In search of some good conversation in Inishmaan, Ireland
After three weeks of exploring Ireland I have yet to hear anyone speak Irish. So I head for one of the west-coast communities in the Gaeltacht, where the Irish language is in daily use. My brilliant plan, as I set out for Inishmaan, the middle of three islands strung across the mouth of Galway Bay, is to keep my mouth shut and ears open. I’m going for the conversation, but not to be part of it.
“Come to the yellow house on the upper road,” I’m told when I book my B & B.
I get off the ferry and hike up the steep hill to where it levels out. The spine of road twisting across the middle of the island is lined with houses, all of which are either white or yellow. I ask for directions.
“First yellow house after the church,” says a girl in the same lilting English I’ve heard everywhere in Ireland. “Just go right in.”
My hostess, Maire, speaks to me in English as well. And what did I expect? It’s not like I speak Irish. My brilliant plan is sporting a few holes.
Fortunately, Inishmaan offers other attractions. Dún Conchúir and Dún Fearbhaigh are a pair of Iron Age ring forts that hover like ancient quotation marks over the strand of houses on the upper road. A surprise attack would be difficult: the view from the dry stone walls of both forts encompasses the sloping descent of fields, fences, and houses right down to the island’s few landing places—the other three coasts are cliffs—with the midnight-blue sea and hazy mainland in the distance.
That evening I take in another version of the view over dinner. Next I’ll hit the island’s sole pub to eavesdrop on islanders telling stories among themselves, stories I won’t understand because they’ll be told in Irish, which is the whole point.
Dusk is falling when I notice the dark centipede of figures crawling out of a ferry and up the hill. Almost all the 100-plus figures are female.
“Teachers,” says the waiter with a dreamy look. “Here to learn Irish. They billet with locals.” The way he says this, I suspect he hopes to billet a few himself.
I hurry to the pub. Surely the invaders will unpack before they venture out. Surely their hosts will give them supper and show them around.
No such luck. The pub is a din. The only language being shouted or sung is English. I down a pint to nurse my dashed dream and go to bed with my native tongue ringing in my ears.
Sunshine and the sound of voices greet me as I go down to breakfast the next morning. I realize I can’t understand what’s being said. Could it be?
Alas, Maire introduces me to her sister in English.
“And now, if you don’t mind,” she says, “we will speak the Irish.”
Seldom have I so enjoyed a conversation. I eat slowly, then linger on the stairs like a child spying on the grownups, drinking in the strangely soft gutturals, the lilting Ls, the undulating rhythms of the sisters’ voices rising and falling like waves. Is it eavesdropping if you can’t understand a word? When it begins to feel like it is, I decide it’s time to head out.
In the island’s only open shop I pile a picnic on the counter. The shopkeeper rings up my purchases and barks at me in Irish. The total, I assume. I give him a large bill and hope for the right change.
A group of young women come down the road shouting in what I think is English, but as they pass they giggle something at me in Irish. I’m not sure what it is, but it sounds lovely.
Some local women and their children greet me. “Dia dhuit.”
“Dia dhuit,” I reply.
One woman shakes her head. “Dia is Muire dhuit.”
I make what must be a pitiful effort, judging from the looks on all the faces before me. My instructor sighs and they all go on their way.
The winding road to the west of the island is lined by the ubiquitous Irish dry stone fences punctuated with bursts of oxeye daisy, honeysuckle, cranesbill, and toadflax. Where the road ends a giant’s abandoned courtyard of rectangular limestone slabs begins, running straight for the cliff, which is a great shelf hollowed out from below by the sea’s relentless pounding. Every few beats sends up a fresh gust of spray to nurture the bright green slime of seaweeds that mortar the stones. This isn’t my idea of a picnic setting, so I head east again, hoping to hear some more Irish.
I do. Everywhere I go it’s the same. Not an English word do I hear but my own. I’m elated. But how has this happened?
Maire solves the mystery for me that evening. “The teachers are not allowed to speak English here. They think you are an islander and will report them. The islanders think you are a teacher. It is their duty to speak the Irish with you.”
When I get on the ferry two Irish-filled days later, I’m finally ready for a two-way conversation again. As I pull my heavy pack off my shoulders, a rather attractive crew member approaches.
“Can I help you with that, love?”