Photo by Dermot Connolly
Luanne Baldwin, Shannon O'Brien and teacher Áine McGillycuddy are involved in Irish language classes offered at Gaelic Park.
What began last summer with the coincidental blog post seeking Irish language classes at the same time that an Irish teacher was starting a new life in Oak Lawn, has grown into a language school, complete with drawing students from the Southwest Chicago area.
“It was purely selfish,” said Shannon O’Brien with a laugh.
She posted her request last June for an Irish teacher on a Facebook page for mothers in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood, where she lives.
“I had been trying for years to get Irish language classes at Gaelic Park in Oak Forest, because it is too hard for people here to get to those held on the North Side, at the Irish-American Heritage Center,’’ she said and added finding qualified teachers was difficult.\
But not impossible.
Her search ended when a mutual friend saw her post and contacted Áine McGillycuddy, an Irish teacher who had recently moved to Oak Lawn with her partner, Kati Whittingham, and their infant daughter, Saoirse (which means “freedom” in Irish). Whittingham, from Orland Park, starred on Mother McAuley High School’s 1991 state champion basketball team and is now a guidance counselor in Community School District 218.
The couple met 10 years ago when McGillycuddy spent a summer here playing Gaelic football for the St. Brigid’s team based at Gaelic Park
With a degree in Irish and economics from University College Dublin, McGillycuddy has 15 years of experience teaching Irish (sometimes called Gaelic) and other subjects at her alma mater, Coláiste Ráithín, in Bray, County Wicklow. She explained that the high school is a “gaelscoil” where all subjects are taught through the language known as Gaeilge in Irish.
Although Irish is the first official language of Ireland, English is the everyday language in most parts of the country. McGillycuddy said that while Irish wasn’t her first language, she and her four older brothers became fluent in it.
Now a stay-at-home mom, McGillycuddy said she liked the idea of teaching evening classes, but credits O’Brien with setting them up. “We didn’t have a clue at the beginning about how much to charge, or how many students should be in the classes,” she said. But they worked it out, and O’Brien is now affectionately known as “the principal” of the school.
Weekly classes started last fall, drawing students from age 13 to 80, and continued into the spring for beginners and intermediate levels. They will start again in the fall. In addition to Oak Lawn and Oak Forest, and Chicago neighborhoods such as Clearing, Morgan Park, Beverly and Mt. Greenwood, students also come from more distant suburbs such as Homewood and Clarendon Hills.
Her former students in Ireland were challenged to come up with a name and slogan for the new language school, and the winning name was Gaeilago, combining Gaeilge and Chicago. Another won for the motto, “Sharing Our Language Across the Waves.”
Gaeilago students and others are invited to an “immersion weekend” at Gaelic Park, 6119 W. 147th St. from July 17-19, where they can speak Irish all weekend. The immersion weekend will include informal classes in language, culture and history led by McGillycuddy and her brother and sister-in-law, both teachers in Ireland, along with plenty of socializing.
Group breakfasts are also held one Saturday a month at Jack Desmond’s restaurant in Chicago Ridge.
McGillycuddy has an easygoing way of teaching, encouraging students to speak as much Irish as possible, without worrying about mistakes.
“I guess I’m proof that immersion works,” she said, laughing about her early days as a 12-year-old at her gaelscoil, learning everything through Irish and not understanding much for the first few months.
“I caught on eventually,” she said.
McGillycuddy’s students give various reasons for learning Irish.
Most have family connections in Ireland, and want to get to know the culture as much as possible. O’Brien, who grew up in Maine and was named after the largest river in Ireland, once planned to move there. Clearing resident Luanne Baldwin, whose grandmother came from County Roscommon, said she enjoys learning languages. She said one basic Irish class she took at Daley College years ago piqued her interest.
“It is easier than Finnish,” she said.
The classes also draw people like John Murray, who was born in County Mayo but had to immigrate with his family before he got to learn much of the language in school.
“It is up to us and the younger generations to keep the language alive,” said Murray, who is now learning it alongside his son, Martin, 13. A younger son might be joining the class in the fall.
"It has been such a positive experience right from the beginning. I have been amazed by Americans’ enthusiasm to learn Irish. I have so many years of experience teaching at home and to see such interest here has been so encouraging. When moving here last June, never in my wildest dreams did I think we would have a school established so quickly. Shannon’s willingness to do so much administrative work in the early stages was a great help,” said McGillycuddy. “Hopefully the interest and the classes will continue to grow. Ní neart go cur le chéile (There is no strength without unity)."