Editor Lauren Mulvihill talks to author Darach Ó Séaghdha about his journey through the Irish language.
Darach Ó Séaghdha, Irish language enthusiast and author of Motherfoclóir: Dispatches from a Not So Dead Language, has had an eventful few years. The Irish for ‘eventful’, by the way, is ‘eachtrach’; this word can also mean ‘adventurous’, but shouldn’t be confused with the Irish word ‘éachtach’, which means a killer.
This is the kind of thing you can learn on Ó Séaghdha’s popular Twitter account, The Irish For, from which he began tweeting “smithereens of Irish, translated with grá for your pleasure” in January 2015. Dedicating an entire online presence to an Ghaeilge is quite a commitment, and I was interested to know what exactly it was that got Darach so hooked on the language in the first place.
“I think – for me it’s – it’s hard to get at. I think a big thing is the actual music of the words themselves, the actual combination is just so beautiful. Maybe it’s something you get when you come into it having spoken something else first… the overlaps, the meanings are just beautiful to us. Some words are almost like one-word poems. Like ‘rún’ is a love and a secret – a secret love, a promise, and they’re all combined in just one word. It’s like a dual way of hearing things,” he explains. “I do like the actual thought patterns and the way certain words reflect a particular way of looking at the world. It’s a little bit different; a little bit indulgent; a little bit playful.
“The English language in Ireland does sit on the creases of the Irish language. It’s very strong in Cork. A lot of Cork slang does seem to be very close to the Irish language, ‘gowl’ being the obvious example. And what you find with the podcast that’s coming out soon – we have done a podcast – we do talk about some Cork slang…. We did uncover that ‘langer’ doesn’t come from Irish, but ‘gowl’ does.”
‘Langer’, as Darach goes on to tell me, in fact has its origins in the Langer monkey, which is native to India. The term was brought home by the Munster Fusiliers, who had been stationed in the country (You can find similar fun facts on the Motherfoclóir Podcast, a member of the Headstuff Podcast Network, which is available on iTunes and all other podcast providers).
Darach, in the opening pages of Motherfoclóir, explains that his interest in Irish, far from being purely academic in nature, is in fact deeply personal. His journey has its beginnings in his own relationship with his father, a man who spoke seven languages in total. As his father grew older and became progressively unwell, Darach wanted more and more to truly understand the things that drove him – and one of those things was the Irish language.
“I was looking into Dineen’s dictionary, looking into, like, Nós Magazine, Radio na Life… and it started occurring to me that there was definitely a connection between the music and the rhythms of the Irish language and the warmth and reverence that was very [close] to my dad’s sense of humour, that was kind of clever and witty and poetic… but in a very natural way, as opposed to a schoolish, know-it-all-y way. Even the little pairings of words, like ‘Gardaí’ and ‘gadaí’ – police and thieves – and how some words would have multiple meanings…. The more I learned, the more it became fascinating and I really felt that, if more people knew about it, then more people would be interested.
“At the time, I was beginning to drift from Twitter in general; there was always a bad news story… or there was always something that people were on a lynch mob buzz about. But it did occur to me that there was still an awful lot of people there just for the craic… and it occurred to me that the way I was going back to Irish, it was very suited to 140 characters. My first tweet was the Irish for ‘selfie’ – ‘féinphic’ – and it kind of went from there. It got quite popular quite quickly, which is wonderful. I did feel at the time, I suppose… was my Irish good enough for it? And that imposter syndrome made me work harder, made me look for better things and pushed me a lot to get better and to get to where I am today, which is great. Before my father did die, he was aware that ‘the Irish For’ was popular and was already being written about in newspapers. Before he passed on, he was aware that this was something that was connecting, was catching fire, and was right up to date with the modern world. That was great.”
‘Catch fire’ it certainly did: ‘The Irish For’ has garnered almost 24,000 followers at the time of writing and continues to move from strength to strength. The account is warm, witty and fascinating, much like the language it is based on, and presents Gaeilge not as a dull school subject to be learned under duress, but as a living, breathing, and versatile thing.
“I think that the more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know, and I think that’s been a really big thing,” Darach says. “Say, I’ll be talking to my friend Peadar and he’ll say something like, ‘an bhfuil tú alright?’ and ‘cad a tharla ar do job today?’ and it’s very freeing. People actually in native areas do speak like that, and I realised that in a proper Gaeltacht it’s ok to talk like that. It does free you, and actually makes it easier to try harder. Definitely I’m still on a journey, and I’m honestly loving that journey.”
The Irish For has undoubtedly proven popular for the accessible way in which it presents Irish, particularly among young people, according to Darach. This seems to reflect a wider trend wherein more and more of us are developing or rekindling our interest in Irish, which now has over 2.3 million learners worldwide on Duolingo. It appears we are increasingly viewing it as a language that is very much in touch with our modern lives, as opposed to one that should be relegated to classrooms or even budgeted out of existence.
“So much of the Irish argument is so similar to the Brexit argument: oh, we’ll just cut this and we’ll save all this money and we’ll just learn ourselves. They’re not thinking ‘actually, no, this isn’t one thing that you cut’… removing it would cause so much damage,” Darach says. “You can’t keep having a cockfight and calling it a seminar of poultry behaviour. There’s just so much of this kind of confrontational journalism, getting two people to fight and pretending we’re having a balanced debate. It’s not. There’s great things to talk about, it’s not about getting one person saying something, one person attacking something. You’re getting people with two completely different views. It would be nice to get someone to just talk about why people who like Irish are cool.”
Even for those cool Irish-likers outside the social media realm, there has been a significant buzz surrounding Ó Séaghdha’s debut book, Motherfoclóir: Dispatches from a Not So Dead Language, published in September 2017 by Head of Zeus Books. Darach had been approached by publishers on a few occasions since setting up The Irish For, but admits he worried about such a book becoming “‘The Feckin’ Book of Irish Words’, and there was a bit of resistance; I explained to [them] that there was a personal story behind it, about my relationship with my dad”. He said it was actually a conversation between his agent, Sallyanne Sweeney, and his now-publisher at the launch of Michael D. Higgins’ book that really set the wheels in motion for the eventual publication of Motherfoclóir: fittingly, the conversation was based on The Irish For’s use of an old photo of Michael D at Slane as a Twitter avatar. Head of Zeus, who were recently voted as the UK’s Independent Publisher of the Year, were very supportive of Ó Séaghdha in writing exactly the kind of book he wanted.
“It’s a mixture of memoir and miscellany,” he says of the book. “It’s the story of my return to Irish and the connection to my relationship with my dad…. It’s a story about words that have fallen from the dictionary and words that have been added to the dictionary; there’s a whole bit about the Irish language and the constitution and things like that as well. It’s kind of a stroll through a language, so basically it’s for people who are interested in words, whether they speak Irish or not.”
Motherfoclóir is set to be a huge success. From what I personally have read of it, this is a book that will be of huge interest to anyone with a fondness for words – but also all those with a penchant for warm, witty and often very personal writing. This is not the last we will hear of Darach Ó Séaghdha, whose work is sure to introduce many of us to a side of the Irish language we had never known before, as well as being a case study in the importance of pursuing your interests.
“I wanted to write books pretty much as soon as I could read them. I did have botched and unfinished attempts at novels, and I’d tried so many things before… and I was beginning to lose faith that it was ever going to happen for me, so it was just wonderful that it actually did come together all at once,” he says. “I know a lot of people might think they have a niche, nerdy interest; I would say don’t be afraid; if you take it, if you do something with it you might – you can find a way. If you think very intensely you can find a way for it to touch every single other thing you’re interested in. If there are people out there with niche interests, pursue them! Don’t worry about whether it’s commercial enough or not. At the end, people who read things, they can smell real passion. Absolutely go for that.”
“Motherfoclóir: Dispatches from a Not So Dead Language” by Darach Ó Séaghdha is available to buy from September 2017. You can follow Darach on Twitter, @TheIrishFor.