October 01, 2007

Instructor brings love of Irish language to students

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. — One of the first lessons in Sinéad Ní Mhaoilmhichíl's beginning Irish language class was learning to pronounce the instructor's name.

Mhaoilmhichíl is at Southern Illinois University Carbondale this academic year as part of the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program. She teaches two sections of beginning Irish language this semester. Next semester she expects to focus on Irish culture.

Mhaoilmhichíl said she wasn't surprised to find evidence of Irish speakers in New York City, where she spent a week with other FLTA scholars, or in Chicago or Boston, but she was delighted to find so much interest at SIUC.

"I think a lot of it is from Irish-American culture," she said, taking a guess why she has more than two-dozen students signed up to learn Irish. "Learning the language is the next step after you've learned about the sport and the music."

Mhaoilmhichíl is from County Tipperary in the south of Ireland. She began learning Irish in secondary school, she said, and did not speak it at home. A dedicated student, Mhaoilmhichíl won a scholarship at University College, Dublin, which allowed her to live in an Irish-speaking residence hall on campus. It was her first experience using Irish as an everyday language. She said she learned more from that experience than she could have from the classroom alone. Besides learning the language, she also studied Irish music. Later, she pursued graduate work in business and information technology with Irish as the instruction language.

Her passion is promoting the language, she said, and she might eventually like a career with Irish-language broadcast media. Before joining the FLTA program, she worked with Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge, a group promoting Irish. The group lobbied successfully for Irish language legislation in Ireland and for recognition of Irish by the European Union. The group also publishes a newsletter for Irish speakers and maintains a Web site at www.gaelport.com. Mhaoilmhichíl said she knew from working with the newsletter that the Irish language has speakers in places remote from the Emerald Isle. In the United States, she said, approximately 22,000 people claim Irish as one of their languages.

There are differences between Irish and Irish-American culture, and Mhaoilmhichíl said she is eager to explore some of the differences.

"Irish-American culture is so strong and lively," she said. "I think sometimes people mix up what is Irish-American and what is Irish. I'm eager to see what my students think of me, as an Irish person."

Beth Lordan, the new director of the Irish and Irish Immigration Studies program at SIUC following the Aug. 31 retirement of Charles Fanning, said she hopes SIUC and the FLTA program will continue to work together to bring Irish to SIUC.

"To be able to get an Irish language program up and running here is really something," she said. "We'd like to keep that going."

Students interested in Irish culture can email Sinéad Ní Mhaoilmhichíl at sinead@siu.edu.