Life as Gaeilge: Irish Language Course

By Sheila McMahon

My STEP Experience was a four-week intensive Irish language course through the National University of Ireland, Galway. I lived with other students in an Irish-speaking home in the village of An Cheathrú Rua (Carraroe), and took part in hours of daily language classes, lessons in cultural elements such as sean-nós (old-style) singing and dancing, and excursions to various sites in the region.

My experience in Ireland has affected me in many ways which I am only beginning to discover. The most obvious way that the post-Ireland me differs from the pre-Ireland me is that I can now speak (some) Irish. But the real transformations go much deeper than a new knowledge of vocabulary and grammar. The consequence of being immersed in the culture of the Connemara Gaeltacht (a region where Irish is still spoken natively) is that I have observed firsthand the complicated and fraught situation that surrounds the Irish language. I have been present on the battleground for its survival, and learned that although my role is not on the front lines I can still help the cause.

Through this experience I have learned better the tremendous value of living in a particular community to get a firsthand understanding of their way of life. I now understand more thoroughly the historical forces that contribute to the formation of an Irish person’s consciousness. I have also become more aware of the way in which different sections of the population have evolved culturally in response to major political and economic changes. As the nation forges ahead in the 21st century, it appears that the majority of its people are encountering profound changes in their relationship to the traditional culture that pervaded Ireland until quite recently, which some are relieved to disengage from and others are anxious to preserve. These observations prompted reflection on my own society, the strong affinity among many Americans for their ancestral heritage and the factors that act on Americans’ consciousness and culture.

By studying the Irish language, I was entering a struggle of huge significance. The language is one of the most controversial entities in modern Ireland, dividing the Gaeltacht from the rest of the country and caught in the center of debates about modernization and tradition. The Irish language is at the heart of the culture of the Gaeltacht and is of fundamental importance to their identity. They face great challenges in trying to maintain that identity while adapting to the modern world, preserving their traditions in the face of cultural homogenization without fossilizing them. The Irish-speakers I talked to, in particular my host mom and teachers, commented on how big changes had taken place in Carraroe in the last 10-20 years, such as the arrival of new people and the unrelenting encroachment of English. But in response to those challenges, there has been a renewed interest in the language and the establishment of programs such as the one I attended.

It was a great privilege to stay in the home of a community member, and I learned a great deal from my interactions in the home. Seeing my host mom and her husband speaking with their 10-month-old grandson drove home the point that he and his generation constitute the future of the language, and that every parent’s decision to speak Irish or English to their children determined the language’s life or death. It demonstrated to me how every single personal and seemingly small decision affects the course of history.

The course also included guest lectures on sociolinguistic aspects of the Irish language and these played a huge role in opening my eyes to new information, presented by experts who had devoted their lives to studying and fighting for the language and were inspirational in their passion for it. Discussions with my fellow students of Irish further deepened my interest, and through these I discovered that I have an important role in the language’s survival as well: although I cannot directly ensure the transmission of the language to my children, by attending the program I contributed to a community where that can take place, and I can make it more likely by raising the profile of the language and drawing attention to it.

It is one thing to read about the state of the language and efforts to revive or preserve it, but it is quite another the witness its reality. I have still only begun to see just how complicated and messy the situation is, not nearly enough to fully understand the mindset of Irish-speakers, but I am better able to empathize with the people of the Gaeltacht in their concern for the tragic plight of the language: an aching at the idea of its loss, a sadness and anger at the apparent indifference of the world and the rest of the country, an incredible frustration at the circumstances that seem to offer hope but keep it just out of reach, and underneath all of that a grim and determined resolve to press on towards that hope because something that is held so deeply is worth fighting for.

The experience has confirmed that linguistics is definitely the right field for my skills and passions. It has stirred my passion for minority languages in general, and the Irish language in particular, to a greater and more emotional height. It is not now merely an academic interest, if it ever was. Looking forward now, I could see myself continuing to study some aspect of Irish or of other minority languages, which will be informed by my experiences in Ireland. My career path is yet to be determined but I know that even if don’t work with Irish or other minority languages professionally I can still devote my time and interest to it in other ways. In the meantime, I am also eager to continue practicing this beautiful language that I so enjoy and raising awareness of its existence and value.

I have learned and grown much more from this experience than I could begin to describe here. From singing and dancing to traveling to walking around town, the month was incredibly rich and full of wonderful experiences. I will forever treasure the memories I made during my time in Carraroe, and none so much as the people I shared it with. The language’s essential value is its relationship to people and community, and I am extremely grateful for the friendship of my fellow students and the welcome we received from the community of An Cheathrú Rua. This, more than anything, is what I will carry with me into the future.