by Richie Conroy
The summer of 1994 was a pivotal one for me. It was the summer I matured emotionally, the summer I came of age.
How did this happen?
Growing up my hero was Packie Bonner. He was Ireland’s goalkeeper who kept out the English in Stuttgart in 1988 and who saved Timofte’s penalty in 1990. In 1994 he made a bad mistake against Holland and, afterwards, was ruthlessly cast aside and derided by those around me.
Like a modern day Joan of Arc, I found myself on a one man crusade to spread the gospel of Packie.
That same summer a gang of us went to the Forum Cinema in Sandycove to watch Four Weddings and a Funeral, a breakout hit which made a star of a foppish Hugh Grant. Midway through the movie, I walked out.
Afterwards, my friends couldn’t believe it. Why did I walk out? Even though going to the cinema was a rare treat, I wasn’t going to waste my time watching a movie that celebrated everything that I disliked about waspy Sassenachs.
You see, I had recently returned from spending three weeks in Irish College in Carraroe. My eyes had been opened. Mo shúile oscailte. A cultural bell had been rung inside me. A bell that could not now be unrung. Hugh Grant became the physical embodiment of my burgeoning cultural patriotism.
Don’t get me wrong, there was no saluting the flag in Irish College. There was no brainwashing of students by radicals. But there was saoirse. It was my first taste of freedom. I loved it and wanted more of it. I saw a side to our country that had been hidden from me. I met sound people, I waved at every passing car and I heard the Irish language being spoken for the first time outside of the classroom.
I started to dream in Irish and, on my return, I made it my goal to learn the language, to become líofa. Fluent.
No goal should be easy and learning Irish was very challenging. I returned to school the following September and received my Junior Cert results. I passed every subject except Irish. Then we were streamed for the Leaving Cert and I was put in the ordinary class, gnáthleibhéal. It took a while for the honours teacher to be convinced to open the door to me.
Now, I don’t like to bad mouth teachers but our Irish teacher had lost his enthusiasm for the job (assuming he once was enthusiastic) and he didn’t cover the Leaving Cert course. There were twelve of us in the class and, as the state exams approached, we felt we were goosed. So we spoke to the principal about our concerns. He was sympathetic and came up with a plan: he’d teach us the course on the quiet.
And so, like some warped hedge school, our principal taught us about Caitlín Maude, An Módh Coinníollach and loan words from French into Irish. Chambre. Seomra.
I struggled. I struggled with the tuiseal ginideach and I struggled with the novel we had to read, Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne. I wished there was a book—that even with my limited vocabulary—I could enjoy reading. A book like Sue Townsend’s poignant and hilarious The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.
Cut to: a couple of years ago and I finally wrote the novel that my teenage self would have loved to read: Dialann Emily Porter: An Jailtacht. Set in the Summer of 1994, it is a love letter to the 1990s. It is a novel that begins in one language and finishes in another (how many novels like that have been published?). It is a coming of age story about a teenager who is trying to figure out her place in the world.
Learning a language is practically impossible if one is uncomfortable making mistakes. So, instead of learning Irish as adults, it is easier to pass the buck. Blame the teachers. Blame the system.
—I’d love to speak Irish.
—Go on so, what’s stopping ya?
—Sure I know more French than I do Irish and me studying it for fourteen years in school. It’s the way it’s taught. Bet into me it was.
—What’s this (I hold up a pen).
—It’s a pen.
—I know it’s a pen. What’s the Irish for pen?
—Go maith. What’s that? (I point to the window.)
—And outside the fuinneog, taobh amuigh, what can you see?
—Bóthar. Carr. Rothar. Fear. Bean. Cailín. Buachaill. Siopa leabhar.
—You see? You’ve loads of Irish. Tá neart Gaeilge agat.
If you understood the above dialogue you’d be able to read Dialann Emily Porter: An Jailtacht. And if you read one book in Irish maybe you could read another. (It just so happens there’s a sequel, Dialann Emily Porter: Thíos Seal Thuas Seal, and I’ve written the third instalment which will be published in the not too distant future.)
Fixed mindsets are not conducive to growth. Too often people form a fixed and negative mindset about the Irish language when they are teenagers and they never bother to challenge it.
I had a fixed mindset about hummus as a teenager, I hated it. Then, in my late twenties I tasted hummus and my mind was blown. I realised I had wasted years of my life missing out on the joys of hummus.
Don’t be like me.
Oh and I was wrong, the Sassenach Hugh Grant is now one of my favourite actors—Four Weddings and a Funeral isn’t a bad film.
And Packie Bonner is still a legend.
Dialann Emily Porter: An Jailtacht was shortlisted for a Great Reads Award in 2018. The second book in the series Dialann Emily Porter: Thíos Seal Thuas Seal won a prize at the Oireachtas Literary Competition 2021 and was nominated for the Reics Carló prize in 2022.