Vulgar speech of masses translated into sweet tongue of the Gael

IRISH TIMES 18/3/2009

Once upon a time there was a country which had all but lost its native language. This was considered a great pity and a drive was launched to restore the fading tongue.

It was more than just a linguistic exercise - it was a movement for national renewal. It was felt that the people’s soul had crumpled under the weight of foreign oppression. The symptoms were seen to include the vulgarisation of common speech and thought. Dirty words and impure talk had polluted the crystal-clear stream of nationality. That country was Ireland of course, and the movement that emerged was based on the slogan, ‘Glaine inár gcroí, neart inár ngéag is beart de réir ár mbriathar’, which translates as, ‘Purity in our hearts, strength in our limbs and deeds to match our words’. But the ideals became somewhat fossilised and the role model turned into a stereotype. In time, Flann O’Brien would satirise male Irish-speakers as those who ‘have nuns’ faces, wear bicycle-clips continuously, talk in Irish only about ceist na teangan, and have undue confidence in Irish dancing as a general nationalistic prophylactic’. The policy of State compulsion having failed in its objective of achieving an Irish-speaking society, the language movement turned to persuasion: let’s meet the people half way, try a little bilingualism, and convert their common parlance into the first official language. This curious book could be seen as part of that scenario. The vulgar speech of the masses is here translated into the sweet and kingly tongue of the Gael by Garry Bannister, who has extensive experience teaching Irish at third level. As Alan Titley writes in his foreword, the author ‘does not shirk away from some of the more risqué, bawdy or crude street and back-lane turns of phrase’. Whatever about ‘purity in our hearts’, there is little purity of speech in this pocket-sized volume and it reflects the widespread vulgarisation of public discourse where ‘rude’ words are now commonplace. Many Irish variations of the F-word are provided. However, the author may have trouble with those latter-day puritans, the Politically Correct Brigade, as a number of formulations fall foul of PC standards: lexicographer beware. Although definitely not suitable for children and likely to offend quite a few adults, the book contains some interesting little nuggets. Along with the inevitable ‘Póg mo thóin’ for ‘Kiss my arse’, we have ‘Is fuath liom maidríní lathaí’ (I hate arse-kissers) and ‘Is í mo thóin-se ata le gaoth anseo’ (It’s my arse that’s on the line). Then there is ‘Mallacht Dé ar lucht an doichill’ (Feck the begrudgers) and ‘Is Muireann fireann i mbríste í’ (She’s very butch). Other words and phrases that may appeal include ‘maolsmigeach méileach’ (chinless wonder), ‘slis den seanmhaide’ (chip off the old block), ‘ceann cóc’ (cokehead), ‘rogha le fána’ (cop-out), ‘raiblín’ (nerd) and ‘gaothaire’ (windbag). Under ‘X’ we have: ‘Ba scannán le deimhniú X é’ (It was an X-rated movie). There was a time when this book would have been banned by the censorship board, which would have done wonders for sales and strengthened the argument of those who half-jokingly say the best way to revive Irish is to make it illegal.