Once upon a time, I spent a year living on the western coast of Ireland. From my American frame of reference, it took a bit of adjustment to become accustom to the Gaeltacht of Connemara’s shores. My acclimation to the culture came in curious increments comprised of chance encounters in unexpected places, but they gave me valuable insight into what I know now to be the social mores of the friendliest lot on earth.
Although I worked in Galway, I lived thirteen miles up the road, in the village of Inverin, which is two miles up the road from the village of Spiddal, an area famous for its Irish traditional music. At night, Spiddal can seem like a ghost town, but that’s only because most of its activity lies behind closed doors. There are precious few buildings lining the coastal main street, but what little is there stands closely together. Most prominently is a boutique hotel in the middle of Spiddal, and across the street is a popular music venue called the Cruiscan Lan, which means “little jug of whisky” in the Irish language. It was at the Cruiscan on a Thursday night in October that a chance encounter gave me my first glimpse into the charm and character of the rural Irish people.
My friend Leigh and I were not long inside the Cruiscan before the two salt-of-the-earth men at the bar started “chatting me up,” as they say in Ireland. They’d been unabashedly watching us from the moment we walked through the door. They were “on the piss,” as it’s called when someone intentionally sets out to get rip-roaring drunk just for the sport of it, and suddenly one of the men reached out and grabbed my arm as Leigh and I passed by. It’s funny how things hit you at different times in different places. In most cases, an unwarranted gesture like that would be scary or offensive, but because it was rural Ireland, I only saw the humor. They may have been on the piss, but they were harmless, I knew it intuitively.
“What brings a lovely thing like you here this night?” one of them asked—the one who was holding my arm.
“We’re just passing through,” I said, turning to face him.
“Are you long here?” he asked, emphasizing the word long.
Am I long where? I thought. Am I long at the Cruiscan? Am I long in Spiddal? Am I long in Ireland? This is no doubt a translation issue, I thought. Anyway, does he mean have I been here long, or do I intend to stay here long?
There are many idioms flying around Connemara that have their origin in the Irish language. I’m pretty sure “Are you long here?” is one of them, and I couldn’t help but think when translated into English, something is missing. My mind was racing. It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked this question in Ireland, it seemed to be part and parcel to an Irish introduction, something commonly asked after the extension of “Nice to meet you.” Rather than risking embarrassment by asking what the question meant, I was in the habit of bluffing my way through the answer, hoping to appear as if I understood.
“I live here,” I returned, “I live in Inverin.” I had the feeling if you see someone once in Spiddal, you’re going to see them repeatedly, so I might as well tell the truth.
“What is it that brings you to Inverin?” he asked, finally releasing my arm.
“I’m working for the Galway Music Centre,” I said, “and I’m working on a book. I’m a writer and a poet.”
“Ah, aren’t we all,” he laughed, then he winked at me and raised his pint.
It was then I realized the Irish have a natural way of wielding the perfect retort. It’s more than a gift for the snappy come-back, it’s the art of banter in its highest form. My suspicion is the Irish employ it as a way of revealing themselves, as a way of communicating that they don’t take themselves too seriously, that life is a party, and you’re welcome to a seat by the fire. What I like best about Irish banter is when such a line is delivered, they expect you to match their eye-twinkling wit. It’s a cultural way of inclusion, a way of saying you’re welcome in their midst, which is exactly why they have the reputation of being the friendliest lot on earth.
Author's Note: This piece appeared in the May/June issue of Celtic Life International.
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Admin Comment by Joe Gannon on July 27, 2015 at 4:44pm
My first trip to Ireland was a bus tour organized by the now defunct "Irish Brigade Association," with a group of Civil War reenactors and a wonderful small brass band called the Old Bethpage Band from Long Island, NY. As our bus passed through the Wicklow Mts the engine caught on fire and we all had to scramble out, luckily saving all our luggage, including the bands very valuable old brass instruments. The bus was soon fully engulfed in flames and shooting up thick, dark smoke, with the Garda stopping traffic in both directions on the narrow road. The band got out their instruments to play, sort of like the band playing at the sinking of the Titanic, but without the great loss of life in this case, I guess you could say.
In a while we had a fair number of Irish from the area watching the bus burn with us after pulling over to the side of the road. A little elderly woman who was standing next to me asked, "My goodness, what's happened here" And I told her it was our bus that was going up in flames. "Sure and I've been comin' down this road for 30 years and nothin' like this has ever happened before," she said. "Really," I said, "I find that hard to believe." She wrinkled her brow and I could tell she wasn't too happy with me apparently questioning her word. "Why's that," she asked? "Well," I said, "I've only been here once, and it's happened every time." She let out a wonderful loud laugh and slapped me on the shoulder so hard it nearly knocked me down. Clearly she appreciated that response. "Only Yanks could have this much fun at a time like this," she said, and I knew it was a compliment, not a criticism. That was one of my first experiences with their love of that sort of banter, even though it had originated with me and not her. In the years since my wife and I have had the pleasure of enjoying it many more times.
Seems you and she spoke the same language, Joe! Splendid contribution; thank you so much for sharing!
The "art of banter" - it truly is an Irish thing, Claire. There's a nuanced to and fro, give and take to chatting in Ireland, where small talk flows like a rhythmical waltz. I found when I first came to live in the U.S., my usual small talk didn't work to get a conversation flowing. Many questions I would ask would receive a quick yes, or no response, whereas in Ireland the other participant would automatically understand their cue to enhance the banter. It took some time to get accustomed to a more direct approach to conversation required in New York, and I found I had to ask more pointed, personal questions to get a conversation going. It's just a slight cultural difference but one that took a long time for me to understand. I think you've just inspired me to write a blog post on my website on this very topic.
Yes, Mairead! I know exactly of which you write! And, may I add, I am a fan of your website, Irish American Mom. It always has great Irish content. Thank you for the comment!
Thanks so much for your kind words about my blog, Claire. I really appreciate all of your support.
Not sure what happened, I made a comment about the notion of 'slagging' in Irish conversation, but it never appeared. Oh well, My point was that 'slagging' or gentle ribbing can be misconstrued by those who don't understand it. If you're 'slagged' you are being brought into the fold. To be 'slagged' is a sign of acceptance. Some foreigners get confused by this. My own wife is German, so 'slagging' can still be a point of confusion for her.
Oh, I get it completely! If you're slagged by an Irish person, it means you're in-crowd; they assume you are qualified to get the humor, which typically has a bit of intelligence behind it. One has to be sharp and on their toes to keep up with the Irish! Thank you for the comment, Mr. Lawlor!
Claire and David - So true. Slagging is an art in Ireland. Once you can take a good 'slagging' and give as good as you get, then you definitely pass the 'in-crowd' test.
Thank you, Michael!