Poets dip themselves in language, while the rest of us squirm. My dad is telling me: “Do they speak much Irish over there? Is that all they speak? Will I be able to understand anything?” I reassure him that there are more native speakers of Navajo than Irish. It’s true that water pipe caps on Dublin sidewalks are marked Uisce and I eagerly tell him it’s pronounced EESH-ka, or “water,” as in uisce bheatha, “water of life,” which is Irish for whiskey. Don’t you see the phonetic relationship, Dad? The ironic humor? He snorts impatiently on the other end of the line. I can almost see his nose twitter. So I tell him that Irish—like more and more languages every day around the globe—is gasping and almost dead.
Although my family rehearses a kind of determined monolingualism—our English is like a lot of Midwesterners’: flat, suggestive, a little indignant—I think we are haunted by the ghosts of tongues lost. I’m telling you, it’s the poets who know about this stuff. Eavan Boland writes:
a new language
is a kind of scar
and heals after a while
into a passable imitation
of what went before
I first read these lines a few years ago and they reminded me that my great-great grandfather, a Kerry farmer who emigrated to the hills of Iowa in 1848,* spoke Irish. His countrymen, even those who didn’t leave, were in the process of abandoning the language wholesale. While a few radicals were still publishing newspapers full of those strange, almost occult consonant clusters, mothers were only speaking English to their sons and daughters. They were ashamed but convinced it was necessary. And maybe it was.
Now, just a couple generations removed, my dad actually seems afraid of the language. He is hostile toward it. Could it be a scab is being picked at that he didn’t even know was there?
The title of Boland’s poem is “Mise Éire,” which is pronounced MISH-uh AYR-uh, and it means “My name is Ireland” or, more literally, “I am Ireland.” It’s a simple enough concept. To say Mise Brendan is to say, in a manner of speaking, that I am my name, that it was no accident my parents named me for both a Dublin playwright who drank himself to death and a Catholic priest. I suppose they were hoping I’d split the difference. But to say Mise Éire is to go a step further and argue that Ireland is her language. “We exist in the element of language,” the Kiowa poet N. Scott Momaday reminds us in The Man Made of Words. And in “Mise Éire,” which is but one in a whole sub-genre of English-language poems by the same name, Ireland exists by virtue of a language that is vanishing.
Oh, I could crack open a beer and bend your ear indefinitely on the somber irony of such paradoxes. But I understand you’re busy. I will skip over the part about how Mise Éire is just the sort of thing you’d expect to find embedded in a language, like a line of digital code whose task is to defend itself against its own extinction. And instead I will get back to what’s hiding under all of that scar tissue.
What does my family no longer know about itself because it stopped speaking Irish?
A few years ago I drove several hours to a town in Wisconsin with a wonderfully dense Indian name—Oconomowok—in order to study Irish for a weekend. Ghosts of missing languages were everywhere, as were the elderly priests and fussy nuns who were gracious enough to host the event. They taught us call and response, a little elementary grammar, even some sean nós, or “old style,” singing. The rest of the time we loitered around kegs donated by The Miller Brewing Company.
Driving home, new words popped and buzzed between my ears. I made all sorts of resolutions about how I was going to keep up with it on my own, only to promptly abandon them. My guilt was vague and sinking. And then recently I read this line in a magazine: “But there is a sharp difference between ethnic identity as something you claim and something that makes claims on you.”
You cannot wear your language like your drunk cousin Tim wears a “Screw me, I’m Irish” pin on St. Patty’s Day. You must wear it like your name—you must be it. Last week a friend e-mailed me an essay titled simply, “Just Speak Your Language.” I’ve heard its story expressed several times before, the importance of knowing your ancestors’ language. How else will you be able to communicate with them in the afterlife?
“I know that Cheyenne is the only language they know, the only language they ever needed to know,” writes Richard Littlebear, an instructor at Dull Knife Memorial College in Lame Deer, Mont. “And I hope when I meet them on the other side that they will understand me and accept me.”
It’s a beautiful story, one that suggests language as more than uisce bheatha. It is the water of life and afterlife. I can’t help but be drawn by the redemptive quality of such an image—lapsed Catholic that I am—but I am still nagged by this question, a question that forms itself most perfectly in English:
Is it too late?
* As it turns out, my relatives came to America in 1847, and to Iowa a few years later.
image: lower detail of Mise Éire by Catherine Ryan