Language is a window into the soul. This saying helps to explain why I have (unsuccessfully) tried to learn Gaelic – to better understand the Irish people. In one lesson early on, it was explained that Gaelic has no system to show possession. In other words, Gaelic has no words for my as in my book, or his as in his wife, or ours, as in the house is ours. Possession is not an idea the Irish embrace. Once I was with a friend in County Mayo and we happened to be close to a cottage she had once shared with her former husband. After a couple of calls on her cell phone, it was determined that himself was somewhere in the Kingdom of Kerry, so we stopped at the cottage so she could have a look around. As she walked round and round the garden, telling me the story about each flowering plant and bush, I suggested she take a flower from one of them as a remembrance. She looked at me as if I had two noses, saying she could never do that, explaining that “The flowers belong here in this garden. They don’t belong to me, Susan.”
In another Gaelic lesson, the class was studying how to answer the simple question Where do you live? In English, the answer is stated as a fact in simple present tense: I live in Virginia Beach. In Gaelic, the answer to this question is in present continuous tense, which translated, goes like this: I am staying in Virginia Beach. The lack of permanency here is another manifestation of the Gaelic mind in Irish-English. As Van Morrison explains in his song entitled What Makes the Irish Heart Beat: But I know I’ve got to roam, That’s what makes the Irish heart beat.”
These, and other phrases I have learned over the years, have validated for me that language is a window into the soul. However, Tim Robinson, in his book entitled Connemara: A little Gaelic Kingdom, has recently changed my perspective entirely. Robinson points out that English and Irish are …life’s alternative ways of dealing with the same world. Instead of seeing language as a way of looking into someone, Robinson understands language, most especially Gaelic, as a unique way of looking out onto the world and this business of living, as he so aptly puts it.
Once when my children were young, we attended a family reunion on an older brother’s farm, where my seven-year-old son had a private conversation with my older brother whom my son had never met before. The conversation was about my son’s pet, a cat named Peanut. After telling his uncle all about his beloved pet, his uncle told him that he had a cat, too, and his cat had kittens last week. But he could not keep the kittens, so he put them all in a pillow case and drowned them in his pond over yonder. I did not hear about this till we were on our way home in our car. After telling me about this encounter with his uncle, he asked me why his uncle would tell him that. I responded that his uncle told him that story because : Your uncle loves you so much, Brendan, that he does not want you to cry at his funeral.
I was given that as an answer once in County Galway after an unkind act was taken against me. I have never forgotten it, for this is the Irish way, and a good alternative at that, of dealing with a world that can, at times, be unkind.