Hollywood goes Irish

As Brendan Gleeson, Michael Fassbender and Cillian Murphy demonstrate, our Irish culture is shaking it up in Tinseltown

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell
Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell

It seems as if Hollywood wants a piece of Irishness. There are rumours milling about that Michael Fassbender is working on a adaptation film of Cú Chulainn, the mythical Ulster hero.

And another that actor Brendan Gleeson is directing an adaptation of At Swim-Two-Birds, the novel by Irish satirist Flann O’Brien…

Gleeson’s cast includes Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy.

Irishness, though, is a complex thing, and often tied to language.

Causeway coast, County Antrim
Causeway coast, County Antrim

“The best thing to do would be to ban it,” said Gleeson in a recent interview. He was talking about speaking Gaeilge (Irish) – joking, of course. Gleeson himself is fluent, as is Cillian Murphy. “We’re contrary," explained Gleeson. "If we banned it everyone will want to speak it!”

Or try to learn to speak it, at the very least?

If you can’t speak it, learn it

Besides Gaeilge, there are two other tongues that are recognised as a part of the island’s make-up: Ullans and Cant. Cant refers to the dialects spoken by Irish Travellers, memorably rendered by Brad Pitt in Guy Ritchie’s film Snatch.

Ullans is the variant of Scots that was brought to Ulster in the 17th century. There are no courses in it as yet, although the Ullans Speakers Association in Ballymoney in Antrim has been working with schools to bring Ullans to a new generation.

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Living languages

It takes hard work to rescue a suppressed language (as Gaeilge/Irish was in the 19th century), but it is now well established and attracting students from all over the world.

An Droichead in Belfast offers once-weekly conversation classes, along with language classes for all levels, but if it’s full immersion you want, go to the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking areas) scattered around the island.

Feicim, meanwhile, holds courses on Inis Oírr, the smallest Aran Island (which incidentally features in the opening credits of comedy series Father Ted). There are weekend and five-day courses for beginners to intermediate speakers and even singles weekends.

Whose holiday is it anyway?

“It was one of the most enjoyable holidays I’ve ever had,” writes Margaret Hogan about her course at Feicim. “Everything was so beautiful and relaxed. We walked, talked, swam, laughed, fished, danced – all while improving our Irish.” 

A different accent is spoken in Donegal, which is home to Oideas Gael in Glencolmcille. Since 1984, it has attracted hundreds of people to its language lessons and activities that include painting, music and dancing.

”I met Americans, Swiss, Australians and even an Israeli soldier learning the cupla focal [few words],” says Sarah Ryder, assistant commissioning editor at RTÉ, who brushed up her skills in the island’s north west. “The setting is amazing and it’s the best fun. Like being on a school trip, but with no curfew!”

New Yorker Séamas Ó Feinneadh found himself in at the deep end at Oideas Gael, too. “My teacher spoke a mile a minute, but she and the rest of the class were sympathetic, and convinced me – the only Poncán (Yank) – to remain in the class. It was such a thrill being among Irish speakers that I really didn't care what class I was in.”

Keeping in touch with our heritage

Language might be tied to identity, but it’s also about a different mindset. When you learn an old language, you learn another way to think – and perhaps reclaim some traditional values.

Says Brendan Gleeson of speaking Irish: “It’s an opportunity to stay in contact with 2,000 years of craic [fun] and wisdom – and we could do with that!”

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