“Oh you’re Irish?” he said.
“Did you learn the language much?” he said.
Honestly, what can I tell him? I was raised in the North - a bloody wasteland for such a naïve question.
Vague memories of fumbled classes where our secret history was ditched just to get straight into the basics (Cad é mar atá tú?)
No – seriously - I was not tied to it – it was anonymous to me at that age.
Forgotten like some distant echo of once visiting Coole House as a child.
Sure, we knew it was “important”, “our national language”, “heritage” etc. and we were warned it was quickly slipping into the drain of Western hegemony.
But it was baffling, unsexy and only the blunt-faced humorless IRA thugs amongst us were in any way keen.
Then it was gone, just like the faded memories of “The Children of Lir” from my primary school.
Looking back I wonder, what was the point?
A half-full measure paying lip service to our identity.
Teachers and headmasters terrified of the grand colonial reveal that the lessons might have hinted at (were they trying to stop us being Provos-in-waiting?).
And all of this against the awful shame of a common tongue that had no foe yet was slowly vanquishing from our shores.
It could have all been so different.
Rather than rushing to get something in our empty skulls, they could have given us a sense of joy, pride & belief in our own culture.
Calling on Yeats, Behan, Heaney and others to drown us in the language of our ancestors.
Telling the stories of old that only the academics & hippies were keeping from us then.
You know, it might kept us all on the same beautifully illuminated page.
We might have been comfortable in our skins and open to others,
not looking deep into our worthlessness and lashing out at them.
Language is being and language is connecting, I’ve learnt.
But that’s not something I got from my secondary school.
Obviously, Teanga is the Irish word for language. "Cad é mar atá tú" is a basic phrase every Irish child would remember from the limited experience of the language that we had then - "how are you?". I did visit Coole House around 1980 (when I was 10) but had no idea at the time of its significance as the 'petri dish' of modern Irish culture - the home of Lady Gregory whose influence on many of our great writers was fundamental to their survival & their continuing importance today. "The Children of Lir" is an old fantastical Irish myth that was often read to very young children during their "story time".