The Night I Composed My Own Epitaph
The year was 1985. The place was an old-fashioned Irish pub in the middle-of-nowhere Connemara. I was a “Yank come home” learning Irish among Irish teachers of Irish schoolchildren. All of us were out in the Gaeltacht that summer attending a course at an Irish language institute. Occasionally one of my fellow students would say to me: “You’re a Yank. Why bother learning a dead language if you’re not required to?” And I would say, “So I can hear a resurrection coming off my tongue.” That usually put an end to the inquiries.
We heard talk of this quirky pub and wanted to check it out. It was off the beaten path, out in a bog somewhere. Directions were sketchy. The road to it was said to be in bad shape. In those days all the roads in Connemara were in bad shape. That’s how you knew you were in the Gaeltacht. But we were game. Somebody—I think it was Neal—had a car. So one night a bunch of us climbed in and found our way to the pub. The road was bad. The only lights out there were coming from the pub windows. Inside we found an old man behind the bar. Otherwise nobody.
The unspoken rule among us learners of the language was “Irish only.” My grasp of it at that point was far from secure, but I was intrepid. I enjoyed learning colorful expressions and then trying them out in class. One time I said: “Labhair Gaeilge liom agus brisfidh mé do phus.” Speak Irish to me and I’ll break your face. “Ná bí dána!” the teacher scolded, “Ná bí dána!” Don’t be bold! That was the same thing the nuns used to say to me in grammar school, only they yelled in English. Anyways, whenever opportunity presented itself to speak a little Irish, I gave it my best shot.
So there we were, settling in at the only table in the pub. Neal went to fetch the first round. I don’t know what possessed me, but I stood up on my chair and bellowed out an idiomatic expression I had just picked up: “Cá bhfuil an teach-asal?!” Where are the jacks? (“Jacks” is Hiberno-English slang for the toilet.) Ordinarily a handy bit of phrasing to try out in a pub, but only after a few pints. We of course had just arrived. Neal stopped dead in his tracks and stared at me. Everybody was staring at me. They were giving me that look that says: “Níl splaid ‘at!” What are you nuts! I looked at the old man behind the bar to see if he was giving me that look too. Nope. He was pointing toward the back door. He knew what I meant.
In triumph I looked back at my compatriots. They were hungering for explanation, but that was well beyond the pale of my Irish. So I said, in English: “Just checking!” And everybody cheered. Even the old man behind the bar.