An Irishwoman's Diary

YEARS HAVE PASSED since Ronan Connolly, now 31, left his job as a teacher at the Gaelscoil Ultain in Monaghan town, set off with…

YEARS HAVE PASSED since Ronan Connolly, now 31, left his job as a teacher at the Gaelscoil Ultain in Monaghan town, set off with a backpack for Asia and ended up in Washington in time to cover the 2008 presidential election for the Irish language newspaper Foinse.

“Irish is cool and different. You can have fun with it,” Connolly says. “Like TG4, it has an edge to it, an extra flavour.” I’d heard something like that before . . . It was President Barack Obama, in the East Room of the White House on St Patrick’s Day, 2010: “In recent decades, it has become cool to be Irish,” Obama said. “It’s the phenomenon the Irish poet Seamus Heaney once described in stunned fashion as ‘the manifestation of sheer, bloody genius – Ireland is chic’.” Connolly’s ability to earn a living from the Irish language, in a country with 9 per cent unemployment, is evidence that Irish is indeed chic.

For his first years in Washington, Connolly worked with the Irish Arts group Solas Nua, co-ordinating their film festival, doing monthly podcast interviews with Irish musicians including Julie Feeney, John Spillane and Jinx Lennon.

Connolly gave Irish lessons too, and last summer established A student helped him rent a conference room in Friendship Heights at a reduced rate, two evenings a week. Connolly now has 30 students ranging in age from 13 to 60.


“It’s going fantastic,” he says.

His course load doubled last month, when the Catholic University of America hired Connolly to re-open its Irish studies department and teach two evenings a week.

Some of Washington’s aspiring Irish learners are of Irish heritage and “want to feel a connection with something that is a part of them”, Connolly says. A young woman is studying the language because her grandmother from the west of Ireland was a fluent Irish speaker.

There’s Tom, in his mid-50s, who “wanted to learn Irish because he knew his dad would be proud”. Jimmy, a vegan chef who likes to use the name Seamus, is the descendant of Irish immigrants. Seamus took an eight-hour bus ride to the only Gaeltacht outside Ireland, in Ontario Canada, where he “had a fantastic time”, Connolly recounts.

Perhaps more surprising are the two Filipinos and Americans of non-Irish origin who’ve signed up. Gene, a Filipino computer programmer, had fallen in love with an Irish girl and spent some time in the Gaeltacht. The romance ended, but his passion for Ireland did not. Before Gene found, he had started his own Irish-speaking group through the website. He goes by Eoghan now, sent Connolly a postcard from his summer holiday on the Aran Islands, and speaks to him only in Irish.

Through the internet, Connolly is joining forces with an Irish-American in Arlington, Virginia, who taught himself Irish and organises a conversation group in an Irish bar. “They do one unit a week, with a CD, without any native Irish speakers,” Connolly says.

One autumn weekend, Connolly and 13 of his students, aged 26 to 50, retreated to a secluded cabin in West Virginia for a “Turas Gaeilge”. They wore T-shirts printed with the word “T-Léine”, ate colcannon, beef stew and Irish soda bread. Seamus the vegan chef tried to convince them that oatmeal with sultanas – not bacon and black pudding – constituted the authentic Irish breakfast.

Connolly describes the weekenders as "a diverse group of highly educated DC urbanites". Among them were a lawyer, an events planner, an estate agent, occupational therapist, accountant and librarian. They held grammar and vocabulary classes, danced reels and watched DVDs of Gabriel Rosenstock reading poetry, as well as I n the Name of the Fada, the Irish-American Des Bishop's account of how he learned Irish, and the documentary Mise Éire, which includes footage of the founding of the State.

When he studied film-making at the University of Limerick, Connolly specialised in digital media in education. He says using modern technology to teach an old language freshens it up. Many of his students use “Get the f*cal,” a mobile phone app, as a dictionary. Connolly contacted Foras na Gaeilge, the North/South Irish language body, which sent a care package of posters, note cards, pens and other Irish language paraphernalia. “That was great, because it was a validation of what I was doing,” he says.

He recommends Daniel Cassidy's How the Irish Invented Slangto his students, reminding them that buck, by golly, clout, dear, galore, kibosh, smithereens and Baltimore are a few of the Irish words that found their way into American English.

Americans tend to call Irish “Gaelic” and often ask Connolly if it’s a version of English. (He tells them that Gaelic usually refers to Scots Gaelic and Welsh.) Some of his students sign up because they’re planning holidays in Ireland next year.

“They’re not naive,” he says. “They don’t expect to turn up in Ireland and hear it spoken.” Connolly says the “stereotype that Americans are not interested in languages” is untrue. “Americans can be real focused and real go-getters. They do it because it’s relaxed and fun; not because they expect to get a qualification or a job out of it. They make friends through it.”