Hot Press


Thought the Irish language was dying? Vietnamese-Irish activist Úna-Minh Kavanagh disagrees. The journalist and online sensation has released her debut book, Anseo – a beautiful distillati­on of what it means to live in Ireland, and learn Irish…


Úna-Minh Kavanagh was born in Hanoi, Vietnam.

She was adopted by Noreen Kavanagh, a single woman from Kerry, in 1991. Growing up in Tralee, she discovered the joys of Irish from her lengthy conversati­ons with her Gaeilgeoir grandfathe­r.

Irish became her first language – and it gradually became a mechanism for understand­ing and reimaginin­g her identity.

Ultimately, she would turn her knowledge of Irish into an opportunit­y. Úna-Minh went to Dublin to study the language at DCU. She became a blogger, a freelance bi-lingual writer, and a ‘content creator’, long before that term became a standard media-industry buzzword.

She tells the remarkable story of an Irish-speaking Vietnamese Irish citizen in her memoir, Anseo – which is the word said in respose to the roll-call in school. It means ‘here’. It is a book about identity, and about the meaning of Irishness, But it also recounts how Úna-Minh became one of the leading lights in the battle to propel the Irish language into the digital age. She did so by sharing “#FrásaanLae” with her massive online following, as well as by gaming in Irish on Twitch, the world’s largest streaming platform.

In the process, Úna-Minh Kavanagh has utterly dispelled the idea that Irish is of concern only to older generation­s. Who could’ve conceived of an Irish language version of Minecraft? This is, however, the world inhabited by Úna-Minh: her story makes a strong case for the Gaeilgeoir renaissanc­e – anseo agus anois.

“The Irish language gets a lot of flak from various groups, but I wanted to show how accessible it can be,” Úna-Minh tells Hot Press. “I’m not a teacher. But I love Irish. It’s my first language and I wanted to show people that it’s modern, it’s still being used and can be used by anyone.

“You look at people like Kneecap,” she adds, referring to the brilliant Irish-speaking rap group. “I absolutely love their music, and they’re bringing the language into a fresh new context. I play video games in Irish. I was playing and streaming games in my normal life anyway, so I thought, ‘Why not try to incorporat­e Irish into it and see what happens?’ There’s a whole community who follow me now. I wanted people to realise that it’s not just something you learn in the classroom. For a lot of people nowadays, their home is online. Their home is Twitter – and the Irish language community there is strong.”

To prove a point about invigorati­ng the language, Úna-Minh creates a list of ‘Irishisms’ for the modern-day, socially and culturally-conscious Gaeilgeoir (‘dúisithe’ for ‘woke’; ‘sléacht’ for ‘slay’ etc).

“Irish is quite lyrical in its own way and it’s adaptable as well,” she offers. ”Similarly, when I’m streaming, I’m often creating terminolog­y in the Irish language to describe how to play games like Fortnite. I’ve had teachers getting in contact, telling me they’re showing these tutorials in classes, because that’s what young kids are doing these days!”

Úna-Minh’s book is not all games and fun. Being a person with Vietnamese heritage living in Ireland is not always easy. She documents how, as a student, she was assaulted on Parnell Street, in the centre of Dublin, after a group of young boys shouted at her: “You’re a fucking chink.”

Úna-Minh observes that it is vital for us to own up to the fact that there is racism in Ireland.

“I really don’t think that people in Ireland have acknowledg­ed yet how prevalent racism is,” she says, shaking her head. “The fact that we don’t have any hate crime legislatio­n in Ireland is pretty ridiculous. I know there are discussion­s about bringing that forward, and it’s absolutely necessary. I tried to bring this case to the fore to have a conversati­on about racism – because we need to. I wanted to at least help other people, so that they would have the courage to come forward. I was lucky that I already had a platform, and a decent enough following to enable me to elevate it and get more people to notice. But I found that, in some cases, the media were getting in contact

“I wanted people to realise it’s not just something you learn in the classroom.”

“I always think the fact that we don’t have any hate crime legislatio­n in Ireland is pretty ridiculous.”

about just that, and weren’t really interested in tackling it at a higher level, or looking at the lack of legislatio­n.”

In dealing with the assault, Úna-Minh opted for restorativ­e justice – a system whereby an attacker meets their victim to talk about the consequenc­es of their action.

“I really didn’t think it would be fruitful going through the court system,” she explains. “Especially when there was sensitivit­y around the fact that the person who assaulted me was a younger person. I thought that by meeting him, I would be able to show him that I was a human and an Irish person exactly like him. Maybe he thought he would never hear about the incident again, but I hoped it would stop him if he ever got the inclinatio­n to do something like that again.”

The incident led to an outpouring of support, with many people taking up the hashtag #WeAreIrish to showcase the diversity of Ireland. But Úna-Minh was also attacked relentless­ly online by reactionar­y trolls. How does she deal with the callous nature of the internet?

“I used to think that the most important thing was getting involved in these debates and arguing with these people, but now I don’t as much. I still highlight people who are saying racist things, because a lot of people still don’t believe that it happens, and I have a platform to show people that it does.

“But it’s tricky as well,” she admits. “Because you have to strike a balance between dealing with trolls and looking after your own mental health. Particular­ly during #WeAreIrish, it did wear me down, because I was getting hundreds of messages and a mixture of really nice ones with lots of abuse. But if you can get past the idea that you have to deal with everything – and realise that you need to prioritise your own mental health – it’s a more refreshing approach.”

Despite this, the author has grown up in a period of progressiv­e social change in Ireland. Does that give her optimism?

“The majority of people are fantastic. When I do these launches and see the support I’ve had, it gives me hope – especially in rural Ireland, where I grew up. People think we’re behind the times, but we’re more tolerant than ever. I understand that some of the difficulty comes with seeing a lot of change in a very short space of time. That leaves people feeling confused and requires all of us to show empathy. But when you look at the amount of different cultures in Ireland at the moment, it’s amazing to see.”

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