‘New Zealand is home now, but an teanga is my home within’

Seachtain na Gaeilge: Speaking Irish in... Christchurch

I was brought up bilingually. My daidí Rory Walsh had a sports injury in his 20s and started attending Irish classes held in his clubrooms on the same night his team would be training. He took up the uileann pipes too, and travelled around the Gaeltacht areas learning all the different canúintí.

He married Fionnuala in 1975, and they decided to bring us bilingually. We attended Scoil Lorcáin Naíonra and Bunscoil in Monkstown, followed by Coláiste Íosagáin and Eoin. We spent every summer in the remote and windswept Gaeltacht of Portacloy, Co Mayo. Each one of us was also sent off in Rang a Cuig to live with a Gaeltacht family and attend the local school there for a whole term. I was sent as a shy child to a family of nine sons and one daughter in Inis Meain; I returned with the ability to talk to anyone.

After a postgraduate diploma in Froebel College, I ended up full circle as a múinteoir in Scoil Lorcáin. I really loved my job, so it was difficult to move with my Kiwi husband Mark to Christchurch in New Zealand at the end of 2004, along with our then three-month-old firstborn, Dara Jimín.

I became very involved in the Irish Society here after a phone call from another Dubliner Elaine O’Leary, who was helping to set up an Irish group for children, who had heard there was a fluent Irish-speaking teacher in town. For several years we ran Tír na n-Óg, a workshop for the children of Irish emigrants. Elaine and I ran the Irish language side of things. We all made very strong friendships during those few years. I suppose we became family to each other, in the absence of our own clans back home.

READ MORE

Elaine and I were then offered a position in the biggest night school in the South Island, teaching Kiwis how to speak Irish. We were voted “Best Class of the Year”’ twice in a row, and most of our students stayed with us for the second year. It was a unique language class, in that there were two of us teaching together, which meant our students (who ranged in age from 16 to 76) actually got to hear Gaeilge being spoken. We had great craic teaching it, and had fun techniques, such as blindfolding each other while teaching directions. We also were the only class that stopped for a cupán tae midway through each class, and we all went to a seisiún in the Bog Irish Pub a few times too.

Canterbury Museum was running an exhibition called "Around the World in 40 Lounges" (a lounge being a New Zealand sitting-room). Elaine and I were interviewed by a Christchurch Radio Station, and the interview recording was used as the voiceover for the Irish Lounge for the duration of the exhibition. The radio station actually offered us a weekly slot of our own, but the timing wasn't right with more babies on the way.

Then the earthquakes hit and everything changed. I think we were all in shock for such a long time afterwards; I just wanted to stay close to home and keep things simple. The 20-minute drive to the Irish Hall became 45 minutes with all the road works and diversions. I live in one of the worst-affected areas, and mental survival became the main thing for a long time; keeping life simple. Life slowly got better though, and despite everything we have a great lifestyle here now. My son just won a big surfing competition on the South Island Circuit. Our daughter has just started competing too. I can’t imagine they’d have had that life so easily growing up in Dublin.

After the earthquakes, the Irish started pouring into Christchurch for the rebuild and the new-Irish had different needs and started different groups. Since then I have become very involved with my own local community, and the regeneration of our immediate area has become more of a focus. I am on the board of a very sophisticated community trust.

I am still very close to Elaine and a few others, but my weekly conversations with Daidi are usually as often as I speak Gaeilge now. From time to time I speak Gaeilge with my siblings Sadhbh, Rua and Ianek, and also to the next generation. Not one of us has ended up with an Irish partner. My son Dara is a very bright fella in every way bar linguistically (he takes after my mum who has never spoken Irish to us!) and so he only has a cúpla focail. Our daughter Ava Sadhbh has an ear alright, but by the time she was old enough I was out of the habit of speaking Irish much to Dara, and so she only has a cúpla focail also.

Gaeilge is the filíocht within me. If the earthquakes didn't get us home to Ireland, then nothing will. And so if here is home now, well then an teanga is my home within. As an emigrant you feel grief and guilt for living so far away from home and everyone there… maybe after the time we've had I need to keep something of myself, for myself. I'm sure the day will come when I feel ready to share the language again.