Earlier this year, acclaimed Irish novelist Louise O’Neill decided to return to the Irish language and undertake a course with Gaelchultúr. Nuachtlitir Ghaelchultúir spoke to her recently to find out what motivated her to learn Irish again and to find out what she thought about the course.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Louise O’ Neill, I’m an author from Clonakilty in west Cork and I’ve written five novels.
What was your experience of Irish before you undertook the course with Gaelchultúr?
Not great! I studied it in school, like most other Irish people, and I took the higher-level paper for my Leaving Cert. I did well but only because I was good at learning sections off by heart rather than any genuine fluency. I still have nightmares about having to repeat my exams; I can see myself staring at the paper, not a clue what any of it means.
Your latest novel is set on a Gaeltacht island –can you tell us why chose to set it there?
I loved Eilis Dillon novels when I was a child, many of which were set on Irish speaking islands, and a lecturer at college once told me that the relationship between the offshore islands and the mainland was an analogy for the relationship between Ireland and the UK. I wanted to explore some of that postcolonial tension in the book, especially as the murder suspect in After the Silence is an English man, the dreaded Sasanach. It seemed appropriate to set the book in a Gaeltacht.
Why did you decide to return to learning Irish, and why now?
There are a lot of Irish phrases woven through the narrative of After the Silence but I didn’t have enough knowledge to do that with any confidence; I had to ask my friend, Traolach, to help me with the translation. After spending quite a bit of time this summer on Cape Clear and in Dingle, I felt quite annoyed with myself that I couldn’t have a basic conversation with locals in Irish and it made me want to rectify that.
How did you hear about Gaelchultúr and our Irish language courses?
I sent out an SOS on Instagram, asking for recommendations of Irish courses and Gaelchultúr was mentioned time and time again.
How did you find the online learning experience?
I think we’re all aware of Zoom fatigue at this point but I will say that it was amazing being able to do the course in my pyjamas and slippers! (I wore a hoody on top to make it look presentable.) I live in west Cork so this wouldn’t have been accessible to me if it wasn’t online.
What did you most enjoy about the course?
The teacher, Emily, was great and it just felt informal and easy going. There wasn’t any pressure – you could take it at your own pace.
Have you had a chance to use your Irish outside of the classroom yet? If not, do you feel you’d be more confident speaking Irish since doing the course?
I’m planning a trip to Dingle once the restrictions are lifted and it’s safe to travel and I can’t wait to try out my Irish on all the unsuspecting locals.
Do you have any tips for other people who might be thinking of returning to the language?
The most important thing is not to feel intimidated – these courses are not like what you remember from school! It’s much more relaxed.
Has your outlook towards Irish changed at all and do you plan to maintain a connection with the language from now on?
I think this has really made me appreciate what a beautiful language Irish is and I feel determined to do my very small part in keeping it alive. I don’t have any delusions of becoming fluent but that’s not what this was about. It was about being able to have a very short, basic conversation and I think I’ve achieved that!