Janet "Sinead" Donnelly was looking for a challenging new hobby. Deirdre McFarland wanted help pronouncing names she encountered reading history and myth. And Eugene Vitchev, a Bulgarian-born physicist, decided to expand his linguistic repertoire.

Their love of the Irish language drew them to Gaelic-immersion day Saturday at the Irish Center at the Commodore Barry Club in Mount Airy, where English was kept to a minimum and the focus was on all things Irish.

"Coming to the day is a lovely way to speak to other people with a common interest," said Donnelly, a teacher from Piscataway, N.J., who began her quest to learn Irish a decade ago. "It's just a pleasant day to practice what was a hobby and has become a passion."

More than 55 people turned out for the first Satharn Na nGael (A Gaelic Saturday) held in Philadelphia by the Daltai na Gaeilge (Students of the Irish Language).

There were classes for beginners trying to learn a few phrases in the lilting tongue and literature sessions for advanced speakers.

The event drew many second- and third-generation Irish descendants who had heard older relatives speak Gaelic when they were young, as well as those who had no memories of the language.

During workshops, participants listened to an Irish harpist, sang lullabies in Gaelic, and learned the steps of ceili dancing.

"It is really about the culture and the love of the language," said Marcella Reis, an Upper Darby resident who helped organize the day.

Philadelphia, she said, is a natural spot to hold a Daltai event. According to the 2000 Census, more than 20 percent of residents in this eight-county region had Irish ancestors. And in Delaware County, 29 percent of residents claimed Irish heritage.

Delaware County, Reis said, has been dubbed "the 33d county of Ireland" because it has the highest percentage of residents with Irish surnames in this country.

"That wouldn't surprise me," said Joe Gallagher, a retired stockbroker from Havertown, who was one of the seven volunteers who taught Gaelic classes. "And probably Havertown has one of the greatest concentrations in Delaware County."

Ethel Brogan, who was born in Ulster and lives in New York state, founded Daltai in 1981 to help keep the Irish language and culture alive.

Liam Guidry, the secretary of the nonprofit organization, said Brogan had wanted to give residents on this side of the Atlantic the kind of Gaelic-immersion experiences she'd had during summers as a child.

"It is a very lyrical language," said Guidry, a former Monmouth County prosecutor. "You take classes your whole life. You move beyond the grammar and get into the literature."

He began his study of Gaelic more than 20 years ago after returning from a trip to Ireland. "I was embarrassed I didn't know any words of Irish."

Guidry is now so adept in Gaelic he is allowed to wear a fainne, a kind of circular stickpin that denotes fluency.

Most of Daltai's immersion programs last a weekend or a full week and offer more intensive instruction. Philadelphia's session was designed to appeal to novices and make sure they felt welcome.

"This is kind of a tease to get people relaxed," Guidry said.

Jerry Sweeney, a retired Catholic high school teacher, traces an uptick in Irish interest to the success of Riverdance, the step-dancing spectacular, and musical productions such as Celtic Women and Three Irish Tenors.

McFarland, who learned Gaelic in classes at the Irish Center in the early 1980s and returned to lead one Saturday, agreed.

"It's beautiful. It's melodic," said McFarland, a literacy teacher who lives outside Allentown. "As soon as I heard the language spoken, I was hooked."

Saturday's language-immersion program was a first for Rosaleen Megonegal. Now a resident of Fox Chase, Megonegal was born and raised in County Mayo and once spoke fluent Irish.

"I thought I would come here today and brush up on my Gaelic," she said. "Somebody just asked me if I've learned anything. What I learned is how much I've forgotten."

Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.