Is féidir linn: The Gaeltacht for grown-ups

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - ON THE ROAD -

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.


“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.


“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.

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