Ros na Rún abú!

This article first appeared in the Donegal Democrat

Have you noticed how Eamon Ó Cuiv seems to look and sound more like his grandfather with every passing year? It can be a terrible distraction when you’re trying to listen to what he’s saying rather than how he’s saying it.

Last weekend for instance, ‘Dev Óg’ made a speech about the role of the county councils in preserving the Irish language. County councils “through uncontrolled planning, and in not taking language criteria into account in planning decisions” had in the past damaged the Gaeltacht, he said.

“When we were drawing up a county plan in Galway some years ago we talking about preserving the old thatched cottages there,” the Minister said. “In a fit of frustration, I said I had lived for the previous 29 years in a modern bungalow and had brought up my family speaking Irish … Irish needs to thrive in a modern setting.”

The Minister said he wanted to see a Gaeltacht that was on a par with the rest of the country – an end to the “Peig Sayers” image of the Gaeltacht and a move towards a “TG4” view of it.

A couple of evenings every week I watch Ros na Rún, the TG4 soap. The storylines are no more impressive than any of the other soaps, but I love the mix of dialect and language, with Irish from all the regions and even the occasional English mixed in. I suspect “Na Puristí” don’t like this soap, but I love it.

The characters speak a language unto themselves. Sometimes, there’s a phrase in English [“Right you are”], sometimes just a single word [“Aye” or “No”] and on occasion what seems to be a new Irish word, fully conjugated [“hurtáil sé”, “bhí sí ag bitchéal”].

One thing I noticed is that the older characters speak Irish only without a word of English, while the younger characters speak Irish with many more borrowings from English. A few people have told me the borrowing is a sign of laziness, but I think it’s clever writing, intended to reflect the actual speech of people in a Gaeltacht.

There’s even a playfulness about the whole thing, the odd in-joke that might fly by if you’re not paying attention. Take the scene a while where Tadgh the barman lifted some empty glasses from a table occupied by some rowdy Yuppies.

Arriving back at the bar, he cast his eyes heavenwards, muttered: “Look at those bankers” and carried on about his business. At least, that’s what the subtitles reported him as saying, but did he really say “bhaincéirí”, or was it a similar sounding English word?

The notion somehow persists that the Irish language is the property of fanatics intent on recreating an Irish-only Ireland that has not existed in over a thousand years.

While this might have been true fifty years ago, anyone paying attention can see Irish is not about exclusion. Some English speakers may still think of Irish as the language of ‘Peig’, but the native speakers are happily bilingual.

Indeed, an increasing number of those who speak Irish as a second language are not even natives of Ireland, never mind native English-speakers. Michal Boleslav for example, is a Czech national living in Dublin. Michal has taught himself Irish, and is webmaster for, an ‘as Gaeilge’ online magazine.

Ros na Rún has been criticised in the past for the Béarlachas that pepper the conversations of its characters. The producers, quite reasonably, point out that real people do not speak “book Irish”, but a vibrant, evolving language.

People in the modern Gaeltachts happily borrow from neighbouring languages, as did their ancestors over the years from Latin, Norse, Scots, English, and Norman French. Only a few academics and civil servants minding their dictionaries get upset about this, preferring a dried-up fossil to a living language.