After deciding they were going to raise their children through Irish, even though neither of them were native speakers, Rónán Mac an tSaoir and his wife got a dog, named it Scamaill – the Irish for cloud – and “started talking Irish to the dog, just to practise” for when their children came along.
More than a cúpla focal have been spoken in the years since and on Monday night it was announced that Rónán and Colette’s family, from Navan in Co Meath, are one of two that have been chosen to live rent free on Inis Meáin.
The competition offering nine months of rent-free accommodation attracted more than 1,600 applications worldwide – the Sheehy family from Curraghchase in Co Limerick were also successful. Both families are now in the process of registering their children at the local schools on the island, and will have to pay for household and utility bills only for the nine months.
Twenty families out of the 1,600 who applied were shortlisted and asked to submit a video application and four families took part in an interview on August 19th.
The Mac an tSaoir family consists of Rónán, Colette, and their five children – Róisín (7), Darach (6), Benín (4), and twins Tomás and Siún (1). Although the family are from Navan, the children were attending school in the Meath Gaeltacht of Rathcairn.
Rónán is a software developer for IBM and works from home, while Colette worked as a secondary schoolteacher in Navan, but is taking a career break to partake in the initiative, which was run by Comhlacht Forbartha Inis Meáin.
Having met while studying linguistics and French together in university, one of their courses was in psycholinguistics, where the pair learned about how children acquire language.
“You could have lads in the Caribbean from all sorts of places, all parts of the world, and they’d have to come up with ways to communicate. You could have Chinese words or African words or French words or all sorts of stuff all mixed together,” Rónán said.
“But their kids would take all of those different mixtures and naturally, just from their own minds, would put a grammar on it. That kind of got us thinking, that even though we weren’t native speakers, if we just used what Irish we had, that the children’s minds would actually do the rest.
“Then the kids came along and we had to think hard about it. Were we really going to make this commitment? Just to speak Irish to the kids all the time, and we figured we’d give it a go.”
Valerie Sheehy was on her way to her parents’ house to tell them that she and her family would be moving to Inis Meáin for nine months when she spoke to The Irish Times.
Valerie, her husband Conor, and their four children – Emma (6), Tomás (5), Cathal (4) and Ciara (1) – decided earlier on this year, after Valerie stopped working and did a TEG course in May, that they “really need to make an effort” in their Irish language skills.
The Sheehy family hope to move out to the island before September 1st, which is when their children start back at school.
“[The kids] were like, ‘When are we moving?’ It’s been the question of the week, ‘When are we going?’ and whenever I go to get the car keys they’re like, ‘Oh! Are we going to the islands now?’” Valerie said.
Comhlacht Forbartha Inis Meáin was established by islanders in 2016 to help promote the island, ensure services, preserve the language, attract funding and ensure a better life for the people of Inis Meáin, according to its website.
The island has a preschool, a primary school and a secondary school, along with a newly opened digital tech hub for remote working.
Inis Meáin is the smallest of the Aran Islands in terms of population, with about 183 people living there, according to the 2016 census.
Chairwoman of Comhlacht Forbartha Inis Meáin, Mairéad Ní Fhátharta, said the comhlacht were “very proud” of the initiative regarding the provision of a house rent free for the academic year: “It has now come to a close and it is especially heartening that so many people entered the competition,” she said.
“It generates hope for the Gaeltacht areas that so many people expressed such an interest in the Irish language and in living in a rural area,” she added.