My journey with the Irish language

Learning Irish in the Gaeltacht

Learning Irish in Inis Oírr – Part Two

One thing I love about learning Gaeilge (Irish) is that it is impossible to learn the language without also learning about the history and culture of Eíre (Ireland). And going to FEICIM in Inis Oírr to learn Gaeilge was no different.

I’d wake up and go down stairs of the BnB where I was staying to a freshly made bricfeasta (breaky) and some Gaeilge. Since it was first thing in the morning and before coffee, my brain worked slowly so it took me a while to understand… and even longer to respond as Gaeilge (in Irish). But I persevered and deeply appreciated the bean an tí (woman of the house) for her patience and generosity with the language.

After breakfast, I’d walk up the hilly road, surrounded by a matrix of ancient ballaí cloiche (stone walls) and tiny green fields, towards scoil na teanga, FEICIM (the language school, FEICIM). I’d pass horse and buggies, bicycle riders and other people walking. Cars were rare on the Island and time moved differently from the rest of the world. Everyone was friendly and even the little children spoke Gaeilge. I don’t think there is any more endearing than hearing a toddler say – “seo é mo hata, a dhaidí,” (here is my hat, daddy) and “slán” (bye) with a big smile and a wave.

When I got to mo rang (my class), we were taught as Béarla (in English) at first, and then slowly as Gaeilge (in Irish). We were shown common questions to ask as Gaeilge and encouraged to used Irish rather than English. For the first week we focused on that central little word (pronounced “be”) in all three tenses (tá, bhí agus beidh). It’s amazing how complex one little verb can be. And then by a haon a chlog (one o’clock), it was time for afternoon activities.

So on that drizzly Wednesday afternoon, we set out to walk up to Caisleán Uí Bhriain (O’Brien’s Castle) that stands proud on top of the hill, overlooking two of the four the villages on the island. Our tour guide was a very hospitable native woman who spoke about history and culture, as Gaeilge, as we wondered over the hills. The castle was built in the 14th century and owned by the O’Brien clan from Contae an Chláir (County Clare). But since the islands were in a pivotal strategic position in Cuan na Gaillimhe (Galway bay) in the medieval ages and before, it was fought over and seized by several families. First was the O’Flaherty clan of Connemara in the 16th century and then the Cromwellian forces in the 17th century both occupied that castle. Across the bay, on Aillte an Mhothair (the Cliffs of Moher), stood O’Brien’s Tower, built much later in the 19th century. But unlike the battle ready fortress on the small island, the tower was said to have been built to impress the women that Sir Cornellius O’Brien courted.

Like most Irish castles, Caisleán Uí Bhriain was build upon a pre-existing stone age fort, Dún Formna. This fort is said to have been built in the early centuries AD (100 to 400 AD) and currently, only one rounded stone wall of the ancient fort can be seen. This would have been home to early Chieftains long before the O’Brain clan. Other ancient dúnta (the plural of dún, or forts) on the Aran Islands include Dún Aengus and Dún Eoghanacht which are both on Inis Mór, the largest island, and are excavated unlike Dún Formna.

So besides learning the Irish language, you will also be shown just how rich these islands are in layer upon layer of history over thousands of years. In my next blog, I will focus on Inis Oírr’s temples and an ancient cairn.

Here’s my phrase of the month …


“Is fearr bothán biamhar ná caisleán gortach”

(A cabin with plenty of food is better than a hungry castle)


Slán go fóill agus tugaigí aire daoibh féin
(Bye for now and take care)


Go raibh maith agat FEICIM (thank you FEICIM) – the Irish language school on Inis Oírr 



  • Gaeilge – Gale-ig-a
  • Inis Oírr – Inish eer
  • bean an tí – baun on chee
  • ballaí cloiche – bull-ee click-ha (a throaty ‘h’)
  • scoil na teanga – scoy-il na ch-anga
  • seo é mo hata, a dhaidí – sho a mu hat-a, a yaj-i (a throaty ‘y’)
  • slán – slawn
  • a haon a chlog – a hay-on a h-log (a throaty ‘h’)
  • tá, bhí agus beidh – taw, vee agus bay
  • Caisleán Uí Bhriain – caw-slawn e Vri-an
  • Contae an Chláir – con-tay on H-law (a throaty ‘H’)
  • Cuan na Gaillimhe – qu-an na Gwal-iv-a 
  • Aillte an Mhothair – Al-cha an Woh-id (a throaty ‘h’ and that r is slender)
  • Dún Formna – doon Furr-mna
  • Dúnta – doon-ta
  • Dún Aengus – doon Ung-us
  • Dún Eoghanacht – doon Oy-a-nacht (a throaty ‘cht’)
  • Is fearr bothán biamhar ná caisleán gortach – Is farr bo-hawn bia-war naw caw-shlawn gur-tach (a throaty ‘ch’)
  • Slán go fóill agus tugaigí aire daoibh féinSlawn gu foh-il ugus tug-ug-e a-da queev hain
  • Go raibh maith agat FEICIM – Gu rev mah ugut Fec-im (a throaty ‘h’)

(Note. Pronunciations are based on my Australian ears)




Learning Irish in Inis Oírr – Part One

inis-oirr-1Have you ever wanted to make an authentic connection with your Celtic heritage? Perhaps you feel a little lost, not knowing where you belong, but have an idea your ancestors were from Ireland. When I began my journey with Gaeilge (Irish Gaelic – the Irish language), I didn’t know what I had been missing. But when I started a whole world opened up. My connection with Gaeilge resonated so strong that I had no choice but to learn the language. So despite being in my forties and having never learnt a second language in my life, I began this journey. Not even a year into learning it, I was lucky enough to visit the place where Gaeilge is still spoken by a majority of the community today in Éirinn (Ireland) – the land of my ancestors.

For two months when I arrived in Éirinn I stayed in Cora Droma Rúisc (Carrick on Shannon), researching the mythology of the Tuatha Dé Danann and visiting ancient sites along the sun path extending from the Abhainn na Bóinne (River Boyne) i gContae na Mí (in County Meath) to Contae Sligeach (County Sligo). Then July came and I finally got the opportunity to visit the Gaeltacht (Irish speaking communities) and study Gaeilge.

The first time I visited the Gaeltacht was Inis Oírr, the smallest island of the Oileáin Árann (Aran Islands) off the coast of Condae na Gaillimhe (County Galway). I set off from my friend’s house at the foot of Cnoc na Sí (Hill of the Fairies), and caught Bus Éireann to Gaillimh before crossing the bay on the ferry to Inis Oírr. I steadied myself for the rough seas, out the back of the ferry, and managed to take photos of the sea-spray lashing over the hull of boat. Several teenagers got drenched, playing and laughing, and the other ferry, going to the largest island, Inis Mór, flew across the waves behind us. I figured it was better to stand out the back, and I was right. Later, I heard other people inside the ferry felt sea sick, but all I felt was exhilarated.

As we approached Inis Oírr, the first thing I noticed was the castle ruin on the hill. I’d seen photos of it before but didn’t know if it was on this island. The next thing I saw was the maze of rock walls that blanketed beautiful green fields beyond the town. The Island was just like the ones out of the movies. But what I didn’t realise then was that the longer I stayed on the island, the more beautiful it would become.

dsc_0192Over the next two weeks I found myself immersed in the native language and culture in a way that opened my eyes to the history and personality of this island. I couldn’t help but to fall in love with it. Besides learning Irish from 10am to 1pm, we made baskets, went on history tours of the Island as Gaeilge (in Irish), and sang songs as Gaeilge and played ceol traidisiúnta (traditional music). Every day brought me closer to myself and my Gaelic heritage until it started to become a part of me. I found myself thinking in simple phrases as Gaeilge and being around other people speaking it became a comfort, except when they asked me a question – then I froze.

Through the course, I soon become acquainted with phrases like “Tá ceist agam!” (I have a question!), and “gabh mo leithscéal, ach ní thuigim,” (excuse me, but I don’t understand). These, I learnt, are vital phrases to learn before going to the Gaeltacht. Other phrases to learn are “Níl ach Gaeilge beagánín agam,” (I only have a little bit of Irish) and “Abair arís é go mall, le do thoil,” (say it again slowly, please). The teachers and islanders were fantastic and after a week I began to understand basic sentences as Gaeilge. I distinctly remember when my teacher, Emma, said two sentences in Irish and I understood every word of it! Luckily she was understanding when I blurted my accomplishment out to the class.

Over the next few blogs, I’ll share my insights and experiences on these islands, and introduce you to the timeless life of this Gaeltacht island.

In the meantime, here’s my phrase of the m0nth …

Tóg go bóg é agus foghlaim Gaeilge

(Take it easy and learn Irish).
Slán go fóill agus tugaigí aire daoibh féin
(Bye for now and take care)


Go raibh maith agat FEICIM (thank you FEICIM) – the Irish language school on Inis Oírr


  • Gaeilge – Gale-ig-a
  • Cora Droma Rúisc – Core-ra Drome-a Roo-sk
  • Tuatha Dé Danann – Too-a-ha Day Dun-an
  • Abhainn na Bóinne – av-oin na Boh-nya
  • i gContae na Mí – i gon-tay na Me
  • Contae Sligeach – Con-tay Shli-gach (throaty ‘ch’ on the end)
  • Gaeltacht – Gale-tach-t (throaty ‘ch’ in the middle)
  • Inis Oírr – In-is ear
  • Oileáin Árann – Il-aw-in Aw-ran
  • Cnoc na Sí – nock na she
  • Bus Éireann – Bus Ar-ran
  • Gaillimh – Gwal-iv
  • Inis Mór – In-is More
  • Tá ceist agam” – Taw cy-ish-t ugam
  • Gabh mo leithscéal, ach ní thuigim” – Guv moh lyeh-scale , ach  (throaty ‘ch’) nyi hig-im
  • Níl ach Gaeilge beagánín agam” – Nyil ach (throaty ‘ch’) Gale-ig-a beyeg-awn-neen ugam
  • Abair aris é go mall, le do thoil” Ab-ath ar-ish a guh mall, le du hull
  • Tóg go bóg é agus foghlaim Gaeilge” – Tohg gu bohg a ugus foh-lom Gale-ig-a
  • Slán go fóill agus tugaigí aire daoibh féin – Slawn gu foh-il ugus tug-ug-e a-da deev hane
  • Go raibh maith agat FEICIM – Gu rev mah ugut Fec-im

(Note. Pronunciations are based on my Australian ears)


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