"Aon!” seven boys shout. Their teacher raises one finger as the class counts to 10 in Gaelic. “And two?” she asks.
“Do!” they shout back. These boys, ages 6 to 10, come most Saturday mornings to the Children’s Irish School run by the Irish American Heritage Center on Chicago’s far northwest side. In their Gaelic class, they review numbers, colors, animals and phrases.
Sue Gottschalk, program director for the school, asks the boys why they are learning Gaelic, the national Irish language.
“My dad’s ancestors were Irish,” one answers. Another says, “It’s more fun than Spanish.”
March belongs to Ireland, as people around the world celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with parades, music and the prerequisite green beer. But there are also plenty of kid-friendly events in the Chicago area to help youngsters embrace Irish culture through dance, music and language.
Irish dance long has been a popular pastime among the children of Chicago immigrants. Sheila Ryan, a lead instructor at the Trinity Academy of Irish Dance, which has classes in five different locations in the Chicago area, started dancing when she was 5. She estimates there are about 20 Irish dance schools in Chicago.
“ ‘Riverdance’ became a phenomenon and brought Irish dance to the public eye,” Ryan says. “It really exploded Irish dance classes.”
But if you go beyond the popularity to the true origins of Irish dance, Ryan says, you will find myths. According to one legend, dancers danced with their arms straight at their sides to avoid detection by British soldiers. During the British rule of Ireland, Irish culture was banned. Soldiers peering through the houses’ typical halfway doors couldn’t tell people were dancing as long as they moved only their feet.
During March, families can see local dance schools (including Trinity) perform in a series of parades, festivals and local shows.
Ceoil agus craic (Singing and fun)
Irish dance isn’t complete without music. The Academy of Irish Music teaches classes for both beginner and advanced musicians at the Irish American Heritage Center every Saturday. Students can learn to play Irish instruments such as the tin whistle, fiddle, cello, viola and the bodhran, an Irish drum shaped like an oversized tambourine.
Noel Rice, director of the academy, says the academy also competes in the annual Midwest Fleadh Cheoil, where children can qualify for the all-Ireland music competition.
The Academy of Irish Music also holds open-music sessions the second Sunday of every month at the Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox Ave., and every first Sunday at Chief O’Neill’s Pub, 3471 N. Elston Ave. in Chicago.
The World Folk Music Company in Chicago also offers eight-week Irish music sessions for children ages 8 to 14.
“Children just love Irish music,” founder and owner John Devens says.
An bhfuil Gaelige? (Do you speak Irish?)
For children wanting to learn a little Gaelic and try some art, the Irish American Heritage Center offers three six-week sessions from September through May. Classes are for children ages 6 to 15. Students also perform songs at the center’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration on March 12, the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day.
The students in Kathy O’Neill’s Irish Arts Club are working on a project to commemorate the center’s 20th anniversary this year. Her students are interviewing the center’s founders and recording their stories.
“It’s a good way [for children] to learn how to talk to adults and listen,” says O’Neill, who notes that most of her students have Irish parents or grandparents.
Students say the classes are informal and fun.
“The teachers are interesting,” says Hannah Gottschalk, 12, of Arlington Heights, a member of the Irish Arts Club. “And they know not to just sit there. It’s more games.”
“I like learning the language,” adds classmate Caroline Donnelly, 13, from Chicago. “It’s not like school where you have to sit quietly.”
*You may know the translation of “Ireland Forever” as “Erin go bragh” or “Erin go braugh.” But this is the correct Gaelic phrase.