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The Irish language has been reinvigorated as young, secular and accessible

Darach Ó Séaghdha wasn't keen on learning traditional Irish language when he was young. Inspired by his dad, he later made it his goal to help preserve it

My name is Darach Ó Séaghdha. Don’t let the surname scare you– the gh is silent. So is the dh. However, the Sé has an invisible h tucked in there. It sounds like O’Shay, really.

So how did this happen to me? Well, my parents were, like so many people in south Dublin in the 1970s, very interested in the Irish language and they blessed us all with Irish names. I didn’t care for it much as a child and even less as a teenager; I felt like I spent more time spelling my name out to people than participating in any enjoyable activity. Once I was no longer required to study it, I moved away from the language. This rejection was particularly hard for my father to bear: he was multilingual but Irish was the language he loved best.

I had found an audience who wanted to feel the pleasure of Irish, away from the scars of school

As the years went by I started to get a larger sense of missing out on something by abandoning Irish, along with a realisation that my father wouldn’t be around forever. After my wedding when he was too unwell to make a speech, I started re-examining Irish a bit more consciously. And I was delighted with what I found. It was a language full of broad humour, sly rhymes and one-word sonnets. It was loaded with earthy poetry and subversive wisdom. It was a language like my father.

Words like:

Mac Tíre: a wolf, literally “son of the country”;

Smugairle Róin: a jellyfish, literally “seal snot”;

Seordán: a rustling sound made by wind through leaves.

I started keeping a record of the amazing words I was finding in a Twitter account called @theirishfor. Within a few months, radio stations and news websites were putting out stories about the account and thousands of people were following it. I wasn’t an expert on the language but I had found an audience who wanted to feel the pleasure of Irish, away from the scars of school.

The pleasure of Irish in words like:

Seoraí: non-essential extra flourishes in storytelling;

Clannógach: having lovely hair or being very cunning… or both;

Athghnó: a job you have to do again because it was done badly the first time.

@theirishfor led to my first book, Motherfoclóir, a memoir about my father and the Irish language that won the Popular Non-Fiction Award at the Irish Book Awards in 2017. My second book, Craic Baby, takes up where Motherfoclóir left off. After looking back into my own memories and talking about what Irish meant to my Dad, I now wanted to write about what Irish will be like for my daughter (currently two years old) when she starts to experience it. How does this language of medieval kings and fishermen, of bards and peasants fit into a world of online slang and business acronyms, of Google Translate and Duolingo?

Craic Baby: Darach Ó Séaghdha
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Craic Baby: Dispatches From A Rising Language by Darach Ó Séaghdha is out now (Head Of Zeus, £10.99)

The truth is that Irish is a modern European language and it has new words for new things, some of which are wonderfully clever.

Clever new words such as:

Turscar: Irish for spam email, from a word for dead seaweed left by the tide on a beach;

Éistphéist: an earworm, a tune you can’t get out of your head;

Tliongánach: a Klingon, derived from tlhIngan, the Klingon word for a Klingon.

A drop in religious participation has not dragged the language down with it

The Irish language has been overly politicised on this island, especially along religious lines. This is a pity – it’s not this way with Scots Gaelic or Welsh. In the Republic at least, however, a drop in religious participation has not dragged the language down with it. Instead, the language has reinvigorated itself as young, secular and accessible. It turns up in memes, tweets and song lyrics while its critics declare it to be dead. Every week on the Motherfoclóir podcast I talk to people who are doing interesting things with Irish or pertaining to Irish – using it to write computer code, editing Irish language Wikipedia, studying the differences between the English and Irish versions of the constitution, getting new words added to the dictionary – and I’ve managed to share some of these stories in Craic Baby.

For me, our language is a treasure belonging to the people of Ireland and preserving it is as important as keeping Venice afloat is to the Italians. Like Venice, it contains visible history and public art, but also needs to be managed in a way where it can be fit for daily life. I’m happy to be a gondolier.

Image: Poet/playwright Samuel Beckett took Irish language and literature into new territory. Granger Historical Pictures Archive/Alamy

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