How children in London are learning the Irish language through play
A playgroup is helping parents introduce Irish language to youngsters in a fun way
Parent Matt Healy reading a story at the London Irish Playgroup in the London Irish Centre in Camden. Photograph: Malcolm McNally
In the London Irish Centre in Camden on the last Saturday of every month, parents crowd in with their children for a day of songs and fun. The twist? It’s all done as Gaeilge. The parents are members of the London Irish Playgroup, where they bring their children once a month to speak and sing in Irish to help them pick up the language.
Parents disperse to different parts of the room with their children after arriving on the day. Some travel from London, but others come from further afield. In one corner, a box of Irish language children’s books is left on a table. At the other end is a play area with toys for the children, and this is where the bulk of the activity happens.
The parents stick to speaking as Gaeilge as much as possible, and sit around on the floor with the kids, singing and talking to them in the language. When the time comes, even “clean up” is sung through Irish. Trad musicians are also in attendance to play music as Gaeilge for the children.
Raising your child to be fluent in the Irish language isn’t an easy feat for most parents, let alone those living in London. However, the London Irish Playgroup aims to make that goal easier, with a regular opportunity for parents to get their children speaking the language.
This is thanks to James McDonald, who set up the playgroup in January 2017.
Originally from Gorey, Co Wexford, James has been living in London since 2005. He learned how to speak Irish as an adult by spending time in the Gaeltacht and doing some study in his own time.
When his partner became pregnant with their first child in 2016, they decided they would raise him bilingually. The question was: how? He asked around to see if there was a playgroup where parents could bring their children to learn the Irish language in a natural, fun environment. To his disappointment, there was nothing of the sort.
However, the arts office at the London Irish Centre had a suggestion – would he like to set one up? “That January, we started the playgroup,” says James during a brief break at the event. “It’s evolved a lot and there are a lot of regular people coming along now. The idea has been the same from the start: we just wanted to have a really fun, natural space for kids to have experiences with the language. It’s not a class. There’s no formality to it at all. We facilitate the use of the Irish language and sing in the language as much as possible, and the kids pick it up.”
The group has now been in existence for over a year and is going from strength to strength. Some parents attend every month, and some are more occasional visitors. They also have new people coming all the time.
“The research into raising your kids bilingually is well accepted – there are many benefits,” says James. “Learning Irish is likely to make my son not only better at learning other languages, but it’s going to help him get better at English. It’s going to give him a deeper understanding of grammar and language and it’s going to improve his spelling, too.”
Watching the playgroup in action is something special to witness. James gets musicians to come in each month to play children’s songs as well as traditional Irish music in the Irish language. The children in the group are mostly very young. Their parents spend a lot of the time either singing or speaking to them in Irish, or reading books as Gaeilge.
Matt is originally from Kilkenny and grew up learning the Irish language at school, but never became fluent. Marie is second-generation Irish – she grew up in London with parents from Mayo and Kilkenny. Now, they are determined to raise their kids bilingually, and want them both to have a grasp of the Irish language.
“For me, growing up in London with Irish parents, you did the Irish dancing, you learned the Irish music, but there was never the Irish language,” says Marie.
“I felt quite strongly that I wanted the children to have that bit of their culture. I’m a teacher, so I can’t teach in Ireland, so when Matt moved over here the deal was that I would learn the Irish language. Ten years later, I hadn’t done it, but when the children came along, we wanted to bring them up with the language. A friend told us the playgroup was starting, and we thought it was a great idea, because you always have the best of intentions with these things, but going out and meeting people makes a big difference.”
For Marie, learning the language is a “work in progress”.
“I had no Irish when we first came, but through the songs I’ve learned some. Going to the playgroup spurs you on then for the month, it makes you say, ‘Oh, I better practice a bit more!’ And then when you come back you think you’ll have a bit more Irish. You meet families from all over Ireland, and everyone’s got a different story as to why they’re learning Irish and how good they are. There’s a real mix, there are beginners like me and then there are people who are fluent.”
Meanwhile, Matt hopes that his children will grow up enjoying the Irish language and hopes they will have a different experience to his. “When we were taught it, it was taught in such a way that made it hideous,” he says.
“It was beat into us. There was no enthusiasm, they just talked to us about the past tense, present tense, and that kind of thing when all you really want is conversational, because from conversation you get everything else. That’s how you learn languages. It was just taught wrong. At the playgroup, it’s all about conversational Irish. It’s much more natural. You’re not being forced to learn a poem and dissect it in Irish.”
Conor O’Callaghan has just attended the playgroup for the second time with his Spanish wife. They travel into Camden from Epsom in Surrey. “My daughter is picking up the language which is great,” he says. “She’s multilingual and also speaks Spanish. English takes precedence over everything else because she needs it for everyday use, but it’s nice to be able to read her books in Irish.
“It’s an interesting dynamic as my wife speaks Spanish to our children and I speak Irish to them, and English is our default language.
“So far we’re really enjoying the playgroup. It helps them connect with other children and with the language. It’s also helpful as my standard of Irish is medium, it wouldn’t be fantastic. I’m trying to speak it more and I try to watch stuff on TG4 and try not to focus too much on the grammar. I also try to read things and tweet in Irish and things like that.”
The playgroup is successfully making the Irish language fun for children, and this is perhaps what James is proudest of, after running the group for over a year. “My son’s relationship with the language is really different to how mine was at 18, let alone 19 months. That in itself is really beautiful and inspiring.”
Oisín Mac Conamhna has been attending the London Irish Playgroup since the very beginning, and feels really strongly that his children should grow up with a knowledge of the Irish language.
He and his wife, Eve, who is Cypriot, have two children: Loukas is almost two and Sophia is seven. “My father would always speak to me in Irish. He’s from the Gaeltacht region in north Mayo so that was very important for him to teach me and talk to me when I was growing up,” says Oisín.
“My mother was born in London to Irish parents so she could understand a bit, but she couldn’t really speak it. I was always something I would have with my father and with the family back in Mayo.
“When I moved to England, I just went years without speaking the language until I heard about an Irish language conversation group. That sort of revived it a bit for me. Then James set up the playgroup around the time Loukas was born.”
Oisín feels that the playgroup is a chance for his son to pick up the language at an early age, and he already has a few words. He also hopes that, when his son gets older, there will be formal Irish classes for him to attend.
“The language really is an essential part of my notions of my identity and I think it is such an important part of our heritage. That’s not to say that speaking Irish makes you a better Irish person – but if we don’t use the language it will go extinct. I think it would be to the great impoverishment not just to Irish life, but to the world, if we were to lose such an ancient, rich and wonderful language. The only way to keep it alive is to pass it on to our children.”