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Trasna Meiriceá: Meet the teacher who's never been to Ireland but is blazing a trail for Irish language in Philly

On the streets of Philadelphia, where history celebrates ancient voices and those first independent steps of the nation, Gaeilgeoirí Philadelphia are proud to declare their love of the Irish language. Grá don Ghaeilge in the city of brotherly love? Surely there’s no better place for such a declaration.

Michael von Siegel, founder of Gaeilgeoirí Philadelphia, is second generation Irish on his mother’s side, and third generation Austrian on his father’s. Always curious about other people and cultures, that intrigue soon segued into languages, so he began with the languages of his people: Irish and German.  

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Taking a two-hour class each week with a Donegal native in Philadelphia, von Siegel admits to finding Irish pretty intensive in those early days so referred to it as "the headache language.” Headache maybe, but his heart was quickly captured, and he knew it was his calling to bring this beautiful language to more people and places.

"The German language in Philly doesn’t really need a lot of help. They already have it," says von Siegel, "but while other places in the United States were doing some great things for the Irish language, we weren’t anywhere near their level." Rather than sit around and mope, he decided to do something about it. 

This was way back before Zoom, so he began with the model he’d experienced at his German classes and started a Meet-Up Group. He complimented that with a Facebook group, but only attracted a few members.  

“Before the pandemic,” he says, “there were very few of us, and I think that was because I had limited the Facebook group to the Philadelphia area, as opposed to opening it up to the whole world. When I did open it up, I found that the world came in to join.”

His group has now over 240 members “from all over the world, and from every background, faith, and walk of life,” von Siegel is proud to say.

“Many have no Irish ancestry at all, and some members are choosing to raise their children in the Irish language or bilingually which is fantastic,” he says.

The Gaeilgeoirí Philadelphia’s logo proudly displays the Liberty Bell suggesting a call to all, for all are welcome to this group.  And that is evident in the numbers that not only have come forward to join, but to help.

“Before it was just me. I was a one-man show, trying to do everything,” he confesses. Now, von Siegel has been joined by a band of Irish language enthusiasts stepping up to the mark to help grow the group and promote the language. 

“The recent migrations from other parts of Europe to Ireland with their different languages has reminded Irish people that, yeah, we actually do have our own language. It’s the perfect storm of possibilities for a little language like Irish to find a way to thrive again,” he says.

Andrew Carey in Connecticut helps moderate and often hosts the weekly, two-hour Zoom class on Saturdays. 

An additional Thursday Zoom is starting up again, hosted by Mike Malloy who is raising his daughter through the Irish language.

Chris Finnegan, who is raising both his sons through Irish, also helps host the meetings and all members speak and promote the language at every opportunity. 

Their meetings are all about the comhrá and getting people to speak and use the language without fear. 

“Don’t worry about getting it perfect,” says von Siegel. “Pretend you’re a baby again. Babies don’t worry about making mistakes. They just speak it.”

When someone doesn’t understand something, they’ll ask or type it in the chat and another person with more Irish will be more than happy to explain.

“The other members,” says von Siegel, “have a lovely habit of explaining it in Irish to me so that I can then try to understand the Irish in Irish.”

Before the pandemic they met up in The Plough & the Stars pub in Philadelphia because, as von Siegel says, with a “meeting of two hours you're going to get hungry and thirsty at some point, especially with all that talking.”

They’re now meeting up again in The Plough & the Stars on the first and third Sunday of each month from 1pm for their caint, craic, bia agus deoch, and there’s a fáilte at the door for everyone.  

Von Siegel confesses that he has never been to Ireland, and in fact has never set foot in Europe, but that has not stopped him learning the Irish language. 

“Being in the native location of any culture or language isn’t necessarily a requirement, or an excuse not to learn it,” he says.

The pandemic has probably helped the An Ghaeilge, he believes, as people have sought out new ways to connect and reconnect with each other and with the language.  

“In a funny way, that horrible event has helped the Irish language in that it’s helping people to get to know each other better and helping them to get to know each other again,” reflects von Siegel.

“The recent migrations from other parts of Europe to Ireland with their different languages has reminded Irish people that, yeah, we actually do have our own language. It’s the perfect storm of possibilities for a little language like Irish to find a way to thrive again,” he says.

On the streets of Philadelphia those ancient voices whisper in harmony with other voices and other languages. Irish is one of those languages —  capturing the hearts and imaginations of people in Philadelphia and beyond. Grá for Gaeilge. It’s that city of brotherly love kind of love.