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New Hibernia Review 9.3 (2005) 9-16
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Dúchas. This word is frequently translated into English as "heritage." A word that is full of death and stasis. But to an Irish speaker, it means one's native place, a shared tradition, a collective soul, a kindred affection, a natural affinity. Filleadh ar do dhúchas. "To return home, to where one belongs, to revert to kind." It is something that is bidding me a prodigal's welcome after many years.
For my father, Liam MacCarráin, Irish was a place of refuge. He was once interviewed for Radio Ulster's "Tearmann" program—where guests were asked what gave them sanctuary in their lives. He chose the Irish language itself. He hid within and took comfort from words. The language itself was another world, something parallel—and magical—to the mundane world.
He arrived into this world as William Carson in the year 1916. He spent his childhood i dteach bheag i sráid bheag—"in a little house in a little street"—in the Clonard parish of the Falls Road. There was one room downstairs, two upstairs, and an outdoor toilet. His father was a boilermaker for Harland and Wolff, but lost his job in 1920, when he was forced out of the shipyard in an anti-Catholic pogrom. He was lucky to escape alive. Many of his co-workers were shot, or drowned in the River Lagan. He would never regain full-time employment, surviving on odd jobs, window-cleaning and the like.
In 1930, at the age of fourteen, my Da started work as a telegraph messenger for the Post Office, earning twelve shillings and seven pence a week. He would give his mother ten shillings, which paid for rent and coal. The remainder covered his expenses: a packet of ten Woodbines at two pence; a tram journey out of town for a penny.
In his book Is Cuimhin Liom an t-Am (I Remember the Time) he described his awakening to the beauty of Irish. In the post office, he met Ruairí Ó Maolchallan and Padaí Ó hÉigeartaigh. He found himself spellbound listening to their Irish—faoi dhraíocht acu ag comhrá le chéile i nGaeilge. Fired by his determination to master as much of the language as possible and as quickly as possible, he attended two classes a week. He practiced his Irish at socials in An Cumann Gaelach, where he would meet migrant mill workers, girls from the Donegal Gaeltacht. After two years, he went for the Fáinne test, where he was [End Page 9] examined by Domhnall Ó Grianna, brother of famed Donegal writers Seamus Ó Grianna and Seosamh Mac Grianna. His examination was short and sweet. Domhnall simply asked him if he was Liam MacCarráin. "Is mise," replied my father, whereupon the Fáinne was pinned to his lapel. He was already famous for his outstanding command of Irish.
In May, 1934, my father went on his first visit to Rann na Feirste, birthplace of the Ó Grianna brothers, renowned for its many outstanding poets, singers, and storytellers. Among their number was Johnny Shéamaisín, with whom my father stayed. Johnny's house was nothing less than a treasure-store of language and literature, both oral and written. Johnny's family had a huge collection of books in Irish, as his brother Niall worked for the publishing house of An Gúm. My father would spend hours in the family library, thumbing through book after book. Every night after supper, they would decamp to the house of the seanchaí Micí Sheáin Néill, often listening to stories until three in the morning.
My father learned much from these people. Theirs was a world where social contact was based on ag airneáil—"visiting"—and where storytelling was the prime form of entertainment. Beauty and precision in speech was profoundly valued. My father molded himself in their image to such an extent that in later years, he came to be praised by many as a wonderful folklorist...