Every summer, hundreds of Irish teenagers go to Irish College. They spend three weeks there, making friends, doing Irish lessons in the morning, sports or the beach in the afternoon, and dancing, either in a disco or a céilí (evening with Irish folk music and dance). Irish college is referred to as The Gaeltacht in Ireland. A Gaeltacht is an area, in which the majority of people use Irish as their native language.
I first went to the Gaeltacht in the summer of 1991. I was thirteen years old, and had just finished first year (seventh grade). Three friends and I packed our bags, and said goodbye to our parents at Heuston Station in Dublin. We piled into one of several trains headed west. The train was teeming with teenagers. There were some ceannairí (leaders). The ceannairí were employees of The Irish College we went to, Coláiste Cholumba, and usually were in their very late teens, or early twenties. I’m sure you can imagine how crazy things can get on a train full of teenagers, leaving their parents behind, and heading off for three weeks of craic (fun not drugs).
The train journey to Galway lasts about three hours. We disembarked at Ceannt Station, in the heart of Galway City. There were tons of buses waiting for all the students, to various different colleges. We were headed west, to An Ceathrú Rua (Carraroe), twenty six miles away. The journey there is quite comical. This big bus on tiny, twisty, hilly roads. I was always surprised when we made it.
When we got there, we were assigned our houses, where we would live the next three weeks. My three friends and I were all in the same house, which was just down the road from the college. There were twenty six girls in the house. Our Bean an Tí (woman of the house) must have been around eighty years old. I remember her always in the kitchen, constantly baking bread, and smoking toitíní (cigarettes). She chain-smoked, and her cigarettes were always either dangling from her mouth as she talked, or placed in some unlikely position on the table. Her daughter-in-law was the one who did most of the day to day stuff. Although they were quite strict, we all got on fine with them. The Bean an Tí’s grandchildren helped out, serving the meals. The friend I shared a room with, and I actually became quite friendly with the older two. When we were sixteen, we entertained them in Dublin (drank in a parking lot). We were not allowed to watch TV because it was mostly in English. The first year around, our Bean an Tí broke the rule for the last episode of Twin Peaks. There was such hype worldwide about it. We of course were delighted.
The twenty six students became friends quickly. There was little or no bullying there. There was a huge sense of camaraderie amongst everyone at the college. It was so much fun, living with twenty five other teenage girls. Each morning we did Irish lessons, in the afternoon played sports or hit the beach, and in the evening attended a disco or a céilí (Irish folk music and dancing). I loved every part of it. A lot of others hated the school component, but I had an amazing Irish teacher in first year, who instilled a love for the language in me.
There was the usual getting off (making out) that teenagers do, and smoking in secret. My parents gave me a letter permitting me to smoke from 1992 on. I was allowed, but hardly anyone else was. I inevitably would up being the cover for others. I was nearly caught many times, but always just avoided it. My parents gave me permission to smoke, because they knew I would, and didn’t want me to be sent home.
People are expected to speak Irish when in The Gaeltacht. As long as each sentence has some Irish in it, you’re okay. Is fearr Gaeilge briste, ná Béarla cliste, is an idiom which means, Broken Irish is better than clever English. If you’re caught speaking English, you go on the Liosta Béarla (English List), which is a warning. A second time, gets you on the Liosta Gutháin (Phone List), which means your parents are called, and told you’ve only one chance left. The third, and final time, you land yourself on The Liosta Abhaile (Home List). You’re sent home. Do not pass GO. Do not collect £200 (this was before the Euro). Very few people get to this stage, but every year some did. They put your name down as a warningreminder to others. The liostaí were on huge pieces of paper, stuck up on the wall in the office. Anytime you went in there, you felt like gloating or being scared. The intimidation tactics certainly worked.
On either my first or second visit, I ended up on the Liosta Gutháin. My mom was livid. Money was fairly tight back then, and she did not want it wasted on something I couldn’t commit to. My mom is a Gaeilgeoir (lover of Irish), and was disappointed for that reason too. Another year I was on the Liosta Béarla, when a teacher caught me speaking English. I had spoken a sentence with only a couple of words of Irish in it. I hadn’t broken any rules, but yes, I hadn’t exactly acted in the spirit of The Gaeltacht. I said something like “Do you want to come outside, and caitheamh tobac?”, asking someone to come smoke. I argued my point, in Irish of course, and was let off with a stern look. Another time, I was sitting on some steps with a girl who had just fractured her ankle playing volleyball. We were right outside the office, and the window was open. I was calming her down, telling her it was alright, and trying to distract her, as the Ardmháistir (principal) figured out who’d take her into Galway to the hospital. I switched to English, because her Irish wasn’t great, and heck, she was in a lot of pain. The Ardmháistir came out and called me “Doctúir Ingrid, huh?” (Dr. Ingrid), to which I grinned. He followed it with “Doctúir Béarla” (English Doctor)… I kind of grimaced as he gave me a sideways glance. He let me know “Tá tú ceart go leoir,” (you’re alright), an indication I wasn’t in trouble. Even mass was conducted in Irish. Since 99.9%* (*said percentage is highly exaggerated) of Irish people were Catholic back in the early 90s, we were all marched down to the church every Sunday. I got really good at knowing my prayers i nGaeilge (in Irish).
I was quite homesick my first time there. I was thirteen, and this was my first time away from my parents. I got over it quickly, but not without some tearful phone calls home. The same year, I developed a kidney infection, and had to go home for a few days. I couldn’t wait to get back. The college has one day during the three weeks, that’s called Parent’s Day. It’s exactly as it sounds, and my friend’s parents and younger sister came. They brought us out for dinner, which was great. We were however, glad to say goodbye, so we could get back to our teenage shenanigans.
Although we all had fun when we played sports in the afternoon, almost everyone preferred going to the beach. Now anyone who knows Ireland, knows the summer is hit or miss. Sometimes we get some attempt of a few nice days, mostly not though. Especially on the west coast. An Ceathrú Rua is a peninsula that juts into The Atlantic Ocean. It is wild, wet, and windy most of the time. Nevertheless, we all loved going anyway. The walk was between one and two miles. The closer you were to town, the further you were from the beach. There is a huge rock on the shoreline, but still in the ocean. Everybody used to jump off it into the sea. Looking back, it was pretty dangerous. I’d guess it was about twenty feet tall, and the water was not very deep. That was okay in the 90s though. In this day and age, I doubt kids are still allowed jump off it.
There were three sessions of three weeks every year. One year I went to the middle session, on my own. I’m pretty sure it was the year I was fifteen. I was almost fluent at that point, which sadly I can no longer say. Towards the end of the three weeks, I was walking with one of the teachers, near some church ruins. I hung out with the teachers a lot that year, partly because I had come without friends, but mostly because I loved speaking Irish and I needed my fix. I asked would it be okay if I stayed for another session, for a total of six weeks. We spoke to the Ardmháistir, and my parents, and it was all arranged. I went home for one night, and came back the next day. I felt so young and free. Irish was my passion and I was delighted. I was also Ceannaire an Tí (leader of the house) for both sessions. It’s not an official position, more of a go-between for the college and each house. If there were problems, I would report them to the Bean an Tí andor the college. At the end of the night, when a head count was being done, I was responsible for counting my housemates, and reporting back. At the end of the night, when the disco or céilí was finished, we all stood and sang Amhrán an bhFiann (the national anthem. One day, on a trip into Galway, three lads were caught buying alcohol, and then sent home. Most of the students were mad, although looking back now as an adult, that seems bizarre. No one would stand up or sing when we were supposed to for the national anthem. The principal was livid, but the students held their ground. I remember feeling torn. I was expected to act as a role model for other students, but also had a good rapport with staff. I was one of them (the students). In the end The Ardmháistir was sufficiently angry, and spewing, that we caved.
Each year, each house had to do a scoraíocht (put on a show), for everyone. The best one we did, was a skit on the teachers. We were lucky, having twenty six actors. One house only had six students. A few of us were really good at acting, and pulled off the impressions really well, including dressing like them. There was no doubt who was who, and the teachers were good natured, and took it in their stride. We won the competition that year.
The last year I went to The Gaeltacht, I was sixteen. That was old to still go, but I loved it, and had gotten so much out of it the year before. This time, my Irish felt clunky. I had been almost fluent the year before, and here I was having trouble stringing a few words together. My Bean an Tí also noted that I was different, not in a good way. I don’t know what happened in the previous school year, but she was right. I was changed from before in both behavior, and Irish proficiency. It broke my heart. My trips to The Gaeltacht were some of my happiest times. My love for Irish was still there, but my skill had fallen apart. It sucked to have my last year like that, ending it all on a bad note. Having said that, I can separate it out. I still overall have overwhelmingly good memories, on the whole. I wish I lived in Ireland, and could send my kids for their three weeks each year.
During my teenage years, I thought I would marry a Gaeilgeoir, live in An Ceathrú Rua, and have a clatter of Irish-speaking babies. I ended up on the other side of The Atlantic, married a Mexican, and have three beautiful English-speaking Leprechanos. I wouldn’t change that for the world. They’re nuts like their mam, and that’s the way I like it. I do speak the cúpla focail (two words => a few words of Irish) to them. They understand them. Simple things like “Wash your hands,” “Go to bed,” “hugs and kisses.” I hope someday they’ll be grateful, even if it’s minimal phrases. Meanwhile I yearn to go back. Not when Irish College is in session, but when it’s mostly the natives. I’d love to see what’s changed, and what’s not. Is the chip shop still there? Can I find my way to the beach? Is the house I stayed in the same? Might I run into some familiar faces? I’ve never been back, and it’s nearly a quarter of a century later. Until then, however, I’ll have my memories. Wonderful memories of one of the best periods of my life. Feeling young, free, and unstoppable.
Slán go fóill!