The Dutchman who speaks Irish

Alex Hijmans is a man in a hurry

Alex Hijmans is a man in a hurry. Although only 26, he has had stints working as a reporter with Raidió na Gaeltachta and the Irish language Sunday newspaper Foinse; fronted a European current affairs programme on TG4; edited the Irish language literary magazine Comhar, has translated two children's books from Dutch to Irish and is a regular scriptwriter with TG4's soap Ros na Rún. Aingilín, his first foray into theatre, is being performed in Bananaphoblacht, the Irish-language coffee shop.

Hijmans's career is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that he's only lived in this country for five years. Quietly spoken and self-effacing, he can switch from Irish to English with effortless fluency - an archetypal Dutchman at home in the global village. "Ever since I've come to Ireland I've always been regarded as 'the Dutchman who speaks Irish'. What's always amazed me is that it's looked upon as odd here whereas in Holland a Dutch person learning Irish or Czech or Chinese or any other language is quite normal. Learning foreign languages is a big thing in Holland."

The speed of Hijmans's mastery of Irish would seem to debunk the myth that it's a difficult language to learn. So how did he succeed where the Irish educational system has failed? "I always think of that as one of questions that will be revealed when you die and go to heaven and are given the answers to all the big questions of life. It amazes me how people can spend 14 years learning Irish at school and can't put a single sentence together."

Like most of the continental coterie of literary heavies who came here during the Gaelic revival at the beginning of the last century, he has absolutely no family ties with this country. "You don't need that to have an interest in a language," he suggests, "but if somebody moves to a different country the least they can do is learn to speak the language."


Born in the town of Heemskerk, 20 miles north-west of Amsterdam, Hijmans's interest in Irish was first aroused during a series of family holidays here. This prompted him to take a degree in Celtic Studies at the University of Utrecht, which has a long link with Ireland and houses the largest Celtic library on the continent. Among its alumni is Prof Maartje Draak whose translation of The Táin sold well in Holland during the 1940s. Part of the degree programme involved spending a year in a Celtic country, and Hijmans came to Galway in 1995. He joined An Cumann Drámaíochta in NUIG and learned most of his Irish from friends and by laboriously searching the dictionary for every single word he heard or read. He returned to Ireland in 1997 to do a post-graduate course in applied communications. A brief and successful flirtation with the Irish language media followed, before Hijmans brought a whole new meaning to the term "Irish coffee" by setting up Bananaphoblacht - Galway's first Irish-language café. He dispels any suggestion of ghettoisation, however. As if to underline the cosmopolitan nature of Bananaphoblacht, an intensive Irish course for refugees and asylum seekers organised by Conradh na Gaeilge and The Galway One World Centre is taking place in the café this week as part of Seachtain na Gaeilge.

"The idea is to give them some extra confidence in living in this country by giving them an understanding of the country's native language. This is something I can identify with."

Aingilín runs at Bananaphoblacht, Dominick Street, Galway, tonight at 7 p.m. and tomorrow at 3 p.m.