Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste ná Béarla cliste

Translation: Broken Irish is better than clever English

Background: Informant is 56-year old IT technician living in Dublin, Ireland. His first language is English, but is proficient in Irish. Therefore, sayings such as this tend to pepper his speech, making him an active bearer of this tradition. He enjoys using these phrases in conversation as they are Irish, and also appropriate in many situations. He is signified in this conversation by the initials D.O.

Main Piece:

A.: Could you give me the gist of that phrase?


D.O.: Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste ná Béarla cliste? Of course. It means ‘broken Irish is better than clever English.’ I didn’t used to hear it when I was younger, I don’t think it’s one of the classic seanfhoclai, sure I could be wrong but I think it’s a modern invention.


A.: Why do you think that?


D.O.: Well I suppose the rhyme for one thing – like there is rhyme in Irish, of course, but this seems purposefully rhymed, if you get me. I suppose the amount of Irish speakers has gone down hugely since I was younger, so a nice catchphrase might do a good job of encouraging interest in the language. And especially the fact that it’s broken Irish in particular – I think that’s an incentive to give speaking what Irish you know a go, without being afraid you’ll be laughed at for not sounding perfect. A lot of countries have that kind of thing though – once you make a bit of effort with the people to speak their language they lighten up a bit, they appreciate the effort. It’s just a nice thing to do I think – sort of respectful of another culture, by acknowledging that you’re not just another ignorant tourist!


A.: I remember being told that phrase back in my spoken exams in secondary school.


D.O.: Exactly – it’s always worth trying, especially with something people consider a ‘dead’ language. It’s important to try and get a bit of the language into general circulation, especially with the young people. They can try and get a bit of the language back if they make it seem less – what’s the word – archaic?


A.: When was the first time you heard this phrase?


D.O.: I first heard it when I was studying, and I suppose at that point the language was declining in everyday use. As the language declined I heard it more and more, which was interesting, but I suppose that’s the point of the saying, to revive the language.


Performance context: I interviewed this informant over the phone considering that I am in California and he in Dublin. In a conversation in a mix of English and Irish, he mentioned this phrase in reference to the multiple misunderstandings on my part due to my less-than-perfect Irish. I had heard the phrase before as a kind of encouragement to keep trying when learning Irish.


My thoughts: This is a useful phrase to encourage people to keep trying when learning Irish, without being condescending. The fact that it rhymes definitely helps it appeal to people who may be learning Irish and find a rhyming sentence easier to remember. It also teaches a few rules of the language in itself, such as adding the ‘h’ to bhriste. From his testimony, it seems to be a new proverb addition to the folkloristic canon, and it is interesting both that it was created to be written in Irish in its’ native form, and also that it has taken off so rapidly and been accepted into the canon of seanfhoclai. As a new-ish addition, it shows that proverbs are still being created, and its’ prevalence within the school community in particular – in my experience – suggests that proverbs are not simply for use by older people, as it can often seem. They also serve a didactic function not only to be taught to the youth, but to be used among them.