‘What’s that in Irish?’ my son asks, quite often. Now that he’s started reading and writing, he’s drunk on the power of words and cleaves to the small, cardboard-backed books of Irish gifted to him by his nana, a keen Irish speaker.
Teaching him to read has been enlightening. He’s already begun correcting how I pronounce words like ‘cow’ and ‘now’ (which I do so in the correct, Northern Irish way), much to the mocking glee of him and his mum. The wrinkle of him also wanting to learn Irish has complicated things further.
For one thing, teaching him the rudiments of English is a process we find so bewilderingly complex, we frequently often marvel that anyone, including ourselves, ever managed it. I worry that the additional neural load of teaching him Irish vocabulary, spelling and pronunciation in parallel would be beyond my primitive grasp of the language.
The sad fact is, I didn’t learn much Irish growing up. Outside specialised bunscoilleana (Irish-language primaries), Northern Ireland only provides Irish from secondary school, as an elective ‘foreign’ language. I did it for three years from the age of 12 to 15, which, in fairness, appears to have has given me roughly the same shallow competence as most of my friends from Dublin, who were taught it every day for all 13 years of their schooling. This is broadly true for my wife, who’s in the same ‘recognises random words and can ask where the library is, so long as the person gives said directions in English’ as myself.
So, last week, I bought a copy of Buntús Foclóra (Vocabulary Basics), jam packed with Irish words. My son greedily pores over it, pointing at things and demanding I say them out loud.
His favourites are those words that sound a bit like their English equivalents, with just enough difference to be vaguely funny to his ears. Chief among these are ‘iógart’, ‘hata’ and ‘babhla’ – yoghurt, hat and bowl, respectively – the saying of which fills him with a deep, giggling glee that we choose not to interpret as mocking condescension from our English son, and rather an enthusiasm for his Irish roots.
As the book progresses, I quickly realise this basic vocabulary is more advanced than my own, by several degrees. Complicating things further, I learned Donegal Irish, which sounds fine to me, but which the rest of Ireland seems to think is like listening to someone speaking Irish while they’re drowning. Pronunciations differ wildly, meaning that when my wife and I do both know a basic word, like ‘madra’ (dog) she pronounces it ‘mawdra’ and I opt for ‘madhu’, leaving my son no more enlightened than before.
Luckily, our concerns that this will overload his brain are unfounded, and he proves more than capable of accepting that the same word can be pronounced differently by his parents, as we rattle through dozens more words at bedtime. His eyes are drooping by the time we get to the Zoo section (the name of which, Zú, prompts another sleepy laugh).
‘Now,’ I say, as he puts down the book and I ready him for sleep.
‘Niiiiauuu?’ he says, mocking me with his last conscious breath, and I realise he’ll be fine.
Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? by Séamas O’Reilly is out now (Little, Brown, £16.99). Buy a copy from guardianbookshop at £14.78
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