I was interviewed in the Spring by Bitesize Irish Gaelic for their educational blog about setting goals for learning. Here is the link to that entire post: https://www.bitesize.irish/blog/importance-setting-goals-learning-irish-gaelic/?utm_source=social_content&utm_medium=Facebook&utm_campaign=regular_post
Bitesize: Where about in the world do you live?
Melinda: I live in the countryside near Hillsdale, NY, USA, which is a small village in a beautiful rural area of New York State bordering Massachusetts and the Berkshire Mountains. We are about 40 minutes south of Albany, NY (capital of NY State), 2.5 hrs drive north from New York City, and 3 hrs drive from Boston, MA to the east.
Bitesize: What got you wanting to speak Irish Gaelic?
Melinda: I was first exposed to Irish when I began studying the cláirseach (wire-strung harp) in 1987 with a very traditional teacher, working with the Bunting manuscript and other early Irish harp repertoire. During that time, I was also immersing myself in and studying the Irish myths and legends and other literature.
In 2006, I became a lay member a Gaelic-based monastic tradition that carries devotional chants and roscs in Old Irish, Middle Irish, Modern Irish, and Scots Gaelic as part of the practice and oral tradition. I know and sing many of these chants and began to feel the need and wish to understand the language more deeply as I took on responsibility as an elder. I’d thought of studying Scots Gaelic, as many of my colleagues were, but somehow it did not resonate so much with me.
Over the last five years, I’ve been drawn to studying sean nós singing, and especially the beautiful singing traditions of West Cork, as exemplified by the singing of Iarla Ó Lionáird; and of An Rinn. And the Munster dialect seemed particularly beautiful and accessible to me. I also began researching the home-places of my Irish great-grandparents in Munster, and decided in 2016 to seriously study an Gaeilge, because its beauty spoke to me deeply and felt like “home.”
Bitesize: Do you have Irish ancestry? Tell us about it.
Melinda: Yes. My grandfather’s (my mother’s father) parents were both Irish immigrants from the Carrick-on-Suir area. As far as I know, they came into the USA via Ellis Island in NYC. My grandfather, Eddie Powers, died suddenly and tragically right before my 2nd birthday. Nevertheless, I have very vivid and lovely memories of him, as our family lived just a few blocks away from him in Brooklyn, and he used to visit me every evening after work. He was a charismatic fellow: a NYC boxing champion (aka Eddie the Kid), newspaper photo-engraver, supporter of several extended-family businesses, health-food advocate, and lover (and collector) of animals of all sorts. I’ve always felt a strong connection to that Irish branch of our family despite the strong Italian heritage of my grandmother (Eddie’s wife) and my father.
I was greatly influenced by my uncle, Hugh McCormack, who always lived nearby and was very proud of his Irish heritage. He was the person who introduced me to Irish and Scottish music when I was a child. He also gave me my first Chieftains recording.
Bitesize: How do you use Bitesize Irish Gaelic?
Melinda: When I began, I was delighted to find Bitesize, because Eoin’s approach was so friendly, clear and accessible, and…it was the Munster dialect. I started going through the lessons in order. I find right now that I most use Bitesize to study lessons on my own that are related to what I am studying in my weekly Irish class, because Bitesize often helps me understand things more clearly, and also gives me the Munster pronunciation, and practice with it. My weekly classes are in the Ulster dialect, so it can be confusing. I also listen to the audio lessons in the car, and really appreciate the conversation opportunities with Siobhan. I am finding that on-line studying on my own every day is helping me get the most out of the face-to-face classes.
Bitesize: What advice would you have for a total beginner of Irish Gaelic?
Melinda: 1) As you begin, be willing to start to think about what your long-term goal might be. Entertain the questions: Why am I studying this difficult, beautiful, and rich language? What do I want to accomplish? That long term goal might take a while to come into a clear form, but when you can finally articulate it, my experience is that opportunities to accomplish the goal will start presenting themselves to you more and more.
For example, I am soon turning 71 yrs old, and my long-term goal is to be able to speak Irish with a bit of comfort and fluency by the time I’m 75. Not long after that goal became clear, I heard about the Summer Gaeltacht Scholarships, and so I’ve applied to participate in a 2-week immersion at Colaiste na Rinne in the Waterford Gaeltacht in August this year. Just applying for such a grant has inspired my learning, so whether or not I am lucky enough to receive it and go is secondary.
Short term daily or weekly goals might be as simple as deciding to do a Bitesize lesson and/or Memrise or Duolingo each day or listening to Radió na Gaeltachta a bit each day or all these things!
Then longer, but still short-term goals. If you like to sing, learning a song by heart, which for me requires understanding what each word means. An example: I’ve been personally inspired by the singing of Iarla Ó Lionáírd and the band he is in, The Gloaming. Some of their songs are well-known songs that you can easily find the lyrics for. (Samhain, Samhain, for example). Two of their songs are settings of poems by modern poets Michael Harnett and Seán Ó Riordain. I found the published poems in works with English translations, and have been learning those songs. The songs have opened the door to the other poetry of these Irish poets.
Or, if you are not into singing, learn a prayer or poem by heart. (Thank you, Siobhan, for the prayer videos!) There are some wonderful books of old Irish prayers as Gaeilge with good English translations, and wonderful poetry, as mentioned above.
2) In the USA there is a political saying from our last election: “She Persisted.” That seems to be one of the keys in learning Irish for me. And equally, patience. It is easy to be overwhelmed, but at the same time, it is lovely to notice that indeed, I’m making progress, bit-by-bit
3) Be willing to participate in challenging opportunities even if you are not ready. I know that I am a very slow language learner — especially when it comes to speaking. But, I went to a week-long immersion that just happened to be fairly local when I had just begun studying with Bitesize for four months. I could barely speak at all, and it was terrifying as a shy person. But, participating was great fun and it inspired and helped me get in touch with why I was studying the language and what I wanted to accomplish.
4) Really important for me has been finally finding weekly classes within a challenging, but doable driving distance (1 hr). Finding like-minded people that I can study with face-to-face consistently has been a joy. It is fun and enriching, and our group also offers periodic social opportunities for conversation with native speakers, and social events like a pop-up gaeltacht every once-in-a-while.>