Sent to Kerry for three months to learn Irish, when I was only ten!

Memories of youngsters being sent away to learn Irish for the summer take centre stage in this week’s Throwback Thursday, says JO KERRIGAN
Sent to Kerry for three months to learn Irish, when I was only ten!

TIME TO LET THEIR HAIR DOWN: A ceili attended by young people at Coláiste Chiaráin, Cape Clear, in 1974, when it was used as an Irish college

READER David O’Sullivan, who generously shared his memories of ‘De Bats’ last week, has dug deep into his memory banks, and given us an account of how his education began and unfolded back in the 1960s.

“I started school in 1961 in St Catherine’s on the Model Farm Road. We boys were allowed to attend St Catherine’s until we had made our Holy Communion,” says David.

He remembers vividly that you got money on that great day from loving relatives.

“The haul from Holy Communion then was one or 2 half crowns (2 / 6, or about say 20p now) from your grandparents. For a whole half crown you could buy a quarter pound of Iced Caramels (for my mother) and Fox’s Glacier Fruits for me. A choc ice was 6d,”(about 3p today, when a Magnum costs at least the equivalent of £2).

David’s mother, since she knew the nuns at St Catherine’s, would recall in later years that he was asking difficult questions even then.

“In Holy Communion preparation, I apparently asked, age 6, ‘If Mary was the mother of God why was she so silly that she did not book a hotel in Bethlehem before she went there?’ Funny, the child’s mind with honest questions.”

With Holy Communion out of the way, at age seven all the small boys in the school were sent off to St Joseph’s on the Mardyke, as there were no schools on that side of the city except Glasheen.

“The bus in the morning to ‘Josie’s’ was 2d and the return at lunch time was 1d. Thus, we received a thruppenny bit twice a day. The Irish one was silver, about the size of a dime and had a hare on it, while the English one was brass and octagonal in shape with a portcullis on it.

President Eamon de Valera opens the Irish Summer College at Garryvoe, in July, 1944
President Eamon de Valera opens the Irish Summer College at Garryvoe, in July, 1944

“The number of times the thruppenny bit got lost on the way to the bus stop I cannot count, resulting in a little boy running home to get another thruppenny bit from Mummy. There was no dropping off by parents in the people carrier back in the ’60s. You got the bus or you walked.”

The Number 5 ran along Model Farm Road, through to College Road, and down Donovan’s Hill to the stop at the Erinville Hospital where David and his pals would get off.

“We then ran to ‘Josie’s’. We got the bus home at lunch time and back again in the afternoon — you ended up with about 7 to 10 minutes to eat, as the bus took about 20 minutes and the lunch break was one hour.”

On the way home after the day ended, David recalls, if you went halfway up the hill to Connacht Avenue, the fare was only 1½d, “and the halfpenny you saved bought a gob-stopper in Healey’s opposite the school.”

St Joseph’s, says David, had a mix of the inner-city kids and those from the newer, western parts of the city.

“I was blessed in life in that I never knew poverty, but here we were exposed to it with some of the inner-city kids. In what is now called a breakfast programme, the Presentation Brothers ran a hot chocolate and sticky bun arrangement for all.

“I seem to remember that we were expected to pay 6d a week for it, but not participate as there was not enough. It was a good lesson in sharing.”

All in all, he reflects, it was a great school, well run by the Presentation Brothers for all kids. “It was not soft, but prepared us for the good and bad parts of life.”

In the September that he entered 6th class, David was taken out of St Joseph’s and sent to the wilds of Kerry to improve his Irish. That, as he admits, was a whole new story.

The concept of forcible Irish was very real back then, and all too many from that era can remember the constant threat that if you failed Irish, you failed everything.

In hindsight, it was a fairly new government trying to repair the damage of hundreds of years of colonial rule, but unfortunately it made many resent our native language for life.

David asks: “At ten years old, aren’t we all forced to do things we do not want to do? Like go to school, etc? In my case, it was to leave home for a whole three months and live in West Kerry.

“The stated goal of my parents was for me to learn good Irish, which was still spoken every day in that part of the world. I think they had in mind preparing me for the entrance exam to a particularly good school up in Newbridge, but all I knew was that I had to go somewhere strange for far too long.”

To ease the separation, David’s grandfather, a great supporter of the Irish language, bribed him with a brand new Raleigh bike from the dealer on South Terrace in Cork (that would have been George Harding’s, known to thousands of cycle enthusiasts over the years). “It cost eight pounds and something, which was quite a big sum, but barely the price of a pint in the fancy hotels in Cork now!”

However, the bike was not ready in time, and the ten-year-old had to leave without it.

“It eventually came down on a lorry to the lumber dealer in Dingle (I wonder if that was from Eustace’s wood yard in Cork, close to George Harding’s shop?) and I had to go and collect it and ride it back to Ballycurrane.

“I was so proud of my new bike with its red frame and florescent green mudguards. It only had one gear as a three speed was a big deal in those days.”

If you search Google Earth, says the modern David helpfully, Ballycurrane is close to what by legend was Brendan’s harbour, the place he sailed from on his legendary journey.

The village was a small place back then, with just six houses, and the little Cork exile soon got to know every one of the locals.

“In one of the houses we had the ‘rich’ home owner, who had a Ford Anglia, a Massey Ferguson tractor and a TV. On different days of the week, different homes could go to his house to watch TV.”

What a wonderful insight into country life back in the 1960s!

But even in Cork, David reminds us, we had only had TV for three years, receiving it when President Kennedy visited the city, a few months before his assassination.

“In these days of affluence, we do tend to forget that only 60 years ago Irish people were living what would be regarded as a subsistence lifestyle, similar to a second world country,” he comments.

“The other five houses in this village would have had one or two acres for potatoes and vegetables, and a cow. Then a herd of sheep up the mountains as their main source of income. The food was whole and hearty though. As my mother commented, when I came back to Cork I was like Billy Bunter! Lots of potatoes and butter from the bean a ti. I remember the husband as being a very quiet man, and her father also lived with them. They had no children.”

Life can be strange. In Vancouver, 20 years later, David married a woman from Cork, and it transpired that she had also lived in Ballycurrane for a month, in a different house, about a year after his trip west. “How’s that for a coincidence?”

The school was in Fearnaught, and was mixed boys and girls, and David is convinced that their teacher had been sent to West Kerry as some form of punishment, as he was not very interested in his job.

DAY IN THE SUN: Boys attending the Irish Summer College at Garryvoe pictured at the local beach on August 16, 1956
DAY IN THE SUN: Boys attending the Irish Summer College at Garryvoe pictured at the local beach on August 16, 1956

“Most days would consist of an English essay in the morning for two hours, Maths at say 11.30 until lunch at 12 and then an Irish essay in the afternoon.

“While we were writing our essays, he would get through the Irish Times cover to cover, so he was knowledgeable. But it wasn’t a great education for these children.

“This, remember, was still in the days where a child could leave after primary school. Compulsory secondary school was only just coming in.”

Looking back, David thinks it was in fact a great experience for a ten-year-old boy. “It encouraged independence and confidence. The Irish was of some good, I assume, even though, if I remember, all our Irish exams were written, thus my linguistic skills were never tested!

“My written and spelling skills were and still are poorly lacking so the benefits of Irish intensity may not have been that great, but the general life skills definitely were.”

When eventually he came back to Cork, David went to the new school in Bishopstown for the remaining five months of the school year, and then was sent to Newbridge for his secondary education before coming home once more to study at CIT (MUT as it is now).

David, thank-you for sharing those memories.

There must be so many more of you out there who were sent to homes or colleges in West Cork or Kerry during the summer months to improve that all-important Irish.

There were (still are) summer schools in all our Gaeltacht regions, and in the more remote areas, as where David went, individual homes which take in scholars eager to gain fluency in their native language, long outlawed by colonialism.

Tell us about your own memories. Did you enjoy it or not? Was it fun, making lots of friends, exploring new places, or was it rigorous and ruled? Most importantly, did it give you a love for your own native tongue or instill a rebellious determination to avoid it just as soon as you could? We want to know!

Email or leave a comment on our Facebook page: (

More in this section

Sponsored Content

Add to your home screen - easy access to Cork news, views, sport and more