Sruth na Maoile

It’s quite funny to find myself returning to Sruth na Maoile (Sea of Moyle), that stretch of water between Ireland and Scotland, which in my imagination is the gentle, fluid border between Irish and Scottish Gaelic. I return to this liminal space in my mind from the other side this time, from Scotland, and Scottish Gaelic. I am looking back towards the shores of my native land and Gaeilge — my native, but alas not my mother, tongue.

I originally set up a blog and social media accounts called “Sruth na Maoile” back in 2010 so that I could share my experience with others as I learned Scottish Gaelic as an Irish speaker. Though that stretch of water between Ireland and Scotland is only about 12 miles from shore to shore, Irish and Scottish Gaelic had become quite isolated from one another, with Irish and Scots occasionally crossing the linguistic border to find a strangely familiar and yet intriguingly exotic doppelganger. (Of course, there has always been movement of people between the two countries, for work or trade, especially between the northern counties of Ireland and the west of Scotland.) The two communities seem to have become estranged from one another, probably as a result of centuries of political interference (I’ll say no more!), but through the likes of social media, exchange programmes and cultural projects, communication between the two communities is more flowing and there is more of an awareness of each others’ languages and shared culture.

People are always asking me, “Is there much of a difference between the two?” I usually answer “There is and there isn’t…” Pronunciation is noticeably different; it can be hard for Irish speakers, for example, to pronounce Scottish Gaelic words without the blas or accent of their own Gaelic. Syntax is pretty much the same except for certain constructions; i.e. “Is múinteoir é” (Irish) vs “‘S e tidsear/teagasgair a th’ ann” (Scottish), “He is a teacher”. Some words are the same, but the majority of familiar words are “false friends”. Take for example, craobh. Craobh in Irish means “branch”, wheras craobh in Scottish means “tree”. (The pronunciation of the [ao] is very different too! In Irish it’s more of a [ee] sound, whereas in Scottish it’s more of a [oo], but more on that another time…) Then some words are wildly different, for example freisin/fosta in Irish vs cuideachd in Scottish, meaning “too, also”.

But there is a swishing in my brain when I go from one language to the other, the flowing currents of Sruth na Maoile wash words from one language up onto the shore of the other. This happened more so while I was learning Scottish, as I journeyed from Ireland’s shores to Scotland and got soaked by waves from both sides!

I have been living in Scotland for nearly 5 years now, and I speak Scottish pretty much everyday. My friends are pretty much all Gaelic speakers, and my day-job is with a Gaelic organisation. Though there is a big Irish community in Glasgow (some friends of mine call Glasgow the capital of Donegal!), and though there are Irish language events organised by Conradh na Gaeilge here (incidently, the first craobh to be founded outside of Ireland!), I find it hard to use my Irish on a regular basis. Twitter is in particular a fantastic online Gaeltacht, so I try to use my Irish online and with friends of mine. To be honest, I have begun speak Irish to myself, and to write more frequently in Irish. The current of Irish is hitting the shores of Alba in my mind more and more…

So here I am, from the other side, about to re-embark on a linguistic journey through Sruth na Maoile — so I can remind myself of my Irish, I will post blogs with phrases and geeky observations from each language. The next installments will be numbered as wee digests. I hope you will enjoy them! (If you’re a language geek like me, I’m sure you will!)




Autumnal Nature Pass

Ah! That familiar feeling that fills your heart with love, when you breathe deeply into your lungs the cool air of autumn! Instinct kicks in, and I feel the urge to write, create, ponder!

Cycling to work gives you a lease of life on a Monday morning that you just wouldn’t get if you squeezed into a sweaty-aired train or in your car-bubble. The coolness of the air eases headaches and lethargy, the songs of robins and blue tits lift your heart, the rowan seduces your eyes with her shining red berries! The leaves seem to emit a certain feeling, and you crave to be under their grace. I had been taking notice of the change in the light recently — the sunlight has more of a beauty about it, maybe because the light is waning? The light is precious, like the few last quick kisses before a parting. The grass was pale that morning, with dew from the morning fog. Crows sat upright expectantly on lamp-posts.

I cycled to Kelvingrove park during my morning break, hastily parked up and took a walk in my favourite part nearer the University. This part does be quieter, with plenty of trees of varying species, and the Kelvingrove river at first rushing and then sauntering by. I looked up at a twisted tree trunk, which was shimmering in the sun’s light reflecting upwards by the river water. The hawthorns at this end of the path had deep red berries on them, and a young blue tit jumping from limb to limb, doing acrobatics, while nibbling at the branches. The water tinkled a comforting sound along with the bird’s encouraging chirps to himself.

A dog came along to excitedly explore the wee embankment of the river, squeezing himself under the railings to where he wanted to go. The dog didn’t like the path so much, it looked like he loved the feeling of the grass and woodland floor under his paws, already-fallen leaves leaping up in the air as the excited paws tossed them. Tail wagging, the dog sniffed everything in sight, the healthy, green, mucky smells must have been like a bouquet to him!

Though my time amongst nature was short, I felt so refreshed having ditched the tea and yoghurt for a ramble instead. As I cycled back to work, an idea occurred to me — what if every employer had a “nature pass” policy for the well-being of their employees? I’m lucky that I can use my break to go to the park, as I’m very close to it. Imagine if an employee was feeling stressed, lethargic, or hitting a wall, and they needed time out. If employers gave out “nature passes” on request, it would give people the chance to find rejuvenation in nature, which would make them more productive once they returned to work. Businesses might snort at the idea, and think of the time as wasted. But I can say for sure that I was definitely more productive in work after my wee break in nature!

THE GAELTACHT AND IRISH: Dying, or in need of an emergency operation?

Is alt den chéad scoth é seo! Ba mhithid do dhuine éigin sin a rá! Caithfear an cheist a chur, áfach, cad chuige a lig stáit na hÉireann don chur chuige chomh naimhdeach sin i leith na Gaeilge? Is maith liom an phointe ag Diarmuid, gur tharla seo i stáit “neamhspleách”. Céard is neamhspleáchas ann? Ní hé neamhspleáchas aigne atá i gceist le stáit na hÉireann. Tá sé ar nós Stockholm Syndrome, an meon seo in aghaidh na Gaeilge. Ba mhaith liom iniúchadh éigin a dhéanamh air seo. Tá suim mhór agam in iar-choilíneachas. Bíonn gach uile duine againn ag strí le tionchar an choilíneachais ar an dtír s’ againn…


Diarmuid Breatnach

Maps showing the decline in the Irish-speaking areas, the Gaeltacht, during the life of the Irish state Maps showing the decline in the Irish-speaking areas, the Gaeltacht, during the life of the Irish state

“Irish is nearly dead as a spoken language.” A shock ran through the Irish-speaking community at the news…. but although the after-shocks reached linguists afar …. the news caused but a small ripple in Irish society at large.

It should have been big news. In only nine decades of the existence of the Irish state, the Irish-speaking areas had shrunk by 90%. This seemed to herald the imminent death of Irish as a spoken language – a language that, albeit shrunk to being the mother-tongue of small minority of the Irish population, had survived almost a millennium of colonial occupation and a consistent policy to replace it with English.

The loss would be greater than Ireland’s alone – this is an early Indo-European Celtic language of more than four thousand years of…

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Lifting a drink to WBY, 150 years on

william-butler-yeats-9I first met Yeats under the heavens of embroidered cloth, wrought by himself in that classic early lyric. To me, his poetry itself was some beautiful, carefully worked tapestry of the heavens; it was as deep, ornate and seductive. I fully understood the feeling behind the phrase “a fire was in my head”, as the carefully crafted utterances of this man who lived way before my time set my imagination alight with both dreamy visions and sensual, tangible impressions of the world. The presenses of unseen forces, the cries of birds, Irish placenames, landscapes and the elements that animate them, megalithic tombs, mythological heroes, Irish characters local and national, magic ritual, sexual frenzy, rants and raging, all permeate his work. Passionate intensity. Antinomies spark, igniting the drive to live. My younger self was left wide-eyed and wild, my soul clapped and sang, and I was catapulted into life. (The hurtling music of Mike Scott’s arrangement of Yeats’ “Mad as the Mist and Snow” gives a musical impression of my feelings at that time!)

From the pages of Yeats’ words blew an evocative wind of many colours. I was called away to explore a vast landscape of folklore, mythology and literature. The book led me to the real landscape of Sligo, which embodies all of these things, and more – the Irish language, music, venturing out in the living landscape, which has so many stirring tales. Through my interest in Yeats, I was awarded a scholarship to attend the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, and I returned every year (as the swallows return for the summer) for five years. The school provided the opportunity of discovering Yeats in his natural habitat, and sharing this profound experience with new friends from far and wide. From being in Sligo, I could see how the environment seemed to encourage and nurture poetry. The landscape seems to talk directly to you, narrating its own stories. Mythology is alive and well in Carrowmore, where dolmens, the beds of Diarmaid and Gráinne lie; Ben Bulben frames one side of the town, in the shadow of which Diarmaid would die from the impact of a boar’s tusks; Knocknarea frames the opposite side of the town, where Queen Maeve stands buried on top in the prominent cairn; two epic ancient battles were fought by the Tuatha Dé Danann in Maigh Tuireadh, against the Fir Bolg and the Formorians. Michael Quirke, the local “mythkeeper” and woodcarver, relates local folklore stories to visitors to his shop, one of which tells of the witch, Garbhóg, who fell into the river that runs through the town, thus giving it the name Garavogue… Though I haven’t written in quite a long time, since my move to Glasgow, whenever I do take notes or write sketchy lines, my inspiration comes from nature around me, the local spirits in the places that I travel to.

Meeting Yeats for the first time was like meeting someone you’ve known for a long time. As I read the poetry, and read about the man behind the poetry, I felt a powerful affinity. The subjects that he cast his poetic eye on are just the things that would catch my eye, and set my heart to beat with love or rage. (On the whole, we pretty much loved and hated the same things.) Everything is beautiful in his depictions, even the horrors are terribly beautiful. His poetry, plays and prose works are invaluable for their discussion of contemporary polictical and cultural change in Ireland. Yeats was a man who moved with the times, from the dreamy, Pre-Raphaelite lover of the 1890s to the precise, raging passionate old man of the 1930s. When I was younger, and even still now, I love following the life of this man as he developed throughout his life. In a way, I learned how to think and act with his influence. When I think about it, Yeats always was precise, thorough and direct, even in his dream-weaving. He did begin as a wee scientist after all, a naturalist in his boyhood. (I realised just the other day that I was a dreamer first, but have grown into a more discerning way of thought, and have definitely become a naturalist!) I love the story of Yeats as a boy taking the glass out of the windows in his bedroom in Howth so that he could feel the elements of wind and rain more. I think this approach shows that Yeats was actually a great rooted thing, and based all of his inspirations on the tangible, despite the often dreamy and otherworldly feeling to his writings.

Yeats’ interest in folklore and in the Irish tradition, and his interest in a more pagan spirituality was what really got me hooked. His writings twitched at the veil of both the world of a bygone age and that of the Gaelic Otherworld, as it’s often called. I’m really interested in post-colonialism, and like Nuala Ní Dhomhnall, I wanted to delve deeper into the well of the national unconscious mind for a better understanding of my self. The seemingly flightly, whimsical fairy stories that Yeats, amongst others, collected offer a colourful insight into the mindset and psychology of Irish people dealing with everyday life’s hurdles. I think Yeats actually believed in otherworldly beings though… It certainly appeals to the imagination, the presenses of wise, ancient beings, seductive immortals and ghosts with a message to deliver. Tapping into this unseen realm certainly added a particular animation to Yeats’ symbols and metaphors. The music and cadences of Yeats’ poetry was influenced by the Irish-language poetic tradition, even though Yeats could never achieve any sort of fluency in the language (despite three attempts!). There’s another anecdote that I like is the one when Yeats was at a feis in Galway, and he heard sean-nós singing for the first time. Apparently he was enthralled, and interrogated Douglas Hyde (who he was fairly pally with) so that he could find out as much as possible about the tradition. Yeats’ eyes glistened when Douglas Hyde told him that he often dreamt in Irish; if only Yeats had’ve had the ability to learn Irish… I think it would have opened more doors to him. It was my interest in folklore, music and poetry that pushed me to learn Irish. Reclaiming my tongue was me reclaiming a huge part of my soul.

Anyway, I could go on and on! My relationship with Yeats and his work is far too complicated a subject for a blog post. I could write a book on it, with quotations where fitting. Last night I lifted a “Dark and Stormy” to Yeats on his 150th birthday. Here’s to the towering oak tree of poetic wisdom. Here’s to the coming generations of new Yeatslings. And here’s to a more concerted effort on my part to get back into writing again…

Yes to Hope

On the night before the referendum on Scottish Independence, I felt that I should contribute my point of view to the debate. It must be admitted that the debate had left much to be desired, until very recently; but the Yes movement has become more than a political campaign, and people feel the courage to wear their Yes badges. It feels good to walk around being part of the positivity, with multi-colored circles of the affirmative. The media have been disgracefully biased in favour of the scaremongering and fear tactics of the Better Together campaign, because, let’s face it, its negative emotions that make the headlines. Which says a lot about the society we live in, and how much we need to do to change the negative thought-programming to a more positive, “we can do it” attitude. Remember the “Yes We Can”, “Is Féidir Linn” of the Obama election campaign? Ironically, he has turned around and spoken out against the idea of an independent Scotland, which defies logic: this man is a democrat, the president of the United States of America, which has flourish since declaring its own independence from the British. Who is he to tell us that “No, We Can’t”?

Since moving to Glasgow over two and a half years ago, I have become acquainted with so many wonderful people who talk about positivity, changing your inner language from negative to positive, and believing in our own capabilities to realise your ambitions. It has surprised me, however, that Scottish people, not unlike the Irish, can be pretty down on themselves and lack self-belief in their abilities. This has come from years of oppression and is the remaining symptom of post-colonialism. The worst of the oppression is in the past, thankfully, but we need one more push to rid ourselves of it forever. This is not an anti-English sentiment at all — but it is anti-Westminster and the decades of neo-Liberalism since Thatcher that has torn communities apart and destroyed the self-determination of Scottish bread-winners (and English and Welsh for that matter!).

Regardless of the result on Friday, things will never be the same again. Already things feel different. And we hope this spreads southwards to our neighbours in England and Wales to stand up against the inquality inflicted by the Westminster government. We hope this has a positive effect on those in the Six Counties in the north of Ireland, though there is fear that Scottish Independence may rock the boat… That remains to be seen. Hopefully those in the south of Ireland become reinspired, and redevelop self-belief, and push for something better.

I’m voting Yes because I believe in the people of Scotland. I believe people should govern their own affairs locally, to be able to make decisions that best suit their people. Scotland has so much going for it, so much talent and innovation, so many resources, and a rich heritage and culture to be proud of. Westminster is just a dead weight, a black hole draining the life out of the people to the north. The Yes campaign is a grassroots movement of real people, from all different walks of life. This movement will spread throughout the rest of these islands. If we are successful, we will be an example of hope, and a sign of change for the better.

Say Yes and smile! Live life in the affirmative! Believe, and you can make it so!

Making Harbour

I’ve finally made it. The journey was tumultuous with both darkness and delight, but I’ve finally made harbour in my new home, my new job and my new (fairly) settled life in Glasgow. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been! I’ll have to tell youse more about it…

I haven’t blogged or written much since arriving here. I was wont to think too much about things and found my metephorical tongue was a stone when I attempted to write about my experiences. When I did express myself in written form, it was to bemoan the fact that I hadn’t been writing, and couldn’t write anymore. Black Rook in Rainy Weather. I fancied that the Scottish faeries had my tongue on ice, as faeries do when you’ve entered their lios and they don’t want you to spill the beans on their world and their secrets. But it was the faeries in my own mind that held my tongue hostage, and stabbed me with their spears and little darts of despair. But we’ve made peace now.

Another young former tutor of mine, Muiris Ó Meara, has passed away recently. We had only been in touch a week or two previous. When I came over here first, we made friends on Facebook, and through the aul Messenger I told him what I was up to here in Scotland. He thought it was well cool, dúirt sé “is ionsparáideach spreagaitheach an scéal é do scéalsa”, and urged me to keep a “dialann deoraí”, an emigrant’s diary/journal. I regret that I haven’t consistently kept a journal, as I’ve just been active, but I’m going to get everything written down now. I knew there was something up and I messaged him a few weeks back, and he said he’d give me advice and help generously. And now he’s passed on. I didn’t get the chance to reply to him before he went. He was mad altogether, very funny, and wrote a lot himself. It’s amazing how the death of such encouraging people in your life really stops you in your tracks to take stock. The other one, Ciarán Ó Con Cheanainn, is still very much with me in everything I do. These people stay with you. That’s why proper educators and great minds really make an impact. Often the impact is unsaid, or understated. Which makes me sad with regret…

But this blast-beruffled young swan has found her way through the ravaging, fierce waters of Sruth na Maoile to make her nest in Glasgow’s harbour, has found her voice again after being mute for so long, sings her song, and rejoices in the arms of her beloved. (This mint julep is bringing out the romantic in me…) Hòro hi hòro o!

A New Year

Ah Spring, Brighid has ignited the land and my mind with renewed vigour and inspiration! Feeling positively poetic. Seeing so much change around me and being a part of it is so encouraging, seeing friends take hold of life with both hands and finally giving in to singing their own song. The birds sing, and I sing!

I’ll be picking up the pen again. I’m getting involved in so many exciting projects. And I’m triumphantly Dearg le Fearg for Gaeilge and Gàidhlig! I went for a run today in the Harbour, I’ll be going back to yoga; my knee is finally feeling normal again! Once my new kitchen is sorted, I’ll be back to baking and cooking new recipes. On Saturday I’ll be walking up Beinn Dòbhrain! It’s fitting to be living in a harbour when I’ve begun to set out on a new and exciting voyage.

It’s been over two years now that I’ve been living in Glasgow, and now I finally feel like I’ve “arrived”. I’m finally getting to do what I came here to do. I’m the Youth and Community Officer for Gàidhlig in Glasgow. My dream job!

Things that I loved in childhood have come back to find me again, and point me in the right direction of my true self. Have you ever pondered on what your younger self would think of you if they met you now? It’s a great way of keeping on track and keeping true to your gut.

So, I’m going to fearlessly express myself like I used to. No longer will I be gagged by self-consciousness, other people’s impressions and tiredness from the daily slog of adulthood.

And I’ll write in whatever language I’m in the mood for.

The look of this blog is hard to keep up. I’m going back to basics. Minimalism is so freeing.