Though Augur McWise is a fluent speaker of the Irish language—though he can speak it as well as Brian Boru and Cormac Mac Airt put together—he is not particularly fond of it. And as well as I know my friend, I never truly understood this until recently.
“There are between seventy and one hundred schoolteachers in town right now,” I said to him the other day, “If each of them has about forty children under their care, that must do a great deal of good for the language, Augur.”
The learned man shook his head sadly. It was obvious that he didn’t like what the Irish course was doing in any shape or form. I was barely able to pry the reason out of him why he was so against the Irish language, though he speaks it every single day of the year, but in the end I did manage.
“This Irish language is an absolute danger,” he said, “very dangerous, I’m telling you—to the man who doesn’t learn it until adulthood, it’s much more dangerous than guns or explosives . . . . It’s all well and good for those of us who have spoken it since the early days of our youth, and there’s not much harm in it for the child who gulps it down with his mother’s milk either, but if a man starts learning Irish when he’s approaching middle age, I tell you the poor man will meet an ill fate, upon my soul.”
I began to laugh. The English and the Anglo-Irish in this country have said many a thing against the language, but I never heard anyone say that learning Irish would bring misfortune on someone until Augur McWise said it.
“It’s no laughing matter,” said Augur, losing his temper. “If I could, I’d prevent anyone over twenty years old from learning Irish. I would—especially people who weren’t even aware beforehand that such a language was still spoken. I’d make a law against it—that’s what I’d do.”
He was looking out over the sea thoughtfully, as motionless as the granite stone on which he was sitting, when I asked him the question. “And why would you do a thing like that?” He turned to me suddenly.
“Did you know Reginald Artúr Ó Néill Somerfeld?” said Augur McWise. I admitted that I did not, nor had I ever heard of him. “Well, I certainly knew him,” said Augur McWise and he pursed his lips so tightly you would think he might never open them again. I wondered how many glasses of whiskey I would have to give him before he would tell me this story:
“I knew Reginald Artúr Ó Néill Somerfeld quite well when I first came to live in England,” said Augur McWise. “He was an Englishman, for he had the appearances, manners, behaviour, language and creed of an Englishman, if ever there was a man. Indeed, it never occurred to me, nor to him, that any blood flowed through his veins other than the blood of an Englishman. If you saw him anywhere on the face of the earth, you would recognise that he was an Englishman. Nobody had ever worn a blacker or sleeker silk top hat than he; from the hem of his trousers up to his thighs stretched a crease as straight as an arrow, always there day or night—unequivocally English in his behaviour, a proper Englishman from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. And if everyone is surrounded by an aura, as the learned and knowledgeable claim, be sure that it was the aura of an Englishman that surrounded Reginald Artúr Ó Néill Somerfeld.
“Wouldn’t anybody know from the name Ó Néill that this elegant gentleman had some connection to Ireland—that’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it? May God put some sense into your head, man! He wasn’t called Ó Néill back then, of course. He was known only as Reggie Somerfeld when I first met him. His wife (she was a pleasant little thing!) didn’t know—his own wife didn’t even know, I tell you—that her husband had any connection to any Ó Néills or to Ireland. . . . It was much later that he took on that surname.
“What happened to him—that’s what you’re about to ask, right? If you let me tell the story in my own way, you’ll find out, my friend . . .
“There is, or there used to be, a lovely little park next to his house. One Sunday morning I saw him sitting under a tree in that park, and he was holding a little green book in his hands, reading with such devotion that he didn’t hear me coming until I was right next to him. I loved that he was there at that time of morning while the divine service was going on in the protestant church that he himself and his wife and children used to attend every Sunday without fail, but I didn’t mention it. It seemed to me that he was loathe to let me see the little book he was holding; at any rate, he quickly stuck it into the pocket of his overcoat when he saw me. It also seemed to me that the man was a bit agitated, that he didn’t like me approaching him unexpectedly. I noticed that at the time, I think, but on second thoughts maybe I didn’t—maybe I just think I did because of everything I saw after that day . . . .
“We began to chat: mostly about race horses and cricket until Reggie turned (and I’ll just refer to him as Reggie from here on), until Reggie turned to me.
“‘Speak a little Irish to me,’ he said, ‘so I can hear what it sounds like.’
“If I had seen a crocodile rising up out of the pretty little pond in front of us out in that charming park in London, England, I couldn’t have been more surprised. Reggie asking someone to speak Irish to him! Had the world come to an end?
“He noticed my surprise.
“‘Oh, I just want to hear some of the sounds,’ he said, and his face blushed as if he had done something shameful.
“I gave him a good sampling, words full of vigour and spirit, words that conjure up images of wild waves splashing against the cliffs on a stormy night, and the man greedily swallowed every last syllable . . . .
“I looked at him. He was sitting next to me staring straight ahead as if he had just seen a vision . . . .
“‘And you’re telling me that people still speak this gallant, virile language?’ asked Reggie, mostly talking to himself.
“‘I didn’t say one way or another,’ I replied, ‘but I’ll say it now.’
“He didn’t speak to me again that day. I left him there after a while, but looking back at him while I was walking away, I saw the little green book in his hand again, and he was reading aloud in Irish:
“‘The . . . young cow . . . is . . . at the . . . well. Art is going to Granard. I am young, you are old,’ he recited and other nonsense of the sort.
“Out of his mind poor Reggie was, I thought . . . .
“It wasn’t all that bad for a good while though. He got through O’Growney’s first book without any very noticeable changes in his behaviour. He was the same Englishman he’d always been until he read the first part of the second book.
“It was then that I noticed him beginning to change. One afternoon I saw him in the little park with an Irish tweed cap on his head in place of the silk hat and the little green book in the hollow of his hand. A week later he was there again, and the crease as straight as an arrow was completely gone from his trousers. He had the third book with him that day and he was calmly struggling with that mischievous little verb ‘to be’. I didn’t speak to him. I knew very well that he was badly afflicted, that he was in a serious predicament, that the poor man was under the spell of the Irish language and that there was no cure to be found on earth . . .
“If you had been around the part of the city where he lived at that time, you would have seen a man always wandering around by himself with a little green book in his hand muttering to himself in an unintelligible dialect. He hardly resembled the Reggie with the creased trousers and top hat and white spats that he used to be seen in, but it was the very same man. He had the illness badly, and when I saw him reciting Gaelic poetry to a constable in the middle of the street near Charing Cross, I popped into a chapel and said a prayer to God to cure the poor man . . . .
“I understood that nothing could be done. I understood that he wouldn’t take any advice from anyone and that he didn’t pay the slightest attention to anything but those little green books that he always carried around.
“It wasn’t long after that that he disappeared altogether. I was told he took off to Ireland and that he didn’t stop until he had settled down on the Aran Islands, that he was there with pampooties on his feet and a suit of island frieze on his back, and that he wouldn’t speak a word of English for all of John Bull’s gold! Those little green books that nobody thought could cause any harm or danger sure wreaked havoc on him. I advise anyone to beware of them . . .
“I ran into the poor man’s wife a few months after that, and I inquired about my friend.
“‘He’s made a pathetic creature out of me!’ she said, ‘I haven’t laid eyes on him, neither I nor the children, for twelve weeks while he’s been in Ireland dashing around through the country with a kilt on, bagpipes under his arm, speaking nothing but a wild, barbarous language that he refers to as the language of his country and ancestors. He’ll be an eternal disgrace to us, he will. And you wouldn’t believe it, but a couple of weeks ago he became a Catholic, and his brother hopes that he’ll be appointed bishop some day . . . but Christine was telling me yesterday that her husband might as well hope to be crowned king if Reggie were appointed bishop with the way he’s going . . . . And she’s right, completely right. Imagine a man like his brother a bishop!’
“I thought to console the woman a little. I told her that it was the little green books that had started the trouble, and that it wouldn’t be long before their power had passed.
“She shook her head sadly. There was no point in me comforting her.
“‘And in the last letter he sent me, he only wrote ‘Mrs. Ó Néill’ on the address! He even changed our surname. I’m not ‘Mrs. Somerfeld’ anymore at all, but ‘Mrs. Ó Néill’!, and the bitter tears began welling up in her eyes . . .
“‘And he was a most exemplary husband—till he found out that he was an Irishman,’ said the poor woman as she walked away from me.”
Pádraic Ó Conaire (1882 – 1928) was an Irish writer and journalist with 26 books to his name including hundreds of short stories and essays.
This story is taken from the posthumous collection Rogha Scéalta published by Cló Iar-Chonnacht.
Timothy McKeon is a translator and polyglot with a strong interest in linguistic ecology and language revitalization movements. Based in Berlin, he spends his time relishing in and writing about the multitude of languages spoken around the world.