Biography of Dr. Séamas Ó Direáin

The Lithuanians have a proverb — Nuo likimo nepabėgsi ("You will never outrun fate") – that has a close counterpart in Irish: Ní chuireann an chinniúint a cosa fúithi ("Fate never rests"). And so it has been in my life.

Dr. Séamas Ó Direáin
Dr. Séamas Ó Direáin

My grandparents all emigrated from Ireland to America before the end of the nineteenth century. My mother's parents came from northern Leitrim and my father's parents came from Inis Mór. My paternal grandfather, Patrick Dirrane, was born in Corrúch and my paternal grandmother, Margaret Kelly, was born in Cill Rónáin.

Dr. Séamas Ó Direáin
California, c1950

As a child, my father heard a good deal of Irish around him in Boston but, beyond acquiring a few phrases, he was not brought up with it. When my brother and I were young children, my parents moved to rural California. My first opportunity to study Irish came in Nairobi after I had finished field research for a sociolinguistic study of the spread of Swahili in a small town in western Kenya. Mr. Kevin Flanagan from Ballyhaunis in Mayo introduced me to the Irish language and also to his fellow expatriate Caomhán Ó Goill (Kevin Gill) from Inis Mór. Then a teacher, Mr. Ó Goill later became headmaster of the secondary school in Cill Rónáin and, eighteen years later, one of my informants in my survey of Aran Irish.

While doing my field research in Inis Mór, I found my principal informants living in the house behind the house where my father's father was born in Corrúch. So it is that I now speak the dialect of a grandfather I never knew.

Stranger still, the scholarship that I carried through my years at Stanford University, preparing me for a presumed career in African languages, was left to the university by a man named Henry Newell. Born in Ireland in 1844, Newell emigrated to the United States in the 1860s and was at first a butcher in New York City and later a mining magnate in Salt Lake City, Utah. It would be interesting to know if he was related to the Newells mentioned by Tomás Laighléis of Mionlach, Co. Galway. In any case, it seems highly likely that he was a speaker of Irish.

Cuairt an lao ar an athbhuaile nó filleadh an bhradáin ar a nead? What strange paths bring us to where we are!

Séamas Ó Direáin – James Duran

An Poncán Gaelach (The Gaelic Yankee)

Directors: Traolach Ó Murchú & Eibhlín Ní Choistealbha

Final project for the Higher Diploma in Applied Communications (Irish-medium), NUI Galway, June 2005

English subtitles by Séamas Ó Direáin & Martín Fernandez-Maceiras

Dr. Séamas Ó Direáin / James Duran

Year Qualification
1975 PhD in Linguistics, Stanford University
1968 MA in Linguistics, Michigan State University
1966 MA in African Studies, Duquesne University
1960 BA in Social Sciences, San Jose State University
Languages Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Lithuanian, Spanish, French, German, KiSwahili; LiNgala, Hausa, ChiBemba, Xhosa, Kipsigis.

Dr. Séamas Ó Direáin has spent the last forty years as a practising linguist. Before gaining his PhD in Linguistics & African Languages at Stanford University in 1975, Ó Direáin conducted sociolinguistic research on the spread of Swahili in a small community in Central Kenya. In Northern California until the mid-1980s, he taught Irish and Scottish Gaelic privately and sang with the Celtic music group Sheila na Gig. He then moved to Southern California to become a lecturer in Applied Linguistics, Bilingualism and English as a Second Language in colleges and universities in the Los Angeles area. From 1989 onward, on the recommendation of Professors Joseph Nagy and Patrick Ford, Ó Direáin taught Modern Irish for several years in the UCLA Extension Program. In the summer of 1990, he embarked on fieldwork in his ancestral home and so began his 25-year project, A Survey of Spoken Irish in the Aran Islands, Co. Galway. In 1998, Ó Direáin moved to Ireland. He lectured on Irish dialectology and taught Irish grammar at University College Cork. In 2002, he became a part-time instructor at NUI Galway, teaching graduate-level courses on developing terminology in Irish (An Téarmeolaíocht) and on the history and theory of translation (Stair agus Teoiric an Aistriúcháin), as well as an undergraduate course on general linguistics (An Duine agus an Teanga). Since 2011, Ó Direáin has been based in A Coruña, Spain.

Selected Publications

Journal Articles


"Conexións lingüísticas entre as Illas Británicas e a Península Ibérica: Unha perspectiva nova para unha pregunta vella (Linguistic Connections between the British Isles and the Iberian Peninsula: A Fresh Perspective on an Old Question)", Anuario Brigantino, 37, 2014, 53-92.


"Metaphors We Learn By: Lexical Resources for Irish Speakers", Journal of Celtic Language Learning, 17, 2012/2013, 63-85.


"The Survival and Growth of Gaelic Language Communities in the 21st Century: Back to the Future?", Journal of Celtic Language Learning, 15/16, 2010/2011, 11-25.


"Preparing a Structural Syllabus for Adult Learners of Irish", Journal of Celtic Language Learning, 3, 1997, 6-40.


"Dialects, Speech Communities, and Applied Linguistics: A Realistic Approach to the Teaching of Irish in Non-Irish Speaking Areas", Journal of Celtic Language Learning, 1, 1995, 21-37.

"Branching Trees, Waves and Rising Tides: Some Reflections of the Notions of ‘Speech Community' and ‘Diffusion of Linguistic Traits' ", Journal of Celtic Linguistics, 4, 1995, 77-88.


"The Ecology of Ethnic Groups from a Kenyan Perspective", Ethnicity, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1974, pp. 43-64.

Papers in Anthologies


"Teaching the Initial Mutations in Modern Irish", published in NAACLT 2000, 6th Annual Conference of the North American Association for Celtic Language Teachers, University of Limerick, June 2000.


"The Irish Language in Aran", in The Book of Aran, ed. J. Waddell, J.W. O'Connell, A. Korff, Tír Eolas, Newtownlynch, Kinvara, 1994, pp. 253-259.

"Teaching Irish in California: A Personal, Sociolinguistic and Applied Linguistic Retrospective", in The Irish Language in the United States: A Historical, Sociolinguistic and Applied Linguistic Survey, Connecticut, 1994.


"Non-Standard Forms of Swahili in West-Central Kenya", in Readings in Creole Studies, ed. Ian F. Hancock, John Benjamins Publishing Co., 1979, pp. 129-151.



Swahili and Sabaki: A Linguistic History by Derek Nurse and Thomas Hinnebush, in International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 125, 1997, 151-159.


The Irish Language in Society by Colmán Ó hUallacháin in International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 100/101, 1993, 264-269.

Conference Papers


"Como Llegué a Participar en el Proyecto Gaelaico (How I Came to Participate in Proyecto Gaelaico)", Ateneo, Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, October 2014.

"La Prehistoria, la Lingüística y Galicia: Antiguos Lazos entre Galicia e Irlanda (Prehistory, Linguistics and Galicia: Ancient Connections between Galicia and Ireland)", O Facho, La Coruña, Galicia, October 2014.


"Rialtacht, Randamacht agus Mionphatrúin: Ag Déanamh Anailíse ar Ábhar Canúineolaíochta as Oileáin Árann", Comhdháil: Litríocht agus Cultúr na Gaeilge, Roinn na Gaeilge, Ollscoil na hÉireann, Gaillimh, 16-17 October 2009.


"Ag Déanamh Taighde ar na Canúintí in Oileáin Árann: Féidearthachtaí, Fadhbanna, agus Fócais", Comhdáil do Theangeolaíocht na Gaeilge, Ollscoil Luimnigh, April 2000

"Foinsí agus Faisnéis: ag Bailiú Sonraí faoi na Canúintí in Oileáin Árann", Tionól Scoil an Léinn Cheiltigh, Institiúid Ardléinn Bhaile Átha Cliath, Autumn 2000.


"Micro-Dialectology in Inis Mór: Sociolinguistics or Dialectology?", Eighteenth Annual UC Celtic Studies Conference, UCLA, April 1996.


"Doing Dialect Research in the Aran Islands: Some Reflections of a Field Worker", Fourteenth Annual UC Celtic Studies Conference, UCLA, April 1992.


"Patterning in the Modern Irish Verb: Paradigms in Connemara Gaelic", Twelfth Annual UC Celtic Studies Conference/Celtic Studies Association of North America Annual Meeting, UCLA, May 1990.


"Some Considerations in Reconstructing Ritual and Religious Practice", Tenth Annual UC Celtic Studies Conference/Celtic Studies Association of North America Annual Meeting, UCLA, April 1988.