Life

Nuala McCann: My summers in the Donegal Gaeltacht were tinged with the awkwardness of being 14

If the runai heard aon focal of English, you were on the old maroon and cream Lough Swilly bus bumping up and down across the peat bogs home. Those old buses scored nul points for suspension

Nuala McCann – Donegal is forever lonesome to me

A FRIEND’S youngest and much loved daughter is off to the Gaeltacht.

'Kissing college' I tell my friend with a smirk, across the dinner table in the restaurant. The look on his face is priceless. It’s that 'lock up yer daughters' look.

In her Saturday column, Lynette Fay has written about her love of Irish college. It’s a rite of passage for young people.

Forty years ago, when I went, it was three weeks and three days and if the rúnaí heard aon focal of English, you were on the old maroon and cream Lough Swilly bus bumping up and down across the peat bogs home. Those old buses scored nul points for suspension.

Money was limited for those who lived in the back end of nowhere in Donegal, so the local people – the múinties – piled out of their houses into caravans and crammed their bedrooms with bunk beds for us summer visitors.

We slept on straw mattresses and hot water was a luxury – I didn’t get in the bath once the whole time.

The bean an tí burned sausages for dinner, the milk tasted faintly sour and I shall always credit the Gaeltacht for my first taste of Bird’s Dream Topping.

My sister had gone before me. My mother sewed her a beautiful pink smock dress for her holidays. A neon yellow skinny jumper, a pair of black parallels and six-inch-high, ankle breaker platforms and Marc Bolan eat your heart out – she was set for the céilí mór.

We all drove up one sweltering Sunday to visit her – three hours up; three hours down and a picnic on the beach. I remember the skeletal remains of an old boat jutting up from the sand and the joy of meeting a real donkey.

My mother brought my sister a beautiful pink towelling swimsuit which she had also sewn for her. But mum unwittingly stitched her up. Years later, my sister confided: “It was beautiful when I went into the water, but when I got out, it was totally see through.”

And oh, the presents my sister brought back. Amazing what they sold in the one souvenir shop in the village three miles down the road. She couldn’t stretch to a Crolly doll but I got a small charm bracelet. Each of the individual charms carried one of the Ten Commandments – it probably bagged me that A in O-level Religion.

My own memories of my Gaeltacht summer in Donegal are tinged with the awkwardness of being 14. It was a first holiday without family. I was a bookish, geeky nerd. The hormones made me moody and I’d be off walking the roads on my own. Donegal is forever lonesome to me – peat bogs, the Blue Stacks, turf piled against a whitewashed wall. Connemara is the same... I wouldn’t thank you for a Paul Henry painting.

I was Miss Goody Two Shoes. I’d never take a drag on a fag, I’d never sneak a quiet beer and I’d never ever kiss a boy.

The Irish was no problem. There’s me, Ms Swot in the front row of class, book opened, pen primed for the teacher’s pearls of wisdom, rolling my eyes at the sniggering boys at the back.

And then the old seanchaí came to tell us stories. He had an unfortunate problem with spittle and when the story got rousing, he gushed like a leaky mains pipe and showered all those perched in the front row.

Given the bean an tí’s no hot water rule, it was truly bad luck.

Looking back, I took life too seriously. Loosen up, I’d tell my younger self, throw a few shapes on the dance floor, make like you’re at kissing college, go snog girl!

But when the teachers put boys lined up on one side of the room and girls on the other and then the boys had to ask the girls to dance, my stomach lurched. It was a lose-lose situation – terrified I’d be left a wallflower and equally terrified at making small talk while performing a pitiful waltz with a stranger.

The singing was easier. The cool dudes and the bad eggs from Andytown adulterated the songs with admirable skill from “Ailliliú the effin Gaeltacht” to “Óró, she’s the besta value”. Pearse would be spinning in his grave.

Ah, the relief when it was over. Like when John Paul II arrived in Dublin, I wanted to fall down and kiss the tarmac of home.

Kissing college? I wish.

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