Labhair Gaelige liom, le do thoil: Speak Irish to me, please

Perhaps a rather obvious part of preparing for any study abroad experience is deciding what classes you want to take at your host institution. However, preparation does not always pan out in reality. Before arriving in Ireland I didn’t know if the classes I had tentatively selected would even be offered here, let alone have an open space for me. So in the months before I left whenever anyone asked me what I would be studying, I could only shrug and offer my list of hopefuls.

One thing I knew for sure, though, was that I wanted to study the Irish language. From a young age I remember being exposed to the language, even if it was only cursory exposure, through the Irish folk songs my dad would play around the house. While the language is not perhaps as smooth and silky sounding as Spanish or French, Irish has a mystical rhythm all its own. Thus intrigued, I knew that if nothing else worked out with regard to my proposed class list, I would get myself into an Irish class.

And so, just over a month ago, I began learning Irish, a somewhat daunting task to say the least. I should note that the first lesson I learned was that here the language is referred to as “Irish”. “Gaelic” refers to a family of languages including Scots Gaelic, Manx, as well as to the culture of the peoples who speak said languages. The biggest issue I have faced in the beginning weeks of this journey has been that up to this point, the languages I have studied—aside from English, Spanish and Latin—are pronounced fairly phonetically. In many ways this is not the same with Irish.

As an example I present the phrase “Tá mé togha, go raibh maith agat” which means “I’m grand, thanks”. Contrary to the way it looks, the phrase is pronounced roughly “Ta may t-ow, go rah ma hod”. Learning to wrap my brain and mouth around such strange spellings has certainly been difficult, but I have found the sheer rush of language acquisition as well appreciation for Irish history draw me onward.

As part of my Irish program, I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to visit one of the remaining Gaeltachts, or Irish-speaking regions, for an immersion weekend. Gaeltachts are areas where the residents still speak Irish on a day to day basis. Our destination for this expedition was the town of Carna in Connemara, about an hour and a half northwest of Galway City. Carna is known not only for its lasting connection with Irish, but is also center for traditional-style music and dance.

Our weekend in Carna consisted of classes, workshops, and Irish, Irish, Irish. The fact that all of the students who decided to participate willingly signed up to sit in class on the weekend is a good indication of the general enthusiasm for the language. Despite this, I was nervous about trying to speak Irish for a whole weekend; as it was still fairly early in the semester, I did not feel that I had learned enough. As it turned out, English ended up being spoken more than Irish did, even in class. That being said, afterwards I felt like I had learned more in the two three-hour classes that encompassed the weekend than I had in three weeks of regular classes up to that point.

We arrived in Carna on Friday evening; after dinner at our host residence, we were taken to the language center for that night’s entertainment. There we were exposed to examples of both traditional singing and dancing, referred to as sean-nós. The next morning we had class for a few hours before adjourning to lunch. In the afternoon we had the amazing opportunity to visit the historical smuggling port of Kilary Harbour as well as see the remains of a nineteenth century famine relief road.

During the Irish potato famine (1845-1852) when thousands of Irish peasants were starving due to failed potato crops, the British authorities began construction of the road in order to provide the area families with employment. However, the public works program was discontinued after a short period, and the road was never finished. The portion completed is still visible today, snaking its way along the shore of Ireland’s only fjord untainted by the modern world. To see it was like stepping back into time, which for a history major is an astounding experience.

Our Saturday evening was spent attempting learn the complicated steps of sean-nós dancing, as well as utilizing what little Irish skill we had to talk to gathered residents at the local pub. Sunday we had a few more hours of class, albeit this time with much more Irish being spoken by and at us, before heading back along the bumpy Connemara roads to Galway that afternoon.

While I learned many valuable phrases, constructions, etc. during my weekend in Carna, my favourite part of the weekend was just hearing the language spoken given its endangered nature. In Ireland the predominant language is English, though Irish is also an official language. During their occupation of Ireland which lasted over eight centuries, the British all but wiped out the language in their attempt to anglicize the “heathen nation”; Irish was relegated to the poorest most western regions of the island. In the last century there has been a resurgence of pride in the language, and it is mandatory in primary schools, but many people only gain a passing knowledge of it.

Last spring I had the opportunity to conduct research project on the death of Irish as a language. To hear it spoken fluently not only by the older members of the town but by the young people of the town as well, the next generation as it were, was absolutely amazing. Perhaps there’s a hope for it yet!

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