On one of my last days in secondary school I bumped into my Irish teacher of three years. We talked a bit an after a small lull in the conversation he turned to me and sighed, “You know, I really did try… I tried to teach you Irish but it was just never going to happen, was it?” Indeed, despite being Irish, despite thinking I cared about Ireland’s culture, despite learning it for 12 years, I not only can’t string a sentence together as Gaelige nowadays, I kind of hate the language.
I decide to be upfront about this in my conversation with Terry Cavanagh, Irish developer of Super Hexagon, VVVVV, and last year’s Dicey Dungeons.
“God yeah, if that had been offered, I would probably have taken an exemption. I was completely hopeless at Irish in school,” he tells me. “I did ordinary level and just about passed when I did it for the Leaving Certificate. I just found it so hard. I don’t want to blame my teachers… but if you get a bit lost when they’re trying to teach you the basics, you’ll never really catch up and then there’s no real way back.”
Terry’s experience isn’t unusual. And it’s part of why he’s translating Dicey Dungeons into Irish.
According to the 2016 national census, 39.8% of Irish people claim to be able to speak some Irish, but only 6.3% of Irish people speak it weekly. Countless folk across the country share Terry’s sentiment from their time studying the language. “I hated Irish,” he says. “I didn’t understand why I had to do it. I was fine at school with other subjects, like maths. But then I’d have to go to this Irish class every day, and I didn’t understand any of it and I just felt like it was a complete waste of time.”
Now, Irish people are notoriously proud of our country. Having a chip on our shoulder over Americans claiming to be part-Irish is a national past time. But even my more recent memories of Irish classes include pages of mindless vocabulary building, anxiety-inducing spelling tests, and notebooks full of half-explained grammar and tenses. Terry feels similarly, but in looking back there’s a sense of regret over his experience. “Only when I got much older” he tells me, “when I didn’t have to do it anymore, that’s where I really started to wish that I could speak it.”
Ireland has been an English-speaking nation for decades, but there was a time when we went to war with the UK over — among other things — the right to speak Irish. But now, our national language is dying and we feel like crap about it. Only a few years removed from the school setting and I’ve found myself mourning this piece of my culture. In this state of affairs, some of us, like Terry, resolve to take things into our own hands.
“I’m actually currently going through the Irish Duolingo at the minute, which I’m really enjoying,” he says. “It’s the first time that I really feel like I’m getting somewhere. It became something I was almost embarrassed to try again, because I’d been so bad at Irish when I was younger, and failed so many times. I just reached a point where I had to ask myself, when am I going to get around to learning this? Am I ever going to do it? Why can’t I?”
Art Worth Imitating
There’s a sadness that permeates conversations around Irish culture, a slow mourning. Irish folklore is incredible; it has everything from a tale of pregnant goddess punishing all men to six days of labor pains for forcing her to race a horse, to a story of a hyper intelligent salmon that gave a dude a galaxy brain for eating it. But partly as a result of Ireland’s long history as a British colony, our folklore and traditions feel apart from everyday life. We only learn about them in our Irish classes in between our 20th sraithpictiurí — a picture-describing oral exam that’s spawned plenty of Facebook meme pages — and the 300th irregular verb.
Terry hopes to change all this. “I am really interested in Irish folklore and history and Dicey Dungeons has several light references to it,” he tells me. “Scáthach and Aoife from the Cú Chulainn prose Tochmarc Emire (The Wooing of Emer) both appear as bosses, while in some of Dicey’s campaigns you must face off against a Banshee.”
“When I was a teenager, I played a lot of Japanese games,” he adds. “Something like Final Fantasy, say, is not actually about Japanese folklore at all, right. But that series will offhandedly mention some mythological creature. Just in passing. It’s scattered around, part of the fabric of that world, and you come away from it feeling more connected to it. So when I thought about putting Irish folklore in my games, I figured I’d try it that way. It’s in there, but it’s not really the focus. Maybe you come away and you’re curious and you might Google a few things and as a result and come into contact with it.”
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Tiny Team, Big Ambitions
Dicey is an indie game made by a small team, but it is already fully playable in 14 languages. That hasn’t been easy, though — localization is a complicated undertaking for any developer, and even the big ones still mess it up sometimes. According to Terry, each language has different challenges, like font rendering in the Chinese versions or even just not being able to include any text in the game’s code. When it came time to translate the game to Irish, though, the challenge wasn’t technical — it was finding someone capable of adapting the game’s text.
“That’s why you can’t play it in Irish just yet, though it’s coming soon,” Terry says. “It was very hard to find a translator. I had a couple of people who I reached out to who just never got back to me at all, and a few more who just said they didn’t have the time. For the most part, it seems like this is a thing that people do as a hobby or a side gig, and it is really hard to find people doing it professionally in Irish. That might be part of why there aren’t more games in Irish — there are a lot of great Irish developers, and I’m sure more of them would have translations into Irish if this was easier.”
But despite these challenges, Terry still has big ambitions for Dicey Dungeons. He’s working on a language teaching mode, in which the game would display in Irish with the option to easily toggle back to your preferred language at any time with the press of a button. He doesn’t think of his game as a full-fledged educational tool, but it’s still a novel idea.
A bheith dóchasach
Though the situation for the Irish language is dire, Terry is optimistic.
“There are lots of examples of languages out there which have been endangered and have been brought back with good teaching,” he says, “and I don’t know why we can’t do the same for Irish.”
The biggest challenge may be generating interest. How do you motivate younger people to learn a language spoken only by a relatively small number of people?
“I don’t really know the solution to any of this, how to make young people take an interest in learning Irish,” Terry says. “But my side of it is, as somebody who makes creative work, I can at least try to make [those things] available in Irish and contribute to having media in the language. There’s a big, big problem but I think this is a step towards solving it.”