The symbol of Ireland is the Celtic harp, which comes straight from the bard era, since it was with a small harp that the bard accompanied his songs (you can admire an outstanding specimen of an old harp at Trinity College). For the record it was the famous Henry VIII who officially established the harp as a symbol of Ireland after being recognized as King of Ireland in 1541 (article “History of Ireland” to come).
Originally, the Irish were Gaels, that is Celtics speaking a Gaelic language. It was the British occupation that established English, and so by reaction the Irish partly remained and the original language was then reintroduced after independence in 1922.
Irish is officially the country’s first language and all schoolchildren, Irish or foreign, have an obligation to learn it. There is a waiver if you arrive in Ireland after when you’re at least 12 years old. All the road signs are bilingual, the Irish language is a close cousin of Gaelic. However, the maintenance of the Irish is somewhat artificial, since it is estimated that less than 100,000 people practice Irish as their first language on a daily basis.
It is the Gaelic that gives the visitor a sense of strangeness from the first minutes in Ireland on, while the neophyte (as I was) mistakenly thinks he will arrive in mini Anglo-Saxon territory when he comes for the first time to Dublin. Although it is an Indo-European language with Latin borrowings (leithreas comes from « latrines » for example and means the toilets), the division was done much earlier than for English, and absolutely nothing is familiar from reading the signs.
What further complicates contact with the Irishman is that there is a huge gap between the spoken and written Irish language. I remember very well that at the beginning of my installation in Ireland, several people told me about « dun lairee », explaining the walks I could do there or the shops I could find there. It was only after 6 weeks in Dublin that I had an epiphany when I saw the sign below:
you have to pronounce Dun Laoghaire “dun lairee”!!
Irish leisure activities are very much focused on sport, especially on Gaelic sports such as Gaelic football, curling and camogie. While they were reintroduced somewhat artificially at the end of the 19th century, Gaelic sports are part of the daily life of the Irish in the 21st century.
As far as public life is concerned, until 1973 the Irish language was mandatory to enter public administration. The President of Ireland (non-executive) is called the President, but the Prime Minister is called the Taoiseach (pronounced « Teeschok »). It is referred to the Taoiseach the whole time, so it is imperative to know this name. The Taoiseach is elected by the parliament, called here the Dail Eireann (pronounced « Doyleeran »). He is assisted by the Tanaiste (pronounced « tanaischtiu »). These three terminologies are systematically in Irish. Presumably, there is a real desire to distance oneself from the British by adopting these names on a daily basis, even if these institutions are organized on the Anglo-Saxon model, so it’s more a kind of varnish.
The five Irish political parties are the Sinn Fein, Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Green Party and the Labour Party. Three of the five have a Gaelic name and this is no coincidence. Sinn Fein, the oldest and best known party abroad, was founded in 1905 from a clearly pro-independence and nationalist perspective. Sinn Fein literally means « ourselves. » Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were created by splitting of Sinn Fein in the aftermath of the Irish independence in 1922. Long close to the IRA, Sinn Fein officially split from it in the 1990s. It has become a left-wing party. Fine Gael, whose current leader is the charismatic Leo Varadkar, former Taoiseach and current Tanaiste, means « tribe of the Irish ». It is a social democrat, rather centrist party. The Fianna Fail, or Republican Party (center-right) is led by Micheal Martin, the current Taoiseach. Fianna Fail literally means « soldiers of destiny. » You should know that Fianna is a mythical warrior group. The Fianna is omnipresent in Irish mythology (see article « Magic Ireland » to come) that all Irish, young and old, know: they were a kind of legendary super-jedi led by the no less legendary Fionn. As for Fail, the name comes from the stone of destiny located in Tara. By metonymy the island of Ireland has long been called Inis Fail, which gives « soldiers of Ireland » as another possible translation for Fianna Fail.
In general, you can spend years in Ireland without learning Irish. On the other hand, impossible to work in Ireland, even a few weeks, without knowing how to recognize and pronounce proper names, starting with first names. Interestingly, the generation of 50+ have Anglo-Saxon names, while the young generation have Irish first names mostly. Thus the Laoise (« leescha »), Oisin (« oschin »), Eoin (« owen » and other Grainne (« grania ») populate the classrooms and some day the boardrooms.
In « domestic » life, the Irish have resolutely kept a Celtic soul. Part of the Celtic culture has been rooted in them for centuries, another part is forcibly kept under perfusion. In any case, their commitment to the soil of Ireland is real.
Next week: are the Irish Europeans?