Irish certainly isn’t the hardest language in the world; it doesn’t boast the 64 cases of Tsez, or Navajo’s rococo verb architecture. But as Indo-European languages go, Irish is rather tricky, hard to learn unless you soak it up as a child.
It’s hard to explain why a non-native speaker should brave those complexities, since the only places you can really use the language in everyday life are in scattered Irish rural areas collectively known as the Gaeltacht.
“Gael” was an Old Irish name for the people of Ireland; “acht” is a suffix that roughly corresponds to English suffixes such as “-ness” or “-hood.” So “Gaeltacht” means, sort of, “the Irishness,” which suggests how deeply language and identity and place are all connected to each other.
Which is why I went to the Donegal Gaeltacht during the Brexit crisis. The entire Western world seemed to be in a simultaneous convulsion over identity and language and culture, and the Gaeltacht is one of the few places where the promotion of a native identity is utterly uncontroversial.
I’d spent the previous week in London, where political scientist Eric Kaufmann had told me that too many critics of right-wing populism look only at their rejection of immigration, without seeing the beloved thing they’re trying to preserve. Which is a little like trying to appreciate a scenic landscape by looking at its photonegative. In the Gaeltacht, you can see the positive image clearly, and in full color.
So I thought about that conversation a lot as I drove around the Gaeltacht with Donnchadh Ó Baoill, a development executive at Údarás na Gaeltachta, the government agency charged with the economic, social and political development of the Gaeltacht, all of which are necessary to keep people there, and speaking Irish daily.
That sort of commitment to a small place and a small language is hard for many of us to grasp; the modern idea is that we should all be citizens of the world, open to everything, attached to almost nothing. But many beautiful things cannot be enjoyed by dabbling; every passionate embrace is an equally passionate refusal to grab onto something else. For Irish to survive, people must speak less English.
In the Gaeltacht, I did finally begin to see the appeal of diving deeply into one small thing. The McArdles originally hail from Ulster, the historic region of Ireland to which Donegal also belongs. Approximately one minute after we met, Ó Baoill was telling me my family history, a sept of the McMahons, we were, and apparently somewhat roguish.
As we drove around, Ó Baoill also pointed out local features. Every rock, it seemed, had a name in Irish, as did every little trickle of a stream, and the names had stories attached to them, about people whose names were still living right next to them. This was wondrous to an American, who can almost never belong to any place that thoroughly.
Nor can any American be as firmly tied to a language as the people of Gaoth Dobhair, where Ó Baoill grew up, and that is our lack. When I stood in the offices of Údarás na Gaeltachta and listened to incomprehensible conversations about ordinary things, I was startled by the depth of my longing to be part of them.
These kinds of desires can, of course, turn toxic. But that’s precisely Kaufmann’s point: the aspects we like can be cleaved from the ones that disturb us only by saying “these things are all right as long as you aren’t too attached to them,” which is to say, by reducing place to tourism and culture to kitsch.
If we want to keep more than colorful costumes and a few place-names, the affirmative kind of groupishness will be doing the main work of preserving cultural and linguistic diversity. Moreover, that sort of groupishness is much more common than homo liberalus, that rootless cultural and intellectual polyamorist whom political scientist Patrick Deneen calls “self-made and self-making.”
One might even argue that the cosmopolitan viewpoint that dismisses such things as historical curiosities is itself exactly the sort of exclusivist project that its proponents supposedly reject, an immersive culture that is mobile, western-educated, and best adapted to the cities where most of its proponents happen to live. Increasingly, that virtual nation even has a national language: English, which is slowly crushing smaller languages under its economic and cultural power.
Whatever tribes our ancestors left, they didn’t leave tribalism behind them. And no matter however many times they move, no one ever escapes the gravitational pull that place and language and culture exert.
Megan McArdle is a Washington Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter @asymmetricinfo.