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Abdul-Malik is not a typical Irish Gaelic speaker. He isn't elderly, rosy-cheeked, or particularly fond of wool sweaters -- and his Muslim faith prohibits him from stopping at the pub for a pint of Guinness.

But for the past several weeks, the 32-year-old Homewood man has spent Saturday afternoons inside a classroom on Chicago's Northwest Side, navigating the sometimes confusing grammatical structure of the Irish language.

And he isn't alone. The language that many think only survives in the sheep-dotted hills of rural Ireland is thriving, especially in Chicago.

According to U.S. Census data, Cook County has an estimated 1,500 residents who speak Irish at home, more than any other county in the nation.

Like most Americans who speak Irish, Abdul-Malik's classmates at the Irish American Heritage Center tend to have some Irish branches on their family tree. But beyond that, it's a diverse group.

It includes teenagers, retirees, young mothers and language buffs of all kinds.

Despite the students' diversity, Abdul-Malik -- in an Irish Republican Army T-shirt paired with his long beard and traditional Muslim prayer cap -- stands out. But according to Abdul-Malik, Islam and Ireland have more in common than people may believe.

"I come from an Irish family, so I got interested in Irish history, especially political issues," said Abdul-Malik, who was born Michael Ryan and raised in suburban Oak Park. "But I didn't really grow up feeling like I was part of an Irish community, like many people in Chicago do."

Eleven years ago, when Abdul-Malik converted to Islam, he rediscovered his Irish roots and developed an interest in language, particularly how it was used by Irish political groups involved in the lengthy struggle against British rule.

"When I became Muslim, I got more into my Irishness ... I started to see the links between the struggles (of Irish Republicans) and those of Islam," he said. "A lot of my Muslim friends are immigrants, and they have their own language and culture ... and for me, that's the Irish identity."

According to John Gleeson, co-director of the Center for Celtic Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Abdul-Malik's re-discovery of his Irish identity is not uncommon phenomenon among Americans who take up the language.

"It's a key that unlocks their heritage," Gleeson said.