Monday, June 22, 2015

Hike to the Norman Tower


I awoke on my very first morning in Glencolmcille to blue skies, perfect weather, and the smell of an enormous full Irish breakfast cooked by my sweet host mother, Margaret. I ate with the two other girls staying at the house, Mags and Liz, and as we ate breakfast Margaret mentioned that it would be a perfect day to hike to the Norman tower. It would take around an hour and a half to get there, but since this was our only full day off and we were excited to explore. 


It happened to be Easter Sunday, so as we walked we ran into many dressed up families on their way back from Mass. We started up one well worn foot path when two small boys ran up to us, still dressed in their church clothes.

"Would you like a rock? It's free!" said one, who then informed us his name was Matthew.

We laughingly accepted the little boy's offer of free rocks and looked at his rock collection until his older brother pulled him away to play soccer in the yard.




As we climbed up and up the hill we eventually came to a marshy peat bog. I'd never seen real peat before, so it was really cool to see the neat layers that local farmers had cut. 

The part that wasn't so cool was squelching through the wet, marshy bog...Matthew's rocks came in handy as we used them as stepping stones to make our way across.




Finally, we made it to the Norman tower! It was cool, but the real view was a short walk away, over to the cliffs.






Margaret had mentioned the cliffs used to be notorious for pirates and shipwrecks. As we peered down, it wasn't hard to imagine either.


Even though we were winded, soggy, and hungry from the hike, the three of us were all smiling from ear to ear as we surveyed the view and snapped photos. It was a great introduction to Glencolmcille.



Friday, June 19, 2015

Learning Irish at Oideas Gael in Glencolmcille, Ireland

When Fionn left Texas, I couldn't wait to leave too. No way was I wasting months of my life staying in a place I couldn't stand! The question was-what to do with my time? Visiting friends and family was an obvious choice, but I also wanted to do something meaningful, something I had always wanted to do but never had the time or resources or courage to do. What would I do if I could do anything?

I love languages, so that was an easy answer. I had decided to take advantage of off season flights by planning a Europe trip when a long forgotten dream suddenly reemerged. What if I could learn Irish?

A quick Google search resulted in Oideas Gael in Glencolmcille, Donegal, and Fionn instantly encouraged me to go. I wasn't sure (what if I didn't make any friends? What if it was awful and I was stuck in the backwoods alone? What if I got lost or couldn't do it or got eaten by a bear??) but Fionn insisted (he knows me too well) and I paid the fees, bought tickets, and hoped for the best.

I flew into Dublin in April, hung out with some friends for a few days (and got over my jetlag) and then took the bus up to Donegal, wondering frantically if I had made the right choice. As we bounced along rural roads I couldn't help feeling a bit terrified. What had I gotten myself into? I can't believe I was crazy enough to do this!


Once I arrived in Glencolmcille, my anxiety began to fade. It was beautiful, for starters. Everyone I met was friendly, and soon we were walking together to the pub for a pint. My host mother welcomed us warmly with cozy rooms and enormous full Irish breakfasts. The scent of the ocean mixed with the smell of fresh cut pasture, and lambs chased their mothers in the fields around the village.

Glencolmcille is part of a Gaeltacht, one of the areas in Ireland where Irish is still spoken. As a coastal town in a rural region, it was able to retain many of its native Irish speakers, though English is very widely spoken.



The course is divided into levels, starting with complete beginners (that's me), then intermediate, advanced, and the very advanced, who cheerfully carried on conversations in Irish while me and my fellow Level Ones looked on enviously. 

Everyone was very nice, so we quickly made friends with each other. This was super helpful when it came to learning the language, because making friends in all levels meant you were always learning new things and always had a willing partner to practice with.


A typical day in Glencolmcille went like this: I woke up and had breakfast with the other girls staying with the host family. Our Bean a ti (the woman of the house) served a full Irish breakfast (reminding us that we needed it to fortify ourselves for the day of schooling ahead), and would teach us words in Irish and call us by Irish names (I was surprised to learn that "Shannon" doesn't really translate well into Irish since it's a river and not a traditional name, so I didn't get a new name).

After breakfast we walked to school together, where we divided into our groups for lessons. Lower classes focused on the basics of grammar and vocabulary, and the upper classes usually spent their time perfecting their conversational and comprehension skills.

Around mid morning we had a break for tea/coffee and cookies (a good opportunity to practice your Irish) then back to class until we broke for lunch.



Lunch break is two hours, so it was a great opportunity to explore the village, go for a walk, or if someone you know had a car-drive to the cool stuff nearby, like the famous cliffs, or the beach, or an archaeological site.

After lunch there was more Irish lessons, wrapping up around 4 in the afternoon. The school planned an activity in the evening after dinner-ceilis, singing sessions, poetry reading, hill walking, etc. The cool part about the evening sessions is that they were completely in Irish, which was great practice for everyone!

As the night wore on we usually ended up at one of the two bars in the village. Some night were wild fun, with drinking and dancing and singing and sessions into the wee hours, and other nights were quiet and intimate, laughing with new friends over a pint by a real turf fire.



I was only in the Glen for a week, but it was truly one of the best weeks of my life. I made amazing new friends, explored a stunning area of Ireland, and learned so much more Irish than I ever imagined. Being in such a beautiful place, surrounded by all this natural beauty really calmed my soul. For the first time during this deployment, I felt completely peaceful. I was happy, life was simple and beautiful, and I was doing something I loved. It was an amazing week.

If you're interested in learning Irish, I would highly recommend Oideas Gael. It's very well run, affordable, set in an amazing part of Ireland, and just SO MUCH FUN!

Besides learning Irish I also spent a ton of time exploring Donegal while I was in Glencolmcille, so keep an eye out for more Ireland updates on the blog!