24 hours in . . .An Ghaeltacht
The modern-day Gaeltacht is a far cry from horror stories of bad food, tales of lonely students and fear of a language taught by rote – but one full sentence in English and you’re out
ONE OF THE unwavering constants in Irish life, admissions to Irish college in Gaeltacht areas have taken a hit over the past few years as parents struggle to come up with fees. But for thousands of secondary-school students, those few summer weeks in the Gaeltacht haven’t really changed in decades. Language immersion, romance, céilís, making friends and having the edge when exam time comes are what continue to draw teenagers to the west of Ireland and elsewhere year in year out.
As Connemara scenes go, you can’t rival a straw-laden donkey making its way up the road past Coláiste Uí Chadhain, trailed by a group of students emerging from morning lessons. Along the road between Spiddal and TG4, this Gaeltacht college is two courses into its summer, with 90 students in an old school building that was closed down in the 1970s and is leased every summer from the parish council. In an idyllic setting, with the type of landscape American tourists coo over and small lanes leading down to unspoiled, empty beaches, the pint-pulling raucousness of Galway city feels further than 20 miles.
“I always say, ‘don’t start crying or I’ll start crying’.” Even though their stay is temporary, Róisín Ní Chonfhaola gets attached to the students. She’s been a bean an tí for five years. Before that, she was a teacher in Coláiste Uí Chadhain, but decided to become a bean an tí to stay home with her children. Ní Chonfhaola gets up at 7am to prepare for a day of feeding and watering the 14 girls under her roof. (Fourteen has become the magic number for mná tí. Recent cuts mean that the previous subvention, for up to 16 students per house, has been reduced by two.) She gets their breakfast ready and then bakes brown bread. Then she prepares the vegetables for dinner, serves breakfast, and cleans the diningroom, kitchen and bathroom. Bedroom cleaning is left to the students. They go off for their lessons after breakfast and come back at 1pm for the main meal of the day.
At dinnertime, mid-afternoon, her large kitchen is abuzz with students moving on to desserts. Ní Chonfhaola’s desserts are famous throughout Coláiste Uí Chadhain. She has 21 different dessert recipes, one for every day of the three-week course. On the window sill is a collection of thank-you cards from parents, one remarking on her cooking being “much better” than the mother who sent it.
There’s a sense that Ní Chonfhaola puts an extra effort into what she’s providing for the students, far from Gaeltacht-of-yore cuisine horror stories. “It’s hard to get that money together for the parents,” she says. “They’re sending their kids to some place, and they don’t know who they’re going to for three weeks. I used to see parents when I was teaching dropping them off, and they would be worried. I always thought, you know, if they could go somewhere and then just phone the parents and say ‘the bean an tí is so nice and the food is great’, parents feel like they’ve done the right thing for their kids.”
Most of the changes Ní Chonfhaola has seen in the past five years – aside from “more fake tan and more dry shampoo” are monetary. “When I started there was more money in the country. They have less pocket money, but that’s a good thing, they’d only be spending it on sweets and things they don’t need.”
Jennifer Foy (17), from Lucan, one of Ní Chonfhaola’s brood, is spending her fourth summer at the college. “You meet new friends and everyone is very close,” she says in Irish, in the small, one-room building next to the school that functions as a staff room, office and stationary depot. “The teachers and students are friends. No one speaks Irish in Dublin, so this is a chance to do that.”
Ryan Henehan (17), from Loughrea, agrees. “The classes are completely different to school because everyone is involved,” he says in Irish. “The oral test for the Leaving Cert is 40 per cent now. Here, you’re always learning new words. Someone might say ‘give me that thing’, and you can tell them the word they’re looking for, so we learn from each other.”
Both Foy and Henehan are keen to return to the college as assistants, and they both also want to study Irish in university. “I’d like to be an Irish teacher, “ says Henehan. “Before I came to the Gaeltacht I had no interest in Irish, but now I love it. I love learning about Irish history and culture.”