SEPTEMBER 1993 and nine teenagers were about to embark on a brand new chapter in the provision of education in Ennis. These students were the first to enrol in Gaelcholáiste an Chláir, which this week celebrates its 20th anniversary.
Having started off with a small class of first years in the early nineties on the grounds of what was then the Ennis Vocational School, Gaelcholáiste an Chláir has grown considerably over the past two decades.
Nearly 150 students are now enroled in the Aonad Lán Gaeilge attached to Ennis Community College. As the school prepares to celebrate its milestone anniversary, The Clare Champion spoke to some of those instrumental in the school’s foundation, as well as those who are guiding the Gaelcholáiste towards its future.
Jim Lyons was CEO of Clare VEC in 1993 when a group of parents approached him with the idea of having a school teaching through Irish in Ennis.
“I had been an Irish teacher myself in my younger days in Connemara so I was very interested in pressing the language. We decided to have a go at getting department permission to start the unit in the school.”
He said those involved were determined to ensure the success of the project.
“Most of all we wanted to do this on a proper basis. We put it to the staff of the school and we got 14 members to agree to go to Connemara where we had a special course set up for them in all the Irish terminology and in re-invigorating their Irish skills. Even the school chaplain went. That was a tremendous base for the unit. It was a two-week course and they went to school all day and there were also classes set up on Saturdays in the University of Limerick. I would say they were about the best equipped staff you could get to start a Gaelcholáiste and they deserve tremendous credit for all the extra time they put in to make sure they did the job properly.”
Recalling when the Gaelcholáiste first opened its doors to students he said, “There was a good bit of nervousness because it was a totally new concept, we had a long tradition of teaching through English. I think a good school is down to good teachers and they gained recognition that way. The parents’ support was superb, everything we felt we needed they tried to do it for is. In fact they were the ones who did the publicity that the place was available and thriving.”
Mr Lyons added, “We had nine students in the first year and from a slight distance of an office in Ennis I followed their career paths and they’ve all done superbly well. They got great results in the Leaving Certificate five years later. There was a great effort all around with the Gaelcholáiste.”
He expressed his hope that one day the Gaelcholáiste would move to its own standalone location.
“I think there should be a vision that it be a school in its own right at some time in the future. I would say it would be a great hit if it had a campus of its own.”
Principal of the vocational school when the Gaelcholáiste first opened, Larry O’Farrelly commented, “It’s certainly very different now; we just started off in the beginning with a small number of first years and it grew from there.”
While a number of the students came from the Gaelscoil, many of them also came from non-Irish speaking national schools.
“Some of them might have found it hard initially but once they were here, from September to Christmas their Irish improved immensely and they had no difficulties after that. Parents desired an education for their children through Irish and I think it was a good decision to open the unit,” said Mr O’Farrelly.
Current Múinteoir i bhFeidhil Gníomhnach at Gaelcholáiste an Chláir, Síle Ní Dheargáin emphasised the benefits of competency in our native tongue.
“A lot of our students do come from the Gaelscoil but we actually get about half our students in first year from English speaking schools. They have made a conscious decision that they want to do their education through Irish. I suppose a love of the language really comes into it, along with a sense of where you’re from. It’s important to keep up the Irish language and it’s also a great medium for learning.
“I find that some words translate a lot easier into Irish than they do into English. For instance with maths some of the translations might be a lot more descriptive and some of the students find that easier. The language is a great resource. When people are worried about jobs coming out of college, when you have Irish it’s another string to your bow,” she said.
According to Ms Ní Dheargáin the use of the Irish langauge doesn’t just give an advantage on the jobs front.
“I think one of the biggest things about the Gaelcholáiste is the sense of community. Students have a kind of automatic bond with each other, all speaking the same language. Because we’re quite a small school you find that the students are very close, I think the Irish plays a big role in that.”
The school is certainly a busy one. Just some of the highlights this year include a visit by Dara O’Cinneide to the ladies football team who reached the Munster final; the Seó Tallainne na Mumhan involving Gaelcholáiste throughout the province and the involvement of students in the Raidio na Gaeltachta Scrúdú Béil na hArdteiste series among others.
She said there is plenty of excitement around the school as the anniversary celebrations approach.
“This is a nice occasion to celebrate such an achievement to grow a school like this and for it to be so prominent in Ennis. It’s a small school, but we’re well known. The students aim high.”
Principal of Ennis Community College and Gaelcholáiste an Chláir John Cooke added, “The Gaelcholáiste has gone from strength to strength in the 20 years following under the stewardship of several principals and Múinteoirí i bhFeighil. It is an exciting time for education in general at present with the onset of new courses, the new Junior Certificate and many other initiatives. And of course Ennis Community College/Gaelcholáiste an Chláir will be embarking on the building of a brand new state of the art extension over the next few years.
“So a celebration of the successes of the Gaelcholáiste is warranted and we are looking forward to a great night. It’s also fitting that, in the year of the Gathering, the Gaelcholáiste community, past and present, get a chance to gather together to reminisce and celebrate our achievements.
“We have and should have a great pride in the Gaelcholáiste and I look forward to working towards greater and greater achievements over the coming years.”
The school’s celebration evening will take place in the Temple Gate Hotel this Friday at 8pm. Past pupils, teachers and family members are invited to lend pictures and items of interest for display, which will be returned afterwards. Contact Síle Ní Dheargáin, Múinteoir i bhFeidhil, at 065 6829432, or email email@example.com.