Story

Learning Irish

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Eddie Lenihan, an Irish storyteller based in County Clare, says, "If we can become proud of it, rather than resentful of it, and say no, we’re not going to let it go because if we do, we’re letting go of part of what we had." Image by Anna Hoffman. Ireland, 2015.

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Robert Campbell, a member of an Irish language conversation circle in Dublin, says it wasn't fashionable to speak Irish when he was young. Image by Anna Hoffman. Ireland, 2015.

Irish language education is compulsory in Ireland, but not everyone who attends school leaves with the ability to speak it.

“I think that the education system was very successful in impressing on people the idea that they should be fluent in Irish, but not successful in actually making them fluent, so people just come out with this guilt,” said Aoife Crawford, the acting Irish language officer at Trinity College in Dublin.

Members of the Irish language community do not say they “speak” Irish. Instead, they say they “have” Irish, a phrase indicative of the admiration and desire to hold onto a key piece of Irish cultural identity. While many in the Irish community point to the new generation of Irish speakers as the hope for the future of the language, there is an entire portion of the Irish population who had such negative experiences with the language when they were in school that they may go their entire lives without ever having Irish.

“Something is direly wrong when after 14 years at school, most people come out without being able to speak Irish,” said Eddie Lenihan, an Irish storyteller based in County Clare. Lenihan says that members of his generation recall having Irish very literally beaten into them in school. It was not taught as a spoken language, but instead was taught through poetry or literature, with a focus on grammatical constructions.

Robert Campbell, a retired Dublin native, said that at the time he was in school learning Irish, nobody spoke it outside the classroom.

“It wasn’t fashionable to speak Irish,” said Campbell. “You were sort of looked down on, so people tried to hide the language.”

These negative feelings toward Irish persist today with some members of previous generations. This mentality toward Irish causes some to reject it and others to make later attempts at embracing it.

“When I left school, that was the end of the language,” said Campbell. “Even though I loved it at school, that was the end of it.”

After Campbell left school, he moved to America and worked at a theater in Berkeley, California.

While working on a play by Sean O’Casey, a famous Irish playwright, the director asked Campbell to perform a monologue in “his own language,” meaning Irish. “It was the most shameful moment imaginable because I didn’t have my own language,” said Campbell. “I didn’t have it.”

He reached out to a professor at Berkeley and began to learn the speech the director gave him in Irish. Campbell performed the speech, in Irish, on stage in that play, and said that he swore to himself that day that before he died he would be able to speak Irish.

Today, Campbell is part of an Irish conversation circle in Dublin that meets every Wednesday and he currently writes stories in Irish.

“Where you have a lack of resentment, you have hope,” said Lenihan. “Because the schools created a lot of resentment against Irish.”

The Irish language is becoming a bit more popular among kids growing up with the language today. Watching Spongebob in Irish or listening to pop hits translated to Irish is not unusual— a stark comparison to the generation that grew up with it as a dead language in classrooms years ago. Lenihan says, “If we can become proud of it, rather than resentful of it, and say no, we’re not going to let it go because if we do, we’re letting go of part of what we had. If you can get that across to people, then it will survive, and be sure of surviving. Because the day we let Irish go, then we’re in trouble.”