What would bring a group of close to 50 North Americans to the Connemara Gaeltacht to learn the Irish language?
Forty eight Irish language learners left An Cheathrú Rua, Co. Galway in August 2015 after spending four weeks learning Irish in Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge – a daughter college of the National University of Ireland and the only third level institution in Ireland which provides courses through the Irish language on a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking region) campus.
There was a woman whose interest in Irish was first aroused when she heard the celebrated poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill reading some of her poetry; a Massachusetts man who became friendly with Mícheál Ó Cearna, the oldest surviving Blascaod Islander (inhabitants of the Blasket Islands off the coast of Kerry were forcefully evacuated to the mainland by the Irish government in 1953); and an ethnomusicologist whose attentions were caught by sean-nós singing.
Most of the students were there as part of the Fulbright program, which awards grants to Irish and American students to study and do research in the United States and in Ireland. There were a few Canadians on the course, thanks to the Irish Canadian University Foundation, as well as the odd person from other countries.
Seven of the students, who were sitting in front of me in the Acadamh’s main building, erupted into laughter when I asked them “eh…why, so, are you learning Irish…?”
“That’s the question!” they unanimously replied.
Here are their reasons:
“I was here fifteen years ago. I lived in Dublin for a good few years and I fell in love with the language. I have done courses in Gleann Cholm Cille (another, northern, Irish-speaking district) as well, but the standard here in the Acadamh is very high altogether,” said Renata Rua, from Kansas City.
Renata works in an Irish cultural center in Kansas and she teaches basic Irish language classes to Irish-Americans who have an interest in the language. She first became interested in Irish when she heard the poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill reading her work while she was completing her degree. She decided to come to Ireland to do a master’s degree in University College Dublin and it was there that she started to perfect her Irish.
“I came back because I was out of practice with Irish. The Irish-Americans of Kansas City have a great interest in the language, and in their Irish heritage in general,” she told Irish language news website Tuairisc.ie.
It’s not often, perhaps, that Kansas is thought of an Irish city and it’s far more often that the Irish community of Massachusetts is spoken of – especially those who have settled in Boston.
Gearóid Costello lives in East Longmeadow, about 90 miles outside of that city, and it’s there he met Mícheál Ó Cearna, who is almost one hundred years of age. Mícheál is the oldest surviving islander from Na Blascaodaí, the Gaeltacht islands off the coast of Corca Dhuibhne in west Kerry which were evacuated in 1953, and he helps Gearóid to practice his Irish.
“I’m really interested in the language. I retired a few years ago and didn’t want to be idle so I started an Irish course in Springfield. There’s a very strong connection between West Kerry and Springfield and there are lots of Irish speakers there.
“My friend Mike Kearney was born and reared on An Blascaod Mór. He’s a very friendly man, and I meet with him about twice a month and we only speak Irish to one another,” Gearóid explained.
This isn’t the first time Gearóid has visited the Old Country. His relations still live in County Kerry and he often visits them.
“I’ll be going to Kerry again after this course. I’ll visit my cousins down there and we’ll be going to the Puck Fair for some fun!
“It’s very important to be with your family here; it’s nicer to be with them. I see my family every three or four years and we have the chance to talk to each other face to face – in English and in Irish – and it’s very nice,” he said.
These lucky Gaeltacht Awardees!!! This is Chad Ireland in the Skelligs. pic.twitter.com/TSdOqfR1M0– Fulbright Ireland (@Fulbright_Eire) June 20, 2013
“Doesn’t every American have a connection with Ireland?” said Dylan Cooper, an academic from Petaluma in California, when I asked if any of the other students had Irish roots. Dylan has focused on Irish and Old Irish (an earlier form of the language from which the modern tongue sprang) as part of her linguistic studies. She too is part of the diaspora with family connections on the other side of County Galway.
“There’s a partnership between my own college and NUI Galway and there are places reserved every year here in the Acadamh for our students. I won one of those places last year.
“My grandmother was a Shaughnessy from Gort. Irishness and the language were always kind of there, in the background. I had heard it spoken by grand-uncles, long since dead, but never really paid attention. My family don’t get why I’m here!” she said.
“Nobody gets it!” replied Kevin Houston, who came to An Cheathrú Rua from New Jersey to improve his spoken Irish.
Kevin is unsure of his own Irish heritage, but he does know his family left the country during the Famine.
But it’s not because of that link that he started learning Irish. There was a language requirement for the college course he chose and Irish was among the languages available.
“As far as I know, my family who left County Clare during the Famine didn’t speak Irish. Nobody understands why I am learning it, but when I started at school I fell in love with it and decided to do my best to become fluent,” he explained.
My favourite thing is when Irish people find out I'm an American who tries to go to the Gaeltacht with some regularity.– Maggie Bonsey (@tirleteanga) August 19, 2014
It is more than likely that Kevin’s family were Irish speakers, and perhaps monolingual Irish speakers, as were most of the inhabitants of mid-19th century Clare.
Everyone in the room enjoyed the course very much but did miss some of the comforts of home.
“Stable Wifi!” was shouted when asked what the biggest difference between Connemara and the home town. Vegetables were also pointedly mentioned.
“The food is much different here – there’s a lot more of it! I get three meals every day, laid out on a plate in front of me – I don’t get that at home!” said Dylan, who greatly missed California weather while being battered and bashed by the wild Atlantic winds.
Zoë Langsdale, who is researching the folk music of Ireland and England, didn’t see much of a difference between the weather in Amherst, MA and An Cheathrú Rua. She learned Irish to get a better understanding of the sean-nós songs and learned it well enough to sing a few of them at a session in Tigh Khitt in Casla, a rural pub well known for its traditional music.
“My big interest is in choral work and the voice as an instrument, and so I chose Irish because sean-nós is so very interesting and I wanted to learn another language.
“My area of expertise is ethnomusicology, I study cultures and peoples through their folk music. I want to use the knowledge from that study and research and work it into modern compositions for choirs,” she explained.
Although some are staying in Ireland to visit the rest of the country, they will not return to An Cheathrú Rua nor the Acadamh for at least another year, and some never will.
Apply for a grant to learn Irish in the Gaeltacht this summer! http://t.co/JIhVdJ337W– Molly Hester (@hesterical) February 6, 2015
It was thus with a heavy heart they left, but with no doubt in their minds that their time spent in Connemara greatly improved their Irish and their understanding of it as a community language and the delicate state in which it currently is.
* Originally published August 2015.