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Great Catholic Moments


by Brian Doyle

Lately I have been delving early Irish literature and language, and so have been raiding cattle in Cuailnge, and pondering the visions of Oenghus, and feasting at Bricriu, and wooing Etain, which last has led to some tension with my wife, who is of Belgian extraction, and does not like to hear me tell of the beautiful Etain, the loveliest woman in all Ireland, although Etain was changed to an insect, and banished for a thousand years, until she was reborn as the wife of Eochaid Airem, king of the green lands.

I try to explain to my wife that I am only wooing by proxy, as it were, and that Eochaid has the inside track, he being in the story and me only reading it. This line of talk leads me inevitably to Flann O'Brien and Myles na gCopaleen and Brian O'Nolan, all of whom I wheel into the conversation, the three men standing all in the same spot, as if they were the same man, which they were, except when O'Nolan was writing, which is when he became one of the others, depending on what he was writing (novels as O'Brien, journalism as na gCopaleen, which means "of the little horses") or even others, as he apparently used a different name every time he took up the pen, which he did often, sometimes as Count O'Blather, or James Doe, or Brother Barrabus, or George Knowall.

My wife is unmoved; she will not have Etain in the house.

After a while I realize that the problem is the word woo. It is a word that may be applied to your wife and your wife only if you have a wife, she is saying without saying. She is a subtle woman, which is part of the reason I wooed her some years ago, and won her from various rivals, who did not woo so well, and went away, one may say, full of rue.

I spent some time after that saying woo, which is a very fine word, rife with meaning, and emitted with a lift from the lips, like whee and who, or no. By chance I happened to be saying woo in the presence of my new son Joseph, a curious young man three months of age. Like his father he is intrigued by sounds, and soon enough he too was saying woo, and then my other new son Liam, also three months old, picked it up, and the three of us were wooing to beat the band, although then Liam burst into tears, and had to be carried away to another room for milk.

Joe and I kept it up, though; he is an indefatigable fellow. After a while he switched to who, and I went with him, to see where this would go, and it went back and forth between us for a while, and then it went to whee, and then back to woo, and then my wife came back in the room and found us wooing like crazy men. By then it was Joe's turn for a suckle and off he went, and I went downstairs to raid cattle in Cuailnge, and ponder Oenghus, and feast at Bricriu, and woo Etain, of whom the less said the better.

The wooing of Etain demands a certain familiarity with the Gaelic tongue, which has fascinated me since I was a boy in my grandmother's lap listening to the swell and swing of Irish from her lips, which more often than you might expect had Gaelic oaths on them, as she was a shy woman with a sharp temper, though gentle as the night is long, and much mourned by many to this day. I still hear her voice on windy nights, banshee nights, saying to me, gently, bi i do bhuachaill mhaith, be a good boy, or go mbeannai Dia thu, God bless you. So partly in memory of my grandmother, a McCluskey before she was a Clancey giving her daughter to a Doyle, I have been marching through the thickets of the Irish tongue, the second-oldest in Europe behind Basque, and the cold hard fact is that the Gaelic language is a most confusing creature, and although I don't understand very much of it I read about it at every opportunity, and have been able to note several interesting observations on small scraps of paper, which are then distributed willy-nilly in various pants pockets, emerging here and there like crumpled fish, and reminding me that I had meant to write an essay on the topic at, or more accurately in, hand.

Thus this essay, which was supposed to be about the fact that there is no way to say the words yes and no in Gaelic, but which has swerved unaccountably into a disquisition about sounds, of which some are exuberant, like Joe's woo, and some affirmative, like sa, which is Gaelic for it is, and yes and si and ja and oui, which are English and Spanish and German and French for yes, which there is no way to say in Gaelic, try as you might.

Is it sayable in the Irish?

Nil - it is not.

Nil is as fascinating as sa to me, especially so lately because my daughter, a rebellious angel, age three, is fixated on no, which she says often, in different accents, with various degrees of vehemence. She says it morning, noon, and night, particularly at night, when she wakes up screaming no no no no no, and answers nooooo when I ask what is the matter. Sometimes she says neuwh, which is a sort of no, which is said usually after she has been watching Mary Poppins and is afflicted with a sort of stiffening of the upper lip which prevents proper pronounciation of simple words like no. It is interesting that she is riveted by no because her brother Liam is riveted by ho, which is the only word he owns at the moment. Like a geyser he emits ho! regularly and then subsides. I expect him to pick up no pretty soon, his sister being a whiz at it and the boys certain to learn at her knee, and then Joe will get no too and then my children will be saying no to beat the band, not to mention the thin stretched rubber of their father's patience, which they hammer upon like a brittle drum.

But their father is in the basement at the moment musing over the fact that Gaelic is the only language on the Continent that always uses tu, or thou, when speaking to one person, or sibh, you, for more than one, which habit, he thinks, reflects a certain native friendliness in the tongue and in its speakers; and he further puzzles over the fact that Irish counts in twenties, not tens; and further he muses that Gaelic at least in Ireland has no terms for the Mister and Senor and Herr that English and Spanish and German use as terms of bourgeois respect, which makes him wonder about Irish independence as well as rural isolation. Also he spends a good deal of time pondering Ogham, the alphabet used in Ireland for writing on wood and stone before the year 500 or so, when Christianity and the Latin alphabet rode into Ireland together on strong winds, and the fact that Gaelic has perhaps 60 phonemes, which are sounds that convey meaning, and of which there are perhaps 44 in English, which comparative fact makes me wonder about the width of the respective languages, so to speak, which width is also reflected in the simple spelling and pronunciation of terms in each tongue: I might say of Liam that he is an buachaill, the boy, for example, and roll the Gaelic off my tongue like a song but pop the English out like a button, rather like ho! which is what Liam is saying as I am calling him an buachaill.

Further I am fascinated by the fact that Gaelic is a language in love with nouns, as can be seen with a phrase that often occurs to me when I think about my daughter's and my sons' futures, ta eagla orm, which in English would be "I fear" but in Gaelic is "fear is upon me," which it is, like a demon between my shoulders. To exorcise it I sometimes whistle; in English, "I whistle," just so, but in Gaelic ligim fead, I let a whistle, or taim ag feadail, I am at whistling. I am at whistling a great deal these days, it turns out, trying to get the fear off me. For I am terrified of the fates that may befall my children - fates over which I have no power at all, not the slightest, other than keeping my little new people close to me in the presence of cars and dogs and such. So there are times now, I can honestly say, for I am sometimes an honest man, and admiring always of honesty, that I am exhausted by, and frightened for, my raft of children, and in the wee hours of the night when up with one or another of the small people I sometimes, to be honest, find myself wondering what it might have been like to not have so many.

It would have been lonely.

I know this.

I know it in my heart, my bones, in the chalky exhausted shiver of my soul. For there were many nights before my children came to me on magic wooden boats from seas unknown that I wished desperately for them, that I cried because they had not yet come; and now that they are here I know I pay for them every minute with fear for their safety and horror at the prospect of losing them to disease and accidents and the harsh fingers of the Lord, who taketh whomever He wishes, at which time He alone appoints, and leaves huddled and broken the father and the mother, who begged for the joy of these round faces groping for milk in the dark. So as I trudge upstairs to hold my daughter in my lap, and rub my old chapped hands across the thin sharp blades of her shoulders, and shuffle with sons on shoulders in the blue hours of the night, waiting patiently for them to belch like river barges, or hear Joe happily blowing bubbles of spit in his crib simply because he can do it and is pretty proud of himself about the whole thing, or hear Liam suddenly say ho! for no reason other than Liamly joy at the sound of his own voice like a bell in his head, I say yes to them, yes yes yes, and to exhaustion I say yes, and to the puzzling wonder of my wife's love I say o yes, and to horror and fear and jangled joys I say yes, to rich cheerful chaos that leads me sooner to the grave and happier along that muddy grave road I say yes, to my absolute surprise and with unbidden tears I say yes yes O yes.

Is this a mystery and a joy beyond my wisdom?

Sa - it is.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, in Oregon. This essay first appeared in Harpers Magazine. It is included in Brian Doyle's book, Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies which is available from:
John Garratt Publishing & Bookroom

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