Stampede west to learn our language
Last year's census revealed a steady decline in the use of Irish in Gaeltacht areas. But students still flock to brush up on their native tongue.
The stampede westwards has begun as thousands of students head for the Gaeltacht this summer. From Glenn Cholm Cille in Donegal to Baile an Fheirtéaraigh on the Dingle Peninsula, the lilting sound of city slickers temporarily morphing into Gaeilgeoirs is a most unusual, and uniquely Irish, cacophony.
In West Kerry alone at least 2,500 students are already experiencing three weeks of linguistic and cultural immersion this summer.
And with oral Irish now making up 40pc of the overall mark in the Leaving Certificate, there's a very practical reason why parents fork out nearly €1,000 for these programmes.
Many see the trip to the Gaeltacht as a rite of passage. They view it as more than just a crash course in Irish but as a forceful gust of native culture too.
But the Gaeltacht is changing and while attendance figures on language programmes continue to climb, their future as hubs of the Irish language appear to be somewhat jeopardised.
Last year's census recorded an 11pc decline in the number of daily speakers of Irish outside the education system within the past five years in Gaeltacht areas.
It's now estimated that just over one fifth of people living in Gaeltacht areas speak Irish on a daily basis.
With language use falling in the general Gaeltacht community, can it still claim to be the best place for the native tongue to be taught?
Mary Daly, principal of St. Dominic's Secondary School, Ballyfermot, Dublin believes the Gaeltacht is about much more than just the language, that its positive influence on students is remarkable and that, regardless of the quality of pop-up Gaeltacht programmes in urban settings, nothing beats the real thing.
She told the Irish Independent: "The impact the Gaeltacht has on our students is immense.
"Remember many of them have had no experience of the country outside of Dublin so it's eye-opening.
"It creates in them a better understanding of what the Irish language means and enables them to understand how it can be used on a day-to-day basis, it's not something they just read in a book.
"Through events such as céilís and outdoor activities they become immersed in the language. Each year about 10 to 20 of our students go to the Gaeltacht, mainly to Galway or Kilcar in Donegal. We're a DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity) school and we subsidise those trips.
"Each year the most difficult part is getting them to come home again because they enjoy the courses so much."
Despite the census results, the number of students heading for the Gaeltacht, to areas such as An Rinn in Waterford or Ráth Chairn in Meath, has been increasing in recent years.
And schools often make their own arrangements to visit the Gaeltacht for a few days during term time.
"The colleges have had to find extra beds in recent years," explains Maria Nic Dhonnacha, spokeswoman for CONCOS - the umbrella body for Gaeltacht colleges across Ireland.
She says new mná tí have been brought into the system to accommodate students.
In West Kerry the increase has been felt most noticeably as Padraig Ferriter, principal of Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne, Dingle, and director with the West Kerry Development Co-operative.
"What you have here is impossible to replicate in a non-Gaeltacht area. It's a combination of things with the language at the heart.
"It's about culture, song, geography, archaeology and a level of experience built up over decades.
"We have mná tí who've been hosting students for 40 years. They've seen it all and are so skilled at what they do."
He adds: "The young people are immersed in the language during activities and in the homes in which they stay for the few weeks they're with us. Their grasp of and proficiency in the language increases considerably and that's why the Gaeltacht has maintained its uniqueness."
And, over the years, the programmes have moved with the times. The use of mobile phones and hand-held devices is usually restricted but the days of chastisement for uttering a word in English are no more.
As one bean an tí explains: "We don't follow them trying to catch them out for speaking English but rather support them and praise them for their efforts at speaking Irish."
Jamie O'Tuama of Gael Linn, an organisation which actively promotes the Irish language and arts, told me that during the recession the number of students visiting the Gaeltacht fell sharply but that levels are fast approaching pre-downturn rates again.
"We run Gaeltacht programmes for students in Baile Bhuirne in Cork's Muscraí Gaeltacht and at two schools in Donegal - at Machaire Rabhartaigh and Bun an Inbhir. Up to 2007 all the courses were really well-attended but then numbers plummeted.
"We went from catering for 1,400 students each summer to around 800. Now though those numbers are steadily increasing again; we'll have well over 1,000 students in our Gael Linn programmes this summer."
Offering activities such as Óga Yoga - effectively yoga through Irish - and with a heated swimming pool at its Cork-based school the Gael Linn courses of 2017 combine the contemporary with the traditional.
"Nowadays courses such as ours are results driven. When parents are spending €860 for a three-week programme they want to see that their child is really benefiting.
"But it's very important for us to make sure the students enjoy themselves too, that they make new friendships and return home with a new and positive relationship with the language," says O'Tuama.
"And there's a massive social benefit too," he adds, noting "for some children from city areas it's a huge culture shock.
"But they rise to it, surprise themselves, make friends and embrace this unique experience."
‘For the younger students, you have to be motherly and available to them if they need to talk. If you’re fair with them then, they will be fair with you’
After 25 years of hosting students at her home, west of Dingle, Co Kerry, Áine Ruiseál knows all there is to know about Gaeltacht visits.
As an experienced and welcoming bean an tí, she’s discovered the secret to contentment for her youthful house guests.
“My motto is ‘once you feed them well and talk to them they’ll be fine and appreciate you’,” she explains from her home in Feothanach at the foothills of Mount Brandon.
And far from a strict disciplinarian, Áine explains that the modern bean an tí must cater for the students’ emotional needs too.
“For the younger students you have to be motherly and available to them if they need to talk. Many of the children wouldn’t have been away on their own before. If you’re fair with them then, they will be fair with you,” says Áine.
Up to 10 students stay at Áine’s home when they’re attending summer programmes in the West Kerry Gaeltacht and, in recent years, secondary school students have been coming during term time too.
“I cater for all ages really up to student teachers from Mary Immaculate College in Limerick and Dublin’s St Patricks College. Some of the students, especially those who attend Gaelscoileanna, really have beautiful Irish and we enjoy helping all our students learn. It’s a huge part of my family’s life and we love it,” says Áine.