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An Irish-Danish family tapestry

Irish roots and Danish traditions, going in and out of languages: here's how the family of Liam Horan and Kia Lundsgaard Horan navigate their day-to-day bilingual life.

Photographs: Terumi Mascarenhas -

Text: Michaela Medveďová

What do you get when you combine a man with a name as Irish as they come and a woman whose name shows off her Danish family history?

Well, in the case of Liam Horan and Kia Lundsgaard Horan, it's a beautiful family of four.

From the land of songs

Liam has lived in Denmark for over twenty years, but he does not have a bad word to say about his home country. "As a kid and a teenager, Ireland was a great place to grow up. It's a very sociable type of country. At any given time, more than 30 kids were out in the street playing." On his mother's side, they had a big family who lived not more than five kilometres from them, so there was always someone around. "We lived close to the national football stadium, so there was obviously a lot of sports going around. And later on, there was a lot of social life on the weekends. Lots of Irish music, because Ireland is full of music. Many countries talk about their history - in Ireland, we sing about ours."

People often ask Liam whether he'd ever move back to Ireland. "Well, I can't answer the question because I never knew I was moving here," laughs Liam. In 1999, to leave Ireland for a bit, he decided to visit his sister, who already lived in Denmark. He'd been over a few times, so he figured he would stay for a month or two this time. "After that, I started enjoying the country but still had no intention of staying. Then somebody pointed me towards a permanent job in a company that builds ventilation units for companies worldwide. And then I met this woman here, and six months became a year, and it's 22 years later," he smiles at Kia.

But he liked Denmark from the beginning. It offered a slower pace than Ireland, and for the laid-back Liam, that was a good fit. The only problem? Danish language, especially when he started working. "For years, it was a struggle. There were a couple of times when I said that this was not going to work out. I realised I just didn't have an ear for languages." That attitude changed 16 years ago when Liam and Kia's daughter Mathilde was born, and he decided to get a grasp of the language alongside her - and their son Nicklas who arrived two years later. "That's how I picked up the language and then learned about the culture through my kids."

He now talks English with both of his children, but that wasn't always the case during the first ten years. " Kia suggested I speak English with them, and she would speak Danish. But I wanted to know them and their language. So I made a conscious decision to speak Danish. Well, in the beginning, what Danish I could. But I always spoke English with Kia unless we had guests."

Now, it's a bit of a linguistic mixture at their home with a lot of switching back and forth. "I was the one who was adamant about Liam speaking English," says Kia. "It was about giving them the gift of being bilingual. But he was adamant that he would never be the dad who couldn't understand his kids if they came home and told him a story or a joke. So he knew some basic Danish before, but the humour and the little catchphrases all came with the kids."

Still, bilingualism caught on. Mathilde confirms that she's never had a problem with English classes. "It was a good thing for me because when we started English, I always understood what was happening." With Nicklas, it came a bit slower, and even though he's always understood, it's only recently that he started speaking English. "There's been a bit of a barrier: Why speak English if we all understand Danish?" explains Kia.

Love from Star Wars

While Liam and Kia came from two different countries, she experienced a very similar childhood to Liam. "I grew up in Næstved, where we're also living now. It's an hour away from Copenhagen and a very safe place. My parents still live in the same house, so my childhood home is still there." She attended a school with less than 100 students, and just like in Liam's case, she spent most of her time outside, playing. "We all knew each other. So it was definitely a safe, happy upbringing."

While a lot of interaction between kids is online now, they also connect through social activities, sports, or music. "Denmark is very famous for having all these group activities where parents also get involved." Kia did that as a child - played handball like Nicklas and went to a music school like Mathilde. Her parents were always very active in her activities, driving her around and organising this and that. "It's crucial for kids to have these activities they like to do and where they can socialise. We were very adamant about it from when the kids were young. Of course, you have to focus on school, but you also have to do something in your spare time that gives you energy and happiness and where you can have friends."

Liam and Kia bought their house partly because the school was nearby, and they wanted Mathilde and Nicklas to be close to their friends. In addition, they wanted to give their kids a similar childhood they experienced.

But the couple doesn't agree on all things. Movies, for example.

"I met Kia in September 1999, when I was just out and socialising. I heard somebody speaking English. It was a chance meeting - just like my move to Denmark. Then we bumped into each other again because it's not a big town, and we got talking. Eventually, I asked her out: Do you want to go see a movie? So we went to see Star Wars, which she hated."

And she still hates it. "Kids love it, and Liam loves it. But I still hate it," Kia shakes her head.

What they did see eye to eye on was music. "Kia was a big Elvis fan, and so was my mother, so I knew much of the music. I actually went to Graceland, so she was impressed," laughs Liam.

A guitar and a story

But he didn't use his musical skills to impress Kia. "Well, later on, when I started writing more music, she was more impressed."

Liam has been writing music for about 25 years now. He stopped for 15 years, but when his kids got a little older, he took it up again, playing guitar and writing songs for them. "Then I started getting more seriously into writing music again. And Kia said: You might as well do something with it! So I got it professionally recorded in a studio." He's released a Christmas song on Spotify and has a series of songs coming out every month. He says there's no intention of going on a world tour or something similar. Well, according to Kia - not yet.

"Music just says something to me. It's how I express myself. And it might not even be necessarily about me - it could be from someone else's perspective or something I observed. It's easier for me to pluck a couple of chords on the guitar, and suddenly, a story starts coming in."

The kids inherited this musical talent. Mathilde plays the violin - she prefers classical music and is a trained musician. "I don't think there's any doubt that's a bit of the Irish in her. We've been listening to a lot of Irish music, and as long as I can remember, she's been saying she wanted to play the violin," says Kia.

Nicklas was naturally talented at drums and piano. Liam's dreams of having a family band are not entirely gone, but nowadays, Nicklas is way more active with sports. Kia says that this is the Danish part. "It's all nicely balanced - we have the Irish violin, and handball is pretty much the Danish national sport, and it comes from my side of the family. My mom played, I played, and so did my sister. And Nicklas has been playing for nine years now."

But he liked Denmark from the beginning. It offered a slower pace than Ireland, and for the laid-back Liam, that was a good fit.

Freedom to inspire

Kia did not follow her handball career. Instead, she's been a teacher for 22 years. "Growing up, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I maybe wanted to be an actress or something in the industry. But then I attended a youth school where you can go for free after-school activities after you've turned 13 and until you were 18. So I entered all sorts of classes - and when I turned 18, I got hired as a teacher in the same class where I'd been a student for five years." That's where she learned that, perhaps, teaching is the way to go. She likes the energy she receives in the room where she can see teenagers go: Whoa, I get that!

She's also a published author of both fiction and non-fiction. "I used to teach English as well, and my focus was on literature. I read a lot of books, and Mathilde picked that up from me. She's an author, too, and just recently got a short story about climate changes in Greenland published. It was a book with ten short stories selected from a big competition. She's by far the youngest author - I think the next youngest is over 30."

The short stories are all for young people, and Kia shares that they're already being used in classes. "That's what's great about teaching - inspiring young people to read and listen. In Denmark, we don't have a set curriculum. We have a freedom of method where we as teachers have set goals at the end of the year of what the students have to learn - but it's up to us to find a way of getting them there." From very early on, Kia has always enjoyed writing her own materials. She started publishing online, and one thing led to another - and her teaching materials have been published by different publishers in the past couple of years. "And I've been asked to do teaching materials for Mathilde's book."

Living in one world

As it seems, the family members are pretty diverse in their hobbies. One thing they like to do together, though? Watching movies together. Both Mathilde and Nicklas agree Toy Story is the family favourite.

"And we watch a lot of Shrek. So much that we can turn off the sound now," laughs Kia. Interestingly, they've never seen any of those movies in English. "But we've always watched the Harry Potter films in English!"

This is just a single example of how the family handles its bilingual nature. Kia and Liam are asked about how they deal with two languages. But it's never been an issue. "We speak in Danish when the kids are there. Liam and I talk in English, then we say something in Danish and switch back. Even though outsiders might look in and say: What's going on, the kids are very good at switching between the two languages. If there is a word you don't know in one language or if it takes too long to explain in another, the four of us just switch back and forth," explains Kia.

The couple agrees they didn't have to work very hard about bringing the two cultures together in their relationship because Denmark and Ireland aren't very different, after all.

And when the children arrived, Liam had a simple philosophy. "The kids, for all intents and purposes, are Danish, but they have an Irish father. I always thought it's best to live in one world; they can't live in two."

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