‘It’s the dialect!‘ Mary says. Originally from Dublin, she has lived in Leicester for the past 30 years. She’s in her fifties now and she is sitting with us in front of the fireplace of our little cottage. ‘It’s not fair. They’re not accommodating us at all. I don’t understand the teacher, she is yapping away with her the people from her area.’ Thomas and I listen to her lamentations and feel for her. For us ‘absolute beginners’, Mary is a wealth of knowledge. We practice during breakfast, asking each other for milk, butter and sugar in Irish. I’ve only been here a day.
‘Here’ is Glencolmcille, the most western tip of county Donegal in Ireland, the heart of the Gaeltacht – the name given to the Irish speaking communities in Ireland. In the Foras Cultuir Uladh, Oideas Gael have been giving Irish courses for ten years now. Liam ó Cuinneagean, teacher in Dublin but originally from the area, is the organizer and instigator of the courses. He stands before us on the first day, his voice thick with the cold he’s got. The group is quite big, half of us are there for the language course, the other half will go hill-walking, supervised by Tony, a Mancunian who has perfect Irish, hates England and looks like a paratrooper if I ever saw one. He seems difficult to approach, but is nevertheless pursued by several women that week.
I feel lost and I am convinced that I’m the only one there who hasn’t got a word of Irish in her vocabulary. Liam goes on and on, half English, half Irish. Tonight’s object is to divide the group into different levels. Level 1 for the beginners, level two for those with some knowledge of the language. Level 3 for the intermediates and level 4 and 5 for fluent speakers who have come to expand their vocabulary, or simply need this course as the only opportunity they have to practice their skills. They’ve come from far for this one week, many of them overseas from Australia and North-America. ‘Raise your hand, all of you who have absolutely no Irish at all.’ A few hesitant hands appear. I’m among them. It’s clear that we are level 1. Liam assures that at the end of the week we will be surprised at how much we will have learned. I’m not so sure. I think I want to go home.
The next morning, we all gather in the classroom, pen and paper in hand. From the window we have a view of Glen Head, a massive, barren promontory, reaching out into the Atlantic. The sun is shining. ‘I wish we were over there, on the beach,’ I tell Thomas, with whom I share my cottage. He is nervous, too. Thomas is half Swiss, half Irish. He hates Switzerland and has fled his country to escape the draught. A day before his conscription he took his motorbike to the road, riding all the way down to France, taking the ferry to Ireland. His English is fluent, but with a heavy Swiss accent. It is his second week in Glen. Mary and he have done the archeology course, run by professor Michael Heggerty. In the pouring rain they listened to his ‘5000 years in stone’. They’re wildly enthusiastic about it. Thomas says he will show me everything, the forts, the graves, all the pre-Celtic remnants this valley has to offer. He is only 19, the youngest in our class.
The class is an eclectic, multicultural gathering of people. Marcus, law student and lover of Irish traditional music. José, teacher, from Spain. Kioru, student, from Japan. Birgitta, theatre assistant, from Sweden. John, writer, from Canada. Sean, publican, from Kildare. Joan, teacher from Cork, who will lose her job if she does not pass the Irish test. Ainne, our teacher, speaks the Ulster Irish of the region. Later, we find out we are learning the least common type of Irish, but by that time I’m hooked on its sound. Our first lesson teaches us to talk about ourselves. All we do is reproduce the sounds coming from Ainne’s mouth. There is no writing, no vocabulary and it is days before we know what it is we are actually saying: ‘Dia duit. Is mise Caroline. As an Isiltur dom. Tá me gruige dubh.‘
After the first day, Thomas – now: Tomás – and I return to our cottage. There we find Mary stirring her soup, looking rather depressed. She feels she should be able to do level 5, after all, she does speak Irish. She grew up with it. But the pace is too high, she complains about the differences between her Dublin Irish and the Ulster Irish that is taught here. She looks back on the previous week nostalgically. ‘I was on a high!‘, she says and makes up more excuses for her failure today. It is obvious that she is too proud to step back to level 4, not to speak of level 3. Tomorrow’s another day, we tell her. She promises to give it another go.
As said, the idea of the course implies that there is little or no reading or writing. These skills would only confuse people, because there is so little similarity between the spelling of the language and its pronunciation, for the beginning learner. After three days we are all screaming for handouts, we are all spoilt by our schooling and need the word-image to be able to remember things at all. Everybody scribbles down the flow of sounds we are taught, all in our own phonetic way. But it becomes obvious that the listen/repeat system works better than the nervous fumbling through our notes every time we are asked a question. We learn to count and tell the time, talk about our hobbies, and order food and drink.
Kevin, quickly re-christened Cuibhean is the brightest of us all. We’re annoyed with him, he seems to be way ahead of us, belonging to a higher level. He denies it, and says all he does is study harder during his sleepless nights. The Derry crowd he accompanies and mothers is a hard drinking lot. Kevin makes sure they get into bed, and wake up in time for classes. They look tough and wear republican T-shirts. ‘Rebels,’ we whisper. IRA supporters. Maybe the real thing. Kevin himself looks the part. It doesn’t rhyme with his Midlands accent and the poetry he recites in the classroom. Or does it? Brendan Behan was a rebel and a poet. Kevin tells me he hasn’t touched alcohol in ten years. He doesn’t talk much, neither does the rest of his crowd. They don’t mix. He tells me his father’s father’s father was executed by the British. A statue has been erected for him just outside of a village in West Cork, he says with quiet pride. I tell him I have camped there. ‘Go again,’ he says, ‘My aunt owns a pub there. Tell her you know me.‘ He limps as he walks away from me. Both his legs shattered, ‘In a car crash,’ he says, ‘the wounds still bleed.’ ‘The getaway car,’ is what Thomas and I joke.
Kioru, a Japanese student, has flown over especially for the course. She flies back immediately after. Every morning she comes in, in that Japanese shuffling way. One of our exercises has us tell the class what we had for breakfast. Kioru is staying in a B&B, and her ban an tí serves her the same heavy Irish breakfast every morning: ‘I had cornflakes with milk, sausages, fried egg, toast, tea with milk and sugar.’ I’m convinced it’s too much for her, yet she is too polite to refuse or ask for something lighter.