‘Je me souviens – I remember’; A direct reference to the political and cultural struggles of French Canada. One certain Ulster Gaelic Speaker can identify with some of the socio-linguistic issues that Quebecers have faced in their relatively short 400 year history. The official motto of Quebec however stirs within fonder and more personal memories of a yearlong Quebec-Canadian experience.
In February 2014, bogged down by a 5 year ‘BATTLE’ with a PhD Thesis and forging an uncertain career in secondary education, I seized upon the opportunity to leave behind all the stresses, strains, exam corrections and moody teens to undertake my own nouveau-départ. I had heard of opportunities teaching abroad with T.E.F.L. and other English Language Programmes. My background had always been Irish Language Teaching though. A slight problem, one would assume. Not so. In April 2014, after applying for a specialised Teaching Programme in Canada, I was one of 5 fortunate tutors to be appointed. ‘Another new chapter in the teaching career’, I thought to myself.
‘Teaching Irish in Canada???!!’, a typical response from many left bewildered when I explained to them I was Quebec bound for September 2014. My job description: Irish Language Tutor and Visiting Professor to Concordia University, Downtown Montréal. An exaggerated title, one could say, to an epic and enriching year of teaching.
The ICUF (Ireland Canada University Foundation) Visiting Scholar Programme affords those from an Irish Language Background the opportunity to teach the Irish Language along with elements of Irish Culture in one of six Canadian Universities. A year long position funded by the Dept. of the Gaeltacht, the ICUF Visiting Scholar Programme seeks to strengthen both cultural and economic ties between both countries. While I’m no budding entrepreneur or ‘Trumpist’ businessman, I certainly thought that I could offer Canadians something of a cultural understanding of the Irish and all that we entail. I therefore focused my year solely on such activities.
One would think that Gaeilge, as a minority language, would have little appeal to Canadians or French Canadians for that matter. The opposite of course is true. Students from Romanian, Quebecois, French, Scottish, Czech and even Puerto Rican backgrounds were amongst those who took upon themselves to learn the language, under the tutelage of yours truly. Their thirst for knowledge and for learning guided many of them successfully through the intricacies and alien phonics of our native tongue. Their dedication of course paid off, not going unnoticed by some older members of the University Staff. One such example was that of the classroom comedian. Taking a huge risk, he decided to act out his alter ego ‘as Gaeilge’ in an end of year Irish oral exam with a Senior Concordian Professor. His claim to be a Preacher with a mission to Christianise the Outer Reaches of Alaska was a crowning moment for myself. ‘This boy can say all this in Irish after a year?? Job done Daithí. Maith thú!’. I firmly believe that my former colleague is still at a loss after that interview. If only Leaving Certificate Oral Exams were as much fun?!
Not all cultural responsibilities as the ICUF Visiting Scholar are academic, of course. Under the guidance of Montréal Shamrocks G.A.C. and G.A.A. H.Q. in Croke Park, we managed to establish the first ever GAA Club in a Canadian University. The uptake of Gaelic Football amongst the Concordia Student Population grows as we speak. Listening to French speakers shouting out orders during a Gaelic Football game is highly recommended. They remind me of a South Kerry lilt that you might hear during a Senior Championship match in late September. Their hunger for hurling, however, well outweighs the interest in football. That comes as no surprise; given the Ice Hockey fanaticism that surrounds the ‘Haps’ (Montréal Canadians National Hockey Team). The Montréal COMHRÁ Group, a long-standing Irish Language Organisation within Montréal itself, was re-established during my time there also. Getting to see both the Diaspora and Canadians of all backgrounds learning and speaking Gaelic is something that all Irish people should experience. To say that I learnt more about my own identity from these people is an understatement. They reinforced my own views about Irish identity and the lack of understanding surrounding our heritage and culture.
The travel element of the job is also a huge draw. My remit included attending events further afield from Montréal. Québec, Ottawa and even Toronto were but a few of the amazing Canadian cities that I managed to see. I attended a Winter Snow Festival (Féile Sneachta) in the only officially recognised Gaeltacht outside of Ireland, Gaeltacht Cheanada. Situated in Erinsville, Ontario, this Gaeltacht hosts festivals all year round for Canada’s Gaeilgeoirí. Some even venture from across the border in New York and from other Northern States of America to practice their language skills, keeping up old friendships through the medium of the ‘old tongue’. I got my first opportunity to do some cross-country skiing during the same Festival. -32*c is a foreign concept to any Irishman but hearing skiing instructions through Irish from a Canadian is an even more peculiar occurrence. Of course, I picked the coldest Canadian Winter in generations to go live there!
The list of new experiences was endless. A slightly pathetic attempt was made at the ‘Original’ Quebec Sport of Ice-Canoeing, i.e. rowing a canoe over and back the St. Lawrence a number of times during its Winter Ice Flows. Surreal experience but tetanus shots needed after that one! I played hurling in the snow with self-proclaimed Celtic FC fanatic and popular comedian Jay Baruchel, whilst shooting a documentary for some Canadian Sports’ Channel. I managed to make most Monday night trad. sessions in Hurley’s Irish Pub Downtown with some new ‘old’ Canadian friends. Amongst all the great experiences, there were the typical trials and tribulations of any person doing it solo and going abroad for a year on their own. Periods of homesickness persisted throughout, not helped by loved ones being left behind at home. Breaking a shoulder whilst playing Gaelic Football certainly did not help the homesick blues. But those times were often overcome by a friendly Canadian face and or one of the many empathetic Irish living there for so long. Wonderful people, wonderful place.
Having returned back to Ireland, I’ve been fortunate enough to find work in a great school in Sligo whilst lecturing on Irish Teaching Strategies every now and again in St. Angela’s Training College. The Canadian Year, whilst enriching personally, has played a major part in getting back onto the employment ladder at home again. My advice, Má tá Gaeilge agat, úsáid í! If you have Irish, use it! You just might never know when it will come in useful. Experience Teaching Irish is not a pre-requisite for applying but if you are looking to enhance the knowledge of our culture abroad, the ICUF Programme could be for you. À la prochaine, a chairde.
Daithí Mac Fhlaithimh, Teagascóir Gaeilge, Concordia Montréal 2014-15.