My Political Choice to Reclaim the Irish Language

Young Sabia
Dancing at an Irish community event in Vancouver, age 2 or 3, late 90s

“We give up meaningful identities comprised of the histories, culture, politics and values of our homelands in exchange for our chance at the “white” American dream.”

From a young age, I’ve understood that the lore of my Irish family was invaluable to me – something to cherish now and understand better as I got older. As a second-generation Irish immigrant in Vancouver, Canada, the ways I’ve learned about my Irish ancestry are fragmented – limited to anecdotes told during short visits with family, brief stories from my father, a handful of old photos and disjointed Ancestry.ca results. Still, I cling to every piece of information I can get – so it makes sense that I’ve ended up here, in an effort to reclaim the Irish language!

My dad performing in Ireland in the late 1970s or early 1980s

My father left the north of Ireland in 1983, during the height of The Troubles (Na Trioblóidí). Just 23 years old and from a family of seven siblings, he came to Vancouver to play music in an Irish pub. Twelve years later I was born, and my dad was a full-fledged Canadian, immersed in the city’s vibrant Irish community.

I know my father as a quiet, pensive man. I don’t believe he ever sat me down and told me explicitly about our Irish family, our culture, or The Troubles. Still, he gave me so many glimpses: listening to Christy Moore tapes in his pickup truck on the way to Gaelic football practice, singing folk songs like “Tell Me Ma” and “Molly Malone” before bed, cooking so many pots of Irish stew and soda bread.

political choice for Sabia's dad to move to Ireland
My christening at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Magherafelt, 1995

When I was 13, my dad took me to Ireland. It was my first visit since my christening in Magherafelt, Co. Derry as a baby. We went to Derry City, where we walked the city’s walls and through the Bogside. When we visited the H-Block Hunger Strike Memorial, my dad pointed out the names of all the boys he had grown up with who had died. Though I didn’t understand it then, this was my first exposure to the ongoing impacts of colonization in Ireland and the violence, grief and loss my father experienced growing up in Ulster.

Understanding The Troubles and the ongoing colonial occupation of Ireland has shaped my worldview. In Vancouver, I am a settler living on the stolen territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) First Nations. The history of the ongoing colonization and genocide of Indigenous people in “Canada” is a horrifying one, filled with every kind of structural, genocidal violence imaginable. As a settler whose ancestry lies in another colonized place, I know I have a responsibility to understand colonial history and its current impacts. This is what motivates me to reclaim the Irish language from here in Canada, amongst this online, global community of learners and teachers.

On the Derry City walls, age 21, 2015

As the first colony of the British Empire, many of the techniques used to colonize Ireland were recycled for use by the British in Canada. Cultural genocide in both Canada and Ireland are responsible for the destruction of Indigenous language, knowledge, and identity. Growing up in Vancouver, I have learned about the power of language and cultural reclamation as a tool of decolonization from local Indigenous artists, academics, and friends. This past year, as I approach my 30th birthday, I have been itching for a deeper connection to Irish culture, which led me to impulsively sign up for my first Irish class on LetsLearnIrish.com.

the political choice Ireland has in regards to Palestine
Support for Palestine at the Free Derry Wall in Derry City, October 2023

Being white in North America through the events and injustices of the past few years (Wet’suwet’en and Fairy Creek land defender movements, increased publicity of anti-Black police violence and murders, the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of the far-right, and Israel’s current aggression in Palestine) has radicalized me over and over again. Through reading the work of Indigenous and Black activists, academics and authors, I understand that in North America, a “white” race has been established as a catch-all for all white European settlers.

While many white people in my communities hold bits and pieces of culture that connect them to European roots like I do, mostly we are asked to subscribe to a homogenous white racial identity whose main trait is upholding white supremacy in the U.S. and Canada. We give up meaningful identities comprised of the histories, culture, politics and values of our homelands in exchange for our chance at the “white” American dream – which is built on the continued genocide of Indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Black people.

Connecting with my Irish family, heritage and culture has felt like a powerful way to shift my mind away from the ideology of whiteness. Learning about ways activists and rebels in Ireland have responded to oppression in the past has deepened and reinforced my values. Looking at the ways Irish activists respond to the modern oppression of marginalized groups (like the undying Irish solidarity with Palestinians) has given me pride and the energy to be present when “whiteness” asks me to look away.

For me, learning Irish is a political choice to reclaim something my family has lost and to nurture a meaningful identity that allows me to bring a unique perspective to my communities. I’m so grateful that Let’s Learn Irish has made this accessible to me, and I look forward to continuing my journey to reclaim the Irish language when I start my first A1 classes!

Join the online Irish community for cúrsaícomhrá & ceardlanna, and follow along on social media @LetsLearnIrish – beidh fáilte romhat!

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