Exploring Irish with Susan Folan

Exploring Irish with Susan Folan



Let's start this episode of LangFM with a little song you may know.


Still sound familiar?

The song is "Wake me up" by Swedish DJ and music producer Avicii, a big summer hit in 2013. The version we hear now, however, is by Seo Linn, an Irish band seeking to promote Irish through covers of popular songs and own material. Their version of "Wake me up" on YouTube has garnered over 5,5 million views so far. But let me tell you, Seo Linn are not the only ones having success. Listen to 15-year-old Shannon Bryan:

I found both of these music videos, and many others, on the YouTube channel of TG4 or [tʲeː ɟeː ˈcahəɾʲ], the fourth Irish TV channel serving Irish-language speakers in the whole country. TG4 may place a strong emphasis on music, and they may have broadcast all Harry Potter films dubbed in Irish, but the highest ratings regularly go to… their weather reports:

"The weather girls on TG4 are particularly famous for beingvery beautiful and mystifying creatures, you know? I think, probably, this air of mysticism that surrounds the language for those who've never encountered an Irish speaker is maybe intensified by the fact that there is then this beautiful creature on the screen telling you about the weather in Irish."

Meet Susan Folan. Susan is an EU-accredited conference interpreter for English and Irish.

 "I always loved languages, always. And then I picked up French,I did a little bit of German. I like to talk. And I really like to talk to people who didn't share my language."

[Music: "Galway", by Kevin MacLeod]

"I grew up in Galway City. I'm part of the evil that's known as a townie, a very proud townie at that. What does it mean to be a townie? A townie is somebody who speaks Irish but who is from the city, who isn't from the Gaeltacht, really." 

Let's take a moment here to dig in a little deeper. First off, Galway is a beautiful little town on the West coast of Ireland. Home not only to Susan Folan, but also to the National University of Ireland (more on this later). Galway also happens to be part of the Gaeltacht. In a nutshell, the Gaeltacht refers to the primarily Irish-speaking regions of the country. They are quite rural, and with the increasing popularity of Irish Gaelic in the cities, including Dublin, there is a bit of friction between the two communities of speakers (hence the term "townie").

"It's not a compliment, but I wear the badge with pride."

The Gaeltacht goes back to the 1920s and the time of the Irish Free State and was part of Government efforts to revive the Irish language.

"The way I see it, and I'm being a bit personal about it here, is that boundaries were set up around areas where Irish would have been the daily language used by people in the community. And it was given a type of protected status. I always feel though, personally, that when you put a fence around something, that those fences start closing in. And those Gaeltacht areas have gotten smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller. And I can understand the idea in having a protected area. But I mean, we're not marine life, we're people, and we move around, and if you can take your language with you, then that language is no longer a minority language, it's a global language. And it's very much a personal opinion, but I would like to see Irish being used all over the country rather than just in these specific designated areas. And then, maybe, people could actually start to appreciate the fact that, you know what, I can use my Irish when I go into the shop in Dublin. They'll just reply, and we can both go on about our days. There are quite a lot of people who are very interested in having areas that they can speak Irish outside of these traditional Gaeltacht regions. There was actually an event in Dublin recently. I read about it on Facebook - where does anybody read about anything these days? - were there was a pop-up Gaeltacht in the centre of Dublin and you'd want to have seen the attendance, it was really, really strong!"


"But all of my education, the entire way up through, was through Irish from Montessori. [...] The number of Irish-speaking schools is growing and growing and growing."

Now, Irish teaching is an interesting topic. In his wonderful book "Coming Home - One Man's Return To The Irish Language", Michael McCaughan did the math: An average child goes through 45 daily minutes of Irish class for roughly 180 days per year. Multiply that by 14 years and you end up with over 2000 hours.

"You might have someone in Dublin, who has learned Irish from the age of 4, the whole way up through school, who has never encountered a native speaker. For them, I can understand why they would say that Irish is a dead language. They've never ever encountered anybody with whom they could have a conversation in Irish. It's a moot point, really. What are they learning this language for, they can't see a point."

And yet, many of the 1.8 million people who said they have some command of Irish in the 2011 census, were probably "faking it", as McCaughan calls it. Which sounds strangely familiar to someone who was born in the former socialist half of Germany, where millions of people quote-unquote learned Russian while remembering very little in the end. But Irish-speaking schools, through the renaissance of the language, have become all the rage even among those parents, who hated Irish when they themselves were forced to learn it in school. The days when children were encouraged or even forced to only speak English, because it was considered modern or as providing better professional opportunities, seem to be fading away.

"Children are going to pick up English no matter what. If you can reinforce the second language skill, you're doing them a service. And I think that people are coming around to that way of thinking now. There are quite a lot of children now in Ireland who come from English-speaking backgrounds, or we'll say non-Irish-speaking backgrounds, who are now attending primary and secondary school through the medium of Irish. I think there's an acknowledgement there as well that passive bilingualism - learning your maths or your history through Irish - also gives you the added bonus of reinforcing your language skills. Hopefully, as we see those children grow up, maybe there'll be more of an acknowledgement of the skills that they have as a bilingual."

Apparently, that's exactly what happened with Susan.

"So I studied Irish and French, didn't really know what I wanted to do, so I decided to keep going with what I enjoyed. And my parents supported me - God bless them for that! - and I did a Masters in Irish. And just as I was finishing the Masters in Irish, it was 2006 and people were preparing for 2007 and using Irish at EU level, and I thought: finally! I always had Brussels in the back of my mind but I never thought Irish would get me there."

[Music: "Ode to joy (on D whistle)]

Well, in the EU, it's been a long and winding road for Irish. When the country joined in 1973, alongside Denmark and the UK, an agreement had already been in place for two years saying Irish would become an official language of the then European Communities, but with the understanding that only primary legislation, i.e. European treaties, would be translated into it. Which is why Irish is often referred to as a "treaty language".

"Well, as far as I'm aware, they actually declared English as their national language, whereas constitutionally, Irish is our first language. I don't know whether it was a post-colonial attitude, or what it was. I think, maybe they didn't want to bother people. Ireland in the seventies was a very, very different place. And I think that, maybe, people felt a little bit like we were on the backfoot. When we were joining, anyway. And there's been that attitude in Ireland for such a long time that the language is a bother. You know, so you wouldn't like to upset anybody by using Irish. So we'll just use English. You know, that our bilingualism is not something to be proud of. You know, Irish is fine at home. I guarantee you that you will meet people in Dublin who will tell you that nobody speaks Irish. And for them, they're being very truthful, they genuinely don't believe that anybody speaks Irish. There are some who acknowledge then as well that there are bilingual people. And then you can go to the west, and there are people who are still far more comfortable in Irish than they are in English. And when you've got a society that's that divided about the language - in the country itself - when it gets to an international stage then, or even gets to an EU stage, you can see that it gets even more complex. There's so much infighting among ourselves about the prominence of Irish that everybody else in Europe is a little bit baffled by it and thinks, well, if you guys can't get your act together and decide, what are we supposed to do?"

On 1 January 2007, Irish became a full official language, but with a derogation prolonging, more or less, the status quo. This derogation will gradually fade out and is scheduled to end by 31 December 2021.

"This derogation was in place because we couldn't reach that critical mass for translators or interpreters. It's been a long time coming. When you consider how long we've been an EU member and how we're facing these issues now, really, we should have been planning for since the seventies."

In 2015, Sinn Fein MEP Lia Ni Riada, went on a two-week language strike and spoke only Irish to draw attention to the dire situation of her native language in the EU.

"And it did draw attention to the problem. But as with anything, any type of protest, the media's interest was peaked. There were a couple of news articles about it. And then it all fell away again. I would like to have an active Irish booth that wasn't the source for any sort of interest. That it was just the same as any other languages across the board, in the institutions. And that's what Lia Ni Riada, the MEP, wanted as well. But until we have the ressources, I do understand that it can't be treated exactly the same as other languages. So, I would like to see sufficient ressources so that it could be. I think one of the difficulties is that if we ourselves don't see like that in the country, well then how are we expected to project that to an international stage?"

[Music: "Gravel Walk (Irish)", by The Rosen Sisters]

By now you'll probably assume - and rightly so - that Susan wasn't going to just going to accept the situation. Here's how she became in interpreter.

"I actually applied for what I thought was a job. Saw it advertised in the paper. And in my innocence, I thought: interpreting, wow, with Irish? And I have French. Great, I'll do that. I just liked the idea of all of these nationalities communicating with one another, and having a shared goal, not necessarily a shared language, but managing to do it all the same. And I don't know whether I ever dreamed that I would be an interpreter, but I did think that I would get involved where my languages would be useful."

Having studied Irish and French, Susan felt like she could just become an interpreter and replied to that ad in the paper. She didn't quite realise at that point that it was about a programme of the Irish government to build up a pool of qualified translators and interpreters for the Irish language.

"I never thought that anybody need to train. I was still a bit 'innocent' at that stage and I certainly needed some training, now that I look back. So they sent some of us to Westminster to train, the irony of which was not lost on anybody. To send people to London, the University of Westminster, to train with Irish as one of their interpreting languages - the mind boggles! Once we finished training and passed an inter-institutional test, then some of us started working. But I was under the impression, even then, that we were going to start working in an active booth. And that still hasn't happened because we haven't reached critical mass of active Irish interpreters. So I had two of the bread-and-butter languages with English and French. And then I had an exotic, which makes all Irish people smile. We've never really considered ourselves exotic. But that's nice to think, isn't it? Of those who were successful in their final exams, some are still working with me now. Some still work as trainers with me as well and as examiners in Galway.”


NUI - National University of Ireland Galway was founded in 1845, its oldest part, the Quadrangle building, being built as a replica of Christ Church college in Oxford. It stands in stark contrast to the, let's say very functional building that houses the interpreting lab, where Susan oversees the training of the next generations of interpreters. 

"We set up the course in Galway. We are a bilingual university. I think Westminster's difficulty was accessing native speakers of Irish who could assist as speakers on the course. They had excellent trainers, but Galway had the native speakers right on the doorstep, so we took over from there. We took over with just Irish and English initially. We've grown since then. There's French, Italian, Spanish on the course this year, as well, and last year, we had German. The university department that I work in is not the Irish department, and we have a very good Irish department as well, but it's the only third-level department in the country that teaches all of its subjects through Irish. Which is incredible. If you consider the difference: between a country that has Irish as its first language constitutionally, and then consider that you haven't got universal education programs at third level through Irish, you can see that there's a big difference between what's actually going on and what's on paper but there's a real movement towards improving that. My department teach other courses like communications, conference interpreting, translation, language planning, which is a really interesting area when it comes to to Irish and how you might have plans in place to protect the language in the future. But it teaches all of those third-level courses through the medium of Irish. The students aren't necessarily studying the language."

But apart from working for EU institutions, what does the Irish interpreting market look like? In terms of conference interpreting or community interpreting, for example?

"The market isn't sufficiently developed to differentiate between the two elements at times. I've certainly started to notice an awful lot more conference interpreting. But sometimes I wonder then - chicken and the egg - whether that's because we're producing conference interpreters who are explaining to people what the difference is and what the possibilities are. Which is great. The more people understand the opportunities, the more you're seeing a couple of sets of headsets in general meetings that would have been conducted through Irish previously, or because there might have been eight people in a room of eighty people who didn't understand Irish. Immediately, the other 72 changed to English, despite the fact that the English speakers are in the minority. So now, they don't have to feel left out."

And what about people who have to undergo medical treatment or stand trial? Can they speak Irish and have interpreting available?

"Yes is the simple answer to that. And the more complex answer to that is that it's like any country in the world where it's: What happens when you can't find the interpreter?  Unfortunately, that makes it very easy for all authorities to pass the buck. You know, to say, we don't have sufficient numbers of people, so we can't provide the service and then, well, if you're not going to provide service, how can I provide the resources. Because I need to be training people for a market. But I have noticed improvements, definitely."

[Music: "Irish Club", by Podington Bear]

So it sounds like there’s reason to be optimistic about the future. Or is there?

“I think if you follow what you love and what you believe in, everything else tends to fall into place. Does that make me terribly millennial - it probably does. My ideal is that we have an active Irish booth. That we have sufficient numbers of people so that we are working actively. And I think then you don't end up having to justify your presence. So that's my idea. And I hope that that's going to happen, also, I don't see any reason why it shouldn't. Everything comes back to cost, always. It’s thrown at Irish speakers all the time. Could you actually even possibly quantify how much English is costing? Your listeners can’t see me smiling, but I am. I had a student knock on my door in Galway there recently. He didn’t look Irish. He was very, very tall and Czech-looking. Turns out he was Czech. And he spoke to me in the most beautiful Irish you’ve ever heard. Oh, incredible Irish. What a linguist!“

A Chat With Matt Baird, The Bolder Translator

A Chat With Matt Baird, The Bolder Translator

Brian Fox, A Life In Interpreting

Brian Fox, A Life In Interpreting