Madeleine Ni Ghallcobhair, a Fulbright Scholar from an Irish-speaking area of Ireland called a Gaeltacht, set up the projector and faced a class of 12 undergraduate students at Manhattan College in the Bronx. Basic Irish language vocabulary studded the screen: “Is maith liom – I like.”
Ni Ghallcobhair addressed a girl in a green Ireland sweatshirt. “An maith leat e?” she said while gesturing to the male student seated beside her.
The girl blushed. “Are you asking me if I like him?” she said. “Um, yes, is maith liom e.”
Every week, Ni Ghallcobhair teaches Irish language classes at three City University of New York campuses, Lehman College, College of Mount St Vincent, and Manhattan College. She came to New York last August as a Fulbright Scholar on the Foreign Language Teaching Assistant scheme. The exchange program was launched by the Fulbright Commission in Ireland in 2006, and is funded by the Irish government. So far, 47 teaching assistants have been sent to the U.S.
“I’m partly here as cultural ambassador, so I’m trying to teach my students the language, but also a bit of the context, history, and the customs that we have,” said Ni Ghallcobhair. “I’ve been really impressed that a lot of people are really interested in Irish here.”
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The enthusiasm for Irish amongst New Yorkers that Ni Ghallcobhair’s experienced is echoed by many Irish-language speakers living and teaching in the city. According to Elaine Ni Bhreinnan, 32, who teaches Gaelic at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan, “Irishness sells in America. It’s like a brand, and the Irish language, thankfully, goes with it.”
There are approximately 11 institutions that offer Irish language classes in New York City. These are divided between NYU and CUNY, the two universities that offer Irish as a language elective -- or in the case of Lehman, a minor in an undergraduate program -- and cultural centers, such as the Irish Arts Center, or the Aisling Center in Yonkers.
At a conference in Notre Dame last April, the Ireland Fulbright Commission presented the findings of a report about the teaching and learning of Irish in the U.S.
“We discovered that there’s more out there than we know about,” said Colleen Dube, the executive director of Ireland’s Fulbright Commission. Dube added that the Irish Language Learning & Teaching in the U.S. report also revealed a growing need for facilitating Irish classes in non-academic settings.
“There’s a constant crossover between those coming from an academic angle, and someone who gets subsumed in the general culture,” said Dube.
In a classroom setting, Ni Challcobhair emphasizes vocabulary and grammar, with focus on conversation for the first 20 minutes or so of every class. Students are typically placed in partners to discuss a set topic. Hilary Sweeney and Pádraig Ó Cearúill’s classes at NYU’s Ireland, or Glucksman, House follow a similar format.
Sweeney, who teaches different levels of Irish to undergraduate students, said that, in addition to teaching the language, it’s essential to provide context.
“I think it’s important that there are connections between what’s going on in academia, and what’s going on in greater world,” Sweeney said at the NYU Glucksman House Irish Language Day last weekend. “When it’s a language, it’s all about communication, and we want to foster communication between anyone who’s learning Irish, whether in a cultural center, at home, or in a formal university setting.”
Irish-born Rebecca McLynn, 21, and Ohio-native Maggie Cardosi, 23, are enrolled in the Irish-American Studies M.A. offered at NYU. Both girls consider knowledge of Irish as crucial to understanding Irish history and general culture.
Anne Dolan, 26, a previous student of Irish at Lehman College, said that pursuing Irish music and singing heightened her interest in the Irish language. Of her class in Lehman, Dolan said that, “it was not exactly a discussion, but it also wasn’t a lecture.”
In Ní Bhraonáin's Tae Agus Comhra (Tea and Conversation) free Wednesday evening class, the goal of getting people to speak Irish is achieved through informal conversation and song. In a recent class, Ni Bhreinnan’s father led the five students in attendance in a sean-nos, or old-style, folk sing-along.
“We talk about what we did for the week. A native Irish person knows colloquialisms that an American teacher wouldn’t necessarily know,” said Sheila Houlihan, a first-generation Irish-American, referring to classes at the Irish Arts Center that she had attended. “They all have different dialects, Hilary’s from Munster, Elaine is from Dublin, and Tomas is from Connemara.”
Houlihan is also enrolled in Intermediate Irish at Lehman College, supervised by Tomás Ó h-Íde. She was among the 20 U.S. students who participated in the newly established Irish Language Summer Study Award scheme, sponsored by the Ireland - United States Commission for Educational Exchange. The program allows American students of Irish to complete a two-week long immersion course in a Gaeltacht area of Ireland, and is yet another example of a new dialogue between academic and cultural teachings of Irish.
Ireland’s previous deputy consul general instituted the cooperation between academic and cultural institutions in Irish language teaching.
“Whether it was a ball, or a night out for dinner, he just loved being immersed in the Irish language, so he’d invite all of us various language professors, instructors, enthusiasts, and activists,” said Ni Bhreinnan. “We were given the opportunity to get to know one another and work together, which we’ve done for the last 5 years.”
The 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language, focused on promoting Irish through tools such as the internet, and by opening new schools and teaching centers, was published in December 2010 by the Irish government. According to a spokesperson from the Irish Department of Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht, a program strategy is currently being delineated. At present, the department provides funding for Irish teaching resources at three New York campuses -- Fordham University, CUNY schools including Lehman college, and NYU’s Glucksman House.
Deputy Consul General Peter Ryan said that he was grateful for the steady popularity of the Irish language amongst New Yorkers. During a recent interview, Ryan echoed many native Irish-speakers living in the city, who said they were impressed with the amount of people in New York interested in learning Irish. He added that attention should now be focused on how Irish teaching can be incorporated into sports and cultural pastimes.
“We need to turn to the Gaelic Athletics Associations,” Ryan said. “The number of people enrolled in GAA sports is just unbelievable. And according to the Fulbright report, they want to help with Irish teaching."