This post is the third in a series about the author’s 2013 trip to Ireland as a recipient of a Gaeltacht Summer Award from the Ireland-United States Commission for Educational Exchange. The previous posts in this series are Donegal Diaries 1: Back to Oideas Gael! and An Irish Odyssey: Irish in the Fair City.
“We’re on top of the world!”
I don’t know the actual elevation of the central Donegal highlands region known as Gleann Fhinne (“Glenfin” in English).
But as our car climbed its way out of seaside Gleann Cholm Cille (Glencolmcille), through spectacular Gleann Geis (Glengesh Pass), toward the isolated rural region where I would spend the next two weeks, I felt as if I could reach up and touch one of the puffy white clouds floating over the vivid green hillsides.
Another side of Donegal
In Irish or in English, you might have a hard time finding Gleann Fhinne on a road map.
It isn’t a town, but rather a region encompassing several townlands, located more or less equidistant from Donegal Town (Baile Dhún na nGall), Letterkenny (Leitir Ceannainn), Glenties (Na Gleannta) and Ballybofey (Bealach Féich), on the fringe of Donegal’s impressive Blue Stack Mountains (Na Cruacha Gorma).
It’s a very rural area, where most of the people make their living on small sheep farms, and the nearest town is 13 kilometers away.
It’s a Gaeltacht region, rich in the storytelling and musical traditions of Gaelic Ulster, where many of the residents still live their day-to-day lives through the Irish language.
It’s also where Oideas Gael holds its intensive Irish language courses during the last week in July and the first week in August, when its campus in Glencolmcille is occupied with the annual Language and Culture Summer School.
My home for two weeks
I must admit, I was a bit nervous at first about the Gleann Fhinne portion of my month-long stay in Ireland.
I am very much an introvert, and even a bit shy. Because of that, I’ve tended to avoid homestays in the past, preferring self-catering accommodations when available.
But homestays are the only option in rural Gleann Fhinne…and shyness or no shyness, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to give my Irish a real-life workout in the midst of an Irish-speaking family.
As it happened, my shyness melted away in the face of my friendly and outgoing bean a’ tí*, Ciotaí (“Kitty”), and her lovely family, and disappeared entirely as I got to know my housemates.
As for my introversion, I found ample opportunities to recharge on long walks around the beautiful glen.
* “Bean a’ Tí” literally means “Woman of the House,” and is the title usually bestowed on a woman who runs a bed and breakfast, or, as in this case, opens her house up to students during summer schools.
As with Oideas Gael’s courses in Glencolmcille, the classes in Gleann Fhinne are conversationally based.
They take place in the townland of An Coimín (Commeen), in the beautiful new national school there. Constructed in 2011, Scoil Naisiúnta an Choimín is a Gaelscoil (Irish-medium school) that, during the school year, hosts six classes of Irish-speaking elementary school students.
I must say, it was really cool to look around the classroom and see all the materials — from the Food Pyramid poster to children’s art projects — in Irish!
Three levels of classes
Classes are available on three levels, with level one being for absolute beginners and level three being for people who are fluent or approaching fluency. I was in the level-three class, taught by Mícheál Ó Dochartaigh, who is also the principal in the national school.
A typical day in Gleann Fhinne
A typical day in Gleann Fhinne looked something like this:
- 8:00 a.m.: Get up, shower, assemble my notebook and other course-related materials.
- 9:00 a.m.: Breakfast with my housemates. Yes, we spoke in Irish.
- 9:30 a.m.: Grab the sandwiches and fruit our bean a’ tí had put together for our lunches and head off on the half-mile walk to the school.
- 10:00 – 11:15 a.m.: Class, mostly focused on activities to encourage conversation.
- 11:15 – 11:30 a.m.: Tea break in the school gym, where conversation in Irish was strongly encouraged.
- 11:30 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.: More class.
- 1:00 - 2:00 p.m.: Lunch with teachers and other students in the school gym. Irish conversation strongly encouraged.
- 2:00 – 3:30 p.m.: More class. These afternoon classes, at least on the highest level, often focused on the history and culture of the area, though in ways that, once again, encouraged conversation. Speakers, such as local farmers or local women, might be brought in, and we were encouraged to ask them questions about life in Gleann Fhinne.
- 3:30 – 3:45 p.m.: Tea break in the school gym, where conversation in Irish was strongly encouraged.
- 3:45 – 4:30 p.m.: More class. On several occasions we used this late afternoon session for field trips, including a beautiful hike into the Blue Stack Mountains. All through Irish, of course!
- 4:30 p.m.: Back to the house, where I’d spend time re-charging, either by reading (in Irish…yes, I brought a couple of Irish novels with me) or playing my smallest lap harp, which I’d brought with me from California.
- 6:00 p.m.: Dinner with my housemates, and yes…in Irish. Our bean a’ tí was an excellent cook, by the way! I was very relieved, when I came home, to discover that I’d only gained 5 pounds!
- 7:00 p.m.: Off for a walk (which often turned into a photo-taking extravaganza!)
- 8:30 p.m.: Back to the school for evening activities, which ranged from carpooling to a set-dancing céilí in Ardara (Ard an Ratha) to a rousing game of volleyball (eitpheil) or a musical evening featuring both students and local musicians…and yes: all in Irish!
- 10:00 p.m.: Retire to the local pub (conveniently located between the school and our house) for more Irish conversation.
- ??:?? a.m.: Home to bed, to re-charge for another day!
All Irish, all the time
I’ve mentioned that the course in Gleann Fhinne is intensive. It truly is immersion learning in the fullest sense of the word.
Upper-level students especially were strongly encouraged to communicate only in Irish, as much as humanly possible.
We were supported in this by virtually everyone around us…from our fellow students and teachers, to our host families, and even the locals (many of whom would start to address us in English, only to switch to Irish when they realized we were there for the language course!)
Beginners, of course, aren’t really able to do that. Still, the teachers, upper-level students, and host families would work to communicate with them in Irish as much as possible, to the point of resorting to pantomime to get an idea across, if it would help keep us from lapsing into English!
It’s a lot of work, and can sometimes be a bit overwhelming (I woke from a nap one afternoon to find myself completely unable to think in English, let alone speak it, for the better part of the evening!)
At the same time, it’s a lot of fun! The smaller group of students (all of them very committed to learning Irish) ensures that you’ll get to know everyone on the course. You forge real friendships, and a lot of very special memories.
I can’t wait to go back!
Coming in two weeks
Coming in two weeks: A Day in Derry. Audrey takes a brief break from life in Gleann Fhinne to visit Northern Ireland.