LEARNING the Irish language has much in common with hill- climbing. Plenty of stamina is required; there may be obstacles waiting to trip you up; but the sense of achievement will hopefully be worth the sweat.
Learning the Irish language while simultaneously hill- climbing presents another challenge entirely.
For those of us who have never felt the inclination to buy a pair of hiking boots, much less use them, it may be hard to decide which is the more daunting — the thought of exposing one’s shameful lack of fitness in public, or the possible mortification caused by an inappropriately-placed séimhiú.
As it turns out, both fears prove groundless on the courses for adults provided by Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne on Kerry’s Dingle Peninsula.
A four-day course in Gaeilge agus Siúlóidí Oidhreachta, or language and heritage walks, did exactly what it said on the tin and was certainly not for couch potatoes.
But participants’ proficiency levels in Gaeilge or hiking, however low, were far less significant than their willingness to give it their best shot.
Students and senior citizens, teachers, lawyers, vets, and bikers arrived in Baile an Fheirtéaraigh from Canada, America, and all corners of Ireland, some first-time students; others reuniting with old friends for an annual social.
Those more fluent in the language offered every assistance and encouragement to anyone stuttering over the tuiseal ainmneach or its much-maligned cousin the tuiseal ginideach, and learning to laugh at one’s own mistakes soon became an intrinsic part of the fun.
If there’s one thing every student in Caitríona Ní Chathail’s lively classes will remember, it’s that Baile an Fheirtéaraigh (Ballyferriter) is indeed “i lar an aonaigh”, at the centre of things.
Its tiny resident population numbers are regularly swelled by an influx of droves of students, in particular trainee teachers.
They come to raise their fluency levels in the bright environs of the Lárionad Forbartha Gaeilge agus Gaeltachta, a well-equipped €3.5m language and enterprise centre which opened last year.
Add in the buzz created by this summer’s arrival of the Star Wars film crew, associated entourage, and even some of the actors, and the village was fit to burst at the seams.
Aside from the importance of being able to distinguish a newly-constructed Jedi temple from your original sixth-century beehive hut, there was much to be learned about the area’s heritage from the course’s informative guided walks.
We explored part of the pilgrim path, Cosán na Naomh, taking in Gallarus Oratory and inscribed pillars at Teampall na Cluanach.
On the Dingle Way we drank in views along sandy beaches at Béal Bán and Trá an Fhíona, taking a bus tour as far as Ceann Trá and Dún Chaoin in the company of archaeologist Isabel Bennett.
Her inexhaustible supply of information encompassed topics ranging from Islandman Tomás Ó Criomhtháin’s gravestone — made by Cork sculptor Seamus Murphy — to the Second World War rescue of the crew of Greek cargo ship Diamantis in Ceann Trá by the German U-boat sailors who had sunk it.
Isabel is curator of Músaem Chorca Dhuibhne in Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, well worth a visit for its ancient-to-modern display including Neolithic stone axes, local ogham stones, plus artefacts from the filming of Ryan’s Daughter.
They will soon be joined, one suspects, by exhibits from the latest chapter in the village’s history — the coming of Star Wars.
It was during one of the heritage walks that the ‘learning to laugh at your own mistakes’ plan began to unravel.
Mossie Ó Scanláin of Baile an Lochaigh, having treated us to an impassioned performance of sean-nós singing the previous night, was delivering an insightful talk on some of the more turbulent moments in the history of his native mountains and valleys.
Being English and a late starter in learning Irish, I was priding myself on following every word Mossie said.
Except one, the meaning of which, for reasons which still elude me, I felt compelled to ask.
Of all the words for an English native to get stuck on, it had to be this one: Cromail.
Not, as I had conjectured, a word for crooked or bent, though that could have been applicable too. Nope. Cromail (pronounced crumel) translates as Cromwell.
Oliver, to be precise.
Centuries of Anglo-Irish discord distilled in one word, and the anticipated moment of mortification had arrived.
The wrongs of my forefathers carried on my shoulders all the way back down that mountainy path were nearly as heavy as the weight of grammatical ignominy.
Walking soon begets hunger, though experience as a vegetarian has instilled in me a deep-seated sense of trepidation when asking for the menu in any restaurant that could be described as off the beaten track.
There’s still a large element of lottery involved, even in 2016.
You could get a gourmet feast, or if your luck’s out it’ll be the helpful waitress assuring you that vegetarians are fully catered for, only to return triumphantly with a plate of chips.
The sea views alone are something to savour at Bistro Borradh na Mara at Tigh Uí Ghormáin, perched on the cliffs at Baile na nGall, a stone’s throw from my impeccable accommodation at Hurleys’ farm, An Dooneen.
Watching the waves crash onto the rocks, sun streaming through the windows, with my first child-free weekend in 17 years stretching before me... I’d nearly have been happy with chips.
But I’d won the lottery this time.
An aubergine, sweet red pepper and cashew nut tagliatelle, with pasta and vegetables cooked lightly to perfection, was followed by a wickedly dark but not over-sweet gluten-free chocolate and hazelnut torte. Go haoibhinn!
There was no danger of forgetting my Gaeilge mission while filling my bolg.
It is a complaint sometimes levelled at native speakers that they automatically switch to Béarla on hearing a learner’s jarring efforts at their language.
But cleachtadh a dhéanann máistreacht, or practice makes perfect, and in Tigh Uí Ghormáin, as well as in local shops and pubs, even the slowest, most stilted attempts at conversation were met with patience, and courteous replies — which for the learner’s confidence, is as important as any formal class.
Gaeilge agus Siúlóidí Oidhreachta is just one of the short courses for adults run by Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne.
For those who don’t wish to climb every mountain or ford every stream in pursuit of their dream of fluency, there’s the choice of learning Gaeilge through yoga, art, poetry, history, or food- tasting, with prices starting at €135 excluding accommodation, or week-long courses for all levels.
New programme for 2017, see www.oidhreacht.ie.