How (not) to learn Irish if you’re not from Ireland

Contributed by Marnie Hay

I am an eternal student of Irish. I began studying the Irish language in Canada in 1992 at Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia as part of an undergraduate Irish Studies programme. I also attended Irish immersion courses in Donegal. After three years I attained the equivalent of leaving certificate Irish. Despite living in Ireland for the past twelve years, however, it has been down hill from there.

When I arrived at Queen’s University in Belfast to pursue an MA in Irish Studies, I was disappointed to discover that I would not be permitted to study Irish as part of my formal degree programme. They would not even test me. (Apparently, the Irish language isn’t always considered an essential or even useful part of an Irish Studies programme on this island.) The only option was to take an extracurricular Irish conversation class that was offered at beginner’s level. The students who had some knowledge of Irish soon dropped out. Only those who were absolute beginners remained. I stuck with this for about a semester, but despite the teacher’s best efforts, boredom got the best of me, especially after we moved to a classroom without a television. (With no TV in my accommodation, I had enjoyed getting my weekly fix watching Irish language videos in class.) In hindsight, I should have joined An Cumann Gaelach at Queen’s instead.

Since then, I’ve taken various Irish conversation classes in Dublin, but it has been difficult to find a class at an appropriate level. The problem with learning Irish abroad is that you study lots of grammar, but you don’t get many real life opportunities to hear and speak the language. My Irish classmates tend to be good at vocabulary and pronunciation, but have less knowledge of the intricacies of Irish grammar. In the end, I gave up on Irish conversation classes due to frustration and, ultimately, lack of true commitment. The reality is that over the past twelve years, I’ve had more opportunity to use my French in conversation than my Irish.

Despite my desultory approach to language classes, I do have a great love and respect for the teanga náisiúnta. My knowledge of Irish, however imperfect, enriches my engagement with this country. Although there is plenty of room for improvement, my ability to read Irish is adequate for my work as a historian. Being able to pronounce words in Irish (usually with an Ulster accent, thanks to my first teacher who was from Derry) has proved useful when presenting lectures and papers. These days I enjoy watching cartoons dubbed into Irish on TG4 with my two-year-old son. I’m not sure what he is getting out of it, but my aural comprehension skills are certainly improving! Thus, I remain an eternal student of Irish (and French too).

The following is my advice to other language learners, eternal or otherwise.  Firstly, set realistic goals and then tailor your studies accordingly. What do you really need the language for – academic research or holiday conversation? Historians might focus on the written word, but should not ignore pronunciation as you might need to say a name correctly in a presentation. Potential tourists might concentrate on learning to speak and understand the language required for vacation scenarios. Secondly, watch television. TG4 is a great resource with programmes catering to a range of interests. Thirdly, read whatever you can, whether it’s a children’s book or a newspaper article. And, finally, the classic piece of advice for learning any language: spend at least thirty minutes a day on it – even if it’s just watching Sponge Bob Square Pants as gaeilge.

Marnie Hay’s first book, Bulmer Hobson and the Nationalist movement in twentieth-century Ireland, is published by Manchester University Press and she is a research fellow in the Department of History, Trinity College Dublin.

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19 Responses to “How (not) to learn Irish if you’re not from Ireland”

  1. Alan Menchious Says:

    If only I could claim back the thousands of hours wasted on compulsory learning of Irish. As Patrick Kavanagh once said of the ancient language – ‘The patient has died, but they’re still bringing food to the grave.’

    • Kevin Carroll Says:

      Typical response from an Irish people to this question, do these people ever switch on their brains or are they always on auto response to certain subjects. All humans are victims of the prejudices of the societies they live in, and many of these prejudices are brought about by the history of that society. And like a battered wife this particular prejudice was brought about by years of abuse, in the Irish language case that would be centuries. And like all victims we start to believe that our abuser’s opinions were correct and everything about us is inferior, so we must discard it and we must take up the superior customs and ways of the oppressor, but not only that we must become like our abuser/oppressor by heaping scorn on anyone who we see acting in the inferior ways of our former self’s. What makes this even sadder than it looks is by the time this comes about we believe that this change come about because we have become smarter, never realizing that it was historical trauma.
      If they were right, then please explain why this way of thinking is not a more global way of thinking, most societies believe that culture and identity are inseparable and that language is the most important element in that culture. A language incorporate more than just words to name an item but built into that language is the beliefs, the philosophies and the place that the native speakers see themselves in the whole scheme of life/existent. This is why any linguist will tell you that translating books especially historical/philosophical/spiritual ones like the Bible etc are very very difficult and some impossible to do accurately. In fact they will often tell you if you want to get the most accurate meaning of a book, learn the language fluently and read it in the original language.
      But getting back to my original point, this man’s response is a typical knee jerk reaction in Ireland created by our long history with colonism and a terrible teaching method in the Irish language in Ireland, this has been corrected by the fantastic Irish medium schools (Gaelscoileanna) who teach all subjects through the Irish language (communication been the most important factor). And all of the teachers in the Gaelscoileanna are fluent Irish speakers unlike the regular national schools. Statistics also show that Gaelscoileanna are the schools with the best educated children in the country in every subject. This is why they are highly sort after by parents, unfortunately they are not highly supported by the government, and they are mostly run by the parents. Considering that Irish is the first official language of the country the lack of support of it by the government must be unconstitutional.

  2. Póló Says:

    I enjoyed this piece.

    I did my schooling through Irish in Dublin. At that time it was a mortal sin to attempt to pronounce it properly. You were seen as an affected show off if you tried to put on a Gaeltacht accent, of whatever dialect. That’s one of the reasons my Irish spelling is wonky and I have to have constant reference to the dictionary (on and off line).

    I would just like to add three items to the learning aids: songs, slogans and signs. I was learning welsh around 1970 and I found that the protest and pub songs, in particular, introduced me to the contemporary socio-political vocabulary. Also the rhythms and repetition in the songs insinuated both grammar and vocabulary into the subconscious.

    Unfortunately, as far as Irish as an, even shared, national vernacular is concerned, I think the patient is not dead yet but certainly terminal.

  3. dfallon Says:

    “And, finally, the classic piece of advice for learning any language: spend at least thirty minutes a day on it – even if it’s just watching Sponge Bob Square Pants as gaeilge.”

    *Not* just for learning a language, but also for keeping it. I went to an Irish language primary school, and followed it up with an Irish language secondary school. After just under two years of college, I noticed recently that most of my old classmates have seen a major drop in their Irish language abilities. If you don’t use it, you lose it. All this after years of daily use.

    Along with watching Irish language television, I try pick up books in Irish on occasion too. Opting for An Beal Bocht over The Poor Mouth, a start! It helps that TG4 is leaps and bounds above the competition with regards our own area of interest.

    I don’t think the patient is dead just yet, but – and I’m not the first to say it- there needs to a radical overhaul in how the language is thought to young people. We might be visiting the grave yet otherwise.

  4. Frank Says:

    I said farewell to Irish twenty years ago when I sat the Leaving Cert and I don’t regret that decision. Although I enjoyed the academic side of the language, I never enjoyed speaking it as the sound of the language did not appeal to me at the time. In fact, it still doesn’t appeal to me. Having said that, it is quite a compliment for a foreigner to learn the seldom used native language of his/her adopted country. Moreover, it would be quite an interesting turn of events were non-native Irish speakers to outnumber native Irish speakers at some point in the future. I wonder what Pearse would make of that!

  5. Noreen Says:

    I agree with so many of the sentiments in this article. I studied Irish as part of my grad degree in Irish lit from a university in Boston – we had really excellent tuition in grammar and the emphasis was on the written word. When I moved to Ireland I tried to do more but it was such a weird contrast between having absolutely no confidence in speaking more than the most basic words and really understanding the structure pretty well (at that time!) I tried a few courses but just couldn’t find a good fit! I was looking for a situation where I’d enjoy learning to speak Irish but I never managed to figure it out. Might try again – good tips there.

    I don’t understand people who bemoan their wasted time learning it – it’s never cost me a moment’s thought that I’ll probably never have a practical need for, say, calculus, and yet spent many hours learning it. Or even Spanish; I spent five years at it, have had about three occasions to speak it since, and couldn’t remember enough to make myself understood. Do I rue the day I signed up for my first Spanish class? Of course not.

  6. JM Says:

    It’s interesting that anyone who writes or comments on the poor state of the Irish language and how importnant it is to our sense of self and nationhood always does so in English.
    I hear Polish, Chinese, Russian, French, Spanish spoken every day in a host of situations across Dublin. I only ever hear Irish in two settings: when I’m in TCD or UCD (and it is always under-grads doing Irish at College); or a semi-educational setting in shops or on the street where parents or adults talk in a very ed-u-cat-ion-al way to children. All very earnest and middle class, but I have yet to see a happy-looking kid reply in Irish to this adult-speak. That’s partly because the level of Irish that many supposedly fluent speakers have means that it is a stilted, almost academic conversation. In my experience, the argot for young people raised through the medium of Irish is actually English.
    I’m happy to pay taxes for the support of the language. I quite enjoy the fact that I have a few words after 13 years of learning it in school every day. TG4 is often the best thing on Irish telly. But let’s not pretend that the language is an integral part of being Irish, or living in Ireland.
    Beir bua!!

    • Stephen Says:

      JM, it’s been a very long time since I was in Dublin, or even in the same hemisphere for that matter, but as a born and bred Dubliner, I was tortured through Irish from kindergarten (“infants” it was called then) through second form (or “year 8”, in Australish). I know exactly what you mean. Or at least what you would have meant if you were “my age”. 🙂

      But the Dubliner is culturally and historically somewhat different from the rest of the country (apart from Waterford, say) because we have Viking roots as much as Irish ones, and that colours the perspective on what it means to be “Irish”. I agree, for the Dubliner, Irish has little to offer in terms of a sense being particularly Irish, at least it didn’t when I was one. Dubs had developed Hiberno-English (for want of a better name) into their own native tongue, and that’s possibly quite enough. All the same, I would hesitate to speak for the rest of the country.

      Also, as an expatriate for far too many years to be considered “really Irish” anymore, I actually regret not being able to express anything more than an urgent need to use the amenities in Irish. Although after a point an expat Irishman is never really Irish anymore, he is never really anything else, believe me. It would just be nice if a few of us could manage to hold a conversation in something the other immigrants couldn’t understand.

      But it’s only wishful thinking, since we had any real hope of learning Irish “educated” out of us… After 2 years of “beginners” level French in Aussie High school, I was more fluent in French than Irish. And even after 6 weeks just being in Brazil I could speak more Portuguese than ever I spoke of Irish! And that was with *no* formal language classes. How sad is that?

      (Having said that, I finished secondary education in Australia, and I can say that at least in the early 1980’s Ireland was miles ahead of Australia in every other respect. I deeply regret not getting to finish my education in Ireland.)

      On the other hand, I have seen effect that the loss of language has had on some indigenous communities here in Australia, and it is very sad. As someone mentioned earlier, an indigenous language is in many ways the conduit of a nation’s self esteem as well as much of it’s culture and it’s worldview, or perhaps “phronema” (greek word, sorry – try a dict. 🙂 ). Ireland will never experience that quite shocking sense of loss, thank goodness, due to having a at least a written record of it’s language and culture, but some communities here have had a complete and utter loss of their language, it never having been written, and with that a devastating loss of cultural identity and every link with their past. And that’s a huge blow to people whose sense of communal worth is more important than self-worth, and whose communal identlty is deeply rooted in their past and traditions – all of which are tied up with their language. That loss is often manifested in a variety of social problems and issues that aren’t seen – or are seen to a far lesser extent – in communities that still have their language, even if it is only in print.

      So, yeah, I do wish Irish was taught better. But I just am glad it’s taught at all. And even though it isn’t necessary for day-to-day life, I’m not entirely sure that it really isn’t an integral part of “being Irish”, whatever that means these days.

  7. Frank Says:

    I can’t resist including the following gem from de Valera on 14th December 1921 as he kicked off the Treaty debates with his own speech: Tá fhios againn go léir é an fáth go bhfuilimíd anso iniu agus an cheist mhór atá againn le socrú. Níl mo chuid Gaedhilge chó maith agus ba mhaith liom í bheith. Is fearr is féidir liom mo smaointe do nochtadh as Beurla, agus dá bhrí sin is dóich liom gurbh fhearra dhom labhairt as Beurla ar fad. Some of the members do not know Irish, I think, and consequently what I shall say will be in English. Acknowledging an Irish language deficiency when he begins in Irish only to seek to blame others for switching his language when he continues in English demonstrates political chicanery at its very worst.

  8. Póló Says:


    That comment has great resonance with me.

    I was traveling down in the car from Monaghan on the day the Northern Ireland Assembly was inaugurated. I was listening very carefully to the live radio coverage of the event. At the time I was dealing with the EU Peace Programme and INTERREG.

    There had been a dispute about how language would be handled at the inaugural session and the reasonable solution had been agreed that contributors could speak whatever language they liked, provided they repeated their contribution in English. Given all the baggage and complexities facing the Chair (John Alderdice) at the time I thought this a judgment of Solomon.

    I was very interested in Gerry Adams’s contribution when it came through. In the course of his initial remarks in Irish he took a direct swipe at Ian Paisley, commenting to the effect that “tá sé in am béasa a chur ar an bhfear seo”, or it was time to put manners on this turbulent cleric. I was intrigued. How was he going to represent this remark in his English translation? Would the assembly disintegrate in uproar?

    When it came to the English translation, the remark was just skipped, not a mention.

    I remember thinking at the time that this was a really subtle bending of the rules. Those who understood heard and understood. Those who didn’t just didn’t .

    Nice one Gerry.

  9. French Learning Books Says:

    I think you have given some very good advices. Setting up realistic goals is one of the key point as it helps you to remain focused.

  10. M.J. Neary Says:

    Marnie, if you are reading the responses, please drop me a line when you can. I’m currently reading your book on Bulmer Hobson, and I have a few questions (doing research for my next novel). Thanks!

  11. M.J. Neary Says:

    Sorry, forgot to give you my e-mail: Thanks!

  12. eileen Says:

    I am interested in taking an Irish language course this summer in Ireland. I am an adult and don’t need any formal certificate…this is for personal enrichment. Any idweas?

  13. Joe Mullen Says:

    Hi Marnie, came across your blog while searching for information about summer courses as Gaeilge for adults in Ireland. I live Belgium for the past twenty five years and have managed to learn to speak the Dutch language (Flemish) reasonably well. My main hobby is singing and would like to add Irish language songs to my repertoire. Though I learned Irish in school as a child while growing up in the Cork Harbour area, sad to say it’s gone. Having read your blog I am more determined than ever to re-learn my own native language. Go raibh mile maith agat.

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  15. kimberley boyle Says:

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