These two Irish girls once walked into a small bar in Aberystwyth, Wales. They were more than a little taken aback to realize that almost everyone in the bar was speaking in Irish. They were even more flabbergasted to learn that none of those speaking Irish were actually Irish – they were all non-native speakers who were so taken with the culture and heritage of Ireland that they had mastered its language. They were over the moon to have two genuine Irish people in their midst and warmly welcomed them into the circle. As luck would have it, the two girls spoke fluent Irish and so were fairly confident that they wouldn’t let the nation down in the accomplished company they were in. That is until the group insisted that everyone do a party piece. So having witnessed an American dance in sean-nós style, a Canadian play the uileann pipes and a German sing a sean-nós song, one of the girls humbly gave a respectable rendition of the ballad Nancy Spain, albeit in English. The second girl, not gifted in the performing arts, much more humbly did the only thing she could think of as a party piece – she juggled matchboxes. That girl was me.
Apart from the absolute mortification of the juggling interlude, that evening is a lasting memory for me – for the sensation of having come across something totally unexpected in a totally unexpected place. I was reminded of it this week when I picked up a lovely booklet promoting the West Waterford Festival of Food. The booklet provides all kinds of information about the heritage of West Waterford food and a host of events that are happening over the third weekend in April. Not only that, the booklet was in both English and Irish. Now, I don’t mean that the book was 90% English with some titles translated into Irish – this is something we’re used to. No, the front cover in English introduced 33 pages of gorgeous images and useful information. Flip the book over the other front cover in Irish introduced a full 33 pages of the same information in Irish. This was absolute parity of presentation. I was flabbergasted, experiencing a very similar sensation as on the evening we walked into that bar in Aberystwyth. For some reason, it is completely unexpected to find marketing collateral in Irish and I was truly taken aback when I found it.
Linguistic research has shown us that for all people (not just us Irish) our words inform our thoughts, that national identity is very tightly bound up with our language and that our language directly frames our ways of expressing ourselves and perceiving the world. Our native languages are known to be the most accurate expressions of our culture, our psyche and our national soul. While English is the mother tongue of the majority of Irish people nowadays, if you take a time frame of 2000 years (or even just 500 years), Irish has been the language of the overwhelming majority of Irish people. It has resulted in Hiberno-English, the name given to the particular type of English spoken in Ireland.
Visitors travel for difference. The more different their destination, the more memorable the experience. All the research tells us that more and more visitors yearn for a “Sense of Place” i.e. the feeling they get from the distinctive sights, sounds and experiences that are rooted in a country, those unique and memorable qualities that resonate with local people and visitors alike. There are many components of sense of place and the local language is right up there as one of the most powerful expressions of it.
It is for this reason that Irish is important for tourism - it offers visitors a genuine and intimate connection with Irish heritage and it gives visitors an insight into the Irish way of thinking. There are other reasons also. If your visitor is from Canada, USA or Australia, there’s a very high chance that Irish was the language of their ancestors. Irish is spoken in some of the most beautiful parts of our most beautiful island. It is an ancient language and much older than English – speaking and hearing it gives visitors a connection with times gone by. Encountering a foreign language while on holidays is a challenge for us all, but it’s a rewarding challenge. Visitors who manage to learn a few essential phrases and actually use them gain very positive feelings of accomplishment and of connection. Some would event admit to a little tingle of excitement – it triggers the happy hormones. It’s a feel-good factor.
So if you’re in Irish hospitality and contend you are unable to speak Irish, I would argue that we can all count to 10 at the very least. We could all manage ‘Dia Dhuit’ as a precursor to ‘Hello’. Uttering ‘Go raibh maith agat’ and ‘Slán’ is not outside the capability of most of us. We may be underestimating just how much even this little contribution would enrich the experience of the visitor. It could certainly lead to greater connection, not least through questions or conversations that might ensue. Our neighbour Wales is taking this matter very seriously at a national policy level, with supports in place to promote the use of Welsh to visitors. Practical suggestions include: use Welsh name plates for rooms, provide bilingual names for toilets, restaurant, garden; have a bilingual website; introduce bilingual menus; support staff who want to learn the language.
No pressure though. Even if you really can’t speak Irish, you can certainly speak about it. We’re nothing if not storytellers! If all else fails, here are a few little nuggets of information about Irish that might interest your international visitors.
Promoting the language and using simple phrases with your guests enriches the visitor experience. Visitors are usually intrigued and fascinated by the language and you can help them gain a little understanding of it, even if you are not an Irish speaker yourself. A phrase here, an explanatory note there, can serve to remind visitors that they are in a unique culture with its very own ancient and beautiful language. In an age where it’s more important than ever for destinations to have an edge over their competitors, let’s embrace our Irish language heritage to offer something unique and authentic, expressing a true sense of place. Hats off to West Waterford Festival of Food for going far beyond that, setting a new standard in this regard. Maith sibh!