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'Irish is a dead language? Judging by your punctuation, English isn't far off either'

Darach Ó Séaghdha, who runs the successful Twitter account “The Irish for”, is publishing a book on why Irish may not be dead just yet.

DARACH Ó SÉAGHDHA started the Twitter page The Irish For back in January 2015.

The page, which has over 23,000 followers, does pretty much exactly what is says on the tin, offering translations and guidance on pronunciation.

Expanding from its humble beginnings, Ó Séaghdha’s project has grown to incorporate a podcast and a new book, called Motherfoclóir.

With a tagline of “dispatches from a not so dead language”, and a foreword from comedian Dara Ó Briain, the 39-year-old sat down with TheJournal.ie to explain why the Irish language can still be a vibrant thing that’s worth caring about.

Using Irish to make sense of the world

In the introduction to the book, Ó Séaghdha explains his love for the Irish language and how he went about trying to exploit the opportunity of social media to get a more positive message across.

He writes: “I set myself three rules for running this account.

1. Don’t get involved in debates about state policy on Irish language – teaching, signage, constitutional controversy, expenditure and so on… The Irish language doesn’t belong to any government or party and its many charms exist whether it is promoted correctly or not.
2. It must be pleasing to those with no Irish, as well as to those with more than myself.
3. Build a palace from the rubble of everyone’s else smashed expectations. People who expect the Irish language to be confined to things they aren’t interested in talking about – smash their expectation.

So what is it in the Irish language that Ó Séaghdha describes as “the amazing buried treasure”?

“If you find a quiet space to look at the Irish language itself,” he said, “away from the associations that people have with it, you discover what a great language it is.

What it’s trying to do is show people how they can make sense of the world around them through Irish. There are words and phrases that we don’t have in English, and you can sometimes use Irish to sum up a situation in a better, more satisfying way. So we should do it.

In one example in the book, Ó Séaghdha writes: “Turscar is more specific; it means ugly, dead seaweed that the sea has abandoned on the shore.

Cleverly, this is also the Irish word for spam email.

Some more examples of interesting quirks of the Irish language that Ó Séaghdha uses in the book include:

  • A fada can make all the difference. Saith = bad/evil, sáith = a (decent sized) meal; brach = yellow gunk in the corner of eyes, brách = eternal; sléachtadh = genuflection, sleachtadh = havoc/destruction.
  • “The Irish for sea if farraige – not to be confused with Farage, something that should get back in the sea.”
  • “The Irish word for an extremist is antioisceach, not to be confused with An Taoiseach.”
  • “A crapaire is one who shrinks, condenses or crushes things. It has nothing to do with poo. Crap leat means ‘go away, you’. The related word crapshúileach means peering or looking at someone/something with narrowed eyes. It does not mean having crap in one’s eyes.”

Interestingly, Ó Séaghdha has found that a lot of words develop organically, away from the classroom, and he said that is something that helps to keep the language alive.

“With language, I’m not sure it it’s advisable or preferable for people sitting in a room deciding what is a word and what’s not a word,” he said. “There are words being formed right now in gaelscoil playgrounds.”

Grá don Gaeilge

Darach’s passion for the language came from his father, a multi-lingual school inspector.

“Both my parents were Irish speakers,” he said. “But my brother and I recoiled from it a bit as teenagers. It was only later I realised the value of it to be honest.”

As his father’s health deteriorated in later years, Ó Séaghdha found himself attracted to the Irish language more and more.

After he passed away, I think it was a way to keep a connection with him.

Now a father himself, Ó Séaghdha said that the process of writing the book involved a lot of introspection.

“It was tough to write this book,” he said. “It was roughly a year after my father died, and my daughter had been diagnosed with Down Syndrome.

Writing this book was a way for me to process all that was going on.

The married father keeps the Twitter account up-to-date during his commute to work in Dublin, when his wife is watching the TV and after his daughter wakes up for early morning feeds.

“I’d love my daughter to learn Irish too as she grows up, but it’s about getting her the right supports in place,” he said.

Motherfoclóir is dedicated to his father and his daughter Lasairíona.

Taking the politics out of the Irish language

Ó Séaghdha cited common criticisms made of the Irish language – the quality of teaching in schools, the cost of translating it for the State – and said that it was these issues that he wanted his project to remain separate from – both on Twitter and with the Motherfoclóir book.

“It’s an ongoing thing,” he said. “It’s like an episode of Murder She Wrote. It’s the exact same story each time, with a few minor changes on who’s involved.

I feel like every time there’s a debate about the Irish language on the news, it’s exactly like that. I didn’t want to be a part of that. Why can’t the conversation just be about the words themselves?

“And even in education, Irish has become a placeholder for everything people didn’t like about school. And the Twitter page and this book were ways to try to change that.”

Ó Séaghdha has had a great deal of success in doing exactly that with his The Irish For Twitter page, creating an online community where people engage on a daily basis with the Irish language.

“I had one a few weeks ago,” he said, “comparing uachtaran (president) and uachtar reoite (ice cream). Some of the puns that came in were brilliant.”

He said that he gets the odd negative comment and feedback from people online, but doesn’t let that faze him.

You get the odd person who’ll come along say ‘Irish is a dead language’. I just think ‘judging by your punctuation, English isn’t far off either’.

For the father-of-one, having this space where people can ask questions and speak about the language is a positive thing.

“Getting into the Irish language community isn’t something that will cost you to do,” he said. “It’s not school-driven. And people really seem to have a genuine interest in it.”

As Ó Briain puts it in the foreword: “Enjoy the journey. There’s no exam in the end.”

Motherfoclóir is published by Gill Hess, and will be available to the public from 7 September. 

Read: How weddings, festivals and Hennessy are helping Irish art after ‘devastating’ funding cuts

Read: IRA leader Seán Russell and the story of Dublin’s most controversial statue

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Sean Murray

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