‘I wanted to see how Irish was used on a daily basis’

Áras Chois Fharraige resident Jude Conneely with Fulbright Scholar Professor Nicole Müller
Áras Chois Fharraige resident Jude Conneely with Fulbright Scholar Professor Nicole Müller

A German professor with a passion for Irish has conducted an important international language study at Áras Chois Fharraige, An Spidéal,

‘I’ve always had an interest in and a love for Irish,’ said Professor Nicole Müller, who learned the language more than 30 years ago. ‘It’s been an interest of mine for so long that I actually can’t remember how it fell into place.’

The world-renowned linguist won a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to study the language use of elderly Irish speakers. Professor Müller spent six months immersed in the life of Áras Chois Fharraige care home for the study and has said she was touched by the way she was welcomed into the local Irish-speaking community.

‘One of the highlights of my time in Ireland was the way that everybody at the Áras welcomed me; the way they took me in and were happy to talk to me was just great. Beyond being able to do my research, it was great to encounter friendly faces on a daily basis. It wasn’t just a question of finding study participants; but also of making some real friends and that was great,’ she said.

The Professor of Speech and Language Pathology spent several days each week, from September until last month, at Áras Chois Fharraige conducting observational research and recording interviews with residents, visitors and staff. Her research was conducted in conjunction with the discipline of Speech and Language Therapy at NUIG and also with the assistance of the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology.

‘What I wanted to know is how people interact with each other on a daily basis and how they use language to do that,’ she said.

Katie Folan, activities co-ordinator at Áras Chois Fharraige, said the home was happy to facilitate the Fulbright research.

‘Nicole was, of course, here to carry out a very important study but she quickly became a member of the Áras community during her visits,’ she said.

‘Nicole got fully involved in the life of the home; she took time to chat with our residents and got to know some of them very well. Residents and staff were quite lonely on her finishing up in the Áras,’ said Katie, with Professor Müller joking: ‘I almost ended up with a job in the end because they let me help make tea and take it around and that was great fun! We had some great music sessions as well; nurse Anne Byrne came in and did the music sessions, which was always good fun, but it was also just good to come in and talk with people and have a cup of tea and just sit with folks and visit.’

The German native learned to speak Irish during a study abroad year spent at what was then UCG in the 1980s. Professor Müller completed her doctorate at Oxford University before becoming a professor at the University of Louisiana, but she maintained her interest in Irish down through the years. She said she was ‘absolutely thrilled’ to be selected for the highly competitive Fulbright programme, which supports the creme-de-la creme of the academic world to conduct important research projects.

Professor Müller said during her research she could see first-hand the benefits of people receiving care through their first language. ‘It’s very important on various levels. On one level, it’s emotional: the language that we grow up with is important to us because people have an attachment to the first language that they speak. It’s part of who you are. It’s part of where you come from. Another level is that a language is a resource and if you have other kinds of difficulties, whether that’s because you’ve got dementia or you’ve had a stroke or just simply because you are getting very old, then the more you can use your resources, such as language, the better,’ she said.

‘What I found very interesting was that at the Áras they are very upfront; they’re very explicit about wanting to serve the local Irish speaking population. When you look at the website “Is í an Ghaeilge teanga ár dtí” is right there on the front,’ she said.

Professor Müller  returned to her post at the University Hospital Linköping in Sweden last month, where she is a member of the Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine. She looks forward to publishing the findings from her study at Áras Chois Fharraige in the near future.