Meet the Bean an Tí: the mammies minding our teens
‘I think if I won the Lotto I would still be a bean an tí’
Bean an tí Mairéad Ní Dhroighneáin preparing a meal for students at her house in Spiddal, Co Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Spending weeks away from home in a stranger’s house while being immersed in our native tongue is a rite of passage for Irish teenagers. A summer spent in any of the Gaeltacht areas around the country is a quintessential part of growing up in Ireland, and while many teens head off feeling unsure or even reluctant about the prospect of being away from home for so long, the vast majority return buoyed up by the experience with a host of new friends and a great deal more confidence in speaking Irish.
But what about the families who host these students every year – what must it be like to open your doors for three months of the year to groups of noisy, messy, emotional and even rowdy teenagers?
When Mary Ellen McDonagh was growing up in Ros a Mhil, Co Galway, she vowed never to take students into her home as she remembered the invasion year after year as her mother welcomed the summer arrivals. However, despite this reluctance, the Galway woman began hosting students three years ago.
“I said I would never find myself doing the same thing even though my mother absolutely loved having the students,” she says. “But three years ago, I decided to do it too, and have found that I really enjoy it.
“I take in 12 students from Coláiste Chamuis for three weeks at a time, and although it takes a bit of getting used to initially, once the first few days are over, everyone settles into the new routine and before long it becomes second nature to us all.”
Mary Ellen, who is married to Kevin and has five children aged between 11 and 21, says there is a little bit of organisation involved in turning the house from a family home into a dormitory-style dwelling, but many hands make light work.
“When I first decided to take in students it was a great opportunity to do a massive clear out of old toys, clothes, books and generally stuff we weren’t using any more. We had so much space that was cluttered with stuff so it was great to get rid of it all.
The first year was the most difficult, particularly getting into a routine for mealtimes, but once I got the hang of it, it has been fine ever since”
“Now before the students come we just have to take the sofa out of the spare sitting room and put bunks [which we store in the shed] in instead, and the other two rooms stay the same all year.
“My own kids are a fantastic help, and really put in the effort to get the place ready. We do a deep clean before they arrive and another [even deeper] after they all leave. The students have the downstairs of the house and we use the upstairs, so although the house is pretty full we have our own separate bedroom and bathroom area.”
She says there is a lot of work involved in feeding and minding the students but despite the effort [and her initial reluctance] being a bean an tí is something she has naturally fallen into.
“As both my mother and Kevin’s were bean an ti’s when we were growing up, it’s something we have always been used to and now that we are doing it too it just seems normal.
“The first year was the most difficult, particularly getting into a routine for mealtimes, but once I got the hang of it, it has been fine ever since. You learn as you go along, and each group of students is different – some kids are lonely, some are fussy eaters, some are emotional but it’s funny that no matter what they are like at the beginning, after a couple of days everyone begins to click and they form a tight group.
Back to normality
“When our last students go at the end of the summer we set aside a day to get the house back in shape – with all of the kids helping, it usually only takes us three to four hours and then we are back to normality. Mind you, no summer would be complete without us finding things students have left behind, so once they have been returned to their owners all will be quiet again for a few months.”
Caitlin Doohan of Rann na Feirste in Co Donegal says the tranquillity takes a lot of getting used to after her summer students’ return home, and her 12-year-old son finds it particularly hard to adjust.
“My youngest child [she also has two grown up daughters] always feels very sad when the summer ends. The whole village is alive for three months and then dies a death when they all go home.
I am well used to what it involves which is basically being mother, nurse, doctor, cleaner and chef to them”
“We don’t even have a shop for most of the year but when the Irish college is up and running there is a little café and shop where the kids can buy ice-cream so everyone feels very sad when it closes up for the winter.
“And, of course ,our own house is suddenly really quiet when the students go as well. The children in the village [including my own] would always wait excitedly for the buses to arrive, and there would be great excitement as all the teenagers get off with their luggage bringing a great atmosphere with them.”
Although her husband Joseph works full time, Caitlin says he helps as much as possible with the students from Colaiste Bhride, but at the end of the day she is their main carer for the duration of their visit.
“Of course, Joseph does all the heavy lifting when we have to replace the double beds with bunks [which are stored in the garage] and he also makes sure to help with the meal preparation by peeling potatoes and vegetables and anything else which needs doing.
“But I suppose I am the main person who takes care of the students. Both my mother and grandmother did it before me so I am well used to what it involves which is basically being mother, nurse, doctor, cleaner and chef to them.
“I also listen to problems and sort out any fights basically the same as I would do for my own children, so I am there for them 24/7 and to be honest I really enjoy it. And although it is very hard work I think that if I won the Lotto I would still be a bean an ti.”
If Mairéad Ní Dhroighneáin won the lottery she would probably open her own restaurant, but that’s not to say that the second generation bean an tí doesn’t love her summer role.
“I have been keeping students for Cholaiste Chonnacht [near Spiddal] for the past five years and really enjoy it,” says the Galway woman. “I always loved cooking, and when I was a teenager got a job in a local restaurant so became really interested in it.
“Having a restaurant of my own would be the dream if I had plenty of money but I get to use my cooking skills on the 24 teenagers [12 per course] who stay with me each summer.”
Mairead, who is married to Nollaig, and is expecting their first baby at the end of the summer, says nowadays students have a lot more input in what they get to eat during the three weeks they spend with a bean an ti.
Open kitchen diner
“The days of strict mealtimes with no choices are long gone as nowadays so many people require dishes that are coeliac friendly or vegetarian. So I discuss with my students [always girls] what they would like to eat, and because we have an open kitchen diner they are more involved in it than they might be in another house with a separate dining area.”
Going to Irish college is a tradition for teenagers in Ireland, but so is being a bean an tí for those of us who grew up with it”
The five-bedroom house was built with students in mind and because of this Mairead has very little upheaval to endure at the beginning and end of each course.
“There are three bedrooms upstairs and we have all the furniture we need in there, so we don’t have to be bringing beds in and out. Nollaig and I sleep downstairs and the girls have upstairs, and then they all come down to eat – it’s very much like a family situation, a home from home.
“Going to Irish college is a tradition for teenagers in Ireland, but so is being a bean an tí for those of us who grew up with it. I have always been around students during the summer months, and it seemed perfectly natural to open my house to them just as my mother did before me.
“It’s a very special experience for everyone concerned, and just lovely that the tradition has been around for such a long time and looks set to continue for a long time to come.”