Where Irish is talk of the town
As the summer holidays roll out, thousands of students head to the Gaeltacht to learn our native tongue, have fun and make friendships that last a lifetime. Kathy Donaghy checks out the attraction to Rannafast
After driving through the magnificent Poisoned Glen and past the picturesque village of Dunlewy with Errigal towering majestically above, you reach Rannafast, a small Gaeltacht townland between the towns of Annagry and Crolly in Donegal.
It's a place renowned for its Irish speaking tradition, its literature as well as its folklore and heritage. And for thousands of youngsters, it's synonymous with Coláiste Bhríde, who come for its Cúrsaí an tSamhraidh, or summer courses.
Principal Lochlann Hill (29) from Banbridge, Co Down, has been coming to Rannafast since he was 14 years old and the place has a special place in his heart.
A teacher at Our Lady's College, Greenhills, Drogheda, Co Louth, Hill is holding the reins for a two-week course which sees students from as far away as Dublin and Kildare come to Rannafast.
After spending time in Coláiste Bhríde as a student, he returned as a ceannaire - one of the young leaders who act as intermediaries between teachers and students - before becoming a principal.
What kept him coming back was the camaraderie. Last summer he travelled to Portugal to attend the wedding of a friend he first met in Rannafast. He met his wife Aisling, from Co Tyrone, in Rannafast while they were both on a course for university students. They were married in nearby Dunlewy last December.
"I've got other friends who met here and who are married and have children now. I was joking with a bean an tí that you could make a TV programme about it," he says.
Hill explains that morning classes start at 10am and these are mostly based on conversation and what he calls "active learning".
"Students would be given vocabulary that they can use throughout the day. They would be doing plenty of role-play - it's not all sitting, keeping quiet and writing notes. It's giving them Irish they can use in everyday situations. We are far removed from asking them about the past tense," says Hill.
"Confidence is a huge part of it. People don't know how much Irish they have learned until they go home. They almost don't want to speak English when they go home," he says.
The motto they use with the students is "Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste ná Béarla cliste" which roughly translates as: it's better to try to use poor Irish than English in the college. After the morning classes, the afternoons are spent in music and dance classes. Céilí dancing is still hugely popular with the students as well as Dreoilín, a kind of Irish Macarena, which swept the Irish colleges in recent years. Themed céilís, culchie nights - where students wear their club or county jersey - kayaking on Loch Bríde, playing Gaelic football, soccer and volley ball, as well as boat trips around the Poisoned Glen, mean young people keep coming back to Rannafast year after year.
Hill says while the numbers dropped for a few years at many colleges around the country, at Rannafast, they stayed strong.
Official figures from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht show that the numbers travelling to Irish-speaking schools for the summer are on the rise again.
In 2009, the number of students going to the Gaeltacht reached 27,586. The figures include adult and trainee teacher courses as well as second level summer students. By 2014 this number had fallen to just over 22,000. However, the numbers are on the increase again and last year nearly 26,000 students went to the Gaeltacht to learn Irish.
The Colaistí Samhraidh do seem to be having a moment. A Vodafone ad, currently running on TV, tells of a young girl's first trip away from the comforts of her family home.
For ceannaire Méabh Ní Shluáin (21), a student of music, Irish and French at Maynooth University, the rite of passage that is the Gaeltacht is important, and many of her friends who never went wish they'd had the experience.
"I started coming when I was 13. The way Irish is taught is so different from school. You learn how to speak Irish. You don't really know how well you can speak it until you have to. It's a fun way of learning - you might be nervous of speaking the first few days, but if you make an effort that's all that's expected of you," says Méabh, from Dundalk.
For Thomas Cannon (13) from Letterkenny, Co Donegal, his first experience of being away from home at the Gaeltacht is hugely positive. "It's all good craic. I'm really enjoying the céilís in the evening and the sport. We went to the beach to play football and it's a great way to meet people. I think I'll come back. It's my first time away and I was nervous about going and not knowing anyone, but it's been fine. I will go home and tell all my friends about it," says Thomas.
"The Irish is coming a lot more fluently now. The grammar comes a lot easier - you don't have to stop and think about it as much. I was worried at the start - I'm not fluent and I wasn't sure if I would be judged. But it's a really friendly atmosphere," he says.
Rachael Ní Leannáin (14), a student of Coláiste Oiriall in Monaghan, has come to Rannafast for the second year in a row because she liked everything about it first time round.
"It's really good fun - the girls in my house, we all know each other. Some were here last year. Me and my best friend Orla share a room. Our bean an tí is great and the dinners vary - we might have spuds and veg or could have chicken nuggets as a treat. We get so much food at every meal," says Rachael.
Going to the beach and kayaking have been her highlights and Rachael says she can't even think about going home.
Anna Devoy (14), from Naas in Kildare, came to Rannafast last year and is back again this year because she made so many friends last time. "I love having a bit of independence. I was a bit nervous at first, but everyone is in the same boat and it's grand after a few days. I'd be more confident speaking Irish now too," says Anna.
Like Rachael, she's dreading going home. "I remember crying so much last year. I hope to see all my friends again next year."