Is féidir linn: The Gaeltacht for grown-ups
This summer, Review is travelling through Ireland along roads less travelled, checking out lesser-known locations and experiences. This week, KATHY DONAGHY visits a Gaeltacht language school where former President Mary McAleese and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar both brushed up on their Irish
Past the villages of Kilcar and Carrick, perched on the edge of the Slieve League peninsula lies Glencolmcille. This is Donegal at its wildest, its most untamed. Mountains and sea cliffs fall sharply into the seemingly never-ending Atlantic Ocean. Hardy sheep graze the mountainside, oblivious to the majesty of their surroundings.
While many people flock to Glencolmcille, or Glen as locals refer to it, for the great outdoors, many others come to learn Irish. And unlike Rannafast or Loughanure in Co Donegal where school children have been coming for generations to learn Irish, Glen is attracting adult students.
An Irish-speaking community, Glen provides what is known as the “immersive” experience in popular travel writing parlance. People come to learn Irish at a local Irish school, stay in guest houses or B&Bs where Irish is spoken, go to bars where traditional music is still played and literally immerse themselves in all things Irish. Many stay for a week, some stay for two or three and others stay for longer. Most come back again.
Oideas Gael, set up by local man Liam Ó Cuinneagáin in 1984, operates as school and cultural centre. School is not really the correct term as the way Irish is taught here is nothing like the way most of us remember it from our school days. There’s a focus on conversation as opposed to writing and getting the grammar right.
Some 1,400 people will come through the doors of Oideas Gael this year. Only half are Irish, the other half are from all over the world with their own reasons for wanting to learn Irish.
Ó Cuinneagáin, a teacher by profession, says while he does not favour a structured programme, the most important thing is making sure the teachers are all wonderful communicators who are as enthusiastic about teaching as they are about the Irish language. He has just received a CV from a teacher in Moscow who wants to teach at Oideas Gael for the summer.
When he was growing up in Glen in the 1950s, he explains that neither Irish nor English was dominant — both sat side by side. While Irish was spoken in his house, their neighbours spoke English at home. Like many Gaeltacht areas over generations the Irish faded.
After studying Irish and psychology at UCD and teaching in Dublin, Ó Cuinneagáin decided to come back home to Glen to see if he could do anything to halt the decline of the language. Oideas Gael was born. After using a local school to teach adults over the summer months for a few years, a purpose-built cultural centre for students was built in 1991. And it’s from here that the daily courses are run. An accommodation unit was built four years later.
Ó Cuinneagáin’s proudest moment was the day former President Mary McAleese walked through
his doors. That was, he says, the first time he didn’t have to work to promote what he was doing. The phone rang incessantly for weeks afterwards. The former president has been back every year since then and her letter of thanks after her first visit is prominently displayed on the wall outside the main office.
When people first come to Oideas Gael, they’re put into groups depending on their language ability. The biggest challenge most people face is what Ó Cuinneagáin calls “breaking the speech barrier”.
“I encourage people to get out there and not to be afraid to make a mistake. I encourage them to correct each other, not in a teacher way, but just to help out. If you’re doubtful about something, ask someone at a higher level. They only have a week to make the best of it,” he says.
Ó Cuinneagáin has worked hard to build a global community of students who act as ambassadors for the Irish language and for Oideas Gael. The sense of place people get when they come to Glen brings them back and makes them feel at home, even though they might come from the other side of the world, he says.
In the advanced class, Dr Rankin Sherling from the southern state of Mississippi in the US is back
in Glen for the summer with his wife and young daughter. He came for the first time in 2007 as part of his PhD in the history of Irish migration. This is his fourth year in a row to come back, and while his wife Claire and five-year-old daughter Mary-McCain explore the area, he takes classes.
This year he’s also brought a number of his students with him from the free Irish classes he gives at the university where he teaches in Marion, Alabama.
“When I started the classes four years ago, it was just me and one student — the Irish book store owner. Now I have more than 20 people every week. They’re either Irish-American or Scottish-American. They all have either Scottish or Irish roots,” says Dr Sherling.
“There’s a thrill for me in chatting to someone here where the words are coming a million miles an hour and I’m understanding that. I’m reasonably fluent now — the classes are conversational. This is a huge part of my life now,” he says.
One of Dr Sherling’s students is 21-year-old William Bain from Tennessee who was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the US army before arriving in Glen. His teacher’s passion for the Irish language was so infectious that the young man says he wanted to come to Ireland to learn more.
On his return to the States, he will be given his posting and knows he could be sent anywhere. For now though, his main pursuit is getting to grips with the trickery of the Irish language.
“It’s coming to me. It’s taking some time but it’s coming. I just got out of school so this is a break. I had this picture of what it might be like. It’s so beautiful. It’s on my to-do list to come back,” says Bain.
Brexit and its aftermath is what brought Dessie Scullion (58), originally from Dumbarton in Scotland, to Glen. “I decided to apply for Irish citizenship and I felt if I’m going to have citizenship, I’d better reclaim a bit of my heritage,” he says.
From going to Irish evening classes in Glasgow he heard about Oideas Gael, and as a retired teacher he had some time on his hands and decided to sign up for a course. This is the second summer he’s come to Glen. “I’m enjoying it. It’s quite challenging, but then there’s no point in doing something that’s not,” he says.
A deep affinity with his Irishness — his grandfather on his mother’s side was from Creeslough in Co Donegal and his grandfather on his father’s side was from Belfast — Scullion hopes to take it to the point where he can sit exams and get some kind of formal qualification in Irish.
A FEELING OF HOME
“I’m waking up in the morning now and I’m thinking Irish words. It was the same last year. You get to that stage where you’re thinking in Irish. There’s a feeling of home I get coming here. I can relax. This is a special place,” he says.
Stephen Cahill, who lives in nearby Ardara in Donegal, is one of the few participants on the course who can go home every night. Growing up, he knew Fr McDyer, the priest who came to Glen in 1957, saw the community was dying, and was instrumental in turning its fortunes around.
A dedicated community activist, it was because of his award as Donegal person of the year — Oideas Gael founder Liam Ó Cuinneagáin is a previous recipient of the award — that Cahill felt he better perfect his cúpla focail.
Growing up in Glenties, Cahill says he had standard school Irish but when he got involved in community development, he realised that language was an integral part of keeping communities in Donegal alive.
“It starts to come back to you,” he says of the language. “All you’ve learned at school starts to come back very effectively here. The sad thing is unless you’re in an Irish-speaking environment, it will go away again just as quickly,” says Cahill.
“I’m involved with the GAA and there are opportunities to speak Irish. I run a pub and there’s also people who come into the pub who want to speak Irish. This brings you back to the basics, to the real Ireland we are forgetting. We’re moving too fast sometimes. The way Irish is taught here is brilliant. The teachers are brilliant. It’s done in an environment of relaxation and fun. The attitude here is ‘make a stab at it’,” he says.
“The teachers are unbelievable and while it takes a while to get your mind focused, by the end of the week you get more confident. It’s a totally wonderful way to spend a week. You might think you’ve no Irish at all but it will come back to you,” he adds.
Music was Aria Strauss’s (20) first introduction to the Irish language. An accomplished guitar player and singer she grew up in rural Minnesota where Derry man and Altan guitarist Dáithí Sproule was teaching music.
Learning traditional Irish songs with her brothers and sisters, she fell completely in love with Irish music. It was her dream to come to Ireland and listen and play that music here. The music also sparked an interest in learning the language and Strauss successfully applied for a Fulbright Irish Scholar Award, arriving here last month. She hasn’t been disappointed.
‘IT’S NOT SO SCARY’
“There’s an untamed beauty here and there’s a mystery to discover here. When I talk to people there’s a certain Irish spirit of never having been conquered. I haven’t quite figured it out,” says Strauss.
“It’s an amazing experience — not just learning the language but being physically here as well. I need to push myself with the language and do a lot more conversation. Glencolmcille is like another world. For me, being part of the traditional music sessions are the most magical part of being here when people share a little bit of what they love,” she says.
Her classmate Emily Murphy (26) from Newbridge in Co Kildare wants to be a primary school teacher and perfecting her Irish is important to getting a place on the course she wants.
“I rang Liam and he convinced me to come along. I was really scared — I’m not comfortable speaking Irish and I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with people. All the locals are speaking Irish to us and we went to the pub in nearby Carrick and people were talking to us and telling us stories in Irish. It’s not as scary as I thought. It’s so much fun — I’m going to be upset leaving here,” says Murphy.
Niamh Fleming (24) from Gorey in Co Wexford is studying Irish and geography in UCD. Improving her conversational Irish is what took her to Glen. “I was looking for an adult Gaeltacht. I’m delighted I picked this place. I’m here for two weeks, going home for a week and coming back for another two,” says Fleming.
“It doesn’t feel like work. My granny would love to come here with me. My sisters are coming back with me next year,” she says.
As the class breaks for lunch, the course participants meet up with family members who are also here or sit down together to eat. Afterwards they might have time for a quick stroll on the beach before classes resume.
But long after lessons finish and the last song has been sung, you get the feeling that they’ll never forget the summer they spent in Glen.
Enthusiasm: Ó Cuinneagáin set up Oideas Gael in 1984.
Cúpla focal: Rankin Sherling, Dessie Scullion, Emily Murphy and Aria Strauss are immersing themselves in Irish in Donegal.
Music of language: Emily Murphy and Aria Strauss during their stay at Oideas Gael in Donegal.