For this piece, Siuán Ní Dhochartaigh explores the expressive possibilities of Irish as an art language with an essay in English and an audio conversation in Irish. She also gets started on a phrasebook that might help artists to speak about their work in a Gaeilge lofa líofa.

Yes, it is a rich language, Lieutenant, full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception – a syntax opulent with tomorrows. It is our response to mud cabins and a diet of potatoes; our only method of replying to…inevitabilities.
– Brian Friel, Translations

My investigation of Irish as a potential art language came after I used Irish as a tool to simplify things I’d written in English about my art. Pieces of writing about art in English can explain more about themselves than the work they are describing. By translating back and forth between the two languages, I lost the aesthetic qualities of Art English. Using a language that I use primarily for communication with family members meant that the word count shrank, the tone became conversational, and I had to revisit what I had originally meant. Using these methods felt personally significant but it also led me to consider the broader resonance of using Irish. Outside the bounds of translation, how could the distinct qualities of Irish articulate current art practices?

My initial reason for re-appropriating my rusty first language was to reject what I had come to learn as International Art English. David Levine and Alix Rule’s essay, ‘International Art English’ or IAE, analyses and names our current relationship with English as an art language:

This language has everything to do with English, but it is emphatically not English […] what ultimately makes it a language – is the pointed distance from English that it has always cultivated.[1]

It derives from translations of French texts and in parts from German terms, and has become more abstracted through repeated translation between academics. It results in adverb-heavy, noun-lacking, back-to-front sentences with “more words rather than fewer.”

Hito Steyerl’s response, ‘International Disco Latin’, critiques Levine and Rule’s essay and offered me more insights into how we might go about constructing or deconstructing an art language. Her main critical points about the IAE essay are that they refer to press releases written by exploited art workers to build their argument, and they take the British National Corpus as the neutral form of English to prove that IAE is deviant; this implicitly supports having institutional keyholders to a language and commodify its power. She indicates that the paper’s tone is snide and lacks the nuanced and resourceful ways that the exploited subjects of this language use and benefit from it. Her alternative doesn’t completely reject IAE; Steyerl feels that Art English can be alienated further and be reclaimed by its exploited subjects. I’m not sure I’m fully sold on Steyerl’s alternative, and I feel that Hal Foster, in his review of Steyerl’s Duty Free Art, pinpoints some of my reservations: ”Ultimately, her thinking is less dialectical than paradoxical: rather than intensify contradictions, she likes to collapse them.”

My own relationship with English, however, is not dissimilar to Steyerl’s paradoxical approach. It, for me, doesn’t have clear-cut class or geographical templates. I speak in English as a legacy of colonialism but it acts as privilege. In Ireland, profit is made from upholding a standard of correct English in the same way Steyerl speaks of it. English is my philosophical, professional and public language. When I (rarely) speak Irish I feel stunted and embarrassed by my lack of ability. Often I feel like I am speaking some abstracted form; a childhood vocabulary understood only within my immediate family and school friends. I don’t come from the Gaeltacht, and I have some imposter syndrome about my native tongue. Irish functions for me like my cultural identity; tying into this local, emotionally loaded language seems both reductive and rewarding. Its decline is more than uncomfortable, my protectiveness over it is more than a result of nostalgia, but the thought of pursuing a revival can be dismissed as silly or simplistic. This makes it difficult to understand how Irish can extend beyond its semi-historical and symbolic position.

Would using Irish involve a backward-facing approach to describe our art? I can’t help but be intrigued by the thought of inserting this historical material into how I discuss my professional labour and artistic ambitions. Further, this historical material is non-victorious and weighed with failure and embarrassment, which is not unlike the historical material regarding Irish visual art. I’m fascinated by the accounts of exhibitions like Rosc. One article I found online had the headline read: Bringing Modern Art to Drab Old Ireland. Clement Greenberg responded in a review of Rosc ‘67 that Ireland had “little in the way of significant art” and that any developments since the Middle Ages had been ‘imported’. These words are so impossibly dismissive and the answer, as it appears to me, is to radically incorporate this tragic narrative into our discourse. It is possible that Irish could be both a response to the mud cabins and the increasing number of cranes in our skylines.

I think of Irish as fundamentally different from most major languages. This is a language with no academic tradition. It didn’t have to accommodate industrialisation or imperialism. This is a language with no direct translation for yes and no, an answer requires the repetition of part of the question. There’s the opportunity to re-appropriate phrases that name unspoken processes or unrecognised micro-movements. And in its unfamiliarity, we need to locate time to pause, explain the term and share knowledge. To translate. This verbal clumsiness could better articulate the daily practices around making and talking about art for art practitioners in Ireland.

I propose this tongue’s most inelegant form; Gaeilge lofa líofa (rotten fluent Irish). Or at least an expanded cúpla focail to assimilate into our vocabulary. It seems fitting to me that an art language would be specific to the following: dreary classrooms, ceremony, storytelling, and deity; futility, something dead and alive, periodically revived, forgotten, neglected, part Sanskrit, part Latin, a peasant’s language, a landscape, and a weapon. It might be useful that few of us are very good at this language and none of us speak it in the same way. It could be supplemented by English or Polish or Portuguese. It might borrow from an object or an act. It will present itself in new ways and be adapted to suit its users. This critical language can be found in primary school textbooks, poetry and road signs.


A: The simple answer is that I grew up with Irish and I grew up with Irish in an environment where English was the main language. My father taught… and then after that primary school, secondary school.They taught Irish to me. But, In ordinary .. in an ordinary day, going around the shop, everyone was speaking english around me and…On the television as well. And I think the question.. Sort of the thing that is after that question is. Why do I speak Irish now when I have some independence…
My father told me , right, you are living in the house with us, you are over 18 years of age. It’s your choice if you wish to speak irish or not to. And that was kind of an interesting choice.
Why do I want to speak it outside of my family, outside of the place that I grew up. That’s a question that I still don’t have the answer. In all seriousness.
And you?

S: I speak Irish because I was brought up with it as well, and it’s sort of tied up with my parents. So it’s sort of like a sign of respect , it’s likely, for my parents. But ,it’s likely, when you have something for your life, you get sort of proud of it. So I am proud that I speak Irish. But, I don’t use it in my daily life, either, and it’s not a main part of my self identity either. But yes, that is the reason I am able to speak Irish. But yes, still I’m not sure why I speak it, or why I don’t speak it all the time

A: I think something interesting when I left- when I came to university, Irish was something, and this, I noticed coming to the end in secondary school as well. Irish was something to stand out a little bit.

S: Yes

A: I remember, when I was on the phone with my Father or my Mother, I’d be speaking in Irish and that was never a very strange thing. But when I was in secondary school, and afterwards in University. That would be strange to people. Around me people would be saying that’s Irish. And that would be interesting to them. They had a sort of respect for me for because I was speaking Irish at home. And then I took notice that I was lucky that around thirty or forty years ago my father made the decision to teach himself Irish and to share that with his children. Yes…
And I think- I think there’s a little bit of embarrassment for you as well for speaking Irish at home. Bringing that thing from the family into the big world. Sharing that thing- that sort of thing-

S: – Private.

A: Yeah, that’s a private thing […] I think, I think It’s tied with a sort of mythology, it’s mixed with- It’s a little bit- in another world. Irish has another world. It has, the word I’m using, it -it has a sort of fiction in Irish. Which is very- I think-I think that people are sort of They’re drawn to it. You see that, this isn’t just a thing in Irish. But around us, Everyone wants something to sort of..Escape..out of the world , that is. Their own world . And I think, in Irish, people see a sort of escape.

S: Yes, well maybe it’s sort of idyllic. There’s no- in that language any real technology. I know there’s words now on those things. But, still, it’s primary subject is still; the mythology (something like that) and you know just daily language. Like, ordinary things . So yeah maybe there is a sort of escape. Everything, yeah, everything that there is sort of a pressure on us to talk about in English.
It’s likely that Irish is more..measured? Is that the word?

A: [indistinguishable] And I think Irish does something interesting when she is talking about something that is not part of the language most of the time. She does something about thinking about the world in a different way. For example, the thing that we are doing now…
I think there was something interesting there, you mentioned manners of speech there. And I think there is something about manners of speech- it is more clear in Irish, instead of in English. Because, there is – it doesn’t make much sense- Because; Student use manners of speech to demonstrate fluency, but – in English- when you hear people using them, maybe, in excess- you know that that is, they’re not very fluent. When they use a metaphor all the time or a kind of-

S: yes, there’s a focus on what is new, I suppose. Or like innovation, with English. But with Irish, there’s a sort of focus on I suppose- learning your history, and learning where you’re from and where these phrases came from and why we use them, and yes. There’s actually sort of joy in the repetition of it. Like, there is-that’s kind of the point. So there’s no real focus on being- the person who’s kinda most- I suppose you don’t have to the innovator maybe. Even I was thinking about the phrase Saibhreas Foclora like and that’s someone who was a real knowledge of the old phrases and the manners of speech and so on. So that’s just a completely different thing than when you talk about someone in English and there have a sort of broad vocabulary. It has different kind of connotations.  

A: Maybe we are talking about the difference between fluent and articulate. Is that the kind of difference that we’re talking about? Because I was thinking about it – If we say- If I thought I was articulate, in English, I’m able to- I understand that. But in Irish, at times, maybe you are fluent but you are not articulate. You’re not putting a colour or sort, the thing- there’s something kind of artistic about being articulate. And that’s the sort of thing, I think, myself- I never got to that point, where I could put my person entirely in the language. I wasn’t able to- there was a sort of [begins to pronounce word] there’s a word on it. It’s a philosophical word. Ontology in my language. Be in the language. That was never-

S: Yes, that’s kind of strange. Did you feel, you didn’t have, there wasn’t a sort of license for you to do that? Maybe, It’s likely, maybe there is still this thing- that this is a historical thing and we have to kind of careful with it.

A: To conserve it

S: To conserve it, yes, so we’re not able to really to change it- completely.

[muffles/nervous laughter]

A: Sort of, the way it (art) has a place in the culture all around us. We talk about how to get people to take part in Irish and in art. The two things talk about the same thing. It’s sort of , in a little bit way different of course- but they talk- they want more people to take part.

S: I suppose they both talk about the threat of futility in a way- the two of them.

A: Yeah, no, I agree with that.

S: And I think there’s a lot of that- just in our own self-image as a country as well. Because we talk about — there’s kind of the same language in cultural image of Ireland, the language, and art. Because it’s always about sort of differentiation. Our kind of self identity. Yeah – because it’s questioning are we different, why is it important to be different. And, we’re not- maybe it’s ok if we’re not different. Or maybe it’s ok if this doesn’t succeed because maybe this isn’t that important. It still has value, I think, in other ways.

A: That’s interesting. You went back to that idea of Use. And something being useful. And maybe- in regards to value. Is that the only thing that has any value in the world around us – if something has a use, we can put a name on it, and use it in a way that is realistic- in our daily lives.

S: Well, I suppose there’s a part of me that that thinks yeah [laughs]. We should measure- yeah– the amount of use something and assess it under those sort of guidelines. But there’s another way, or another way to look at it – and you just think this is something kind of necessary to me and I don’t know why. I was thinking about it, and I was thinking it’s like a kind of burden in a way, the Irish on me. I don’t know what to do with it. I’ve been sort of given this skill, and I never had to practice it or put a lot of myself in it, so it’s sort of like a privilege really. But- 


 A: Do you ever think in Irish…Em, because, I was just thinking about that might be what’s absent in Irish is the internal life. And that’s a kind of character that language is given. The kind of strange things that happen in your head, there’s an interesting relationship between a language being useful in regards to contact/communication with other people and then language being something that happens when you’re alone, you’ll be speaking to yourself- and language like a conversation with yourself. Em…

S: Yeah…

[muffles/nervous laughter]

Note: words in italics were spoken in English in the conversation.

Phrasebook | Stór Foclóra

Saothar (Say-her)

1.Mo shaothar, my occupation/career or life’s work
2.In Art; Mo shaothar = my labour relating to my life’s work

Rosc (R-uh-sk)

2.Vision / observing eye
3.Ní cheileann rosc rún, a look tells everything.
4.Rosc catha, War cry
5.In Art; The historical rosc exhibitions, somewhere between a vision and a battle cry.

Fite fuaite (Fih-Cha Foo-cha)

1.Ta siad fite fuaite ina cheile, they are firmly interwoven, inextricably mixed up.
2.Ta se fite fuaite ann, it is in the fibre of his being.

Lofa líofa (Luh-fah Lee-a-fa)

1.Literally translates as rotten fluent, a phrase to describe easy conversational Irish filled with grammatical errors
2.In Art; heuristic means to describe art objects or practice, a restricted verbal or written language used for art that is supplemented with materials or actions.

Lom + liom (Lohm Leyum)

1.Lom , bare, sparse
2.Liom , with me
3.In Art; I have the bare bones of it with me, please bear with me.

Saibhreas (Sev-Ris)

2.Rich or varied (Saibhreas foclóra, articulate or a broad vocabulary)
3.In Art; value in art that is based on depth of research and feeling with one’s subject matter.

Stór (St-oh-r)

1.A store, a stash
2.A stor, term of endearment, my dear, my darling.
3.In Art; my muse, my source, my touchstone, my comfort.

Neadar (Ne-yad-ahr)

1.I don’t know/neither
2.Phrase: Niúdar neadar
– trifling , indecisive, insipid
– hesitant person; dead-and-alive person

Written by Siuán Ní Dhochartaigh

Siuán Ní Dhochartaigh is an artist living and working in Dublin.

[1] David Levine and Alix Rule, ‘International Art English’, Triple Canopy,