Hilarity Ensues When Trying to Speak Irish (Gaeilge) in Ireland

by Kevin McClung

A Chinese tourist in Dublin tries to order a gloine beorach (glass of beer), but the bartender apologizes, explaining he can’t speak Japanese. An Irishman tells another Irishman to “go back to Poland” when greeted in Irish. The proprietor of an Irish-language bookstore responds in English to non-native speaking customers who come to practice their Irish. If you come to Ireland looking to practice its first official language, will you go away disappointed? Not necessarily, but you won’t have the same experience as someone who visits a country where few people can speak English.

Lake in Conemarra
Lake in Conemarra. Photo by Lucy Remitz

Now for the million-Euro question: why learn Irish when the Irish can all speak English? That fact is itself the reason. A few centuries ago, most Irishmen could only speak Irish, an ancient Celtic language older than Latin. Even newcomers like the Vikings, the Anglo-Normans and the first English colonists learned Irish instead of expecting everyone else to learn their own languages. That all changed after the Reformation. Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland, killing or exiling most of the Irish Catholic population. Ever since, the growing importance of English has pushed Irish towards the brink of extinction. People are still learning Irish today, but they usually study it like a dead language. Your Irish teacher may have mastered the subtleties of the genitive case and verb conjugations, but good luck having an actual conversation with him in Irish.

If you’re content to read literature and sing songs in Irish, fair enough. However, if you want to get out and chat with native speakers, your best bet is the Gaeltacht, a scattered group of impoverished villages on the west coast of Ireland. Of course, if you limit yourself to towns with access to public transportation, you’ll have mixed results. If you’re neither willing nor able to rent a car and brave the notorious roundabouts all the while keeping to the left side of the road, your only option is a tortuous five-hour bus ride to Dingle. Once there, you will find that the town has been overrun with monolingual English-speaking tourists. Sure, you could check out the Irish-language bookshop; just hope that the shopkeeper on duty isn’t actually French or German. Where does that leave you, then? If you’re Catholic and have heard mass in English before, try attending an Irish-language mass. 

Even if your listening comprehension is poor, you’ll get the gist of it because the structure is the same. Or you can visit one of the museums, where the tour guides will most likely reward your attempts to speak Irish, no matter how rudimentary it is. They’re already native speakers of English, so they don’t need practice. On the other hand, native speakers of Spanish or Chinese will often insist on speaking English with you if their English is obviously superior.

If you walk down the street hoping to overhear a conversation in Irish and join in, you might be disappointed. If you do manage to get some conversational practice this way, it’s more likely to be with tourists from Dublin than local fishermen. Of course, the primary benefit of talking to non-native speakers is that you might understand half of what they say. 

Is there a better way to practice your Irish in Ireland? Perhaps. You can learn how to drive a stick shift, throw all caution to the wind and tackle the country roads with a rental car. Or, you can still take a bus to Dingle and then a taxi to one of the less touristy towns. Even if you stay in Dingle or Dublin, you can still get in some practice if you’re bold and extroverted enough. Just ask a bunch of random questions to everyone you meet in Irish. Even if they can’t speak a word of it, you’ll at least have the pleasure of putting a native Irishman to shame with your relatively advanced language skills. If you keep at it long enough, you will meet some people who can speak it, if not native speakers. Then, on the way home when you ask the Aer Lingus flight attendant for a gloine uisce (glass of water) in your markedly non-Irish accent and she asks you in English who taught you how to say that, her patronizing question won’t sting as much.