The old man mustered a smile as he lay looking upwards from the hospital bed. A gracious gesture to the complete stranger standing looking at him. Taking his hand, there was a need to remember our traditions differed.
‘We’ll say the Our Father’. Slowly and methodically, we worked our way through the Lord’s Prayer, stopping after ‘deliver us from evil’.
He loosed his hand and made the sign of the cross, ‘In ainm an Athar agus an Mhic agus an Spioraid Naoimh’.
Something, I had not anticipated, that he might speak in the first national language. A few more words followed, concluding with ‘Go raibh míle maith agat’ – thank you very much.
Some response was needed, but when you have no Irish, what was to be said?
‘Go raibh maith agat. Slán agus beannachtaí’ – thank you, health and blessings – exhausted the entire vocabulary, and it was probably grammatically incorrect.
This is not an Irish-speaking area. The county was an area settled by the English in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, its name during British rule had been Queen’s County. To meet an older man whose first language appeared to be Irish is not an everyday occurrence.
Describing the encounter to a friend brought the suggestion that the man might have been a farmer from the West who had come to farm land allocated by the Land Commission when the old estates were being broken up.
Perhaps I should have asked him where home had been, but it might have brought further problems. Place names in Irish often vary considerably from their English translations or, frequently, English transliterations, words, often without meaning, that were simply attempts at phonetic rendering of the Irish names. Had the man named any of a series of towns in Connacht or Munster, it might have been impossible to have guessed its location.
Boxer Bernard Dunne has been engaged in an ambitious campaign to promote the Irish language; to encourage people to use the cupla focal, the words they have, and so reintroduce the language to everyday conversation. It is an excellent idea, anything that stems the further progress of the plastic commercial consumer culture of globalisation is to be welcomed; but what of those of us who have not even a cupla focal?
Moving to the state at the end of the 1990s, there was a desire to try to learn the language, if for no reason other that to try to help the children with their homework, but the only evening classes on offer were for people who already had the basics of the language. It seemed to be assumed that everyone had learned it in primary school and there seemed little thought given to the idea that outsiders might wish to learn from scratch.
Thirteen years of living in the state, and my Irish vocabulary would run to no more than twenty words. It would be nice to have a chance to learn some more, if for no reason other than being prepared for unexpected bedside chats.