The man who taught me Irish for most of my six years in secondary school could be described as a “character”. He was a nationalist priest, and was, in many ways, old school.
Nicknames were currency in my school and nobody ever called me Connor. I was universally known as “Muzz”. This teacher was called many things but here I will call him “An tAthair”.
An tAthair was a campaigning priest. Rumour had it that he’d got in trouble for publicly scolding the Lord Mayor and Cork City Council to their faces from the altar at the official St. Patrick’s Day mass for the city. He was angry with them because they were moving inner-city residents out of their lifelong homes to make way for multi-storey car parks. And apparently, he was also instrumental in bringing electricity to Cape Clear Island.
And his presence loomed large in our school. He was a huge man, in every sense of the word: tall, broad and comfortably fat, with big feet and German sausages for fingers. He had a booming voice that filled the corridor of whatever classroom he was teaching in. Almost every sentence he said was preceded by a long “ó!” sound, and everything he said was said slowly and deafeningly loudly. He would move around the school, always carrying a tower of books that piled from the level of his waist to that of his chin. You could not be in the building and not be aware of him.
He was a zealot in his beliefs about the Irish language and he assumed everyone else would bow to the superiority of the language over all other concerns. He spoke only Irish at all times to all students. On his first day teaching my cousin’s class in first year, 29 out of 30 students sat in shock, not understanding a word the man was saying. The one who did understand was my cousin, who spoke Irish with his family. My cousin was (and is) the very definition of “precocious” and was eager that this situation be righted. He stood up and informed An tAthair, in Irish, that – even though he understood everything that was being said, none of the other boys did and maybe An tAthair should speak in English. This suggestion was ignored. And most people learned to cope. That said, there were people who were taught Irish through Irish by An tAthair for six years of secondary school and still didn’t really understand him by the end of it.
As well as Irish, he taught religion, and most of the lessons were taken up by him telling lengthy stories in Irish, or encouraging us to learn some Irish prayers. He didn’t actually speak English in religion class, but some slipped in, as we would spend many of his lessons reading aloud from the Acts of the Apostles, his favourite book of the bible.
He assumed all the other teachers realised how much more important Irish was than whatever subject they taught. He would arrive at the first class of the day on time, and would get so involved in whatever aspect of the language he was talking about that he would invariably finish at least five minutes late, while the teacher (and students) for the next class in that room stood outside waiting for him to finish. As the day went on, he would be later starting and finishing each class, and sometimes physics and business studies teachers would be left standing outside the door for over ten minutes while An tAthair would finish up whatever he was saying about the third declension or the Blasket Islands. On one infamous occasion, one of the English teachers, a grumpy Anglophile, who had no time for the Irish language, actually came in to the classroom and told An tAthair to leave, as he was eating into his class time. This was the talk of the school for weeks after. An tAthair was not an easy man to stand up to.
And An tAthair wasn’t a fan of the English. He was positively racist toward them. He often encouraged us to suggest topics for discussion in Irish class, in a hopeless effort to make his classes relevant to us. (He never succeeded in being relevant. If we’d been children on the Blasket Islands in the 1920s, he could have been relevant, but he just couldn’t be modern, no matter how hard he tried.) One day, soon after her death, one of my classmates cheekily suggested to An tAthair that we discuss Princess Diana. He responded in disgust, that there was no way we were going to talk about that “striapach idirnáisiúnta” (“international prostitute”). That said, and I know it doesn’t forgive his racism, he was tolerant in many ways that other teachers weren’t. One of the poets we studied for our leaving certificate Irish exam was Cathal Ó Searcaigh, an out gay man. One of my classmates asked An tAthair if it was true that Ó Searcaigh was gay. An tAthair responded that it wasn’t right to label people or call them names. That was the most positive thing I heard an adult say about homosexuality in my teenage years. I remember another priest who taught me, and when the topic of homosexuality came up, he took great pleasure in graphically describing the physical damage that gay sex can cause to your anal passage, so in comparison, An tAthair was a raging liberal.
An tAthair organised a wide range of Irish language activities in the school. And the culmination of them all was “Gradam na Gaeilge”. This was a competition to recognise the boys in the school who made the biggest contribution to the Irish language within the school. There was an enormous entry form, which you filled in every Easter, listing all the Irish-language things you did. Of course, you only did these things because An tAthair asked you to.
One of the things you were encouraged to do was to write your name in Irish on your copybooks, so instead of “Connor O’Donoghue”, all my teenage notebooks have the mouthful “Conchubhar Ó Donnchadha” inscribed on their covers. An tAthair always expected us to have lots of notebooks. We were to have two hard-covered Irish notebooks, one for new words in Irish, and one for “Abairtí Deasa” or “Nice Sentences”. We also had to have a notebook for transcribing, as we were encouraged to transcribe four sentences of Irish-language programming every night. He recommended The News. We had two copybooks for essays too, so that if he was correcting some, we would still have the other to do homework in. As he returned our homework to us, he would always make a big deal out of it if someone had their English name written on the cover of their notebook. He would invariably frown, and say, feigning shock, “Ó! Jolly old blighter eile, an ea?” (Oh! Another jolly old blighter, is it?) And then he would read their “English” name in an affected English accent.
He would harass the boarders until they agreed to sit at the Irish-language table at lunchtime, and thus they would earn points for “Gradam na Gaeilge”.
He would get you to write articles for the truly dreadful Irish-language school magazine we made, “Nuachtlitir Fhearna”. And then he would cajole boarders into staying up late at night typing it up. Generally, the articles that were written one year would be typed the next year and then “published” a year later, so the gripping report in broken Irish on the Harty Cup quarter final hurling match against Abbey CBS in Tipperary would be at least two years old before anyone would read it. An tAthair was enormously proud of this publication and he would distribute it far and wide. Priests would be encouraged to take copies of it out on the missions with them and we got photos of half-naked children from African and South American tribes “reading” Nuachtlitir Fhearna with confusion in their eyes.
You would also get points in “Gradam na Gaeilge” by going to the Gaeltacht (the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland) in the summer holidays to study Irish. Our school had a kind of timeshare on a building in the West Kerry Gaeltacht where we could go for two weeks a year. My parents preferred me to go to the neighbouring, more expensive three-week course, where you lived with actual native speakers, rather than to just stay with boys from your own school. However, it was very close, so every summer, An tAthair would pick me up, so I could visit for an afternoon. He would arrive at my Irish college at midday and would whoosh me away in his car. There were always three or four boys in his car, and the rest of the boys would be cycling behind him. We’d be going to the beach, or another village, or a playing field, or a site of natural beauty, but no matter how near it was, it would always take An tAthair forever to get there. Every time we passed a shop, he would stop for his favourite food, ice cream (uachtar reoite). He would sound surprised when he did this, declaring “Ó! Uachtar reoite!” before bounding into the shop and buying an ice cream for every boy in the car. The roads and lanes of the Dingle peninsula in summer are plentiful with one flower, fuchsia. The Irish for fuchsia is “deora Dé”, which means “tear of God” and An tAthair was convinced that these flowers looked uncannily like sacred tears (they don’t), and that this was proof positive that Irish was immeasurably richer and more descriptive than boring English, with its meaningless names like “fuchsia”. Anyway, he got so excited by these flowers and especially by their name, that every time he saw some he’d stop the car suddenly, enthusiastically declare “Ó! Deora Dé!” and launch into a lecture on the descriptive power of the Irish language. The only problem for us was that there was fuchsia growing alongside every road and this necessitated a lot of stopping. So the car journey with An tAthair went something like this: “Ó! Deora Dé! Ó! Deora Dé! Ó! Deora Dé! Ó! Uachtar Reoite!” repeated ad infinitum.
My main contribution to the Irish life of the school was debating. I was on the school’s Irish language debating team for all three years of its existence. And at least 80% of the Irish I know comes from participating in these debates. We would get the motion about ten days before the debate, and for those ten days, we practised our arses off. An tAthair was the team trainer and he put everything into it. We would meet to divide up the arguments between the three team members, then we would go home and write our speeches, then he would re-write the speeches for us. And then we would say them over and over and over again. We would prepare refutations for what the other team might say. We would discuss the topic in detail. And we would repeat our speeches over and over and over again. I was always the worst at getting the speech off by heart. I think he kept me on the team because I had a good loud voice, because I have a very good accent when I speak Irish and because I was very obedient. But he was always looking for new ways of getting me to learn my speech off more quickly. One year, he even introduced a substitute, who would learn my speech too, and then we’d both have to say it for him and whoever said it better would get on the team. It worked. I got on the team every time.
The debaters would be made stay after school every day to practise. Sometimes we’d stay for over two hours. And we’d say our speeches backwards and forwards, again and again, until An tAthair was happy. But he was very kind to us. He’d give me a lift home if we stayed late. One time, when we’d all stayed particularly late, he took us into the kitchen and rummaged around for some food for us. He found a few blocks of ice cream. He said “Ó! Uachtar Reoite!” with great joy in his voice, and he made us the largest ice-cream sandwiches ever to have been made, chuckling that he’d be in trouble with the nuns in the morning for stealing the ice cream. (I realise my school must sound ridiculously old-fashioned, the priests taught and the nuns were in charge of the cleaning and the cooking, but as my time in school went on things changed. They hired in non-nun cleaners on FÁS schemes and there were more and more women teachers as time went on and they announced the decision to stop taking in boarders when I was in sixth year).
On days of debates, An tAthair would procure our release from any classes that weren’t Irish so we could practise. He would make us eat with the boarders in the middle of the day, to ensure we got hot food before our debates and he would generally take us for something to eat after the debate. He would also make sure that none of the teachers expected any homework from us the day after debates. And we used to do very well. Three years in a row, we won the regional championship and got into the All-Ireland, and three years in a row we got to the national semi-final, only to be beaten at that stage every time. He would get large crowds of students to come to support us at debates, with the promise of girls’ schools and a possible stop in SuperMac’s and an excuse for boarders to get out of study period, and of course everyone got credit for “Gradam na Gaeilge” for coming to watch the debates. He taught them the most awful unrhythmic chant to roar in support of us “Fearna Abú! A hAon! A Dó! A Trí!” (Yay Farna! One! Two! Three!) and a lovely day out was had by all.
And every Easter, we’d fill in the forms for “Gradam na Gaeilge” with lists of the activities we took part in, names of the friends we claimed to speak Irish to (we didn’t, but we said we did), the Irish language TV programmes we claimed to watch (we didn’t, but we said we did), the Irish language books and newspapers we claimed to read, and so on and so forth.
The prizes at “Gradam na Gaeilge” were decided by a committee, “Coiste na Gaeilge”, which was always chaired by another Irish teacher on staff, even though it was patently obvious to absolutely everyone that this was An tAthair’s baby. One year, the committee even included the Indian secretary who was working in the school at the time. He didn’t speak a word of Irish, but he happily sat on the stage and smiled throughout the lengthy prize-giving ceremony. An tAthair was a man who it was difficult to say no to, so if he asked you to be on his committee, it was generally just easier to say yes. An tAthair liked to include everyone and these ceremonies took a long time, as he announced the joint 17th place runner up (not exaggerating!) all the way up to the winner. The lower placed runners up would get a paperback novel in Irish that they would never read, “Réics Carló ar Oileán Mhannan” (Rex Carlow on the Isle of Man – the nearest Ireland got to having a James Bond). I always came either second or third, which meant a medal and a hard-covered dictionary. I can’t remember what the winner used to get, probably two dictionaries.
An tAthair had a much greater impact on me than any other teacher. I remember when I got suspended from school for a week in transition year. I was the boy who had got 9 A’s in my Junior Cert, the nerd and the teacher’s son and I got suspended. This caused huge controversy. No other teacher ever dared to mention it. But An tAthair took me aside and told me that we all make mistakes, and that I was to stand tall, and that we all deserve a second chance. That meant a lot. And his passion was infectious. And I don’t think anyone outside my family has ever invested as much time in me as An tAthair did. I know that after I left the school, when he reached 65, the compulsory retirement age, he asked if he could continue teaching for free, but instead he has been retired out to a small country parish. This makes me sad.
Anyway, I arrived in university with Irish spilling out of me. An tAthair had a put a lot into me. Even though I was studying Law, I took Irish language as an optional subject in first year. At the end of the year, I did my oral exam. One of the lecturers who was examining me asked me at the end of the test “An cainteoir ón gcliabhán tú?” (Are you a native speaker?) What an amazing question to get asked. And my Irish really was very good. That summer, I worked on Irish courses in the Gaeltacht, for the princely sum of £140 per three-week course, and my Irish was nearly perfect.
And then eleven years passed during which I didn’t speak a word of Irish. I stopped taking it in college so that I could do more law subjects (and never did as well in any of them as I had done in my Irish first year exams). I didn’t go back to work in the Gaeltacht again. I just stopped speaking it.
I know what An tAthair would have recommended. As a young man, he spent a year in Savannah, Georgia. In order to keep his Irish alive he read a page of “Peig” (the bleak autobiography of a Blasket Island woman which has been used to torture generations of Irish students) aloud every night straight before bed. And I can imagine him doing it quite easily.
But I didn’t read anything in Irish. And then I moved to Poland for three years and didn’t speak a word of Irish. And then I came back to Ireland and when I met a native Irish speaker, about three years ago, who I had known when I worked in the Gaeltacht, he spoke to me in Irish and I answered in English.
Eleven years is a long time not to speak a language. And then, when I had one of my bigger financial crises back in first year of my PhD and I decided to apply for student housing, I hauled my Irish out again. There was a college-wide Irish-language residential scheme that you got a grant for living in. I applied and did an interview. Trying to speak Irish again after so long was painful, but I felt I did well in the interview. Both of the interviewers were very nice, but I didn’t get a place on the scheme, and instead I ended up in my House of Boys last year.
And I didn’t think about Irish again for a year. Until I applied to be Assistant Warden. My CV says that I have “advanced level Irish”, but it never crossed my mind that this would ever be put to the test. And then, during my interview, the Warden said, “I see you speak Irish” and I replied, with my Irish-est pronunciation “Tá Gaeilge agam” (I have Irish) and we left it at that.
And so, having been refused entry onto the Irish-language residential scheme only a year beforehand, I found myself in charge of the three Irish-speaking apartments in Hall. I have to say that this made me very nervous. At this stage, 12 years had passed since I had spoken Irish, and I didn’t feel at all confident.
Luckily, the students on the Irish scheme this year were a joy to work with. They were enthusiastic and friendly and I don’t think they cared that my Irish is about 60% English words said with an Irish accent, or that I consistently stammered and stuttered. I was responsible for about 80 students this year, of whom the Irish scheme students, or the “scéimers” as they’re known, were fewer than a quarter, but they took up a significant proportion of my time.
One of my main memories of my first year as an Assistant Warden is of an investigation into a goldfish that died while in the care of the scéimers. It was simultaneously deeply, deeply silly and deeply, deeply serious. It was a story that spread and spread and I will never forget getting a phonecall from the college Irish Officer, the man who hands out the grant money to the scéimers. He wanted to know the full goldfish story. I explained the situation to him. At one stage, while I was telling him the story, I called the fish by its name, “Pablo”. And the Irish Officer exclaimed in aggravation, “Cé hé Pablo?” (Who’s Pablo?) I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone who was as worked up about the name of a fish in my life before. And now, every time I see a goldfish, the question “Cé hé Pablo?” echoes in my head, filled with his tones of rage and confusion.
And this year, I’m on the selection committee for next year’s scéimers. I am the ultimate poacher-turned-gamekeeper.
The weekend before last, I was handed a bundle of 84 applications to go through and mark by Monday morning. I didn’t start into them on Saturday or on Sunday morning. In fact, literally speaking, it was Monday when I started marking them, as it was around midnight on Sunday night.
And it took hours. I didn’t really have a Monday after marking all those applications.
And, as I marked them, I found myself turning into An tAthair. If they’d written their name or address in English, I declared “Ó! Jolly old blighter, an ea?”
I also began to turn into a racist, and when I see someone with a foreign-sounding surname I started thinking to myself “Oh, I wonder how s/he came to speak Irish with a name like that”. Just like my mother when someone who’s not white comes on the news or on “Nationwide” and she wonders where they’re from, and if you say they’re from Offaly, she rolls her eyes and says “Yeah, but where are they really from?”
I turn into a bit of a sexist too, and start sneering at people using both their mother’s and their father’s surname. Double-barrelled surnames are long in English, but in Irish, they’re positively epic in scale. Mine would be “Ó Coigligh-Ó Donnchadha” and that would be far from the longest. If your surname was “Fitzpatrick-Taggart” in English it would be “Mac Giolla Phádraig-Mac an tSagairt” in Irish, which is just plain silly, not that it’s their fault, I hasten to add.
As I read the forms, I saw myself as a teenager. I was reading the “Gradam na Gaeilge” application forms that I’d completed as a teenager. They’d all been to the Gaeltacht. They’d all been on the Irish debating team. In fact, Irish debating was such a common thing to mention on the form that one person started their application form with the sentence, “Unfortunately, I never debated in Irish…” A few people said, just like I had in my own forms “I read Foinse every week”. Foinse is an Irish-language newspaper and I really can’t imagine any 18-year-old reads it every week, but it’s good that they mention it anyway.
We’re interviewing about half the applicants. We did the first set of people on Monday of this week. I sat between the two interviewees who had interviewed and rejected me two years ago, and together we interviewed eighteen-year-old after eighteen-year-old. And they told us about the great Céilís they’ve been to, and the hours they spend watching TV in Irish and the great time they had in the Gaeltacht.
And then, when the other interviewers are having lunch, it’s my job to give the applicants a tour of Hall and they start asking me questions about parties and about whether it’s OK if a boy stays over.
And because I’m me, I want to offer them all a place on the Scheme. Because they really are lovely. And I can’t wait for next year.