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Using Superpowers to Master Irish

23 March 2017
Sláinte text on a background of clover.


Welcome to County Cork sign

Fáilte chuig podchraoladh ‘Muintir na nOileán’.
Welcome to the People of the Isles podcast.

Regions where Irish is the primary spoken language are known as the Gaeltacht (“GWALE-tockt”). English comes second. Outside of those areas, learning the language is part of the required national school curriculum. Many of my Irish friends have a complicated relationship with the language, often being proud of their land’s native tongue, yet expressing disappointment at how it was taught to them. In some cases, the learning experience forever tarnishes their feelings about Irish. Sometimes adults will enroll in a language refresher course, but many never use it again after completing secondary school.

From what I understand, the instruction is often presented in an order that doesn’t lend itself to casual use – grammar tables, rather than practical conversational skills, for example – and all served up as repetition with an unhealthy side of negative reinforcement. To be fair, not everyone has this complaint, but I’ve heard it enough times for me to think there’s a trend.

I don’t know if he had any of the same initial objections, but at some point my friend, Justin, decided he was going to throw himself into mastering the language of the land he is proud to call home. He has a secret superpower that helped. And no, it’s not his sense of humour.

Justin: Justin Hugh Scannell. Blood type O negative. I’m a great fan of the blood transfusion drives.

Katrina: [laughter] So tell me a bit about where you’re from.

J: Well I’m from kind of all over the place. You see I was born in the Bons [Bon Secours Hospital], on the south side of Cork, raised on the north side, and I spend an awful lot of time here in the city, so.*

K: So when you say you’re from all over, you mean from all over Cork city?

J: Pretty much. I mean, I suppose I consider myself a Glanmire person, really, since that’s where I’ve been hanging my had for thirty-odd years or so.

K: I understand you’ve parlayed your language skills into a new job.

J: Yes, I did. Yeah, I’m going to be work as a translator for Dáil Éireann. Irish to English, English to Irish.

K: I should say here that Dáil Éireann is the lower house of the Irish legislature.

J: They generally don’t do any other languages since they deal solely with domestic affairs. I also applied for an EU one, but I’m more comfortable in the Dáil because it’s less of a leap going from Cork to Dublin, in spite of what most Cork people say.

K: Not all Irish people speak fluent Irish. Is this correct?

J: That’s correct. There are a wide variety of sometimes allied, sometimes competing explanations for this. What I would say it ultimately boils down to is – I mean, I don’t want to sound stereotypical – but it is a hangover from our colonial past… that we were under pressure to stop speaking it. To better assimilate ourselves into the empire or, if people wanted to emigrate to Australia or Canada or the US, they were under pressure to give it up as well. And so, that was about it.

Because the ruling classes, which had encouraged the speaking of Irish, had, several centuries before, emigrated to places like France, Spain, Austria, and Russia. And they were essentially replaced by a ruling class who, for the most part, not interested in Irish. As in all societies, eventually where the ruling classes go, the subordinate section of society follows.

K: So how did you develop a passion for the language?

J: It’s a funny question. At a certain age I got interested in history and that interest made me into a bit of a nationalist. I kind of still am. But I realised I wasn’t a very good nationalist because I wasn’t doing anything in my life that was particularly connected to this country. I mean, I’m useless at sports, so Gaelic Games is out of the question. So I took it upon myself to learn Irish. When I say learn I mean take more of an interest in it outside of the education system.

Now a lot of people say that they’ve had bad experiences with Irish in the education system. For me, it was just another school subject that I had to get out of the way because I wanted to read my X-Men comics, I wanted to watch Father Ted… You know, people say they hated Irish, but I hated school in general. Why should one subject get blamed for the rest of it?

So I did that, and I found that I ended up liking it. Now the fact that from about 1998 onwards that I had a succession of very good teachers probably didn’t hurt. My interest carried on for about a year. Then I got distracted by other things, like interest in the opposite sex. I became a professional wrestling fan for a while. And the fact that I didn’t really lose interest in Irish – I mean, I lost interest in Irish, but not respect for it. I still performed reasonably well in it in school. Then, in about 2004, when I got back into college, that’s when my interest in history reawakened and my interest in Irish reawakened.

I didn’t realise at the time that I was going to go down a career path. The interest was maintained… I suppose what struck me about it – you ask me what I like most about it now – is just reading about the people over the years, I suppose over the centuries, really, whose lives have been touched by it and who have helped shape its history. That for me is the most fascinating of all.

I mean, I said at the start that I came into Irish as a nationalist, but there are a number of people in Northern Ireland now who are interested in Irish, yet they still maintain that they are unionists. And they support the connection of Britain.

K: How would you say that the language figures into the politics of the island?

J: I would argue that it figures into it not strongly enough. I mean it was originally – as we were getting independence – we were supposed to have been reviving the language at the same time, and we weren’t really doing it. There were a whole load of reasons for that, I think. Most people have no hostility towards it, but they get sidetracked by other things. You know, they have families and jobs. They can’t always devote time to a cause of any kind. Being, at the moment, single I’m lucky in that one sense!

K: [laughter] Can I get you to say a few things in Irish?

JDia daoibh, Justin Scannell is ainm dom. Tá cónaí orm i gcathair Chorcaí in Éirinn. Hello, my name is Justin Scannell. I live in Cork city in Ireland.

K: Thank you. Do you have any bits of poetry or prose that you’d like to share?

J: The bit that comes out, I suppose that sticks in my mind most frequently, is by a guy called Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin, who lived in the eighteenth century. And the line is:

Ní hí an ainnis is measa linn a bheith thíos go deo,
ach an tarcaisne a leanann é nach leigheastar an leon.

That’s roughly translated as, “The hardship is not the worst, nor to be underfoot forever. But the contempt what follows it, that the lions should not dispel.” When he’s talking about the lions he means Irish people who had emigrated to Europe to fight in the armies of France, Austria, Spain, and Russia. And Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin represented a class of poet who created works which illustrated the fervent hope that these men would one day come back and liberate the country.

K: Wow.

J: He’s kind of praying for their return, in one sense. It’s part of what’s called the Jacobite Tradition. The Jacobites were a segment in Ireland, Scotland, and England who wanted the restoration of the Catholic monarchs. They’re particularly strong in Scotland… Robert Louis Stevenson wouldn’t have had a career if he didn’t write about them. But they’re pretty strong over here, as well.

So that’s a line which, to me, resonates, I suppose, with any section of underdogs today. Eoghan Rua basically says, “Because we are underfoot, it’s assumed we are inferiors and that we’ve done something to deserve it.” He says, quite rightly, that that ain’t so. A protest poem, really.

K: When I met Justin, we were both attending a master’s programme at University College Cork. I don’t remember how it came up, but he mentioned quite casually that he’d been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism. He was happy to discuss it, even sending me a copy of a presentation he’d given to a support group for parents of young people who have Asperger’s. He’s posted it online, so I’ll link to it on the website.

My life with Asperger syndrome” (.pdf)

K: Can you tell me a little bit about how you felt when you received the diagnosis?

J: When I was young, I had difficulties fitting in. And when I was diagnosed with Asperger’s, quite late in life – I mean I was about seventeen before I had it down on paper – it was good for me because it offered an explanation for what had been going on in my life up to that point. Now, sometimes people express doubts as to whether I have it because, when dealing with people, I am very much capable of putting – for want of a better word – of hiding my Asperger’s because I try to deal with them in a way that they expect. I try to empathise with them and see things from their point of view, but I’m absolutely convinced that I wouldn’t be the person now if I didn’t have A.S. or something like it.

I think on the whole it’s a good thing because it helps you to concentrate on things, but if you do that, as well, you develop a certain wonder about things you’re interested in. You become passionate about them. One of the major symptoms, for want of a better word, is that…

K: Markers maybe?

J: Markers, yes. Is that if you’re, say, interested XML programming, you spend a lot of time with it, more than is often advised. You become hyper-concentrated. Sometimes if you’re learning something, it’s the best way to be… It takes the things your passionate about and helps you to magnify them. Obviously, you can’t just go around talking about them and thinking about them all the time, but at the same time, when you go about things in a passionate way, you develop your own sense of individualism, your own sense of self.

It even has professional advantages. I’ve even heard that, say, in air traffic control towers they like to hire people who have Asperger’s because there’s an incredible amount of concentration required for doing that kind of work. Telling them when to take off and land safely. Even in the past few months I made a vow to myself that, if asked did I have any certain conditions, I would say that I have Asperger’s. But I wouldn’t consider it a mental or physical disability.

I often think, as awareness of it grows – which it is – it will be considered in the workforce to be an advantage. And I suppose in broader human society it will, as well.

I meet a group most Wednesdays, where they would just get together and we play board games, just watch TV, and just chat, shoot the breeze. These are just other people I’ve met through that same group. I mean, I hang around with people of all kinds who don’t necessarily have Asperger’s. But [the members of the group] have stimulating discussions on, say, films, literature, music, and I just see them in that bracket. You know, I definitely see them because they’ve been diagnosed, and in some cases they’re much more severe than myself. I definitely see them as, at the risk of sounding almost racist, ‘my people’. …but that’s a good thing. They are one of several social circles I have at this point. I would say, anybody who’s recently diagnosed, it is good from time to time to be in the company of your fellows.

I remember when I first joined that particular group – that was probably about 2010 – and I didn’t feel all that comfortable at first. But that was because I’m always slightly uncomfortable with meeting people for the first time. I think even people without Asperger’s, if they’re honest with themselves, will tell you they’re often like that, as well. After a while, getting into it, they’re another healthy part of my life. Moving to Dublin soon, I’m a bit worried that I won’t be able to hang out with them as much. But there is such thing as Facebook, so…

K: Do you think having Asperger’s gave you an advantage when it came to learning Irish and doing a deep dive into the language?

J: Yes, it has been a serious advantage. It really helps when you’re doing translating, because translating is a much more concentrated and exacting process than I first thought.

K: I should interject here that Justin told me he had completed a course in translation.

J: I thought, starting that course, ‘Okay, I’m conversationally fluent. This should be no problem.” But it turns out I had a very steep learning curve to go through. I would say that it took every second of those four years for me to figure out where I was going. Applying those lessons that I’ve learned in the translation work that I’ve been doing since, and my ability to concentrate really hard, has really helped. When you’re translating from English to Irish – they’re related languages in the European linguistic tree, but at the same time they are very different in terms of word order, sentence structure, pronunciation.

The analogy I always use is if you speak another language you can drive a car, but if you’re translating, you’re a fully qualified mechanic. You can be a very good driver, but know nothing about what’s under the hood.

It helps as well to get a bit of practice. At the moment I’m trying to translate George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four into Irish.

K: Wow.

J: Yeah. As far as I know it hasn’t been done. Because it’s not a job I’m getting paid for, there’s no deadline either, so I can work at it [laughter].

K: [laughter] Are there publishers you can contact when you’re finished?

J: There probably will be, yeah. I’m certainly looking to people because someone gave me a gift of the first Game of Thrones book in Irish. I’ve never read the book, I never saw the series, so this is a nice little introduction for me. From a professional standpoint, there’s a lot in it to be admired.

K: When we talk, you often inject jokes and puns into the conversation. Do you have any quintessential Justin humour you’d like to share?

J: I’ll keep it simple by sticking with the theme we have. I take it you’re familiar with the actress Mila Kunis?

K: Yes.

J: Her first name, a few years ago, was the subject of some fairly interesting pun-based memes in Iris because míle in Irish means ‘a thousand’. So you have things like ‘Mila ag caint‘ – ‘thousands speaking’ – and you just saw her face. Another one is the surname, Kunis, it sounds like ‘conas atá tú‘, which means, ‘how are you?’. So it had ‘Míle Kunis tá tú‘, and those things made great mileage on Twitter and things like that.

Míle Kunis Irish meme

K: [laughter] Well thank you for being here, Justin.

J: Not a problem. Tóg go bog é. [Take it easy.]

K: You’ve been listening to People of the Isles. My guest today was Justin Scannell who is now working as a translator for the Dáil Éireann. The theme song was written and performed by Hot Club Emporda.

A transcript of today’s episode will be added to the website, You can follow the podcast on Facebook at People of the Isles and on Twitter at @PeopleofIsles. Until next time, I’ll see you down at the local!


Note: transcript has been edited for clarity.

* Ending a sentence with “so” is an idiosyncrasy of speech found in Hiberno-English.


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