Áras na nGael: The home of the Irish language in Galway since 1938
by Seán Lyons
“I see it as very important to know your own country’s language and culture and the meaning behind it”, says Seán Seoighe who is the manager of Áras na nGael; an organisation that has been at the forefront of the preservation and promotion of the Irish language in Galway for almost eighty years.
The organisation, which is based on Dominic Street, came into being in 1938 at a time when the Irish language was in decline.
“It was founded as part of Conradh na Gaeilge”, says Seoighe. “The buildings used to belong to Lady Gregory; it used to be her sister’s summer house so then it was donated to Conradh na Gaeilge and to Galway City Council.”
“From DJ sets to drag shows”
Since its inception, Áras na nGael has provided a home to a wide variety of Irish-language activities from classes to céilís; from DJ sets to drag shows.
“We run classes and events through the Irish language and give people opportunities to learn and to practice in any way that they can”, says Seoighe.
“We have the club at the back which is mainly for social events so the staff in there would speak Irish. It gives an opportunity to learn (Irish) in a social environment as well. The club area is probably the busiest where you get all walks of life and all kinds of music.”
“It’s kind of like any other language…”
One of the Áras’s most popular events is its Ciorcal Comhrá (or Conversation Circle) which takes place in both an in-person and online format on a weekly basis. Seoighe describes it as “a non-formal environment for people to go and have a chat about whatever they want.”
“There’d be people like myself or a couple of people on internship at the moment who’d be kind of directing it so if people taking part have a question like ‘how would you say this better’ or ‘what’s the word for this’, they’d help them out like that.”
“It’s kind of like any other language; if you’re immersed in it, you pick up on things maybe you thought you already knew.”
To cater for those who wish to either improve their level of Irish or start from scratch, the Áras runs Irish language classes at beginner, “refresher” and intermediate level. In recent times, Seoighe has observed rising attendances in the beginner classes from a contingent eager to embark on their Irish language journey.
“When I started off, it would be more refreshers and intermediate but now it seems to be that everyone single one of them is filling up so we’re getting a lot of attention from the beginners”, he says.
Once the pandemic hit, the Áras was forced to move its classes online. Unexpectedly, this led to a surge in interest from overseas.
“It was over the course of the pandemic that the international student interest came about”, he says. “We didn’t have an online option prior to that but we’ve seen a lot of interest from Canadians, Americans, even over in China.”
“It’s quite interesting to see that there’s such an international audience for it. Some of them don’t even have a connection to the language. Most Americans or Canadians might but other people do it just because they find it interesting.”
Moving with the times
Although Áras na nGael was founded as part of the Gaelic revival which placed emphasis on preserving indigenous cultural activity, the modern-day Áras embraces contemporary trends to broaden the base of the Irish language.
“You’d be looking for what everyone is interested in rather than keeping to the same niche things that everyone expects from the Irish language like dance, trad etc”, says Seoighe.
“When we provide the bilingual gigs, we might have a heavy metal concert but all the interaction with the staff etc would be through Irish so that gives people with niche tastes an opportunity to progress in the language or find a new-found love for it.”
“A country without a language…”
While the Áras has readily embraced modernity, the ethos of Seoighe and his colleagues has stayed true to the organisation’s roots as the promotion of the Irish language remains the ultimate priority.
“For myself, it’s deeply rooted in the country’s culture, literature and everything else”, he says.
“There’s a saying in Irish; ‘tír gan teanga, tír gan anam’ which is ‘a country without a language is a country without a soul’. That would be my own opinion on it.”