With the annual Irish language festival taking place right now, non-Irish lovers of the Celtic tongue explain their passion for all things as Gaeilge
It’s a very 21st-century Gaelic revival. The international student is the new kid in Irish class, making up more than half of some beginners’ courses in language schools. A new generation of global speakers are determined to keep the language alive.
Conradh na Gaeilge (CnaG) — originally formed in 1893 to promote the Gaelic revival — now has people from all over the world signing up to learn Irish. The organisation has students from China, Japan, North America, Mexico and all across Europe on its books.
Restrictions imposed by the pandemic have increased the numbers of international learners, as courses had to go online. Ciaran Wadd of CnaG says: “Since March 2020, we have run three terms of online classes welcoming more than 430 students virtually, with registrations from 13 countries worldwide.”
The unifying interest that drives them appears to be a love of Irish culture and the preservation of a language that is in danger of dying out.
But what is it like to learn Gaeilge if you’re French or Russian? What’s the appeal of the ‘teanga’ to a foreigner? And is it difficult to teach Irish to those for whom English is their second language?
Leo Latorre is originally from the Piedmont region of Italy, but he has lived here for a decade and was made an Irish citizen in recent years.
When he got his certificate of naturalisation, he felt he wanted to give something back to the country he made home. For Leo (37), learning the language was a kind of reciprocity.
He says he has always had a love of Irish history and culture. “I came to Ireland a few times and it felt like home. I decided it would be my new home. My whole reason for coming here was cultural.
“My ex-wife is Irish and she would speak bits and pieces of Gaeilge, especially on holidays in Connemara. I was fascinated by the language. I thought I would give it a shot. Also, I have a son who is in school and I wanted to be able to give a hand with his homework.
“It’s an endangered language, and I am playing my small part in keeping it alive. After I made my oath, it flicked a switch: I needed to give something back.”
Leo, who works in recruitment, has completed three Irish courses with Conradh — beginners 1 and 2, and refresher 1. “I loved going to the pop-up Gaeltacht, before Covid. You’d be a bit scarlet at the beginning, but then you’d have a drink or two and just go with the flow.
“I love how — as Gaeilge — you have to think differently. It’s not the same as English or Italian. For example, in Irish you say: ‘There is a hunger upon me — tá ocras orm’. You become aware there are phrases in English that you hear Irish people use, that have been directly translated from the mother tongue.
“It’s a difficult language, I won’t lie, especially the grammar. For the pronunciation you just follow some simple rules, but the syntax is different and it’s a struggle.”
Mariko Shimaguchi (46) is from Japan and has been in Ireland since 2005. Now a tour guide in Dublin — currently on pause due to Covid restrictions — she too was seduced by Irish culture.
“I read Irish legends and listened to Irish music, and I had friends from Ireland in Tokyo who’d love to go for drinks in Irish pubs,” she explains.
“I loved Ireland and it has a beautiful language of its own, and I wanted to learn it. I first did a beginners’ course in Galway in 2009 and would go to Inis Mór and Connemara, where I could speak in Irish. I started proper study again last year, with my little boy, Iarla.”
“Conradh run a parent-and-toddler class and we started that together in 2019. It is very difficult for me, being Japanese, and having to learn it through English. The three languages are completely different.
“But I am really enjoying learning Irish and I’m studying every day. I watch the childrens’ Irish television programming, Cula 4, on TG4 with Iarla. I listen to Raidió na Gaeltachta and sometimes send text messages as Gaeilge.”
Multilingual Guillermo Martinez Espino is from Mexico City and learned Irish ahead of moving here last month for a new job in tech.
“I’m a language lover — Irish will be my seventh language, and the most difficult so far. I started learning last year because I like to get deeply involved in the country I’ll be living in. It makes me feel happy if I can contribute to the spreading of the language.
“I like how Irish sounds; all the metaphors hidden in the meanings of some words. The grammar is completely different from Romance and Germanic languages, which makes it especially difficult. But it is kind of a dare for me.
“Words are pronounced differently to how they are written and the spellings can be hard to remember. Overall, the grammar is quite complicated; some verbs are completely irregular.
“In Mexico, we have over 60 languages and most of them are in danger too. At school, we just learn English and Spanish. I guess it makes me feel proud if I help conserve the Irish language.”
Teacher Tara Ui Adhmaill says she always asks new students why they’ve joined the class. “A lot of people are coming from Irish backgrounds; their grandparents may have emigrated to the country they are coming from and they feel a link to Ireland.
“Others are married to Irish spouses and want to be able to help their children with their Irish schoolwork. Some are just interested in Celtic languages.”
Tara says that in a way it is easier to teach those who are from another country and more likely to be bilingual or multilingual. She teaches CnaG’s beginners 1 class, which is international beginners.
“When someone has already learned a language to a certain fluency, they have a grasp on language that monolinguists don’t. If you’ve only one language, you’re constantly trying to translate back into that language. They’re not afraid of grammar, unlike Irish people!”
Her colleague, Ursula Ni Shionnain, says the international students have “no baggage” around Irish.
“They don’t associate it with school and so they don’t associate it with authority. A common theme amongst students who are not from Ireland is that they want to understand the country they are living in. Learning the language is an integral part of the culture.”
She thinks the new students are a fantastic tribute to the beauty of our language and the power of Irish identity — and the global surge of interest in learning Irish makes her feel proud. “Who knows?” she says. “Maybe some students might go on to become teachers themselves.”
And so a new generation of Irish speakers may be the ones to pass it on.
‘Seachtain na Gaeilge le Energia’ is running now until St Patrick’s Day, March 17. The annual international festival is the biggest Irish language festival in the world, and is celebrated by over one million people on five continents every year. See snag.ie