Get your Gaeilge on: Professor preserves Irish language


Thomas J. Yang

Marie Young lectures in her Irish Culture and Traditions class Tuesday afternoon. (Photo by Thomas Yang | Visual Editor)

Marie Young left her home in Galway, Ireland, in 2001, intending to visit her brother in Pittsburgh for only three months. But what was meant to be a chance to see a little more of the world turned into a permanent change after she fell in love with the City — and a local Irishman.

Young ended up turning down a permanent teaching job in Dublin and accepting a position at Pitt. She has no regrets — she’s been teaching Irish at Pitt for 12 years now and considers instructing students about culture and native language a dream opportunity.

“I never in a million years thought I’d come over to Pittsburgh to teach Irish at a university. It’s very much in my culture at home and it’s hugely my connection to my home,” Young said.

Young teaches Irish Culture and Traditions along with levels one, three and five of Gaeilge — the predominant language of the Irish people for most of their history — in the fall. During the spring semester she teaches the culture course along with Gaeilge two, four and six. She is currently the only instructor at Pitt teaching courses on Irish language and culture. Pitt has been offering Irish courses since 1991. Currently, the Irish curriculum includes the six levels of language, Irish literature and history courses and 11 study abroad programs, serving a total of 140 students.

Young said Irish Culture and Traditions is her pet course. Unlike the language courses, her culture class is free-form –– she is constantly updating the curriculum and doesn’t follow a rigid structure. She says this allows her to keep in contact with her home country and stay on top of current events and pop culture.

“With the culture class, the world’s your oyster, and Ireland has so much going on that you want to cover,” Young said.

Young describes the 1916 Irish Easter Rising to her Irish Culture and Tradition class Tuesday afternoon. (Photo by Thomas Yang | Visual Editor)

Young spends the first 10 minutes of each of her classes chatting with her students about everything from vacation plans to local elections. In her Culture and Traditions course, she integrates mini Irish history lessons and geography quizzes with personal anecdotes and jokes about Irish memes.

During a Culture and Traditions class Tuesday, the entire class broke into a catchy Irish folk song. Following along with a viral video of a drunk wedding party, they sang 12 verses of “The Rattlin’ Bog.”  Andrea Kleckner, a sophomore English writing major, said one of the best aspects of the course is having fun together as a class.

Kleckner grew to love Irish culture and recently spent spring break in Ireland. When in Dublin, she was sure to visit a local ice cream shop, bars and tourist attractions that Young discussed in class. One of the highlights of her trip was eating the famous Dublin 99 ice cream, an ice cream cone with a Cadbury Flake bar in it. Young said she was pleased that a student of hers had indulged in the treat she often cited as the hallmark of the Irish experience.

“It’s full circle for me that one of my students was able to eat a 99 and believe me,” Young said.

Students cited Young’s warm personality and casual demeanor as reasons for sticking with a lesser-known language. Ethan Moser, a junior English literature and writing major, sees Young as almost more of an encouraging friend who nurtures a love of learning than a traditional professor.

“Marie is one of the coolest professors at Pitt because she engages with students on a level that isn’t like the hierarchical systems that other professors have,” Moser said.

Although Gaeilge is a required subject in Irish schools, only 41 percent of Ireland can speak the language. Galway, the region Young is from, is one of the few surviving areas of Ireland where Gaeilge is the primary language, though these areas have been facing a steady decline in the number of Gaeilge speakers.

While not all of Young’s students have the personal tie to the language she does, Young said they have developed great respect and appreciation for it.

“It’s a full circle in the idea of bringing my students home to Ireland and showing them the appreciation that I have and watching their appreciation grow,” Young said. “Watching them have that impact with the Irish language would truly make my grandparents proud.”

While Young says her language classes have the appropriate workload for a four credit course, they have a more relaxed atmosphere and smaller class sizes. She describes them as a “breath of fresh air” to students bogged down by formulas and research papers.

For many students, Gaeilge is different and exciting. Caitlin Rieger, a junior communication major, said she was “sick of Spanish and French” and didn’t even know Irish was a language until she came to Pitt. Now that she’s in the class, she discovered she has a passion for Irish. Although she’s undecided about completing the Irish minor, Rieger is glad she’s taken Irish courses.

“I’m super interested in the Irish culture in general. [Gaeilge] can be a little challenging, but it’s a lot of fun,” Rieger said.

Young’s classes may soon be incorporated into an Irish minor, which would include four semesters of language and one related elective, totaling 17 credits. The Less Commonly Taught Language Center has been drafting a proposal for the minor since 2016. The process involved researching existing programs, creating a list of related courses throughout the University and ensuring that the minor would be achievable for students within a variety of disciplines.

Young describes the cohesion between the Irish language, history and culture classes as necessary. She believes language is shaped by culture and that a key component of culture is language. It’s this necessary relationship that will be represented with the minor.

“You can’t do a language class without introducing the culture and vice versa,” Young said.

The minor has already been approved by the Dietrich School Undergraduate Council and the Dietrich School Council and now just requires approval by the Vice Provost for Undergraduate studies.

Gretchen Aiyangar, the Less Commonly Taught Language program coordinator, said the center submitted the proposal in November along with proposals for Hindi, Modern Greek, Persian, Quechua, Swahili, Swedish, Turkish and Vietnamese.

Moser is planning on completing the Irish minor if it becomes available. He loves Ireland and hopes to write novels featuring the country. Moser visited Ireland on a study abroad program and plans to return for his graduate education. In his mind, an Irish minor will give him a competitive edge when applying to Irish programs.

Most people have never been exposed to Gaeilge before, he said, which can make it initially challenging, but extremely rewarding.

“Spanish is something that a lot of people are surrounded by. Irish is very different — it’s very shocking to get into a language where you don’t know how to pronounce anything,” Moser said.

Young is grateful that her students are as enthusiastic about Ireland as she is. She says it can be hard to find a connection to Ireland in America, but that her job as an Irish teacher helps her keep in touch with her culture.

“To have this as a job, as an occupation … I’m very lucky,” Young said.