I love the way Irish words are woven together
and the way it sounds when spoken or sung.
Recently I was taking a walk along Lough Lannagh in Castlebar, County Mayo. I found myself on the same footpath walking alongside a local news reporter for Channel TG4. As a native speaker and professional broadcaster in An Ghaeilge, the Irish language, he introduced himself with the“Sea, sea, tá cúpla focal” sentiment and a subtle kind of smile.
He listened with kindness and helped me muster through a bit of banter as Béarlaclás, a mix of An Ghaeilge and English. This little chat speaks volumes about the nature of Irish people – of their warmth and their humility.
I spent the better part of April in Ireland, completing requirements for an online diploma programme in Irish
Studies at The National University of Ireland Galway. I had been accepted into the programme prior to the emergence of COVID-19, and spent the last two years studying and researching Irish archaelogy, history, literature, and folk art forms.
In addition to weekly required readings, writing assignments, research and writing essays, somehow I managed to read over one thousand books about Ireland during the worldwide shutdown of 2020-2022. But all of that information was written in English. I really wanted to learn An Ghaeilge, but doing so only online and by video chat software proved to be very difficult for me.
Ireland Ends Travel Restrictions
When the Irish Government announced an end to all travel restrictions in March, I bought a ticket and boarded the first available flight for Friday, April 1. While this was my third visit to the island since 2019, it was my first time as an international student of Irish culture, and a beginner’s understanding of the Irish language.
When Pitt returned to in-person classes last fall, daily classes with mo Mhúinteoir an rang as Gaeilge Marie Young and weekly homework assignments helped me pronounce words in the Connacht dialect. In February, Marie invited us to participate in a language skills challenge with Level 3 students in Ireland. The University of Pittsburgh received an Honorable Mention from Conradh na Gaeilge’s Dúshlán 2022 Committee, as Pitt’s Less Commonly Taught Languages Center was the only international program to enter the competition.
Over the course of fifty hours, we completed thirty different activities, including creating our own short films entirely as Gaeilge. I served as the captain for Team Éasca Péasca, which included students from Pitt’s Irish Culture Club, Irish Dance Team, Club Hurling, Club Camogie, and other students enrolled in Gaeilge Levels 1-6.
Some of the challenges required skills in translation, writing, art, singing, dance, and making music. There were physical challenges, like counting outloud in five different languages while doing jumping jacks, taking a Zumba class entirely An Ghaeilge, and tossing a roll of toilet paper (a precious commodity during the global pandemic) from a great distance into a bucket whilst introducing yourself as Gaeilge.
My Level 2 Classmate Peggy McGannon and her husband Seamus completed the toilet paper task in a single take. Tá tú feiceann iontach! Which is slang as Gaeilge for, “You are looking wonderful!”
Upon completing Gaeilge Levels 1 and 2, with a lot of support from Marie and the friends I made in class, I felt pretty confident about my basic conversational skills when I boarded the plane. I started using cúpla focal as Gaeilge with those around me.
Speaking Irish in Ireland
I sat near a lovely woman from Tipperary who was returning home to celebrate her 80th birthday with her family. She told me I spoke more Irish than most Irish people she knew. Whilst she paid me a great compliment, it made feel like tá orm an domhan orm. I had all of the sadness in the world upon me.
I hope to understand some day why many Irish do not seem to love their own language. There is something just beautiful and brilliant about An Ghaeilge. I love the way Irish words are woven together and the way it sounds when spoken or sung. While it may not be the primary language of commerce and trade, An Ghaeilge lends itself so easily to song lyrics, poetry, prose, and story.
Perhaps this is why one small island of less than six million people lays claim to four laureates for the Nobel Prize in Literature? Perhaps that is why you will experience art everywhere, in many forms, across the entire island?
As I entered Dublin International Airport and walked throughout the streets of the national capital, two things grabbed my eyes right away. One, there was much more signage posted as Gaeilge. Over the course of the pandemic, Ireland had invested in creating more signage and more travel-friendly resources to help preserve An Ghaeilge, teach global competence, and promote cultural tourism acrosss the island.
In 2021, Tá sceitimíní an domhan orm. All of the excitement in the world is upon me. The European Union gave An Ghailge the distinction of becoming an offical language of the EU; and recently, the United Nations declared 2022-2032 as “The Decade of Indigneous Languages.”
Sadly, An Ghaeilge is also listed on UNESCO’s List of Endangered Languages, My academic goals of learning An Ghaeilge and promoting authentic Irish culture is rooted in reverance for the way our ancestors have minded ancient traditions– despite nine different invasions over the course of centuries, Plantations of the 1600s, Penal Laws of 1700s, genocide by starvation of the 1800s, lingering of The Troubles, and in this present hour, Ireland has made herself available as a safe haven while Europe endures the war in Ukraine.
For the Love of Ukraine
Which brings me to the second most striking thing that caught my eye during my visit: the blue and yellow colours of Ukraine flying right beside the Tricolor. Everywhere. And whereever there were images of shamrocks, there were also sunflowers. Everywhere.
In the first week of April, Taoiseach Micheál Martin issued a public statement in the media and ón www.gov.ie to the people displaced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine: “Our home is your home. The war in Ukraine has sparked a crisis the likes of which we have not seen in Europe for decades.”
The innate humility of the Irish people absolutely moves my heart. It is unfeigned and unrehearsed. Perhaps the degrading experience of centuries of brutal colonialism emphasizes the likes of which Ukraine now endures?
But I get the feeling that their lovely sense of humility comes from more ancient times, from deep-seeded value for family, for people, for God’s creation and for land. It should surprise no one that Ireland remains neutral on the world stage and maintains her famously sincere welcome.
I am eager for the day when peace will come. And for the day when I can write and say everything in this article and all that is in my heart, completely as Gaeilge. Go raibh maith míle agat go léir for reading my first article in iIrish. It is an honor to be invited to share my thoughts with you.
*Elizabeth Myers is a graduate student dually enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh and The National University of Ireland Galway. She works as support staff to the PittGlobal Senior Team, University Center for International Studies, and is among the first cohort of forty Pitt employees to earn a professional certification in Global Competency. Elizabeth is a native of the Pittsburgh area, and currently lives in Castle Shannon.