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The Irish For: Teaching toddlers Gaeilge through the art of storytelling

Story-time is a great way to teach preschoolers píosa Gaeilge, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

This is the latest dispatch from our columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir. Every Sunday morning, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. Enjoy.

IT OPENS WITH a bluntly-pixelated Atari version of baseball, complete with a robotic rendition of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”.

A sick child mashes a joystick absent-mindedly as his grandfather arrives with a book. When I was your age, TV was called books, he declares as the grandson reluctantly agrees to humour him by hearing a few pages. Before long, he – and we – are hooked on a tale of true love, revenge, iocaine powder and rodents of unusual size. 

The Princess Bride – partly filmed at the Cliffs of Moher – would still be a great rainy-day movie even if it only told us the story of Westley and Buttercup, but the framing device of future It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia director Fred Savage trading wisecracks with Columbo really pushes it into classic territory.

Our love of books begins with having them read to us by a family member, and our childhood engagement with these stories – interruptions, questions, disbelief, droll asides – are a massive part of that process.

When we become readers ourselves, this excited and questioning child is still inside; you can feel them jumping on the bed in your heart when a great book pulls you in. 

I get a lot of correspondence from young parents, especially those who are themselves returning to Irish and who would like their kids to have more Gaeilge than they do. Story-time is a great way to do this. Picture books are easy to follow and the pace of storytelling allows you to pause over fun Irish words, perhaps do the book once in English and once as Gaeilge, do funny voices and maybe even learn some Irish yourself at the same time. 

I’ll be looking at books for slightly older kids next week but today it’s all about picture books for preschoolers that will give the smallie in your life a sweet first taste of Irish while also being pleasant enough for you to read or to perform… as you wish.

Babaí: Focail / Babaí: Ainmhithe - these are board books with one word per page that can introduce basic vocabulary.

Gaschaint: this is a phrasebook for parents and kids with Irish expressions for everyday activities around the home. This one comes with a CD for pronunciation. 

Bran: remember Bran? Just like Seymour in Futurama, this loveable dog has been waiting patiently for you to return. Eric Hill’s canine character is called Spot in English language texts, but the Irish version anoints him with the name of one of Fionn Mac Cumhall’s hounds. Bran’s adventures include Bran ar an bhFeirm, Bran ag Obair and (careful with the fadas on this one) Déanann Bran Cáca.

Bí Ag Spraoí Liom (be at play with me) - Sadhbh Devlin is the current writer in residence at Dun Laoghaire Rathdown libraries. This story is about a little girl called Lúna who wants her mam to play with her, but busy mam keeps postponing. This gorgeously illustrated book packs the emotional wallop of a Pixar movie.

Ná Gabh Ar Scoil (don’t go to school)  - Belfast’s Máire Zepf has written eight books; as well as the Rita series, she has this one, which is about a little bear who can’t wait to start school but his mam is reluctant to let him. 

An Garbhán (the Gruffalo) - “garbhán” is a pre-existing lesser-used term in Irish for a person or beast covered in coarse skin, one which was chosen for the translation of the monster hit about a creature with terrible teeth and terrible toes. If you’ve been reading the Gruffalo to a child you might find that knowing the story removes some of the impact of unfamiliar words. And amazingly, the translation keeps the rhyme.

These books, among others are available at An Siopa Learbhar and other stockists.

Darach’s new book Craic Baby is the follow-up to his acclaimed Motherfoclóir and is out now under the Head of Zeus imprint.

He runs @theirishfor Twitter account and the @motherfocloir podcast.

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Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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