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A father and daughter at a St. Patrick's Day parade. SIPA USA/PA Images

The Irish For Although apart for now, when we reunite, it will be the stuff of poetry. Crisis survival tips from the Irish language

We look to language when seeking a reassuring symbol of endurance, Darach Ó Séaghdha writes.

AT A BRIEFING last week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar quoted C.S Lewis – “everyone’s a bit scared but we’re a little less scared together”.

He added that kids who are currently out of school and away from their friends could do worse than to read the Chronicles of Narnia, and certainly a book that opens with children being evacuated from wartime London feels timely with all the talk of ‘Blitz spirit’ lately.

And there are echoes of Narnia’s curse – to have constant winter without Christmas – right now as we endure an indefinite Good Friday with pubs, cinemas and other meeting places forced to close. 

While Lewis’s native Belfast was subject to German air raids in World War II, Blitz spirit – the idea of a community coming together to stoically weather out a challenge – is not mentioned in the context of that city.

There are probably dozens of reasons for this. So where do we look when seeking a reassuring symbol of enduring together that is more relevant to Ireland? 

Perhaps language is a good place to start.

Both in the way that we have re-engineered global English into something that better fits our particular attitude to life and in the way that Gaeilge has lived long enough to complain about grammatical errors in its many obituaries, language keeps a record of how we remember, endure and hope together.

The words we hold closest to us in tough times have been warmed by that embrace, and the words we discarded in a hurried escape, when found again, tell stories of what has been lost and what might be found again. 

I think of the throwaway phrase: “sure, look it”. Although these look like English words, this combination is unknown beyond these shores.

While hard to define exactly, something like “that’s disappointing and you’re not wrong, but even though the world isn’t fair and we don’t always get our way, there are still some good options and you have good friends who like you” isn’t too far off. 

But when it comes to Irish, I think of something else. 

A recurring theme I’ve found in Irish is the wealth of exquisite homonyms – words that sound so similar that you can’t help wondering if the meanings are linked.

It’s a language that gives its poets a head start – whether it’s gardaí chasing gadaí (cops chasing robbers) or your name sounding like your soul (ainm and anam), or the way tax sounds like weeping (cáin and caoin) or a wanderer sounds like a teardrop (deoraí and deoir), ideas which go awfully together take shelter under the same phonetic umbrella in Irish. 

One of my favourite of these homonyms is how returning and poet, filleadh and file (both sound like fillah), go together.

Although we have been pushed apart from each other, we will return and return again and it will be the stuff of poetry when grandparents hug their grandchildren and colleagues give out about their bosses over coffee and we overhear conversations on our way to meet our friends again. I know this because Gaeilge told me so. 

Finally, as this is my last piece for for a while, I’d like to finish up by saying the Irish for goodbye is an all-too apt wish of good health to the one you are saying farewell to. Slán leat. 


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