Irish tongue becoming talk of campus

Author: Ed Cohen

At the home of the Fighting Irish, increasing numbers of students want to learn to speak Irish, even though only a tiny portion of the people in Ireland do.

Demand for Irish language courses has been strong since the establishment of the Keough Institute for Irish Studies in 1992. Last fall 67 undergraduates were enrolled in Irish language courses. The total was expected to top 80 this spring.

“The problem is not stirring up interest, the problem is finding people to teach the classes,” says Christopher Fox, director of the Keough Institute.

Fox also heads the University’s new Department of Irish Language and Literature, established last spring. The Irish ambassador to the United States, Noel Fahey, gave a lecture on campus last October to mark the official inauguration of the department, which is the only one of its kind in the United States.

Irish, sometimes referred to in the United States as Gaelic, is the language that was spoken throughout Ireland from the fifth century until the potato famine of the mid-19th century and resulting Irish diaspora, explains Éamonn Ó Ciardha, program coordinator of the Keough Institute and a native of Ireland. The Irish people became convinced that if they were going to make it in the world they had to speak English. According to Fox, 98 percent of Irish immigrants to the United States in the 19th century arrived speaking Irish, not English. Within a generation they had completely abandoned the language.

Ó Ciardha (pronounced oh-KEER-uh) says Irish has traditionally been taught to school children in Ireland but in a manner akin to how Latin is taught in the United States—a dead language useful mainly in translating historic documents and literature. But Irish isn’t entirely dead. About 50,000 people out of Ireland’s population of just under 4 million speak the language, Ó Ciardha says. There are also private Irish-language schools, and an Irish-language television station has been on the air for more than a decade, he says.

Last fall a TV crew from Northern Ireland visited Notre Dame the weekend of the home football game against Michigan. The group was here to produce a feature on Irish studies at Notre Dame and the Fighting Irish culture, which many in Ireland find curious. The report, done entirely in Irish, was commissioned by the BBC as part of its commitment to Irish-English cultural parity in Northern Ireland, Ó Ciardha says. You can watch the piece over the Internet at

Notre Dame was among the institutions of higher learning in the United States to offer courses in Irish, according to Brian Ó Conchubhair (pronounced BREE-en oh-KAHN-uh-COOR), assistant professor of Irish language and literature and a fellow of the Keough Institute. Records exist of a Brother Simeon teaching courses here from 1868-74. One report says the courses attracted more than 350 students.

The language courses apparently continued to be part of the curriculum into the early part of the 20th century, after which only Irish literature courses were taught, generally by visiting professors using English translations. One faculty member remembers courses in the Irish language being taught here in the 1960s, Ó Conchubhair says, but they weren’t offered on a regular basis again until 1994, through the Keough Institute.

Many Notre Dame undergraduates are descendants of Irish immigrants. Some say they want to learn Irish to reclaim a part of their heritage. First-year student Erin Burns says she saw it as an opportunity to understand the culture and traditions of her ancestors better. She wasn’t put off by the fact that Irish isn’t spoken much in Ireland anymore.

“Some may see this as a reason not to learn the language. I see it as a motivation to learn Irish so that the rich history and culture that accompanies it may be preserved,” Burns says. She admits that another reason she signed up for Irish was because she was tired of Spanish and wanted to try something new. Arts and Letters majors can use Irish to satisfy their college’s foreign language requirement.

Some students say they came to Notre Dame thinking they would like to study abroad in Ireland so they wanted to learn more about the country’s culture and history. Sophomore Kerry Lanigan says she signed up for her first Irish language course merely because she was looking for an elective and the class fit into her schedule. She didn’t plan on going further. But “all that has changed.” Irish is now her favorite class, and she’s applied to study abroad in Dublin next fall.

Last October the University dedicated a new home for its study abroad program in Ireland, at the historic O’Connell House on Dublin’s Merrion Square. The building was refurbished with benefactions from the families of Notre Dame trustees Donald Keough and Martin Naughton.

More than 70 Notre Dame undergraduates study abroad at the Keough Centre each semester.