You never know who has the Cupla Focal

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Posted by Ahem on August 30, 2001 at 16:03:28:

Irish Independent > Features Issue Date : Thu August 30th 01

You never know who has the Cupla Focal

Russian colleen: Anna Moseeva, from Moscow, is currently learning the Irish language in Donegal

The native tongue is thriving far away from Ireland. JOHN MEAGHER on the unlikely Irish speakers keeping the language alive from Moscow to New Jersey.

Two Oriental women in their early-20s were drinking in a pub on Inish Mor. Some local men were sitting two tables away, laughing among themselves. "Which of the Chinks do you fancy?" one of them asked the others in Irish. Before they could reply, the women were over, furiously reprimanding them for being racist in word-perfect Irish.

It's a true story. You never know who can speak Irish nowadays.

Take Anna Moseeva, a 21-year-old sociology student from Russia. She spends her time attending the Moscow State University, listening to American rockers Pearl Jam and reading the poetry of Cathal O Searcaigh.

Yes, that's Cathal O Searcaigh, the Irish poet. And no, Anna doesn't care much for English translations of his verse. It has to be the original thing as Gaeilge. Anna, who doesn't have a drop of Irish blood in her body, is fast becoming a fluent Irish speaker. She's just finished reading Myles na gCopaleen's classic comic novel An Beal Bocht which the majority of Irish readers have probably read in its English translation, The Poor Mouth.

Every Sunday evening, she joins 10 other Muscovites in a small classroom for three hours of Irish tuition. None of them has Irish relations and she is one of the few who has actually been to Ireland.

Are they mad? Anna considers this for a moment. "Yes. I think some of them are," she says. "But there is a great interest in Ireland and the language among a lot of Russians."

Her teacher, Anna Korosteleva, is a case in point. She has an enthusiasm for Irish that rivals Robin Williams's passion for poetry in Dead Poets Society. The only problem at first was that Ms Korosteleva taught Munster Irish, while Anna had learned the Ulster dialect.

Now she can handle both, thanks to a two-week holiday in the Irish language centre Oideas-Gael, in Glencolmcille, Co Donegal. And she will study the language until she is fluent. "I don't believe in doing things in half measures," she says in slightly accented, word-perfect English. Curiously, there is no trace of an accent when she speaks Irish.

So, what's her fascination? She lived in the US for a year when she was 13 and was so captivated by the traditional Irish music she heard in a record shop that she bought the tape that was playing. Thus began a love affair with all things Irish from the mythology of Fionn McCumhaill to the high-jinks of dancing king Michael Flatley (although she says she stopped short of pinning a Flatley poster on her bedroom wall). She is fond of Guinness, too, but the language is her first love.

"I knew it wasn't spoken much in Ireland and that's a pity. People should be aware of their heritage." She also says that some Irish people feel humbled that their Irish is inferior to hers. "They should be embarrassed," she says, only half-jokingly.

Oideas-Gael is the brainchild of former primary teacher Liam Ó Cuinneagáin. Every year, 1,000 people including President McAleese study Irish there. As a Russian, Anna Moseeva is one of 35 nationalities who have been there this year.

Liam says a large proportion of these have no links with Ireland whatsoever, but have developed a love of all things Irish through music, dancing or literature.

"We teach Irish in a manner that makes it accessible for people. It's not all study; there are arts and crafts, dancing, singing, all through Irish. It makes it interesting for people."

He adds that many of the Irish people who attend sometimes feel embarrassed that foreigners speak such good Irish. And he says speaking to Japanese or Brazilian people in word-perfect Irish is not the surreal experience it was when he first established the school. "It's funny, but some of them are better at Irish than English," he says.

Victor Hamilton has been attending Oideas Geal every year for 10 years. Now 71, he took up the language when he was 60. Victor, a retired solicitor, is a Belfast Presbyterian and he feels Irish is just as much part of his heritage as anyone else's.

"During the 19th century, the Presbyterian Church was the only one that insisted that its clergy be fluent in Irish," he says, with a booming, Paisley-like voice constantly tinged with humour.

'I had studied French and German at university, and languages always interested me," he says. "I'm particularly fascinated by the origins of place names and that helped introduce me to Irish."

As well as a fortnight at Oideas Gael every year, Victor attends an Irish class in Belfast's Lynn Hall library every week. He seamlessly breaks into Irish that would put many people south of the border to shame. He says his love of the language is known to his friends from the Unionist community; instead of having a problem with it, some of them are now learning the language themselves. One of them is Rev Bill Boyd, a retired Presbyterian minister.

Every month, Rev Boyd gives a sermon in Irish. It attracts about 20 people, although he says the services at Easter and Christmas are attended by hundreds.

Keenly aware of the cultural sensitivities in the north, Rev Boyd says he "hasn't publicised the sermon much". It's been running for four years and he has had no trouble so far. "At the start, some people wondered what I was thinking of, but generally the local Protestant congregation are very supportive."

Irish language schools are thriving in Australia, South America and the European mainland. But it is in the US that the language is getting the greatest boost.

Liam Guidrey, a New Jersey attorney, is a fluent Irish speaker, albeit with a pronounced east coast accent. "My family came to the States after the Great Famine," he says. "Like most Americans, my roots are very important to me and although I know that Irish is not spoken by many people in Ireland, I thought it would be good for me to learn the language." Now 47, he first studied the language 12 years ago.

He is secretary of Daltaí na Gaeilge (Students of Irish), an Irish education association founded by Armagh emigrant Ethyl Brogan 21 years ago. An Irish teacher himself, Liam jokingly says when he is not prosecuting in court he is "cross-examining" in class. "No, seriously, we teach Irish in a fun manner," he says. "We don't concentrate too much on grammar here."

He says 10 to 20pc of all attendees have no blood connection with Ireland. "I think Riverdance has done a lot to put Ireland on the map," he says. "It makes Ireland kind of cool at the moment."

And he says many of his students who were born and educated in Ireland developed an interest in the language only after they moved to the US. "You don't know what you have until it's gone," he says. "Certainly younger people from Ireland seem to be more interested in the language than people in their 40s and 50s."

Liam Ó Cuinneagáin says the internet has helped Irish to flourish. He mentions a number of bulletin boards on which Irish speakers can leave messages for each other, and he is particularly taken with the story of one such speaker a Finn who writes fluent Irish.

Obliged to undertake army service, the young man was assigned to a military library. With a lot of spare time on his hands, he decided to learn a language, any language. For the sheer hell of it, he chose Irish.

"It doesn't matter to me how or why people learn Irish," Liam says. "But isn't it just great that they are doing so, no matter where they come from?"

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