Motherfoclóir: A New Kind of Irish Language Revival
Darach Ó Séaghdha has been putting the fun back into the Irish language by translating words into English in a humorous, thought-provoking way, and deftly using Twitter to expand his audience. He now continues the exercise in a new book, Motherfoclóir, in which he also reflects on the role the Irish language played in his own life.
The people of Ireland have a strange relationship with the Irish language. It’s our so-called native tongue, yet many of us struggle to speak it. Generations have complained about having to study it at school, yet once we become parents, a growing number of us now choose to send our children to all-Irish speaking schools known as gaelscoileanna.
Darach Ó Séaghdha is the author of Motherfoclóir: Dispatches from a Not So Dead Language, a book which tells the story of his own complicated history with Irish.
Those of you with Twitter accounts may already have encountered Darach. He is the man behind @theirishfor, an account that has 26,000 followers and counting. In this account, Darach takes old and new words in the Irish language (foclóir is the Irish word for dictionary) and translates them into English in thought-provoking and often funny ways.
Take the following tweet for example: “Grámhsóg is a criminally underused word; it means ‘a grinning, pert girl.’ Everybody knows one.”
Or: “The Irish name for sea anemone is cíoch charraige. This translates literally as ‘rock boob.’”
In case you think his book consists of more of this, it does, but there’s more – a lot more. As well as introducing you to Irish words that shine a light on Irish life and the Irish way of thinking, this book is also a reflection on the role that the Irish language has played in Darach’s life.
He grew up in a household in the middle-class Dublin suburb of Rathfarnham. Irish was spoken in the house but not to the children.
“My parents spoke Irish between themselves when they didn’t want us to know what they were talking about,” laughs Darach.
His father was a linguist who spoke Irish, English, French, Spanish, Latin, Japanese, and German as well as a smattering of Russian, Italian, Portuguese, Flemish, and Greek. However, Darach didn’t inherit his father’s flair for languages, especially in relation to Irish.
“I wasn’t great at Irish and I was teased about my long unpronounceable Irish name so I rejected the language for a while,” he says. “I suppose you do that with many things that your parents are interested in.”
He was in his mid-30s by the time he took an interest again. “I was about to start my own family, which started me thinking about passing on some Irish to them,” says Darach. “My dad got ill at that time too and I wanted to understand what made him tick. I realized that the time had come to dip my toe back into the language.”
Because he works full time as a civil servant, Darach didn’t have time to attend formal classes. Instead he started watching TG4 (the Irish language television channel) and following Irish-speaking accounts on Twitter. He installed the Duolingo language-learning app on his phone, read Irish-language publications (such as the online magazine Nós) and practiced speaking his cúpla focal (or few words of Irish) whenever he could.
Darach may have inherited more of his father’s interest in languages than he realizes, because he was soon struck by the uniqueness of words and phrases in Irish. He found some poetic and others odd and funny.
He started to share his favorite words and phrases on Twitter and this marked the beginning of @theirishfor. That was in January 2015 and people soon began to respond to his daily postings.
“Not just Irish people,” says Darach. “I have followers from all over the world. Some are Irish. Some are descended from Irish people and some just like to encounter interesting words from other languages.”
Some of Darach’s tweets attracted more attention than others. “On Saint Patrick’s Day this year, President Trump quoted an Irish proverb that wasn’t Irish at all so I tweeted to tell him so,” says Darach. “It was an off-the-cuff remark in comparison to many of the tweets that I make but it was featured in the Washington Post, Buzzfeed and the Guardian.”
Other popular tweets have included a series on classic 1990s album titles translated into Irish, such as Ná Bac Leis for Nirvana’s Nevermind. “People loved this and so many responded with suggestions of their own,” says Darach. “Even though people may not have much Irish, from my experience on Twitter, they seem to enjoy having the opportunity to play with the words and phrases that they do have.”
Essentially, this is what Darach does with his Twitter account and it’s also what he has done in his new book. He isn’t a fluent Irish speaker, nor does he portray himself as one. Instead, he’s someone who has discovered that the Irish language has a whole lot more to offer than he realized when he was learning it at school.
His book begins with his childhood and covers words that anyone who was educated in Ireland will remember from school. These include words like madra (dog), múinteoir (teacher, pronounced moon-tore) and milseáin (sweets, pronounced mill-shaw-in).
He tells of his secondary school days which involved trips to the Gaeltacht (the parts of Ireland where Irish is still spoken as the main language) and struggles with the módh coinníollach (the conditional tense which is notoriously difficult for English speakers to master).
There are sections on Irish names, the diversity of insults in Irish, Irish proverbs, modern-day Irish words, and much more.
There are words that I love such as beochaoineadh, which translates as a living lament. Essentially, it means a lament for someone who has not died but gone away, probably forever. It makes me think of the Irish wakes that were held for people who emigrated long ago.
There are words that make me laugh such as a bromaire. This translates as someone who farts a lot or is a self-important boaster. And then there are poetic words such as corrchoigilt and ruidles.
Corrchoigilt translates as the strange-colored glow you see in embers or a person full of mischief, while ruidles refers to the qualities that are unique to a person, the traits that make them truly themselves.
Darach uses these words as starting points for stories about his own life and in doing so manages to bring Irish to life too. “People are always saying that it’s a dead language but it’s far from it,” he says. “From the Gaeltacht to gaelscoileanna and the interactions I have with people every day on Twitter, I see and hear the language in so much of my life.”
Darach’s dad died in May 2015 but he did witness the success of his son’s Twitter account before he died. “He saw his prodigal son return to the fold of Irish,” says Darach.
Darach now has a young daughter of his own, 18-month-old Lasairíona (a poetic metaphor for inspiration which literally translates as “flame of wine”). He hopes she will grow up to speak some Irish and to develop a love of the language.
In the meantime, Darach plans to continue with his Twitter account and he has recently started a Motherfoclóir podcast.
“I barely scraped the surface with the book and there is so much more to explore, which is what I plan to do with the podcast,” he says. “There is so much amazing stuff happening in Irish and I would like to bring it to as wide an audience as possible.” ♦
Motherfoclóir: Dispatches from a Not So Dead Language is published by Head of Zeus (September 2017 / 240 pp. / £10.99)
Sharon Ní Chonchúir lives and works in west County Kerry, and much of her writing is concerned with the changing face of modern Irish culture. She is a fluent Irish speaker.