Usually at this time of the year the Gaeltacht regions would be preparing for an influx of visitors. This year the buses will lie idle and the many rooms prepped to welcome students will stay empty. The pubs are shut and local businesses prepare to take a hit. It was not safe for Coláistí to run summer courses this summer. These courses are a huge source of revenue for what can often be underfunded areas.

The summer trip to the Gaeltacht is a rite of passage instilling a love of the language in students. The stories from the last disco and late walks home from the Coláiste become legendary. The importance of these courses cannot be overstated when it comes to protecting Ireland’s culture and heritage. Yet, like so many other aspects of our lives, the traditional Irish college now finds itself at a crossroads. Can the traditional céillí be adapted to include a social distance of two metres? Will smaller coláistí make up their losses in summer 2021? Would parents feel comfortable sending their children during the “new normal”? These are the questions now facing owners and administrators who only a few months ago were preparing for another busy, fun and memorable summer.

The grainy image of a hall packed full of teenagers without face masks is no longer a normal one.  The traditional céillí is reminiscent of a time when “social distancing” had not yet entered our everyday vernacular. We feel nostalgic for a summer that now seems like a long, long time ago.

College students (especially those studying Irish) often find summer employment in Irish colleges. They return year on year to their coláiste of choice, grateful for a well-paid definite source of income and an enjoyable summer. These students are now unemployed, competing for part-time jobs with the countless other students who are now back in their family homes. The sense of uncertainty is made worse by news reports that a recession joins the lockdown in a series of unfortunate events.

“I worked at the coláiste since I was fifteen, and it has definitely become part of my summer. I don’t think twice about what I’m doing I just know I’ll be working there.”

For Fiona Clancy, the summertime and Coláiste na Rinne have been an inseparable duo since she was fifteen years old. Through many different changes and stages of life, her role as cinnire has remained a welcome certainty. “I worked at the coláiste since I was fifteen, and it has definitely become part of my summer. I don’t think twice about what I’m doing I just know I’ll be working there.” Clancy was “super disappointed” to hear that she would not be immersed in Irish for the summer, something she says helps her as a teacher.

The traditional student summer jobs in pubs seem unlikely this summer. For some students, summer 2020 seems set to be the summer of unemployment as they compete for limited supermarket positions. Jack Riley was hired in his local Tesco when his hopes of returning to Coláiste Cholumba, Connemara as a cinnire for another summer became impossible. His positive experience last summer made him eager to return. “The experience gave me a passion for teaching and safeguarding children at a secondary school level,” said Riley. “It meant a great deal to me personally to be exposed to my native language and speaking it every day naturally.”

Adhna Ní Dhonnchadha was raised in Lettermore, with Irish being spoken at home. Yet, the arrival of summer courses to the area meant more to her than simply a pay check. It gave her the chance to see her home through the eyes of others and reminded her of her love of her first language. “When I went to study in NUIG, I went from learning everything in Irish to learning everything in English which I found quite tough initially. With commuting and being a part of a large class, I didn’t get to meet many Gaeilgeoirí and I started missing having the language as a huge part of my life. It was kind of the moment I needed to realise how important the language is to me. I started to bring it into my student life more with taking modules available in Irish and running for Oifigeach na Gaeilge.”

Nearby hotels, B&Bs and restaurants on the road into Galway welcome the custom of visiting parents. While activity centres and bus companies provide day tours for students for the Coláistí. “Some businesses would heavily rely on families coming out to their children and the tours that these kids would take with the coláistí,” says Ní Dhonnchadha.

“There are people that aren’t following restrictions either and might view the Gaeltacht as an escape.”

Yet, a return to the tourism industry is not most locals’ main concern at the moment. Those breaking restrictions to escape to picturesque Connemara, Achill Island etc. risk endangering those who live there. “There are people that aren’t following restrictions either and might view the Gaeltacht as an escape.” Lockdown and cocooning in isolated areas presents its own problems, especially for young people trying complete their degrees online. “I find it extremely tough being in isolation. I sat six final year exams in rural Ireland and I was worried that something would go wrong. I mean I couldn’t access one of my exams for fifteen minutes at one stage… The closest shop is almost a ten-minute drive from me and it’s weird to think that making that trip is kind of exciting now.”

Employees, locals, parents and prospective students all hope for the return of the Irish college course next summer. Although this seems like a far cry from the world we are currently living in, Ní Dhonnchadha believes that a positive attitude is paramount when planning for the future. “Things have changed so rapidly these past few months and this pandemic will most likely impact our lives for much longer than we think. Sometimes it’s hard to be optimistic when you feel like you’ve no reason to be but a part of me believes that the coláistí will bounce back.”

Louise Mahon, a former cinnire at Coláiste Cholumba, echoes this hope for a return to normality. She points out that the traditional Gaeltacht experience almost completely contradicts the idea of social distancing. “Part of the Gaeltacht experience involves being in really close proximity with others at céillís and other activities.” Mahon feels that a new approach may be needed next summer if the situation has not greatly improved.

“I do think the Gaeltacht will have to change to fit the new normal, although this could be challenging because of the nature of the Gaeltacht experience. There’s something classic and traditional about it that doesn’t really fit in well with moving with the times, making changes and so on. I don’t think any aspect of life will go unscathed by the virus, so that will have to include the gaeltacht area in some shape or form. Whether or not the Gaeltacht will struggle to keep up with such changes… We’ll have to wait and see.”