Ireland and St Patrick’s Day for the EFL Classroom

Written by: Larry Walder



Time to read 7 min

With St Patrick’s Day on 17 March, we thought it would be nice to focus some attention on Ireland. Many TEFL/ESOL teachers will have Irish heritage, and for those who don’t, we have compiled here a list of fun facts and easy to digest information about the Emerald Isle. At the end of the article, we will suggest some teaching ideas and in the download, you can find a gap-fill version of the main text and some suggested comprehension questions.

Saint Patrick

St. Patrick was born in Roman-Britain circa 386 A.D. Historians believe that his original name was Maewyn Succat and that he adopted the name Patrick later in his life. When he was about sixteen, he was abducted by pirates and taken to Ireland where he was forced to work as a slave for six years tending sheep. He later escaped captivity and became a missionary of sorts, trying to convert the local Irish population to Christianity. By tradition, he is famous for banishing all the snakes from Ireland. In reality, there were probably never any snakes in the country. Some think that in the story the snakes are used as a symbol of evil. It’s thought that he died in Saul, County Down in 461AD at the age of 75.

St Patrick’s Day Parade

Since the ninth century, people in Ireland have been observing the Catholic feast day of St Patrick on 17 March. The first St Patrick’s Day parade was organised and celebrated by Irish immigrants in the American city of Boston during the eighteenth century. The first parade to actually take place in Ireland was in Waterford in 1903. Since then, St. Patrick’s Day has evolved into a worldwide celebration of all things Irish, with parades, music, special foods, beer and whiskey* drinking. Everybody wears green and alcoholic drinks are traditionally dyed green for the day. In Chicago, the Irish population even dye the river green for the festival! This is despite the fact that historians think St Patrick more likely wore blue!

*Irish whiskey is always spelt with an ‘e’ between the ‘k’ and the ‘y’. There are some other differences between Irish and other ‘whiskys’, in the way they are distilled.

Irish Language

In the Republic of Ireland, both English and Irish are regarded as official languages. Although more people commonly speak English; Irish is the national and first official language. Primitive Irish was introduced by Celtic speakers and is related to Scottish Gaelic and the Manx language of the Isle of Man. While in Modern Ireland most people commonly speak English, some elements of Irish have been infused into the Irish dialect, giving it a distinctive grammar and vocabulary.

Alternative Vocabulary

Irish English has some interesting alternatives to standard English vocabulary, some of which are borrowed from Irish itself. For example, you wouldn’t want your ‘Runners’ to be ‘Banjaxed’. Runners are trainers or sports shoes and banjaxed means broken beyond repair. More famously, Fáilte means welcome, and Sláinte (cheers/to your health) is what you say when raising your glasses in a toast.

Yes and No

Irish itself has no words that directly translate as "yes" or "no". Rather, the main verb is repeated with a different intonation to show agreement or disagreement. As a result, Irish English uses "yes" and "no" less often than other English dialects. Speakers tend to repeat the verb, positively or negatively, instead of using "yes" or "no".

"Are you visiting us tomorrow?" – “I am.”

"Is that your car outside?" – "It isn't."

A similar construction is also used with “to have” when used as an auxiliary. With other verbs, the verb to do is used. This structure is often used for intensification or agreement.

“This is hard work” – “So it is.”

"We won the game” – “So we did."

Geography and History

The Island of Ireland is divided into two countries. The largest part of the island is known as The Republic Of Ireland (or Eire) with Dublin as its capital. The six counties in the northeast corner of the island constitute Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. There has been a troubled history between the two states, but relations have been more friendly and peaceful since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The River Shannon is not only the longest river in Ireland, but at 370 kilometres it is also the longest river in the whole of the British Isles. Due to a discovery made in 2016 that it is believed that humans were present in Ireland as far back as 10,500 BC. A bone from a bear was excavated from a cave in County Clare which showed signs that it had been butchered with human made tools.

Fun Facts

  • The official national symbol of Ireland may not be what you think it is. Many people will associate The Shamrock, a three leaf clover with Ireland. Indeed, the Irish Patron Saint, Patrick is said to have used the plant to illustrate the Christian Holy Trinity. But The Shamrock is not officially the national symbol of Ireland. Nor is the four-leaf clover. Ireland’s official national symbol is the Harp. The Harp was actually declared the symbol of Ireland by King Henry VIII, but over the years it became a symbol of resistance to the British Crown.

  • Many people don’t know that St Valentine has a connection with Ireland. Relics from the remains of St. Valentine were sent to Father John Spratt of Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin City in 1835. This was said to be a gift from The Pope in recognition of a very good sermon Fr Spratt gave while visiting Rome. The relics have remained in the Dublin church ever since then.

  • Eurovision. Ireland has won the Eurovision Song Contest a record seven times. It also holds two other Eurovision records. It is the only country to have won Eurovision three times in a row between 1992 and 1994. Johnny Logan is the only performer to have won the competition twice with ‘What’s Another Year’ in 1980 and ‘Hold Me Now’ in 1987.

  • At 1,752 acres, Dublin’s Phoenix Park is the largest enclosed park in any European capital city. It’s five times bigger than London’s Hyde Park and is also the eighth biggest urban park in Europe overall.

  • Hurling is Ireland’s national sport. It incorporates elements of lacrosse, baseball, football, hockey and rugby, as well as other sports but predates them all. Not only is hurling one of the oldest sports in the world (some estimate it may have originated 3000 years ago), but it’s also the fastest. The sliothar (the ball used) can travel up to 120km/h.

  • Dracula may be based on an Irish legend. The now-iconic Count Dracula is the main character in the Dracula novel written by Bram Stoker who was born in Clontarf in County Dublin. He may have been inspired by the traditional Irish tale of The Abhartach, an evil dwarf like creature who repeatedly came back from the dead to terrorise local villagers.

  • ‘Puck Fair‘ is said to be the longest-running of the many festivals in Ireland. In August every year, a goat is caught from the Kerry mountains and placed in a cage in the village of Killorglin. It’s crowned King and for three days while festivities are held throughout the town. When the festival ends, the goat is brought safely back up into the mountains.

  • There is a colony of Wallabies that live on a private island near Dublin. The wallabies were brought to the island of Lambay in the 1950s by the family that owned the island.

  • The place with the longest name in Ireland is Muckanaghederdauhaulia, a town in Galway. Other long names include Illaungraffanavrankagh in Clare, Glassillaunvealnacurra in Galway, Ballywinterrourkewood in Limerick and Corragunnagalliaghdoo Island in Mayo. If your students can pronounce any of those names, they are doing better than us!

Teaching Ideas

For younger students, you could organise an Irish-themed party in which everybody has to wear something green. Students could make and present posters about Ireland, reading out key facts. Perhaps they could learn and sing some Irish songs. You could also make some cakes or drinks infused with green vegetable dye. It doesn’t have to be on St Patrick’s Day itself, but purely as a celebration of Ireland following a few days of work on that theme.

With slightly older students at B1 level and above why not organise a team game version of “Call My Bluff” using Irish vocabulary and phrases? Some of the most common Irish vernacular is easily searchable online (including Wikipedia). Students on one team have to read out definitions (one of which should be true while the others are made up by the team) and the other teams have to guess the true definition.

Ireland provides a wide scope for research-based project work. We have already mentioned Hurling in this article, but Ireland also has other unique sports, music and musicians, art and literature that could inspire our students to produce and present posters, videos or PowerPoints.

More advanced students should be introduced to Irish literature which is a key ingredient of the wider Irish culture. We have already mentioned Bram Stoker in the preceding text, but with a list including James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats and, more recently, Roddy Doyle and Sally Rooney, it would be a shame not to give our students a taste of Ireland’s rich history of literature. Activities could range from reading or listening comprehension based on famous Irish texts to more advanced discussions and essays for students who need more of a challenge.

Finally, if you are teaching adult students why not encourage some research projects on some of Ireland’s most popular exports, beer and whiskey. There is plenty of information available online including at the Guinness Storehouse and the Jameson Distillery both of which have become major tourist attractions in Dublin itself. Perhaps when you have come to the end of your Irish projects with mature students, you could celebrate with them in the nearest Irish Pub; purely to practice speaking English of course!

In the download below you will find a shortened gap-fill version of the main text with some suggested comprehension questions.

Until next time, Slán. Tabhair aire!