Every Under 12s, Under 14s and Under 16s team has been decimated for the past five weeks. The Hills of Donegal have called our youngsters in their droves to stay with strangers and learn their native tongue while dancing, singing, messing and building a lifetime of memories. Similar scenes are known in Counties Kerry and Mayo with the GAA shirts from 32 counties appearing at them all. Their much loved clubs hobble on without them.
“Going to the Gaeltacht” is a rite of passage that was unknown to me. Going to a Jewish school it wasn’t in the culture. I had friends from other schools who did though and when I asked “why is it so brilliant?” they just couldn’t explain to me how Irish classes every day, and sleeping in crowded rooms with girls and boys they didn’t know,explained their beaming smiles and glistening eyes. But it was clear from the non–verbals that An Gaeltacht was as positive and life affirming an experience as was possible for a 14 year old in 1980s Dublin.
Donegal was also pretty alien to me. The roads were lousy up to it and Dubs generally headed south for the August holidays to exotic places like Bray, Wicklow and Wexford. That is another difference due to partition. The August fortnight is the South’s July fortnight, and when we head off to forge our childhood memories.
Donegal was explained to me as refuge and respite by my occupied Six County resident friends. It was the place away from the hard cost of the long war. I remember seeing Donegal for the very first time. I remember standing still, holding my heart, afraid the scene was transient and might disappear. Unlike British and Irish political developments, or occupants of Downing Street or the hot seat in Merrion Square, it remains constant.
I still can’t believe the neglect of this stunning county from infrastructural and economic development. Donegal people are self–sufficient because they have to be. That beautiful scenery doesn’t put a plate of potatoes in front of their children.
That these hills and beach side homes play host to thousands of our youngsters every summer, teaching them their languageand culture, independence, resilience and life skills all while they have fun and the time of their lives, with a backdrop of such magnificent scenery is nothing short of a national treasure. The Bean an Tí’s who pull their houses apart every summer, putting their own possessions into storage, putting up beds and getting new bed linen, stocking up for hungry teenagers who need three square meals and night time snacks, inclusive of gluten free, vegetarian, pescatarian, and every other diet going, acting as a cook, a housekeeper, a garda, a counsellor, a peace keeper and a language teacher are national heroes.
The kids of course take all of that for granted. They buy their Gaeltacht clothes and head up on buses and bust with excitement, looking forward to nights out that if suggested at home would be sneered at while continuing on with streaks of Snapchat (Céilí tonight love?). For every minute spent in An Gaeltacht they will have more fun and memories than four hours on Instagram. And that they bust our chops to get going every year tells us they vote with their feet on that one. An Gaeltacht Abú.