Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Muine Gall Agus Is Feidir Linn

Imagine my surprise when I heard President Obama speaking Irish!

I am a student of the Irish language (Gaeilge) and have great respect for this language with ancient roots and for the expressiveness of those who speak it.

And by now I am well aware President Barack Obama has an ancestor named Fulmouth Kearney who came from Moneygall, County Offaly, Ireland to the United States in 1850.

When Obama "came home" to the town yesterday, he said, “I’m Barack Obama, from the Moneygall Obamas ... And I’ve come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way."

My Irish teacher - Dr. Roslyn Blyn-LaDrew, says that the town name is "Muine Gall" in Irish. The first part should be said, "MWIN-yuh."

The name "Moneygall" has nothing to do with money as Muine means a “thicket” or a “scrub” area covered with shrubs. The “gall” part can either mean “a foreigner” or “of foreigners.” The word is also found in the place name “Dún na nGall,” or Donegal, as in the town or the county. So essentially “Muine Gall” means “foreigners’ thicket.”

During his visit to Muine Gall, Obama seemed to exhibit the speaking skills the Irish are known for.

At Ollie’s Bar in Moneygall, the President sought some advice on how much to let the foam on his pint of Guiness subside before drinking it. “You tell me when it’s properly settled," Obama said to the barkeep. “I don’t want to mess this up."

Plunking money on the bar, he added, “I just want you to know the President pays."

Standing in the low-ceiling pub, surrounded by distant relatives, Obama drew the connection across the big water saying: “There are millions of Americans who trace their ancestry back to this beautiful island. Part of what makes it so special is because the Irish influence on American culture is so powerful in the arts, in politics, in commerce."

But the President saying, "Moneygall," is not really Irish, as close as it comes.

The actual Irish I heard came is this quote:

"Ireland, if anyone ever says otherwise, if anybody ever tells you that your problems are too big, your challenges are too great and we can't do something, that we shouldn't even try, think about all that we've done together, remember that whenever hardships the winter may bring, springtime is always just around the corner.

And if they keep on arguing with you, just respond with a simple creed -- Is feidir linn. Yes we can."

This sentence, "Is feidir linn." is loaded with special Irish grammar.

Irish has the distinction of not really having a single word for "yes" as its function is fulfilled by the responder using the verb, most often, in their response. So the "yes" part of "yes we can" comes from the emphaticness of the sentence instead of a single word that means "yes."

An example might be translated as, "Are you thirsty?" and the Irish answer is, "I am thirsty."

The first word in "Is feidir linn," "Is" is known as the copula, which is an amazing grammatical structure we could puzzle over for hours. In order to keep it simple, we'll say the "Is" is like the verb, "Always is..." The Irish grammarians are coming after me with big sticks because I said that, but that is the easiest way to construe that word in such a sentence.

The second word, "feidir" means "possible" when used with the copula.

And "linn" is a prepositional pronoun, but in Irish the prepositional pronouns are conjugated like verbs in the Romance languages. The root prepositional pronoun is "le" which is one of those words with a maddening number of meanings. Are you ready? Le means "with, to, for, or against" according to Irish dictionaries. Other students and I have found it stretching even beyond this dizzying array of meanings, but maybe we imagined it?

Anyway, in this sentence the "le" part of the prepositional pronoun seems to mean "with" and the "inn" part of the prepositional pronoun is the ending that adds "us."

So real fast, "Is feidir linn" means "Always is possible with us!" or "Yes we can!"

At this point in my life, I have too many T-shirts, but I read an entrepreneur or two in Ireland are selling T-shirts with "Is feidir linn!" on them. If I see one, I'll probably buy it.

Such an optomistic phrase: Is feidir linn!

Click here to hear to hear President Obama's Speech in College Green, Dublin, Ireland

Click here for more about an Irish American children's book for the President's and First Lady's children

Click here for more on Muine Gall by Dr. Roslyn Blyn-LaDrew

Click here to learn about one man and his part in bringing peace to Northern Ireland.

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