Paul Lalonde sits outside the Sissiboo coffee shop on St. George Street in Annapolis Royal where one of numerous Irish Gaelic immersion weekend events will be held October 13 to 15. For information on the event, go to www.gleann.ca.
ANNAPOLIS ROYAL - You can’t keep a good language down. When it comes to Irish Gaelic they tried for centuries – but it’s still around.
In fact it seems there’s a resurgence of ‘Gaeilge’ (the Irish spelling) happening and, if Paul Lalonde has anything to do with it, Annapolis Royal will become a focal point for the culture, including the language.
“It’s a very amazing fact that Gaelic is one of the oldest written languages in Europe,” he said. “There are written texts in Irish Gaelic going back a thousand years, and a lot of those texts were poetry.”
Today not many people are native speakers of Gaeilge, even in Ireland, but the language of bards is alive online and people are eager to pick it up as Lalonde discovered. He’s learning along with a small group that meets each week in Annapolis Royal.
They’re so passionate about it they have an Irish Gaelic immersion weekend planned for October 13 to 15 and anybody can sign up and hop from venue to venue to learn the language, about music, dancing, singing, art, and even the Irish sport of hurling.
Mostly it’s about the language.
“Poetry was a massively important part of Irish culture and still is,” said Lalonde. “Some of the texts were law decrees, or mythology. So the language has a great literature and it’s documented almost as far back as almost any European languages.”
Lalonde is still learning Gaeilge, so it’s difficult for him to say just how expressive it is, but he thinks of that bardic tradition.
“I do try and listen to Gaelic music, and I try to listen to spoken poetry because I really feel that there is a certain musicality to it,” he said, “and there’s something that’s very hard to put my finger on, but listening to Irish being spoken it just feels like its coming from the wind, and the rocks, and the land itself – the islands, the ocean.”
Gaeilge, or Irish Gaelic, is a language related to Scottish Gaelic and the opportunities for learning it have never been better than they are now, said Lalonde.
“But most of those opportunities are online or isolated, or self-directed,” he said. “So an Irish immersion weekend is an opportunity to take and create a really rich, accelerated learning atmosphere – environment. So what we’re going to do is have intense classes lead by native Irish speakers so people will just get immersed for awhile.”
Gaeltacht - a traditional Irish-speaking region
Gaeilge - pronounced Gwayl-guh, the word for the Irish language in Irish
Gaeilge sa Ghleann - "Irish in the Valley" (The name of the local Irish-language group)
Gleann na Gaeilge - Valley of Irish
Dia duit - Hello, literally "God to you"
Slán - Goodbye
Sláinte - Cheers or health
Conas atá tú? - How are you?
Tá mé go maith - I am well
“The history of Irish Gaelic is obviously really tied to the history of Ireland and in Ireland the language was suppressed by the English for centuries,” he said. Ireland was transformed from a majority Irish Gaelic speaking country to a country where only a handful of people speak the language. And to most who do, Irish Gaelic is their second language.
“When immigrants left Ireland and came to places like Canada, often one of the first things they did was suppress the language within their own family because of the stigma attached to it,” Lalonde said, “and the stigma meaning that Irish were considered second class citizens. There were all kinds of social barriers to them because they were Irish, and they needed to blend in fast.”
It was the same experience Scottish Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia found.
“Almost within two generations people stopped speaking the language here in Nova Scotia – one of the reasons, main reasons, was so they could give their children more opportunities to be what can be colloquially termed ‘Good Englishmen,’” he said.
Worldwide there is a community of people with Irish roots, or are part of the Irish diaspora, and others who have started learning, he said, and that’s because now they can.
“You can learn outside Ireland and you can learn well,” he said. “At the same time I’m a real firm believer that language is meant to be spoken with real people.”
One of the first things his group wanted to do was offer something really dynamic – reach as far as they could in terms of what an actual community of people could do.
“In Irish they have the term ‘gaeltacht’ and a gaeltacht is a region where people speak Irish,” Lalonde said. “And nowadays they have these things called popup gaeltachts. The idea of this is to create a temporary place where suddenly you’re immersed in the language. Without calling it a popup qaeltecht that’s kind of what we’re doing. It’s a modern thing, these popup phenomena, but we’re doing it here in Annapolis Royal where it’s never been done before and we’re finding people who are interested. It’s one of these things almost ‘if you build it they will come,’ and I keep on saying, ‘why not build it here.’”
Lalonde is excited about the workshop leaders – all university graduates, specialists in teaching languages, or studying Irish culture.
“I’m almost overwhelmed when I look at the fact that these guys are going to be coming here and they’re all volunteering too, because they’re all part of a program to make the teaching of Irish possible at other universities across the world,” he said.
They’re from Saint Mary’s, St. Thomas, and UPEI.
Add two renowned dance teachers, local historian Ian Lawrence who knows a thing or two about local Irish history, and it’s the makings of an interesting weekend October 13 to 15.
And then there’s music.
“Teaching the language through singing is another wonderful way to learn,” he said.
There will be an Irish music session (not a jam) at the Sissiboo Café.
“The idea here is that anyone who plays an instrument can come and play, but it’s Irish music only of course. I’m hoping we’re going to attract session players because there are a few Irish sessions in the region – in Kingston, and Wolfville, and Digby. And there’s one at the pub in Annapolis Royal. So there’s lots of musicians around and I hope we’re going to attract folk that may not come for the language but will come for the session.”
Lalonde said the Irish Gaelic immersion weekend will be back in 2018.
“The goal really is to create a community to foster learning of the language. And we want the community to grow, in a way for Annapolis Royal to become a focal point of the Irish or Celtic community in Western Nova Scotia,” he said.
“The whole history of the Irish language is a tumultuous one, and when you see people reaching out across the ocean, across the planet with a positive desire to learn and to enrich our local culture I think it’s something to be very proud of,” he said. “You hear people talk about the sad state of affairs of Irish, but many cultures are in that same state. Our thought is we can do something about it. If we want to make change happen, let’s start where we are. We are not going to change the world but we are going to change our community and make it a richer place.”
And there’s the pure pleasure of it.
“There’s something actually almost mystical about reading a one-thousand-year-old poem and hearing those words, those syllables floating through the air,” he said. “Who knows, they say St. Brendon from Ireland sailed a boat to the New World a thousand years ago. We have lots of connections to Ireland and I think it’s just wonderful to see them blooming here.”
For information go to www.gleann.ca
Did you know?
The workshops at the Irish Gaelic immersion weekend will be held at museums, cafés, and restaurants up and down St. George Street in Annapolis Royal and at the community hall in Granville Ferry.