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learning the Irish language

Updated on November 27, 2014
The one on the left is Des Bishop
The one on the left is Des Bishop

Looking to combine a language lesson with your three-week activity holiday in Ireland? Then check out the dedicated 'gaeilteacht' areas. You live with an Irish-speaking family, go to class in the mornings, play games or hike in the afternoons and spend the evenings dancing. You or your teenager will not only get fit and fabulous, but you'll also make ever-lasting bonds with our language.

Gaeilteacht area holidays are where Irish teens go during the summer months to practice the Irish they've been learning in school all year. The experience is immersive, which means that you'd need a basic level of Irish to engage with the tutors and activities' facilitators. But if Des Bishop can do it, so can anyone.

Des Bishop is a Noo Yoiker, a comedian who's been taken to At Homers' hearts as one of our own. At Homers are those Irish who still live on the island in my personal vocabulary and one of the reasons why he's been adopted by the Irish is because he had the gumption to settle here, travel the country taking the Mick out of us, which to those whose mother tongue isn't English, means he feeds us wry, rude, astute, and most often outright funny observations about ourselves that we can instantly recognise.

Another of the reasons we love him is because he not only settled here he took on the challenge of learning our language: Gaeilge. It's a celtic language, as is Scots Gallic, Welsh and Breton in northern France too.

There are four distinct types of Gaeilge as spoken by contemporary gaeilgoirs here: Munster, Connaught, Ulster (closest to Scots Gallic) and Pidgin Irish. I speak the latter variety. Des Bishop, the Noo Yoiker, speaks contemporary Connaught Irish having learned it over the course of a television series shown on our national broadcaster RTÉ. (Contemporary Irish is evolving to a standard spelling and pronunciation so the differences in the three provincial threads are narrowing.) If you've already begun learning and need related light relief, the Des Bishop series was called In the Name of the Fada, which is a pun on both the Jim Sheridan movie that starred Daniel Day Lewis and a grammatical accent that often changes the meaning of the word, a fada. Before my time it used to be called a sheenoo fada and it's the same as a French acute (as opposed to a grave like in Gallic). An example of how it changes the meaning of the word is that sean means old, and Seán is a boy's name, John. Another example we were given in school is that Éire is the nation and Eire is a particular kind of rubbish (there may have been a smart mouth involved in the retelling of that one).

Our Dessie wasn't the first Noo Yoiker to come up with the pun. A New York state woman (Noreen Jasper from Albany) I met in 1983 came up with the same idea. She asked me how my name was spelled and I told her. "A fada, i, n, e." I may have nodded here, much like fozzy bear, to underline how little more explanation it needed. I realised I was wrong when she started copying me, nodding at first too, and then started shaking her head. I explained the accent and she told me she thought I was telling her something about my mudda and my fada.

My pidgin Irish is the remnants of an Irish Leaving Cert level of fluency 30 years ago and my cúpla focail get topped up sporadically by watching TG4, a TV channel dedicated to keeping the language alive for interested people in Ireland and beyond. There's a radio channel with the same aims here too called Radio Na Gaeilteachta. The language is still taught as a core subject in our mainstream primary and secondary schools and there are some state-supported dedicated gaeilscoils in which all subjects are taught through the medium of the language. There are also summer schools for kids that are great 'craic' (fun) and, very often, are popular with so many Irish teens as it's the first time they get to go on holidays without their parents. This video is of local Indie band The Pale singing one of their hits in Irish, and here is a good first contact if you'd like to send your teens to a three-week camp in 2015.

If you're part of the diaspora that's equally keen on being able to speak Irish, there are glic ways and means of doing it. First off, obviously, check to see if there are classes you can attend in your locality. Either a formally trained teacher from Ireland or a native speaker will be able to teach you in jig time. Even when you successfully complete a distance learning course you'll have to learn to speak it until you can set up coffee mornings of your own.

There are plenty in the States such as this one, as the Des Bishop series and its sequel showed, there are pockets of like-minded people in lots of Irish-influenced neighbourhoods. Or you could check out a comprehensive list of local classes across the States for the nearest one to you.

Once you've grasped the basics you can test out your skills with a visit to any of the three areas of the country in which Irish is still spoken on a daily basis as a first language. All of them continue to thrive as centres of learning for our own teenagers who are augmenting the formal lessons they're getting in school. But the gaeilteachts have capacity and specially-designed modules for adult learners and happen to be in areas of spectacular natural beauty: North Kerry, Connemara and Donegal.

Meanwhile, there are television series you can buy as box sets to hear the words as they're said. An Irish-language soap opera on TG4 that can be bought in box sets is called Ros Na Rún. Filmed in Galway it's a genuine 'slice of life' weekly drama that reflects contemporary suburban Ireland. Daithí Ó Sé, a TG4 presenter from Kerry, did a travelogue on Route 66 you could track down. Another Irish language box set worth finding, is a series called Seacht, pronounced 'shocked' and produced by the BBC. As a drama it's more akin to the UK's Hollyoaks (from Channel 4 and also aimed at a young demographic) but it's riveting drama and is an example of Ulster Irish. Another way to brush up your fluency could be to subscribe for a while to the Irish language web tv service.

A video link on You Tube that will brighten your day as it shows Irish kids from Coláiste (college) Lurgan performing a song that's been translated into gaeilge and sung by Laoibhse Ní Nualláin is well worth checking out.

Elizabeth in rags 'as gaeilge'


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    • ainehannah profile imageAUTHOR

      Aine O'Connor 

      8 years ago from Dublin

      Hi Tony, Scots gallic is much akin to ours (BBC's Alba channel is often comprehensible and like TG4 has English subtitles sometimes).

      Prionsias (said prun-chi-as) is the Irish for Frank or Francis just like Áine is Anna or Hannah. Thanks for the comment and I'm delighted you enjoyed it. :0)

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Lovely read which I really enjoyed! I love languages generally and am fascinated by the Celtic ones, given my Scottish ancestry. Not that I know too much about them, but I am interested!

      Had a very dear Irish friend many years back called in English Francis, but he called himself I think something like Princias (not sure of the spelling!).

      Thanks for the interesting read.

      Love and peace


    • Mystique1957 profile image


      9 years ago from Caracas-Venezuela

      ainehannah...You left me wondering here with that last sentence before the (Phew)LOL. It is interesting to know that there are different types of Irish. I, particularly, did not know! For me, anything that teaches me something nice and new is always worth reading!

      Thanks for sharing!

      Thumbs up!

      warmest regards and blessings,



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