Living my life as Gaeilge in Hollywood
Speaking Irish in… Los Angeles
Caitríona Weafer: ‘Irish is my main language in this place of stunning sunsets and kind weather very, very far west of Connemara.’ Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Gaeilge in Malibu, Hollywood Boulevard, or anywhere around Los Angeles? Yeah, right, you might think. Maybe a “póg mo thóin” from someone who learned it while on vacation in Ireland, or a “top o’ the morning”. This isn’t Boston or Chicago after all; there aren’t many Irish around here.
The thing is though, most Americans are part Irish and often love learning about our culture and language. So the chances of hearing more than a cúpla focal here are higher than you might think.
I’m from Mullingar originally, but have lived in LA for more than 20 years. The language I use most here is Irish, not English. Sin é. With the help of technology, a close-knit community, and a culture that gives Irish a warm welcome, I now live my life as Gaeilge and truly enjoy how much better that is.
My home is Cathair na nAingeal, the City of Angels. Irish is my main language in this place of stunning sunsets and kind weather very, very far west of Connemara. Driving in heavy traffic on the 101 to the 405 or along the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) my phone is paired to the car’s audio. Outside is the Pacific Ocean; inside are programmes like Ardtráthnóna with Máirtín Tom Sheáinín. On a hike near the Hollywood sign or a walk on Malibu beach, my iPod fills my head with songs from Coláiste Lurgan. Back at home in the evening, it’s time to catch up on the latest great programmes on TG4. That’s if I’m not too busy blogging or tweeting as Gaeilge.
Ireland was where I grew up and spent most of my life. I often went to Connemara for the summer, and I always had a love for the Irish language. But life dragged me in different directions and Irish fell out of my life for many years when I started learning and teaching other languages.
My journey on the path to living my life as Gaeilge in earnest was accelerated rapidly when we set up a branch of Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) here in LA just two years ago. Now every day is filled with things to do in Irish. Monday is for reading books, Tuesday for planning events like workshops and lectures about 1916, Wednesday for Breda’s Book Club, Thursday for club business, Friday for blogging, and Saturday for planning Irish classes. All as Gaeilge. Bigger challenges like Seachtain na Gaeilge, or the Irish Immersion Weekend, or The Longest Conversation in Irish that occur throughout the year keep me extra busy. My calendar is full with Irish conferences, Irish dramas and Irish festivals.
Every Sunday a group gathers to speak Gaelic (Irish, Scottish, and Manx) from 11am until 6pm in what is turning out to be a cultúrlann of sorts in the Wilde Thistle Café in Culver City. Caity Wallace and her talented family have given the Craobh na nAingeal branch of Conradh na Gaeilge a home here, not far from Sony Studios. We hold lectures here once a month, and this year’s theme is the commemoration of 1916. The Wilde Thistle is a place where very talented people can share their knowledge and skills with others who hunger to learn. Most of all, it’s fun.
I don’t know why I didn’t do this years ago. I suppose you get confidence when you see others do things without fear. Listening to all the languages around you in LA, you wonder how is it that all these people have no problem speaking their own languages to each other, but we still are afraid to use the language we all learned in school.
In the beginning I just talked to the dog. Éamon Murphy inspired me to aim higher. A great character in his 90s, he used to greet everyone, including Americans with no Irish, with “Conas atá tú?” Breda Cusack from Kerry gathered Irish speakers such as Kerryman Seán Aherne and Dubliner Tadhg Martin together with learners as she held a book club as Gaeilge in her house near LA airport for over 25 years. Americans with no connection to Ireland astound me with the fluency they achieve. Marsha Sculatti was one such person who taught herself and then taught others Irish here for many years. It was her Irish class that I first started teaching when she fell sick. Some Americans even raise their children with Irish. That is truly remarkable and inspiring.
Éamon, Breda, and Marsha are gone now, but not forgotten. A new group has taken up the love of Irish here with great energy: Erin Ealy who teaches dance, Ramona Reeves who runs the Irish Immersion Weekend, Conradh na Gaeilge’s Arge O’Neal & his son, the multi-talented Kerry Osborne and her husband Michael (from Clare), the amazing traditional musician David Lindquist, Paula Kelley and so many more. It is a great community. They all inspire me. You cannot be afraid when so many people around you love the language you speak.
So, here I am now speaking Irish more than English very far away from home. It has led to odd phone call for an interview from Raidió na Gaeltachta or BBC Blas. I enjoy every opportunity to blab away i mo theanga féin. I’ve also ended up in some very strange situations, like the time I found myself keening at a funeral for a TV series, or writing an Elvish/Irish language for a scene in a movie, or dancing with The Chieftains. I’ve met many actors of stage and screen, simply because I embrace my culture and speak my language in LA.
Each summer I take a trip to visit the official Gaeltacht areas one by one. “How about the course in Cape Breton?” someone suggests. “You haven’t been to the Oireachtas yet?” “You have to check out Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in Scotland.”
“Yes!” I say. I want it all. My social life is hectic but fun. Mo shaol. Mo rogha. Mo theanga. My life. My choice. My language. I’m doing it my way. In LA.