Summer schools are a chance to chase Gaeltacht memories of stolen kisses and forbidden Béarla
Published 30/07/2016 | 02:30
It's probably the heat, but I've had a right yen for some cultural enlightenment these last few weeks. At this mid-point of the holiday season, the prospect of venturing to my first ever summer school seems like an intriguing horizon to investigate - certainly more attractive than tending the garden or wallowing in the mud at a music festival.
Invariably billed as "a distinctive part of what we are" - whatever that means - the schedule of schools around the country seems akin to a Premier League table, ranging from the bold to the brightest, with hopefully the odd Cinderella-like Leicester City added to spice the pot. From Clew Bay to Beara and across to the Saltees, the choice on offer is vast, ranging across cultural legends like Goldsmith, Synge, Joyce, Bram Stoker, Patrick MacGill and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
It is a slightly intimidating roster - until I spot Willie Clancy's name and comfort myself that one could always dance a jig if the discourse is too high-brow.
The Merriman at Lisdoonvarna reigns as one of the most enduring and respected gatherings, with topics like 'The Emotional State of Ireland' as fodder for discussion.
Worthy stuff, no doubt, and I'm all for pushing the cerebral envelope and embracing the cultural diversity of our society in 2016. That said, surely it's fair to expect a modicum of late-night revelry and the odd spontaneous hornpipe to figure as a daily postscript? One can only hope.
My neighbour, a widower this past decade, is a regular summer school fan. Piquing my interest by an oblique admission that he goes for the possibility of romance, as well as academic advancement, he has become a one-man travel guide to ferreting out the best accommodations and cuisine in these seats of learning.
For a man reared in the hungry 1950s, his new-found culinary knowledge on everything from jellied ham and parsley terrine to lambs' sweetbreads with sauce gribiche is second only to Darina and Marco.
But back to the romance bit, says I. Has that been as rewarding as the cultural debate at these summer sessions?
"I have smelled the roses, my boy," he replied mysteriously, "and often succumbed to the pain of their thorns."
Interestingly enough, it seems that women do make up a sizeable portion of the audience at many of the schools, and so the possible notion of scholarly hanky-panky is surely not too wide of the mark.
Is it, perhaps, the case that many folk are drawn to these summer schools as an adult extension of those Irish colleges we all endured at some stage of our teenage summers decades ago?
Pushed out the door by enthusiastic parents to places like Árainn Mhóir, Ráth Cairn and Coláistí Chorca Dhuibhne, we reluctantly trooped in trepidation to strange Gaeltacht locations, adrift in a sea where any utterance of 'Béarla' was a strict no-no.
Kept in check by a ferocious Bean an Tí, who unashamedly scanned necks for love bites at breakfast, summer days morphed into some of our dearest youthful memories, complete with puffing that first ciggie, sneaking crisps and beer into the dorm, and holding hands with a redhead from Stillorgan against a backdrop of the Blaskets.
Little wonder that multitudes in adulthood might sign up for summer schools in search of even that innocent bliss of youth.
For my first venture into this unfamiliar territory of adult academia, there is something about the WB Yeats International Summer School that sounds like a good fit. Having never been to Sligo - a disgrace, I know - the idea of roaming the terrain that inspired 'Byzantium' and 'Easter 1916' holds a powerful attraction.
Even Yeats the man still breathes a unique vision of a pot-smoking poet, decades ahead of his time, whose constant rejection by the love of his life inspired some of the world's most evocative poetry.
No trip to Sligo is complete without a pilgrimage to Drumcliffe graveyard, where his arresting epitaph still captivates every generation: "Cast a cold eye on life on death, horseman pass by".
For myself, a climb of Ben Bulben will be an essential part of the journey, to look across the patchwork quilt of Ireland and remember another line:
"When you are old and grey and full of sleep, and nodding by the fire, take down this book and slowly read, and dream of the soft look your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep." Food for the soul in any man's language.