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October 3, 2005

Irish college offers lessons for life

By Marese Heffernan

Over the summer, I joined other teens from across Ireland and learned a little bit more about our culture by going to Irish College .

Irish College is probably the most popular way for Irish teens to spend three weeks of their summer. Otherwise known as the Gaeltacht, Irish College is all about having fun, making friends and embracing the wide ranges of Irish culture.

There are many different colleges in various Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) areas around the country, mainly on the West Coast. Generally courses are held in June, July and August for teens aged 12 to18, though mainly 13- to16-year-olds attend. These courses are expensive. I paid 640 euro – about $770 – but I found it was well-worth it.

I attended this year’s July course in Colaiste Chorca Dhuibhne in Kerry, Ireland. I stayed with three friends in Tigh Deborah (the house of Deborah), along with 10 other girls.

We immediately began preparations for that night’s dance, a ceili, which would begin at 8 p.m.

The main rule in every Irish College is that students must speak Irish, or Gaelic, at all times. Here in Ireland, we begin learning Irish as soon as we start school, so most teenagers have been practicing it for about 10 years.

It’s not an easy subject though, so speaking it fluently all the time is a very difficult task. In my college, if a student was caught speaking in English, as we usually were, his or her name was put in the ‘Black Book.’ If a student’s name appeared in the book three times, he or she was sent home from the college.

Our day began at 9 a.m. with classes where we learned some basic Irish that we would need for general use around the college. We also learned material that would improve our Gaelic fluency for oral exams in school. We were split up for these classes, so that we would mix with people from the other houses, including, of course, the boys’ house, which we were more than happy about!

Classes ended at quarter to one, and we all went home to have dinner. This usually consisted of soup, for starters, then a traditional Irish meal – nearly always including baked potatoes – and an ice cream for dessert. After we ate, we were free to do whatever we wanted – go to the shop or just hang out in our rooms – until three o’clock, when we returned to the hall for sports.

We played mostly Irish sports, such as Gaelic football and hurling, but we also did basketball, table tennis, rounders and hockey. We were split into teams and there was a tournament between the teams. My team made it to the semi-final in hockey, but lost before the final.

Of course, all of these sports had to be done while speaking all Irish, which made it slightly harder. Sports were a great way of getting to know the people from the four other houses. That was when I made most of my friends, so it was a lot of fun.

Sports finished at five o’clock, and we walked home for tea-time. For this we generally ate sausages and beans. Afterwards, we all hurried upstairs to get ready for the most exciting part of the night, the ceili.

At the ceili, instructors taught us various Irish dances, all requiring boy/girl partners. We girls always got totally dressed up for the ceilis, in mini-skirts and loads of make-up! We had the best time doing Irish dancing, though it doesn’t sound like much fun. It was exciting waiting to be asked to dance, and seeing who would ask you. Of course, with a ridiculous imbalance of 72 girls and only 17 boys, any girl was lucky to get a buachaill (boy).

The ceili ended at 10 p.m., and after going home to a small snack – a chocolate bar or a packet of crisps – we remained in our bedrooms, talking and laughing until well into the night, something our Bean an Ti (Woman of the House) wasn’t happy about.

Once a week, we ignored our usual timetable went on a trip for the day. We went to the nearby town of Dingle, where we went shopping in beautiful little jewelry shops, and also experienced the legendary ‘Deep Fried Mars Bars,’ for which Dingle is famous.

We explored the Blasket Islands, which was quite amazing. We sat in groups of friends on the top of a cliff on a beautiful day, watching the breathtaking view of the Atlantic Ocean crashing against some of Ireland’s highest mountains. We also went to an aquarium, and were all excited when we saw ‘Nemo!’ These trips were loads of fun because the whole college got to stay together, instead of being separated as usual into groups.

On the few days when the weather became really hot (well, for Ireland, anyway!), we went to the beach. Everyone loved this, we Limerick kids especially, as there is no beach where we live. The beach outings were some of the best times, though nearly all of us got scolded for shouting about the freezing water in English.

The three weeks of Irish College passed in what felt like an instant. I will never forget all the amazing friends I made, and the wonderful memories we created. I never thought it possible that I could enjoy something so much, but I really did. I’ve never laughed so much as I did while there, and I’ve never cried so much as when I was leaving.

Three weeks in the middle of the Kerry countryside changed my view of people, and life. I learned how painfully attached to people I can become in such a short time. Of course there were bad moments when I hated it and wanted to go home, but it was worth every bad moment for all the remarkable ones.

The memories of every excruciatingly boring class, or every time the teachers reprimanded us harshly, are fading quickly in my mind, but the reminiscence of every time I laughed until my sides hurt, or hugged someone meaningfully are burned into my memory forever.

I’m not sure I would go again, but only because I don’t know if I could bear the pain of making new friends and having to leave them.

Irish College was by far the best and most momentous experience of my life, and I will treasure the memories always.


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