EDITOR’S NOTE: “A previous version of this article included the following headline: “RuPaul tweeted in an almost forgotten language — we figured out why.” After listening closely to the response and knowledge shared from members of the Irish community, we have decided to edit the headline in order to better reflect the article and the status of the Irish language. We apologize for this oversight and are welcoming of the opportunity to learn more, and do better.
Taking a quick look at your Twitter feed on Friday morning, you might have done a double-take at a certain tweet posted by the reigning empress of drag, RuPaul. Maybe it made no sense to you. It was written in a strange, ancient language that very few RuPaul Drag Race fans in Canada or the US would instantly recognise. Yes, RuPaul had tweeted in Irish, also known as Gaeilge or Gaelic. Here’s what she said:
A mhuintir na hÉireann! J an chraic? Cloisim go bhfuil mo chailín @michellevisage ag déanamh thar cinn ar @GotTalentIRL Is léir go bhfuil sibhse, na banríonacha, deadlaí agus maightí freisin, ach b’fhearr daoibh an obair a chur isteach nó is ag sashayáil away a bheidh sibh! pic.twitter.com/qP5VqD5gyF
— RuPaul (@RuPaul) February 16, 2018
“A mhuintir na hÉireann! J an chraic? Cloisim go bhfuil mo chailín @michellevisage ag déanamh thar cinn ar @GotTalentIRL Is léir go bhfuil sibhse, na banríonacha, deadlaí agus maightí freisin, ach b’fhearr daoibh an obair a chur isteach nó is ag sashayáil away a bheidh sibh!”
For those wondering, in English, that means: “People of Ireland! What’s the craic? (slang for “What’s going on?”) I hear that my girl Michelle Visage is doing great on Ireland’s Got Talent. Obviously you queens are deadly and mighty as well, but you better put in the work, or you’ll be sashaying away!” Once anyone with a love for drag and Irish culture was done hyperventilating and picking themselves up off the floor, it became clear that this was quite the seismic tweet for the drag icon to post.
Her choice to gently press ‘Tweet’ with one immaculately manicured finger on a message written in Irish, rather than English, will make more waves than she might even be aware of. Firstly and most crucially of all though, she did it with major style. It’s clear that RuPaul (and let’s be honest, her hidden helpers) knew exactly what she was doing. Is that a casual “J” in there, instead of the more formally correct “Cad é”? Damn, she’s a woman of the people. “Craic”, that most unifying of words amongst people of Irish backgrounds, which signifies fun of any kind, was sitting proudly in there. She has her fundamentals down.
That’s before we get to the wonderful celticization of the RuPaul drag lexicon. The use of word “banríonacha” (women kings, i.e. queens) in this context would probably be enough to have devout Irish catholics rapidly blessing themselves. But better than that, the super casual use of “sashayáil away” (no prizes for what that means), builds a fantastic bridge between glitzy world of RuPaul’s Drag Race and that of ancient Ireland, where the language she was using originated.
More seriously, there’s an underlying cultural resonance to RuPaul’s tweet in Irish, in supporting as a colleague who’s become a very well-known figure in LGBT culture. Irish is the official first language of Ireland, which also recognises English as an official tongue, and students are taught it in school as a compulsory subject.
However, recent figures have shown that the number of individuals who speak it on a daily basis is in decline. The schools are terrible at teaching it. In a country with one of the highest birthrates in Europe, people who speak the language on a daily basis are dwindling. Irish governments have consecutively failed to truly boost the language. This tweet sent in a language that is struggling to stay alive and relevant in the 21st century — one that has often been unfairly portrayed as belonging to a conservative, religious past. That’s not far from the truth, the most common form of saying hello in the language involves an invocation of God.
RuPaul has demonstrated that there doesn’t need to be any divide between the older cultural assets of a country, even one with a past as conservative as Ireland, and proud progressiveness.
However, many young people in Ireland have reached out to seize their heritage. In recent years, activists have pushed to revive the language, especially in urban areas. The likes of the Crash Test Caint workshop in Dublin have popped up, but it can be tough, grassroots work. “RuPaul is an icon and probably the most influential drag figure in the world. It definitely felt like two very different worlds in which I have an interest colliding” explains Irish language activist Joey Kavanagh, of when he saw the tweet.
RuPaul’s decision to use the language gives these activists a much-needed boost, granting them a platform amongst her millions of fans. Ireland has an unlikely history of drag queens dragging it kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Most recently, Irish drag queen Panti Bliss became a recognised name in pushing for the dignity of voting in favour of legalizing gay marriage. RuPaul called her speech in favour of that change “one of the most powerful speeches I’ve ever heard.”
— RuPaul (@RuPaul) February 4, 2014
“[The tweet] wasn’t completely unexpected, because Michelle Visage has been in Ireland working on her show, and there has been excitement in the queer community regarding her being in the country” explains Kavanagh, “But it’s been great to see RuPaul take an interest.”
“The tweet was really impressive in terms of the construction and language use, with little twists like the use of the words “deadly” and “mighty”. The syntax there suggests someone with a very good grasp of the language was working behind the scenes. I’d be curious about the origins of the tweet.” Perhaps most importantly, RuPaul has demonstrated that there doesn’t need to be any divide between the older cultural assets of a country, even one with a past as conservative as Ireland, and proud progressiveness.
She directed her tweet at a country that only just recently legalized full gay marriage, is still a battleground between the forces of traditionalism and social change, with a divisive referendum on Ireland’s current total ban on abortion currently looming this summer. Reproduction rights, for so long in place in Canada, are still not realized in Ireland, with thousands of women travelling abroad for abortions every years.
RuPaul would have reached more people with a tweet in English. Most readers, including Canadians and Americans scanning their feeds, would have looked at it, understood it, and quickly moved on. In choosing to tweet 46 words in this weird, irregular, hard-to-learn language, the runway queen has helped to guide young, internet-savvy fans towards this unique language.
“If I was a queer kid in secondary school (high school), I think it’d be really exciting to see RuPaul tweeting in Irish.” notes Kavanagh. “Hopefully her considerable influence will extend to making Irish more of a favoured language here.”