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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.

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