Caoimhín De Barra explains how he not only taught himself Irish, but is raising his children through Irish in the US
When I was in primary school, I hated Irish. Mostly, I hated it because I struggled at it so badly.
Never in a million years did I imagine that I would one day raise my own children through Irish. Nor could have I foreseen that my children would be American citizens and our Irish-speaking home would be in Washington, on the west coast of the US.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager and gained a bit of confidence in my academic abilities that my Irish improved. But I wasn’t fluent in the language, and I wanted to be. Ironically, it wasn’t until I moved to the US in 2006 that I found the drive to make my goal a reality.
Studying at the University of Delaware, I joined the college rugby team. At the first training session, I saw a guy wearing a t-shirt that read: ‘Más féidir leat é seo a léamh, rachaimid a luí’. Roughly translated, this means ‘if you can read this, we will sleep together’.
Perhaps fortunately, I was unable to translate it. But I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t read it that I decided there and then that I would do whatever it took to speak Irish fluently.
In order to achieve this, I basically built Irish into my daily routine. At first, this meant reading the Teach Yourself Irish book I had every day. From there I progressed to reading an online article in Irish every morning while I ate my breakfast, and watching TG4 while I ate dinner. I bought books in Irish and read them in my spare time, and when I was walking or driving, I tried to formulate my thoughts in Irish.
After about 18 months, I was reasonably fluent.
I had also heard stories of people who had learned Irish as adults and then raised their children through the language. That became my next goal.
I wanted to do this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I had been raised to take pride in my Irish identity, and I thought nothing would demonstrate this more than doing my part to promote our language.
But more importantly, I wanted to give my children the gift of Irish. I knew what it was like to want to speak Irish, but be unable to do so. I never wanted my children to have to feel that, so I was committed to doing whatever I could to make sure Irish came naturally for them.
Of course, I was still living in the United States, and it looked like I would be for the foreseeable future. I got engaged to an American, Kathy, and we agreed that when we had children, we would raise them bilingually. What this would mean in practice was that I would only ever speak Irish to our children, while Kathy would speak English to them.
Fast forward a few years. We now have two daughters, and in our home, both languages are heard all day, every day. As planned, I only speak Irish to the girls. Kathy speaks mostly English, but mixes in the Irish she knows. When I talk to my wife, I use both Irish and English.
Kathy was initially worried that if I only spoke Irish with our children, she wouldn’t know what was being said much of the time. But after three years, she understands everything I say to the girls. Indeed, this has been a natural process. As I move from speaking simple words to more complex sentences to my daughters, Kathy’s Irish skills have progressed as well.
Our eldest daughter is now three, and it is interesting to see how her language skills have developed. Of course, we are surrounded by English, and this is what she speaks most naturally. But she understands everything that I say to her in Irish.
Our conversations follow a strange pattern. I will say something to her in Irish, and she will usually respond in English, or in a mix of Irish and English. When she says something in English, I repeat what she said in Irish.
I do this because I am the only source of Irish she has. As such, I need to role-model for her what the conversation in Irish should sound like. If you know anything about the idiomatic eccentricities of three-year-olds, you will understand how hard it can be to try and instantly translate some of what they say into another language!
While she mostly speaks English, she does speak in Irish as well. In particular, she has learned that if she wants to get something from me, she doesn’t have a chance unless she can say it in Irish. In addition, there are many words she only knows in Irish, which she mixes in with her English.
Aside from speaking Irish, I put Irish cartoons (thanks to the TG4 website) on the TV, and I read stories in Irish to the girls before bedtime. Whenever people complain about the money the State spends on Irish, I wonder do they realise that basic things like books and cartoons in Irish, essential for what I and many others are trying to do, would be impossible without it?
The nature of the mixed language environment means there are lots of funny and adorable moments of linguistic mix-ups. A couple of weeks ago, I was singing a lullaby to my younger daughter, who is five months old. The first line goes ‘Dún do shúile, a rún mo chroí’ (close your eyes, love of my heart).
My eldest daughter was listening and piped up: “A Dhaidí hearts don’t have eyes!”
Naturally, in deciding to raise our children with Irish, we were also making a decision that would impact our wider families, especially when they came to visit us. I have been surprised by the willingness of my father and my aunt in particular to use whatever Irish they have with the girls, even though they wouldn’t have spoken it since school. Even when we meet my Irish friends, it has been heart-warming to see them interact with the girls in Irish to the best of their ability.
I was more worried about how Kathy’s parents would react. Neither of them are of Irish descent, and I was not sure if they would support our decision. But they both have been wonderful, and are willing to play along even though they have no idea what I am saying to their grandchildren (although I do try and have a running translation for their benefit).
When we go out in public, the same rules apply, and I only speak Irish to the girls. For the most part, I feel pretty comfortable doing this. I have never felt that we are being judged for speaking something other than English. Indeed, hearing a language besides English isn’t all that uncommon in the US.
At the same time, I am aware that occasionally people in this country do feel they have a right to challenge people for not speaking English. A quick look online will turn up a slew of videos of ugly confrontations that began because someone was speaking something other than English. I often think about what I will say or do if that ever happens to us.
How will our Irish-speaking family evolve going forward? I would love to return to Ireland and enroll our children in a Gaelscoil, to give them a much richer immersion in the language than they will experience in the US. However, circumstances mean that is unlikely.
But in reading about what parents in similar circumstances have done, I realise that regular trips home that include opportunities for the girls to use the language will be essential for their continued development with Irish.
I do wonder what they will think about being raised through Irish when they are older. Will they wonder if it was worth all the effort to possess a language than even in Ireland only a minority speak? Or will they be grateful to speak the language that their Irish ancestors spoke for millennia before them?
Perhaps they will wish to pass Irish on to their children when the time comes. Or they may decide that they aren’t that interested in the language. Either is fine by me. I will be content to know that they will not experience what it feels like to want to speak Irish, but be unable to.
In the meantime, we will continue to live, laugh, and love in our little Irish-speaking corner of the world.
Caoimhín De Barra lectures in history in the US as an assistant professor at Gonzaga University in Washington. His latest book Gaeilge: A Radical Revolution was recently published by Currach Books (€14.99).