While canoing the great lakes of Mazury, my eldest daughter turned to me and said she would like to learn Irish. Come, come Lilly, I said. There are many other languages for you to master, tongues useful for traveling such as Spanish or Russian. Or why not German where unlike Irish, the laws of grammar can actually be applied coherently and logically? I even offered Italian as an alternative. Not really a language at all, more a catalogue of food names. It is well known that 90% of all Italian is gesticulation, the world’s noisiest body-language, its value essential, no more so when shrugging your way through Rome or grimacing whilst being robbed at knife-point by Sicilian street urchins.
But no, with true donkey stubbornness, she insisted on Irish.
At present both Lilly and Malina speak English and Polish and are learning French. I haven’t spoken Irish consistently for at least twenty years, based on the qualification that it wasn’t going to be of any use to me. Only 3% of Ireland’s population speak Irish as an everyday practicality despite it being a compulsory subject in all secondary schools. It is a dying language that when spoken has all the charm of a crow eating itself in a chimney… And yet somehow it seems important that I acquiesce to my daughter’s wishes.
Sure, perhaps her commitment to the Irish language will be a folly, a laborious luxury which her still childish mind does not fully comprehend. But in the face of accepted bland, corporate subservience, it could be a mighty declaration of her heritage, of who she is and who I forgot I am. As parents, we are keepers of a flame. We guard it and we pass it on.
To not do so would be negligent. It would limit the intangible mysteries which govern our journey. I speak of course about the imagination, the soul and the values of our antecedents. My daughters would not be here if it weren’t for those who came before them. They never met their grandfather Peadar Mór, he who taught me Irish when I was four. They never met their great-grandmother Kathleen who left the side of a Kerry mountain at seventeen to nurse in London. They never met their great-grandfather Peter who had a ticket for the Titanic and thanks to the great de Búrca trait of being late, missed the liner’s last stop at Cobh in County Cork.
But through the Irish language and my teaching of it, there is a chance they can meet something of their ancestor’s spirit, and these two little girls living in Poland, can be Irish.