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View from An Blascaod Mór looking toward the Irish mainland

View from An Blascaod Mór looking toward the Irish mainland. Photo by Cassie Smith-Christmas

  • Language as a Story:
    Learning Irish in Corca Dhuibhne

    I turn off the recording device and scramble down the hill along with my fellow coursemates. I had wanted to get a photograph, but there’s no time. As beautiful as An Blascaod Mór (Great Blasket Island) is, none of us fancy being stranded on a deserted island overnight. We make our way down the rocks to the little jetty where the attendants are waiting, and once having put on our life jackets, we are shuttled to the ferry waiting to take us back to the Irish mainland.

    As the island grows smaller in the distance, I think of what one of my coursemates said during his interview with me earlier: what he liked so much about this language immersion course was that he was given the “story” of Irish (or Gaelainn, as it is called locally) in Corca Dhuibhne, known as the Dingle Peninsula in southwestern Ireland. Here at the Oidhreacht Corca Dhuibhne heritage center in Baile an Fheirtéaraigh (or Ballyferriter Village), the language is not some abstract entity, but embedded in the world around us. And, as he joked, Irish people love stories, so it’s a good way to learn.

    Like other minority languages, the Irish language is a story of extreme socio-political and economic hardship, resulting in mass emigration of its speakers, most famously during the devastating Potato Famine of the 1840s. Similar to the story of St. Kilda in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, An Blascaod Mór was evacuated in 1953. The difficulties of subsistence living on the island are famously recounted in Peig, the autobiography of a woman who lived there from the end of the nineteenth century until the 1940s. It was once required reading for the Irish state exam for students in secondary school, which meant a number of young people grew to loathe the book. It became, for some, a symbol of Irish as merely a subject in school, spoken in areas far from modern life—both metaphorically and physically.

    Now, one of the main challenges that adult Irish summer courses like ours face is getting some people over the “baggage block” they might have from negative experiences with Irish in school. Of course, these adult courses are not compulsory, so it is presumed that most people have an interest in the language, but it was a theme that nonetheless emerged in the interviews: overcoming a perception of low prestige of the language, and accepting it not as an obsolete school subject but as a daily language of communication.

    One of my coursemates, for example, said he was simply along for the ride, as his wife was doing the course as well, and that he had not enjoyed Irish in school at all. I was surprised, as throughout the week it was evident that he enjoyed communicating and even performing in Irish. He and I co-starred in a little sketch for our end-of-course talent show. Our sketch was based on a short story, written by a local writer known as An Seabhac, about a husband who would bang his spoon in anger when his wife forgot to salt the porridge. One day, the husband and the three children all put salt into the porridge to mitigate the household friction.

    Oidhreacht Corca Dhuibhne Irish language course
    Our solution to the porridge problem: cornflakes!
    Photo by Cassie Smith-Christmas

    To me, the story encapsulates much of the opposing forces of hardship and resilience in the story of Corca Dhuibhne: the realities of the family’s life (living at barely a subsistence level and marital discord) paired with the humor in the telling of the tale.

    Clearly, these courses get people past the baggage blocks and helped us to feel like part of the story of Corca Dhuibhne. Not only do facilitators strongly embed local knowledge into the course—local writers, local places and history—but crucially, they both invite and enable us to take part in this story of resilience. To me, they did this in two main ways. First, they capitalize on students’ existing language skills. This may seem like an obvious strategy, but the literature on minoritized language learning and use suggests that, often, teachers fail to capitalize on students’ prior linguistic skills, or the varieties the students have learned are delegitimized, which can make them feel excluded from the “story” of the language they are learning.

    It struck me as the very opposite here. Our facilitators built on whatever types of Irish we were most comfortable with, whether the variety learned by many in school, a particular dialect, or even in my case, what I jokingly call the “very northern variety” of Scottish Gaelic. For example, in a poetry class, we were asked to write haikus. When I wrote the word caisteal for “castle” and read it out, no one knew what I meant, but the instructor simply explained that it was the Scottish Gaelic word for the Irish caislean. It was not marked as problematic nor even as “not Irish.” As such, I didn’t lose confidence in reading my poem aloud to the class.

    Oidhreacht Corca Dhuibhne Irish language course
    Facilitator Séamus Barra Ó Súillebháin with the haikus we created
    Photo by Cassie Smith-Christmas

    That isn’t to say that we could just say whatever we liked or that the facilitators never corrected our mistakes. Neither is it to say that we weren’t learning Corca Dhuibhne Irish, either. Rather, it is to say that by building upon our existing language skills, our facilitators helped us gain confidence in speaking the language, therefore enabling us to make the critical step from classroom learning to community use.

    This leads to my second main observation. The way in which we were taught the differences between how things are said in Corca Dhuibhne versus elsewhere, for instance, was to enable us to have everyday conversations with people in that region. For instance, the common expression for “why” in Corca Dhuibhne (“cad ina thiabh”) is often unfamiliar to other Irish speakers, who are used to “cén fáth.” It was clear that the facilitators wanted to help us speak with people in Corca Dhuibhne, so they emphasized this, along with other differences, throughout the course. It was not simply as a point of interest, or a means to position Corca Dhuibhne as the “right” way to speak. Rather, it was a crucial part of the “story” and a way for us to take part in the ongoing story of language revitalization in Corca Dhuibhne.

    We were also taught the words or phrases that would instantly mark us as outsiders—for instance, we were told not to use “Dia Dhuit” (literally “God with you,” akin to saying “hello” to someone) and instead to greet someone by simply asking “Conas atá tú?” (“how are you?”). Again, our facilitators’ emphasis of these local speech norms might seem like obvious best practice, but the reality is that in some other minoritized language situations, local is so deeply embedded in notions of authenticity that it can be used to denigrate other varieties as incorrect. It can discourage language learners into feeling like they will never be able to speak “like a local.” However, by emphasizing the “local” at the Oidhreacht Corca Dhuibhne, our facilitators both motivated and empowered us.

    The facilitators also explicitly enabled us to use the language in the community in other ways. We were continually encouraged to use the language with whomever we met, and it was emphasized that everyone makes mistakes when speaking, whether it is their native language or not (just look at a transcript of someone speaking!). It was also clear that our course leader had spent time building up strong links with local businesses so that our encounters with staff were normally in Irish. In a small village like Baile an Fheirtéaraigh that consists of four pubs and one shop, this has much further-reaching effects than simply being able to order a meal in Irish—once people know you speak Irish, they tend to address you in Irish, and the more you get to know people, the more likely it is to lead to everyday conversations in Irish. Thus, students gain a sense of community, even if they’re here for only a week.

    In summary, throughout the course, we were provided not only the language as a story, but the means to participate in the story as well. Our facilitators wanted us to participate in this story. In my experience, this is a very empowering way of learning a minoritized language, and I hope this perspective can be of use to other minoritized languages undertaking similar initiatives.  

    Cassie Smith-Christmas is one of the principal investigators for the Irish language case study in the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s Sustaining Minoritized Language in Europe project. Originally from Virginia, she received her PhD from the University of Glasgow. She is also one of editors of the recent volume New Speakers of Minority Languages:  Linguistic Ideologies and Practices (Palgrave, 2018).

    SMiLE Research Awards are sponsored by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage with funding from Ferring Pharmaceuticals Inc.


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