BHIOS ag caint le Brenain O Dunshleibhe cupla oiche o shin - a retired teacher, Brendan Dunlea has ‘treaded the boards’ in amateur drama circles with many years with great success.
He has a huge gra for the Irish language as well as rudai dramaioctha.
I was in conversation with him at the West Waterford Drama Festival which is ar siuil this week in an Baile Dubh - Ballyduff. Bhimid ag caint le cheile in Irish and English.
‘Twasn’t because this is Seachtain na Gaeilge that we spoke bilingually, Yerra no, but like Brendan, I’m a firm believer in the old maxim - or seanfhocail, that ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it’!
It’s like playing a musical instrument or riding a bike - you’ve gotta keep at it. Ta se an shli cheanna with our native tongue.
To paraphrase the song-words of Percy French long ago, ‘And as we stood talking of times that were gone, sure the whole population of Ballyduff looked on’ - and still they looked, and still the wonder grew that we could chat away as Gaeilge.
I’ve no hang-ups about the language and will confess to all and sundry that I’m truly in ghra leis. Nil aon long literary, cultural or linguistic Gaelic tradition in either side of my family tree, but I truly do believe that bhi an ceart ag Padraig Pearse when he declared that a tir gan teanga is really a tir gan anam - a country (and a people) without a language is a country without a soul.
It’s our Irish language that paints and swells our history, and that tells us the sceal of how our ancestors lived, loved and died fado, fado.
Just last week, I had a bus-load of tourists from the Men’s Club in Mainistir Fear Muighe (Fermoy) out here for a day-long tour. The Monastery (Mainistir) in Fermoy is long gone but its ancient location is well known still and pointed out to this day. The ‘Fear Muighe’ that gave the town and hinterland its name were the ‘men of the plain’ - not plain men, there’s a subtle difference!
Anyhow, they were intrigued with how Tobar Phartalain, the Well of (St) Bartholomew became ‘Anglicised’ to Bartholomewwell in the 1700s and gradually this morphed into the present day Bartlemy!
Now, St Bartholomew was never here and it’s a long, long story that links his name to this corner of north-east Cork – ach, as they say, sin sceal eile!
The townland names here, there and everywhere are like mini-dictionaries when their original meaning in Gaeilge is discovered.
My own townland, Garryantagart, well sin Gairdin an Sagart, the priest’s garden. Was it ‘the garden’ of an ancient pagan druid or priest? Maybe the Holy Well here was a pre-Christian pagan well where our ancestors worshipped maybe the sun, moon or stars, or maybe they valued spring water above everything else?
True, it’s in this Gairdin an Sagart that the Catholic Church stands, and this edifice is probably only about 200 years old, but the townland name is centuries older than that.
Ta stair I gach aon turn on the road and cuinne – ‘Coonennasprioda - we think it’s Cuinne na Sprioda - the Corner of the Spirit (or Ghost). Some say there was a tragic end to a funeral procession to the Lisgoold burial ground of Teampaill na carriage but we’re not sure.
There’s a sceal that a coffin bearing the mortal remains of a local woman (apparently the same lady was ‘no joke’ when alive!) was being shouldered sios an bothair. Well, whatever stumble they got going around the turn on the little stony road, didn’t they let the coffin fall!
There was ruaile buaile and didn’t herself sit up in the coffin - much to the disgust of her husband!
Tis said the next time she died they went a different road to the reilg and there was no other mishap! Sin an sceal anyway and we don’t know if it’s truth or lies - probably a bit of both meascaithe (mixed up) le cheile down through the blianta.
Whatever way you come to Bartlemy, you have to come suas an cnoc - up the hill as there are four hilly roads to the village crossroads. On one of those hills - Hollyhill or Cnoc an Cuilinn - are the ivy-covered remains of a very ancient castle.
The first Ordnance Survey map of Ireland was completed around 1846 agus ar an learscail sin is marked Sheelaboonaskean’s Castle. When the ‘tourists’ from Fermoy were anseo last week, they were intrigued by the story of the castle and its female owner - a blonde bombshell! An ainm a bhi ar an bean sin na Sile or Julia. She was a chieftainess of beautiful features by all accounts.
According to the local sceal, she was also very wealthy, but paranoid in case the Barris of Castlelyons or the Roches of Fermoy would attack her fortress and rob her of everything. She engaged a local stone-mason to build a secret chamber in her castle wall. Into this secret space she put her or agus airgid - every piece of jewellery she had.
She then took her dagger (Scian) from her cota mor, and stabbed the mason to death so her secret was known only to herself.
Well, in time the caisleain was attacked and Sile was killed but her treasure trove was never discovered. The episode meant that the Castle of Shiela Bui na Scian (Blond Shiela of the Knife) still retains its name centuries after the bloody battle.
Brian Friel’s classic play Translations deals with official campaigns under British Rule to ‘Englishify’ all the old place names and townland names from Gaeilge to Bearla. Thankfully, most of the poetic and descriptive names are still with us in one form or another.
After the famine of the 1840s, when a million people died here and as many left, the native, ancient language of the Gael went into serious decline. For so many who went trasna na donnta, they saw little economic benefit in speaking Irish in far-flung places.
I can readily understand that point of view, but in today’s world we must value our language not just in terms of airgid agus saibhreas but as a treasure beyond compare.
We still seem to have a very ambivalent, ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude towards our teanga that is a distinctive mark of our Irishness.
A few years ago at a car boot sale in Rathcormac, I was ag caint Gaeilge to a friend of mine - anytime we meet we converse in Irish. There we were in the middle of the crowd ‘I lar an aonaigh’ when two elderly men from north Munster passed by us and obviously neither had even ‘a cupla focail’ ’cause I heard one of them say when they overheard us, ‘Them f*****g foreigners are everywhere’!
My Auntie Jo was born in 1911 and died in the 1970s. In her youth she often spent holidays in her mother’s birthplace, a lovely thatched farmhouse at Baile Ard (Ballard/High-town) in Castlelyons. She said if there was a crowd in the house by night for a bit of a scoraiocht and there were things to be said not ‘suitable’ for children’s ears, the old-timers would speak in Irish.
That was in the mid-1920s and the influence of an t Athair Peadar O Laoighaire in the Castlelyons area was still strong.
The sagart aroon served in this parish too, and in his Sceal Seadna he vividly describes the two fields near Bartlemy village where the famous horse fairs were held - Pairc an Aonaigh agus Pairc an rasaiocht - the ‘selling’ field and the ‘galloping’ field.
I had a grand comhra le Brendan Dunlea that night in Ballyduff. I joked with him about getting a ticket for the Oscars for me! Brendan is now a realt scannain – a movie star, after playing a cameo role in the beautiful An Cailin Ciuin.
Go n eiri an t-adh leat, Brendan, and long may our native tongue hold sway anseo is ansiud, home and away and wherever Gaels gather and speak to each other.
Read MoreShame on the GAA for enforcing this no-cash, card-only policy
More in this section