As a young boy growing up on the outskirts of Limerick city, I did what all the other kids did. I hung out with my friends, I played sport, I went to school and of course, I didn't like learning Irish...
It was a strange realisation for me then to one day find myself thinking, "Oh my god….I think I’m a Gaeilgeoir". In a lot of ways, that moment was a bit of a shock, I’d never had much immersion in the language and obviously Limerick isn’t exactly known as a Gaeltacht so it was definitely 'weird’ for me.
My parents definitely have a strong cúpla focal but we’d never speak Irish at home and all of my education was through English. I remember in primary school having one teacher who was particularly passionate about an teanga. She made sure that we put an emphasis on learning Gaeilge gach lá. As a class, we rebelled, we decided we ‘hated Irish’ and didn’t want to spend ‘ages’ every day learning it. I remember even saying to my Dad (and I’ve always been far too embarrassed since to ask him if he remembers) ‘I wish we were English so we didn’t have to learn Irish in school’.
Naturally, I’ve come to my senses since, but that was the passionate sentiment of a 10-year-old and I’m sure I might even have meant it at the time. These days, I try to live as much of my life as possible through Irish. If only 10-year-old Seán could see me now…how times change!!
While that attitude did soften towards the language in secondary school, I still never felt and great connection to An Ghaeilge. It was a subject that we had to do in school and our ancestors used to speak the language ‘like a million years ago’, so what?
Even when I spent three weeks in the Gaeltacht in Dingle as a teenager, I was far too busy trying to impress the girls and pretending to the lads I knew the first thing about hurling to realise that I was actually gaining a deeper understanding of my native tongue. Looking back on that time now as an adult, I still maintain that it was three of the best weeks of my life. As a young teenager, you don’t notice how much Gaeilge you’re taking in when you’re on a pitch kicking a ball or playing games as Gaeilge. The Irish College experience took the formality out of language learning. I also realise now looking back, how incredibly lucky I was to have had that experience. Sending a child for three weeks on a cúrsa samhradh is not a cheap undertaking so I am eternally grateful to my parents for funding the three weeks of unbelievable craic I had in Coláiste Íde making new friends, experiencing independent life, and even learning a thing or two along the way.
It wasn’t until 5th year of school, sitting in Ms. Conlon’s class in Castletroy College that I found myself looking up at the board and thinking, ‘Hold on a second, I actually get this’ Where many of my classmates may have been of the ‘this is a useless, dead language’ school of thought, I found myself fascinated by the language, a whole new way of describing and experiencing the world around me. I’ll be the first to admit (and my mother would agree) that I probably had good academic potential but would only really focus on the subjects that I really liked. This inevitably meant that I did much better in Gaeilge, History, and English than I did in pretty much everything else… Where others in the class may have resorted more to the age-old trick of ‘learn it off and vomit it back out on the page’, I found myself able to think and reason in my own way with the language. I’d look at an exam question and come up with my own answer instead of trying to remember what was written in the past-paper example from 2007. I was very much ‘flying by the seat of my pants’ sometimes as I wasn’t THAT good at the language just yet. I was lucky however that I had a teacher as good as Ms. Conlon to keep me on the right track and show me how to improve my writing skills. With a bit more time and some great encouragement, I started to feel like I had found something that I really could enjoy doing in the future, speaking Irish.
Bhí na deacrachtaí chéanna agam agus a bhí ag go leor daoine sa rang. Nílim ag rá gur ‘prodigy’ mé, bhíos i gcónaí ag streachailt le gramadach na teanga agus na nathanna beaga sin atá mar bhac d’aon duine atá ag foghlaim. An difríocht a mhothaigh mé fhéin ná go raibh sé cosúil le go raibh nasc agam leis an teanga, spreag an teanga rud éigean ionam chun leanúint ar aghaidh in ainneoin na ndeacrachtaí sin.
De gnáth bhainfeadh na mionsonraí ghramadaí, an bhéim curtha ar fhilíocht agus an léamh, an bhrú chun aistí fada a fhoghlaim de ghlanmheabhair,muinín ón bhfoghlaimeoir. Bhreathnódh orthu mar chomhartha nach mbeadh siad riamh in ann an teanga a úsáid mar theanga ach amháin mar ábhar scoile. Domsa áfach, thóg mé na deacrachtaí sin agus níor lig mé dóibh a bheith dom’ stopadh, ní raibh mé chun a bheith mar chuid don grúpa ‘It’s the way it’s taught’.
It’s important to me that I mention my teacher by name, she deserves an awful lot of credit. In my sixth year of school, it was she who encouraged me to follow my new-found passion for the Irish language and to take it even further to third level. I had half-plans of going on to be a teacher at that stage, and so it made sense to me to take on Gaeilge as a subject. I thought it would be the best way to share my love for An Ghaeilge with others, an opportunity to hopefully inspire future generations of young people to try and see the language as I suddenly did. I wanted to see if I could do for young people what my teacher had done for me. It’s often said that teachers can have a huge impact on our lives and that is definitely the case for me. If it wasn’t for the encouragement I received to further my study of An Ghaeilge, I genuinely have no idea what I’d be doing with my life right now. Ironically, I’m not a teacher or even training to be one.
The path that an Ghaeilge has taken me down in the last six years has been an absolute roller-coaster but there really is nothing else I would rather be doing.
I am still working to make a living for myself and inspire others using the language. I’m now a trainee journalist and a social media content creator, podcaster, and radio host with Raidió Rí-Rá all through Irish. Nowhere near the classroom but hopefully still working to keep the language alive and well In my own way.
The reaction of my friends and classmates was pretty much exactly as you might imagine. As our final year came to an end and CAO deadlines loomed, conversations tended to always stray towards ‘So what are you doing next year?’. The usual suspects were big in my school ‘business, law, accounting, engineering, and of course arts but not Gaeilge’ Most people’s plans were met with an ‘Oh cool’ or ‘Oh that sounds really interesting’. Telling people that I was going to college to study Gaeilge, the usual reaction was ‘Ugh god, why would you do that to yourself?’ or even worse ‘What’s the point in that?’ Not the best form of encouragement but I was happy with my decision, I didn’t really want to do anything else. I never really fit in in school much anyway so even though people weren’t exactly supportive of my decision, I did get the odd ‘Oh you’ll like that’. I’m sure that was meant positively but it always felt backhanded. It felt as though people were saying ‘That’s a weird thing to do but so are you’. I never let it get to me though, I knew what I wanted to do and I wasn’t going to change my mind, I wanted a Saol trí Ghaeilge.
I’ll never forget the feeling of going into my first-ever Gaeilge lecture at UL. ‘First day of college’ nerves were bad enough but that combined with the realisation that I was about to walk into my first ever class that would be totally as Gaeilge, no sticking the hand up and asking the teacher to explain a word in a lecture of 90 people, all of whom I assumed must have had better Gaeilge than I did, I’ve rarely felt so out of my depth. Trying to take notes about the class and important information when I couldn’t understand half of what the lecturer was saying was the stuff of nightmares. I left the class with a single page of barely-legible scribbles and a pit in my stomach making me feel like I’d made a mistake. I still had a desire to follow my passion, but in that moment I realised how much work was going to be needed to get up to the level of comprehension that most of the class seemed to be at already. The training wheels that I thought I’d been rid of since secondary school were firmly back on.
Is mé ag breathnú siar ar an am sin ina raibh mé ag tosú amach ag tabhairt faoi staidéar na teanga as mo stuaim féin, ní dóigh liom go gcreidfinn riamh ansin na rudaí a raibh ós mo chomhair amach. Is duine 100% difriúil mé ón leaid óg sin (cé go bhfuil mé fós óg) tá an Ghaeilge tar éis mé a thabhairt ar bhóithre nár shamhlaigh mé riamh. Tá cairde déanta agam nach gcasfainn riamh leo murach an teanga agus deiseanna forbartha agus foghlamtha nach gcreidim fós.
Más rud é go ndúirt duine liom an chéad lá sin, 'fan leis seo, beidh tú ag scríobh ailt do RTÉ as Gaeilge i gceann cúpla bliain agus ag cruthú ábhar ar na meáin shóisialta do TG4' thosnóinn ag gáire, déarfainn. Is aisteach an saol é áfach agus anois, ní shamhlóinn mé féin i mbun rud ar bith eile a dhéanamh.