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Opinion: What does it take to raise your children through Irish?

My daughter speaks mostly in English but there are also lots of words that she only knows the Irish for – so she mixes them in, writes Caoimhín De Barra.

Caoimhín De Barra Assistant professor of history, Gonzaga University, Washington

IT IS FUNNY how the smallest thing can change the course of your life.

Like a lot of people, I was terrible at Irish in school. However, I always wanted to speak the language fluently. Even after I finished the Leaving Certificate, I kept studying it, hoping one day that I could speak Irish as comfortably as English.

One day, near the end of my time in college, I told a friend about trying to learn Irish. She said she knew someone who was raised in an Irish-speaking home.

She said her friend’s father was an Englishman who had gotten a job at an Irish university.

He had decided that as he was moving to Ireland, he should learn Irish, and not only did he master the language, he insisted on making it the language of his home.

This story blew my mind. To think that someone who wasn’t even Irish could come to Ireland and learn the language so successfully that he spoke it as his daily language was humbling but heartening at the same time.

Before, my goal had been to be a fluent Irish speaker, but that had changed. Now, nothing would do other than to master Irish and then raise my children through the language.

Fast forward to ten years. I finally speak Irish reasonably fluently. I am also married, and our first child is on the way.

While I still want to raise my children through Irish, things have turned out differently from what I originally envisioned. My wife is American, and I am living and working in New Jersey.

Could I raise my children through Irish in the United States? I had heard of at least one other family in New Jersey that spoke Irish as their home language.

In fact, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, over 22,000 people spoke Irish at home in 2008, making it the 76th most widely spoken language in the country.

But what did raising children bilingually involve?

All the articles I read said that the only effective way to do it was for one parent to speak the target language at all times with their children. That meant I would have to speak nothing but Irish to our daughter.

My wife and I were both nervous about the idea, for different reasons. I really wanted to do it, but I also knew that there were some gaps in my own Irish. In some cases, I would have to learn as I went.

My wife had learned little bits of Irish over the years but was only a beginner. She was worried that she wouldn’t understand what was being said in her own home by her family members half the time.

But, as an American, she also didn’t have any of the baggage that some people at home have about Irish. She was willing to give it a go, and when our daughter was born, I committed to speaking only Irish with her.

The first thing I noticed about my daughter was that she had long eyelashes. I didn’t know what the Irish for eyelashes was (fabhraí), so I had to look it up!

Although I had a good standard of Irish by the time she was born, I have improved greatly since, as I have had to figure out the Irish word for every little thing around the house, and everything that a three-year-old might want to talk about.

My wife mostly speaks in English to our daughter, but she includes some Irish as well. My wife understands a lot of Irish now, of course, because she hears it every day. When I speak to her, I use Irish when I know it is something she will understand, and English otherwise.

It has been fascinating to watch my daughter’s language development. She mostly speaks English but understands everything in Irish. There are also lots of words that she only knows the Irish for, so she mixes them in with English.

For example, I took her to my office one day, and when she saw my computer she yelled: “Wow, what a beautiful ríomhaire!”

But she can speak a decent amount of Irish as well. She knows that if she wants, say, ice cream, she is wasting her time asking me in English. She also (worryingly) already understands that she can use Irish to manipulate me.

I was flicking through our TV one day when she saw something she recognised.

She shouted “Crocodile Song”  but I ignored her because I was looking for something else.

There was silence for a couple of seconds, and then she said: “Amhrán Crogaill, a Dhaidí, le do thoil?” How could you say “níl” to that?

Odd as it is to say, but in some ways, I feel it is easier to raise a child through Irish in the United States than Ireland.

Here, when we go out in public, we are just another family speaking a foreign language.

But I didn’t feel as comfortable speaking Irish around other people when we visited back home last summer. Even though I know most Irish people would probably be impressed to hear you speaking Irish, I did worry that some might think I was being “elitist” or had some ulterior motive using Irish with my daughter in public.

No-one said anything, but I never fully shook that uneasy feeling during our stay.

The downside of not living in Ireland, of course, is that my daughter won’t have the chance to attend a Gaelscoil or avail of many other opportunities to develop as an Irish speaker outside of her immediate family.

Some might wonder why I should speak Irish with my daughter at all, since (especially if she lives her life in the United States) she may never use the language outside of the home.

But I remember my youth, and how I badly wanted to be able to speak Irish, a feeling a lot of Irish people, unfortunately, know too well.

This the greatest gift I can give her, and I am willing to make every sacrifice to ensure she has it. If she decides as an adult not to use it, that is fine.

I will be content knowing that she, unlike many Irish people, actually had a chance to choose to speak it if she wished.

Meanwhile, my wife and I had our second daughter in November, so our little American Gaeltacht is growing.

Caoimhín De Barra is an assistant professor of history at Gonzaga University, Washington. 

His new book Gaeilge: A Radical Revolution is published by Currach Press and will be launched at An Siopa Leabhar at 6 Harcourt Street pm, today, Friday, March 15. The launch includes a bilingual panel discussion on the question of reviving Irish.

Dr De Barra will also hold a public lecture on the topic of Galeophobia at 36 Parnell Square West, in Dublin on March 15 at 6.30pm.

Both events are free to attend and open to the public.  

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About the author:

Caoimhín De Barra  / Assistant professor of history, Gonzaga University, Washington

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