Irish Philadelphia

The Web guide to Irish music and culture in and around the Quaker City

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Talking the Talk

Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste ná Béarla cliste.

Translation: Broken Irish is better than clever English.

I hope that's true. Because right about now, massively mangled Irish is about all you're going to get from me.

It is my first day in a total immersion Irish language program sponsored by the local chapter of Daltaí na Gaeilge—Students of Gaelic.

I'm still not completely clear on how "total" the experience is supposed to be, but I'm a bit nervous as I show up on a bright, clear morning in May at the Miquon School, a rambling K-6 academy not far from the Schuylkill, between Andorra and Conshohocken. The parking lot is quickly filling up. In time, there will be maybe 50 or 60 students on hand, but for now I am one of the first arrivals.

I am two feet inside the door of the main building when I am greeted by a pretty young woman in a peasant blouse. She smiles and asks me to dig a ditch. At least that's what it sounds like. I'm sure that can't be what she said, or else "total immersion" has a meaning I previously had not imagined.

I'm not sure what I'm supposed to say, so I pretend I didn't hear her, and I ask her where the rank novices go. She says I'll spend the day with Leo Mohan, who is assigned to ride herd over all the clueless students. I slip past her into the science room of the school, today set up as a book store. A table is filled with Irish language dictionaries, self-instructional tapes, children's books, and pewter key chains and pins emblazoned with the
Daltaí logo, the Salmon of Knowledge. What a fish knows about language, I'm sure I don't know, and I never really do find out that day.

I'm suddenly surrounded by roving Irish speakers. In Ireland, it was cool to find myself in a shop, unexpectedly eavesdropping on the conversation of a couple of Irish-speaking farmers who had dropped into town for lunch. It all sounded thrillingly alien. (In fact, they probably were surreptitiously commenting on the pot-bellied dork wearing shorts and the Phillies T-shirt waiting in line with a can of Coke and a couple of Dairy Milk bars.) In any event, I knew there was never a chance I'd be asked to take part in the conversation, so it was all very safe.

Here in Salmon World, I am feeling very like a fish out of water. Or maybe I'm floundering. I'm praying no one will say "Hi" or ask me anything, which I know defeats the whole purpose of the day, but I've been here five minutes and someone's already asked me to dig a ditch. I mean, God knows what comes next.

Someone finally does speak up, but they've probably figured by my subtle body language—the jacket over my head ... OK, not really, but if you'd been there, you can imagine the vibes I must have been sending out—that I'm new in town, and they offer helpful suggestions about good books for new learners. This is a good sign because in the little brochure handed to all new students as they arrive, it is strongly advised that participants try to adhere to the group's "NO BEARLA (NO ENGLISH)" rule. But it turns out that there are no Dublin Dominican commandoes on standby to spring out of closet doors or rappel down from the ceiling to rap knuckles if English is spoken. I breathe a little easier, and I wait for Leo.

All the students are herded into the building's all-purpose room, where we are divided into groups based on our knowledge of the language, and Leo reveals himself to our intimate group of nine or 10 students, mostly adults, gathered around a big table. Our instructor is a tall, thin, bespectacled man with a youngish face and streaky gray hair. His accent sounds like Belfast. In fact, I later find out, he's from Donegal. He lives in the Irish enclave of Drexel Hill now.

Leo's smiling and friendly, and quickly sets us all at ease. After some brief introductions, we're down to business. It turns out some of my classmates have some prior experience, which I learned when one of them, a doctor from Virginia Beach, asks Leo—in Irish—where the men's room is. I wonder whether he's just been waiting to ask that question so the rest of us would be impressed. (After all, it's not hard to find the toilets in this place. They are all clearly marked: —Leithras.)

In a few moments—after the doc returns from the jacks—we are wending our way through what must be the basic elements common to every language class: Hello. How are you? What's your name? That's where I find out that the girl at the front desk wasn't suggesting that I begin my day with manual labor, but was, in fact, saying something like, "Hello." The precise words are "Dia dhuit," or roughly, "God to you." I quickly learn to say it, and it's not too hard, but right away I'm thinking: What's with the letter D in this language? Inside of one short greeting, the first D sounds like a soft G, but the second D is a hard G (ghee-uh gitch). And later on, when I learn how to say, "What is your name?" (Cad is ainm duit?), the D actually becomes a D. I can't help but think of Steve Martin's observations on the French: "They have different words for everything." But in this case, it's worse: They have a different sound for every letter. And worse is to come: depending on the region, these words can have a different pronounciation.

The second thing that pops into my head is a conversation I once had with my whistle teacher Dennis Gormley about greetings in Irish, and how the conversation threatens to escalate, in a liturgical sense, each greeter feeling obliged to enlist the aid of an ever-increasing cadre of heavenly beings. "God to you" inevitably elicits a response of "God and Mary to you." OK, so far. But some people invite the patron saint of Ireland into the mix ("God and Mary and Patrick to you"). I'm concerned that things could get out of hand. Before you know it, you're up to your ass in cherubim and seraphim.

I'm beginning to think I don't have a prayer, but Leo is a calmly reassuring guide. Yes, the language seems to have a lot of apparently inconsistent or outright contradictory rules. (So do most languages.) And the rules seem to change from one area of Ireland to the next. For example, saying "How are you" can be expressed one way in Ulster ("Caidé mar a tá tú?") and another way in Connemara ("Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú?").

But Leo has a way of setting the new student's mind at ease, not so much teaching a lesson as engaging us all an intimate conversation. If you have to learn a new language, this way is probably as good as any. It's probably closest to how we learn language in the first place.

Under Leo's tutelage, you're having a conversation that you can imagine having with those two farmers in the store. True, it wouldn't go very far. Yet in another sense, that short chat could go a very long way toward breaking down the barrier that separates the tourist who will go home with a suitcase full of plastic refrigerator magnets, signifying nothing, and the tourist who will fly back to Philly with a more lasting memory.

The morning sails by, and before I know it, we're moving into workshops. For an hour, students can choose from among a few interesting activities, all designed to stimulate conversation in Irish—dancing, learning how to make a St. Brigid's cross, or Sean-Nós, singing songs in the Irish language. I choose the latter.

Sean-Nós is led by singer
Terry Kane. Even after a long night of performing, her voice effortlessly navigates the intricate twists and turns of this often demanding style of singing. Happily, she doesn't expect any of us to be very good, and she talks us through some simple tunes, including a lullaby called "Dún Do Shúile." Once again, there are a few ringers in the crowd. It could be intimidating to find yourself in a classroom, surrounded by people who actually know the language, and who can speculate knowledgeably on how a particular word or phrase might be expressed in Ring or Dingle. But it isn't at all. No one puts you on the spot. You listen, and you learn.

And happily, Terry doesn't make anyone sing solo.

Singing over, lunch is served in the all-purpose room, and then it's back to the classroom with Leo.

At least I think it's Leo. It looks like him, but he's changed. This morning, as we sat around a table and were gently inducted into the ways of Gaeilge, he was the Irish Mr. Rogers. But over lunch, Leo has turned into R. Lee Ermey.

Unlike the morning session, the afternoon get-together is taught in an actual classroom. We all sit in around a couple of school desks that have been pushed together to accommodate us all. Now Leo has a blackboard, and he knows how to use it.

Leo doesn't exactly start the session with a greeting like, "Listen up, maggots!" but he's leaping back and forth from the blackboard to us, and he's scribbling words and sentences on the slate at a frenetic pace. I'm writing the words down as fast as I can, struggling to translate them into my own little phonetic code so I'll be able to repeat them later.

He calls out: "Ag scriobh!" "Ag teacht!" "Ag siopadoireacht!" He punctuates each lesson by slapping his chalk-holding right hand into his otherwise constantly gesticulating left hand, his eyebrows arching almost to the clouds, and he asks: "Got IT?" ("Sir, yes sir!") It's as if he's been charged with teaching us the entire Irish language in an afternoon.

He drills us on what we've learned, challenging us to create sentences on the fly. "Jeff!" he calls and points to me. I break out into a sweat. "How would you say: 'I am going shopping TODAY!'?" I struggle, manage to spit out some, but not all, of the sentence, and then I start making squeaking noises that bear only a superficial resemblance to language of any kind. My classmate Melanie picks up where I left off. She gets it right. Leo exclaims, "Maith tu! (Good on ya.)" It's a freakin' Gaeilge lightning round.

By the time the class is over and it's almost time to drive home, I'm drained. But at the same time, I feel amazingly invigorated. Leo has tossed us all into the deep end, and we're all still afloat somehow. You get the sense that when it comes to learning this language, maybe any language, this is the best way. We've been immersed—totally. And we've all learned to swim, just a little bit.

Maybe that's what that salmon is all about.

NOTE: Experienced speakers of Irish may find much to fault about this recollection. Even now, I'm not sure I learned to pronounce the words correctly. So feel free to take me to task. And thanks so much to Daltaí . If you haven't taken a class or workshop yet, I recommend it highly.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Confessions of an Insecure Bodhranist

I wrote most of this in February 2005, and recently updated it a bit.

It's a frosty Wednesday night in February at the
Mermaid Inn in Chestnut Hill. Three fiddlers, a flutist, a button accordionist and a hammer dulcimer player–it sounds like the setup for an obscure Irish traditional music joke–are circled up in a corner. They're charging through a selection of reels whose names no one remembers, or if they do, no one knows them by the same name. It's a good bet that whatever titles these tunes go by, at least one bears the name of some long-dead tin whistle wizard from Tulla.

I stop first at the bar. I ask for a Yuengling, but they're fresh out. I examine the tap handles for the name of a drink I recognize. Not one.

But one looks intriguing. Or frightening. Maybe both. I point to the tap handle with the name "
Arrogant Bastard Ale" on it. The bartender splashes an ounce or two of an evil-looking concoction into what looks like a hotel bathroom glass, and she tentatively nudges it toward me across the bar with two fingers, as if she's afraid her whole hand might burst into flame if it makes full contact.

At first I think: "This is all I get for my four bucks?" But then I realize it's a courtesy swig. She wants to be sure I like the stuff before she pours a whole expensive pint, and the expectant look on her face is an invitation, not a dare. I swallow a mouthful just to go through the motions, just like I do when a waiter offers to let me taste wine. I have no idea what I'm doing on that score, either. The truth is, I was already committed to the whole pint. You just have to try a drink called "Arrogant Bastard." With a name like "Bastard," it has to be good.

I make my way back to the musicians' corner, where by now the customary electric blue fog has rolled in–some of it emanating, no doubt, from fiddler Chris Brennan Hagy's trademark hand-rolled cigarettes. In any case, there are enough toxins and airway irritants floating in the air to guarantee second-hand smoker's hack for a week.

And now the boots and the topsiders of the musicians are pounding out a steady cadence on the floor. Clomp ... clomp ... clomp-clomp-clomp. If cows had rhythm, a cattle drive might sound like this. That rhythmic stomping is the trademark sound of a traditional Irish session that is just starting to settle into a groove, where one tune magically morphs into another, and another after that, and before you know it, it's time to drink up and toddle on home. But for now, it's just after 10 o'clock, and these guys are just getting wound up.

I am here because I made a promise to Chris. I play bodhran, a traditional frame drum with a goatskin head, like a big-ass tambourine with no jingles. You strike the drum in something like a musical pattern–at least, the other players hope so, though sometimes in vain–with a little stick called a tipper or cipin (kip-PEEN).

I’ve heard several ways to pronounce the name of the drum–most frequently “bow-rawn.” That's "bow," as in "take a bow," and "rawn" like "prawn" or "lawn." I've also heard "BO-ron," which rhymes with "MO-ron." However you pronounce it, I play only rarely. I am at best an occasional visitor to sessions and a reluctant participant because–not to put too fine a point on it–they’re good and I’m still very much in learning mode. If I show up at all, and months and months may pass before I get up the nerve, I am usually shy about playing–especially if another bodhran player is already flailing away, and he is a regular.

There seems to be an unspoken session etiquette, and it’s pretty clear to me that a newbie shouldn’t pull up a chair and start whacking his goatskin–maybe I should rephrase that–without regard to the sensitivities of the other players.

I pull up a chair, yank my drum out of its case, and begin to wipe down the head with a damp paper towel, which loosens the skin a bit–and now the double entendres are almost unavoidable–and the moisture begins to make the drumhead more slack, giving it a deeper, boomier tone, which I like.

There is already a drummer on hand, and he’s been playing for a while. I decide to sit it out and listen, to see what I might learn. Every once in a while, the guy takes a break, and I jump in with a few tentative riffs, but he’s the alpha percussionist in the room, so I hang back.

The room is warm–or maybe it’s just the “Bastard” catching up with me–and after an hour or so, the air is practically devoid of oxygen. Whether it’s the “Bastard” or hypoxia, I’m starting to get a comfy, sleepy feeling. I’ve played reasonably well – at least, blood is not gushing from any of the other player’s ears. Seems like a good time to leave. I pack up the drum and say goodnight to one and all.

But I'll be back ...

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

What This Is All About

I am shivering at attention in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, alongside the gravesite of Joseph McGarrity, the loyal Fenian financier born in Carrickmore, County Tyrone, who became a successful Philadelphia businessman.

It’s an usually chilly and damp day in the spring, and I can feel the wet and the cool of the tall grass all the way up my aching, goose bump-dotted calves. (I apologize for implanting that disturbing image in your head. I hope you weren’t eating.)

The thick socks and heavy woolen saffron kilt of my uniform do nothing to warm me on this solemn occasion, the annual memorial ceremony to commemorate the Easter Rising.

Across the McGarrity plot stands an honor guard and a host of Irish republican sympathizers, a few attired in vaguely paramilitary-style uniforms. They clutch Irish flags and banners memorializing IRA hunger strikers. One participant is particularly memorable–a tall, solidly-built young woman with stringy brown hair that blows like a banner in the breeze. She is wearing calf-high laced boots, a miniskirt and a beret. Bernadette Devlin meets Ché.

But it is her face, not her attire, which is most riveting. It’s a face that might be pretty in other circumstances, but on this occasion it is as cold and unyielding as the day, and it is a face I see again and again in the crowd of Philadelphia-area Irish-Americans who turn out faithfully for this event. There are several white-haired gents in tweed caps, old ladies in threadbare coats, middle-aged men wearing Ancient Order of Hibernians jackets, teen-age girls in Old Navy hoodies. On the street, in church, at the corner bar–in any other circumstance–you would not give any one of them a second look. But on this day, in the unsettlingly steady gaze of so many of them, there is evidence of the centuries-old intransigence. Talk all you want about the Good Friday Accord, but what you see in those faces is an unflinching determination that, ultimately, there will be no acceptable solution to the “troubles” other than a united Ireland, free of British influence.

On this frosty day, I’m with the band. I provide the drumbeat, and two pipers the steady drone, as we lead the procession through the sprawling Catholic burial ground, final resting place of more than 6,500 souls, a good many of them Irish.

I’m not what you would call a hard-core republican. I long for a just settlement and a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, and I can’t imagine a world in which the six counties of the north are not someday united with the Republic. Still, I’d like to believe the need for violence is at an end, and now it’s up to diplomats to finish the job. When it comes to peace and unity in Ireland, my head’s in a different camp altogether–but my heart is with these folks.

I’m also here in this cemetery out of curiosity. I want to know more about these people and their beliefs. My group, the Philadelphia Emerald Society Pipe Band, has been playing this gig for years. It seems to offer an opportunity to experience the republican side of Irish-American life in Philadelphia.

It’s one more way in which a casual decision years ago to join an Irish bagpipe band (a different band, as it turns out, from the band providing the tunes on this day) opened my eyes to Irish-American culture in and around Philadelphia.

I had pounded the drums in high school but had stopped playing not long after I got into college. I had always missed playing and performing. I’d always found the sound of bagpipes stirring, so I joined a new band I had just heard of called Irish Thunder, associated with the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Swedesburg.

Joining Irish Thunder proved to be my entrée to a culture of which I had been almost completely ignorant. Since that fateful decision, one thing has led to another.

I have played in the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day parade many times, and I have escorted the cardinal down the aisle for the annual St. Patrick’s Day Mass. I’ve marched in the end-of-summer block party for Philadelphia Celts that is the Wildwood Irish Festival. I have visited countless pubs, including the Mermaid Inn, which was my first exposure to the traditional Irish music session–which, in turn, led to my taking lessons in bodhran (an Irish frame drum) and tin whistle, and ultimately joining in the fun. I have played for dancers and singers. I have serenaded the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, the Knights of Columbus, the AOH and the Emerald Society. I have written the occasional article for the Irish Edition. I have become intimately familiar with every dark corner and crevice of the Commodore Barry Club.

As a member of the Emerald Society Band, I helped dedicate the Irish Famine Memorial. I’ve eaten more than my fair share of brown bread, and I have lingered over a pint or two of Murphy’s Ale. I have met and (briefly) swapped jokes with Gerry Adams at Shannon Airport. I have learned a few choice Irish language expressions–including, of course, the obligatory “Póg mo thóin (kiss my ass).”

In just a few years, I have learned much about Quaker City Irish-American culture–and I owe it all to a loveable bunch of guys in skirts.

At the same time, I would be the very first to admit that compared to many people in the Irish-American community in Philadelphia, I still know next to nothing. I want to know more. In this quest for a better understanding of what it means to be an Irish-American in the Quaker City I am joined by my fellow mick Denise Foley.

We'll prime the pump by publishing articles I have written previously. But look for fresh new adventures soon

I will understand if you do not wish to trade in your trousers for clammy calves in order to learn more about the rich culture of Irish America in Philadelphia. Keep your pants on. With Denise, I’d like to share what we learn in our travels.

And as this introduction suggests, it ain’t all green beer and shamrocks.

Jeff Meade