Are French books just more attractive than other books? My mother, a French teacher, had any number of books in French on the shelf at home when I was growing up. I can still recall their tantalizing spines: Gide, Mauriac, Zola, Colette. The combination of letters suggested a peculiar, alluring music. French publishing houses produce beautiful editions, and though I couldn’t then read their contents, my eye was drawn to their sharp design. Like many Irish people, I suspect, the French language was my first introduction to ‘the Continent’ and France became a synonym for Europe. And it was through French that I encountered Europe in all its messy, multifarious splendour.
In 2003 I arrived in Rennes as an Erasmus student to study French, a bit of Breton and Celtic Civilization. I exchanged the stinging rain of the West of Ireland for the marginally more temperate rain of Brittany. It was easy to feel at home among my Celtic brethren, and I soon found an Irish pub where musicians were welcome, including maladroit ones such as myself. It’s difficult to underestimate the appetite for Irish traditional music abroad. Even the clumsiest of players can claim a certain allure in a foreign climate. Meeting people was easy in the pub after a session as all of humanity seemed to gather there: Erasmus, non-Erasmus, Breton, French.
Those who self-identified as Breton, rather than French, were usually quick to make that distinction known, though it didn’t necessarily signify that they spoke Breton. This made me sceptical: if they felt that strongly about it, why not learn the language? As an Irish-speaker, I suppose I’m sensitized to the plight of other minority languages. It was easy to find parallels. The historical suppression of a native language in the school system was a familiar narrative to me, though it doesn’t entirely explain away how a people ‘lose’ their language. Migration made another language more desirable, more necessary. This other language was a gleaming highway to progress, opportunities, wealth, while the native language seemed like a cul de sac, an old mule hampered with poverty and backwardness. It’s a binary that’s played out the world over within the hierarchy of languages.
Unsurprisingly, language was the main subject of conversion that year. How long was I learning French? Why was I learning Breton? Is Irish very different to English? How many people speak Irish? At parties with French people, they would speak to me misty-eyed about the few words of patois they remember from their grandmother back in Alsace or Normandy. I was wary of their nostalgia. Even the word patois can have a pejorative sense in the French context, suggesting the disdain with which regional languages are regarded. France’s regional languages have long been suppressed, with the intention of eradicating them in favour of the ‘unifying’ power of standardized French.
It was standardized French that brought all of us outlanders to Rennes in the first place. Erasmus students were obliged to attend French classes for foreigners, Français Langue Étrangère. We would gather there twice a week, a confederacy of learners, each with our own foibles and inflections from our respective mother tongue. We had all come to the French language for a variety of reasons, not always for its ‘prestige’ within European affairs. But, in a very practical sense, the European Union was the reason for our being in France that year through its Erasmus initiative. The Erasmus exchange programme promotes the process of integration that is at the heart of the Europe project. The shared experience of a year abroad does much to promote openness and understanding between cultures, ideals that are crucial for recognizing the humanity in all of us.
Encounters with other Erasmus students revealed the complexity of their own linguistic backgrounds, often at odds with a ‘national’ language. Through conversations with Galicians, Sardinians, Basques and Catalans, I came to see ways of being outside the dominant culture, ways that didn’t necessarily mean being inferior or downtrodden or disenfranchised. I began to understand that it was ok to feel out of synch with the main language in your country. In Europe there are other communities who, while not sharing my language, do share similar cultural values, even a worldview. That insight amplified the creative potential I saw for my own language.
As an Irish-speaker, I found a year living among Europeans of various nationalities to be a pleasant hiatus from the Anglosphere. No-one ever asked me what my name was ‘in English’, an all-too common occurrence in Ireland, and a personal bête noir. That year in Rennes, I finally read Translations by Brian Friel. I devoured Pharaoh’s Daughter by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. I also read works by Irish-language writers you’ve probably never heard of because they aren’t translated to this – English – language. The year abroad provided the geographical distance to test my own relationship with the Irish language as a literary medium. At night in my neuf mètres carrés I began my writing apprenticeship in earnest which initiated a process of integration within myself, shifting how I perceive notions of centre and periphery.
As for those French literary heavyweights on my mother’s shelf, I still hold them in reverence. But they no longer epitomize Europe. As a union, Europe is imperfect, no doubt, but there is a willingness to improve, to accommodate, to integrate without necessarily homogenizing. France’s reluctance to ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages seems, to me, to be an untenable position. Breton, along with Basque and Occitan and other languages, remain unrecognised within France and thereby do not benefit from the support of state institutions. This is antithetical to how I perceive Europe, a Europe that has made room at the table for my own language.