Coláiste Bhríde, Rann na Feirste
They were probably the two best summers of my childhood.
Three weeks away from home where the rules might have been pretty strict, but the fun, laughs and excitement were never to be matched.
It was my trip to the summer Gaeltacht - and in my case, Rannafast in July of 1989 and 1990.
Over 30 years later, I found myself back in Rannafast recently. I’m almost embarrassed to say it, but it was my first time to visit the area since I was that 16-year-old lad from Letterkenny who learned so much about life in those three brilliant weeks that summer in 1990.
I’ve always assumed that Rannafast is a very different place in the months of July and August when teenagers descend upon it from all corners of Ireland.
This year - as was the case in 2020 - the summer Gaeltacht has been cancelled because of Covid-19. So when I was driving down the familiar road one recent Friday afternoon, past the former Crolly Doll factory, it was all so very quiet.
On the left hand side of the road as you head into Rannafast, I tried to remember the house where my two older brothers stayed when they went to the Gaeltacht a few years before me.
I remember being brought down by my parents to visit them on a Sunday. On the back road behind Errigal, coming up to Dunlewey, we came across a bag of turf that had fallen off a tractor up ahead of us. My dad pulled the car over and put the back of turf in the boot.
It didn’t seem to matter that we never lit a fire in our house back in Letterkenny. We took the turf home and it lay beside the fireplace for ages.
Rannafast - a place of beauty
My two brothers were always glad to get a visit from us. They got a few pound and my mum would have a few treats and more importantly, some clean clothes for the week ahead.
There was a story about a granny in one of the houses who was a bit of a larger than life lady. Unfortunately the family cat met an unfortunate end when the granny sat on the sofa, a bit too quickly for the cat who thought there was no danger when it decided to take a nap on the settee.
The boys had other stories too. They found themselves sharing a house with a group of long haired teenagers from Belfast who took an immediate dislike to my oldest brother.
There they were in their leather and denim jackets slagging him off for wearing ‘The Jam’ and ‘The Who’ badges on his Harrington.
Completely outnumbered, he got himself out of a very tricky situation by challenging them to a quiz on Irish rock music - and winning the day thanks to his knowledge of all things Thin Lizzy.
By the time I was heading to the Gaeltacht for the first time in 1989, I was into my music too which was just as well because music, football and girls were all we chatted about in our house in Rannafast - and not necessarily in that order.
We stayed in Teach Stiofan Ann. I think there were three rooms for the students who could choose from single beds or bunk beds. Around 14 young lads from Donegal, Monaghan and Dublin under the one roof. Not an easy task for our wonderful Bean a‘nd ’Tí who had her own husband and children to look after too.
She was a brilliant cook, her dinners were scrumptious. One of the rules meant that all students had to be in their houses by 10pm each night. None of us were ever late, so good were our Bean an Tí's suppers.
There were a few of us from Letterkenny in that house - Noel, Cathal, Mark, Brendan and Stephen. Hugh from Culdaff was a great friend for those few weeks. Michael from Moville too. He liked his music and anytime I hear a song by The Doors, I think of him.
In an amazing coincidence, I found myself reporting from the side of the GAA pitch in Glenfin last year alongside Damien Ó Dónaill who was working for Raidió na Gaeltachta.
He broke off our conversation to give a quick update in Irish for the radio, and when he finished, I continued our conversation in Irish.
I told him about my time at the Gaeltacht in Rannafast - not realising that he is himself from Rannafast - and wait for it . . . is a son of Stiofan and Ann O’Donnell!
All these years later, and despite the fact that I’d never been back since - Rannafast holds a very special place in my memories.
I often wonder what some of the friends I made there are doing now. Did they enjoy their time there as much as me?
Do they still remember the céilís, and how we were all so reluctant/too cool to try out the céilí dancing? By the time we got ourselves ready for the Céilí Mór at the end of our three weeks, we were experts.
Do they still remember the wee shop that was opened just for the Gaeltacht students? I lived off Tunnock’s Tea-cakes for my three weeks.
Our class in Coláiste Bhríde learned an Irish version of the song, The Boys in Green for Italia 90 - Is muid an Foireann Glás.
Speaking English was frowned upon, big time. Our house was located right beside the principal, Sean O’Labhra’s house. So we had to be extra careful not to be chatting English anytime we went past.
And any student who thought they’d never be sent home for such an offence only had to ask our group. One of our housemates - Jarlath from Monaghan - found himself on the bus home ten days earlier than expected.
Getting to know the girls from Belfast, Dundalk, Monaghan and Dublin . . . it was brilliant.
On the final night at the Céilí Mór, there were books to be signed, phone numbers shared and promises made that we’d write to each other and meet up soon.There were tears too. We’d be friends forever.
And while we’d never meet each other again, at least we got to share those very special times together in Rann na Feirste.
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