Carna – A Weekend in a Gaeltacht
I just had the most magical weekend. For my Beginner’s Irish course, I had an opportunity to go to Carna, a tiny little place in Connemara in Galway, in the midst of a Gaeltacht (a primarily Irish-speaking region) of the country.
The bus ride to and from the center of Galway, where we live and where NUIG is, was a bit of a trip. It was a mini-bus, very small, very cramped with people, and on very bumpy, twist-y and turn-y mountain roads. Water, gum, and anti-motion-sickness medication was definitely passed around.
Nine girls and I all stayed in the house of a woman named Eileen who offers rooms for the various students that come through the area, mostly on Irish language programs. The rest stayed at another home- there was probably about 30 of us total on the program. She cooked us breakfast, lunch and dinner (a lot of traditional Irish things – the first night we had stew and mash and chips) for the whole time we were there, and was absolutely lovely in every way.
We spent the majority of our time in Irish-language classes, taught by an amazing man named Dáithí (Da-hee) who is also a full-time Gaeilge teacher at NUIG. As well as teaching us the language, he would go off on tangents about his life (at one point he pulled up his sleeves to show us his beautiful tattoos, old depictions of Celtic hounds and triskelions all up and down both arms), about all the trouble he used to get into, and about the history of Ireland and the language and the struggles and violence that was so prevalent during the times of intense British imperial forces in the nation. In the 80s, he lived in Northern Ireland, and used to get arrested all the time, sometimes just for having an Irish name, or because he was friends with a lot of the rebels. He told us how in the heights of ancient imperialism, the Irish were killed in thousands. Later techniques to stop them from speaking Irish evolved into washing their mouths out with soap or putting clothespins on their tongues if they were caught speaking it, or even shipping them out of the country. There is still a set of white people living in Barbados, from when hundreds of years ago Irish were sent off as plantation slaves and later as indentured servants to British colonies. The black islanders still refer to them as Red-Legs, because of how badly they used to burn in the sun.
The deepest realms of Irish culture seem to all be focused on preservation, of fighting back, of holding on with a vengeance to all the cultural artifacts that were tried to be beaten and ripped and torn (often quite literally) from them. During the weekend, we also got to see and learn a little bit of Sean-nós (shawn-nos = “old style”) singing and dancing, the oldest and most traditional kinds there are in the country. Sean-nós singing is usually a song sung by one unaccompanied performer, who does not sit on a stage, but among a crowd, so that everyone remains on the same level. The songs can be stories, happy or sad, they can be calls for rebellion, declarations of love, and so on. Sean-nós dancing is done wearing a kind of tap shoe, with arms relaxed at the sides and all the motions of the feet done close to the ground. We were told that the theory behind this was so no one could tell they what they were doing if they happened to be glimpsed through a window. We learned a few steps from two brothers who live and grew up in Carna (one was only 15 years old – the other couldn’t have been more than 20 or so), and who competed in and won many national Sean-nós dance competitions.
Even though it was described as a walk in the schedule we were given, later in the afternoon on Saturday, we ended up climbing up and around mountains in the middle of nowhere, 30 people with one guide. It was quite an adventure; there was one bit where it was basically an almost vertical climb, straight up among the rocks. I got some beautiful pictures. There were sheep all over, and it was such a beautiful day, you could see everything all around you. Along the mountain sides, our guide pointed out ridges in the dirt, which were old potato ridges during the time of the famine. We also went through a couple of old bogs, and saw 4,000 year old tree stumps that were emerging from the soil, having been preserved for that long.
In the evening, we went to one of the two pubs in the small town, and all hung out and chatted and danced. There was a live band playing, and actually a big dance floor, which is not a thing that is readily available in pubs in Galway. They actually played mostly Americans-style country music and some 50s rock n’roll, which was really funny. It was a great environment to be in; you could tell everyone in the whole place knew everyone else. At one point, this huge Husky dog burst through the front door and started running through the place, and had to be rounded up and brought back outside. Apparently it was a frequent occurrence, and lived in a nearby house, because he was simply rounded up and put back outside. We all tried to speak Irish to the people there, especially when we ordered at the bar. They matched our simple stuttered phrases with rapid-fire Irish, and we would kind of just look at them with big eyes. They were really nice about it, and let us try over and over.
If I’m not actively thinking about it, it’s actually pretty easy to forget I’m in Ireland –for me (and I know how dorky this sounds) it has such a home-like quality. The whole time I’m here, I know I’m not at school, and I know I’m not “Home” Home, but I also don’t feel like I’m in a foreign place. But on the bus-ride back to Galway today, I was being hit again and again with the idea that I wasn’t home, I definitely wasn’t home, because nothing where I’m from looks like this – no civilization but for tiny houses at the bottom of huge mountains, bumpy, scrubby landscape and rocks and lakes and wildness as far as the eye could see. Sometimes I get this feeling that I like to call “my flying feeling” – a name it’s had ever since I can remember. It’s very hard to describe, and comes less and less the older I’ve gotten, and it’s therefore more special each time. It’s chest-aching, excitement-building, whole-body-slowly-going-transparent-and-lifting-off-the-ground-feeling because the world is so beautiful and it’s here and I am in it and I am not in it at the same time. I’ve never tried to explain it before this. The last time I really got it was this summer, when I was driving home from an amazing friend’s house quite late at night, where we had gone night-swimming in a lake and looked at the stars, and I had all the windows open and I was playing one of my absolute favorite songs, one I played over and over all summer, and I was so float-y and happy and laughing. That feeling makes a space for me, makes me feel less overwhelmed with life, and when I get it I know I’m somewhere doing something special. It’s almost always matched with music, sometimes with a film, or a poem, or a line in a book – so to not have anything like that be the influence for it just makes it even more special. I definitely felt it today.
The Irish are people who have lived through such harsh trauma, and even as an outsider I think you can see the impact of that. I think a lot about a piece written by one of my favorite slam-poets, Sierra DeMulder, in which she discusses what she calls “secondary trauma”, or the impact that immense trauma can have on later generations, even when they themselves do not live it to the extent of their predecessors. She speaks about it in the context of race, and domestic violence, and while both of those things are wildly important and should always be on everyone’s minds, I think it’s good to apply good ideas and explanations where one sees fit. It is heartbreaking, and close to home. It’s a piece of writing that I know will stick with me forever.
I didn’t mean for this to come out so melancholy. I am actually quite content at the moment, if not a little exhausted– and in three days, we go on our IFSA-Butler 4-day weekend trip to Belfast in Northern Ireland! I feel like I was in Carna for forever, and not just a weekend. I’m gonna try to get all the rest and work done I can in the next three days. I’ll write soon.
Two phrases I used a lot this weekend:
Níos moille, le do thoil = nish mwull-ah, leh duh hole = Slower, please
Abair arís é, le do thoil = Ah-bar arish ay, leh duh hole = Say it again, please
Go raibh maith agat, Slán! = Go rah mah at, slan! = Thank you, goodbye (to the bus driver, every time he picked up us and dropped us at the schools or the pub or the mountain – I’m pretty sure he thought it was the only thing I knew how to say)
Sierra DeMulder’s piece about secondary trauma: http://sierrademulder.tumblr.com/post/104497001314/ive-been-thinking-a-lot-about-trauma