The Ballymaloe Revolution

Or, how a relish gave us permission to love ourselves and our language.


Ireland has gone through a revolution. It has changed our attitudes about ourselves and has opened the gateway to a fuller nation. A nation that can now better embrace its strengths and admit its faults. 

The starting gun for this revolution was shot in Ballymaloe. This wasn't done by a well-born family in East Cork donning their barber jackets and getting their pastel-coloured pants scuffed in guerilla warfare. It was signified by something they made - Ballymaloe Relish.

You might think that sounds odd but it isn't. This all makes sense. Ballymaloe Relish has allowed us to be proud of ourselves, and not to be embarrassed by our Irishness. On top of this, it has set the scene for an Irish-speaking resurgence. But what exactly does fancy ketchup have to do with the Irish language? Everything, as it turns out. 

    To explain my theory, I'll bring you through the Ireland of the 1970s to 1990s, then the Celtic Tiger period of 1990s to 2000s, and finally from the 2000s to now.

    The Dependent Child - 1970s to 1990s

    Let's jump back to pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland, when it was still considered weird to go on a shopping trip to New York to save money. 

    The Ireland of the 1970s to 1990s looked to the UK and America for validation. Not for everything but for lots of things. We watched American and British TV and imported products from these countries with the same vigor with which we exported people to them. 

    Most Irish products and cultural peculiarities were just not cool. This is thoroughly connected to our past as a poor and agricultural country. We used to rely on our coloniser for everything. This left us with serious dependency issues. 

    Think of a dependent person. Dependent people are not confident; they need others validating them constantly. It is hard to carve out a personality of your own when this is the case. You imitate and emulate, you do not draw upon ideas from within. You can't - you're lacking the prerequisite conviction to do so.

    And countries are no different. These are but collections of people. Ireland, the country, was not so sure of itself, so it began to look to the UK and the US for cues on how to talk, dress, act and what to buy. 


    Charlie Haughey came from a low-income household. When he became powerful, he spent openly; he had the wine, the mansion, the shirts. His supporters liked this. Buying expensive foreign products was a sign of success - he had broken through Irish poverty. The ill-gotten luxuries actually cleansed him, in the eyes of many. It was an aspirational life, despite the bribing etc. Would that be possible now with a leader? It is far less likely. Ireland has changed.

    The Confusing Times - 1990s to 2000s


    As we progressed through the 1990s, The Celtic Tiger arrived. This was an in-between phase. We got more money, but we didn't have it for so long. It was disposable cash that came and went quickly. We tried not to let on, but we weren't so sure what to think of it all.

    Confusing times indeed

    Celtic Tiger Ireland talked a good game, but it had a mighty chip on its shoulder, and there was something niggling away inside its head. It can be explained the following way. Imagine there are two people:


    Person A 
    Comes from a family who have had high-paying jobs for generations, and has had their high-paying job for 30 years.

    Person B
    Comes from a low-income background. They got a high-paying job and it is their first year collecting their new paycheck.

    Person A is actually rich, while Person B has a lot of disposable income but is not rich. 

    Ireland is person B. We got the stuff, but like person B, we still had insecurities of the bad times hanging over us. We spent the money in as many directions as possible, enjoying the ability to spend as much as the fruits of the expenditure [1], looking to the exciting modern world, or just blowing it, because there were a lot of bad times, and why not enjoy the party? But we didn't really embrace the homegrown cultural stuff, like our language and Irish food, because that had to do with farming and the non-fancy tweed and poorness, and that wasn't the new us.

    Remember this shit?

    Other countries were richer than us, and there was just more going on in them, so we looked to them. It was far more attractive to ape America than to embrace our own traditions and culture. America was all that was modern and forward looking. 

    The Celtic Metamorphosis - 2000s to present

    The 2000s to present held high highs and low lows, and after it all we started to feel a bit more at ease with ourselves. Quite a few good jobs started to come to Ireland. A couple of years back I took a Sunday night flight from Munich to Dublin. On the flight were not hungover stag parties terrifying the rest of the passengers, but instead the plane was filled with German tech workers flying back to Dublin for work. People coming to us for work. That is pretty mental! If you look at even our recent history, you quickly see that this was not always the way. 

    We started to accept that we can make things and produce things and do things on our own. It's not that we don't listen to American songs or buy British food brands. We do. But we also listen to far more Irish songs and buy more Irish foods. We have more of our own stuff that we consume and share and comment on and critique. Other countries have had their intra-national shared experiences around this stuff, and we're now getting more of it too. Purchasing habits and behaviour are a good litmus test for this attitude.

    Look at these 4 areas in particular, and then we'll look at Irish afterwards. What was the perception of these in the 1980s? 

    Perceptions in the 1980s:

    • Trad Music - Old men in pubs
    • Food - Guinness & Tayto. Very few Irish brands, 6 Michelin-starred restaurants
    • Sinn Fein & republicanism - IRA, archaic attitudes
    • Dress - Aran jumpers are scruffy, tweed is for farmers

    Perceptions now:

    • Trad Music: The Gloaming, Mary Whallopers
    • Food: Ballymaloe, Mic's Chilli, Irish craft beers. Irish food is premium and better than other food, 21 Michelin-starred restaurants
    • Sinn Fein & republicanismMost 1st preference 2020 votes. [2] High status among <30 year-olds.
    • Dress - €500 Aran Jumpers, Cillian Murphy + tweed, Avoca blankets

    But what changed? 

    The status around these activities has changed, and there is something important to note about status:

    • People move away from low-status activities.
    • People move toward high-status activities.

    In the 1980s, these activities were either low status, or as in the case of Trad Music, mainly had status in rural Ireland, but not in the cities. They have gradually become high-status elements in Irish life, and in the cities as well. 

    It is now not only acceptable that people appreciate these activities, it is preferable. Sinn Fein really are very popular now.  You'll get many a Twitter like and follower if you promote their critiques of government policy. The Gloaming's sold-out concerts in the National Concert hall were non-trivial boasting material in the office the morning after.  Your guests swoon over woolen multi-coloured blankets that cost €180 in Avoca. Status, status, status. 


    Maybe some day a French president will fly back €000s of Avoca blankets in diplomatic bags for themselves?

    Do not conflate something having a high status with thinking the majority of the populace actually engaging with that thing. It is the perception of such activities that matters. Only a minority of a country will play an instrument, but it is still a high-status activity. Only a minority of people will vote for Sinn Fein, but they are increasingly young and educated and well regarded. Dabbling  ("I was a vegan for a while"), or sometimes merely discussing a high-status behaviour ("this packaging is so wasteful") is enough for its sheen to rub off on you. And so it is with Irish-made, -baked, -brewed, -played, and now -spoken.

    A Few More Focail

    The perception around Irish has tracked this change. In the 1980s Irish was the language of emigration, Sean Nós, damp and musty prefabs, of tragic poems you had to analyse in school, and prayers you had to sing. 

    Let's look at the Irish language in terms of perception in the 1980s. 

    Perceptions in 1980s:

    • Irish Poverty"no point", forced learning, Peig

    The much-maligned Peig

    Perceptions now:

    • Irish: Gaelscoils, Irish names, Pop-up Gaeltacht, Duolingo popularity [3]

    TG4 Website February 2021


    When did this change? 


    Enter Stage, Comrade Ballymaloe

    Ballymaloe Relish breached this new territory for us. It launched in supermarkets in the 1990s, but in the 2000s it really took off. I remember distinctly when it arrived in the house, and my surprise when I liked it. A new Irish brand and it's nice? It's better than the alternatives? It was nice having something homegrown and new. It looked and sounded premium as well. And everyone else seemed to agree. It was Irish, it was tasty - it was ours. This was no small glory.

    At ease, comrades, you will need your energy for the coming battles

    Families across the countries bought it in no time, and it was soon featured in kitchens across the country. It swept through the nation, one moistened sandwich at a time, and our newfound confidence along with it. The zeitgeist kept advancing until we were emboldened to re-invite Irishness into other aspects of our lives, making its way through music, politics, dress, and eventually reaching the Irish language. 

    As Ireland got richer, Ballymaloe was spread with reckless abandon, and we got more confident, Ireland got more comfortable with our language. 

    As Ireland gets richer again, we will speak more Irish, not less. 

    This is my theory. It is not a surety. But I think it is worth fleshing out and ruminating over. I'm trying to whittle down an idea here. There is no point getting too precise as I don't know exactly where this is going to end up. But I do sense a change, and as I hone in on the direction, I thought I might as well bring you along the ride with me. And I think Ballymaloe Relish helps me illustrate this movement that I sense going on. 

    Most presume the opposite of this theory is true. They would say to you that Irish is dying, and that the richer and more cosmopolitan we get the less need for it there is. But I believe by breaking negative, low-status associations with the language, we have been allowed to embrace it again. This paves the way for us to speak it more in the future.

    As goes Ballymaloe Relish, so goes the nation. 

    But there is one big issue still holding the Irish language back.

    The Leaky Bucket

    The Irish education system is the ultimate leaky bucket. For Irish teaching, there is a huge amount of work put in at the start, but it comes to little at the end. We all go through ~14 years of learning Irish, but then, right after secondary school, people stop speaking it. There are a huge amount of resources put into every pupil to help them speak their native language. But after secondary school, most simply never speak it again. This is bad for two reasons: 

    1) It is sad 

    2) A lot of energy goes to waste


    Sad

    You go to primary school, full of curiosity. You spend 8 years learning Irish, absorbing more than you realise. Your Irish is building. 

    Then you go to secondary school and you are taught more Irish. A lot of the classes are focused on literature, and not on speaking. These are boring for most. But for many whose speaking level has increased, the progress is noticeable. You don't get to use your Irish a lot, but you are gaining something special.

    Then you leave school. Nice one! Off to college or into the workforce, travelling or bumming around - getting on with the business of living. Life is to be lived, certainly not stuck inside learning about Calua [4]. No more annoying Irish classes! But something gets lost. You mostly don't notice it, except when you try to speak it the odd time. Then you realise how bad your Irish has gotten.

    You changed jobs, moved houses multiple times, found and lost and found love, and swapped one continent for the other. Lots of exciting life-things happen and you are lucky for it. Grateful on top. Then a chance to speak Irish comes up on holidays and you want to reply but you choke - you can't - it's gone.


    You can't speak Irish anymore. 

    Any time you try to put a sentence together there are too many holes in your vocab. Too many knots in your grammar. It is too embarrassing. You can push some words out. But your brain is screaming at you, telling you not to do it for you may fail and that is scary. So you don't try any more.

    Wasted Energy

    The amount of lost speaking ability is a disaster for the education system. That is 14 years of Irish language education that disappear almost without a trace. Few avenues exist through which you can speak Irish, so after you leave the school gates on a warm June day, you don't. 

    To put it starkly, there is a churn-rate of >95% in the Irish-learning journey. It has a 95% churn rate on the macro and individual levels.

    a)  Macro: Out of everyone who learns it, 95% stop speaking it after school
    b)  Individual: The individual speaking ability drops by 95% over their lifetime

    Everyone learns it, then after everyone leaves secondary school for the last time, most drop it. And because they stop practicing it, they stop being able to speak it. 

    Our education system is a massive leaky bucket waiting to be fixed. We have good intentions in that we keep filling the bucket. But we don't recognise the faults of the bucket, and we persist endlessly in filling it, without looking at the preponderance of holes in the bucket.

    Muzzy Mór. He wanted to save us, but he was never enough. That we must do ourselves.

    The Irish state brings us pretty far in helping us with Irish. Yes there are issues with the curriculum, we all know its faults. But we do need to meet it halfway. We need to speak it more. Fluency in a language doesn't come without trial and error. We have to speak it just a little every now and again, keep it up a bit, and we will have another language for life. 

    The Beginning of the Beginning

    I'm tackling this problem myself, or I have just begun to. I don't know what the future holds for me in this domain, but I'm going to give it a good go, and that's all I can promise. I have a solution, energy, not a lot of funds, and time. 

    My solution is an online Irish speaking group called Gaeilge Gym. I did not write this article just to shill the group. This idea of a more modern Ireland becoming more friendly to Irish has been rummaging around my head for a few years. It was the whole process of launching the group, of putting something into the world that stirred up the desire to flesh out my thoughts with the keyboard. This year the time has finally come to follow my conviction. That is why I have launched the online community - the goal of which is

    To increase the amount of active Irish spoken in Ireland

    But first I'm starting small. The group started in January with one hour-long meetup per week. That has now doubled. Irish people meet online and speak about a theme I provide for one hour. There is a leader but there is no teaching and there are no lessons. It is designed to be as frictionless as possible. I want to lure you in with the simplicity - show up and speak about the topic. It's still a little intimidating, but you get over it pretty quickly. It's fun and rewarding. 

    The website is totally in English. I want to remove any pretense around the language. I don't want people to feel embarrassed by not understanding something before they're even in the door. Shoo em in before they can back out, give them a little nudge, and they are speaking Irish like it was 5th class all over again.  

    This is the piece in the Irish learning puzzle that I can see is missing: people stop speaking Irish after school. That is why they lose their learned Irish. The community is fixing this - you can now speak Irish for two hours per week at a low cost. It is the minimum viable way that I can solve a larger problem. But doing the minimum can be effective if it is attacking the problem directly. 

    Gaeilge Gym can work in a couple of ways. The more difficult way is to catch people mid-later on in life and help them resuscitate their Irish. This is the most common way Gaeilge Gym will operate for now. On people like myself.

    The easiest would be to catch people coming out of school and college, when people have just stopped speaking Irish and before they forget too much. By offering Gaeilge Gym at this point, I'm inserting the community at the current end of the typical Irish learning journey and extending it. This is about 25% into their lives. If Gaeilge Gym is successful, your Leaving Cert year will not be the end of your Irish journey. You'll just be 25% into your Irish speaking journey, 25% into your life. From here on you'll be maintaining your Irish, giving it Vitamin C tablets and the odd dose of Calpol instead of CPR. Nurturing over resuscitating. 

    To invert this, look at what you can gain - it will give you 60+ extra Irish speaking years. 

    An dtuigeann tú? I'll draw it out. 

    The Irish Learning Journey

    Let's look at this Irish learning journey visually. What stunned me is just how short a typical Irish persons journey is. All that learning and knowledge squashed into our heads that early! But by mid-twenties most people will consider their Irish a lost cause and will never speak it again. 


    You have prematurely ended your Irish journey. This is the norm in Ireland. But keeping it up, if you had it that is, would not have been very difficult relatively speaking. Now it is hardly true that everyone becomes fluent in Irish during school. It is also not true that most even enjoy it. But for those that do, or those for whom even a little push extra in the right direction would have set them off, it is a tragedy to lose their bilingualness. For those, these are the lost years:



    Let's compare this to what would happen if you kept it up. Either with Gaeilge Gym or by moving out the the Arann Islands burning the ear off someone in Ned's [5] for a season or any other acceptable way. A lifetime of Irish! A lifetime of being bilingual. It is an oddity that Irish people who speak Irish don't think of themselves as bilingual. They do not use that term to describe themselves. But they are. And therein lies the rub: so many are so close to this, but they just don't realise. We don't appreciate it, and the fog of post-colonial embarrassment is too much. But it could be so great:

     


    When you look at the country as a whole, speaking a second language is a massive additive exercise. There are about 250,000 students in secondary school at any one time. About 1 million people have gone through secondary school in Ireland in the last 20 years. If even 1/3 of them kept up Irish, there would be 330,000 extra active Irish speakers in the country. That is a lot of Irish language websites, groups, communities, YouTube channels etc. Not to mention their children speaking it. This is about the population of Iceland, a country with its own unique language. 

    There is also a biological argument for speaking another language. It improves your memory, your decision-making skills, problem solving skills, skill-learning-skills and is "seriously great for your brain."[6] Now not all researches are in agreement on this, but a chance at making you smarter and more successful does not sound so bad. 

    So learning a second language enlivens the nation and augments the mind. But also just makes your life richer. Like, more satisfying. I came across this lovely Seanfhocail the last day:

     "Is siúleach scéalach" 

    The one who walks or travels (from village to village) is the storyteller. It is a wonderful phrase. Sure we all know a scéalach. 

    And we're missing out on a ton of stuff like this, or like just ag caint as Gaeilge, and we know we are.

    We are now the culture of low-tax, expensive coffee, gratuitous athleisure gear, and new-but-shite buildings. Which is fine, and I swill out of that cocktail myself regularly. Try and stop me. However, eventually you realise the inescapable truth: all those things can be striped away. And they might. What cannot, and has not, in 1,500 years, is Irish.

    The revolution continues.

    -----------------------------------

    You can follow me on Twitter : @_ronanmc 

    If you want to speak and keep up your Irish, join us here: https://gaeilgegym.com/ 

    It's great fun, and there is a 7 day trial, so you can try it out for free. 


    [1] The phrase "there are no pockets in coffins" comes to mind here. Try telling this to someone from the continent. They will look at you as if you had two heads.

    [2] SF got 24.5% of 1st preference votes in 2020

    [3] There are 5.6 Million Irish Learners on Duolingo

    [4] Calua is a short story written by Sean Mac Mathúna

    [5] Ned's is a pub on Inis Oirr. How I miss it. 

    [6] https://www.brainscape.com/academy/benefits-of-being-multilingual/


    Thanks to Morgan for reading a draft of this post.

    My First Year Building an Online Community

    This is the origin story for Deutsch Gym, a German-language community I founded in February 2020.

    Stop Spoiling Us Foreigners!

    I'll begin with the problem that kicked this whole thing off. Foreigners in Germany are spoilt. Every German will switch to English once they hear a non-German accent. For other countries, this does not seem to be the case. In France the French speak French, in Spain the Spaniards speak Spanish. What an exotic idea. In Germany, not so. This makes learning the language tricky and the experience of learning German unlike any other I have previously had, and not in a good way. 

    (Berlin looking lovely.)

    After exercising, you become fitter. In studying for an exam, better grades will follow. In other words, you put something in, you get something out. It's worth your while. And I have experienced all of the above at some stage or another, so this is how my expectations were set when I embarked on learning German. But it was not to be. I paid the piper, but no service was rendered.

    When you try to speak German to locals, in less than perfect German, you will receive a barrage of English responses, each feeling like a rejection. And rejection stings. Like asking someone who takes your fancy to dance. If you pluck up the courage to ask for a hand in dance, and you get the merciless response in the negative, you will understand the feeling I'm talking about. 

    Except I'm not trying to ask anyone to dance - I'm just trying to speak the language. And trying to speak German in Germany is to ask your beaux to dance multiple times a day but ending up with the same cruel cold shoulder. You see your chance for a conversation. You form your thoughts, mind-practice the inevitable guttural sound hiding at the start of a word somewhere, and remember to hold that damned second verb at the end, heavy on your mind like the attention-grabbing shit it is. You push it out, a passable sentence, desperate to be met with a German response, and wait. Will the volley be returned? If so, vindication! Maybe a back and forth will ensue, every response returned affirming your choice to learn the language. But what response do you get? The stomach sinks - it's English! The rejections come without drama and always in the form of the Anglo tongue. Speak German? Fuck you! This is Germany, we're German, and we're speaking English. This one definitely doesn't want to dance.

    Now it is possible that my German is poor, my accent is poorer and the thought of my struggling is unbearable to my would-be dance-partner. To which I say “my German may be bad but my accent is less bad and I want to dance”. 

    To caveat the moaning - I have always felt welcome in Berlin, and it is my favourite city. And, I can assure you I have been on the receiving end of no shortage of hospitality and generosity in Germany. In part, being too welcome is the issue here. The regular methods for integration - chatting casually in the native language, in a variety of everyday situations - that are common in our continental neighbours, were not available to me. 

    I needed to practice German. I had been putting in 25+ hours per week learning it for a few months, but my fluency was lacking. A clear option to me was to go to a meetup in a bar. It works as follows: you find a group of Ausländer in a corner of a bar. Then you have 5 minutes speaking in German with one of them, and then a buzzer goes off and you get a new partner. You go through the same spiel for the full hour and a half. Sometimes the conversations stay with the basics about yourself and sometimes they hop between topics. Othertimes you may just chat casually. I wouldn't know, as I never went. The mixture of inertia and shyness and reports of repetitive introductory conversations and 40 minute S-Bahns was enough to put me off. Instead, guided by above logic and a will to solve the problem sitting on my arse, my brain came to me with the idea that was to be Deutsch Gym.

    To the Moon

    Three years ago I was part of a cryptocurrency Discord group. It essentially gave buy signals on altcoins. They had mentors with their own text-channels, where they would post charts of the price predictions, text-channels for talking about specific coins, and voice channels where the owners and mentors would log on for hours, casually chatting with their members, who were spread across the world, about crypto or politics. Now, value-wise, I'm pretty sure I got scammed. This was in 2017, when throwing darts at a selection of altcoins after a feed of Guinness would have produced comparable profits. Nonetheless, two things struck me: 

    (i) people pay to join online communities

    (ii) Discord makes it possible

    I was intrigued, and I briefly flirted with the idea of running a comparable community of some sort. Alas, my attention then was on the all-consuming price fluctuations of $NANO and $LUX, and I parked any other notions. 

    Swapping Duolingo for Intensive Courses

    (My language school in Berlin. It's a bit cramped, but it's one of the cheapest options and my teachers were good.)

    In February 2020 I was in my third month of intensive German courses. Over the previous few years I had learned German on and off, but it didn't stick. I was on a jerky merry-go-round of Duolingo, the odd private lesson, iTalki lessons, tandems, and the rare podcast. In September 2019 I started to speak a little German with my girlfriend - which surprised us both. Something must have stuck after all. 

    Sadly, within a few weeks I had exhausted the backlogged grammar in my head and knew that someone would have to fill the rest in for me. I had just left from co-founding a startup, so I had time to get stuck into a challenge. At the last minute (I missed the first day of class) I started an intensive course in November. Three hours of class a day and then three hours of homework were what I set myself up for, and I was game. It would be nice to have some structure to my learning, plus, how hard could it be? I was firmly thinking of the end result - of becoming fluent in German - mightily ignorant of what was to come.

    Now when you learn a language, you need to choose a level. The CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) starts with A1.1 for total beginners and ends with C2.2 for the most advanced. There are two smaller levels within each main one - A1.1, A1.2, B1.1,B1.2 etc. My overconfidence in my abilities led me to enroll in B1.2. I can tell you as I sit here that this was a mistake.

    (Staatsbibliotek Berlin. It is fantastic.)

    I had a hard time understanding the questions themselves, let alone tackle the answers. I should have been in A2.2. Nonetheless I signed up for a membership at the Berlin State Library [1]. The dictionary app conquered prime real estate on my homescreen and I plowed on. Towards the end of the month I was coping a lot better, but I thought it would be wise to take a humble step back to B1.1.  The following month was much better. I brought with me knowledge of what was to come in the second half of B1. Compared to a lot of my classmates, them having come from A2, I felt like a man from the future. After Christmas I took January off and proceeded on to B2.1 in February.

    My (perhaps foolhardy) confidence took another hit, but less so this time. The teacher moved quickly, but I had a fighting chance. I had by this stage started speaking more and more German with my girlfriend, and I was eager to use it on the streets of Berlin. But the locals wouldn't tango, and the aforementioned pub meetups were out. Was there something to that crypto group from a few years ago?

    Becoming a German Leader?

    It was time to dust off the side-project skills and start an online German group. I craved an outlet to practice (and be guaranteed responses in German) and I wanted to do it from my couch. There was some minor level of audacity there, given my recency to speaking German, but I thought it was crazy that this was not already possible. I searched for various community platforms to use to host the meetup, but pretty quickly reverted back to what I knew - Discord. I set up a server, and organised a basic structure of text and voice channels. I posted a link to my Discord server to an "Irish in Berlin" Facebook group and one other such group on February 19th,2020. That was the extent of the marketing for the first session. Later that day I logged on 20 minutes early and nervously stared at my screen. 

    (The first time I posted about the group.)

    If no one showed up, at least I tried, right? I could say I tried to get myself out of my language hole, and my lack of fluency would be forgiven. But a few minutes after 9pm, there it was - someone logged in. We casually chatted about Ireland and Germany and our families for the hour. There was one participant, no theme, no structure, and I had no idea what I was doing as a group leader, but the first Reden Meetup had been run (I called the group "Reden" then. It means "to talk". I'm a glutton for literal names). I was ecstatic.

    The following week I wanted to keep up momentum, so I posted the link to the group to a few more Facebook groups. I told my class in my German course. It made sense to prepare for a bigger group in the next session. How, I wondered, was I going to handle a group of people, when I had just barely handled one? Even if five showed up we'd be a decent gaggle of German learners. I still didn't know how to lead a conversation in German but was excited to try it again. I waited by the laptop at 9pm the next Tuesday and...waited. For half an hour I stared at Discord. A bad feeling came over me. No one showed! What a disaster. I felt rejected, but I still thought that there was something there. In the following days I posted the link to a couple of more Facebook groups for the next week and told my German class about it again.

    (A tweet from April.)

    Six intrigued learners showed up the next week. From here onwards I felt vindicated, and had the wind at my back. Each week more and more people came, and I eventually posted it to Meetup. I added an additional session per week. I was on a roll. I wrote up discussion themes, changed the structure of the group to fit the meetups better. There was a good feeling of camaraderie, it felt like we were in on something no one else was. And I think the nature of Discord imbued this feeling.

    Let me explain. 

    Discord is a chat application designed for gamers, which implies a high level of software experience. The default theme is dark, there are lots of customisations and different roles to assign to members. It is meant to mimic a gaming dashboard. The UI is set to expert-level, in other words. When you click on a voice channel, you enter that channel immediately and you hear the voices of others (there is no video by default). When someone speaks the green circle around their avatar (real photo optional) lights up beside their username (real name optional). It is not intuitive, and has enough idiosyncrasies to throw off an average internet user. I say this because there is a brothers-and-sisters-in-arms feeling about using a weird platform to speak poor German with total strangers and enjoying it. We were the pioneers. It was a fun period.

    (A chat in the group from the start of March.)

    Swap the Batteries!


    (On the job.)

    While the group was progressing, I was running out of money. At the start of March I took a part-time job changing batteries for an electric scooter company. I would drive around Berlin in a van, find the dying scooters on my phone, and swap the batteries out. I had the previous year sworn off any sort of office work for the rest of my life, and I didn't want to work in a bar or cafe. I had tried side-projects while working full time before - nights and weekends in front of the laptop as well as days in front of the laptop is not a good combination for happiness. To do a full time office job is tiring enough - companies want their pound of flesh - adding on a side-project was too draining. The other option was to take a lower-paying, lower-stress and lower-commitment side job, and use the remaining hours to figure out a side-project for myself. Driving around by myself and getting some fresh air during the work day suited me just fine. I would listen to My First Million, Indiehackers, and other podcasts as motivation, and saw what felt like every street in Berlin in this time. [2]

    (This was the biggest van we had. It has no fewer than 6 wheels, I might add. You'd avoid it if you could, but it's surprisingly easy to drive.)

    Working part-time to learn a language simply isn't as tolerated for a 30 year old in other cities - both financially and socially. The rent shared on our apartment was less than my bedroom in a 3-bed Dublin house. The food shop has mercy on your wallet. This takes the pressure off a huge amount, in a way that is unimaginable in Dublin. [3] It is also a city that welcomes different lifestyles. The social hierarchy in Berlin is a bit topsy-turvy, so you can escape the rat-race with less judgement. [4] Working part-time or studying in your 30s is just a quirk, a bow in your feather in wild, free Berlin. “Berlin ist arm, aber sexy” (“poor but sexy”) as the old Mayor quipped. 

    Including the commute my job cost me 24 hours per week and the German course I was enrolled in ate up most of the rest of the time. By this stage I was doing 2 meetups per week on top of this and all of it was manageable if a little tiring. At the end of March I had finished B2.2 German, which is the intermediate level. Your learning in intensive language courses hits marginal returns when you do a few in a row - you need time to practice what you have learned - so instead of starting C1.1 in April, I decided to take a break from the courses. Just the batteries and the Reden group from then on.

    A Break from Startups

    By the end of March there were 45 weekly participants, and I had the feeling that this could go somewhere. Up until then it was purely a fun project, created to sate my own need. But as the weeks went on, and the interest increased, I found I couldn't put off that annoying entrepreneur voice in my head, telling me that this could be something. The irony here is that this is the first time in over a decade that I had managed to silence that voice, that urge to start a business. In October 2019 I had just finished from founding a company with a friend, and the 12 years previous included a host of different side projects and another company. I yearned for a break - I didn't want to think about entrepreneurship. I duly culled the group of entrepreneurs I followed on Twitter (although a startup Twitter feed being replaced with a politics Twitter feed doesn't have a calming effect either). I stopped listening to startup podcasts, even the thought of listening to one gave me a sinking feeling in my stomach. I wasn't interested in the distribution model for another project management app. I threw myself fully into learning German and without condition. It just so happened that I found a problem, and it annoyed me so much that I couldn't not fix it, at least for myself.

    At the end of March I caved, and I decided to launch a Gumroad page for it and charge for it. I was not launching a startup, but dipping my toes in the water again. Just to see what happened. €10 a year will do, I thought. It was a long shot, more of a fun experiment that I would end up killing, surely. Three days later two people had bought the yearly membership. So, emboldened, I changed it to €10 per month. The very next day, someone bought one. After two weeks 13 people had signed up. Almost a sign-up a day.

    (The first two weeks of Gumroad signups.)

     Now let me tell you: the rush of dopamine when that new-member notification from Gumroad pops in your inbox is ungodly. Wild imaginations of freedom and hope start flooding your brain. It was a taste - a tiny one - of true independence, and fuck me was it enjoyable. Opening up my GMail was incredibly addictive, and seeing the "Gumroad" label in bold in the folder section my fix. 

    (Everyone should feel this rush.)

    The downside here is that mother nature does not reward us this way indefinitely. The buzz is replaced by a lust for new subscribers, and just like any other drug, your tolerance rises.

    Grandfathering or No?

    The deal at the start of April was this: I would start charging all new incoming members, and current members would have until the end of May - two months - to decide if they wanted to buy a membership. At this time they could buy the €10/month membership (Gumroad only allows prices in $ on the exit page, a lamentable omission from an otherwise excellent platform). By this stage I was knee-deep in bootstrapper philosophy. That is, to charge high and charge early. Always raise your prices, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. If you offer value to someone, they should pay for it. It is only fair. This was why I decided to charge the current users. Looking back this was a mistake, and I should have grandfathered them in on their free state. To work through the logic: if the revenue I was to receive from the 100 existing members was so crucial to me, the project was unsustainable. It would not be able to support me and it meant it was not growing. If the project was to be a success, then those 100 existing members would account for a tiny fraction of my future members. The vast majority of revenue would come from members that would join in the coming months and years. In success or failure, there was no point in charging the current members, who had signed up under the impression it would be free. Rewarding them as early members with a free lifetime membership would have been the nobler option. [5]


    Trials

    I was curious about trials, so in mid-April I gave new members a one-week free trial. This increased my workload a lot - more new members, a lot of queries and questions and following up. After a couple of weeks I ended the trial. In total 41 people started the trial with 15 people becoming members, giving me a conversation rate of 37%. Over the timeframe of 15 days a similar number of members ended up paying compared to pre-trial, and the workload didn’t justify it.

    (Trial re-cap. I may run them again in the future.)

    Instead, I switched to a pay-up-front model, but the member can get their money back within 7 days if they don't like it. I use this model to this day, and it is now totally self-serve. Overall I have fewer members because of this, but it has one advantage: the group is calm and experiences no spam. This could be far more valuable than I have given it credit until now. A calm and welcoming place to learn a language is a selling point in itself.

    (The first wait list for new levels.)

    This was in the second half of April. Until then the only group we had was for B1 & B2 speakers, but I wanted to kick the tyres a bit, and sent out a survey, asking if people had interest in joining groups of other levels. I got 48 responses in a day - the people were hungry for more. This, I can remember, was a seminal point. I don't agree with mainly driving analysis from customers to make decisions, I believe conviction and vision count for a lot (perhaps a bad trait considering I worked in online marketing), but when it hits me in the face, I take notice. By the end of April, after 1 month of charging, I had €307 in MRR. At this stage I knew I would be daft not to keep fanning the flames of the project.

    An Online Gym, Officially

    (I slowly update the design. I'm deliberately eschewing having lots of photos and the latest design fad).

    In contrast with my other projects, I wanted to do some work first, see if it has legs, and then reward myself with buying the domain. Three months after I first started, on May 12th, I bought the domain name: deutschgym.com. The name I can explain easily: I thought anyone, anywhere on this fine planet of ours ought to be able to log on and start speaking German, at any time, just like they would be able to walk into a 24 hour Gym [6] at any time and exercise. Logging on to chat is like jumping on a treadmill, getting a lesson on adjective endings is like dropping into a pilates class. That was and still is the vision. I was dismayed that this didn't exist, and felt obligated to rectify it.

    On May 22nd I launched the A2 group, and the next month the C1 group. I had by now switched from Grumroad to Carrd & Stripe, and started a highly irregular newsletter.  At this time I also got my first copycat. A member copied everything I did and stole my themes (which I had laboured over). I have since noticed more copycats, but I mostly ignore them and carry on creating what I set out to do. In a way the copycats provide further validation.

    Paying the Rent

    (SubscribersI'll release revenue and subscriber figures at a future date.)

    By mid-October I had been running the groups for 8 months — the income felt fairly steady. I was planning on leaving my part-time soon, when I hit the next revenue milestone. This would have been in a month or two, but circumstances encouraged me to leave earlier. I had already used up my holidays with the scooter company in August 2020 on a trip to Ireland. My girlfriend had booked her holidays for the end of October, and for the year that was in it, we both needed a break. Giving two weeks notice at the start of October I quit - so long batteries. You saved my ass, but never again. This was followed by two weeks of holidays and then, for the first time in my life, living full time, profitably, as an entrepreneur. I had before succeeded in incorporating two of these elements into my life, but this was the first time I hit the trifecta. The living was not extravagant, but it was a living and it sustained me. I got the odd pang of fear but mostly it was relief: an achievement of a lifelong goal. Free from a monthly salary. Happy to stare out to the wide open horizon, with all possibilities available to me, and with my own success or failure resting on myself. No more 6am Sunday starts to change batteries. I had built a motivated group of eager learners and respectful members, and I was helping them with a real problem in their lives. They were becoming more fluent in German. [7] I don't want to exaggerate or underrate the effectiveness of the community. It worked, the rent was paid, and I was proud.

    Not So Much Code 

    One theme running through this project was that I wanted to use no-code solutions as much as possible. I had worked as a front-end developer (Angular/JavaScript) for a few years, having learned coding in my mid-20s. In the last few years I felt I spent too much time coding. Too many days spent staring into Webstorm. Coding for me is a tool to get a job done - I do not pursue it for its own sake as many others do. It needs to serve a purpose for me to gain satisfaction (which I do) out of it. But I will never be, nor do I want to be, a master coder. "Exceptionally no good" is how Christopher Hitchens described his infant-parenting ability. While my ego won't allow me to admit as much with coding, during that brief career the feeling that I should be focusing on my strengths instead of my increasingly obvious weaknesses was steadily building. With Deutsch Gym I wanted no-code to take a priority, and for code to only be used when nothing else would do. The hours in the day are too few to be doing things I can outsource to software or more capable people. This time I was taking my free time more seriously. I wanted to work on the most important stuff - building a community, setting the atmosphere and creating processes so that the master-slave relationship between entrepreneur and company was in order.

    To allow me to be free and make money, my current stack is: a mix of Carrd, Stripe, PayPal (don't ask), Zapier (god bless this product), Google Sheets (as a database), the odd Mail Merge, Mailchimp (it has gotten pricey), Memberstack, and Discord. I use code for some Stripe and Discord API work, and a bit within Zapier custom code blocks. It is very useful, but takes a minority of my attention.

    What is Next?

    In the next week I'm launching Geailge Gym, the Irish language version of the group, as well as English Gym. I'll be adding a C2 level (the most advanced) to Deutsch Gym soon, and experimenting with how to make it better for the members. I want to increase fluency, more quickly, make sure members speak with those of a similar level, try to help with different aspects of their German journey (with tests, grammar, reading comprehension), and get more native speakers in the group. For the next year I'll be adding more languages, which I have yet to decide upon. I have big plans for the group but I want to keep as nimble as possible while I achieve them. Get in touch below if you want to say hello. 

    You can follow me on Twitter : @_ronanmc 

    If you want to improve your German, join us here: https://deutschgym.com/

    If you want to improve your Irish, join the wait list: https://gaeilgegym.com/

    If you want to improve your English, join the wait list.


    [1] As it happens they have an excellent cafeteria specializing in German thriftiness. They offer filter coffee for €0.80 and hard boiled eggs for €0.60. With some salt and pepper that is a fine snack. I was on a Keto diet at the time and this was extremely helpful. 

    [2] This has removed a lot of the novelty of the city for me unfortunately. It is nice to come across areas you have never been to. Novelty is largely why we travel, after all. Berlin is remarkably ugly and quite dirty from this vantage point, but most will see it from a different perspective, and I don't blame them. 

    [3] When I first moved from Dublin to Berlin in 2013 I was shocked at how Berliners my age would take large, beautiful apartments for granted. It was the first time the phrase "quality of life" had become tangible to me. 

    [4] The judgement exists, of course, but it's dished out under different rules. These are inverted: being with girls won't help you get into clubs, if you have money do not show it, the less melody on your playlist the better (leave that to the normies). 

    [5] I am learning from my mistakes. For Geailge Gym, the Irish-language group I started, the format will be a little different. Irish people, as opposed to German or French learners, won't know what CEFR level they are in. Everyone in Ireland learns Irish in school, and speaking ability varies from almost nothing to fluent, but with no hard categories for people to self-select from. I am giving the first 10 members free lifetime membership, as they will help me iterate on the structure and format of this group. 

    [6] Like McFit, a budget gym of which I was a member of voluntarily and then involuntarily. To end your contract within the agreed upon time, you need to send them a letter by post. If you don't do this they will hold your direct debit hostage for another 6 months. In Germany there is a battle between acceptance of anachronistic bureaucracy and consumer rights, with McFit relying on the former in this case, and winning.

    [7] A basic conversation level German is required to join, we do not take total beginners. It is a speaking group, and we don't do lessons. I refuse a lot of potential members and refer them onto online learning platforms.


    Thanks to Ciaran and Paddy for reading drafts of this post.