Exploring Deaf Culture in Dublin

The British Sign Language and Deaf Studies, BA (Hons) students enjoyed an international field trip to Dublin, Ireland from 29th April to 2nd May, kindly subsidised by UCLan’s Student Travel Bursary. This was the sixth annual course trip and again the experience was very positive.

Dublin was selected deliberately for the trip because a Deaf Studies course with Irish Sign Language (ISL) tuition is held there, run in the Centre for Deaf Studies at Trinity College. As well as the similar course, Dublin also has a state of the art complex that houses deaf organisations, a deaf club and cafe, a chapel, and an Irish Deaf Heritage exhibition that is held on the top floor of an old deaf school building on the same site. The complex, called Deaf Village Ireland (DVI), has been designed and built with the notion of ‘deaf space’ in mind, hence the layout is open plan and well-lit, and there is a larger than usual amount of open space, where sign language can be easily seen, and deaf people can communicate with ease.


On the Tuesday, we visited Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and received a warm welcome from Dr John Bosco Conama, an Irish Deaf academic in social politics and director of the Centre for Deaf Studies. He gave us a talk about the history and the courses that run there, and we were able to consider the similarities and differences with the BSL & Deaf Studies course here at UCLan. The students on the course in Ireland have been involved with the local deaf community quite intensely recently, as there has been a campaign for recognition of ISL that their students were able to observe and support. ISL was officially recognised by the Irish government as a bona fide language in 2017, a very recent accomplishment, and we enjoyed attending an ISL lesson taught by Teresa Lynch while we were there. The Centre for Deaf Studies is a central hub for loads of activity and the deaf academics work closely with the local deaf community to ensure that the students have sufficient exposure to ISL usage in the community, as well as in the classroom.

In the afternoon, the Centre for Deaf Studies ran a conference called the Sound of Silence, aimed at exploring how deaf people function in a world of silence, as part of the annual Trinity Week event on campus. During the conference, Dr John Bosco Conama, gave an interesting talk, titled Finding our Political Voice, and this was followed by a presentation from Professor Lorraine Leeson, also from TCD, titled Poetry in Motion. Orla O’Sullivan next talked about creative innovations to help deaf and deafblind people overcome the silence through creative drama and vibrations, including demonstrating a sound box that can be connected to a musical instrument, called Viboxo, that a person can stand on to feel the vibrations as they move to the rhythm of the music. A further interesting talk was given by Dr Amanda Coogan and Lianne Quigley, titled Performance and the Body, which used sign language performance to describe the Deaf bodily experience, and portrayed the oppression of being expected to speak and lipread as being like having a heavy shoe pushing down on an actor’s head. The conference was very interesting for our students, as the series of talks was interpreted into both BSL and ISL by two sign language interpreter teams. The conference was a reminder of the success of the Deaf Nation Conference held at UCLan many years ago.


On the Wednesday, we visited Deaf Village Ireland for the day, where a guided tour of the complex, and the organisations for deaf people that are cited there, was interesting for our students and our staff team. The organisations are housed in a room each, running along the perimeter of the building, and each organisation’s room has a visual sign name of the office worker displayed on the door. The complex also holds a gym and swimming pool and is the hub of many deaf club activities that are held in the custom-designed, light and airy, social signing space in the centre of the building. Deaf and hearing people work together effectively in this unique cultural centre, which serves as a one-stop-shop of services and leisure activities for deaf people. The site is also currently being developed to contain a residential care home block for deaf people with personal support and care needs. The disused deaf school building that remains on the site was the old residential St. Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys, which accommodated deaf boys in times when they were not allowed to be educated alongside deaf girls, who were sent to the old St. Mary’s School for Deaf Girls. Deaf boys and girls are now integrated into one residential school and the old boys’ school building now houses the Irish Deaf Heritage archive and classrooms that are now used as training rooms for internal and external adult training sessions.

The final day, we visited the current residential school for deaf children in Dublin – Holy Family School for the Deaf. Deputy Principal Eugene Doyle, who previously taught at the school and is a hearing sign language user, gave us an interesting talk about the school and its success stories and kindly showed us around. We were delighted to see how effectively he interacted with the students, using sign language, speech and sometimes a combination of both (Total Communication) where required, due to the varying communication methods of the students at the school. Several of the pupils who had struggled in a mainstream school before coming to the deaf school described their experiences of improving both academically and socially at the school, and it was inspiring to see the deaf children able to express their own opinions, and were so attentive to the principal. Feedback from the UCLan students who attended the trip has shown the trip to the school to have been the most impacting and insightful of all the visits. Many of the pupils expressed the importance of having friends at school that they could not only socialise with, but also discuss homework with during evenings and weekends, an essential aspect of learning that they did not have at the mainstream schools where they could not communicate with their peers. A significantly higher number of pupils is starting during the coming September’s intake, perhaps partly due to the recognition of ISL raising awareness, leading to more parents considering this option. The most impactful aspect of the visit for the BSL & Deaf Studies staff and students was hearing some of the pupils describe how they had felt unequal to the other pupils in the mainstream schools but felt equal to their peers here at the deaf school.

Once again, our international student field trip was a great success and a positive and insightful addition to the student experience here at UCLan. The students thoroughly enjoyed the first-hand experience of seeing another sign language and deaf culture being taught. They also learnt a lot from seeing spoken English being interpreted into two different sign languages at the same time, across the room from each other. The similarities across the two languages and cultures was quite striking but our students also noticed the differences that bringing deaf sign language users together in one central hub, and the confidence and respect that government recognition of sign language as a first or preferred language, can bring to both deaf children and deaf adults.