Call for State support for Gaeltacht colleges

Decision to close Coláistí Gaeilge will have ’far-reaching effect’ on Gaeltacht areas

The Government will have to address the economic impact caused by the closure of Gaeltacht colleges as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Conradh na Gaeilge has said.

The call comes as individual colleges are assessing the financial cost of the decision to cancel this year’s summer courses.

Coláistí Gaeilge are of huge economic benefit to Gaeltacht areas as they are attended by about 27,000 students each year and are worth an estimated €50m to the local economy.

"This will have a far-reaching effect on the entire Gaeltacht in the coming weeks, months and years," warned Conradh na Gaeilge's Peadar Mac Fhlannchadha.

While the announcement came as a blow to Gaeltacht communities, there was little surprise at the decision.

Dónal Ó Laoire is bainisteoir (manager) of the country’s oldest Irish college. Coláiste na Mumhan is located in Béal Átha’n Ghaorthaidh (Ballingeary) in Gaeltacht Mhúscraí in Cork.

“It was the correct decision. There’s no doubt about that. We have to consider public health but it does have implications for the Gaeltacht and for the wider area,” he said.

“Students have been coming to this Gaeltacht since 1904 and it is a big thing for them not to be here. They are like the swallows - they return to the same place every year and their absence will be keenly felt.

“Some have been in touch with me and they are heart-broken that it has been cancelled.”

In Béal Átha’n Ghaorthaidh most of the students stay on campus but this summer’s closure will be felt in the wider community.

“We normally employ about 30 local people in the college. We employ teachers, assistants and people who work in the kitchen and of course they all speak in Irish. It will have a kind of a domino effect.

“We had big plans to invest in the college and to host events during the year. Of course we will have to revisit that as we won’t have the money. This will set us back 10 years.”

Conradh na Gaeilge representatives are expected to discuss the economic fallout with Minister for State Seán Kyne when they meet on Wednesday. Ó Laoire echoed the group’s call for Government assistance.

“We need some help and that will be true of Coláistí Samhraidh in general. We invest every year in development, we purchase equipment and invest in buildings. Planning for 2020 started last September and unless we receive some financial aid the sector will be in trouble.

“Most of the colleges are in remote areas and depend on every penny that comes in. If you take Béal Átha’n Ghaorthaidh we have one shop, two pubs and one take-away.”

“The students really lift the area when they arrive, they bring an energy with them. There is a lot of Irish spoken here but they are a catalyst for the language which ensures that the language stays alive for another year.

Sinéad Ní Neachtain, director of Coláiste Chonnacht near An Spidéal in Co Galway, said bookings for the 2020 summer courses had already filled up and that she was trying to secure additional accommodation for students just weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic hit Ireland.

College staff, teachers and the mná tí who were scheduled to take teenagers into their homes for the summer months are shocked and upset at the news that the courses have been cancelled, she said.

“The impact of this on the Gaeltacht community will be huge,” said Ms Ní Neachtain. “Of course we all understand why this needs to happen but we’re a small business and we don’t know how much support there will be.

“These are very high quality courses we provide; lots of preparation goes into this work so we are very disappointed. We understand the department’s decision but we also need to understand the next steps. We just hope information will come quickly.”

Carrying out remote courses via an online platform will not be viable replacement for the summer Gaeltacht experience, she added. “You cannot create that atmosphere through zoom. Students come here for the craic and the music and to meet knew people. You can’t create that anywhere but in the Gaeltacht.”

The closure of the Coláiste, which is 110 years old, will have a lasting impact into the future, said Ms Ní Neachtain. “We’re going to feel this during this summer and beyond. It took a long time to build this industry back up after the recession, we just hope we can come back from this.”

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí is an Irish Times journalist and editor of the Irish Times Student Hub

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast