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The Irish For: The perception that Irish is intimately linked to Catholicism is too widely held

Some languages are intimately associated with religions but not Gaeilge, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

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.

ONE OF THE side projects I started to capitalise on the popularity of @theirishfor is the @motherfocloir Twitter account, which changes curator each week. Each curator has a different experience of the Irish language: some have studied it to a postgraduate level and work in an area where they use it every day, some are returning to study it as adults, some are taking their first steps with Duolingo after watching Black 47 or An Klondike.

Some grew up in Gaeltacht areas and some are parents preparing to send a child to a Gaelscoil, valuing a language they wish they spoke better themselves. It’s a wide spectrum of backgrounds and opinions, living very different lives in Ireland and beyond.

Knowing this, I was surprised when a chap contacted @motherfocloir a few weeks ago during Pride/Bród, stating that he didn’t think the Irish language should be associated with such an event. The language, he explained, was fundamentally Catholic in its nature and saturated in what he called “the national faith”.

Obviously, this is incorrect on a number of counts. However the perception – that Irish is intimately and exclusively linked to Catholicism over other faiths and none – is too widely held. In particular, it has led to Gaeilge becoming a political football in Northern Ireland.

Some languages are intimately associated with religions, most obviously Hebrew with Judaism and Arabic with Islam. The significance of these links is that the sacred texts of these faiths are written in these languages and believers are cautioned against studying them only in translation.

Consider the objections to discussing Pride Month in Irish referred to above – presumably these are informed by this chap’s understanding of verse 18:22 in the Book of Leviticus. This is often given in English as “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination”.

However, numerous key terms in that sentence are the choices by a translator that have an impact on the meaning. To pick just one for illustration, the coy phrase “lie with” is an interpretation of the less vague משכבי (mishkevei) in the original Hebrew – a word referring to illicit or forceful encounters rather than covering every kind of sexual union.

There are Irish translations of this verse too, but the ones published prior to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s would have emanated from the Church of Ireland rather than the Latin-using Catholic Church.

Queen Elizabeth I financed the translation of the New Testament into Irish, published in 1602, and Leabhar na nUrnaightheadh gComhchoidchiond agus mheinisdraldachda na Sacrameinteadh (Book of Common Prayer) followed in 1608.

The translation of both of these texts was led by Uilliam Ó Domhnuill, the Anglican bishop of Tuam. Centuries later, the first president of the Gaelic League was Douglas Hyde, the son of a rector and one of the last speakers of the Roscommon dialect of Irish.

The most common example people use when arguing that Irish is laced with Christian, specifically Catholic ideas, is the tradition of greetings.

Dia duit/ Dia is Muire duit: God be with you/God and Mary be with you.

However, put these in the context of the English word “goodbye” being an abbreviation of “God be with ye” and “bless you” when someone sneezes; the Irish versions of those pleasantries “slán leat” and “deiseal” are not prayerful. So Irish isn’t an outlier on this one. (Let’s not even go near the preponderance of OMGs in modern English).

Finally, it would be remiss to mention religion and the Irish Language without pointing out a pattern of soundalikes which you cannot unsee:

Eagla: fear

Eaglais: church

Aifreann: mass

Ifreann: Hell

Ár nAthair: Our Father

An nathair: The snake

Darach’s new book Craic Baby is the follow-up to his acclaimed Motherfoclóir and is out now under the Head of Zeus imprint.

He runs @theirishfor Twitter account and the @motherfocloir podcast.

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Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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