Monday 14 October 2019

Worth writing home about: Meet three of Ireland's budding young travel writers

Pól Ó Conghaile was a judge at this year's Immrama Schools Travel Writers Competition. Here are the winners...

Immrama Schools Travel Writers comp
Immrama Schools Travel Writers comp
Aisling Brennan
Jessica Enright
Eadaoin Drumgoole
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

What makes a gripping piece of travel writing? Is it a delicious turn of phrase, airtight research, or an ability to transport the reader?

It's all of the above, and more - something that was reaffirmed for me as I sifted through the entries for this year's Immrama School Travel Writers Competition. Good travel writing also needs a voice, and to make us care.

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I was one of several judges of the competition, associated with the Immrama Festival of Travel Writing. It saw second level students submit 'Letters to Home', and primary level students' shorter 'Postcards to Home'. Entries could describe real or imagined journeys, and almost 500 were received from schools across the island.

At first, I was wary. Reading a stack of travel pieces is draining enough when they're written by adults... what would happen with kids? Well, a lot, as it turns out.

For me, engaging travel writing doesn't try to squash everything in, "do" a place, or load itself down with dates and cultural detail. It locates us, and it speaks. It could involve a single scene, or a painterly impression. It should evoke sights, but also sounds, smells and tastes. It sips clichés like "bustling markets" and "azure oceans" for heartfelt, personal reactions to a journey, place or person. I love writing that is relatable and sucks you in... something increasingly difficult to do in this noisy world.

The three winners here have voices. They made us judges care. And today we publish them, in a grown-up magazine, with minimal edits. Enjoy the trip.

Czech it out!

Category: Secondary Schools (Junior)

Winner: Éadaoin Drumgoole (13)

School: St Louis Secondary School, Dundalk

Teacher: Deirdre Smith

Eadaoin Drumgoole

Ahoj Celia!

No, I didn't learn to speak Czech on my trip to Prague. But I did, however (accidentally) learn that it is far too easy to spend 87 Korunas - €3.50 - in Captain Candy. What? I love the fudge…

Terminal 2 is the best, with its sleek, modern architecture, the food court that makes you ravenous even if you've eaten a Man-Vs-Food worthy breakfast, and the shops that just beg you to buy their top-of-the-range comfort memory foam neck pillows. My holiday started as most would. The lead-up thrill, the frenzy of "MAM, TELL ME YOU HAVE MY PASSPORT!" and finally, the sibling squabble for the best seat on flight EI0644 - the window seat. I won :D.

Immediately, I noticed the trams in Prague. Everywhere. Nothing like the fear of being run over to kickstart your holiday. The Airbnb owner, Adriano, led us to Štěpánská, the place we were to stay, down a dark alley with a restaurant called The Titanic next door. That comforted me a little.

Our apartment was on the top floor, with a heart-stopping view of the concert hall. After a quick dinner of the-cheapest-bread-we-could-find-á-la-water, we slept. Let me just say, chimney cakes are life-changing. I have never tried anything quite like one, and probably never will again. They taste like apple that's been brewing in cinnamon juice and the sweet tears of Jesus. Then, to top it all off, a stream of piping hot chocolate is poured down the centre to form the masterpiece known as a trdelník. That's a mouthful. But trust me you want a mouthful of this!

Afterwards, we happily (now not hungrily) made our way towards Old Town square to watch the 600-year-old astronomical clock strike on the hour. There are so many additional clocks on the original clock that I honestly couldn't tell which clock was on the actual time. A raucous 'BONG' cleared that up for me. Tiny little apostle figurines danced around the clock face to a little tune of, you guessed it, more bongs. Skeletons rang their bells (don't question it) and everyone cheered.

The next morning, my family and I finally decided to take a tram. Where to? No idea. Why? Just for fun. Hotel? Trivago. I thought I would hate careening around corners at a speed that probably wasn't legal, but it was thrilling. The people on the tram were pleasant and didn't look at me strangely with my grubby old hat that I appropriated from Dad.

The mystery tram adventure led to Prague Castle, with an insanely beautifully decorated gothic style cathedral in the courtyard - St Vitus Cathedral. The guards looked like little dolls as they patrolled the grounds. On the way back, we stopped for one last trdleník and a traditional bratwurst - or street meat, as I call it. Delicious!

I really hope you can visit Prague someday, because it's seriously the most fascinating city I've ever visited!

- Buy a trdleník, Éadaoin

A letter home

Category: Primary Schools (5th & 6th class)

Winner: Aisling Brennan (12)

School: St John of Gods NS, Waterford

Teacher: Clare Sheane

Aisling Brennan

Dearest Grandma,

This postcard is coming to you from Brazil, South America!! Yesterday, my travelling companions and I kayaked along the Amazon river. We passed through deep caves filled with various sizes of bats, their soft wings silently fluttering above our heads and we were thrown down fast flowing rapids and waterfalls. It was so exciting. We marvelled at animals of every size, colour and shape - all the hues of the rainbow!! What an experience!

Tomorrow, we plan to travel west and hike towards Guayaquil to experience the incredible wildlife and scenery you have always told me about… when you first landed in Brazil yourself many years ago! We have stayed here eight days now, though it feels like months. We will have to say goodbye to this wonderful culture in less than a week, but these priceless memories will never leave me, just as they have never left you. I've taken lots of pictures and have kept a diary of our escapades so far - just as you said.

I wish you were here with us, Grandma. Everything here reminds me of stories told late at night, around your blazing fire, of laughter and of all your adventures. I know you have always dreamed of returning to this paradise and I have tried to do this for you. Reliving your adventure makes me feel closer to you every day. Thank you for always encouraging me to follow my dreams and achieve my goals. Thank you for being my inspiration and guide throughout my life. You're such an amazing Grandma!

- Lots of Love, your granddaughter, Aisling

Snails for dinner

Category: Secondary Schools (Senior)

Winner: Jessica Enright (16)

School: Scoil Mhuire Greenhill, Carrick-on-Suir

Teacher: Alison Duffy

Jessica Enright

Dear Gemma,

I'm writing to you as I sip a frothy latte on one of the many sun-drenched terraces of Paris. Are you jealous yet? Although, I remember you telling me that you hate coffee.

Anyway, I have quite the story to tell you. God, I can feel myself blushing scarlet even thinking about it. Picture this. I stumbled into the first Parisienne restaurant that I caught sight of to satiate the ferocious growling in my stomach. In hindsight, I probably should have realised my mistake as soon as I passed through the gilded doors. But here I am. Waiters with tiny pointed moustaches waltz around, flutes of champagne balanced precariously on gleaming silver trays. Men wearing too much hair oil and thousand dollar suits laugh raucously and puff on big cigars. I'm instantly overwhelmed by the stench of perfume so strong it stings my nostrils when I take a breath. I hear the sharp, tapping sound of stiletto heels attached to long, slender legs as ladies who belong on the front pages of magazines drift by. Rail-thin women, clad from head to toe in designer clothing and diamonds, sport perfectly manicured nails and glossy blow-dried locks that rest in smooth waves just above their shoulders.

I shove my faux-leather purse inside my coat as the maître d' directs me to a table. He looks me briefly up and down, taking in my cheap and cheerful clothing before smirking to himself and sashaying away. I'm feeling fairly embarrassed at this stage, as I see people at the tables beside me giggling behind their hands as they appraise my ancient sneakers. But this is nothing compared with what's to come. By now, I've been handed a menu and a drop of perspiration is beginning to bead on the nape of my neck as I catch a glimpse of the extortionate prices. A petite woman wearing eyeliner that probably cost more than my entire outfit watches me speculatively, her lips pursed in a mocking smile as she appraises the panicked look on my face. Another waiter appears out of thin air beside me, nattering away in heavily accented English about his recommendations, all costing three figures.

My panic doubles when I peer more closely at the menu and notice that there are no English translations. Gemma, you know how hopeless I am at French. So, I just order the first thing that pops into my head - Escargots. Stop. I can just see you giggling right now. Remember my face when Tom spilled ketchup on my brand new white blouse? Well, that's what I looked like when I was served a huge plate of snails. You know how fussy I am, I couldn't face even trying one. I had to leave the restaurant a hundred euro poorer and just as hungry as I'd been walking in! Anyway, I don't want to keep you. I'm sure you've got better things to do than read about me being my usual silly self.

Say hello to Mam for me!

- Lots of love, Jessica

What is Immrama?

The Immrama Festival of Travel Writing takes place June 12-16 in Lismore, Co Waterford. Named for an old Irish word for 'journey', it has been running since 2003 and drawn names as diverse as Pico Iyer, Dervla Murphy and Michael Palin to this small, Co Waterford village. This year's headliners include Sara Outen and Neil Oliver.

Judges of the 2019 Schools Travel Writing Competition:

  • Pól Ó Conghaile, Travel Editor, Irish Independent
  • Stephen Kavanagh, Former CEO, Aer Lingus
  •  Debbie Byrne, Managing Director, An Post Retail
  • Vickie Stephenson, Former Director, CX EMEA Airbnb
  • Phil Cottier, CEO, The CX Collection

This year's Immrama Schools Travel Writing Competition was sponsored by Aer Lingus and the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, Co Waterford.

The winners and their teachers will be awarded their prizes at this year's festival in Lismore today, Saturday, June 15.

For tickets and events information, visit

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