I LÁTHAIR: Students attending Daltaí's Satharn na nGael outside the Commodore John Barry Arts and Cultural Center, Philadelphia Aileen Gorman Leong

Daltaí dedication shines brightly on Philly’s Irish language Saturday

It’s aways sunny at Philadelphia’s 'Satharn na nGael', and this year’s Daltaí na Gaeilge Irish language day proved no different, with this passionate organization shining its light warmly upon the learners of our native tongue.

Groups like Daltaí na Gaeilge (meaning Students of the Irish language) can’t survive without the goodwill, diligence and hard work of those who organize, teach, and run these immersion days and weekends. People like Aengus Lawlor, a Dublin native, alongside Kathleen Warren, Patty Loomer, Emily Dryden, and Hannah Harvey, who organized the event on June 8, are among their number.

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Hannah Harvey also taught a beautiful art workshop on 'Snaidhm Cheilteach' (Celtic knots). Many would know this intricate ornamental decoration from The Book of Kells, and everyone had the wonderful opportunity to learn on the day. 

And what a journey, Hannah, from Pottstown, PA, has had. She found her way into the language through her sister, who attends the high-level language classes.

“I started attending Daltaí na Gaeilge events about seven or eight years ago and I completely fell in love with the language,” she says.

She attended a Celtic Knots workshops during a Daltaí immersion program in February 2023, took up study of the craft and just over one year later is imparting her newly-learned skills to others.  

Just like the language, her advice is to “Cleachtaigh! Cleachtaigh! Cleachtaigh! Sin an rud!” (Practice! Practice! Practice!)

Other workshops on the day included dancing and music.

Daltaí na Gaeilge are keeping alive the memory of founder Ethel Brogan. The Armagh native emigrated to the USA in 1946, and kept her culture and language alive by teaching lessons to her neighbors in Upstate New York through weekly classes.

She believed, however, that the model of immersion was the best way forward to learn the language. She herself had traveled to the Irish college in the Donegal Gaeltacht as a girl.  So, in 1981, she set up the first immersion weekend, from which Daltaí emerged, and the rest, as they say, is stair — history!

The Daltaí na Gaeilge website is a treasure trove for Irish language learners, with everything from seanfhocail to gramadach and a list of events and details of their history, including many lovely old photos of Ethel and others.

Co-organizer Aengus Lawlor gave the opening and closing remarks, helped with lunch, participated in the ardleibhéal rang, and then gave an interesting and extremely useful lecture on the Irish language and technology. Now, that’s dedication! 

Over 50 people attended the day-long session in the revamped Commodore John Barry Arts and Cultural Center (recently reconfigured as a not-for-profit) in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia. The centre's stunning ballroom, where many Irish immigrants first met their sweethearts in times past, now serves as a spacious venue and function hall with all the modern technology and facilities that anyone would ever need. 

“We are delighted to be here, and they are very glad to have us,” says Aengus Lawlor. 

Retired lawyer Thomas Henry traveled from Yardley, PA to attend the language day.

“The Irish language was something I was interested in since my teens, but it just took some time to find someone to teach it,” says Thomas.

“I saw an advertisement in The Irish Echo for a Daltaí na Gaeilge weekend and that was the first time I went — back in November 1992,” he says.

“The main thing I like about the Irish language is going to Ireland. You are more involved rather than just sight-seeing. You relate to Irish people differently as you speak Irish when you’re in the country. You’re more a part of it,” says Thomas.

Constantine Coutroulos, from Jackson Heights, New York, who has visited and attended classes in most of the Gaeltachtaí, from the Aran Islands to Donegal, Conamara and Kerry, comes to as many Irish language events as he can.

Of his Greek heritage, he admits, “I’m more fluent in Irish than I am in Greek!”

Constantine has been studying Irish for many years now, and always thought it would be an interesting language to learn as he has studied quite a few others.

“There’s several things that made me interested in Irish,” he says. “A co-worker of mine put together a review and she recited some poems of Brendan Behan in Irish. Years ago, also, I heard a rendition of Siúil a Rúin and I said, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful I’ve got to learn that language!’”

One of the youngest learners on the day was 13-year-old Sanze Alicante-Stuesse, who came with her family from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

She started learning Irish on Duolingo in September 2023 and already speaks quite a few other languages. 

“I speak French and Spanish and English. Last year I went to school in Senegal for 6 months and studied there in French. I plan to go to Ireland to study Irish there,” she says.

Another bonus is that nearly every Daltaí event accommodates children, and they usually have a class especially for the kids, so parents, grandparents, everyone can learn the language, with no worries about childcare.

Remarkably, every single person working for Daltaí na Gaeilge is doing so on a voluntary basis. The organizers, teachers, those who register attendees, help with lunch on the day, set-up and clean-up. 

As Ethel Brogan had said herself, and the Daltaí website quotes, “when people struggle on behalf of this noble cause they are not really doing work, but rather finding fulfillment.”