EVERY year, the Cork Deaf Association runs a range of Irish Sign Language (ISL) courses at its centre on MacCurtain Street in Cork city.

A large number of people register for the courses every year, each with their own reasons for wanting to learn Sign Language.

As a new term of classes begins, here some past and present pupils of the Cork Deaf Association share their reasons for learning ISL.


Oona Hayes’ story

Our little boy Fionn, was born in July, 2011. He had newborn hearing screening in hospital just after he was born and we found out that he had a hearing loss.

We later discovered out that he had fluid in one of his ears, which was also affecting his hearing. He had hearing test after hearing test and saw a lot of medical professionals.

Fionn’s hearing loss meant that he had huge difficulties picking up spoken language. Fast forward two and a half years and I have a frustrated toddler with very poor speech. There was no effective communication in our house and we desperately needed help.

One morning, Fionn had a bad temper tantrum while we were at our local parent and toddler group. The children who were close to his own age were able to speak while his own speech was on a par with the babies that crawled along the floor. He was incredibly frustrated.

I remembered that a friend had spoken to me about the Cork Deaf Association a few weeks earlier and I decided that’s where we needed to be.

We got on the bus to town but had to get off well before our stop because Fionn was having a meltdown to end all meltdowns.

I reached the Cork Deaf Association on MacCurtain Street with the sweat pouring off me.

I walked up and down the street about ten times before I got up the courage to walk through the door. I practically screamed for help when I finally spoke to the receptionist.

We were linked in with a brilliant social worker called Terence. He was a lifesaver and helped us to access the right supports, including Sign Language classes. One of the first Signs Fionn learned was ‘biscuit’. He really had his priorities right!

The Sign Language classes dramatically improved the communication in our family. We now had a language that we could all speak.

Trips out to the park or the shops were less daunting. If we wanted to get Fionn’s attention from a distance, we no longer had to shout. We could simply Sign to him.

Fionn is going into second class this year and he is doing brilliantly. We continue to do weekly Sign Language classes together.

When Fionn’s hearing sister, Clodagh, brings her friends home, I have conversations with them and I want to make Fionn’s deaf friends feel equally welcome in our home by Signing with them.  I also use Sign Language at work in my local Super Valu. Our deaf customers are always grateful when I Sign to them.

We have been welcomed into the Deaf Community and Fionn has had great experiences over the last few years.

He has met Sign Language Santa at Christmas parties and he has also taken part in Easter Egg hunts and Summer Camps led by deaf leaders.

Last year, we even got to stand right in front of the stage for the switching on of the Christmas lights in Cork city because the Deaf Community were the guests of honour!  Learning Sign Language was life-changing for us. I would recommend that everyone learns it!


Evie Nevin’s story

For as long as I can remember, I was almost completely deaf in one ear. I have just 10% hearing in my left ear.

Although this was something I accepted and didn’t hide away, I never considered myself a part of the Deaf Community.

During the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment, I did a lot of travelling around, speaking to different groups about how the former law disproportionately affected people with disabilities. On one occasion a deaf woman told us how deaf people were affected by the Eighth and how difficult it is to be a deaf person in Ireland.

I learned a lot about the Deaf Community in Ireland and how neglected they are by our Government. As a sufferer of a rare disease, I could empathise with the Deaf Community in their struggle for recognition and accessibility.

Flash forward to July, 2018, when I was selected to run for the local elections with the Social Democrats. Disability and accessibility was one of my main campaign points.

I researched what disabilities were most prevalent in West Cork and how many people were affected by each one.

To my surprise, I found out that there are thousands of people in Cork South West who are deaf or hard of hearing. I thought about how the Deaf Community in Dublin struggles and realised that those in rural areas probably face a lot of additional challenges.

I decided in order to properly represent my constituents, I needed to learn ISL. I am a big believer in equality and inclusion.

So, I signed up for the 10-week introductory course in ISL through the Cork Deaf Association.

Now, I was never any good at languages in school. I did Irish for 14 years and I can barely ask to use the toilet. I studied German for six years and I could tell you my name and to go straight on.

I also have extreme weakness in my left hand; again, something I was born with. I worried about my ability to learn ISL.

However, learning ISL came naturally to me. I fell in love with the language. I was so eager to learn more and more.

I had developed relationships with two deaf people I met through my activism. It was nice to understand their culture, their language and to be able to ask things like what their Sign name is.

Most outside of the Deaf Community don’t know that a lot of deaf people are given ‘Sign names’, it’s usually a Sign that represents something you’re known for, a particular feature or personality trait. It was really nice to be able to ask them what their Sign names were.

Thanks to the 10-week course and with a little help from my deaf friends, I was able to record a campaign video in ISL letting the Deaf Community in West Cork know that I was committed in representing them. The video inspired many hearing people to look into ISL courses.

I believe ISL should be an option in secondary school or at least more colleges should offer a course. There is a serious lack of interpreters in Ireland and a lack of inclusion for the Deaf Community in Irish society.

Finally, not only did I gain a new skill and a new cause to fight for, but I also found another community to belong to.


Christine Twomey’s story

I was inspired to learn Sign Language after watching a TV show called Switched At Birth. It’s an American show about a Deaf girl, her family and friends.

I loved to watch the characters communicating through Sign Language. I thought it was such a beautiful language.

I noticed that, in addition to using their hands to communicate, they also used a lot of facial expressions to set the mood of the conversation. I was captivated and I knew that I wanted to learn Irish Sign Language.

I started with a beginner’s Sign Language course in Mallow. I absolutely loved it and I knew that I wanted to continue learning as much as I could.

As there were no advanced classes in Mallow, I signed up to a beginner’s Sign Language course with the Cork Deaf Association and when I finished that course, I did a Level 1 year long, exam-based course.

I learned a lot of Sign Language in my classes over the years and I gained a lot of Deaf Awareness. I learned, for example, that there are many different Sign Languages all over the world. In fact, there are even different Sign Language ‘accents’ within Ireland, based on where and how the person learned to Sign. I also learned that one spoken word could have different Signs, depending on the context of the conversation.

This year, I am doing my Level 2 Sign Language exams. I want to progress from there and ultimately become qualified as Sign Language interpreter.

I think that more people should learn Sign Language so that both hearing and deaf people can have equal access to services.

A deaf person should be able to do something simple like order a coffee or get a haircut without a language barrier. The world would be more inclusive for deaf people if more people could Sign.