Studying the Irish language can be fraught for Irish school kids — but it’s increasingly popular for others around the world

20 min readMar 5, 2024


Mollie Guidera teaches online Irish classes. (Photo courtesy Mollie Guidera).

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

Patrick Cox: Mollie Guidera grew up in Ireland. English was her first language, but she studied Irish at school. Her parents speak Irish too, so she picked up words from them. Words became phrases, then sentences, then conversations. In her twenties, Mollie traveled the world teaching English. When she returned home to Ireland, she taught online. Her students came from pretty much every time zone.

Mollie Guidera: And they noticed I was Irish, and they said, “Oh, can you teach Irish?” And I was thinking, is there a demand for that? Maybe I could see how we go. My first student was a woman in Florida who wanted to propose to her girlfriend in Irish.

Patrick Cox: Did she tell you why?

Mollie Guidera: Her girlfriend was Irish, but I was thinking, is your girlfriend even going to understand this? Because there’s some quite specific vocabulary there. But there are so many beautiful words around love that I was teaching her, like mo stór, my little treasure, mo stóirín; mo chuisle, my pulse; mo ghrá, my love; mo chroí, my heart. And I really enjoyed preparing this world of words with her, and preparing her for the big day.

Patrick Cox: There’s also Seamus, who lives on a farm in Kentucky.

Mollie Guidera: Seamus, he’s such a special man, super diligent. Amazing learner, and he would speak in Irish to his horses. He’d always send me beautiful photos of the dogs and the cats and the chickens. And everything he was doing: keeping a diary in Irish and talking to himself in Irish, writing letters and poetry, and then visiting Ireland whenever he could. And another guy in Texas — he had built an Irish pub in his basement, and he had Tayto crisps and all the things you’d want in an Irish pub.

Patrick Cox: Wait, wait, it’s in his basement? Does that mean that it was a real pub where other people would come? Or a vanity pub?

Mollie Guidera: Personal pub! It was so beautiful as well. I think he had everything carved to perfection, and all these beautiful old Guinness mirrors. People just really immerse themselves in Irish. And I love this idea that Irish is being spoken — it really moves me — that it is being spoken around the world. If you believe you can do and are open enough to it, and you practice and you are persistent and positive, you can achieve amazing results with language-learning. If you’re held back by the pain and resentment and bad memories of school and things, you don’t believe it’ll ever work for you. And it won’t.

Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle, stories about languages and the people who speak them. I’m Patrick Cox. In this episode, the joy and pain of the Irish language, and all it stands for.

Patrick Cox: A bit of history first. Irish is a Celtic language that came from somewhere in Europe. The Romans came across some of these Celtic languages, in somewhat earlier form, when they arrived in what is today Germany, Austria, Belgium, northern Spain, and elsewhere. We’re talking about the fourth to fifth centuries BCE.

Jim McCloskey: We don’t know exactly when those languages came first to Britain and then to Ireland, but they were certainly well established before the Christian era.

Patrick Cox: This is Jim McCloskey. Jim was born in Ireland. He now teaches at the University of California, at Santa Cruz.

Jim McCloskey: So a lot of the literary traditions and story traditions that you can hear even today as folktales have their origins in pre-Roman Gaul, pre-Roman Austria, and so on. And by mechanisms we don’t fully understand, at the point when Christianity came in around the fourth, fifth century AD, some remarkable coming together of classical learning and local learning produced a very standardized literary language, what we now call Old Irish.

Patrick Cox: Which made it one of the oldest literary languages in Europe — older than English. This was a golden age for Irish. And it pretty much stayed that way for centuries, as the language evolved from Old Irish to Middle Irish to modern Irish. There were invasions by the Normans and then the English, and over time, other languages — French, and then English — established themselves in towns on the coast, port towns like Dublin. But until the English really put their foot down Irish was predominant.

Jim McCloskey: Until about 1620, 1630, Ireland was basically a monolingual country whose only language was Irish. It was only really with the expansion of English administrative power beyond The Pale, beyond Dublin, that that situation changes. So the crucial moment — that crucial initial moment in the decline of the language — comes in the first half of the 17th century. Not until then.

Patrick Cox: Oh, you mentioned beyond the Pale.

Jim McCloskey: Yeah, the Pale was an imaginary fence around Dublin that kept the wild Irish at bay and civilization — English speaking civilization — was safe inside the Pale, the capital city.

Patrick Cox: Yeah, I mean, you say the wild Irish. Was the language associated with this sort of wildness that increasingly if from English eyes needed to be tamed?

Jim McCloskey: Absolutely.

Patrick Cox: Ah, the wild Irish and the civilized English. That myth has deep roots. And the trouble for the language was, it got caught up in that. You might even say it’s still caught up in that north of the border in Northern Ireland — which is still, of course, part of Britain. But the decline of Irish isn’t just down to the Brits. Sure they set it in motion, but later on, they got a big helping hand from a homegrown group.

Jim McCloskey: The last steps in the elimination of Irish as a broadly spoken language. They were taken by a cooperative and collaborative effort between the colonial government in Dublin and the Catholic Church, the single two most powerful institutions that shaped the life of Ireland in the 19th century.

Patrick Cox: Yep, the Catholic Church, the very organization that centuries before had been the target of Britain’s Penal Laws. Well, the Catholic Church survived. But over time, it came to an understanding with Ireland’s British rulers. The church, for example, ran the schools in Ireland. And here’s an echo of the US and its policies toward Native Americans: Irish became banned in most schools.

Jim McCloskey: To really remove a language from a community, you have to take a particular step. You have to convince the speakers of that language that it’s a burden rather than a culturally useful tool. It’s only at that point that they will take the extraordinary step of not speaking their native language to their own children. Any language that is eliminated — that’s the crucial step that has to be taken in a single generation. A generation has to come to believe that their language is such a burden that they will not pass that burden on to their own children.

Patrick Cox: There were reasons to learn English. The potato famine of the 1840s — the Great Famine — it’d wiped out one million Irish people, most of them from beyond the Pale, the west, where Irish was widely spoken. Another million fled the country in search of better lives. With it being so likely that their children would migrate to English-speaking countries — Britain, the US, Canada, places like that — it made sense that they learn English. But still, Irish families weren’t just acquiring English. They were turning their backs on Irish.

Jim McCloskey: Learning English does not entail necessarily abandoning the first language. Most people in the world have always been multilingual. The vast majority of human beings are multilingual, have always been multilingual. But that means in turn to persuade parents that they will hide their own language from their children, you have to work within the community. And so you need leaders within the community who will cooperate in that project.

Patrick Cox: It turned out to be hugely successful. Before the famine, three to four million people spoke Irish as their first language. A few decades later, fewer than a million did. Irish was falling off a cliff. Cue the Gaelic Revival of the late 19th century. This was a movement to bring back the native language and culture. It soon got taken up by political revolutionaries, people who wanted to push the English out of Ireland. And so the Irish language became the symbol not just of the nation but of nationhood, and independence. In 1916, Irish revolutionaries staged an uprising in Dublin, the Easter Rising. It failed in the short term. Most of the leaders were captured and killed. But it soon led to the end of British rule in all but the six counties that today constitute Northern Ireland. By 1922, the Irish were pretty much running their own affairs.

Sound of Irish national anthem sung in English

Patrick Cox: Four years later this song officially became the Irish National Anthem. “The Soldier’s Song” it was called. The lyrics were in English, and that’s how it was memorized and sung by the first generation of children in a free Ireland. These days the song you may have heard at sports events is always sung in Irish.

Sound of Irish national anthem sung in Irish

Patrick Cox: So many painful ironies. The country’s anthem initially ignores its ancient native tongue. Decades later, as the rural Irish-speaking regions continue to shrink, Ireland’s overwhelmingly English-speaking people belt out this song of patriotism in that language.

Sound of Irish national anthem sung in Irish

Patrick Cox: UC Santa Cruz’s Jim McCloskey grew up only speaking English, a world away from those Irish-language regions. But his father wanted him to learn Irish, so every summer Jim was packed off to the west of Ireland.

Jim McCloskey: Initially, I hated this experience. It was uncomfortable. It was agricultural. I was a middle class urban child of the Sixties. But gradually over the years, the place and the community and all that it had sort of cast a spell on me. And by the time I was 17 or 18, it became a sort of teenage utopia for me, representing a freedom and a kind of cultural richness. Because when you actually get into those communities, those Irish speaking communities, you find this wealth of cultural resources, songs and music and stories. And it’s an astonishingly, still vibrant and culturally exciting community to be even peripherally a part of.

A sign marking an Irish-speaking region, County Kerry, Ireland (Photo: Maoileann via Openverse)

Patrick Cox: What kind of people will you’re staying with? What would be the jobs that they were doing? And who would be the other people in the communities who you would meet?

Jim McCloskey: This was part of a larger scheme set up in the government — one of the few successful strategies they had — which was, urban kids like me could go to Irish-speaking areas in the summer, stay with local families in their farm houses, attend classes during the day and various dances and musical events in the evening, for roughly three weeks every summer. And for some people like me, that experience turned them into good second-language speakers of Irish.It was a strange situation because the people we stayed with were extraordinarily poor. They were subsistence farmers or they were agricultural laborers. They had virtually nothing. I remember being 20 boys from various cities staying in this tiny, tiny farmhouse, three-room farmhouse. And at a certain point I began to wonder where the man of the house — Micí Sheáin Néill Ó Baoill, who was a wonderful storyteller — where he slept, and where his brother, John, slept. And one day, I noticed that they were going out to the barn, the outhouse. And that’s where they slept in the summer to make room for us language learners. The man I stayed with was a very eminent, very well-known storyteller, and he would tell stories after dinner in this house, which I enjoyed at the time. But it was only later when I went to university and studied Celtic studies and archaeology and so on that I came to realize that the stories that he was telling, and the characters had figured in those stories, could be traced all the way back to pre-Roman Gaul, told and retold and retold and perfected over generations of oral transmission. So it was an extraordinary experience to be exposed to this ancient and rich culture at that time.

Patrick Cox: A few decades later, Mollie Guidera — the Irish teacher — she also went to a language summer camp. By then, going to these camps had become something of a rite of passage for middle class teenage kids from Dublin and other cities.

Mollie Guidera: The one I attended was very strict, the strictest in the country. We had our phones confiscated. You’d get woken up by the cinnire who is like the prefect, and they go, “Cuimhneamh ar Seachain do chuid Béarla!” “Mind your English!” Just to catch you before you might utter an English word. And I spoke one sentence of English and I got sent home. Thankfully it was at the end of the course so I didn’t miss too much. I was on the train home from Galway and crying my eyes out. I was lucky enough to argue my case that it wasn’t fair at all that they kicked me out, and they gave me a scholarship and I went back.

Patrick Cox: In a moment, Mollie grades my Irish father’s pronunciation. And she teaches me how to say jellyfish in Irish.

Patrick Cox: I want to tell you about another language-themed podcast. It’s called the Vocal Fries and it’s about linguistic discrimination. There’s a rich seam of material here which we at Subtitle have mined from time to time — this Irish episode included. But for a far deeper dive, you should check out The Vocal Fries. What is it about the way people speak — and the way they write — that makes others judge them, harshly and unfairly, and often as a sneaky way to be racist, sexist, or classist. The hosts are Carrie Gillon and Megan Figueroa. Unlike me, they are linguistic scholars, they know what they’re talking about but they’re also great fun to listen to. So if you want to learn how to stop being an accidental jerk about language, listen to the Vocal Fries wherever you’re listening to this. Or go to

Mollie Guidera: I love how Irish is so literal. Like, a jellyfish is, literally, the snot of a seal. So we say smugairle róin. Smugairle is snot.

Patrick Cox: Smugairle.

Mollie Guidera: Perfect. Smugairle, with a rhotic ‘R’ there in the middle. Smugairle. And róin is of a seal. Smugairle róin.

Patrick Cox: Smugairle róin.

Mollie Guidera: Another one I love, spider, is a fierce little stag. So it’s damhán alla.

Patrick Cox: Damhán alla. Is that a soft ‘D’ sound at the beginning?

Mollie Guidera: Yes. exactly. The kind of “the.” Damhán alla.

Patrick Cox: Now, if that sounds a bit intimidating, Mollie says don’t be put off.

Mollie Guidera: It’s not one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. It’s only got 11 irregular verbs. English has about 220. And sometimes I think of languages like Portuguese, where the word for “your,” the possessive is like, it can be masculine, feminine, plural, and then your plural comes in. But with Irish, it’s just one word, do. meaning your, or bhur, your plural. So in many ways, it’s a very patterned language, a very logical language. And very satisfying to learn. Even the pronunciation people probably wouldn’t believe this, but you start seeing ‘bh’ as /vuh/ at the end of a word, or /weh/ if it’s beside a broad vowel. And it’s a very fun kind of puzzle to pick apart. It’s so uplifting, because you’re growing and you know you’re learning, and you feel you’re getting better at something.

Patrick Cox: I love that feeling.

Mollie Guidera: Really, yeah.

Patrick Cox: Ok, sure I love it, even if I don’t feel it in my current struggles with Chinese. But I have felt it in the past with easier languages. Making that breakthrough in conversation when you almost forget to think in English, you’re not translating from English, you’re just living in the world of that other language. Yeah, it’s good, and it must be especially good to do in Irish. It never happened to my dad, which he regretted. Back then Irish had only recently been reintroduced into the schools as part of this new sort of rebranding of the Irish state. He was one of that first generation of kids.

Patrick’s father: I was learning Irish from when I was about five, five-and-a-half, until I left school. Taught by the nuns.

Patrick Cox: I interviewed my Dad about this before he died in 2016. The way he described it, the version of Irish that was taught back then was a quaint, old-fashioned literary version, not conversational at all, with one exception that’s coming up. Anyway, I played this to Mollie.

Patrick Cox: So Dad, tell me words that you know in Irish.

Patrick’s father: I know how to count to nine: Haon, dó, trí, ceathair, cúig, sé, seacht, hocht, naoi. That’s one to nine. Also, I remember this little request: An bhfuil cead agam dul amach, más é do thoil é?

Patrick Cox: And what does that mean?

Patrick’s father: It means, Please Miss, may I leave the room?

Patrick Cox: Did he get that right?

Mollie Guidera: Yeah, beautiful accent. Lovely Irish, absolutely. So the second one, is literally, “Can I go out, please?” — or “with your will” which is how we say “please” in Irish. I made a post about this yesterday because I was saying it seems like the only thing people can remember from school is, “Can I go to the toilet?” And in some schools, they didn’t let you say the word “toilet.” So you’d say “Can I go out?” like your father said. And I was thinking, how can we make the language more memorable? How can we ingrain phrases in a way that’s useful and people can use the language spontaneously? And I thought maybe it’s because the stakes are high. If you need the toilet, you’re going to say it perfectly. And you’re going to say it multiple times a day, and the teacher won’t let you go unless you say it properly. If it became more of a natural and everyday language in schools, like it was in my school to be fair, in primary school, it would build confidence in people and help them see the language in a different way. It’s really sometimes focused on as an exam subject, instead of just enjoy it, love it. It’s part of who we are. It’s our soul language. And it’s so important to understanding the imagination and the humor and the life of Ireland.

Patrick Cox: I’m surprised that even after all this time, Mollie finds a rigidity about how Irish is taught at school. But I have to keep reminding myself, Irish is still a minority language, a threatened language. Talking in Irish — just chatting — it doesn’t seem natural to all that many people, Mollie aside. If they were learning Spanish, say it wouldn’t be a problem at all. Just go to a Spanish-speaking country. Irish learners need to seek out places to hear the language in its untamed form.

Mollie Guidera: They’re not really exposed to natural conversation or listening to podcasts. And that’s what’s great about Spotify and YouTube. TG Ceathair is the TV station and they have a player online, so you can access that from anywhere in the world. There’s a kids’ version called Cúla Ceathair. They have SpongeBob in Irish.

Clip of SpongeBob SquarePants in Irish

Mollie Guidera: So that’s brilliant. A lot of creators are now on TikTok and Instagram. And not only teachers and creators but others learning Irish and sharing their journey. And people are realizing that we do have this indigenous native language. It’s our official language. It’s ancient and it’s so different to English. It’s a different language entirely.

Patrick Cox: It’s true, English could hardly be more different. Except when Irish people speak English.

Mollie Guidera: Maybe it’s being colonized and speaking another language. But really, we’re speaking our own language, the way we speak English in Ireland, is really haunted by the language. And there are so many phrases and the syntax we use, and so many loanwords from Irish, people aren’t even aware of.

Patrick Cox: That’s really interesting. I remember sort of noticing — I noticed nothing in my father because you notice nothing in your own parent, right, the way that they speak? But we would go to Ireland a couple of times a year to see family and everything, on his side. I remember my aunt would never ever, ever say “Yes” or “No.” Never. And then I clocked. I’m like, “Oh, that’s just like my dad.” It was like “I do.” “I will.”

Mollie Guidera: Because there is no word for yes or no and Irish. We answer with the verb. So that’s the thing, if you say, like, An dtuigeann tú? Do you understand? You say to them, Tuigim, I understand, or Ní thuigim, I don’t understand. And even saying, “So it is” at the end, you know, like, “She’s my friend, so she is,” comes from Irish, because using the copula structure, we add on the pronoun at the end as well. That has kind of seeped into how we speak English. We don’t have a present perfect in Irish. So instead of saying, “I have read the book,” we would say, “I’m after reading the book.” That’s why Irish people use “after” a lot. Like, “Oh, I’m after just — just after talking to Patrick.” Even little things like using “altogether” after an adjective, in a different way altogether. You know, we’d say, “That’s gas craic altogether,” or “She’s brilliant altogether.” And you don’t hear that in British English or Australian English.

Lots of things like, the Irish accent — you know how melodic it is, how musical, the stress patterns are coming from the Irish language. And the way we pronounce “th” or get mocked for not being able to pronounce “th” because that sound doesn’t exist in Irish. Another thing is, we don’t have the verb “to have” in Irish. We say things are “at us.” So people are gas, like people are so funny. They’ll go, “I haven’t got a word of Irish. Oh, sure. I haven’t got a word.” And I’m thinking, that’s an Irish structure you’re using. If you weren’t Irish, you might say, “I don’t speak Irish,” instead of “I haven’t got it.” It’s just everywhere in the way the Irish speak. You know, even “Thanks a million” coming from go raibh míle maith agat: “May you have a thousand thousand goodness.”

I remember reading about how Irish adjectives. They’re so onomatopoeic and they’re so vibrant, like, a lot of them end with “ach.” Salach is dirty, uafásach is awful. Apparently, this is why Irish people, we can’t just say, “Oh, that was good.” We have to say, “That was absolutely delectable.” Like, we love going above and beyond, you know, instead of just “Welcome.” It’s like “100,000 welcomes!” And yeah, I was teaching last night how saying “Hello” in Irish, in the past, people would say, Dia dhaoibh, which is like, “God to you” to bless someone. And then you respond “God and Mary,” back to you. And then the first person says, “God, Mary and Joseph.” “God, Mary, Joseph and Jesus.” “God, Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Bridget, Patrick, and all the blessed saints.” So there might be some just fear of the silence. People just love to talk, love to keep it going. And it’s a very tender, a humorous language that is full of kindness. And also, perception: everything’s very positioned around us, things are “on us,” “within us,” “beside us,” “at us.” Like for example, “You’re welcome.” We say “There’s welcome before you.” Or the feeling is “on me.” So these things really inspire a sense of space. If you listen to Irish people speaking English, I’d say more than half of it, you can trace it back to Irish.

Patrick Cox: After all those years of suppression, the language has embedded itself in the language of the longtime colonial occupier. Whatever it takes to keep language alive, right? Today, though, many Irish people, especially older generations, have mixed feelings about the history of the language– the attempts to suppress it and more recently, to revive it.

Mollie Guidera: I think it might be too painful for people to even fathom learning it or speaking it and they have an aversion to it — like, as if Irish speakers think they’re the elite or that they’re superior. And I think a lot of that baggage and those feelings come from a shame, where people really have this deep rooted regret. And they think, “Oh, the biggest regret of my life is I’ve never learned I’d love to speak our native language I’d love…” And I say, “You’re still alive. You’re able to tell me that you want to speak the language and I’m here for that.” And there’s so many materials now, and resources and ways that you can connect with the language. I was thinking about this very recently, what a survivor she is of a language — languages in Irish are feminine apart from English which is masculine. But surviving the Norman invasion, the Statutes of Kilkenny, British colonial rule since the 12th century, the famine, death, emigration, modernization, urbanization, education policies — and still against all odds, clinging on there.

Patrick Cox: Clinging on, and changing fast, documented by researchers at universities. What kind of guiding hand should the language receive, at this time of change? Should it change at all? There’s a whole lot of “should” when it comes to Irish. Should the language expand to include versions of Irish spoken by young Dubliners, or people in the United States proposing marriage to their loved ones? These are people far from the Irish speaking regions? The change is coming from their other speakers of the language. People who grew up speaking English but have, to a greater or lesser extent, embraced Irish — on their terms. It may be an Irish that sometimes ignores classic pronunciation or certain aspects of the grammar , and Irish that sometimes mixes in English words. Should the language allow for that? Or stay pure, keeping their nation-building flame alight?

A rally in Belfast organized by Sinn Fein for the Irish Language Act. The act, which become UK law in 2022, recognizes and protects the Irish language in Northern Ireland (Photo: Sinn Fein via Openverse)

It’s fraught. Ireland has suffered so many betrayals over the years. Who may be doing the betraying now? Again, there are echoes of native American languages and their struggles. And this is why there are language purists in Ireland. Some in powerful positions overseeing policy. Don’t mess with the language — or at least don’t mess too much — that’s their message. It defines us as a people. We brought it back after we won independence in 1922. You may not like the way we taught it, and dressed it up in a narrative about what it is to be Irish. You may call the effort a failure because you don’t remember the words you learned at school. But it gave you a sense of being, of home.

And yet, living languages change. That’s what they do. And if they don’t change, it’s a indication they’re dying. According to the most recent census in 2022, 72,000 people in Ireland speak Irish on a daily basis, not counting students who only speak it at school. 72,000. So it’s not going to disappear tomorrow, But that same census found that 124,000 people in Ireland speak Polish on a daily basis. So what’s the way forward for Irish?

Jim McCloskey: There’s another context in which one might look at this whole effort. And that is in the context of the global issue of language loss and the loss of linguistic diversity.

Patrick Cox: We’re back with Jim McCloskey of UC Santa Cruz.

Jim McCloskey: And in that larger context, in a fundamentally sort of anti-nationalist perspective on the issue, it doesn’t matter much that this new language doesn’t much resemble traditional Irish at all. The fact is, it’s a new linguistic variety. It’s being used for interesting creative purposes and interesting community purposes. And it is thereby increasing the store of linguistic and cultural diversity in the world. And if your goal in quote unquote “preserving Irish” is to increase the store of linguistic and cultural diversity in the world today, then one has to say that this has been a partial success. That community of second-language speakers would not have existed if that project had not been initiated in 1922.

Patrick Cox: Thanks to Jim McCloskey, and to Mollie Guidera. Mollie, by the way, says her student in Florida who proposed in Irish got the answer she was looking for. Not only that, but Mollie says she’s actually brought together three or four other couples through the medium of Irish as taught by her.

Thanks also to Allison Shao who manages Subtitle’s social media and writes the newsletter. Which you can sign up for at the Subtitle website. Thanks also to everyone at The World public radio program.

Subtitle is a member of the Hub & Spoke audio collective. We’re a bunch of independently-minded podcasters who are curious about a bunch of stuff — science stuff, tech stuff, arty stuff, language stuff, of course! We figure you’re curious too. So here’s a shout out for some of other Hub and Spoke podcasts: Soonish, Open Source, The Briny, and Out There.

That’s it for today. Thanks for listening. See you in a couple of weeks.




A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod