I live in a wild area in the Gaeltacht*. It’s officially called a ‘hinterland’, but I like to think of it as the place that time forgot. It’s beautiful. Heartbreakingly, mind numbingly beautiful. It’s also quiet. Swans’ wings in flight are thunderous.
Here, nearly all of my neighbours speak Irish from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to sleep. Not as a choice, it’s just what they speak.
Up until a few years ago, there was an elderly couple living in a house on the bend in the road that heads up the mountain. He would sail off on the criss-crossing currents of the bay with his bike in his boat to go shopping and visit friends, until well into his eighties. She wore a scarf and a long skirt and spoke very little English. The few words I heard sounded laboured, like they came from a land far, far away. Except they didn’t – she was totally of her own place. When she switched to Irish I could barely understand her, words flowing fast like the currents, rich and colourful, a layered tapestry.
My Irish is reasonable enough to appreciate it, and I will never tire of being able to walk out the door to converse with people who never look at a dictionary and couldn’t give a damn about my grammar. I feel like the most privileged person on this whole planet.
I make stuff, and I would like to stay. To make more work in this place. To live here through this time. It is important to me for reasons I can barely fathom. All I know is that the edge of the western world feels like the centre of the universe. I have been looking for a house to buy here since I arrived. During that time nothing has come up for sale, so I have been renting the same house for over five years. I don’t mind renting so much, despite the social stigma and the colonial baggage associated with being a ‘tenant’ in Ireland. It’s almost a dirty word. I console myself that it beats being in negative equity in a house I have outgrown. But I would like to have my own place here and not have to deal with a landlord, or any kind of lord. I work from home quite a lot, and occasionally, I employ someone local too. I hope that I bring some different energy into the area without destroying what I love so much about it.
I’ve been in the city, in priveleged, middle class settings and have described the quiet life here. The slow decline that contains the world. In response I hear it described as sad. In the sense of judgement sad, like, what a way to choose to live kind of sad. I guess it can be sad for some, and it can be lonely for some too. Living in a place where the rural way of life is dying, has been dying since the 1960s. Where maybe, just maybe, the language is going with it. At times I find it sad too, but from an entirely different perspective. Not tinged with judgement and tarnished with dismissal. Maybe everyone should move to the city and get with the picture? Aspire to be comfortable, middle class, forgetful, generic. No doubt, I am the one who sits in judgement. If only they knew.
Every few months, in this place, there is a passing. An intellectual disaster of language loss that quietly slips away with a last breath. We live in the narrow space between diversity and homogeneity, sustainability and catastrophe. I wonder, what will it be like here in ten, twenty years time?
The couple who lived on the bend in the road moved to an aged care home three years ago and their cosy little house has lain empty since. As are many houses here. I walk past them every day, slowly rotting. Their neighbour across the road passed away last year. Her house sits there too. Sometimes a nephew comes and goes. He has plans, but I will never know what they are. There is a half built house down by the water that may never be completed. Plans have changed, they’re staying in America.
There are so many of them. The empty houses. Some occupied for two weeks of the year. Winking their big spotlights every night saying ‘keep away’. Beware of the dog that isn’t there, minding the absent people.
I have searched out every old building here, every site. I know the planning history of every single house and ruin. After walking through a planning maze that kept landing me back where I started, I went further afield and found a beautiful site with a ruin on a neighbouring peninsula. I sat an oral exam with the County Council to prove that I could speak the language. I passed. I was told I could apply for planning on the basis of ‘strengthening the Gaeltacht’. A breakthrough! I waited three months for a pre-planning meeting. It went surprisingly well. I met engineers. I got very excited. Persistence really does pay off! I could see the future, here. Somewhere near here.
After long negotiations, the owners would not agree to sell pending planning. They don’t believe I would ever get permission to build here. Maybe they’re right. I’m an outsider, a strainséar. What was I thinking? So I’m back to square one, in a market that has gone full circle, spinning back from a depression to yet another manic phase in those five years.
Over the last two years I have also watched luxury developments rise up along the coast road like monoculture plantations. Fancy estates built by developers. I wonder if they sat the language exam? I wonder if the people who eventually live there will be Irish speakers? Houses that people who work in the arts, or who are self employed in the ‘creative industries’ could never afford.
I have friends who are native speakers from this Gaeltacht area, who couldn’t, and still can’t get planning to build one house. Who have gone through the whole process time after time, costing them thousands of euro. Who are modest in their needs and want to build sustainably, but are constantly coming up against barriers. The want to live in or near their home place, and if they have a family, to bring up their children speaking Irish. Isn’t that how communities grow? Isn’t that how languages flourish? Many end up moving into the city and suburbs because they have no choice.
I realise that my own dilemma pales in comparison.
I don’t give up on anything easily, but I have to admit that I’m starting to give up on this humble dream. I am wondering if my great romance with a non-romance language is becoming destructive. If enthusiasm has become welded into wilful stubbornness. I would like to remain ‘lán dóchas agus grá’, but the inability to move forward feels like an invisible wall that momentarily disappears, only to reappear in another formation around the next corner. The energy stuck somewhere between the famine and an unsympathetic, punitive system that doesn’t have the interests of ordinary people, communities, or the Irish language at heart.
I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that the number of Irish speakers is dropping in the Gaeltacht according to the latest census figures. It looks like, very soon, this second hand speaker will be amongst them.
*Irish speaking area