Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Importance of a Healthy Native Tongue

15ú Aibreán 2008
right, the Donegal Gaeltacht

Medical Matters: Gaeilge may be now seen as sexy and fun, but for many fluency is vital for their health, writes Dr Muiris Houston...


The Irish language received a major boost as part of Brian Cowen's election as the new leader of Fianna Fáil. By going beyond the obligatory 'cúpla focail' he impressed many with his fluency and, in particular, his ability to take "live" questions from journalists in our native tongue. Comedian Des Bishop has also made an impact with his TV series In the name of the Fada. The US native now includes an Irish language stand-up routine as part of his repertoire and also performs a rap song as Gaeilge. Suddenly, Irish is part of the zeitgeist.

Anything that acknowledges and modernises our attitudes to our native tongue is good for doctors and patients. If you are not feeling well, and your thoughts and feelings come naturally to you as Gaeilge, then it is important that you can express these in a spontaneous way. I am lucky enough to have been brought up speaking Irish and have retained some fluency in the language. The first opportunity to use it in a clinical setting came when I worked as a surgical intern in St James's Hospital, Dublin.

At the time, the urologists at the hospital received regular referrals from Donegal, with the result that every Friday afternoon, a half-dozen or so men in their 60s and 70s were transported to Dublin by the North Western Health Board. All had developed symptoms suggesting problems with their bladders or prostate glands and arrived on a Friday to be ready for surgery first thing on Monday morning.

The job of the lowly intern was to 'admit' these patients - a task that went well as long as their minibus arrived around lunchtime, but could lead to unwelcome additional work for the Friday night on-call doctor if the patients' transport was delayed.

On one of these Friday afternoons I met a gentleman from Gaoth Dobhair in the heart of the Donegal Gaeltacht. While taking a history from him, his speech was hesitant and stilted. The thought that he may have had a mild intellectual disability crossed my mind. However, once the initial ice was broken, I asked: 'An bhfuil Gaeilge líofa agat?'

Suddenly he smiled and visibly relaxed and began to chat animatedly in the most beautiful Donegal blas.


The purest Donegal Irish sounds closer to Scots Gaelic than it does to the Munster or Connaught versions of our native tongue. Suddenly the shoe was on the other foot: the patient was in full expressive flow about his symptoms leaving the doctor floundering in an effort to catch up. Which, it must be said, if there is going to be an imbalance in the doctor-patient relationship, is no bad thing.


The memory that has stayed with me since that day is the transformation of a man from a halting, hesitant storyteller to an animated, expressive raconteur of his personal medical history. I like to think that the extra effort I made in communicating with my patient that day gave him a sense of empowerment he may not otherwise have experienced.


Now I practise in an area with a high percentage of native Irish speakers. Many consultations are bilingual affairs, which naturally drift from Gaeilge to Bearla. However, I am conscious that my grasp of technological terms as Gaeilge is weak, so when discussing the finer details of investigations or treatments, I veer towards English.

But when it comes to the patient's own story and their concerns, some prefer to tell it in their native tongue. And I enjoy listening to them.

In 2006, the HSE West published a book by Dr Nicola De Faoite, a Galway GP, titled: Leaganacha Leighis: An English-Irish Phrasebook for Medical Personnel. Its stated aim is to 'enhance the ability of medical professionals to speak Irish to patients from the Gaeltacht'.

Acadamh na Lianna is the organisation of Irish-speaking doctors. It celebrates its 40th anniversary this year with a conference in the Ardilaun Hotel in Galway from May 23rd to May 25th. Chaired by Harry McGee of The Irish Times political staff, the contributors will include Rosmuc GP, John McCormack, who will speak on the importance of the Irish language for GPs working in Gaeltacht areas.

It's good to see Irish portrayed as sexy and fun in the media. But for a significant percentage of the population, it is actually important for their health that they can express a personal narrative in their native tongue.



Dr Houston is pleased to hear from readers at mhouston@irish-times.ie but regrets he is unable to reply to individual queries. The Ulster Heritage Magazine thanks the Irish Times and Dr Muiris Houston for their kind permission to use this article. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.



© 2008 The Irish Times
Irish Times - Lthch: Muiris Houston

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