We weren’t talking much now. I was driving, and I needed to concentrate on the road which snaked, bending and dipping, keeping pace with the rushing black waters of the Owenmore. Helen had the map and the details of the house we were hunting, but she wasn’t looking at them. Instead she gazed around her, at the flat brown bog, the black water frothing white over rocks, the blue of the Nephin Mountains getting closer all the time.
‘Left. No, not here. A bit further on. There should be a sign to Geesala.’
‘There’s one to Gaoth Saile.’ I pronounced it ‘Goth Sail’.
‘Same thing. You’re in the Gaeltacht now.’
In 1925, soon after the founding of the Free State, the new government of Ireland identified a series of zones along the west coast where Gaelic was still spoken as a first language. These areas, known collectively as An Ghaeltacht, were to be the front line in Ireland’s battle to regain its cultural identity. Traditional music and folk customs were encouraged, and all sorts of steps were taken to prevent the seepage of the English language into daily life. At one point parents were paid £2 per child to speak nothing but Gaelic to their children, and government inspectors would descend at intervals to diagnose the presence of undue quantities of English in the child’s vocabulary.
The Irish language is a compulsory subject in all Irish schools. In fact at one time it was essential to pass Gaelic when you sat your leaving exams, because if you failed in that, you got a fail in everything else, no matter how well you’d done. Parents would send their kids to summer schools in the Gaeltacht where they were allowed to speak nothing else for weeks on end.
Nowadays there is a Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, whose functions include promoting the Irish language and the development of the Gaeltacht (and also, oddly, implementing the National Drugs Strategy). Place-names in the Gaeltacht are in Irish only. So are the road signs. Ná Scoitear instead of ‘No overtaking’. Géill Slí, not ‘Give way’.
It hasn’t worked. Language-use is bound up in cultural practice, and you can’t legislate for the continuance of a culture. The use of Gaelic is declining, even in the Gaeltacht. In Erris, a Gaeltacht heartland, native Irish speakers are numbered in the hundreds.
But the road signs and the place names remain. Gaoth Saile it is. One of these days I’m going to learn Gaelic, I say as we turn off the main road. Helen says nothing. She’s heard it before.
The house we were looking for was at a place called Tullaghanbaun. Google Maps was showing it a couple of miles further on. Geesala itself was small: a few houses, a shop, a big hotel which looked to be closed up, and a bar called ‘The High Chapparal’. What’s that in Gaelic, I muttered.
I knew from the picture in the agent’s particulars exactly what we would see. There were ten thousand cottages like it, all put up around the middle of the last century: single-storeyed with a pitched tile roof and whitewashed walls. There would be a flat-roofed kitchen extension built out at the back. And even without the particulars I knew how it would be inside. The rooms would be dark, with brown painted woodwork and brown floors. If there was furniture, it would be brown. And there would be a fading print on the wall of Benedict XVI or the Virgin Mary or the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Just outside the village we cleared the brow of a low hill and gasped. Below us, to the left, was a broken sheet of water, bright in the late afternoon sun. This was Tullaghan Bay, where the Oweniny River meets the Atlantic in a burst of sand bars and salt marsh, where travellers once waited for the ferryman to complete their journey from Newport. Beyond it was the empty coastline of Ballycroy, bleak and remote even in that bleak and remote place. Further off, the Nephin Beg range rising blue against the clouds. And in front of us a scattering of white cottages, the sea, and Achill Island with its two great mountains, Slieve More and Croaghaun.
The names came later, much later. All I knew then was that I was glad.