Which language is most spoken in Ireland? It is often forgotten for nearly two centuries English has been the majority language in Ireland. By the 1890s the gaeltacht (native-Irish speaking community) was restricted to a small number of remote areas in the west. There was a Gaelic revivalist movement but as Joyce brilliantly portrays in The Dead (1914) this largely consisted of earnest nationalist intellectuals like Miss Ivors. She berates Gabriel as as a 'West Briton':
"O, Mr. Conroy, will you come for an excursion to the Aran Isles this summer? We're going to stay there a whole month. It will be splendid out in the Atlantic. You ought to come. Mr. Clancy is coming, and Mr. Kilkelly and Kathleen Kearney. It would be splendid for Gretta too if she'd come. She's from Connacht, isn't she?"Today every child in Ireland learns Irish. How has that happened?
"Her people are," said Gabriel shortly.
"But you will come, won't you?" said Miss Ivors, laying her arm hand eagerly on his arm.
"The fact is," said Gabriel, "I have just arranged to go----"
"Go where?" asked Miss Ivors.
"Well, you know, every year I go for a cycling tour with some fellows and so----"
"But where?" asked Miss Ivors.
"Well, we usually go to France or Belgium or perhaps Germany," said Gabriel awkwardly.
"And why do you go to France and Belgium," said Miss Ivors, "instead of visiting your own land?"
"Well," said Gabriel, "it's partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change."
"And haven't you your own language to keep in touch with -- Irish?" asked Miss Ivors.
"Well," said Gabriel, "if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language."
The formation of the Free State (1922) allowed the Miss Ivors to gain the upper-hand over the 'West Britons'. For the first time Gaelic became a compulsory subject in Irish schools.
So your parents spoke Irish?
Yes and no. They were part of the first generation to experience the educational consequences of the nationalist policy. Though they came from a remote part of rural Ireland, neither spoke Irish at home. Where they came closely into contact with Gaelic was at school. Every subject was now to be studied through the medium of this 'foreign' language.
That can't have been easy. Surely it's better to learn through your first language? The difficulty was compounded by the fact that the teachers were also non-native. And in rural areas they were under-qualified and working with very limited resources.
How did your parents do? Perhaps they grew to love Gaelic?
My mother was a natural student, she was going to do well even if they taught her in Swahili. Though she went to a dire convent boarding-school, where she was literally malnourished, she excelled academically. She won county prizes in Irish and today might have gone on to a top university. Instead she came to England where she became a telephone switchboard operator and then a housewife.
I can't remember her saying a single word in Irish.
My dad in contrast was not a scholar, though he was quick-witted and a gifted story-teller and raconteur. He left school at 14 to work first on the family farm and then in an Irish mine, then in an English one. His employers did not tend to put a premium on qualifications in Gaelic - which was just as well ....
So Irish had little significance in his life?
On the contrary. He left Ireland in his early twenties, but Ireland and Irish never left him.
Dad was very happy in England and grateful for the opportunities it gave him. But even after more than 60 years there was no possibility that anyone could mistake him for a native.
Partly it was his resolutely undiluted accent ('like he just arrived this morning' as my aunt put it) but it was also the vocabulary he used. Dad's speech was peppered with Irish words and expressions - and not the predictable ones you will find on Wikipedia's rather dull list .
In tribute this week I'm going to feature some of my favourites. I've tried to cross-reference where possible as Dad was not beyond making them up himself!
Mary-Theresa McGovern (1928 - 1983)
John James McGovern (1929 - 2015)