“What the hell would you want to speak Irish for? It’s just so...obscure.”
The words of my school friend, Martin, stuck with me my whole life and still make me laugh.
I used to go, sheepishly, to Club Gaelach on a Friday night, an Irish language youth club in my home town in Ireland, where you went cheile dancing with virginal girls who wore thick glasses and Aran sweaters, and played dork sports like table tennis, while the real Friday night action for boys like Martin was at the local nightclub.
There, the English speaking non-dorks tried to get off with the cool girls from the nearby girls’ school. They had far more success than we did at Club Gaelach, and the successes we did have are better forgotten.
I remembered Martin’s words about the Irish language last year when I was being followed all over the United Arab Emirates by the country’s national security police, and Irish was the only way to communicate messages without being intercepted by the police.
After the Arab Spring kicked off, police surveillance of trouble-making journalists like me was intense, and the "obscurity" that Martin talked about all those years ago was badly needed.
When I woke up in the mornings, police would be waiting outside my apartment in an unmarked car. When I went to work, they followed me. When I tried to interview migrant workers about human rights abuses they would flood the area and force me to shut it down.
Once, with the police following me, I drove to three garages to get someone to find an electronic surveillance device and remove it from my car. I was told at the third garage that the police were likely tracking my phone, not my car, and that I should leave my phone at home and switched on, then slip out the back of the building.
Even when I drove to an Abu Dhabi hotel to see the All-Ireland hurling final, the police followed me up there, only to find my activities, and those of 300 screaming Clare fans, both puzzling and disappointing and they drove off.
I had moved from New York to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, to work as a journalist. It was a long way off from my days as Arts Editor of the Irish Voice, when my only worries were whether Mike Farragher would deliver his music column in time.
It wasn’t long before I was reporting for international newspapers about human rights in the UAE, where hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are imported from south Asia with no right to protest, join a trade union or even hold their own passports.
My first big investigation was for the U.K.-based Guardian newspaper. I used the pseudonym Glenn Carrig, the name of my grandparents’ home, but the accompanying online video featured a blurred out image of a tall man with a strong west of Ireland accent asking awkward questions to the authorities, and it didn’t take massive police work to figure out who it was.
Throughout all the subsequent surveillance, I was texting in Irish with Nick, a Middle East investigator for Human Rights Watch, informing him of my movements and what was happening with the police and the workers I was interviewing. Nick is from Scotland and had lived for years in Galway, where he picked up enough Irish to know what my messages were really saying.
I thought, as I composed one text in a labor camp outside Dubai, that my friend Martin’s question all of those years ago had been answered – even if you think the Irish language is dead, it is still bloody useful.
Irish, not even understood by much of the Irish population, is the Enigma Code of European languages, and good luck to any international police force trying to decipher it. I’m told my many friends, who never speak Irish normally, have used Irish in American police stations, in front of IRS officials, speaking to friends in a nightclub, speaking about a third party in a coffee shop or to quickly get telemarketers off the phone.
In my case, I used it to tell Nick when I was about to publish an investigation in The New York Times about the treatment of workers building the New York University campus in Abu Dhabi, some of whom were beaten, jailed and deported for trying to strike.
“An bhfuil se sabhailtedom a sheolannturiomhphost?” (Is it safe for me to send you an email?”) texted Nick a week before the article came out.
“Ta se, cinnte. Chuirfidh me glaoch chugat i noimeid. (It is, definitely. I’ll call you in a minute),” I replied, and I’d go to a secure phone line to call.
The New York Times, unlike the British papers, wouldn’t allow me to use a fake name. I knew I was heading into turmoil when my name appeared on the front page of the Times last May, along with an investigation into the treatment of the workers building NYU Abu Dhabi.
As soon as the article went online the police were calling. I had no choice except to come in for “a chat,” their spokesperson said.
I was brought to see one of the chiefs of the Abu Dhabi police. He was upset, calling the New York Times article “a chaos.”
Had he known from national security police intercepts, that I was much more involved in human rights reporting than I was letting on, I would have been in much, much bigger trouble and I'm very lucky it was all in obscure dialects of Irish.
As it was, the police chief, and his assistant, offered me immunity from prosecution and a lot of money if I changed sides by writing favorable articles about the UAE in the international press. I was also to spy on other journalists coming into the country. Nick was texting me in the days before and after the police chat, asking in Irish to speak on a secure phone line so he could monitor what was happening.
I wrote a follow up article about the NYU Abu Dhabi workers for the British Independent newspaper under the name Tom South, named after Irish rebel and ballad favorite, Sean South of Garryowen.
From then on, Nick used “An fear o Garryowen” (The man from Garryowen) as code for me while asking if he could put me in touch with human rights groups and other journalists.
I left the UAE pretty soon afterwards, as I wanted to see my family in Ireland before things got out of control with the UAE police. When I returned to Dubai I was arrested at the airport and kept in the investigations room before being brought to the deportation section.
“They are sending you back,” I was told.
“Taim ag dul abhaile,” (I’m going home) I texted to Nick, who had been waiting to see what would happen when I returned to Dubai.
I’m now back in New York. Last Sunday, I marched in the St. Pat’s for All parade with An Slua Nua, an Irish language group dedicated to reviving the language and keeping it fun.
Before, I might have felt a bit of a dork for speaking the deadest of dead languages, but now I wear it with pride.
The Irish language is our code, our own personal indecipherable mix of Indo-European dialects that puts the verb before the noun and to which outsiders cannot gain entry.
Those who speak it are no longer considered uncool. It’s quite fashionable. Irish language schools are spouting all over Ireland and Gaeilgeoir youth clubs feature more than virginal nerds arguing about obscure grammar rules between bites of Rice Krispie buns.
This St. Patrick’s Day I’ll be speaking Irish all day, not out of any great national pride, but just the realization that the person standing beside me doesn’t know what I’m talking about.
To answer Martin’s question, why speak such an obscure language? When the police are on your tail, it can be the best reason in the world to speak with obscurity.
* Originally published in March 2015