Victoria White’s article “Sending kids west for Irish school, Irish Examiner, August 4, pays lip service to the language” and is her latest attempt to undermine it by attacking one of the most positive and enjoyable educational experiences in Ireland, na coláistí samhraidh Gaeilge – the Irish-language summer colleges in the gaeltacht.
Comhaltas Uladh is the Ulster provincial assembly of Conradh na Gaeilge and has founded a number of the most renowned summer colleges in Donegal, with up to 2,000 students attending each year. This year’s courses are sold-out and our colleges have already been inundated with requests from parents and students to reserve places on our 2017 courses. They are in demand. But not because they offer, as Ms White claims, “childcare”. A Conradh na Gaeilge survey, conducted independently by Millward Brown in 2016, shows 62% believe that more opportunities are needed for young people to use Irish outside of school – only 10% disagree with this. The coláistí samhraidh cater for this need, and then some.
Ms White challenges the very fabric and authenticity of the coláistí samhraidh in her article, claiming that we are sending our children to an “artificial zone to experience a life and a language that we have largely abandoned”. The gaeltacht colleges offer the exact opposite; a doorway to the south west and west of Ireland, where children and teenagers alike can gain an understanding of a living culture and language in a vibrant social and communal context. During the summer months, the coláistí samhraidh are the heartbeat of the West.
Economically speaking, the Gaeltacht colleges are – as Ms White correctly points out – a much-needed source of dependable annual income for the mná tí who open their homes to students, and for local businesses and traders. White fails to acknowledge that colleges actively and continuously employ local teenagers as ceannairí or youth-leaders, and local teachers as múinteoirí. Local communities are actively involved in the running of the colleges, and directly benefit from any national investment. In return, visiting students get to live, learn, and engage with young local Irish speakers on a daily basis. A Government report in 2006 on the investment into the colleges estimated that for every €1 invested by the State, at least €1.50 is attracted from the private sector, proving the colleges to be a positive economic generator for Gaeltacht communities, who are amongst the most marginalised in the country.
Ms White also queries the political and religious context of the summer colleges, wondering “if it would be out of the question to be an Ulster unionist and learn Irish at one of our Irish colleges” or “to go to Irish college if you’re not Irish.” The answer is simple – of course not.
The regular attendance of children from backgrounds which would be viewed traditionally as Unionist in many of the summer colleges in Donegal demonstrates the vast generalisation of the article.
Linda Ervine is the Irish-language Development Officer in TURAS, an Irish-language centre in the predominantly Protestant East Belfast, and speaks warmly about her many experiences on similar, adult-based, gaeltacht colleges. Having completed immersion courses with Oideas Gael, with Gael-Linn, and through the Ulster University’s Irish-language diploma, Linda continuously describes the gaeltacht learning experience as being fully welcoming and accepting of her own background and learning interests.
To be clear – Irish summer colleges are fully inclusive. They have open door policies. The Irish-language and the Irish-language gaeltacht experience is for all, regardless of creed, race, nationality, and/or political background. This year alone our colleges have welcomed children and teenagers from a wide range of nationalities, from England and France to America and further afield. White’s depiction of the colleges as Roman Catholic, nationalist strongholds, is a huge generalisation which misrepresents the majority of summer colleges. Our colleges seek to provide all ecclesiastic services to all of our students, on an opt-in basis. Amhrán na bhFiann is sung, but not forced upon anyone. Students are asked to show respect to the national flag of Ireland and the national anthem of Ireland, which would be viewed as a reasonable request in most countries around the world.
Uachtarán na hÉireann, Michael D. Higgins, praised the coláistí samhraidh at Áras an Uachtaráin earlier this year, claiming we should be “proud” and “joyous” of the “thousands of teenagers attending our coláistí samhraidh”. The achievements of the Irish-language band Seo Linn, who came from small beginnings in the Galway gaeltacht of Coláiste Lurgan, prove the Irish language and the gaeltacht experience is far from being in a time-warp. Rather the summer colleges offer teenagers – among other personal and education benefits – the opportunity to be involved in one of the most exciting music initiatives in decades, with some of the hits recorded in the gaeltacht featuring hundreds of students and receiving more than five million hits online.
The gaeltacht summer college experience is no lip service to the language, but an inclusive, fun, and beneficial experience for thousands each year. I went to the gaeltacht; my children are there now, and they are enjoying it so much that they don’t want to come home.