The Atlantic

Learning My Father’s Language

I made a vow to teach myself Irish, the language my mother struggled to learn, so that my daughters may learn it too.
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My mother achieved real competence in Irish, and then gradually lost it. Her exertions were motivated by unrequited love, her ambitions, and even her politics. After she died, I found all these great propaganda pamphlets from the early 1980s, with titles like “Britain’s War Machine in Ireland.” All of them aimed at Irish Americans like herself. But it was hard, in the exurbs of New York with a dying mother and a growing son, to keep up the social circles that support a language. And gradually even we stopped using the ornamental bits of it.

And right now, the ornamental bits of it are almost all I have. When I’ve gone through my cycle of rebel songs, I have tried soothing this baby girl by counting in Irish. Or whispering, over and over, “Mo chroi, mo thaisce. My heart, my treasure.

Patrick Pearse once wrote a fantasy of what Ireland might be like one century after his time. He envisioned the Ireland of 2005 as a warmer place, because the bogs had been drained. And he envisioned it as a country in which the Irish language was restored totally. Only a few schools still taught English as a second language. With the collapse of the British Empire in the 20th century— he was right about that!—the English language lost its importance. In his dream, the Irish Parliament in 2005 was debating a bill for making the study of Japanese compulsory in seaport towns in Ireland, owing to its utility as a commercial language.

The story didn’t go that way. I wrote to you earlier, Father, about the plunder of Ireland. How the English have robbed Ireland not just of its wealth, and of many of its lives, but of its sense of self. After the famine, the Irish mind awakened to the possibility of losing even the memory of itself. And it responded with a self-conscious attempt at cultural revival.

[Read: What’s lost when a language dies]

What most people say is that the Gaelic cultural revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries produced a lot of good and some great literature in English—Yeats, Joyce, and so on. And the revival of Irish sport under the Gaelic Athletic Association was a crushing success. I know because I can listen live to the broadcast of Mayo and Dublin fighting to a draw in Gaelic football on my smartphone. But we are supposed to conclude that the language revival was doomed, and possibly destructive to have tried. In his book about the history of the Irish language, Aidan Doyle concludes, “Anybody who sets

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