Why I’m Learning Irish in Chicago, USA

Why am I learning Irish? Well, if you’re game to take a walk with me from Nativity parish on Chicago’s South Side, to the asylum in County Monaghan, I’ll tell you how I came to study the language even though I live thousands of miles from the Emerald Isle…

Begin with Patrick Norton’s tombstone. The cross is gone and this base is the only part that has survived vandalism and the toll of time. It’s in Calvary Catholic Cemetery on the far north side of Chicago.  He worked to build Navy Pier, yet this is how he wanted himself and his wife to be remembered ‘Natives of Co. Limerick Ireland.’ Because in my family, nothing was more important than remembering you were Irish. Yes, Irish American now, but the wound of leaving Ireland didn’t heal easily and it was passed to each generation.

Here’s another artifact, with apologies for the poor quality. It’s a photocopy of a photo. But in row 5 is mo sheanmháthair, Mae Norton. And in row 1 is Dickie Daley who was the first mayor Daley of Chicago, Richard J. Daley. These people were South Side Irish, when Irish identity was a serious business. On St Patrick’s Day they dyed the Chicago River green, and staged a massive parade. Author Bonnie Greer explained it to a British audience in this viral moment.

You can imagine the pageantry of those parades. One year my father marched in a green velvet sash with the Hibernians. It was so heavily embellished with bullion thread and faux jewels that I as a child couldn’t wear it for long. His father, Dubliner Joseph, taught my father his Irish mindset. Joe emigrated to the United States as a child after his father died in the Monaghan Asylum in middle age.

Steel Mills at Gary in 1973, Indiana. Photo by Paul Sequeira.

Next here some are the smoking towers of steel plants in Gary, Indiana. They are vivid to me because every fall my parents drove us through this stinking, polluted hellscape on the way to a football game at Notre Dame University, where all Irish Catholic boys aspired to study. After every game I was encouraged to pluck grass from the field and press it in a book. They bought me Notre Dame stationery to write to relatives as if I was already a student at Notre Dame. Simple, uncomplicated brainwashing. (To their chagrin, I went to the University of Cincinnati.)

For all this, it wasn’t until the year 2000 that I heard that, because of Dubliner Grandpa Joe, I was eligible for Irish citizenship. My sister Maureen and I began a tough search through some very poor records to establish our eligibility. 17 years later I found myself holding my Irish Registration of Foreign Birth at last (Obligatory disclaimer: I’m an American with Irish citizenship. I do not claim to be Irish Irish. I never sat for a Leaving Cert, never waited for a Luas that never showed. My citizenship is different. Not second class, I suppose, but definitely a different class. I’m ok with that.). This was not a frivolous Irish American whim. This reflected the way I’ve always self-identified. To prove it I decided to learn the language. And here we are.

At first I tried to put my own distance learning package together. This was not at all easy, so I’m grateful for Ronan and the team creating and supporting LetsLearnIrish.com. In an Internet world of very short courses (Pimsleur) or narrowly focused courses (Duolingo), here there are ongoing classes and the all-important chance to practice with others near my level at online practice conversations, or comhrá.

In closing, I’ll say my own learning journey shifted from proving a point to actual love for the language. I don’t use it a lot in Seattle, just enough to annoy my family and friends. But if along the way I support teachers and schools who are nurturing this language, which is in danger of vanishing in a few generations, then it’s worth the effort to me. Be sure to join one of the many online Irish courses available with the community at Let’s Learn Irish, and begin your own Irish language journey!

Read more about Seán’s connection to Ireland here

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

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  1. Nice narrative, Seán. The part about annoying family and friends- the responses I usually get are the same – silence. I take that to mean polite patience that is building to insults and complaints…

  2. Go rabh míle maith agat as é seo a roinnt linn, a Sheáin! Agus bím ag cur isteach mo theaghlach le mo chuid Gaedhilic go minic comh maith! 😉

  3. Go raibh maith agat as do scéal John! Cuireann úsáid na Gaeilge as do mo theaghlach freisin … ach is cuma liom. Tá súil agam go bhfoghlaimeoidh mo chlann clainne cúpla focal.

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