I spent two weeks taking Irish language classes in County Donegal, Ireland.
I recently spent two weeks at Irish Summer School at Oideas Gael in Glencolmcille, County Donegal, Ireland, and thought you’d be interested to hear a bit about it.
What is Irish Summer School?
It’s not “summer school” in the American sense of remedial classes for those who need extra academic help. It’s not quite a “summer camp,” either. This particular school specializes in weekend and week-long language and culture experiences for ages 17 and up. Offerings include multiple levels of Irish language class (from beginner through advanced, and translation), music classes (Irish flute and whistle, harp, bodhran), hill walking (where you spend 4-6 hours a day hiking around the gorgeous scenery), art, etc. There’s also their Irish Language and Culture Summer School, consisting of Irish language classes in the morning and various choices for afternoon workshops.
Where Was Irish Summer School?
Oideas Gael is based in County Donegal, Ireland. They offer different classes at three locations at various times: Gleann Fhinne/Glenfinn, Toraigh/Tory Island, and Gleann Cholm Cille/Glencolumbkille/Glencolmcille. I’ve given the Irish name of each place first, followed by the English version–but the last one has three variations because I saw a lot of that last version, which is kind of partway in between. These locations are all in the Donegal Gaeltacht. Glencolmcille is close to Teelin on the map below.
What is a Gaeltacht?
The Irish language is called “Gaeilge” in Irish and just “Irish” in English. Everyone in Ireland speaks English; most speak it as their first language. Everyone who goes to school in Ireland studies (at least some) Irish, as well. There are still a few areas where people may learn Irish as their first language and/or speak it on a daily basis; these are the Gaeltachtaí/Gaeltachts.
While I was there, I learned that the snarky term for the rest of Ireland is the “Galltacht,” or “area where people speak the language of the foreigners.” It’s not an official designation, but I love the fact that some of the Gaeilgeoirí (Irish-speaking people) call it that.
Who Goes to Irish Summer School?
During the two weeks we were there, ages ranged from older teens to senior citizens. There were a lot of Americans, at least one person from Italy and one from Australia, and a couple from Sweden. Also plenty of Irish people, young and old, who wanted to improve their conversational Irish.
How Did Irish Summer School Go?
When we arrived on the first Saturday, we were greeted cordially with “Dia duit. Mise Ronan. Cad é mar atá tú?” (“Hi, I’m Ronan. How are you?”) That’s as basic as it gets, but for some reason I panicked and my brain seized up. I understood and knew perfectly well how to respond: “Dia is muire duit. Mise Angela. Táim go maith, go raibh maith agat. Agus tú fein?” (“Hello. I’m Angela. I’m well, thanks. And you?”) But I couldn’t get a word out of my mouth. I just looked at him like a deer in the headlights. My daughter did a bit better.
We’ve been studying Irish on Duolingo on and off (ok, more off than on) for 5 years. This gave us decent reading and writing skills of a certain level…listening and speaking skills, not so much.
Also, Duolingo Irish is An Caighdeán Oifigiúil (the Official Standard version of Irish), with a Connacht accent. In Donegal, they speak the Ulster dialect. It’s the same language, of course, but there’s definitely enough difference in phrasing and pronunciation that it throws you off a bit.
I spent the first week in Level 1 (while my daughter was in Harp classes). I did try the Level 2 class, but I noped out within 5 minutes because it was way over my head.
Over the course of the week, I learned some new vocabulary, and some dialect-specific stuff, but most importantly, my listening and speaking skills improved. I went from complete panic when faced with the need to speak Irish, down to mild concern. Trust me, it was a big improvement.
What Was the Daily Routine?
Classes were from 10-1 (with a break for coffee or tea and “biscuits”), then a two-hour lunch break, then classes again from 3-5 (with another break). Then at 8:30 each night there would be an event–dancing or singing, usually. And then many of the students would meet up in the pub, afterward.
For some reason I initially thought “Gee, classes start so late…and that’s such a long lunch break.”
Believe me, 5 hours of language class a day is enough! They know what they’re doing! Also, the nice long lunch break let me enjoy a couple of hours with my family in the middle of the day, or get lunch with classmates at one of the restaurants. One day I went and explored the Glencolmcille Folk Village, which also has a restaurant; I really enjoyed the potato soup.
I usually play some online word games (in English) every day. While I was taking Irish classes 5 hours a day, I temporarily stopped playing them. For one thing, I was all “worded out.” For another, I was devoting so much energy to not thinking in English, that it was surprisingly difficult to play word games in English. Too much effort, not enough fun. (Now that I’m home, I’m playing, and enjoying, them again.)
Anyway, I went to several of the evening events, but only made it to the pub once.
How Was the Second Week?
The second week, we had Irish language classes in the morning, then several choices of workshops in the afternoon. Although I had hoped to try various workshops, we were told to pick one and stick with it. My choice was bodhrán (Irish drum). I did get to try the singing workshop on Monday, though, since our bodhrán teacher’s flight had been delayed.
I did Level 2 Irish the second week. My daughter joined me, after trying Level 1 and finding it below her level. We learned some more vocabulary, and also got into past tense (and, briefly, future tense) verbs. But again, what I found most valuable was the practice at listening and speaking.
The evening events were a bit different the second week. I ended up skipping more of them because I was so tired, but I did enjoy an excellent concert by Clann Mhic Ruairí on Sunday night, as previously mentioned. Thursday’s event sounded interesting, but we ended up skipping it in favor of a visit to a local megalithic tomb, Malinmore Court Tomb. I was really sad to miss the special showing of An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl) on Friday evening, but we needed to pack so that we could leave the next morning.
Would I Do it Again?
Absolutely! In fact, I hope to! Some people have been going every year for decades. I know I won’t make it back next year, but maybe in 2024.
What Would I Do Differently?
Hard to say, really, if I’d do anything differently. During the first week, I thought that I wished I could stay longer than two weeks. By the second week, I realized that two weeks was enough; my brain was feeling very full!
Also, I know I missed out some because instead of staying in a house/B&B/hostel/pub (yes, many pubs in Ireland still have rooms to rent) with other students, I was renting a house with my family. So, very little Irish speaking outside of class hours (though my daughter and I did a bit). And I was much more likely to stay home, decompress, work on the blog, and spend time with my family in the evenings, missing out on some of the great evening activities. OTOH, that actually suited me pretty well, since I don’t have the energy of some of the twentysomethings who could stay up till all hours in the pub.
Would I Recommend It?
Absolutely! For anyone who’s interested in Irish language and culture, I would definitely recommend a week or two at Oideas Gael.
Disclaimer: While some posts on this blog feature Affiliate Links (read our Legalese if you care), this is NOT one of them. And I’m not receiving anything from Oideas Gael (except the two weeks of excellent classes that I paid them for).
Questions or comments? Leave one below, in English or Irish!