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The Irish For: How a fada can make all the difference

The Royal Bank of Scotland did not mention the meaning as Gaeilge of their online banking app Bó.

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

THIS IS THE latest dispatch from our columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir. Every Sunday morning, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. Enjoy. 

Earlier this week, Girls Aloud star and famous Gemini Nadine Coyle was invited by her fellow contestants on reality show I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here to teach them some Irish.

A few days later, the Royal Bank of Scotland launched an online banking app with a fada in the name, including advice on how to pronounce it. Although unlikely, could these events be somehow connected?

As the decade draws to a close, we can find ourselves looking back and trying to identify some unifying theme for the past ten years, something like how we think of the groovy ’60s or the greed-is-good ’80s.

This can be frustratingly reductive, especially combined with the recent trend for attributing personality traits to entire generations.

Having said that, the ‘10s were a singular era in Irish history for reasons which lurk behind the surface in these two stories – banking, technology, our relationship with Britain, assumptions about who gets to be included in Irishness, the connections and divisions fostered by social media, and the fortunes of the English and Irish languages.

Bótháin – A cattle raid

NatWest’s decision to name their new online banking service after a cow isn’t the strangest thing in the world – Lloyds Bank used to have a Goldfish credit card and Londoners use Oyster cards every day – but using the Irish word for a cow was quite a surprise.

The website advises potential customers unfamiliar with diacritical markers that Bó is pronounced “the same way you would go, low, yo, mow, row, dough!”

Then comes the sucker punch – the bank said that bó “has no meaning in English, so it’s a word that we can own”.

In case you think this was an innocent mistake, they refer to the diacritic as a fada, and it rises from left to right (unlike the Scots Gaelic fada).

They could have gone with Bø, Bö, Bõ, Bô, or Bò. They have chosen not to spell it as Bow, which is pronounced two ways in English (a crazy and illogical language, I’m sure you’ll agree).

Saying that a foreign artefact is meaningless and now belongs to you is such a succinct summary of the colonial attitude that it’s almost profound. But is it deliberate?

It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that this was an epic act of trolling recommended by a PR/media consultant who had noticed how quickly Irish twitter rallies to a cause, and how news coverage is generated in response to this.

Ireland’s online community has been one of the major stories of the 2010s – while previous generations of emigrants and exiles were removed from national debates, social media kept the children of the bailout in the conversation, culminating in #HomeToVote.

And while there’s no one type of Irish person who becomes an emigrant or uses social media, two of the unifying topics of conversation has been Gaeilge (bilingual puns and shared stories of explaining one’s name) and the widespread obliviousness in Britain to its shared history with Ireland, from claiming Irish celebrities as British or understanding the significance of the border on Brexit options.

News stories hinging on these misunderstandings go viral quickly. It was only a matter of time before they noticed.

Gaeilge Uladh – Ulster Irish

The reflex to correct incorrect perceptions of Irishness is not always benign and can sometimes reveal smug presumptions, as was the case with the negative response to Nadine Coyle’s Ulster Irish pronunciation of dia duit.

As the wonderful Foclóir app will show you here, these words are spoken differently in different parts of the island, but some speakers more familiar with other canúintí were too hasty to correct and criticise her.

The presence of an online community engaged with Irish in a proud but playful way is an exciting development that was not anticipated a decade earlier.

I hope that as the 2020s begin, it continues to grow and include speakers of all canúintí and anyone willing to learn.

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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