by Kristin Waggoner, for The Irish Gift
I couldn't tell you when it started, my seemingly unnatural obsession with all things Irish. I could tell you that it was the first time I saw a book full of pictures of the beautiful landscapes or the first time I heard the enamoring accent or even the first time that I heard rumors of my long-gone family that first came to America from Ireland. I could tell you these things, but they wouldn't be true. The truth is that it’s been there all along, for as long as I can remember. I think I must have been born with a bit of Ireland in my soul because I felt its pull before I could even locate it on a map.
A few years ago, I got into genealogy. I've always been interested in hearing old family stories, but as generations come and go, it is becoming apparent that much of the history of how we came to be is fading into black. The vibrant characters who loved and lost, fought and won, and traveled near and far to eventually bring me into existence are losing their dimensions and simply becoming names on a flat piece of paper. The birth and death dates are easy enough to find. They’re right there on the tombstones, after all, but it’s that dash in between that gets me. What magnitude of stories does that little line contain?
With this in mind, I set out to find as much as I could about all the people who came before me—not just that they were alive but how they lived. I haven’t been let down. Some lines of research do turn out to be dead ends, but the disappointment is mitigated by the admiration of a relative who was imprisoned for his faith in Scotland or the bravery of a man who set sail from Greece and started over alone in a new country. Every new story was a revelation to me, and each one encouraged me to keep digging, and then I struck gold.
I am royalty.
Okay, okay. Maybe not technically, but I am distantly related to the late Princess Diana and, therefore, her sons and all the generations that will live hereafter. As you may imagine, I was curious to find out what the connection actually was and what circumstances led to two such different outcomes for descendants of the one same person, whoever he or she may have been.
It turns out that the common denominator is a man called the Most Reverend John Vesey. Princess Diana’s line descended from a son, and mine descended from a daughter. While I was still intrigued by the lineage, what was most exciting to me was that John was Irish! This wasn't exactly a new finding for me. I had traced some Irish heritage already. What was new was that John was findable and concrete. He was the Archbishop of Tuam at one time, so I can physically go to where he once worshiped and taught. I can go to the university in which he studied. I can find the house and estate that he built, which is at least partially still standing. One day, I plan to do just that.
Right: The chancel arch in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Tuam, where John Vesey presided.
While the individual characters are unique, my story is not. I am only one of an uncountable number of people who are interested in finding out more about their family history, and this seems especially true for my fellow Americans who are often either regaled by legends of some cool ancestor or really have no clue how all the pieces of their puzzles fell into place. Maybe you are one of these people, and maybe you understand what I mean when I say that it is pretty amazing how even just one link to a place can drive you to learn all you can about it, identify with it, sympathize with it, and love it.
I am very interested in all of my family roots, which are also made up of major portions of Greek and German. I love learning about both cultures and take every chance I get to immerse myself in them, but as you have probably already figured out, I feel most drawn to my Irish heritage and really wanted to connect with it in a big way. Part of this for me was a desire to learn Irish. Besides the fact that some of my family most likely spoke it at one time, I also just find it really fun and beautiful.
If you are like me, you may want to learn Irish but have no idea where to begin. If you are not blessed to live in an area with Irish speakers or the availability of classes to attend, you probably think it’s impossible or at least improbable. I did. I tried books and a computer program, and while I did enjoy them and learned from them, there is nothing like having a comhrá (Irish for “conversation”) with other speakers. This is where The Irish Gift comes into play.
I found The Irish Gift in a last effort to find classes near me after multiple previous searches. I really didn’t think it would yield any results, but I typed in my search query, and up popped the site.
The Irish Gift is made up of a group of very talented people who practice the traditional arts of Ireland. Collectively, they play everything from the uilleann pipes and flute to the bodhrán and fiddle. They sing in the sean nós style, and they speak Irish. They see their talents as a gift passed down to them, and their mission is to share it with everyone.
I am currently taking the Beginner Irish Class offered completely online by The Irish Gift. It is a 10 week course delivered once a week through video chat, and more importantly, it’s a lot of fun. The goal is to be fluent in six months, and I feel that we are well on our way to meeting it! If you have not yet learned any Irish but have looked at a text written in it, you may think I’m crazy and that there’s no possible way anyone could learn all that in six months with just one class a week. The truth is, after just one session, you will be motivated to go out and learn on your own.
I read English words with Irish phonetic pronunciation inadvertently now. I watch television shows and documentaries completely in Irish and try to pick out the words I know. I literally have verb conjugation charts handwritten and posted on my wall, and yesterday, I wrote out numbers to over one hundred in Irish just for fun. It gets to you in the best possible way.
It’s often hard for people to understand why I am learning Irish. In fact, the normal response is, “Isn’t that just English with an Irish accent?” Once they learn that Irish is its own language with its own identity, history, and cultural ties, the next question is usually, “Why don’t you learn a useful language, like Spanish?”
I agree that Spanish is certainly a very well utilized language in our society today, and I find it very beautiful. In fact, it was my language of choice throughout school, and I spent years learning it. However, I can’t say that I personally find Irish any less useful. I can think of exactly zero reasons not to learn it and over 1,774,437 reasons why I should. 1,774,437. That’s how many people ages 3 and up were stated on the last Irish census as able to speak Irish. Theoretically, I could strike up almost two million conversations in Irish! Does that sound useless to you?
Not too long ago, I learned a new word: fernweh. It’s a German word with no exact English translation, but it can generally be thought of as a kind of homesickness for a place you've never been. That really resonated with me because it pretty much sums up the way I feel about Ireland. My life’s dream has always been to go there, and when that happens, I’ll be ready. Among my clothes and passport, I’ll be packing up my new Irish skills and taking them along. I may not get to all two million conversations, but I will make sure I get plenty of chances to take what I learn in my informative, stimulating, and often hilarious online classes and practice it in the heart of Irish-speaking country. Sure, my Appalachian dialect may make the words come out a little funny sometimes, and I’ll make mistakes as all language learners do, but if I can have just one friendly conversation with someone willing to let me try my hand at it, that will prove all those people who think this journey is useless wrong. After all, as Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart,” and that is enough for me.