Dispatches from Oireachtas na Gaeilge

I recently spent a weekend at the Oireachtas na Gaeilge in Letterkenny in County Donegal. I didn’t really have a choice. For months now, everyone around me has been talking about the Oireachtas. I had heard a lot about it, but still wasn’t sure what sort of shape it would take. Well, imagine a small town in Donegal. Add giddy Irish speakers from all over the country and the world. Throw in the performing arts and a whole lot of chaos, and you’ve arrived at the Oireachtas. The decision was made. I packed my bags on Friday and took the bus from Galway to Donegal with a couple of classmates.

The Oireachtas has been going on since 1897 and stands out as the highlight of the Irish-speaking year. People travel from all over to compete in and watch some of the very best displays of Irish-language music and arts. Normally sedate Letterkenny hums as students, musicians, dancers, and poets celebrate each night and into the wee hours of the morning. The Oireachtas revolves around the Corn Uí Riada, the most prestigious sean-nós style singing competition in Ireland. I had the good fortune to be in the audience for this year’s competition. For more than three hours, we sat mesmerized as some of the best singers in Ireland offered their take on one of the oldest parts of the Irish musical tradition. When the winner was announced, the crowd roared and joined in, as you might or might not expect, on a song dedicated to the winner’s mother.

It’s an event that could only happen in Irish-speaking Ireland, and somewhere in the absurdity of a few hundred people singing a song about a big pot of potatoes in honor of someone’s mother, there’s a really touching beauty to it all. With a community as small as the one that uses Irish, there’s a participatory feeling to things. It’s not enough to simply sit back and watch; you’ve got to get involved. This might mean singing along with the winner of the most prestigious Irish-language singing competition in Ireland. Or it might mean finding yourself  acting as an Irish-language directions-giver for a music festival in a place you’ve never been before (this happened to me, at a festival in the town of Cavan — nobody could find the bathroom. Nobody). The point is speaking Irish means participating in Irish culture in a way that goes far beyond observing.

As I rode the bus back to Galway, winding through Joyce country and County Sligo, I thought about how at first I hadn’t even been sure I was going to the Oireachtas and how much my experience here has been enriched because I did. This seems to be the main thing I’m learning about Ireland. To get a sense of the place, you really have to engage in a sort of practiced spontaneity.

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