A Do-It-Yourself Irish Studies Course
Updated: Jun 18
In the last post, I talked about Irish Studies courses offered in colleges and universities, but what if you’re really interested in learning about all things Irish but don’t want to do it through a university? In my research, I could not find any non-higher institution programs but the truth is we don’t really need one. It is entirely possible to put together an Irish Studies course on your own, designed around your interests, and for the exact of money you want to pay. How? Easy.
The great thing is that the topic of Ireland and all things Irish is extremely popular, so there’s lots of information available about it—in books, on videos, and on the good old internet. And there are ways to get out of the house and pursue your love of Irish stuff too. In this post, I’ve compiled suggestions for ways to build your own Irish Studies course. It’s just a starting point. When you dive in, you’ll quickly discover that this rabbit hole is deep.
Learning the Language
Almost all academic Irish Studies programs require students to spend some time learning the language. I agree with that. After all, the Irish did not start speaking English until around the 13th century and only as a result of the Anglo-Norman invasion. Even then, the majority of Irish continued to speak their own language in their everyday lives for a long while.
Today, even though most Irish speak English as their first language, the 2022 census reports that 30% (624,000 people) within the Republic speak Irish “daily within and outside the education system,” according to the Irish Times. Irish is one of the two official languages of the Republic of Ireland (the other is English). So, I gently suggest including at least a basic introduction to the language as a part of your Irish Studies. And you can do it from the comfort of your own home. Or you could go to Ireland. Or both.
Here are four online ways to learn the Irish language.
--FutureLearn offers free courses in the Irish language. The plus side is the cost. It's free. Also, the courses go from beginning to more advanced (Irish Language level 4). The downside is that the website doesn’t offer all of the levels all the time, so you have to wait (sometimes months) until the level you want is available. Nevertheless, it’s worth checking out because everyone learns differently and I know from experience that these courses have a somewhat different approach than the two below.
--Rosetta Stone is rather famous as a way to learn a language. And there’s a good reason for that. Many people love it and find it an effective teaching tool. I started off trying to learn Irish with Rosetta Stone and I didn’t love it, but that’s me. As I said, different people learn differently. As a former educator, I’d say the method used by Rosetta Stone is quite sound. The only real con is the cost. Besides the fact that it’s not free, it’s also not cheap.
There are three membership levels. The least expensive is the lifetime membership and it is the best value. Currently, it is listed as a $179 one-time payment (the website says this is a limited time only special with the “regular” price listed as $299). With that, you have access to all twenty-five languages the company offers, if you want to learn them. The other two options are a yearly membership at $7.99 / month (regularly $9.99) for a total of $95.88 per year or a 3-month membership for $11.99 / month ($35.97 billed as one payment).
--Duolingo is an online language site that is entirely free. Yay! Even better: it’s good. Full disclosure: I’m not getting reimbursed in any way by the company to say that. I simply have used it for years to reinforce my Spanish and French and have used it to work on learning Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Welsh.
--Bitesize Irish has an excellent reputation. I have very little experience with it so I can’t speak to its effectiveness. Its founder, Eoin Ó Conchúir is an Irishman whose first language was Irish, so that’s a plus in terms of authenticity.
Bitesize Irish offers a free email course. In exchange for your email address, they send you a 38-page book about the Irish language, Irish dialects, the Gaeltacht, and other related topics. This is followed by a series of newsletters which makes up the course. If you’d like to pursue learning the language more seriously, they offer three levels of membership ranging in price from $19 / month to $49 / month.
Of course, an immersion experience is the best way to learn the language and wouldn’t it be ideal if you could speak Irish in Ireland? There are many immersion programs advertised online but read the information carefully. The majority of them take place in the U.S. Now that’s fine if you just want the experience of talking in Irish to other people and you either don’t have the funds or the desire to go to Ireland.
But going to the Gaeltacht (the Irish-speaking regions in Ireland, mostly located in the west) would be best if you can afford it. You will be able to speak Irish with native speakers. Plus, you can soak up Irish culture in a way you never could in Kalamazoo, Michigan. One school to explore is Oidias Gael. The school is located in Southwest Donegal and offers, among other courses, a “Language and Culture Summer School.” This year, it will be held from July 22-29, 2023. The price of the course is not bad, if you can afford to get to Ireland. The program costs 260 euros ($284.41 currently). If you’d like to know more about the Gaeltacht, click here for my post on it.
This is a huge topic. Scholars say that the first human beings arrived on the island now called Ireland somewhere around 8000 B.C. So, where to start learning about Irish history? Since this is a self-study program, you might want to be led by your interests. Do you want to know about the Troubles or the Druids and pre-Christian Celts, or the Bronze Age inhabitants? And there is so much more to pick from. It may seem overwhelming. Unless you have a clear preference, I recommend starting with taking history in by little bites at a time. Pick a period and learn it before moving on. Discovering Ireland (https://www.discoveringireland.com/the-history-of-ireland/) is a travel site, but it has a great list of periods in Irish history, each complete with a short synopsis.
This might help you choose where to start. It also might pique your interest and lead you to further online research. For example, reading the section on the Protestant Ascendency could lead you to checking online for more information about the Penal Laws, Poynings' Law, Daniel O'Connell, or the United Irishmen. Similarly, you can start at Wikipedia’s page on Irish History and follow the links. I don’t recommend Wikipedia as an entirely reliable source, but many articles do contain solid facts. Besides, this is just a starting point. You can learn from more scholarly sources later if you want.
The internet is a wonderful tool, but don’t forget about books. And there are zillions of books about Ireland, Irish history, Irish culture, and so forth. One I’d recommend is Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization. It’s scholarly but accessible and entertaining. I also recommend beginning in the public library. Some books may be old but, again, they’re a good place to start. Later you can decide if you want to spend money on a shiny new book.
Traditional Irish music (Irish Trad) is so popular you undoubtedly already have some familiarity with it. But if you’ve just been a casual listener, you might want to read https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/irish-traditional-music-history. It’s a good article on what Irish trad is, what the traditional instruments are, the importance of learning by ear from other players, and the importance of ornamentation in traditional Irish music. The article's a good introduction to the essential elements of traditional Irish music. After that, be sure to make listening to Irish trad icons a part of your Irish studies. Go onto YouTube or Spotify and check out The Chieftains, Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers (separately and together), Wolf Tone, and The Dubliners. Then listen to Celtic Woman, Clannad, Enya, and even The Corrs who wove the Irish trad sound into their pop music.
If you want to get more actively involved with Irish music, consider learning an Irish folk instrument such as the fiddle, the tin whistle, the bodhran, or the uillean pipes. These vary, though, in terms of cost and level of difficulty, so here’s a quick rundown.
Tin (or Irish) Whistle: inexpensive. You can get a decent whistle for $10-20 and it is a fairly easy instrument to learn to play. Whistles come in different keys. Start with D. It’s the classic one you know from listening to Irish Trad and most online music is written for it. You can teach yourself the basics from information available online.
Bodhran: This handheld Irish drum is said to be one of the easiest Irish instruments for a beginning learner. They tend to cost $160—260. Check out https://blog.mcneelamusic.com/experts-guide-to-buying-the-best-bodhran/ for comprehensive advice on what to consider before purchasing a bodhran. Should you take lessons? There are videos on YouTube on how to play the bodhran. You might want to watch a couple before making a decision.
Fiddle: the classic. A fiddle is simply a violin that is played in fiddle style. You definitely will need to take lessons. And this instrument is not cheap. Oh, you can get one for $399 but you won’t like the way you sound. Ever. Buy a decent mid-range instrument so you have some hope of sounding like you’re making music. Then be prepared to practice—a lot.
Uillean Pipes: the Irish bagpipes. One of my favorite instruments to listen to, these pipes are softer and sweeter than Scottish bagpipes. Also, they are played by pumping a set of bellows under your arm, so you don’t have to have mighty lungs. There are online videos that claim you can learn the pipes at home by watching the videos. Don’t believe it. Plan to get lessons.
There is so much more that could and should be a part of your Irish Studies course: dance, mythology, folklore, literature, spirituality, art, the Celtic calendar, and folk customs. But I’ll save those for another post. As you can see, if you want to do an Irish Studies course on your own, there are plenty of resources to use and you can do it as inexpensively as you choose to. So, go for it! Immerse yourself in all things Irish! Slainte!
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Slán go fóill
All artwork for this post (except for the Ukrainian flag and the GIF) was done by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.