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Why US college students are flocking to Connemara

Community initiative seeks to build a €2.5m education centre to boost visitor numbers

Mannin beach between near Ballyconneely in Connemara Co Galway. Several US colleges have based their ‘study abroad’ modules in the wider area as a partnership with the Connemara Wes, community development organisation. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien / The Irish Times

When Prof Deborah Wickering comes across the name “Tully” back in Michigan’s Grand Rapids, her heart skips a little beat and she thinks of Connemara.

“There are several children with that name over here now - but our dean of social sciences was walking the pier one day and met a dog owner who had called her animal after Tullycross,” she says.

“We have had marriages, we have couples who have either settled there or back here, and it illustrates the depth of a relationship extending back 44 years.”

For those four decades and more, students from Aquinas College in Michigan, have been travelling to the west of Ireland to participate in one of the largest Irish studies minor programmes in north America.

Six other US colleges from the states of Maine, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri and New Hampshire have also based their “study abroad” modules in Tullycross village, near Renvyle, as part of a partnership with the Connemara West community development organisation.

The Letterfrack non-governmental organisation wants to build on this relationship now by developing a €2.5 million international education centre and refurbishing nine “iconic” thatched cottages for student accommodation.

“You’re talking about 1,000 north American students who have come over here since 1973 during the off-season winter months,” Connemara West chairman Dr Kevin Heanue says.

An artist’s impression of the proposed Connemara West Education Centre.

During that time, they have become part of the fabric of the community, taking classes in Irish culture and identity and contemporary social issues, and completing internships in Clifden hospital, with Connemara community radio, in local primary schools and with various social services.

“Tom Christy, one of our students this year, did his internship in a school in Lettergesh where his mother Denise had been placed as an assistant all of 36 years ago in 1981,” Prof Wickering, director of the 2017 Ireland programme at Aquinas, says.

“And there are many examples of these links. It’s been part of the natural rhythm of winter in the Tully Cross/Renvyle/Letterfrack area,” Dr Heanue says. “Every January, about 20 students arrive and become totally immersed in the community.”

“Their families may come and visit during the four months, or the students themselves may return, or some of them never really leave for long at all!,”he says.

Connemara West was established as a community development company in 1971 after a local fundraising drive, and its initial focus was on renting out self-catering thatched cottages in Tullycross as a tourism earner.

Located on the campus of the former St Joseph’s Industrial School, it has 500 local shareholders, employs 28 people directly - and dozens indirectly - in various community services, including a crèche and sports facilities.

Teach Ceoil in Tully, Connemara Community Radio, local development group Forum Connemara, and Conservation Letterfrack - which conserves and restores wooden artefacts - are among its pioneering projects.

It is also involved in the Letterfrack Furniture College, as an educational partnership with Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT).

Six years ago, Connemara West undertook extensive market research to build on the foundations of its education-led tourism.

Aquinas College helped to identify additional colleges offering independent study abroad programmes, with the research indicating potential for increasing the visiting student numbers five-fold.

“However, we knew we had inadequate teaching space, and so we purchased a former priests’ house from the diocese some 20 months ago,” Dr Heanue says.

The company secured planning permission to convert the house into an international residential education centre, incorporating an education hub with a 50-seat auditorium, library, group study and break-out rooms, video conferencing facilities, a conference room, and coffee dock.

The plan involves refurbishing and extending the nine thatched cottages, which were the nucleus of Connemara West’s first project back in 1973.

“We know these cottages well as our students have lived in them, and our classroom has been cottage number three,’’ Prof Wickering says.

“They are woefully inadequate for winter months, being quite primitive, so we do look forward to the beautiful centre that has been planned’’ she says.

Aquinas College has undertaken to raise some €1 million of the estimated budget of €2.5 million through its contacts in the US, and Dr Heanue is hoping the State will become involved, given its commitment to its action plan for rural development.

“Extending fibre optic cables from Letterfrack to Tullycross is part of that ‘ask’ from the State,” Dr Heanue says.

Less than 5km east, the Benedictine monastery of Kylemore Abbey has already transformed its former secondary school into a Connemara campus for the University of Notre Dame – with the strong support of Glen Dimplex owner Martin Naughton who has been on Notre Dame’s board for some years.

Dr Heanue and Prof Wickering describe their project as complementary, with potential use as a conference centre, for “bespoke programmes” and by lifelong learning groups from Ireland all over the world.

Connemara West says it has already been approached by individuals and organisations wishing to hold events associated with Galway’s European Capital of Culture title in 2020.

Transforming a small west of Ireland village into a “global learning destination” comes at “just the right time”, Prof Terry Keller of Lourdes University in Ohio has said of the Connemara West project.

Senior administrators and officials from several north American colleges are due to travel to Tullycross for the laying of a foundation stone for the new educational centre during an educational conference in June.

“You travel along the Wild Atlantic Way, and then you come to a place where you want to dive in deep... that’s the aim of this project,” Prof Wickering says.

Coastline curiosities: the attractions of the west for students

It might be the innards of a giant squid or why ocean sunfish gorge on jellyfish, but there’s plenty on the coastline to occupy curious visitors who don’t mind Atlantic weather.

If they happen to be from Catholic universities in north America, seeking a safe English-speaking environment for “study abroad” programmes, it’s an opportunity that few rural communities pass up, according to Kevin Flannery, one of the founders of Dingle’s Mara Beo aquarium.

Flannery, a retired fisheries officer and rare fish expert, is one of the drivers behind a partnership between the aquarium and Sacred Heart University (SHU) in Connecticut.

During a fine, warm day in late May, he accompanied 126 north American students to the Blasket islands, and was out and about teaching shoreline ecology for two weeks before.

Now SHU has become so fond of Dingle that it is purchasing the former Christian Brothers school in the town as a secondary campus, where it hopes to provide courses on tourism, marine science, sports marketing and history.

SHU has also signed a memorandum of understanding with University College, Cork and the Institute of Technology (IT) Tralee to run new student and faculty exchange programmes. Irish lecturers will be employed, and the economic spin-off is substantial, Flannery points out.

“In the case of Dingle, which does have year-round tourism, it brings in new blood and keeps houses leased, pubs and guesthouses going over the winter,” he says. “But there are empty buildings in places like Killybegs, Co Donegal or on Achill island or Castletownbere in west Cork where there’s potential for more of this,”he says.

“The IDA and Údarás na Gaeltachta are never going to attract industries to these areas, and this sort of activity is based on local knowledge of the culture, language and environment, and makes the best of what we have,” Flannery says.

“We have five intern students working on the aquarium alone, and we find that after their visit they don’t want to go home. “

Ironically, that transatlantic goodwill comes at a time when there is growing concern about the future of funding for third-level education for Irish students in the west – specifically Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology’s (GMIT) Mayo campus.

After a number of courses were withdrawn at the campus earlier this year, the Mayo GMIT Action Group wrote to then Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Sinn Féín leader Gerry Adams seeking four commitments.

These include ring-fenced Exchequer funding for the Mayo campus, index-linked, of 3.25 million euro per annum, and a commitment to autonomy from Galway in both budgets and decision-making.

The Department of Education has said that Minister for Education Richard Bruton is “committed to the future of a vibrant Mayo campus”, and announced establishment of a working group to “formulate a plan” for its “sustainable future” on a recent visit.

The group is required to present a full report to the Higher Education Authority’s finance committee in the third quarter of this year.

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