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Gaelic vs Gaeilge

By Quinn Clancy

There’s a strange and all too common occurrence for Irish readers when they’ve picked up a lot of urban fantasy. They’ll be enjoying the book, fascinated by the various takes on mythology and fantastical spirits when suddenly they’ll come to a part where an Irish creature or person will start speaking their native tongue, Gaelic. 

It’s at this point when most reader I’ve talked to will scream at the book and put it in the naughty corner. Because every person in this country knows that we speak Gaelige, not Gaelic. It’s those Scottish that speak Gaelic. All that research, all that beautiful exploration of Irish lore and the author falls down at what is seen as the easiest hurdle. 

Now I’ve tried to think of a few reasons why authors might use this word instead of the correct one and I’ve come up with a few. Gaelige is a confusing language of silent letters and strange pronunciations, so to appeal to a wider audience (aka the North American audience) they’ve gone with what they see as a more generic ‘harmless’ term, Gaelic.

And it is true, Gaelic can be seen as a grouping term for anything descended from the Gauls, you can even describe the Welsh language as Gaelic. But that’s a bit like saying that Americans and Brits speak Germanic, and I’m sure there are a few people out there who want to disagree with that. 

This use of Gaelic instead of Gaelige is not unique to urban fantasy, that just seems to be where you most commonly get it. There’s an author I adore, and I’m lucky enough to be part of their facebook group, who tends to write a lot of Irish descent characters. Even they write that the character who is first generation born American, from Irish immigrants from Cork and who spent summers in Ireland who speaks their native tongue Gaelic. This has completely ruined that specific series for me, and since I did have a somewhat ‘direct’ line to the author I asked did they really mean Gaelic instead of Gaeilge.

I was told that the character is speaking the American version of Irish which is also called Gaelic. And while I can mostly accept that, I just can’t see a Cork born Irish person teaching their children anything but Gaeilge. Especially if they’re sending them back to Ireland for the summers when growing up. So I left it there and just don’t reread those otherwise amazing books. 

So what is it about the use of Gaelic for the Irish language that gets under my skin? Well it’s something I’ve had to think long and hard about. Ultimately I think it’s come down to an unintentional erasure of the Irish culture, especially in books that are trying to explore and promote the Irish culture and history.

And what a history it is. We’ve taken immigration to such heights that you could visit every tourist spot and most countries in the world and find an Irish pub. This is largely due to being invaded and subsequently part of the British empire. This bit of our history is what makes us so bitter about the Empire, as we weren’t allowed to practice our religion nor speak our native language of Irish. This resulted in a fracturing of the language, and only getting taught it in illegal ‘hedge’ schools. 

The secretive continuation of the language has resulted in a smaller scale problem experienced by China. We can all read the same language but have too many dialects. A Cork Gaeilgeoir,  i.e. a native Irish speaker, can’t understand a Donegal Gaeilgeoir (pronounced gael-gore for those interested). I believe there’s about five different dialects of Gaeilge. For a country half the size of New York that’s kinda crazy. And that’s not even taking into account whole parts of the language we’ve lost.

We’ve worked long and hard to turn a dying language back into a living one. So to have that hard work ignored, and then to have people continuing a practice of erasing the Irish culture that dominated our own history and growth as a nation is disheartening. It’s also confusing to see it from people who are using their books as a chance to explore a part of their family and identity.

So the next time you write about the native Irish language I hope you decide not to be a part of that well meaning cohort that unintentionally contributes to the erasure of a culture they love.

Quinn Clancy is a writer and programmer from Dublin. Fascinated by fantasy at a small age, she has consumed everything passed down from her equally fantastic minded family. Quinn has been a member of Cupán Fae for three years and has contributed stories to the Cupán Fae Anthologies: Fierce MightyFierce New Worldand Fierce & Proud.

Check out Quinn Clancy’s story ‘Hens of Hell’ in Cupán Fae’s Anthology, Fierce & Proud, now available in paperback and on Kindle.

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