Monday 19 August 2019

'In school, it's like you are forced to speak Irish - but here it just comes naturally'

Students Josh Moore (16), Sinead Kavanagh (14), Fódhla Ferry (14) and Callum Ledwidge (18) at Coláiste Bun an Inbhir, Co Donegal. Photo: Lorcan Doherty
Students Josh Moore (16), Sinead Kavanagh (14), Fódhla Ferry (14) and Callum Ledwidge (18) at Coláiste Bun an Inbhir, Co Donegal. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

Kathy Donaghy

Half-way down a winding country road sits Bun an Inbhir National School in the parish of Gaoth Dobhair in west Donegal. Gleaming white in the sunshine, the old school house has long been used as a community centre but becomes the hub for Gaeltacht students on summer courses, or 'Cursaí an tSamhraidh', run by Gael Linn.

Outside, teenagers chat and play ball games on a break from their morning's classes. There are 57 of them on this particular course. It's an idyllic scene - the bright blue of the Atlantic sparkling in the distance, teenagers playing in the warm sunshine and not a mobile phone or device in sight.

Vice-principal Claire Ní Bhaoill. Photo: Lorcan Doherty
Vice-principal Claire Ní Bhaoill. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

According to course principal Conchobar Mac Giolla Bhríde, there's a magic at play that keeps students coming back even at a time when they have so many other attractions in their lives.

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.

He's now on his 15th Gaeltacht summer course and it's his fourth year at Bun an Inbhir. From Dundalk, Mac Giolla Bhríde regards the place as a home from home where he knows all the locals and has many friends.

"It's our Tir na nÓg - you come over the mountain and there it is, steeped in language and culture," says Mac Giolla Bhríde, who works as primary school teacher.

Principal Conchobar Mac Giolla Bhríde. Photo: Lorcan Doherty
Principal Conchobar Mac Giolla Bhríde. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

He explains that the students' days are tightly scheduled, starting with three hours of classes at 10am every day followed by lunch prepared by Na Mná Tí. Afternoon classes are based around song and dance - the Bun an Inbhir students are lucky to have All-Ireland champion dancer Claire Ní Bhaoill and award-winning sean-nós singer Clíona Ní Gallachóir on the teaching staff.

One of the big draws with Bun an Inbhir as a summer course is the water sports element. Local water sports outfit Selkie Sailing runs everything from kayaking and coasteering, depending on the tides and weather forecast. Because all the guides are local fluent Irish speakers, the students are learning Irish almost by osmosis as they take part in their water-based activities.

Ceannaire Claire Ní Bhaoill, who has just completed her masters at St Pat's teacher training college in Dublin, is spending her second summer as the course's vice-principal. From the townland of Arduns not far away, she says she's passionate about passing on her love of the Irish language to other young people.

"I love to see young people speaking the Irish language. All my own education was through Irish. They're more confident when they leave here and there are tears leaving - they all just want to stay," she says.

Sinead Kavanagh (14), from Annaghdown in Galway, and Fódhla Ferry, from Milford in Co Donegal, have become firm friends in the space of a week.

Sinead explains that she came because her sister Rachel is a ceannaire at Bun an Inbhir but the draw to the summer courses is mainly due to the friends you make.

For Fódhla, the Gaeltacht is a chance to go away for the summer and make friends on your own terms. "Nobody has any perception of you. You're strangers when you meet. I didn't know Sinead but now we are friends for life. I didn't want to come with anyone I know - it's a good chance to be yourself," she says.

The teenagers are also hoping that what they learn will stand them in good stead for their Junior Certs next year, when oral language is a big part of the new curriculum.

Callum Ledwidge (18), from Leixlip, Co Kildare, is spending his first summer in the Gaeltacht and describes the experience as "surreal". "It's like a lucid dream. Seeing the ocean stretch as far as Norway is really cool. I came here fluent in Irish but I feel it's come on so much. Donegal Irish is basically another language when it comes to Irish and it sounds different to my ear but I'm getting the ear for it and it's really helping me," he says.

Callum says the teenagers have no trouble shedding their inhibitions when it comes to the dancing and singing either. "When you have a bunch of lads learning the steps, you're in the moment and it's so good," he says.

The friendships are a massive part of the experience, he says. "You're put into a house with 10 different people and you get along. You learn about them and you get to know them. You spend so much time with them, you form a bond," says Callum.

For 16-year-old Josh Moore, from Killarney, having fun in Irish is what the Gaeltacht is all about. "You're not even thinking you're speaking Irish after a while. In school it's like you're forced to learn. Here you try your best and it naturally comes to you," he says.

Irish Independent

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