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I had hoped to transit through this life without every playing chaperone to a group of bumptious teenagers.
Whenever I see those groups, I feel sorry for the teachers—the tired leaders corralling exuberant students through the metro, or the frazzled parental helpers funneling single-file lines of dispassionate young minds into a museum exhibit. Neither adult nor the youth ever seem to be reveling in the destination—From a distance, traveling with student groups resembles livestock farming.
And yet, though travel is educational at any age, traveling with young people feels like wiping the lens clean. It may be my third summer in the Aran Islands, but the place feels fresh and new—I watch and listen to the thrill of these younger humans, two dozen first-timers clambering onto these broken rocks at the far western edge of Ireland. They are joyful and wild, with minds like empty, waiting shelves.
There is whiskey aging in barrels that is older than this bunch, but my job is to show them how to see, study, and capture the value of this Earth. This is how I find myself crammed into the lower bunk of a youth hostel, reading the travel essays of precocious high schoolers and offering meaningful critiques on the photos they have snapped under the overcast skies of Connemara.
I am afraid to say anything remotely negative, really. There is no such thing as bad light, I want to say—only there is better light to be had. Perhaps they might have waited a bit longer—watching the sky, or taking the time to follow their subject like a spy. If I have learned anything from a lifetime spent traveling and writing, I tell them, it is that we must wait in a place—for days or weeks, or a lifetime even—to ever really understand. A day and a night on Inis Oírr feels like their well-meaning snapshots—beautiful yes, but all too fleeting.
They are intelligent kids—perceptive and thirsty, unbound by cynicism. Some are far more talented than they know, others are potentially lazy—a challenge that every artist and writer must overcome every day, I counsel. My job is simply to teach and inspire, while other, more responsible leaders are “in charge”—thank goodness.
We have landed on the smallest of the three islands, a scrape of stone in the shape of a fist, barely lifting from the slate-colored sea, and only twice the size of Central Park. The kids are covered up in the rain gear that was on their packing list (because—Ireland) and the rain is tapping like a tap dancer on our waterproof hoods.
One by one, a few students opt out of the scheduled afternoon bike ride. The leaders leave with the two-thirds majority and I am crowned king of the mutineers. The rain falls down harder and I hurry them up the road to a stony ring of ruins dating back to the Bronze Age. Already, I am the unwitting chaperone I did not want to become, and I am playing guide to a destination about which I know practically nothing. Once I’ve exhausted my pithy knowledge of the Bronze Age, I move them onward to the buried church of the Irish Saint Caomhán. Centuries of blowing storms and sand have entombed the thousand-year old ruin, but the kids still find their way down into the labyrinth, feeling the limestone walls and ducking beneath the gothic archways. The rain tapers off and a hush falls over the group as they move through the knee-deep grass and into the graveyard, a stone forest of Celtic crosses, concrete angels, and woeful Virgin Marys.
“Read the names on the tombs,” I tell them—each one represents a life lived in this place, each name represents a real character who might inspire a new character in their own creative writing. I try and help them with the Gaelic spellings, but find myself sounding repetitious, explaining over and over, “Those letters are silent in Irish.” I will not pretend to understand any Gaelic at all, so I point out a word that appears on so many graves—a word I know. Lúnasa signifies the month of August, from the old Irish harvest festival, traditionally held on the first day of August. I do my best to explain Lughnasadh, and the end-of harvest festival of Samhain, which gave us Halloween. The kids say, “hmmm,” and move on.
We climb to the highest point of the island and explore the remnants of O’Brien’s Castle, which stands like a broken black tooth against the sky.
“Why does the castle not have any windows?” the youngest student asks, and I respond with a brief, podcast version of the Norman invasion of Ireland and their tradition of tower castles, like this one.
“They were just big enough for a lord and lady, and enough soldiers to protect them,” I say, sounding trite. From our new vantage point, we look out across the green isle, checkered with scores of small square paddocks, each surrounded by hand-built stone walls. I talk about karst landscapes and the cracked limestone that reads like an engraved book from the last ice age—how the lack of natural soil made farming impossible until islanders filled each paddock with seaweed and cow dung, and slowly, over centuries, composted a few inches of precious soil for grazing sheep and cows. I am not sure they are even listening at this point, but I go on to explain the diminutive size of the fields, how primogeniture lost out to generations of big Catholic families that sub-divided their plots into smaller and smaller farms that could barely support those who lived there. Then came the great potato famine of 1845, when a million people starved to death in Ireland, and another million left the country—mostly for America. It is not a cheerful history, so I quit my diatribe and send my students out into the paddocks to write and take pictures. Tiny summer flowers poke out from between the stone walls, and the sun does a passing blink, casting a marvelous emerald glow upon Inis Oírr. We have transcended postcard status—the rare moment when the air and sounds and view of a place surpass the two-dimensional expectations that we collect from the calendars, TV, and the internet. I hope they always remember this.
On the road back, we meet a couple of girls—Irish teenagers from the mainland who have come to learn Gaelic on this island, where Irish is still spoken as a first language. Hosted for the summer by Irish-speaking families, the girls will undergo intense immersion in their own national language, with the hope that the fading tongue will go on for one more generation, and then perhaps, beyond that.
How much of Ireland still speaks Irish? Nobody can tell me exactly—the geography of language is ephemeral. Does one speak Irish at home all the time, or just with their grandparents? Does one speak it with the postman or on the phone with the bank? In my experience, over half the people in Ireland tell me they speak Irish, but when asked to say something—anything—they balk, or they reference a song they learned at school, or give me a single memorized line.
The Irish-speaking part of Ireland is called the Gaeltacht, signposted clearly in regions across western Ireland, but according to the last census, only a quarter of Gaeltacht households are actually fluent in Irish. What that means is that less than two percent of Ireland know how to speak their native language, and the most pessimistic studies predict that Irish Gaelic will disappear as a community language within the next ten years.
The Aran Islands are the exception to the trend, where Irish remains the predominant language. Just the day before, over on the neighboring island of Inis Mór, I hushed the students, then gathered them around the bar of a local pub, so they could eavesdrop on a real conversation in Irish.
“You are hearing one of the oldest languages in Europe,” I tell them, “With words that are older than Latin.” I feel like I am crouched in the jungle, pointing out one of the rarest birds in the world.
Intensive summer language programs like the one on Inis Oírr represent a last ditch attempt to save Irish from extinction. The teenagers we encounter seem excited to be there—they want to know Irish, but it’s difficult, they explain to my students. I stand back and observe the young people, Irish and American, vigorously sharing the impressions of the island where we now stand. Like us, the mainland Irish are foreigners in this tiny place—a speck of stone caught between two great civilizations.
“We’re having a céilí tonight,” says one of the Irish girls. “You should come! Starts at eight—it’ll be fun!” Trying to explain a ceilidh to my students is almost impossible. There is singing, and dancing, music—a party, a gathering—wonderful fun, really. I have attended ceilidhs in Scotland, and in America, where we held a ceilidh for my own grandmother.
Yes, I am Celtic, I tell my students proudly. My father’s family is Welsh—hence my last name, and my mother’s family is Scottish. I had my DNA read, and my own personal genetic map follows the migration of the Celts, across central Europe, through Gaul, and finally to the far edges of pre-Roman Britannia.
“We tend to think of the Celts as Irish, Scottish, Welsh, or Breton, but in fact, there was a time when the most of Europe was inhabited by the Celts. A few thousand years ago, they spoke Irish in Switzerland!” This last line is a stretch—an oversimplification of history and linguistics—but I want them to understand that Inis Oírr is the tidal pool of a lost ocean, and that language represents the ebb and flow of civilization.
After dinner, I try and convince the rest of the group to come crash the ceilidh with me. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” I say, sounding exactly like every dorky teacher I ever knew. Less than half the students come with me, along with a responsible leader, and we walk in the blue light of dusk up to the Irish school on the hill. A rumble of noise comes from the gymnasium, and before we enter, I give the sternest warning I can, reminding them that we are uninvited guests and outsiders—that this is not our country, or space, or language. I forbid them from speaking a peep of English, and quickly attempt to teach them “Thank You” in Irish (Go raibh maith agat) and to please, please, please, behave. I have now fully transitioned into the frazzled chaperone that I always pitied—the grown-up trying desperately to influence youth, for better or worse.
We enter the school, and I ask permission from the headmaster, begging him, as one educator to another, please, may these children participate. He agrees to let us in, but we can only watch from the sidelines. We cannot dance, on account of safety and liability.
“If someone falls and breaks their arm . . .” he begins. Oh, but we are insured, I explain—to the hilt!
“But we are not insured against you,” he responds, leading us to sit on the long bench against the wall. My students obey, keeping silent, as a gymnasium full of Irish youth look back at them. Ireland has given us music, dance, literature, and life, and in return, we—America—have given them litigiousness and liability clauses.
From our hard wooden seat, we watch and listen as over two hundred schoolchildren sing Irish lyrics from photocopied worksheets. They are directed by a man on stage—a leader who is probably not much older than I, but far more enthusiastic, bellowing out his dramatic commands in Irish. A few songs in, and I see my own American students respond, smiling and laughing and rocking back and forth—they know the song! The Irish students are singing American pop songs—in Irish. Wait, even I know this one—it’s “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show. An Irish band plays along with a fiddle and mandolin, and the big open hall echoes with youthful voices.
When the singing is done, everyone sits on the floor, and a young man takes a stool and begins a slow attack on a small, handheld drum—a bodhrán. He taps on the stretched goatskin with a small wooden tipper, beating gradually, then swiftly increasing to a heart-racing pitch. The drummer’s face turns red and the rapid rhythm fills the gymnasium. The drumming is overpowering—mystical and haunting, like a benediction spelled out in drumbeats, a message that shakes the rafters and the heavens above.
The bodhrán player stops, spent, with eyes clenched tight and his brow all sweaty, and we all applaud. That is the only response we know—answering his noise with our own noise of clapping hands.
Then, it is time to dance, and the Irish leader launches into the instruction—all in Irish, of course, counting out the group dance steps over and over again.
“Ahaon, a do, a hoan, do, tri . . .” he shouts, skipping forward with grace, then swiping the gym floor with one toe. A minute later, the music begins and we watch as two hundred schoolchildren reel awkwardly in a dance they do not know.
But they learn. Over and over, the song repeats itself and the dancers dance, remembering a little more each time, laughing at their own silliness, shy girls and boys holding hands, parading in circles, tripping over one another and then repeating the steps once more.
“A hoan, do, tri!” the leader counts aloud, again and again, until I am convinced that if my students forget everything I ever taught them, they will at least remember how to count to three in Irish. I stare down the bench, and see that my students are fighting to sit still—they are tapping their feet, shaking their rumps in time to the music, wanting desperately to dance. I watch as one very young Irish boy, lacking a partner, approaches a girl in our group, inviting her to dance. She only shakes her head “no”—I have forbidden her from speaking any English and their teacher has forbidden us from dancing. The younger Irish boy looks crushed by the rejection but heads back into the sea of students, seeking a mate.
The dancing goes on for an hour, and we remain the wallflowers at the back of the gym. I worry that my students are bored, but instead I see them watching intently, soaking up the scene before them.
Suddenly, in the middle of one of the dances, we watch the teacher yank the arm of one student, shouting angrily in Irish, shaking with rage, and chastising him with a shaking finger. The student, no more than nine years old, looks up at the teacher—alarmed, sheepish and confused—but the teacher continues to berate him in Irish.
The boy spoke a word in English, I found out later, and English is forbidden. Every student signs a contract when they arrive, swearing that they will only speak Irish for the summer. If they are caught using English, they get a strike—three strikes warrants a formal intervention, and five strikes gets you expelled and sent home.
“He seemed really angry!” one of my students recalls, after we have left the gymnasium and wandered down the road. The kids are picking apart what they have just witnessed.
“Yes, but . . .” I explain, as my head wanders back not so far in time, when I imagine British teachers berated their Irish-speaking students, forbidding them from speaking their native language at school. It is the same dynamic that erased Hawaiian and Sioux, Cajun and Cornish, all from the minds and tongues of entire nations.
Language is a battle of numbers, and here and now, we have a billion English speakers versus the 250 islanders of Inis Oírr, a place that literally means “rear island”. If the Irish school gymnasium on an offshore island is one of the last places they have left in the world, no wonder they treat English like a threatening storm. Like an endangered bird, Irish has managed to survive in its last native habitat, at the far end of Europe. They are right to protect it.
I feel once more the need to chaperone, to stop the group and circle them into a controlled space, to hit pause on the whole scene and over-explain the moment. Do they see what I see? THIS—I want to point back to the school on the hill—this is Ireland. Not the shamrock pendants or boxed whisky fudge or Kiss Me, I’m Irish T-shirts sold in the tourist shops of Dublin and Galway. Not the syrupy strains of Danny Boy that are piped into airport lounges, not the Enya channel on Spotify, and certainly not the Irish Crème coffee creamer that comes in a green plastic bottle. This is not some Irish step dance recital in suburban Chicago or all of Riverdance horse-hoofing their way across a Las Vegas sound stage.
This is Ireland, where they say hello, but actually mean, “God and Mary be with you”; where the fishermen on the dock swap jokes in Irish, converse only in Irish, think in Irish, and whisper prayers in Irish to a pagan sea god that is vaguely-disguised as a Catholic saint, just like their great-grandfathers and those great-grandfathers’ great-grandfathers. The language that my students heard tonight is awesomely ancient, representing millennia of humans chatting back and forth, slowly changing the sounds over time as they were pushed westward by the Romans, the Goths, the Saxons, Normans, and finally, the English. Eventually, the sounds of Irish crossed the oceans to became the sounds of America—the rounded vowels, the short “A” and the overstressed “R” of the American accent are most likely derived from Irish English, which carries within it the remote shadow of the original Celtic tongue. Over 35 million Americans claim Irish ancestry today, but this remote outcrop of Inis Oírr is the most Irish of all—one of the last remaining crumbs of a lost Celtic world—and we are lucky to be here.
This is culture, I want to explain, and culture is vital. Culture is not merely cute, or simply fun, or even cool. It is not a dance, or a word, or a song, or souvenir. It is blood, it is sacred, and it is a battle against time and technology. Culture is what each of us holds inside, the memory of past lives carried forward in poetry, recipes, and the quirkiest mannerisms of our family. It is fragile, like a tiny flower blossoming from a crack in the wall, often barely noticed unless we stop and wait and listen.
Travel takes us to these hidden places at the back of the world . . .
I keep writing the sermon in my head but say none of it. Instead, I keep my mouth shut and watch the children, my students, skipping in time down the road, laughing with the energy of the evening, repeating the Irish words they heard, counting off as they mimic the dance steps, “A hoan, do, tri!”
They understand just fine—they are smart kids. For once, the cultural tide is reversed. In this moment, the Americans forget the Top 40 and the latest Marvel blockbuster movie back home. Instead, they find delight in the events of the past hour, drinking in the great emotion of Ireland and carrying it with them. I follow behind now, allowing them room to step skip and to practice their point-hop-back. The sky has gone a deep indigo, with a few stars gleaming through the night clouds, and like a lazy shepherd, I chaperone the students back to our hostel by the sea, all the while thinking: I hope they remember this.