How many teenagers can a Bean an Tí fit in her house? One more

Irish college may be cancelled this year but it’s an experience that never changes. Ever.

Students from Coláiste Uí Chadhain Irish College near Baile Na hAbhann, Co Galway, practice their singing for the houses competition. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

Students from Coláiste Uí Chadhain Irish College near Baile Na hAbhann, Co Galway, practice their singing for the houses competition. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

 

News this week that a Government compensation fund of €2.2 million has been set aside to compensate families in the Gaeltacht who in more normal times host students attending Irish colleges has prompted many to wax nostalgic about their time in the Gaeltacht. For those who have never been, here’s a handy explainer. It may well be 30 years out of date but I’m pretty sure little has changed.

The 1980s Gaeltacht is a place where 1980s teenagers are sent by their 1980s parents who hate them very much and are probably trying to save their marriage. Sometimes as a consequence of being sent to the 1980s Gaeltacht, teenagers learn Irish, a language made up by the people who devised the Leaving Cert when they were bored. But this is hardly the point of the exercise.

The point of the exercise is that at some point in their three weeks of detention the teenager may kiss another teenager whose father is an auctioneer in the midlands. When this goal is achieved, De Valera will appear to the teenager in a dream and high five them before singing A Nation Once Again.

The foot soldier of the Irish College Industrial Complex is the Bean an Tí. She is a powerful entity who can bend the laws of physics when it comes to fitting bunk beds into a finite space. The Bean an Tí gets a job lot of teenagers from the manager of the Irish College and proceeds to cram them into her house. How many teenagers can a Bean an Tí fit into a house? The answer is “one more.”

The Bean an Tí does not believe that children are the future. She believes the jerry-rigged extension she will build and into which she will cram more teenagers is the future.

The 1980s Bean an Tí can barely comprehend these teenagers. She is confused by their Danielle Steel novels and Doors records and step haircuts. She laughs bitterly at their lapses into the language of the hated oppressor (Dubliners). She does not believe that children are the future. She believes the jerry-rigged extension she will build and into which she will cram more teenagers is the future. Sometimes when she is thinking happily about cramming teenagers into a jerry-rigged extension, a man from the 21st century appears to her in a vision. He is named “Dermot Bannon” and he is weeping.

There are several kinds of teenager at the Gaeltacht.

The Cinnire. This is an elite group who have been to the Gaeltacht before and have been given positions of relative authority over other children. As William Golding outlined in his child-rearing manual, Lord of the Flies, this could hardly go wrong. The Bean an Tí sees the cinnire as a necessary evil and holds a rictus grin as they speak with her about the matters of the day. She knows they are nothing more than narks and will be first against the wall when the revolution comes. The cinnire are very pleased with themselves but this is the best it’s going to get for them.

A donkey carrying hay passes by Coláiste Uí Chadhain Irish College near Baile Na hAbhann in Connemara. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.
A donkey carrying hay passes by Coláiste Uí Chadhain Irish College near Baile Na hAbhann in Connemara. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

Dubliners. These naïfs have never been outside of the capital before and think everything is hilarious. They dress like fashionable clowns and none of what they talk about makes any sense. They will probably ask you if you own a pig. On no account tell them about your pig. They will just laugh at you.

The nerd attempting to reinvent him/herself. He/she will wear t-shirts of bands he/she hasn’t actually listened to in order to try and make friends under false pretences. He/she might try to give him/herself a cool nickname like Freyner, the Freyniac or the Freynemeister.

The nerd’s friend from home. Their job is to say “I don’t remember that. Are you sure that happened?” when the nerd tells a story about something cool they have done. The nerd hasn’t forgotten this betrayal 30 years on.

You didn’t understand back then because you were a young fool, but 'Irish College' partly exists to consolidate middle class identity and create networks with franchise potential.

The child who gives firm handshakes and introduces themselves with their full name and a short description of their family business. You didn’t understand back then because you were a young fool, but “Irish College” partly exists to consolidate middle class identity and create networks with franchise potential. This child knew. If you’d stuck with them, you’d be sitting on several government boards now, eating three carvery lunches a day instead of cry-gorging on family packs of Haribo Supermix between deadlines. But no, you were busy pretending to like the Smiths.

The boy who doesn’t wash for three weeks. The boy who doesn’t wash for three weeks is going for broke, unbounded by parental authority, and driven mad by his newfound freedoms. He sleeps in the bunk above you and you can literally see those wavy stink lines cartoonists draw when he’s talking to you. He’s now a senior bank official.

The dreamy boy who plays guitar and is always surrounded by girls. If there is one thing you and the 1980s Bean an Tí agree on, it’s that this boy will come to no good. He thinks he’s so cool just because he can play American Pie from beginning to end and not just the same two bars of Brewing Up A Storm over and over again. The Bean an Tí hates him because he’s a vegetarian. She has never heard the like. He will eat dry pasta and be grateful, the little sh*t.

The 1980s Bean an Tí, for the record, has a freezer filled with “normal food” – sliced pan, Findus crispy pancakes, frozen peas, something minced. She knows how to fill 15 children with carbs on a budget. And there’s nothing she can’t put custard on – crumble, gravel, a shoe. She is the spirit of this nation’s thrift and guile and she will know what to do with her share of a €2.2 million subsidy fund. We have much to learn from her. Just not Irish.