One of the first videos I remember seeing online was of “Riverdance.” Little did I know how influential that video would be. I was mesmerized by the perfect lines, colorful costumes, and the vibrant music. I played it repeatedly.
My parents caught on and took note of it. That Fall, I took my very first dance lesson at age 9. I was hooked instantly, moving up the levels, going from one class a week to five. I spent my nights at the dance studio, practicing my performances for competitions and shows. Every St. Patrick’s Day, Lá Fhéile Pádraig, I was in bars, nursing homes, and parades, sharing my art and culture with my community.
Before I knew it, I was in open championship, the highest level of competition, at 15. I qualified for the World Championships, Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne, for the first time that year. A few years later, I traveled to Cill Airne for the All-Ireland Championships, Craobh na hÉireann.
It happened to be 2018, an Bliain na Gaeilge, the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Gaelic League, Conradh na Gaeilge. We celebrated the movement which allowed the revival of our sport by celebrating the language.
All the announcements and signage for the competition venue were done Gaeilge first, and we learned the names of our individual set dances as Gaeilge, in Irish, to tell the musicians. This was my first encounter with the Irish language, and it happened to be right before college.
My experience with Gaeilge is tied into my university career seamlessly. Although you wouldn’t normally meet many Rehabilitations Science majors with an Irish Language minor, it makes sense in my case. Both my major and my minor are tied back into my dance career.
Many dancers, like me, suffer injuries through the course of their career. I was unfortunately born with knees that tend to dislocate easily. I spent a lot of time with physical therapists when I was younger, and so I decided to pursue physical therapy as a career.
Before I started sophomore year, I found out about the Pitt Irish program, ríomhchlár Gaeilge ag Pitt. It piqued my curiosity, so I joined.
I signed on to the Zoom meeting for the first day of class (thanks to COVID) and met my instructor, Marie. I also met a group of students just like me, who wanted to connect with their heritage through language.
How Hard is Irish to Learn
I found out right away that Gaeilge was not an easy language to learn. It has different sentence structure and grammar than English, and, well, interesting spelling. We spent the first week or two just working on pronunciation. Ag is pronounced like “egg”, bh is pronounced “v”, and “í” is pronounced “eee”.
It took a while to build up confidence to speak this language at all. Once I did, though, I encountered the difficulty of having a conversation in another language. I had to listen to my partner’s Gaeilge, translate it to English in my head, think of my response in English, and translate that back into Gaeilge all in real time. But after lots of practice, I was able to do a lot of the conversation without thinking.
I learned the important lesson that not everything has to be translated directly. Different languages might have different ways of expressing the same idea. It’s true in life as well, that people may have different ways of expressing the same thing. This revelation allowed me to put sentences together in conversation super quickly.
Irish Language Connections
Healthcare is all about communication, which I strengthened through this program. Sometimes, during Zoom classes, Irish was the only class where I would speak all day. Languages necessitate a back and forth, and this requires the confidence to speak up. I conversed quite a lot with both my professor and classmates, spending time making “small talk” in another language, which strengthened all our bonds.
We were always learning, but it never felt like it in the moment, because these conversations came so naturally. I truly believe learning Gaeilge strengthened my confidence as a student and a lifelong learner.
My confidence in the language grew, and I was able to consume some media in the Irish language. I started following some influencers who post in Gaeilge. One of the influencers I followed was @MuinteoirMeg, who posts a lot of educational resources in Gaeilge and just blogs about her daily life.
I’ve learned a lot of words that wouldn’t normally come up in the classroom from her, and this broadened my vocabulary. I also watched a TV drama produced entirely in Irish called Ros na Rún. Although I don’t normally like soap operas, it was super fun to watch a show that uses Gaeilge out of an academic setting. I was even able to understand some of the dialogue without subtitles!
Over the last two years, I became fully immersed with the study and the use of Gaeilge. I was even able to use my knowledge of Gaeilge to complete projects in other classes. I took an Irish Literature class and was assigned to talk about the book “The Poor Mouth,” originally written in Gaeilge as “An Béal Bocht.”
Because I already had a connection with the Irish language, I was able to analyze both the usage of Gaeilge in the original and the translated version, which the class read. During my presentation, I was able to share some basic words and phrases in Gaeilge, as well as explain some idioms used and their translations.
I also was able to use my knowledge of Gaeilge for my final paper, as I analyzed Irish authors’ relationships with the language. Because the Irish language is so deeply embedded in the literary tradition of Ireland, I believe that I would have missed a lot of connections if I took this class without already knowing the language.
“Is fearr Gaeilge briste ná Beárla cliste: It is better to have broken Irish than perfect English.” This is my favorite old Irish saying. “Progress over perfection” has always been my motto. Because I took Gaeilge, I have a deep appreciation for the learning process. I make mistakes sometimes, but I don’t get discouraged. Instead, I try to learn from them.
Like with dance, things may take more than one try. But that’s ok, because practice makes perfect. I stuck with it and ended up reaching my goals. I’m so glad I took the leap and learned Gaeilge.
*Cailin Bubb is originally from New Jersey but moved to Pittsburgh for school and fell in love with the area! She is a senior studying rehabilitation science with an Irish minor at The University of Pittsburgh. Her dream is to become a physical therapist and work with athletes.