It’s 11:15am in Meeting House Square in Temple Bar on a recent Friday, and there’s a group of 22 people huddled together in a circle.
At the centre, stands Seán Ó Cadhain, one of the group leaders of Let’s Walk and Talk as Gaeilge. Today, he tells the gathered walkers, they’ll be visiting the City Assembly House together to see an exhibition there.
Muireann Murtagh, who is standing at the back of the group, says she has been walking with this group for 10 years. She works as one of its leaders now too, helping to organise a new activity for the group each week.
“My mother had fantastic Irish so when we were growing up it was always in the house,” Murtagh says, like the others, in Irish.
Since Irish has always been spoken in her house, Murtagh was determined to keep the language with her through her life, she says.
Soon, the group move off across the city centre, towards South William Street, chit-chatting in Irish as they go.
Joining the group as it meets each Friday is an opportunity for people like Murtagh to stay in practice of the language, while exploring the city.
The group carves through back streets in Temple Bar and arrives at a pedestrian crossing on Dame Street.
The nearly two dozen people who have turned up on this chilly morning are an equal balance of men and women, mainly aged from their fifties and upwards.
Mairead de Búrcha is another group leader, a volunteer who gets to choose where the group will head that week. A smaller woman, she speaks Irish with seamless fluency.
“There’s a French and Spanish walking group too, but I’ve been with this group since it started,” says de Búrcha.
As they wait for the pedestrian light to turn green, the sound of the group chatting in Irish causes some heads to turn.
“There are dialects from all over the country in this group,” says Murtagh. “From Kerry to Donegal to Connemara to Meath, it’s great to hear the variety.”
As the dialects vary, so does the fluency of the members of the group – people of all levels will walk with the group, she says.
There are some people who have been speaking Irish all their lives, and others who are using the group to finally acquaint themselves with it.
“My goal is to die fluent,” says Robert Mac Cathmhaoil. “If I have the language by the time I’m 100, I’ll be a happy man.”
Mac Cathmhaoil is in his eighties now, and has made a point of learning the language.
After leaving school with his Inter (Junior) Cert, Mac Cathmhaoil fell out of practice with Irish he says.
The language came back into his life unexpectedly after he moved to the west coast of America.
Mac Cathmhaoil was working in San Francisco as an actor in a theatre when they put on a production of The Plough and the Stars.
As a theatrical exercise, the director asked the actors to rehearse lines in their own native languages.
“The director turned to me and asked me to do it in Irish but I couldn’t,” Mac Cathmhaoil says.
He felt ashamed. “I was determined then to learn the language after that,” he said.
Mac Cathmhaoil began to get lessons off a university lecturer who worked in the University of California, Berkeley.
As he converses now with the group, it is difficult to distinguish his abilities in the language from those of the native the Irish speakers.
Other people in the group, like Duirmuid O’Faoláin, walk with the group just to keep from getting rusty.
It’s O’Faoláin’s second week, he says. “I’ve joined because I wanted to keep my Irish up, it’s a fantastic opportunity to practice,” he says.
In the Museum
The group make their way to the City Assembly House, home of the Irish Georgian Society, which sits about halfway up South William Street.
There is an exhibition on: “Dublin Fragments”, a collection of architectural pieces from Georgian Houses.
They ascend two flights of stairs and pass through large white doors into a circular room. Inside, they find tour guides, standing on the other side of the room.
The guides are chatting amongst themselves, to see if they have any Irish between them. After a bit of deliberation, they make a confession.
“Unfortunately we are going to have to do this one as Béarla,” says one of the tour guides. They were going to have to do it in English.
While not every exhibition and museum in Dublin can offer guided tours in Irish, the group has found a fair few that could, says de Búrcha.
There was an art exhibition that was presented completely through Irish for the group by the artist, Maggie Madden, in the Irish Museum of Modern Art. “It was fantastic” says de Búrcha.
Another tour, Kilmainham Tales, was given through Irish by local historian and Gaeilgeoir Mícheál Ó Doibhilín.
Until Next Week
Back in the exhibition at the City Assembly House, one of the people on the tour makes his way back down to the bottom of the steps.
Patrick McHale waits at the entrance as he removes his rucksack and zips it open. He’s a tall man with a white beard that covers the lower half of his face.
He takes out a magazine and hands it to de Búrcha, who is rummaging around in her purse. “Ah listen you can take it off me and pay me back next week,” he tells her. They’ve switched again back to Irish now.
“You’re grand, I have it here,” de Búrcha says, as she pulls €2 out of her purse and gives it to him.
McHale puts together An Taobh Ó Thuaidh, this magazine that is all through Irish, which people in the group can buy. (Or those who email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
There are pieces from people who are travelling around India and Palestine, crosswords, and a kids’ section.
“I put this together once every two months,” he says, as other members gather round to round off another week by buying the first edition of this year.
[UPDATE: This article was updated on 26 February at 17:30 to correct Robert Mac Cathmhaoil’s age. He is in his eighties, not his fifties. Apologies for the error.]