Singing in Irish: yes – it’s a language

Audrey Nickel
Audrey Nickel

Someday, I’m going to catalogue the responses I get from people when they learn that I taught myself to speak Irish. I don’t imagine there are many languages that elicit such a range of reactions: from obnoxious (people who just have to demonstrate their “Stage Oirish” brogue) to perplexed (“They have their own language?”). The question I get the most often, however, is “Why?”

There are as many reasons to learn Irish as there are Irish learners. For many, it’s a matter of cultural pride. For me, it all started with the music.

An Irish love affair

I fell in love with Irish traditional music at the age of 13, and immediately set about learning all I could about the country and culture that inspired it. I actually tried to teach myself Irish when I was 15, using an old Gaelic League pamphlet I found in an antiques store (written in old-style script, and containing such useful sentences as “Bhuail an fear an asal inné”: (“The man beat the donkey yesterday”). But this was in the 1970s, and good resources for learning Irish were virtually non-existent.

Ancient language; modern world

It’s a different world today. Resources for learning Irish abound on the internet, as do opportunities to hear good Irish music. In 2003, I heard my first sean-nós song, Fill, Fill, A Rún Ó (“Return, Return, O My Love”), and the aching beauty of it went straight to my soul. My first thought, after “that was beautiful” was “I have to learn how to do this.” And my first thought after that was “Now I HAVE to learn Irish.”

Of course, you don’t have to speak a language to sing in it. People sing in foreign languages all the time. But it’s important to me, personally, to really understand what I’m singing…not just in translation, but in actuality.

How hard is it, really, to learn Irish?

Is Irish difficult to learn? That depends on how you define “difficult.” Learning a new language involves more than memorizing grammar rules and vocabulary lists; it requires you to teach your brain to think in new ways. That’s true of any language, but Irish idiom is very different from English, and I still find it challenging. That said, the thing that scares most people about Irish – the spelling and pronunciation – is actually not all that hard to pick up. It’s doable, and I’d encourage anyone to give it a try.

What started for me with a love for the music has become a passion for the music of the language — An Ghaeilge uasal cheolmhar (noble and melodious Irish) – a tongue as ruggedly beautiful as the land and its music.

See the other articles on singing in Irish. Click the links below.
Part 1 “Singing in Irish: yes – it’s a language”
Part 2 “Singing In Irish — The Sean-Nós Tradition
Part 3 “A listener’s guide to Irish song: a taste of sean-nós

See our series of articles on singing in Irish by Cór Ainglí member Audrey Nickel.

Audrey Nickel lives near Santa Cruz, California. She has studied the Irish language for seven years and Irish traditional singing for six years. She also plays both the wire-strung Gaelic harp and the nylon-strung Celtic harp and sings in two choirs, including the Santa Cruz-based Irish Gaelic Christmas choir, Cór Ainglí. She shares her home with her husband and teenaged daughter, an Irish-speaking black cat, a poodle who thinks he’s a sean-nós singer, four harps, and 25 tin whistles.