Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

What else would the son of a cat do...? Gabriel Rosenstock

…only kill a mouse! Of course!

I have been a member of the organization Gaels Anonymous for fourteen years now, I’d say. Maybe longer than that, even? You’d think I’d remember the date by now considering how fateful a day it was – the day I joined up. I was the very first member to register with an organization which now numbers in the region of 8000 members. If it wasn’t for Gaels Anonymous I’d have gone round the bend by now, I’d say. Never mind “I’d say”. I’d be gone loopy and that’s as sure as I’m standing here. I’d be a complete loon. I’d be like Sweeney, sitting there high up in the branches, deafened by song-birds. There would be feathers growing out of my rear by now. Gaels Anonymous. If such an organization didn’t exist, somebody would have to create it. No doubt about it.

Whatever people say and they can say what they like, you can’t deny this much – there would be no such thing as Gaels Anonymous if it wasn’t for me. I don’t say this out of pride, it’s a simple fact. Wasn’t it on myself that they did the first tests which proved scientifically that such an addiction existed in the first place. Wasn’t it tests on me that proved conclusively that this condition is as complex an addiction as any other?

Everybody knows the great work that Alcoholics Anonymous does for alcoholics and their families. Society would be in a far more desperate state than it already is if it wasn’t for Alcoholics Anonymous. There would be people left homeless if it wasn’t for them. Poor unfortunates lying by the side of the road, traces of nettle juice on their lips. As true as God.

Funnily enough, it was at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous that I first heard tell of the concept that is the Gaels Anonymous we know today. To be honest, I didn’t think that such a group would ever see the light of day, never mind that I myself would have a central role in its foundation. Who would have thought it. An anonymous alcoholic thinking aloud during therapy and he comes up with this? People wouldn’t believe it even if you told them.

Gaels Anonymous is what I need, says he. “Yeah”, says I immediately. You’ve got it spot on there, friend. Gaels Anonymous, I cried out. Exactly what we need.  Previous to this I had got great help with a range of additions – alcoholism, sex addiction, chocolate addiction, gambling addiction, cocaine addiction and all the rest. (I was even addicted to Facebook at one stage). I knew deep down that I would never really be healed of any of these cravings if I didn’t deal with the biggest addiction of them all. This was my addiction to the Irish language. I couldn’t get enough of this ancient tongue; it was a compulsive craving. I loved it more than the child who loves the breast milk of white-palmed women – as the Scottish poet Ian Lom once put it. In mellifluous Gaelic, needless to say. I loved it more than nectar of the gods – if such a drink exists – as I’m sure it does.

Hello, I’m Tadhg, announced Tadhg who was no more a Tadhg than the man in the moon. This man was from Donegal and there wasn’t a Donegal man born yet whose name was Tadhg.

Howya Tadhg, everybody in the group said back to him in unison.

I’m Hiudaí, announced a Corkman with an educated tone of voice. We all laughed. Wasn’t it strange too – the people gathered for that first meeting of Gaels Anonymous were an exceptionally clever bunch. In fact, two of the group were highly-educated academics.

Irish-language names were permitted in the clinic for purpose of introducing ourselves but after that, the use of Irish was banned. Not a syllable of Irish could be uttered; its use was subject to penalties and prohibited at all times. We might as well have been back again in the days of the Tally Stick, an era in which the language was completely outlawed; that’s how repressive they were about it.

This made sense, of course. To continue spouting Irish to each other was similar, say, to a group of alcoholics heading for the Stag’s Head in order to sample twenty different brands of whiskey as part of a market research exercise. I even heard afterwards that they had banned the Irish name Tadhg. “I’m Timothy” … Unbelievable. But there you are. They were afraid that the utterance of even one Irish word – a forename like Colmán, Sorcha or Luisne – would exacerbate our withdrawal symptoms and send us over the edge.

Things went on like this for a while. Time passed. The biggest lesson I learned during therapy was in accepting the fact that I wasn’t the only one who was cursed with this affliction. This disease could affect anybody. The person sitting across from you in the park could be a sufferer and you never could tell. The outward manifestations –say the wearing of the “fáinne” –  or even stranger still, the sight of somebody reading an Irish-language book in public – these were in no way a reliable guide to who had the Irish disease and who didn’t. Just because you liked Irish or could speak it – or even if you let on that you could speak it; none of these traits were indicative of a full-blown obsession, the dependence that is characteristic of the true Irish-language addict. The true addict was the person who was completely hooked, the person who couldn’t get out of bed without inhaling every single breath of the language, every syllable, song and idiom every uttered, every adjective and noun. Do I really need to go any further? Do I really need to drag in the Subjunctive Tense, the Vocative Case and all the rest of it? You get my drift.

Anybody who joined Gaels Anonymous was like this. Every pore of their being reeked of Irish. They ingested it and excreted it every moment of the day; they breathed it in with every breath that they took from cradle to grave. It was their very blood and sweat.

And what had driven us to that clinic in the end? Did we hope for a complete transformation of ourselves, a complete cleansing or catharsis – did we expect to find a cure for our affliction, a cure as complete as it would be miraculous?

Not at all. All we wanted was to recover some form of equilibrium in our lives. We wanted a new balance to our days, some way of controlling the obsession with Irish that tormented us from morning to night – and through the night even. We sought to withdraw somewhat from our compulsive behaviour in relation to Irish. Without achieving some form of balance, every day of our lives would be a form of one-pointedness; we might even be obsessed with Irish for all eternity.

It might be a gradual process but we had to undergo it; there was another life out there; there was a life that lay outside the Irish language and we had to find it. A difficult process; take it from me. Incredibly difficult. Difficult beyond belief. Almost impossible.

Some people found it more difficult than others as you would expect, of course. None of us were under any illusions. We all knew that most of us would never achieve a real sense of inner peace. Our addiction was too strong; we couldn’t escape the iron hold that the sweet Irish language had over us; we had gone too far already and it was too late for any real turning back. We were chronic cases; it was as simple as that.

When did we first realize that we were infected with the Irish language disease? That was the main question we tried to answer during group therapy sessions. Here are a few responses to this question as provided by some of the patients:

When I first read a poem written by Cathal Ó Searcaigh. I was completely hooked from that moment onwards.

I was at Irish College one summer when I felt a strange telepathic connection between myself and Patrick Pearse. It was right outside Pearse’s Cottage that I got my first kiss.

Here’s my response: My father had a copy of Dinneen’s Dictionary. Unknown to me, he too was an addict. Even my mother was unaware of his addiction. Nobody knew that he was addicted, not even other Irish-language enthusiasts. I was a teenager when I first began reading Dinneen –  my father’s copy (God rest him). I’ve been taking Dinneen ever since. I get my fix regularly. I always have it by my bed. I would give up life itself before I could wean myself off Dinneen. Every time I use the dictionary, I feel some sort of mysterious connection with my father; every time I read the words that he marked…

Words like buarach bháis, seicimín, ullastráth, móg. Those words have such an effect on me. They give me such a high. Did my father have the same type of trips?  He had marked pairs of words that had appealed to him: ‘manglam bog: an untidy armful of hay’ and ‘mangalam dod: a morning croon while preparing breakfast’. Hundreds more. Where would you get the likes of it?

Here’s Hiúdaí’s response: “I’m not trying to be a smart-ass but I really can’t remember a time when I was not completely and utterly addicted to Irish. I fully accept the theory of reincarnation. I was here before. I was a Gael. I lived through Cromwell’s time. I saw what happened. Unfortunately I didn’t live long enough to make any impression on that realm of existence. I didn’t get a chance to be brave, to resist. And so I promised myself then that I would definitely come back again some time in the future. And here I am. And I can tell you one thing. I won’t let a day go by in this present life of mine without speaking Irish, even if that means speaking to myself!”

“Hang on a minute now! That won’t do at all”, interrupted the therapist on hearing this. “Reincarnation is it? Pull the other one! That’s a load of old codswallop. That’s just an excuse not to deal with your addiction. Now tell us straight. When did Irish get a firm grip on you?”

“I’ve been addicted to Irish since the day I was born”, said Hiudaí. The therapist emitted a long and weary sigh. How can I best describe that particular therapist? She was one of those types…she was like the cat in that old saying: “I’ve met you before, as the cat said to the boiled milk”. That’s the type she was. One of those people who are tired before they are born. She had heard it all and seen it all before – according to herself, that is. An ignoramus if there ever was one! She hadn’t a word of Irish. She had no interest in the language and even less respect for it. She couldn’t understand for a minute how the likes of myself and Hiúdaí were addicted to all the nuances and flavours of Irish. She could never comprehend the hit we got from the séimhiú, the urú and the síneadh fada (if there had been a síneadh gearr, I would have got a serious high from that too!)

In fact, she was reluctant to acknowledge that a condition such as ours existed at all; she was in denial about the disease that we had contracted. But such a disease exists and continues to exist and I’m living proof of it – ever since those tests they undertook on me in Blackrock Clinic all those years ago. This was a news story which made headlines all over the world back then but like many news stories it has been largely forgotten today. For those who never heard about it, this is the gist of what happened during the tests:

Firstly, I was asked to read an extract from an English-language book after which they gave me a brain scan. The extract I had to read was from The Conscience of the Rich by C.P. Snow and I remember the extract very well as I’ve read it quite often since:

As soon as I got back to London after that week-end, Ann asked me to dine with her. Once more she took me out in luxury, this time to the Ritz. I took it for granted, going out with her, that the waiters would know her by name: I was not surprised when other diners bowed to her. As usual, she set herself out to buy me expensive food and wine…

Once I had finished reading, I was directed into a machine (which looked like some kind of spacecraft) for a brain-scan. They found no trace of any endorphins in my system after the scan. Not the slightest. I was completely impassive and unmoved after reading Snow; not a flicker of excitement registered itself. I was taken out of the spacecraft and given a glass of water to drink. Next thing, the nurse handed me a copy of Eachtraí Phinocchio (The Adventures of Pinocchio). It was Pádraig Ó Buachalla’s version of the story, straight from the Italian. I opened it at page 27 where I read the following:

Nuair a shrois Pinocchio an tráigh d’iniúch sé an fharraige go géar,

ach má dhein ní fheacaigh sé Míol Draide ná éinní mar é. Bhí an

fharraige chomh sleamhain le gloine.

‘Cá bhfuil an Míol Draide?’ ar seisean lena chomrádaithe.

‘Ní foláir nó tá scroid bheag aige á chaitheamh,’ arsa duine acu agus

é ag gáirí.

‘Ní dóichí rud a dhein sé ná é féin a chaitheamh sa leabaidh chun

greas beag a chodladh,’ arsa duine eile, agus sceart sé ar gháirí.

Thuig Pinocchio go rabhthas tar éis bob a bhualadh air. Ní

dheaghaidh san síos rómhaith leis agus duairt sé go teasaí:

‘Cad ’na thaobh díbh an cleas san a imirt orm? Ni fheicimse go bhfuilaon tsulth ann.’

‘Tá, agus sulth go tiubh,’ ar siad san d’aon ghuth...

I would have gladly continued reading all day and all night. Back into the machine I went for another brain scan.

This time my brain was hopping with endorphins. I was on fire, man. They could be seen everywhere on the scan, those merry little endorphins; buzzing through me, zipping out from the pituitary gland and making their delightful way into my spinal cord. It was a wonderful sight to behold, those ecstatic endorphins jumping for joy, all across the surface of my brain. It was the use of that beautiful word “sulth” that really kicked everything off, I think!

They did further tests on me and on a good many of the other patients also. Funnily enough, it was Munster Irish that induced the endorphins. Other dialects did practically nothing for me. In the heel of the hunt, I was sent to another clinic for treatment. I was expelled from there, however, when two volumes of the Irish of County Clare, Caint an Chláir, were found hidden under my pillow. I never returned to that clinic again although I am still a registered member of Gaels Anonymous. I follow the organisation’s progress closely and I’m always thrilled to hear of new developments in the field, the opening of a new branch of the organization in Singapore or Shanghai, for example.

Isn’t it a strange one too? Clare Irish is dead for years and yet whenever I read a few sentences from Caint an Chláir the hairs stand up on the back of my neck and the endorphins go mad inside me.

I mentioned earlier that I came across my father’s copy of Dinneen’s Dictionary when I was still a teenager. This discovery confirmed for me that my father was very seriously addicted to the Irish language even if he managed to keep his addiction hidden from others. How the hell did he manage to keep it under wraps for all those years? That’s what I want to know. After his death, I ransacked his book collection to see whether I could find deeper clues to his personality. I carefully scanned another dictionary, Ó Dónaill’s, to see what it could tell me about him. He had only marked one word in the entire dictionary as it turns out – the word “canúnaí”: “person interested in, addicted to dialect”. He had underlined the word “addicted” twice and placed a question-mark next to this word at the edge of the page.

That question-mark haunted me for years. What did my father mean by placing a question-mark in the margins like that? Was it the definition of the word “canúnaí” that intrigued him or something far more profound? Was it his own existence that he questioned, a secret life kept hidden from the world?

(Translated from the Irish by Mícheál Ó hAodha)


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