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'I needed something to centre myself around': US woman learned Irish to improve memory loss

Shannon O’Neill is travelling to Ireland in the summer to visit Gaeltacht areas and advance her level of Irish.

shutterstock_599882717 Shutterstock / Osadchaya Olga Shutterstock / Osadchaya Olga / Osadchaya Olga

Being diagnosed with an illness, I sometimes explain it as, ‘I had to greet myself as a new friend’ because there are changes that you have to accept, and you need something to centre yourself around.
You’re not just a sick person, you’re a person that’s getting better. You have goals, whether it’s learning a language or reading a book and it’s about having something there to ground you, celebrating the small victories, and using them on the days when you think ‘oh my god am I ever going to get better?’

SHANNON O’NEILL was studying Music Education in Los Angeles when she got sick in her senior year.

She was diagnosed with viral meningitis, and although it wasn’t fatal or deadly, it seriously impacted her cognitive ability, both her short-term and long-term memory.

“It’s like the flu, it can hit you at any time,” the 22-year-old told

“It was so unexpected when I got sick. You hear about it happening other people, but suddenly that person was me, and it forced me to reform my identity.”

Shannon is a fifth generation Irish-American. The family on her father’s side were from Ireland and married into the Irish-American community in Michigan.


But even though ‘O’Neill’ is her last name, she said she never felt she could claim her ancestry as her own, as she was so far removed and had never been to Ireland.

Her diagnosis sparked Shannon to reevaluate what was a priority, and took the opportunity to turn something negative into a positive. So she started learning Irish.

By working on something every day, recognising words and remembering grammar, I was improving my short-term memory. It gave me something to centre myself on so I didn’t feel so lost in my day-to-day life.

Through using DuoLingo everyday, her memory function started to improve, and she developed a curiosity about Irish culture.

“I became really interested in the culture that I had no idea about. I started getting books out of the library on Irish culture, politics, literature and music.”

After 462 days of learning Irish, Shannon’s completed DuoLingo’s ‘skill tree’ and now describes herself as an advanced beginner/intermediary speaker of Irish.

I do struggle with the way the language visually looks differently to how it sounds. But I have to be patient with myself and give it time.

She says although DuoLingo isn’t an all-inclusive tool to learn a language, it does give learners a solid footing to progress their language skills further.

Once I started learning Irish, connecting with that community, I started going on Irish language days and weekends in the learner community.

“I do think it was a formative transition in my life that’s really stuck with me.”

Shannon’s also recovered from the symptoms of meningitis with minimal lasting effects.

Céim eile

The next step for Shannon is to travel to Ireland, visiting all the Gaeltachts in the area in an attempt to improve her Irish.

shutterstock_528471496 Shutterstock / Evelien Buijnsters Shutterstock / Evelien Buijnsters / Evelien Buijnsters

This summer, I’ll be using the rest of the money I’ve saved up for college to travel for three months around the different Gaeltachts and speak as much as possible.

Her plan is to fly to Dublin, travel west to Limerick city, the Dingle peninsula, up to Galway city, and then hugging the coastline all the way along the west, north and then east, bringing her back down to Dublin again.

After that, she returns to her job as a substitute teacher, and wants to teach Irish in middle school (secondary school for 11- to 14-year-olds).

Does she think students would be interested?

“I believe that I could make it interesting by teaching the background to it. I know interest hasn’t been a huge success in Ireland but it’s making a comeback and I’d like to be a part of that.”

And what does her family make of her new-found passion for her Irish ancestry?

“They’re interested, but they’re not quite sure what to think.

I guess you don’t realise the work and studying someone’s put in everyday until they get a job in that field.

This weekend Shannon will be attending the New York City’s Féile na Gaeilge, an annual all-day celebration of the Irish language. This year will focus on the classic Irish-language novel Cré na Cille, with speakers, lecturers and translators attending.

“One thing I have to say,” Shannon adds, “is the community of Irish learners are the friendliest and most supportive community. The people I’ve met through learning Irish are so kind and so passionate about learning the language.”

Read: A Czech Gaeilgeoir tells us why people should go to this Irish-language festival

FactCheck: Are there really more Polish speakers than Irish speakers in Northern Ireland?

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