Why learn Irish? There are probably as many answers to that one as there are learners. Learning languages is fun, for starters. It also opens the door to a whole world of literature which you'd only otherwise encounter in translations of varying quality (or not at all). If you actually live in Ireland, maybe you want to know what all those signs mean that you see everywhere. It also gives you a bit more understanding of the world around you. Take place-names, for example: the English-language names of places in Ireland often don't mean very much. Most of them were only created in the mid-nineteenth Century, in order to mark places on the first Ordnance Survey maps. To do that the names were sometimes translated into English (eg, 'Newcastle'), but more often rendered into English phonetically, and in the process making a word that means nothing in either language. So it adds a level to your understanding of a place and its history. Or maybe you want to go on holiday to an Irish-speaking region and want to be able to say a few words when you get there.
Whatever the reason, here are a few tips for different ways of learning and practising the language.
There is a wide range of places where you could start to learn a bit of Irish. Cultural and educational organisations like Conradh na Gaeilge and ULTACH organise classes from beginner to advanced levels, many of which you don't even have to pay for. Naturally, it's easier to learn if you are actually in Ireland, but many of these organisations have branches across the world. Particularly in countries with a history of immigration from Ireland - like Australia or the USA.
If you've checked and can't find a class anywhere near you, it's not the end of the world. There are the old favourite CD-and-book combinations for teaching yourself languages, of course. A quick search on the net will provide more choices than you could ever want, along with reviews about the strengths and quirks of each of them.
These days, of course, the Internet itself is a much better option. For instance, the BBC's Irish language radio programme 'Blas' has two courses online - 'Giota Beag' and 'Giota Beag Eile', which should give you a pretty good grounding in bite-sized, manageable chunks. You won't be fluent, but you can order a coffee in the Gaeltacht then, at least! The US-based site, Daltaí na Gaeilge, also has a lot of forums, vocabulary lists, grammar lessons and language resources which give you somewhere to practice and ask questions if you're doing it by self-tuition or distance learning.
It's probably not to be recommended until your knowledge of the language is a little more than basic, but you can also download patches to make your computer run as Gaeilge - a wide range of software supports this, including Linux, Windows 7 and XP, Firefox and more. While it's a good way to lose the run of your computer if you don't know a word of Irish, it will also teach you a lot of vocabulary. Most regular computer users already know where the 'Start' button is on a Windows desktop, so you can deduce the meaning of a lot of words from where they appear on the screen. A spatial variety of working it out by context, if you will.
There are also a wide range of media productions which will help you practice your language skills. In Ireland, both the BBC TV and Radio produce a number of programmes in Irish and for Irish learners, while they don't have any dedicated TV or radio stations in Irish. The main television station is TG4, which airs a whole range of programmes produced in, or dubbed into, Irish. If you can live without seeing Cartman from South Park or John Wayne speaking Irish, it's probably better to watch the ones actually made in Irish! Radio is just as good, of course. If you leave it on in the background while your doing other things, it tends to tune your ear for a language. You sometimes find yourself picking things up by osmosis, without trying. There are a number of Irish language radio stations. Raidió na Gaeltachta is probably the main one, but there are others, including Raidió na Life (Radio Liffey) in Dublin, Raidió an Iúir (Radio Newry), and Raidió Fáilte in Belfast.
Print media is also a good way for flexing your lingual muscle of course, and there's plenty in that line, too. Foinse is a weekly Irish supplement - once a newspaper in its own right, but now included in the Irish Independent. The Irish News publishes a number of columns in Irish, including a very good one aimed at beginners. This includes a vocabulary list at the end, including the ever-helpful phonetic pronunciation guide! Others include Gaelscéal, published weekly, Beo, and Nós, aimed at a youth audience.
But let's face it, we learn languages to help us socialise. It isn't all about sitting in your chair reading and listening to the radio! We want to get out there and meet people!
There are a lot of venues all over Ireland where you can go to natter away with your fellow Gaeilgeoirí while eating, drinking and being merry. There are cultural centres such as An Droichead in Belfast where, as well as taking classes, you can see plays, gigs, and try your hand at arts and crafts ranging from bog oak carving, to painting, to playing traditional instruments. For the more energetic, there's also an Irish language hillwalking club based there.
If that's too energetic, go to An Culturlann and try a spot of harp playing, take another Irish class, or just sit there drinking coffee - all this language learning is thirsty work!