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Column: Growing up between Inis Oírr… and Ballymun

When Martin Sharry was seven, he moved from Ballymun to Inis Oírr. The two places are very different, he writes, but not without similarities.

Martin Sharry

Martin Sharry is the creator and performer of I Am Martin Sharry, part of ABSOLUT Fringe 2012.

‘I’M FROM INIS Oirr, the Aran Islands… but I used to live in Ballymun.’

This is what I tell people whom I suspect of some fluency or having a grá for speaking Irish. If lucky enough to dodge a gaeilgeoir, this introduction will be met by warm smiles and genuine interest. People perk up at this autobiographical ice-breaker: ‘That must have been interesting’. However, if they don’t speak Irish, I tell them I’m from Inis Oírr, full stop, and when they naturally assume that ‘I must be fluent in Irish’ I bashfully claim the odd cúpla focail.

Secretly, I wish I was fluent in Irish, I love the language. And after growing up in Ballymun where I went to an Irish speaking primary school and moving to the Gaeltacht of Inis Oirr, one would feel that one should be fluent in Irish.

The first day in the Bunscoil was memorable. There was already an anxiety due to the overwhelming differences with a North Dublin suburb. There’s the immediate and constant presence of the sea (the island is two square miles). There’s the absence of trees (the soil is too shallow). And the omniscience of family (many relations).

This difference was concentrated in the classroom. For example, the size: there were six lads in my class, all cousins of each other to varying degrees. However, it was the language that required accommodation. Even the Irish was different, in sound and vocabulary. Neimbní instead of náid, phincín for srón and gadhar for madra. But what was mostly alienating was that unknown quality – blás.

Contrast

I remember being asked by an islander classmate once, are you from Inis Oírr or Dublin? At that moment I was aware that this was a test, it was my decision. Conscious of this, I reacted against this need to make a statement, the necessity to make one’s position known. So I said ‘neither’. Innocently thinking I could live without a home. Tourists on Aran often greet me with ‘you’re not from Aran, sure you’re not?’ ‘You don’t have the look of a local anyway’. Their assertions are proved right when I fail the language test. I’m equally reluctant to claim any Ballymun heritage. Even though I lived there for the formative first seven years.

Synge said ‘in contrast, there is wonder’. Experiencing these two different environments has made me aware of the aura of place. I see the construct of mythology as a necessary thing, but traditional storytellers knew it was all made up. Their two names have become symbols, in that they hold many meanings for different people, and for people who have no direct experience of living in these places. Both were presented as utopian projects.

Ballymun was built in 1966 according to the best social housing practices at the time in response to the inner city slum clearances. But the society was neglected. Whereas on Aran it was the society that was invented, its advantage was as repository of the Irish language. The people were romantically idealised as living a purer, simpler, more authentic Irish existence. This notion sponsors a tourist season which is vital to the island.

However, it’s the day to day reality of working life that helps sustain a sense of self. When the work stopped we moved to the family home on Aran.

Martin Sharry’s new show I Am Martin Sharry runs at Smock Alley Theatre 18-22 September as part of ABSOLUT Fringe 2012. For further details see fringefest.com or call 1850 374 643.

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Martin Sharry

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