In the nation’s capital, an online community of Irish speakers, Let’s Learn Irish, founded by Monaghan native Ronan Connolly, brings the Irish language into the hearts and homes of Gaeilgeoirí across the nation — and across the globe.
The classes began in 2009 with Connolly teaching six students in a classroom in Washington DC before transitioning to an online community in 2018 — well before the pandemic turbo-charged the world of online learning.
Connolly’s dedication to the Irish language is unwavering. At one stage he was splitting his time between teaching back home in Ireland and keeping his Irish language classes going in DC. “I would develop bits online. And then on my school breaks, I would come over and do one-off events and workshops, and free classes or events at the Irish Embassy to just generate awareness and try and broaden the tent all the time. The classes grew from people coming in and enjoying it and their wanting to learn more.”
Community is the heart of all that Connolly and his teachers do. He noticed that many people were interested in learning Irish in many different areas of the United States but they did not have access to a teacher or other learners.
“In early 2017, I was developing this proposal of an online language community, like a virtual community really, where you can support those who can't afford to go to the Gaeltacht,” says Connolly.
He decided that if they could not go to the Gaeltacht to get and immersive experience, perhaps the Gaeltacht could be brought to them.
A research-informed approach to creating classes “to connect, communicate and collaborate trí Ghaeilge” saw Connolly recently submit his PhD to NUI Galway. His meticulous research in creating this online community where students receive the best methods and resources to learn the language, has been carefully designed, tested, and refined.
“The online element was the way to support others outside of DC who couldn't access our classes. And you discover that there's a whole world of learners out there in random places all throughout the United States.”
From that first class of six, Let's Learn Irish now has ten classes and over 100 learners a week. That’s a huge growth, with learners from all over the United States as well as Italy, Romania, South Korea and, indeed, Ireland logging on.
“I'm focused on overseas Irish language learners,” says Connolly, “particularly in the United States, because that's where the classes physically started. We are based in Washington, DC, and I think we have a duty to support those learners who are enthusiastic about learning Irish.”
If anyone had any doubt about their capacity to learn the Irish language, Quinton Beck, a teacher with Let’s Learn Irish is a remarkable exemplar of the journey learners can take with the Irish language.
A California native, Beck learned 14 languages during his undergraduate degree, “and Irish was not one of them,” he says. On a Fulbright in Tajikistan, he began to teach himself Irish, and on his return to DC started taking Connolly’s classes; became a teacher; and then went to NUI Galway to complete a Master’s in the Irish language.
Quinton is “an exceptional language learner and teacher”, says Connolly. “He is an inspiration, both as a student and as a teacher. But he did start in classes, just like other students.”
Beck, who is not of Irish ancestry, had an interesting introduction to the Irish language, as he first encountered it when reading an apocalyptic fiction book “Dies the Fire” where a character spoke some phrases in Irish. “And I fell in love with Irish,” he says. “As a linguist I decided I need to understand this. I need to find out more.”
And so, his Irish language journey began. “And you know, about Irish, that it's very contagious,” he says. “So, you look at it for a minute, and it turns into an hour, and then it turns into the rest of your life.”
As well as teaching with Let’s Learn Irish” Beck is Lecturer and Coordinator of the Irish Language Program at Catholic University of America in Washington DC. “The program at Catholic University is more than 100 years old,” says Beck, and “it’s very connected with the Irish language.”
His students study the language for many different reasons: some have Irish ancestry; some are curious about the language, but, like everyone learning Irish, he says, “they're doing it because they want to, because they love it.”
Beck’s affection for the language is inspirational and he promotes the language at every opportunity as he feels part of the problem with the language in the United States is a lack of awareness of the language. “Students in America don’t know about the language so they don’t go looking for it when signing up for classes.”
Through the exciting work of Beck and Connolly, however, not only are more students of all ages and backgrounds becoming aware of the language, but they are learning and using the language in their everyday lives. Significant numbers of people throughout the States are seeking out a class, discovering an Irish language community and saying “Let’s Learn Irish.”