By Michaela Vitagliano
Visiting Student Blogger, Yale University
Coming from a high school that was predominantly filled with Irish-Americans, I was not thrown for a loop when I saw Saoirse /Seer-sha/ or Meabhdh /Mayv/ scrawled on name cards at a party function. The two that got me, however, were Colm and Eoin which I mistakenly pronounced as /Kohlm/ and /Ey-oh-in/. Thank goodness I hadn’t come across a Caoimhe that night, for I am sure I would have said something along the lines of /Kow-im-hay/ which is drastically different from the correct /Qwee-va/.
Almost everyone I met was proud of their Irish name. For instance, Saoirse told me how her name meant “freedom” and that many parents named their girls this to show support for the Irish cause during the Time of Troubles. She even went to a Gaeltacht region in the summer to practise Irish with other students. But not everyone was as enamoured with the Irish language as Saoirse was. I thought it was quite a beautiful thing to have mandatory Irish classes taught in school, but quite a few people I met scoffed at it. Apparently while the idea itself was fine, the implementation left much to be desired. Similar to how I had learned Latin in high school, Irish schoolchildren were taught Irish grammar in lieu of practical everyday phrases. Whatever joy or appreciation for the language to be had was squashed by the endless rules and memorisation tables. The big difference is that Latin, as far as I am concerned, is a dead language. Why teach Irish in the same manner? By doing so, what had once been a desire to connect with an Irish identity was replaced, instead, with a far less noble goal: just to do well enough on the Leaving Cert. (Basically if you thought SATs or ACTs were tough, the Leaving Cert tests you on everything you’ve taken in secondary school… all on one day).
Still, those that had managed to survive apparently really appreciated being able to speak Irish. For some, it was indeed a way to connect with their roots. For others, it was a new secret language that they could speak amongst friends.
With this brief background on Irish, I decided to sign up for Trinity’s Free Irish Classes sponsored by the Irish Language Office. The programme offers five different levels, from total beginners to advanced conversations, and meets for just one hour a week. I figured if I truly wanted a cultural experience, I ought to chance it.
Fortunately, even with the limited spaces, I got a spot in the A1 class – for people who had never learned Irish before. The end promise was that I’d be able to hold a basic conversation by the end of the course. How impressive would it be to return home do more than quote the top taught phrase to tourists, Póg mo thóin!, or pronounce a few Irish names. Apparently the programme even offers a European Certificate in Irish, an internationally recognised qualification, for more advanced levels.
The language class was held on the second floor of the Museum building. With each capital of the building’s 108 columns decorated with a different array of flowers, and Venetian Byzantine architectural detailing, the Museum is arguably the most beautiful building on campus.
My contentedness only increased with the Irish lesson itself. A welcoming and friendly smile met us, and soon we were learning greetings.
How to say ‘Hi’
“Dia dhuit!” /Dee-uh gwitch/ — hello (singular)
“Dia is Muire dhuit” /Dee-uhs mwer gwitch/ –reply (singular)
Dia dhuit literally means God be with you so the reply translates as God and Mary be with you. If a third person replies, then they add a saint. For example, Dia is Muire agus Padraig dhuit means God and Mary and Patrick be with you.
How to ask ‘How are you?’
“Conas atá tú?” /Koh-nus uh-tah too/ (Munster)
“Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú?” /Ken hree uh will too/ (Connacht)
“Cad é mar atá tú?” /Kawd eh mar uh-tah too/(Ulster)
Each way corresponds with a different dialect belonging to a different province. The historical origin of the provinces goes back to before the Norman invasion when there were five provinces. Today there are only four. Munster is down south with the three crowns, Connacht out west with the bird and sword crest, Ulster up north with the red hand, and Leinster in the east with the Irish harp.
The next class consisted of learning the alphabet along with corresponding words. One memorable one was Rón /Rone/ which means seal. Thus the Irish name Ronin = Little Seal.Another memorable one was Veist /vesht/ which obviously translates as vest. Suddenly I understood why the /s/ in ‘West’ or even in ‘slippery’ became an /sh/ in everyday lingo: “It was awful shlippery out there with all that rain!”. We also transitioned into learning vowel diphthongs. Our ever preppy teacher, Dererca, taught us many funny ways to remember these. For ‘ia’, the first vowel dipthong on the PowerPoint below, she said to just think of Sia, the singer. Bia, by the way, is the all important word for food. On that little note, if you’re ever in Galway, go the restaurant Ard Bia. The food there is delicious!
This week is reading week at Trinity so we do not have class, but next week we will dive right back in. While what I’ve learned is just the tip of the iceberg, I am excited to even have come this far, and I am eager to, at the end of this course, have a full conversation down pat. So if you find yourself with an hour of free time a week, why not sign up for the free Irish lessons offered at Trinity? It will definitely be worth your while! And with that, Slán /slawn/ — goodbye!