KITCHEN SINK DRAMA
I’ve been to paradise but I’ve never been to Meath. Unfortunately, neither part of that statement is strictly true. In fact, while paradise continues to elude me, I have managed to visit every county in the Republic in my relatively untravelled life, with only the very tippy-most ones in the North still on my To Do list.
I had wondered, until very recently, if I had spent any time at all in Cavan, but then I was reminded that I once sang backing vocals with The Joshua Trio there during a music festival. Which, needless to say, is less a way of telling you I’ve been to Cavan and more a way of boasting that I occasionally performed backing vocals with the legendary Joshua Trio.
But there was one significant part of Ireland that, until last week, had remained untroubled by my presence. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Aran Islands. It’s not as if I haven’t been to Galway, one of my favourite places on God’s earth, a gazillion times, but a combination of childhood holidays with parents who broadly speaking didn’t favour venturing more than six feet into the sea and adult trips with a husband who tends to get seasick in the shower meant I’d never got out to the islands. I’ve been to Dalkey Island and Inishbofin, I would have landed on the Great Blasket if the swell had permitted and I once spent a riotous weekend with The Saw Doctors on Clare Island, but the Aran Islands — the ones you’re actually supposed to go to — were still out there somewhere.
As it happened, I had something of an ulterior motive in heading for the islands. Ever since my involvement in Bernard Dunne’s Bród Club last year, I’ve been trying to plunder my scant store of Irish a little more. Inspired by a Dublin boxer who picked up our lovely language on a headset, I’ve been trying not to get tangled up in finding the precise grammar — my traditional stumbling block — and just going for the broad sense of what I’m trying to say. I actually met Dunne at the Christy Dignam benefit night in the Olympia and, over thumping bass drums, managed to converse in Irish about his training methods with the Dublin football team, which must count as one of the more surreal moments of my life. The thing was, though, that when the
The islanders in Inis Mór are so geared up for tourism that they all but swim out to greet the ferries
going got too tough for me, we both lapsed into English and then, when I felt able, back into Irish. I’m not sure how well it would have scored on the Leaving Cert oral, but it felt kind of good.
So I’ve been doing a píosa beag. In West Kerry earlier in the summer, I gave my usual five sentences their annual run-out in the Dunquin Pottery Café. There’s a lovely woman there who we see every year and, unlike most people in the Gaeltacht, she’s willing to endure what few focail we bring to her and doesn’t do that irritating thing of insisting on answering us in English. I sometimes imagine that her heart must sink, every August Bank Holiday weekend, when she sees my extended family troop in for chowder, cake and cúpla focail, but she wears it well.
But if you can speak Irish anywhere in Ireland, I reckoned, then the Aran Islands would be the place. On the boat over, I instructed the kids to use their cúpla focail as much as they could, even as I noticed that we were pretty much the only people on the packed ferry speaking English, let alone Irish.
But, buachaill, was I wrong. It turns out that the islanders on Inis Mór are so geared up for tourism — essentially its only industry — that they all but swim out to the ferries shouting English at you. ‘Tour bus?’ demand three men on the quayside, which, since it isn’t even a proper question, does not lend itself to any sort of polite refusal as Gaeilge. ‘Hire a bike? Discount for the whole family!’ barks another, and again I am rendered speechless. It was never like this with Bernard.
By the time we leave the island, later that lovely day, I have noticed two things — the islanders don’t even speak that much Irish to each other these days, which makes me sad, and the place is beyond beautiful, with the view from the height of Dún Aonghasa one of the most breathtaking I’ve ever seen, in any man’s language. Back on the mainland, I mention the whole Irish thing to Someone Who Knows and they advise me that Inis Meáin might be the place to flex my focail. An bhliain seo chugainn, then, an bhliain seo chugainn.