The house of language: Gearóid Ó Colmáin talks about old cottages.
I spent all week lifting stones, uprooting briars and shifting rubble. It is hard and slow work which requires patience and dedication. I am renovating an old 17th century cottage. The cottage belonged to my great great grandfather and has remained within the family for centuries. It was inhabited until 1976 by my grand aunt. During the eighties, its rotting thatch began to fall in and nature reclaimed that fragile human domicile. I even had to cut a big ivy-covered tree that was growing in the centre of the house. I am almost finished clearing it out now. However, there is still much to do; the walls will have to be dried and pointed with new mortar, the back wall rebuilt entirely, a new floor put in and some deep drainage in the outside. I think it was Frederich Nietzche who said that one’s language is one’s house. It is where we live, where we feel at home. I must admit I rather enjoy this type of work. As Shakespeare put it, ‘ the labour we delight in physics pain’. I enjoy the independence of working on my own, especially when the work involves wresting something from the ruins. The German word ‘Wiederholung’ expresses more emphatically that sense of pulling something back, reclaiming something almost lost or obliterated. If we stay with this metaphor of the house, then we can say that each stone is a word and the mortar is its grammar, that without which there would be no solid structure.( let’s ignore dry stone construction for the moment).
In this country, people who renovate old cottages are in the minority. Most people prefer to build according to their own designs. Besides, the infinite accumulation of commodities that is so pervasive in modern Irish life, would preclude any romantic notions of living in such a small space. Before I started this work I sought the advice of a few experts. As is the case with experts, they invariably disagree with one another. One expert told me to forget renovation, that it would end up costing me more that a new build. Another told me that it could be renovated without the astronomical cost. This reminds me of debates about minority languages. Many people believe that the Irish language is a lost cause, a ruined house best forgotten, consigned to history or just bulldozed away. Others, including myself, see it differently. I see it as work in progress; it was never quite a ruin. Rather, a old cottage in need of repair and a new dash of whitewash to erase its shabby image and new windows to let in the light of modernity. It also needs to be divested of all that ivy of creed and political alliegance. Most importantly, it needs new inhabitants. Just like an ancient language, an old cottage can teach us much about life. There was a time when a house for most people signified shelter from the elements rather than a commodity to be bought and sold for a profit to facilitate the acquisition of more commodities. My grandfather, who had no Irish, used to refer to one of our fields as the ‘park yard’. After much reflection, my father later worked out its meaning. ‘Páirc’ is the Irish for field, and ‘ard’ means high. An páirc ard, the high field. My grandfather never questioned the meaning of the expression. It was one of the many phrases and words which were anglicized and distorted over time, losing their original meaning. However, it does show that an Ghaeilge was spoken in this little ‘tigín’(little house). After an absence of two or three centuries, it will be spoken there again. The future of a multicultural, multilingual society will depend on our ability to balance the particular with the universal, the old with the new. The new Ireland does not have to discard its heritage. Rather, through a continuous dialogue with the past, we will be able project with confidence and deeper understanding towards the ‘páirc ard’of the future.