It’s said that the man who invented the Irish language created something beautiful, then didn’t know where to stop. Irish is a beautiful language, with lilting cadences that roll gently through lushly rounded vowels and soft consonants. But it is also a complicated one. For example, Irish has many different words for “up” and “down,” depending on whether you are moving and where you are in relation to the speaker.
Irish certainly isn’t the hardest language in the world; it doesn’t boast the 64 cases of the Tsez language in the Dagestan region of Russia, or the Navajo language’s rococo verb architecture. But as Indo-European languages go, Irish is rather tricky, hard to learn unless you soak it up as a child.
Coming up with a good reason for a non-native speaker to brave these complexities isn’t easy. No important international trade, after all, is conducted in Irish. Its literature and music are small, though unusually vibrant for a language whose native speakers number in the tens of thousands. And the only places you can really use the language in everyday life are the scattered rural areas along Ireland’s western coast that are collectively known as the Gaeltacht.
“Gael” was an Old Irish name for the people of Ireland; “acht” is a suffix that roughly corresponds to English suffixes such as “-ness” or “-hood.” So “Gaeltacht” means, sort of, “the Irishness,” which suggests how deeply language and identity and place are all connected to each other.
Which is why I went to the Donegal Gaeltacht the weekend after Brexit was supposed to happen. The entire Western world seemed to be in a simultaneous convulsion over questions of identity and language and culture — or as the critics of the rising right-wing populism liked to put it, “blood and soil.” Echoes of the Nazi ethos very much intended.
The Gaeltacht is one of the few places where the promotion of a native identity, one that by its very nature is somewhat impenetrable to most outsiders, is utterly uncontroversial. No one gets mad that Irish is the first official language of Ireland or that the Irish government offers wage bonuses for Irish fluency. We take it for granted that promoting the Irish language, and Irish culture and the places where those things survived in daily life isn’t an attempt to oppress anyone.
Rather, the Irish are struggling to regain something lost to British cultural imperialism. They may not have succeeded in restoring Irish widely across the island, and even in the Gaeltacht, it’s an uphill battle against English-dominated Internet and television. But dammit, they’re trying, and you can’t help but admire their dogged determination.
I had spent the previous week in London, where I spoke with Eric Kaufmann, a political scientist whose most recent book, “Whiteshift,” tries to explain the other — bad — kind of nativism. One thing he told me was very much on my mind as I drove around the Gaeltacht with Donnchadh Ó Baoill, a development executive at Údarás na Gaeltachta, the government agency charged with the economic, social and political development of the Gaeltacht.
Too many critics of right-wing populism, Kaufmann said, paint their opponents as simply xenophobes, and in this they are fundamentally mistaken. That is, immigration skeptics are indeed frightened that mass migration will overwhelm — or at least substantially alter — local commerce, politics and culture. But looking only at what immigration restrictionists are rejecting misses the beloved thing they’re trying to preserve, which is a little like trying to appreciate a scenic landscape by looking at its photonegative.
That preservation impulse is something a certain kind of person — of which I am one — finds hard to grasp. The modern idea is for everyone to be a citizen of the world, a cultural gourmand, choosing a little bit from every menu and never eating the same thing twice.
But what I began to appreciate in the Gaeltacht is that many beautiful things cannot be enjoyed if you want them to offer a convenient stopping point so you can move on to something else. They can be appreciated only by making a deep commitment to them and thereby passing up other amazing things that are undoubtedly available somewhere else.
And perhaps that’s true of everywhere, though maybe we can’t see it unless some other group throws our own immersive culture into contrast. Every passionate embrace is in some sense an equally passionate refusal to grab onto something else; you cannot preserve Irish as a real language by getting folks to take it up as a school subject, or a side hobby. For Irish to survive, people must speak a lot less English.
And it was in the Gaeltacht that I finally began to grasp, emotionally, the appeal of that sort of commitment. The McArdles originally hail from Ulster, the historic region of Ireland to which Donegal also belongs. People seemed to know a surprising amount about me just by hearing my last name, such as where my family was likely to be from and what my ancestors had been up to for the past thousand years. Approximately one minute after I slid into his car, Ó Baoill was telling me that history — a sept of the McMahon Clan, we were, and apparently rather a roguish lot.
As we drove around, Ó Baoill kept pointing out local features. Every rock, it seemed, had a name in Irish, as did every little trickle of a stream, and the names had stories attached to them, about people whose names were still living right next to them. This was wondrous to an American, who can almost never belong to any place that thoroughly.
In the United States, your family may have been in one place for quite a while and have stories about it that go back generations, but unless you are Native American, then pretty soon the backward journey from your grandparents to their grandparents runs into an ocean. In Ireland, give or take a few invaders, the gene pool has been rooted to roughly the same spot since the Neolithic — so firmly that you can still see the outlines of the ancient kingdoms in a genetic map of the island.
It isn’t the genes that matter, of course, but what they signify: language, customs and values carrying down the generations in a largely unbroken succession to your parents, and then to you.
Nor can any American be as firmly tied to a language as the people of Gaoth Dobhair, in the heart of the Donegal Gaeltacht, where Ó Baoill grew up so immersed in Irish that his mother eventually sent him to boarding school for fear he’d never learn English properly. Today’s Irish speakers are not using the same language as our Ulster ancestors, because no language stays unchanged for very long. But they are speaking its direct lineal descendant, and when I stood in the offices of Údarás na Gaeltachta and listened to incomprehensible conversations about ordinary things, I was surprised by the depth of my longing to be part of them.
There can unquestionably be an ugly side to these kinds of desires. As I write this, I am uncomfortably aware of how easily this sort of talk can sound like the white supremacists I revile. Even in Ireland, one hears rumors that all-Irish-language schools are becoming popular with affluent urban parents, not because they’re so keen to restore Irish to the world, but because the immigrants who have flocked to join Ireland’s economic boom won’t send their kids to them.
But that is precisely Kaufmann’s point: We can’t neatly separate a primal emotion, or a way of life, into two neat boxes labeled “good” and “bad.” We can cleave all the aspects we like from the ones that disturb us only by saying “these things are all right as long as you aren’t too attached to them” — which is to say, by reducing place to tourism and culture to kitsch.
Of course we should reject the truly evil thinking into which the love of a particular community can shade: an active dislike for other communities and a willingness to do them harm. But we still have to recognize, and contend with, the less ugly but still exclusive variety that says “This is what we are — and therefore, not that.”
For one thing, if we want to keep more than colorful costumes and a few place-names, the affirmative kind of groupishness will be doing the main work of preserving the cultural and linguistic diversity we’re all supposedly celebrating. And for another, that sort of groupishness is much more common than homo liberalus, that rootless cultural and intellectual polyamorist whom political scientist Patrick Deneen has dubbed the “self-made and self-making.”
Indeed, I question whether homo liberalus exists at all, or can, this self-creating self-sprung full-blown from the head of John Stuart Mill on the day before yesterday. True self-authorship seems no more possible than the perpetual motion machine; the greatest engine in the world still draws its motive power from outside.
I’m as American as can be, the product of many somewheres rather than one particular spot, and I’m a specific kind of American, too: very liberal, quite modern and as untethered as one can be from any particular place. And still, the pattern of my bones took shape somewhere in the hills of Ireland’s north. Probably the pattern of my thoughts too, though I can’t speak the language that named those rocks. It’s hard to argue that these things don’t matter, or even that they don’t matter much.
One might even argue that the cosmopolitan viewpoint that dismisses these things as historical curiosities is itself exactly the sort of exclusivist project that its proponents supposedly reject. It can see only one right way to live your life, which is mobile, socialized to the values of the educated class and best adapted to the cities where most of its cosmopolitan proponents just happen to live. And increasingly, that virtual nation has a national language: English, in which almost all of us cosmopolitans are fluent, and which is therefore slowly crushing smaller languages under its economic and cultural power.
That transnational people has its own unique charms and its common language is one of which I am extraordinarily fond. Perhaps more importantly, I belong to them, and they are mine. But like the conventional geographic variety, my borderless homeland has to figure out how to maintain a healthy national pride without it souring into parochial xenophobia … and to find some natural stopping point before our language and folkways infringe on territory that rightfully belongs to others.