‘Well, aren’t you the mechanical priest!’ my young cousin said to me. Her name was Anne and she was about eleven years of age. We were out on a beach in Erris shortly after I had been ordained. ‘Mechanical’ was a word she used meaning ‘clever’, and just to make sure that I did not get grand notions about myself she quickly added, ‘Well, you are not very clever for a mechanical priest if you don’t know Irish! I do.’
I have never forgotten that conversation. It is strange the things you remember in life. Many things disappear from our minds but some things always stay and that encounter on the beach in Erris is one of them. My young cousin’s eloquence and forthrightness perhaps encouraged it, and her use of the word ‘mechanical’ in a way I had never heard before, and of course the rebuke for not knowing the native tongue of that lovely land.
My mother spoke Irish that she learned at school, and my grandmother spoke Irish as her first and only language until her children taught her to say English words. And here am I without a word of it. How quickly it went. England ruled over Ireland and its language took over Irish life, eventually reaching the western fringes where my family lived. And my mother had to go to England for work and to make a home and so the Irish faded.
During my summer holidays in the West I was greatly impressed by my cousins’ ability and fluency with language. There was no radio or television to rob them of time or to take words out of their mouths. Language filled those enormous skies and was used to express great feeling and to entertain with stories. They were never short of a word. Language filled their days and I loved it.
I hope Irish is still flourishing in Ireland. Sadly it was not my mother tongue, but it was my mother’s tongue and my grandmother’s before her. I missed out on it. I wasn’t that mechanical!
6 January 2023