AN Óige, the Irish Youth Hostel Association, has played a central role in our nation’s social history.
Established here in 1931, it was a focus for thousands of young travellers every year, heading out to discover what lay over the hill, beyond the horizon.
There were hostels everywhere — highly useful ones in the cities, others placed in far distant corners where just getting to the place was part of the challenge. I can’t recall what it cost per night, but it was certainly in shillings and pence rather than pounds.
My own parents were part of creating that network of hostels in the 1930s, cycling off determinedly every weekend (this was well before they were married), to explore likely locations.
They were part of a cycling and exploring group that also included people like Brian O’Kelly, later the distinguished archaeology professor who excavated Newgrange; George Harding, whose shop on South Terrace was the place to get punctures repaired, bikes hammered back into shape, even a ‘new’ second-hand model purchased; and several others who were to go on to become noted in their various fields in later life.
I can clearly remember being furious with my father when, returning from one trip, I asked why on earth the rural hostels had to be in such remote locations, almost impossible to reach without extreme effort. ‘That was no accident,’ he said with satisfaction. ‘We deliberately chose the most out-of-the-way places. No fun otherwise, is it?’
I should have known. This was a man who had spent his own youthful years persuading cattle and cargo boats calling to Cork to take him across to Europe with his bike so he could explore further afield, camping on bleak mountainsides in the snow, sleeping under bridges. Of course it would be fun (for him) to slog miles along a muddy track in the pouring rain to a cheerless concrete bunker on Ireland’s only fjord. After all, look at the scenery!
Cars were not allowed at hostels, back then. Absolutely, positively not. Contrary to the spirit and intention of An Óige. Even the echo of an engine in the distance was enough to bring a suspicious stare.
A family hadn’t a chance of turning up separately, having parked the forbidden vehicle some way back down the road in a thicket of bushes. ‘They’ Would Know, and entrance would be forbidden.
Cyclists were allowed, but many hostellers in the ’50s and ’60s were weary footsloggers, humping rucksacks with a basic change of clothes, a toothbrush, and perhaps a tin of baked beans for dinner.
And mostly we thought ourselves better off than those on bikes. Once you had that machine, you were stuck with it, couldn’t abandon it in a ditch, had to keep on pedalling all those long miles. We, on the other hand, with a thumb stuck hopefully out, could get carried blissfully for long distances (OK, also sometimes for pitifully short distances and dropped off on remote boreens), arriving distinctly less wearied than those on wheels.
Back then, hitching, travelling ar an ordóg, as you would say in Irish, was taken for granted. Every motorist was glad to pick up a couple of youngsters for a bit of conversation along the way. Danger wasn’t thought of, and we heard very little evidence of it. How else could impoverished students get from one end of Ireland to the other, explore its beauties, discover new places, people, cultures? We all did it.
Some hostels had history. Mountshannon on Lough Derg, presented to An Óige by Lady Talbot de Malahide in 1956, was supremely elegant, at least on the outside. United Irishman Napper Tandy is said to have made its gates.
Many were in breathtaking locations. But you didn’t get creature comforts. Separate dormitories, naturally, for males and females. Bunk beds, army-issue grey blankets, harsh and tickly, and rock-hard pillows. You brought your own regulation sheet bag. Cold water sinks, basic loos, usually outside, and simple cooking facilities — a gas ring or two, a few battered saucepans, a kettle.
Still, you were under a roof, sheltered for the night, even if next morning you had to do your share of the housework, be it sweeping the floor or cleaning the windows, before getting your all-important An Oige card back with a coveted stamp (hostellers would show off their different stamps boastfully).
Killary Harbour was that infamous hostel mentioned above where, even if a lucky lift dropped you at the junction, you still had to walk three miles on a muddy track out along the fjord to the hostel. I recall going there with a girl friend from college one May. The weather was beautiful, the lifts were good, the walk pleasant. “Hey,” I said in a fit of temporary insanity the next morning, “why don’t we come back in November, when it will be really cosy and we will probably have it to ourselves?” It seemed a delightful idea. And we did just that.
The weather was cold, wet, and hostile. We squelched along the track, mud spattering our jeans, battered at the door of the hostel until the warden, who lived nearby, came over and let us in, hung up dripping coats, and tried to make a fire with damp turf.
After a while, the warden came in and threw something unidentified on the recalcitrant fire from a bottle. It whooshed up in bright flames and we were able to handle it from there. But there was no way we were going to sleep in that damp unwelcoming dormitory. Mattresses were hauled out (two thicknesses each), and we slept by the fire. Next morning, we wrapped ourselves in everything we had, uttered a silent prayer, and launched ourselves out into a shrieking wet gale: a memorable walk back to the main road.
Seeing a woman driving past in her warm dry car, wearing just a pink woolly cardigan over her blouse and skirt, we wondered if hostelling really was the way to go.
And yet, half a century on, those are the memories most often taken out and relived. Perhaps there was something in the notion after all.
Would today’s kids do this? Not without en suite bathrooms, central heating, and of course high speed broadband...
Thank-you, An Óige. You gave generations of Irish teenagers the thirst for travel.