God help the Irish language! Faced with insurmountable obstacles, it’s on the brink of extinction.
You’ve heard such doom-laden predictions before, perhaps even in articles I’ve written. But I’ve tired of pessimism. Instead, I’m here to tell you about a new campaign to revitalize the language.
It’s spearheaded by one of Ireland’s most prominent Irish-American personalities, comedian Des Bishop, or Deasún Mac an Easpaig as he might prefer to be known.
Born in New York, Des moved to Ireland when he was 14. In recent years, he has built a comedy career based on his outsider’s view of a changing Ireland.
His latest TV show is a case in point. In the Name of the Fada (fada being the Irish word for the accent placed on a vowel – such as á) chronicles the year he spent living in Connemara learning Irish and acquiring the love he developed for the language.
I spoke to Des while he was touring Ireland with his stand-up show. We started our interview in Irish. Read on and be impressed by his fluency and passion.
Dia dhuit, Des. Conas atá tú?
Dia is Muire dhuit. Tá mé go h-an mhaith.
Hello, Des. How are you?
Hello. I’m great.
Cad as duit agus caithin ar tháinig tú go hÉireann?
Is as Flushing, Banríona mé agus tháinig mé anseo nuair a bhí mé ceithre bliana déag d’aois, i 1990.
Where are you from and when did you come to Ireland?
I’m from Flushing, Queens and I came here when I was 14 years old, in 1990.
Cén aois tú anois?
Tá mé tríocha dó.
What age are you now?
Níor fhoghlaim tú Gaeilge ar scoil. Cén fáth gur theastaigh uait í a fhoghlaim anois?
Níor fhoghlaim, buíochas le Dia. Bhí suim agam sa teanga i gcónaí agus theastaigh uaim eolas a bheith agam faoi, tar éis dom freastal ar an ollscoil ach go h-áirithe.
Lá amháin, cúig bliana ó shin, bhí mé ag labhairt le cara liom, stiúrthóir teilifíse, agus dúirt mé leis faoi mo smaoineamh clár a dhéanamh mar gheall ar dhuine cosúil liom féin gan aon Ghaeilge ag iarraidh an teanga a fhoghlaim.
Thárla go leor rudaí idir an dá linn ach chuala bean in RTE mar gheall ar an smaoineamh agus bhí rud éigin mar sin in aigne aici ar aon nós agus is mar sin a thosaigh an clár.
You didn’t learn Irish at school. Why did you decide to learn it now?
I didn’t, thank God. I was always interested in the language and I wanted to find out more about it, especially after I attended university.
One day, five years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who is a TV director and I mentioned that I’d thought of making a TV series about somebody like me, somebody who couldn’t speak a word of Irish and was trying to learn it for the first time.
A lot happened in the meantime but a woman in RTE eventually heard about the idea and she had a similar idea in mind and the show started from there.
Tar éis bliain amháin, tá leibhéal sách maith bainte amach agat sa teanga. An bhfuil tú sásta leis?
Tá mé beagáinín sásta. Tá mé á fhoghlaim anois le bliain agus ceithre mhí ach níl aon ranganna á dhéanamh agam faoi láthair. Tá mé ag iarraidh mo Ghaeilge a choinneáil suas ach tá mé saghas “stuck”.
Rachfaidh mé ar ais go Conamara i rith an tsamhraidh. Tá mo thuismitheoirí ag teacht agus rachfaimid ann ar laethanta saoire.
After one year, you now have a reasonable level of fluency in the language. Are you pleased with that?
I’m quite pleased. I’ve been learning Irish for a year and four months now but I’m not doing any classes at the moment. I’m trying to keep my level but I’m pretty much stuck where I am for now.
I’m going to go to Connemara during the summer. My parents are coming over and we’ll go there on holidays.
An raibh sé deacair an teanga a fhoghlaim?
Ní raibh sé ró dheacair. Bhí go leor ama agam agus rinne mé é trí tumoideachas. Mar sin, bhí mé ag foghlaim an t-am ar fad, gach aon lá agus tar éis tamaill, thárla sé. Am fada is ea é bliain.
Was it difficult to learn the language?
Not too difficult. I had enough time and I did it through total immersion. So, I was learning all the time, every day and after a while, it just happened. A year is a long time.
Ar bhain tú taithneamh as bheith i do chónaí i gConamara? Cad iad na rudaí ba mhó a thaithin leat?
Bhain mé an taithneamh as. Rachfainn ann arís. Chaithfinn mo shaol ar fad ann b’fhéidir. Is breá liom an pobal.
Did you enjoy living in Connemara? What were the aspects you enjoyed most?
I really enjoyed it. I’d live there again. I might even spend my life there. I love the sense of community.
An dtéann tu ar ais go Conamara go minic?
Bhí mé ann an tseachtain seo caite agus beidh mé ann arís sa tsamhradh.
Do you go back to Connemara often?
I was there last week and I’ll be there again this summer.
Agus an bhfuil tú fós ag foghlaim na Gaeilge?
Tá agus beidh. Is breá liom é.
And are you still learning Irish?
I am and I will be. I love it.
Go raibh maith agat, a Dheasúin.
The Irish language has a new and unexpected hero. His name is Des Bishop and he hails from the unlikeliest of locations – Queens, New York. His mother is Irish-American. His father is from Middleton in County Cork. Neither has a particular interest in the Irish language. “My mother doesn’t speak a word and Dad has a few words – a h-aon, dó, trí (one, two, three),” Des explains.
Indeed, Des himself had very little knowledge of Ireland or Irish until the age of 14. At that stage, he was a troubled adolescent who had just been expelled from school in New York.
“I wasn’t happy,” he remembers. “I’d never been to Ireland but my Irish cousin and I came up with the idea that I should go to boarding school in Wexford. Within a month, I was there.”
This rash decision, taken in 1990, was to be a definitive one for Des. After high school, he enrolled in university in Cork and there discovered his comic talents.
“My natural inclination had always been to be a performer,” he says. “That had gotten me into trouble in the past but it’s all worked out now.”
It’s worked out so well that Des is currently regarded as one of Ireland’s top comedians. What has made him so popular is the use he makes of his status as an outsider to explore the margins of Irish society.
For example, in his TV series, Joy in the Hood he tackled inner-city deprivation. Living in disadvantaged communities, he encouraged the teenagers to express themselves through comedy.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to Des’ school days. Because he was 14 when he arrived in Ireland he was exempt from learning Irish in school, something he is grateful for. “The curriculum is s**t,” he says, never one to mince his words. “School is not a nurturing environment for the language and it would have killed my love for it.”
Many people would have regarded this as the end of the matter but not Des. He has a boundless curiosity and as time went on, he started to think he had missed out by not learning the language.
“All Irish people had the experience of learning or trying to learn the language and I’d been excluded from that rite of passage,” he explains. “I thought it would make for an interesting program if I were to try to learn it in the Gaeltacht. It was a final frontier in Irish life that I didn’t know anything about.”
So, just as he did when he was 14, Des took a leap of faith. He moved to Leitir Móir in Connemara where he lived with an Irish-speaking family and attended Irish classes for an entire year.
Virtually everyone – from his Irish friends to the media – reacted with shock. Why would anyone voluntarily submit to the torture of learning what is widely regarded as an impossibly difficult language?
Des had expected this reaction. After all, many Irish people harbor a sense of resentment towards the language from the way it’s taught in school. So, instead of worrying about it, he got on with the task of settling into a new community – something he is practiced at.
“I’ve moved between cousins, friends and boarding school since I was fourteen,” he says. “Fitting in is what I do.”
He joined the local Gaelic Athletic League team where he came to know some of the area’s many characters – including a man who made a point of always chewing some grass from the pitch before a game. He also learned Irish dancing.
To some, learning the language and adapting to life in the Gaeltacht would have been challenge enough. But Des is an audacious character who sets himself ambitious goals. At the beginning of his term in Leitir Móir, he declared that he would perform a stand-up gig in Irish by the end of the year.
Was he mad? There were times when he thought so.
“I thought I mightn’t make it,” he admits. “I didn’t know if I could be funny in Irish. But as time went by, my confidence increased and I started to joke in Irish naturally.”
The show, which took place in Dublin in March, was a sell-out success. Ever since, the reaction to Des’ adventures in the Gaeltacht has been extremely positive.
“Everyone is saying the show is entertaining, meaningful and powerful,” he says. “And even better: Gaelcultúr – an organization that offers Irish language lessons – has reported a 600 percent increase in admission figures.”
These are impressive results but they are nothing compared to the profound effect the experience has had on Des himself.
“I thought the Gaeltacht would be an interesting place to explore, but living there proved momentous for me,” he says. “I feel more Irish now, without a shadow of a doubt. In learning and living the language, I’ve become passionate about it. The whole thing raised questions of emotions, identity and a sense of belonging that I didn’t expect.”
So affected was he that Des is now a zealous advocate for the language. Recently, he has lobbied the Department of Education to change the school curriculum, which is often blamed for students leaving school after 14 years without being able to speak a word of Irish.
“There is too much emphasis on grammar and spelling,” says Des. “That should come later. Students should learn to speak it first. Right now, Irish is seen as an endurance test, and that kills it. There is no love.”
Thanks to the popularity of his TV show and the forthrightness of his manner, Des is having an impact.
The Minister for Education, Batt O’Keefe, said, after a meeting with Des, “It is heartening to see someone like Des achieve great fluency in Irish in such a short period. Des has brought fun back into mastering the language, and it shows that with a positive approach we can stimulate the interest of students in our native language once again.”
This is what Des is trying to do and he hopes everyone will give it a go, not just students who have no choice but to learn the language. He has even developed an Internet course in Irish which can be accessed free of charge from his website www.desbishop.com.
“Just start learning it,” he urges. “And if you’ve got any Irish at all, use it. You’ll be amazed how much you remember if you just use it.”
Having had a life-changing experience in the Gaeltacht, Des is optimistic about the future of the language. “It’s on the way up,” he insists. “Twenty years ago, the majority had a disdain for the language, but now it’s the minority that think like that.”
He attributes this change in attitude to the increase in immigration into Ireland and the march of globalization worldwide.
“People are paying attention to what’s unique about their culture,” he says. “It’s changing how people think about the language.”
Learning the language has certainly changed his own perceptions. So much so that this once hyperactive personality now claims to have no fixed plans for the future. “It’s been a long year,” he says. “I just want to let it all sink in and do as much as I can with what happened.”
And while he’s absorbing the impact of his year in the Gaeltacht, he’ll also continue improving his Irish. “I just love it,” he says.
Des Bishop visited Irish America/Irish Voice offices in February and practiced his Irish speaking skills on fellow Gaelgoir, publisher, Niall O’Dowd. While in New York, he performed at a fundraiser for the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform.