Learning Irish

I carried the words on my shoulder like a small, rare bird.

“Erin Go Bragh,” in gold cursive letters, nesting in a green bow. It was St. Patrick’s Day and my mother had bought me and my two sisters ribbon each to pin on our

(Bird: éan)

Sister Maria, the principal of Our Lady Help of Christians on Avenue M in Brooklyn, did not offer a dress down day on March 17th. Girls wore a white blouse and a navy blue plaid jumper with a gold thread running through it. The boys wore white shirts and blue pants. On St. Patrick’s Day, you had to add green where you could.

The year of the ribbon, I was nine.

At recess and lunchtime, I walked the school yard followed by the repeated question, “What does that mean?”

In my memory, I am not wearing a coat so either it was one of those spring-like St. Patrick’s Days, or I chose to freeze to show off the ribbon. March is fickle and I am stubborn so either is possible.

“Ireland forever.” I said again and again.

I thought “Erin Go Bragh” was an expression, like “Top of the Morning to You.”

I can’t quite explain how I knew it was called Gaelic without understanding that Gaelic was an entire language.

(Morning: maidin)

When I was thirteen, I read a book called “Kathleen,” which was part of the Sunfire series of romance novels for young adults. Elizabeth. Susannah. Caroline. Each book cast the titular girl in a different historical event, like The Salem Witch trials, The Civil War, The California Gold Rush, and gave her two men to choose from, a safe choice and a daring choice.

In “Kathleen,” Kathleen O’Connor leaves Ireland in 1847 and emigrates to Boston. She is alone, having lost her younger brother and sisters to starvation and her parents to fever on the ship. In Boston, she becomes a housemaid for a wealthy family. Near the end of the book, her happy ending in sight, Kathleen decides that she will go down to the docks to greet the Irish arriving in America who are as alone and frightened as she was. She vows to speak a few words to them in their own language.

The shock was visceral. Jarring, like when you step off a curb you didn’t see coming. Own language?

Both of my father’s parents left behind small farms in Galway. My grandfather, Eddie Donohoe, met his brother in Baltimore and my grandmother, Una Ryan, came to her sister in Brooklyn. Una died before I was born, but I knew that my grandfather and Aunt Madge spoke only English, though with a brogue.

(Bróg: Shoe)

It’s odd that I don’t remember if I asked someone, or if I looked Ireland up in some book, maybe the encyclopedia?, but I confirmed that, indeed, the Irish once had more than an accent. Irish, I now know to call it. Already a writer, living in books, aware that language is alchemy, I had the sense of a secret being revealed, though it was only a fact never expressly mentioned.

Then, I believed Irish to be gone entirely. Gone as anything. I didn’t have the history yet—that would come—so I imagined Ireland’s lost words haunting the country. If you went there, I wondered, would you glimpse the wraiths of nouns from the corner of your eye? If you stood in a candlelit room and looked in the mirror, would you see, in phantom letters, the Irish spelling of your name? No. Such a haunting would be surely be aural. A whisper. The suggestion of syllable. Stand by an Irish river and hear the water speak a whole, drowned vocabulary.

But how does an entire language disappear? Were the words abandoned by their vowels and forced to disperse, like an army disbanded after a war? Maybe the words grew too heavy for the tongue, as heavy as stone. Or instead, they began to lose their weight, and then they vanished into the ground. Go to Ireland and kneel, and you will be kneeling on their bones.


At Rocky Sullivan’s on 29th and Lexington Avenue, Irish class was held in a back room that was cluttered, yet still neat, like someone’s organized basement. There was a headless statue of liberty, about six feet tall, wearing a white and green stripped Irish soccer jersey. Our schoolroom was in the corner; a long bench, rather like a church pew, and two scratched tables pushed together formed our singular desk. There were six of us and our pints formed a line down the middle, like row of little students. There was a portable blackboard set up.

This was not my first try. I’d already taken, and loved, Beginner’s Irish at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House, an excellent introduction to Irish grammar. Rocky’s was less formal, of course. Liam, the teacher, told us to forget English. Irish and English were not remotely similar. He stressed pronunciation. Speak first and worry the about spelling and grammar later. We would be fluent soon, he said. We doubted it, but we were eager. I was working full-time at a stultifying office job while writing a novel. For months, this was how I spent my Tuesdays. Learning Irish in the back of a bar. It was my favorite hour of the week.

Conas atá tú?

How are you?

Tá mé go maith.

I am well.

Go raibh maith agat.

Thank you.

Tá fáilte romhat

You’re welcome.

Níl agam ach beagáinín Gaeilge.

I only speak a little Irish.

My family would have spoken Irish, though I don’t know when. I can only speculate, based on family lore and a frustratingly incomplete paper trail.

On the 1850 New York City census, Martin and Ellen (Reardon) Walsh were living in Five Points with their son, Joseph, who was born in Manhattan in 1848. By 1860, they had four children and Martin’s mother, Catherine, was also living with them. Ellen was born in England to Irish parents, so perhaps they spoke it but she did not? Catherine and her son were both Irish born. From Galway, our family believes, but we’ve found no record that says so, much less where in Galway. Given the time frame, it is possible they spoke Irish, or Irish and English. The Walsh children, Americans all, almost certainly spoke English exclusively, even if their parents and grandmother were indeed Irish speakers. Esther Walsh, the youngest daughter of the family, was my maternal great-grandmother. It will always be a guess, but this could be the divide.

New York City’s most notorious slum, the mid-19th century.

On my father’s side, the story says that the Donohoes are originally from Killarney, Co. Kerry. In the years after the Great Hunger, the family was wandering the country when they came upon an abandoned farm in Tuam, Co. Galway, and settled there. This is where my grandfather was born in 1906. I don’t know what is meant by ‘family.’ Parents and their children. A set of siblings. A man or woman alone. Someone who saw everybody die.

This may have been the generation that moved the family into English, a matter of survival in Ireland, much the way it would have been in New York. English in school. English for a livelihood. English to live. Or perhaps this was so even before the blight. Yet, the language was not gone entirely when my grandfather was growing up because my father remembers that he did speak it, a little.

When I began taking classes, my father told me, “I remember him saying

something that sounded like ta-may, ta-may.”

(Tá mé: I am)

I am not fluent. That’s laughable. But when I look at a poem in Irish, I’m often startled at how many words I recognize. I can catch the meaning of a line here, a line there. It is the same when listening to songs.

I’ve been asked why I want to learn a language ‘nobody’ speaks. My answer is both pat, and true. An interest in Irish culture, literature and history. A more accurate question, I think, is why do you care? As an American, a generation removed from Ireland on one side, and a century gone on the other—why do you care?

What I have never said out loud, aware that there is ambivalence in Ireland with regards to the language, wary of being considered a propriety Irish-American, is that I want to learn it because a long time ago, it was my family’s language. In that regard, it is mine too. I want to learn Irish to speak to the living, but also to the dead.

I’d say

Go raibh maith agat

for surviving, because

Tá mé anseo.

I am here.

This essay also appears on The Wild Geese: A History of the Irish Worldwide.  http://thewildgeese.com/


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