It’s a teenage rite of passage, but Fred Cooke wasn’t tempted. Now, living with his Gaeilgeoir wife and son, the cúpla focail have never been more tábhachtach. So, can a week in Ranafast put smacht on him?
When I was initially asked to learn Irish for a week in the Gaeltacht, I was excited to brush up on my vocabulary, but not as excited as I was at potentially working out what my wife and son were constantly talking about. Yes, the other two members of my family speak Irish at home a lot of the time and, no, I generally have no idea what they’re talking about. I’m like a Spanish waiter in Majorca faced with a couple from Dundalk complaining about the bill as Gaeilge. I know it’s about me, but I’m powerless to interfere.
My beloved wife Julie said I’m the only person she knows who left a Gaeltacht so I could learn Irish in another one. Living in west Co Kerry, Irish is around us all of the time, but I still jumped at the chance to go as far away as possible from my family because that’s how committed I am to the, ahem, language. To get to Gaoth Dobhair, I had to travel first to Dublin, where I hitched a ride on a cosy minibus to Co Donegal.
That’s a long time to spend chatting to Des Cahill in the back of a van. At this stage we didn’t need to talk Irish, so you’d think it would have been easy, but sadly Des speaks another language in which I have zero proficiency: football. I nodded along and spoke in a few platitudes before, around Cavan, Des copped that I had even less clue about GAA than I did about the “modh coinníollach”. Luckily for me, Des can chat to anyone. Affable and informative, he shared some top-notch baby tips, having recently become a grandad himself. So good was his company, I was almost sad when our we rocked up to our destination.
Like most students in the 1980s, I was turned off Irish in primary school; I saw it as a compulsory subject that got in the way of big lunch and the final school bell. One thing I liked was the verbs, because there was a rhythm to them, a beat. I can remember doing all the verbs in primary school, past, present and future. My evenings would be spent repeating the words over and over, like an incantation, “Rith mé, tú, sé, sí” — a tall order for a man who had never run anywhere in his life. I knew my limitations (words, grammar, communication, syntax) so I learned to work around the knowledge I had. One Christmas, in an exam in secondary school, I had to write about my life in the future to show how good my future tense was. As this tense wasn’t my forte, I decided to write that one night I went to bed and started to dream. I “was” in the future. Then I continued to write in the past tense, and even my long-suffering Irish teacher was impressed with my ingenuity. It was a rare moment of success in what was a very unimpressive Irish-speaking career.
Other than the years spent with Julie and my son, I can honestly say the year I repeated the Leaving Cert in an all-girls convent in Kells, Co Meath, was the best year of my life for two reasons.
Firstly, the girls were so nice to me and I loved being a bit of a novelty. I even bagged myself a date to the debs purely because the numbers were stacked in my favour. The second best thing about the year was not having to repeat Irish. I’d already got it as a minimum requirement. I forgot to tell this to my teacher who pulled me aside in the canteen and accused me of mitching for four months straight — but luckily I was less criminal mastermind and more happy to scrape a pass and leave it at that.
The only time I used Irish after that was in a few stand-up comedy routines. I’d tell a foreign audience that the “Irish oral” isn’t what it sounds like, or I’d recall how I once told my oral examiner I spent £300 a week on sweets. For an 18-year-old student in 1998, this would’ve been a suspicious amount of money, one sure to attract Cab’s attention if a similar claim were to be made in later years.
Prior to this mature Gaeltacht experience, I had only ever been to the Gaeltacht once, and that was for two nights only. In 1997, my mom drove me to Ráth Chairn, Co Meath. I had no idea where we were going, as she knew I would be too shy to give it a go if I were to get any bit of forewarning — so getting dropped to the middle of nowhere had me thinking I was going to live on a farm, like my uncle’s dog who we never saw again.
Just as I was about to panic, I saw two busloads of Templeogue Convent girls. Once again, I was the only boy surrounded by women, and I was only delighted. They viewed me with curiosity, a wild-haired, gangly teenager with a funny accent, and they were really kind to me, when they easily could have taken the piss. Our one-day school tour was a trip to Navan Shopping Centre. I can still see myself walking by Penneys with 104 young women from the south side of Dublin, showing them where Supermac’s was. Bystanders just watched me walking around like Robbie Williams and shook their heads in disbelief. If speaking Irish brought these kinds of social advantages, maybe I needed to study more.
Back to our Gaeltacht in 2022. Arriving in Ranafast, we met our truly noble and patient teacher Niall. The first thing he said was: “It’ll all come back to you.” All those Irish words that were thrown into the attic section of your brain the second you finished Irish Paper Two, were about to be taken down, dusted off and put to use again. He was so encouraging and really wanted us to believe that communicative conversation would have us presenting the Nuacht on TG4 in no time.
So enthusiastic was he that I found myself really excited about learning the cúpla focal. That said, the higher- and ordinary-level students really stood out on that very first day. For all our bonding, Des Cahill never told me on our epic journey to Co Donegal that he could speak Irish. Much like your mate who tells you he hasn’t studied for mathematics, then rocks up to the exam with laminated flashcards, it turns out Des knew way more than he had been letting on.
Social media star Lauren Whelan was another who floored me with her ability. She could speak Irish better than she could get followers on TikTok — and that says a lot, considering she has 1.7 million. I have rarely witnessed so much intelligence, natural ability and affability in one person. I’m sure the feeling was mutual.
Then there was the columnist and TV personality Amanda Brunker. I was so happy to have her on board, not just because she is so much fun, but also because, like me, she was terrible at Irish. While Des and Lauren were way ahead, I realised that I was back to the basics or, as our teacher Niall called it, scaffolding. I honestly remembered very little from Leaving Cert or even from primary school.
As much as I knew we had to start from the start, I was slightly embarrassed saying “Is mise Fred” beside a former Miss Ireland, a TikTok star, and an RTÉ heavy-hitter. I cringe for myself struggling to tell the class that my eyes are blue and my hair is grey. This was fourth-class stuff. Still, I remembered what Julie had said before I left for the week: in order to learn, you have to leave your ego at the door. The only way for me to learn to speak the language properly was to put my silly pride aside and just try and start talking.
Like Alcoholics Anonymous, step one is admitting you’ve got a problem — that is, you can’t speak Irish or have little Irish. Step two for me was to burn the nightmare-inducing memory of Leaving Cert Irish, to burn the school books, which I’d already done, way back in 1999, like I was a communist in Mao Tse-Tung’s China.
Honestly, the setting of the course had us all motivated to reconnect with our native tongue. The scenery was unbelievably inspiring. Walking through the wild and vast landscape of Co Donegal, Mount Errigal starting talking to me (not in a ‘I shouldn’t have eaten that funny mushroom’ kind of way, but in a WB Yeats ‘I feel a poem coming on kind of way’). The hills told me to allow myself to be embraced into the landscape. The landscape wanted me to be a bit more like Tommy Tiernan voyaging through the Epic West, only with more Irish and less poitín.
You could imagine Fionn Mac Cumhaill roaming these fields, jumping over high ditches with his hounds, sliotar and hurley stick. I had nothing of Fionn’s prowess or skill, but one classmate who had all this in abundance was the stunning footballer Oisín Mullins. When he arrived a day late into our Irish class for beginners, all the other students could see themselves in the reflection of his long, flowing hair. So lush was his crown, I did feel like it was a bit of a personal attack on my shiny, follicle-free head. Sitting down, it was like watching a L’Oréal ad up close and personal. I offered him my class notes purely to find out what his hair-growing secret was.
Looking back, I think Des Cahill and Oisín Mullins need to get a reward for sharing a room with me. I snore. I snore so loudly I’m sure even the lights in the garage were shaking. I knew every morning when we sat down to share breakfast how their silence said a thousand words. They were perpetually exhausted, and probably understood how my wife had waved me off with such gusto. She was looking forward to finally getting some kip.
One of the bonuses in the Gaeltacht is having your breakfast, dinner and tea laid out for you every day. I started to get embarrassed. I felt like an old bishop just waiting for my food to be served. Caitlín, our bean an tí, was lovely. Des said she treated me like one of her own children. She was always looking for any Gaeltacht gossip. Unfortunately she wasn’t going to find it with two married men and a Mayo footballer in a long-term relationship. So we just made stuff up for her. Stuff like we’d convinced Oisín that Donegal doesn’t have Wednesdays.
The five celebrities were split into two classes. One for the advanced class and another for those who couldn’t even spell advanced, never mind in Irish. Des Cahill and Lauren Whelan were in the advanced class, while Oisín, Amanda and myself were still learning the basics.
One thing our teacher Niall did was make sure the class was fun. No exams, no pressure — except for two RTÉ cameras in our faces. One day we acted out an aimsir láithreach (regional weather). Thankfully, Oisín had forgotten as much Irish as I had, saying: “Ag cur báistí anois, ach anocht, beidh an ghrian ag taitneamh” (It is raining now, but tonight, the sun will be shining). Between Amanda, Oisín and me, all we had to do was speak simple, everyday Irish. Being away from family commitments and work deadlines, I started to feel free. Free to walk around, have the craic and speak whatever Irish we could. As a 42-year-old dad, these chances don’t often come your way, so I wanted to make the most of it.
I’d often imagine what the other students in Higher Level Irish were doing compared to us telling each other our names and our hair colour. They must be debating the cultural relevance of Ulysses through Irish or getting bogged down in how the Large Hadron Collider works through the modh coinníollach. Meanwhile, our class were getting our outfits ready for the Hawaiian céilí and practising counting to eight.
My first experience of a ceilí was back on a holiday in Co Kerry in 1991 when I gatecrashed a night in the halla, by our holiday home, and got kicked out for doing the moonwalk. Back then, I was full of wild energy, with no attention span. Now I had all the mature attention span a fortysomething man could have but the energy of a heavy rock that can’t be pushed.
In Ranafast, the céilí dances were a proper workout. I kept pretending that I needed to go to the toilet when all I really wanted was to get my breath back. We were all partnered up, boys alongside the girls, and after every eight bars of music we would move on to our next partner. I was exhausted. Along with the celebs, we had university students who were just brushing up on their spoken word.
To hold a room of 60 dancers, we needed a good leader. This job was given to a Gaeilgeoir legend, Hugh Carr. I knew Hugh from his brilliant online content and incredible energy. When he shouted: “An bhfuil tú réidh?” (Are you ready?), he brought the whole hall together for this céilí experience as we moved inwards, outwards, sideways and inwards again. The mood in the room was one of pure jubilance. It was like being in a moshpit for a rave.
Hugh is a great stand-up on the Irish circuit and he suggested I do some of my own stand-up as Gaeilge. The only thing we were missing was time to get a 10-minute slot right. Unless my audience wanted to hear me say, “Rith me, Rith tú, Rith sé, Rith sí...”, then it wasn’t happening. He showed great patience in transcribing for me: “Ladies and gentleman of Ranafest, Donegal, I thought I’d be among strangers but I actually recognise a good few of you from Tinder already.”
So if stand-up comedy wasn’t going to be my end-of-term party piece, then I could only sing a well-known song as Gaeilge. I chose Sit Down by Manchester indie band James. The chorus wrote itself: “Oh suí síos/Oh suí síos.” It’s when I started learning the verses as Gaeilge I was struck by how beautiful the translation was, how, within the language, there is an added layer of meaning that adds to the power of the lyrics. Sentences like “Canfaidh mé chun coladh/amhrán ó uair is dorcha” (I sing myself to sleep/a song from the darkest hour). This moment, tinkering away on the piano, singing these lines, is when I truly felt immersed. It was a feeling that filled me with a warmth, a sense of belonging. Like I was part of something truly special.
The Irish scholar Méabh Sloane kindly transcribed these lyrics for me. She was a game changer in my approach and love for the Irish language. My love of music was the one thing to help me break away from the memory of Leaving Cert Irish and opened up a whole new world in the language for me. That was my ‘in’. Towards the end of our week we all sailed across to Gola Island. Here I got to sing “Báidin Fheilimí”. This is a song that would have been drilled into us from our grandparents or early school days. On this island I could clearly imagine the small fishing boat that crashes on Tory Island. Being there brought a whole new meaning to the song, a meaning that couldn’t be learned in a primary school classroom.
Our end-of-course concert was to be our big farewell moment. We all had our party pieces ready to go. Des sang Sleepy Jean, Lauren sang Valerie, Amanda penned a beautiful Irish poem and Oisín soloed a football.
Everyone did brilliantly, but the night was bittersweet because it meant it was all coming to an end.
Looking back at the week, it was an incredible moment in time that I will always look back on with fondness. I don’t know what other situation in life would have me getting to work with a star footballer, a talented TikTok influencer, a legend of Irish sports broadcasting and a gifted poet who also happened to have been a Miss Ireland once upon a time.
As we get older, it gets harder to find firm friendship, but I’d like to think that’s what I found during the week we spent in the shadow of the majestic Mount Errigal.
Coming home, the first thing I did was ask Julie if we could make an effort to speak more Irish at home.
The big change for me was that I asked as Gaeilge and, previous to this week, I would always have felt silly trying to speak it, knowing I was probably making a million mistakes. Julie has always encouraged me and was thrilled when I asked.
Ever since, we have been speaking so much more Irish at home and I love it. If for no other reason that I finally know what herself and my son are giggling about, and it turns out it’s not me — phewzers.
‘Réaltaí na Gaeltachta’ is on Tuesdays on RTÉ One at 7pm. All episodes are available on RTÉ Player
Fred Cooke is currently on a national tour. See fredcookecomedian.com