Of all the questions I get asked when people learn that I’m studying Irish (after they ascertain that I’m speaking of an actual language and not an accent), perhaps the most common is “Why Irish?”
Some even go so far as to ask “Why don’t you learn something practical? Spanish, maybe, or Arabic?”
Ah, but affairs of the heart are seldom “practical,” and I have been in love with the Irish language since before I even knew what it was properly called, or that anyone out there still spoke it.
An unlikely Gaeilgeoir
I am, I must admit, not the first image that comes to mind when you think of Americans who learn Irish. Growing up in the Inland Northwest, I had little exposure to Irish culture as a child, aside from getting pinched if I forgot to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day.
Cowboys and country songs are more appropriate to my hometown of Spokane, Washington (in fact, one of the first gifts my dad ever bought me was a pair of cowboy boots).
There is no “Mac” or “Ó” in my immediate family history (not even a “Fitz” or a “de”), and judging by family surnames, the Gaels in my family tree took a detour through Scotland before landing “on the shores of Amerikay.”
I’ve always had a particular passion, however, for two things: language and music. These passions came together for the first time in the summer of 1974.
The world comes to Spokane
In 1974, Spokane hosted a world’s fair: Expo ’74. I had just turned 13, and a friend’s mother had arranged for me and several of our other friends to work as volunteers for the fair’s Folklife Festival.
The Folklife Festival featured a different theme each week. Some were fairly general, such as “Children and Old Folks’ Week.” Most, however, centered around a particular country or ethnic group. Ireland featured prominently in at least three of those themes: “British Isles Week,” “Celtic Week,” and, of course, “Irish Week.”
What that meant for a music-loving kid like me was lots of exposure to Irish music, as well as to American folk songs with Irish roots. When the fair closed in November, I was quite bereft, missing not only the new friends I’d made, but the music that had captivated me so.
It wasn’t too long before I encountered that music once again, however. Idly flipping through channels on our newly acquired cable TV box, I stumbled across The Irish Rovers’ TV show on Canada’s CBC. Their guests were The Clancy Brothers, and the song they were singing was Óró, ‘sé do bheatha ‘bhaile.
A 30-year love affair
It would be more than 30 years before I learned to sing that song, but it left an indelible mark on me. I wanted to learn it…not just to sing it, but to truly understand it.
As my passion for Irish traditional music grew, and more and more of my pocket money started going for record albums, penny whistles, and tune books, my fascination with the Irish language also grew. In those days before the internet, though, it was hard to learn much about such an esoteric subject.
I kept acquiring music, however, including songs in Irish that continued to tantilize me. I didn’t want to just learn how to mimic the words. I didn’t want to learn the songs as translations. I wanted to know them on the level the singers and songwriters knew them. I wanted to understand them as an Irish speaker.
I was thrilled a year or so later, when I stumbled across a booklet entitled “Simple Lessons in Irish” in an antiques store in Coupeville, Washington, and I begged my mom to buy it for me.
I’m afraid it wasn’t as much help to me as I’d hoped. The lessons were written in seanchló; the phonetics were based, of course, on Hiberno-English, which has sounds that differ significantly from my Western American-English dialect; and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of some of the examples. For instance:
Bhuail an fear an asal inné (“The man beat the donkey yesterday”)
Still, it was a connection to the language, and I still have that very booklet (I find it much easier to read these days, though I still get a chuckle out of some of the examples!)
The years moved along. In high school, my music teacher, Sr. Jean Keating, encouraged my love of Irish music, taught me the few words of Irish she knew, and even hooked me up with a couple of Irish penpals.
Then came college, marriage, the beginning of a career, the start of a family, with little time for other pursuits. I never lost my interest in Irish music or in the Irish language, but both went on the back burner for a while.
Then, one day, when I was rocking my daughter to sleep, I started to sing the American folksong “Down in the Valley,” and, without thinking, changed it to the song it originated from, The Connemara Cradle Song. Other Irish songs, all in English, some only half-remembered, came to mind and became part of my lullaby repertoire.
It wasn’t long after that that the penny whistles, song books and record albums came out again (though most of the latter had to be repurchased as CDs!). And along with them came the renewed desire to learn the Irish language.
Then, in January of 2004, as I was searching the internet for a song, I came across an Irish Gaelic discussion forum. It suddently occurred to me that, with the internet at my fingertips, I might finally be able to learn this language that had fascinated me for so long.
It’s been almost nine years since that day, and my love for this beautiful language has only grown stronger through the many book courses, audio courses, immersion weekends, and, best of all, a visit to Ireland.
I’ll never forget the first time I raised my voice in song — in Irish — in a pub in Donegal. It felt like I…a middle-aged American from cowboy country with a decidedly mixed and obscure heritage…had finally come home.
Is it practical? Who cares? It’s the language in which my soul sings…and that’s practical enough for me.
Tell us about your own experiences!
Every Irish language learner has a story to tell. What motivated you to learn Irish? Share your thoughts with us below.