Back to the Gaeltacht: an adult emigrant returns to learn Irish

Michael McCaughan visits three Gaeltachtaí as he attempts to regain his teanga náisiúnta

‘I am off to the Gaeltacht for a week.” My announcement is greeted with the adulation normally reserved for volunteers heading to the orphanages of Kolkata. “You are so brave,” says one friend.

The flipside of acclaim is the assumption of a hidden agenda. “Is that some sort of dating agency?” asks another.

My previous affair with the Irish language climaxed with a summer fling in the 1970s in Baile Mhúirne, Cork, at 12 years of age. Since then I completed the Leaving Cert (a B in honours Irish) but shortly afterwards took off for Latin America. I have lived most of my life there, working as a journalist, and have learned to speak Spanish fluently – but have barely spoken a word of Irish.

The road back to the teanga náisiúnta began around two years ago, when I started listening to Raidió na Gaeltachta online.


Lately the language has come over me like a fever, prompting decisive action: a return to Tobar na Gaeilge, the source. I have chosen to spend part of this summer back in Ireland visiting three Gaeltachtaí, in Donegal, Galway and Kerry. All three host Irish language courses for adults.

As I pull into Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, Co Kerry, heart of the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht, I ask a couple of locals for directions, as Gaeilge. They start talking in Irish but quickly switch to Béarla. I feel rejected.

Inside the brand new Ionad Gaeilge, a custom-built language centre formally opened the previous week, teacher Bernie Pháid awaits. I have been assigned to a meánleibhéal course, where reasonable competence is assumed. Bernie soon has the 18 of us on our feet and chatting in what might charitably be described as pidgin Irish.

There are as many motives as learners on the course. “Bhí ocras na teanga orm,” says Paul, a poet from Cork. (“The hunger of the language was upon me.”) The size of the class and the poor acoustics make it tough for the múinteoir but Bernie, an accomplished singer, brings the language to life with snatches of local songs and scéalta. Her passion is contagious.

Making mistakes

The week passes in a flash and I know more work is required. I have also signed up for a course at Oideas Gael, Donegal’s well-known language centre which has hosted Mary McAleese, Daniel O’Donnell and other luminaries in recent years.

Director Liam Ó Cuinneagáin has watched the organisation grow from 34 adult students in 1984 to 1,200 last year. A psychologist and educator, Ó Cuinneagáin profiles each learner, adapting courses and welcoming students from abroad.

“Irish people perk up when they see a Belgian or Russian in the same class as them, learning the language, making mistakes,” he says.

Oideas means “formula”, and a key principle is that relaxation and lack of pressure are central to the learning process.

I find myself sharing a house with two Irishmen and a young US student from Notre Dame University, Indiana. Jack has all the right throat sounds and embarrassingly good grammar yet he sees nothing noteworthy in his progress, the product of two years of a degree course in Irish in Notre Dame.

Our teacher Diarmuid Johnson points out our flat English-inflected pronunciation, “the wet sandwich”, he calls it, that results in pronunciations like “‘taw gaylge agum”.

Sounds of the language

Johnson arrives into class without notes and spends some time staring out the window. The first surprise? He is from Connemara, not Donegal. The next surprise? We spend two hours savouring half a dozen phrases, ungluing sounds, working out where they are produced in the throat, mouth and chest.

Johnson effortlessly deconstructs fuaimeanna na Gaeilge, the sounds of the language, before getting us to put them back together. Listen and repeat.

The effect is magical, as the mysteries of the spoken tongue are revealed. We learn to distinguish sounds, (“dhá dhath dheasa”), recognise seven different Ls and cope with the trickiest of beasts, the “ng” which arises when “in Galway” becomes i nGaillimh. The “ng” sound is the same as that of “song” or “long” and only confuses because it appears at the start of a word.

Johnson works us like mules, and on day three the star pupil (no, not me) falls asleep in class as we reprise a tricky consonant manoeuvre. “Lig é ina chodladh,” suggests the teacher.

Johnson is a poet, flute-player and linguist knowledgable in Welsh, Breton, Irish, English, Scots Gaelic, French, German, and Romanian. In class he is part performance artist, part múinteoir.

One class is built around an attempt to sell us his coat while another leaves two students weeping with laughter. The topic? An modh coinníollach, the infamous conditional tense which has driven millions of Irish to emigration and self-loathing.

At Oideas Gael you can learn the harp through Irish, go hillwalking through Irish or just relax and ignore the Irish altogether.

Oideas also means “healing”, and while childhood memories of learning Irish cannot be erased, a week in Gleann Cholm Cille feels like a reconciliation of sorts with the language.

I compare my new grasp of the sounds of Irish to the native speakers on Raidió na Gaeltachta and find myself wanting.

Ta ocras an teanga fós orm, so I sign up for a course in an Ceathra Rua, Connemara, home of the Acadamh, an outreach of NUIG, which organises a broad range of Irish courses for adults, from a weekend refresher to a four-year degree.

There is no need to go searching for Gaeilgeoirí in an Ceathra Rua; they are all around me. At 9am on Monday the Eurospar opposite the Acadamh rings with the sounds of An Ghaeilge, almost all of them unintelligible to me, apart from the standard greeting, “Cén chaoi ina bhfuil tú?” condensed into a single bullet like sound: “Kayhoinawilltoo?”

Speed-dating session

If a German carmaker was asked to design an Irish language course, it would probably look like the Acadamh’s dianchúrsa. The teachers arrive armed with handouts, exercises and PowerPoint presentations, but we begin with a speed-dating session, allowing the eight of us to get to know each other.

This course offers one unique advantage: a host family to stay with and all meals included.

It feels like a return to childhood as we get up each morning with no greater purpose than to turn up for breakfast on time and make our way to class. Mairéad and Pádraig are extraordinary hosts who spare no effort in making us feel comfortable, allowing us the run of their home.

The Acadamh course is highly academic but as the week advances, it becomes clear that if you don’t know the rules and regulations, the séimhiús and urús, you cannot make yourself understood. I cry out loud on Wednesday when I finally work out masculine and feminine rules under the bemused gaze of teacher Cormac.

An unexpected highlight occurs when a friend with an aunt living in the area invites me over for dinner. This is the stiffest test yet as Róisín, Donncha, Sinéad and Máirín treat me like a fellow Gaeilgeoir over the course of a long evening covering politics, religion and the fate of the language. I arrive home and collapse into bed, realising for perhaps the first time ever, that I had ceased worrying about the language and simply enjoyed it.

The evening highlights a weakness common to all three courses: the lack of contact with locals outside of class. There are outings and pubs, but the locals cannot be expected to hang around all night waiting for us to compose a sentence or two. Would it be possible to devise a scheme whereby native speakers volunteered to “adopt” outsiders keen to listen and learn?

Over the course of three weeks in three Gaeltachtaí a door opened just a fraction, revealing a glimpse of the life within and promising greater gifts ahead.,,