line from Trailer Park Boys goes:

Er, I mean, I’m sure it’s all pure coincidence and not a linguistic atrocity perpetrated by the elites of the day to quash their underlings.

(Like I said, I kinda get why I’m seeing folks in my FutureLearn Irish class talk about “decolonizing”.)

Anyway, that brings us to my book report of the week. I recently finished Darach O’Séaghdha’s Motherfoclóir: Dispatches from a not so dead language. The general format is a semi-free-form flow broken into chapters by theme with personal commentary/memoir threaded throughout with notes on history and culture and a ton of rare and obscure (and often humorous) vocabulary, often giving similarly spelled words with radically different meanings.

This was a pretty good read, though parenthetical or side bar pronunciation guides would be good for those of us who did not grow up in Ireland and thus were not forced to take Irish in school and thus may be trying to learn the language through Duolingo which also is next to useless for pronunciation.

I will say that it was amusing to me that he wraps things up with a mini-rant about how he hopes a resurgence of interest in the Irish language will not end up tied to nationalism or some sort of Irish Tea Party, which seems a little odd to me, because I guess it never occurred to him that the Venn diagram between “nationalist” or “traditionalist/Tea Party” and “gives a shit about learning the traditional language of their nation” is far more likely to have a huge overlap than the Venn diagram between “gives a shit about learning the traditional language of their nation” and “hates nationalists and loves the EU and modern progressive politics that all teach you how shitty your traditions are.”

Some of us would argue that latter group is basically the sort of people who sought to kill off Irish back in the day and who still advocate for its obsolescence or at least lack of necessity.

But I get that it’s more complicated on the inside, and also that people will invent all sorts of rationalizations for things they like but technically aren’t in line with their official politics.

See: all those wine aunt spinsters making quilts that say shit like “this pussy bites back!” because they can’t simply like quilting as a hobby in and of itself and want to make damn sure you know they ain’t no traditional woman. (Hilarious how the old vagina dentata meme comes back from the sort of people who used to denounce it… to paraphrase ol’ uncle Joe, all that matters is “who and whom?”) There’s also a whole shitstorm of shitty “subversive cross-stitch” involving making little Xs to form such inspirational messages as “Fuck Trump.” Don’t worry, Aunt Margaret, I think Melania’s got that covered and you need not worry about any orange dicks coming your way any time soon. Or dicks of any color, actually.

So I’m not surprised that folks on the left (or the equivalent in Europe, I know it’s a bit different) might well be embracing what is really more of a right wing nationalist thing over here but doing so to, like, fight the power or whatevs.

At the end of the day, I’m a cultural/linguistic preservationist and I don’t care what the rationalization is so long as we somehow manage to not all end up slaves of the global corporate industrial complex sitting and drooling while watching Netflix and eating McDonald’s wearing the same Nikes as everyone else that we bought on Amazon and mumbling in some bastardized/bowlderized Newspeak version of English no matter where we are on the planet.

That would be doubleplusungood.

So yeah, fight the imaginary evil right-wingers living rent-free in your head by learning Irish. Or Swedish. Or wherever your people came from. Decolonize your mind. Etc. Just learn it and better yet, use it.

What’s the Irish for “clown world”? Is domhan na bhfear grinn é.

Anyway, that gets into rants that aren’t necessarily related to Motherfoclóir. Which, all in all, was a very entertaining read, and I have the sequel Craic Baby on order now.

So… let’s pick out a couple favourites from the book to wrap up:

Smugairle róin = jellyfish (lit: “seal spit” or “seal snot”… in related news, a smugarlach is someone with a perpetually runny nose… I guess not specifically cokeheads, but Lord knows all the ones I knew were definitely whatever the plural of smugarlach is. And if I ever run into a certain former songwriting partner, I know what to call him that he won’t understand… oh, and much as in English, one of the Irish words for prick can mean either a cock or an asshole depending whether you mean his anatomy or his personality, so I could also say bod.)

And then for the “similar spelling or sound, but rather different or even opposite meanings” brigade:

an Gorta Mór = the Great Famine
an giorta mór = big girth or fatness

Séad = can mean some sort of treasured item
Sead = can mean to squirt or ejaculate (hey, paging Simon Le Bon, should you ever wish to translate the lyrics to “Venice Drowning” into Irish, you will need this double entendre)

And lastly:

cráic = anus
craic = mirth/merriment

Insert your own punchlines there.