Lillis Ó Laoire – Sean-nós singer & lecturer in Irish at NUI Galway
Lillis is a sean-nós singer and lecturer in Irish language, folklore and Celtic Civilisation in the School of Languages, NUI Galway, and is also a strong advocate for the use of the Irish language in the community.
Tell us about your background...
I'm a Donegal man originally. I went to school in Cashel na gCorr, which is about two and a half miles from Gort a' Choirce. All my primary education was through Irish. There was less of it in secondary school, much less by the time I got to the Leaving Cert. I spoke both Irish and English at home. My dad didn't speak Irish, but my mum did and she spoke to us. Then, it was the language of everybody so everybody did speak it to us and we just spoke it back - it wasn't a big deal. It wasn't hard; it was just part of every day. But we were encouraged to speak it and encouraged to make it a normal thing. Then in school, in the playground, there wasn't even a question about speaking English; not that I remember anyway. In secondary school, I spoke a lot of Irish too because even though a lot of the teaching was through English, we spoke Irish amongst each other. So Irish was our language from the beginning.
Did you always like the language?
I always liked it. I had an epiphany was I was about ten. I was reading a lot of English and I noticed that my English was developing quicker than my Irish. I was afraid I'd lose it, so I made up my mind not to do that, not to let English get stronger, to make sure that Irish was as strong as the English, and that was just by listening to people talk. You wouldn't have been reading as much in Irish then, except for your schoolbooks. There was a lot more children's fiction available in English. After a while, I did begin to read in Irish. I stayed in primary school until I was 13, so that last year I was able to read a lot of stuff from the school library. I had formal Irish lessons as well. I actually learnt to read the old script that year because one of the books that was on the course we were reading was in the old script. My Irish went back a bit when we went to secondary school because the books were easier; we could have been doing more advanced Irish. Then it got harder again in the Inter Cert - there was a lot of reading and poems on the course and for the Leaving too. So that was nice; I enjoyed them.
After school, I applied for for the BA in Galway and six or seven of my school pals came here as well, so we stayed in touch. Some of them were in the same class as me so we got through the first year and I did Irish and Latin and I finished that. I did the H.Dip and then the Masters, so I was here five years altogether. Then I got a job in the Department of Education as an editor, working on Irish texts. I wasn't there very long when I got a job in Limerick as a lecturer in a place called Thomond College, which became the University of Limerick in 1991. I stayed there until 2002 and then I went to America for a while. I eventually left UL in 2006 and I started here in 2007.
Did you ever consider any other career?
I always wanted to study Irish and I always knew I wanted to be an academic, but it wasn't cool to admit that when you were younger. I wouldn't have been telling people that because people would have thought that maybe I had ideas above my station. But I knew I wanted to do the Masters anyway.
Where do you think the language stands with regard to popularity and how many people are speaking it now?
There's so many aspects to Irish in the country. The Irish speaking areas are in deep trouble demographically and employment-wise and therefore, since the population is under threat, the number of speakers are under threat. There's all this research saying how English is affecting the speech of young people and how they're stronger in English. They do speak Irish and speak it fluently, but they're stronger in English because there's more English input in their lives and teenagers generally now speak English. They speak Irish as children and they'll speak Irish as adults but as teenagers, they seem to gravitate more towards English. That's an interesting phenomenon.
Then there's the whole development of an urban population and a whole diaspora learner group as well so that's very encouraging. There's actually a research project going on here about new speakers, people who make Irish their main language, even though it's not their first language and there seems to be more and more of those people. I was looking at an article on Manx recently and the last native speakers in Manx died in the late 20th century, so from the sixties to the seventies, the last 30 speakers died out. But there's now a new population of people who learn Gaelic from those old speakers and they've developed the language, so there might be 200 or 300 people who know some Manx, but there's 55 people that if you put them in a room, they wouldn't have to speak English to each other and they're committed active speakers. There are more speakers now than there was in 1970 and they're all learners. That's happening in Ireland too. So I don't know how to feel about it, because since I grew up in an Irish speaking area, I'm committed to that. I wish that sort of reproduction would continue because it was very rich for me. I have students who are really competent and really excellent and I know it will continue because of them, because they have a level of Irish that's excellent.
But there's an impoverishment of all language in the new oral generation. There's a lot of languages under threat in the world. There are about 6000 languages endangered and they say that half of those will disappear as vernaculars by the end of this century, so that most of the people will speak four or five languages.
What about the school curriculum?
Oh, what about the school curriculum indeed. It has changed - there's a huge reduction in literature. There's no reading anymore. That's alright for people who are only learning the language, but there are native speakers who need literature to be able to improve their own command. Like you learn English by reading it, your spoken English improves because you read English - there's a link there between the two things and that's how my Irish improved. I would like to see a proper curriculum for native speakers and really good pupils in gaelscoileanna, because they need reinforcement as well. I hope people will remain committed to it, because you could use English all the time for practical purposes, but I hope and I think there will always be a language community and I hope it will increase and get stronger as time goes on. The pressures against it are quite formidable and also there's a huge utilitarian drive in the culture in this country - very anti intellectual, very anti art I think and I see Irish and the arts as being tied together. Irish is stronger in the artistic community than it is in the business community, not that I really believe that those two things are fundamentally opposed, but to make Irish positive, it's good to tie it to the arts.
How important do you see it as being to our culture?
The city has always been an English speaking city officially and Irish has always been there sort of underneath - there's been a lot of Irish speakers in the city. Fifty years ago, there were Irish speaking communities to the east of the city in Tirellan, before the estates were built. Many of them were Irish speaking. I did a canvas for somebody in 1979 out in Castlegar, Ballindooley and Ballinfoyle and we found native Irish speakers in every house and there's still some of them there. But those communities have dissipated because of the influx of outsiders and so on. Menlo was very strong in Irish speaking right up to the 50s and 60s. And Carnmore and places like Annaghdown. So Galway was surrounded by Irish speaking, yet Galway is a Garrison town, it's an English town and they always kept a good hold on that and I think that's there underneath all the time. You'll hear people saying , 'The Connemara ones' as if they've got two horns and a tail, and it's a way for Galway City people to define themselves against the rural population and the rural Irish population, so those old prejudices continue.
There are a lot of people in the city who are committed to Irish. Gaillimh le Gaeilge does really interesting work; it's non-confrontational and consensus-based and it gets a lot of people involved. A lot of people are interested in doing stuff with Cúirt and doing stuff with the Arts Festival and I think that's good, but sometimes it's easy to forget it. I was really encouraged by 2020 because they didn't forget it - they really were proactive and they went out to try and include the Irish speaking population straight away. I'd like it to be more integrated into the fabric rather than a duty that has to be looked after.
How would you see that happening?
I suppose more people learning it and speaking it. A positive attitude. The school curriculum. A lot of people have a negative attitude to it after school and it takes them at least ten if not 15 or 20 years to get over that hump and get back into a positive view of it again. I was very encouraged at Tulca - I launched a book for Carol Anne Connolly, she called it An Sanasán Uisce. She had a good experience of learning Irish in primary school and then she had a very poor experience in secondary school, but as I was saying at the launch, it did not embitter her. She knew it was the teacher and the system and not the language itself and a lot of people don't make that distinction. But it's hard enough to make it sometimes. You can teach Irish in a mechanistic way and unfortunately, that's the way most people are taught. The people give them the essays, they learn the essays off by heart, they get the result and then they shut the book and they forget Irish forever. On the other hand, there's a lot of children coming out of gaelscoileanna. I've been at many many restaurants in Galway and when they hear me speak Irish, some of the waiters and the waitresses will start. They're products of the gaelscoileanna and that's really nice. Then it's just normal, you're just ordering your food in a restaurant, it's kind of every day. I try to extend my boundaries all the time, rather than let them narrow, because they can narrow if you let them. So you have to learn to be an animator. If you start producing Irish, people will pay attention and they might start doing it too. You'll always find Irish speakers everywhere - it's amazing. I was in London at the weekend, I was speaking Irish to my niece, then I ran into somebody from here that was over for a conference that I didn't expect to meet at all, so we had an Irish conversation in a bar in London. So they are everywhere you go.
Irish speakers are inclined to be modest about speaking Irish and you just have to be confident about it. Sometimes I have bouts of negativity as well, because the drive is, 'speak English, speak English'. Sometimes, if you want to engage with the civil service or the public service and you want to make a point of being able to access that service in Irish, you really have to screw up your courage because it's a bit antagonistic, whereas if you're in a social situation, then you can sort of begin something that might be attractive or not. There's more of an equal footing there.
You sing and teach Sean Nós. Where did that begin?
In primary school, we always learnt songs and then in secondary school, there wasn't much music at all. But when I came here, the professor here, Professor O'Madigáin was very, very interested in the link between poetry and song. He used to have a voluntary class on a Tuesday evening where he would teach us songs from all parts of Ireland. He would teach us how to sing them and how to pronounce them properly. That made me more and more aware of a style of singing that was actually a style and not just somebody singing in a corner. So I followed it up from there and gradually started singing myself. There used to be competitions here, which I entered. I wasn't very good at that time because i was only starting. But I kept at it. I'm ok now. I teach it here - I teach the songs, I teach the poetry, I teach people how to understand the poetry and how to approach it and how to write about it. People who couldn't sing would say it as verse. And there are a lot of people who wouldn't like to sing but they'd know the poems and that's the amazing thing. It's like this network of culture that existed before English got the upper hand and we can access that network by studying the songs, the geographical spread and the variations in the versions.
What are people's reaction to the language, people who aren't from here and who haven't heard it before who hear you either singing or speaking?
Well they're very interested in it, mostly because they don't have any baggage, people who haven't gone through the school system here.
What drives you to keep on pushing the language?
I believe in it. I believe it has a certain key that reveals an aspect of our identity that's not revealed in any other way. People say, 'Oh, he'll say now that you can't be Irish if you don't have Irish'. I'm not saying that, and I don't believe that, but even for people that don't speak Irish, there's something about Irish that's still in them, even if they only learn a little bit at school. I was much more nationalistic when I was younger and I'm still nationalistic, but I'm not as hot headed about it now, but I didn't understand this before - I feel that there's something very deep in our culture. We developed this language here over thousands of years, at least 2,000 years, maybe more so it's ours, it's nobody else's. It's something that we made and we're still making and changing. We've made English our own too, but it was somebody else's first. Irish has affected English in a very significant way in Ireland. There's that great love of stories and of being sociable and mixing with other people that's very deeply embedded in the Irish language - very, very much so. Even in the language itself, the way people think about things and the way the language expresses things, it sort of brings that to the fore.
It's also a link to other cultures, other threatened or endangered cultures across the world, maybe smaller cultures - I like that feeling. I love English too, it's great to belong to that whole big world wide community, but just to have that Irish thing is just very warming and grounding.
Any mentors or influencers along the way?
There's so many of them. Some of my mentors as a child are really very important because they were more comfortable speaking Irish than English, so you had a sense of belonging to a community where Irish really mattered, where it was the first thing and not the second afterthought and that was is important. And then teachers along the way - I just enjoyed learning. I enjoyed all sorts of learning, not just learning Irish and I still enjoy learning. It's the community around you too - we mentor each other. We were out as a staff group recently, we went to Neachtain's and there was a crowd speaking Spanish beside us and we were speaking Irish and we were having great craic. There's a good presence around the town.
How would you describe yourself?
I suppose I'm kind of quiet until you get to know me and then I could be very lively and very animated. I just keep going, I suppose. I'm curious about the world still and I want to learn more and I want to teach more. I enjoy my job because it brings me into contact with young people and I feel I can influence them and be a support and a mentor for them. I'm sort of trying to exert them to engage with these texts and learn the words and use them themselves and be proud.
How does being in Galway affect you with regards to the language?
I just feel there's a community here that's stronger than anywhere else. I lived in Limerick - I had a community there too but it's much more restricted. I go down the street in Galway and I hear people speaking Irish and I haven't a clue who they are, whereas I would have known nearly all of the Irish speakers in Limerick. A lot of people don't have the opportunity to use it, once they leave school. They know how to speak Irish and speak it well, but they don't really have a context, so that's really what I would like to see is people who want to use it and who don't really have a context to use it, that a context would develop for them and they didn't feel they had to seek it out as a minority interest, that it could be more integrated in everyday life.
What would you like to see happen for Galway as a whole?
I would love to see Galway getting 2020, I think it would be fantastic for the city and it would really transform the city. I think there's a lot of arts activity going on in Galway but I think the 2020 would give it a focus. It would bring a whole lot of the community together. There's been a lot of division in the community because of various people feeling that some people own the arts and there's no room for others. So I think if we did get the 2020, it would provide an impetus for innovation and for reconciliation and for more. I would like to see Irish gradually moving out of schools and into the community and into the arts and business community. I'd like to see integration between business and the arts, connemara. Just more creative pathways.