When asked why we were going to Ireland this summer the answer was a strange one: to learn Spanish, of course!
The Youghal International School of Youghal, Co. Cork Ireland was established in 1992 and serves as a summer retreat for students from all over Spain. This school provides these students the opportunity to live in and explore an English-speaking country while furthering their own English language skills. In turn, Irish students come to the school to learn Spanish. So, why not American students too? Episcopal has had a strong relationship with the founders of the school through the Colegio Bristol in Madrid, which has participated in EHS’s Spanish exchange program for over 3 years.
Being the inaugural trip with this program in Youghal, this was a sort of an experiment. Four brave, rising junior girls signed up for this adventure and I believe it is safe to say, it was one of the most unique experiences of their lives. None of them had been to Europe and the two weeks spent there was the longest most had ever been away from home. Even after receiving daily schedules and information about excursions and classes, none of us knew exactly what to expect when we arrived in Youghal on July 13th 2016.
First of all, the seaside town of Youghal is actually pronounced “yawl” or like “y’all” which is amusing in and of itself, being that we are from the American South. We were immediately taken to the school, which upon first look can only be described as “Irish Hogwarts” as one of the girls put it. The school occupies the site of a once Franciscan friary that was founded in the 13th century and was the first of its order in Ireland. The spectacle of the school left us temporarily speechless. And then they moved right in.
As the girls walked into the 200-year-old former convent that served as their dorm, one looked around at the stained glass, tall ceilings and the open windows and said “This is completely different. I’m totally out of my comfort zone, and I love it!” This utterance gave me confidence in the girls’ ability to adapt to the new environment and thrive in this new (well actually very old) setting.
One of the factors that made this program so extraordinary were the two different cultures that we encountered: the Irish and the Spanish. Ireland is such a distinctive place. Aside of from the lush greenness and openness of the countryside, the country somehow seems much older than many other places in Europe. Much of the country seems untouched by the 21st or even the 20th century. Do not worry, all of the first world amenities exist there, but so do medieval and ancient ruins that have not been subjected to tourism or even national preservation societies. The pace of life is also much different, especially in our small home of Youghal. The town bustled and was alive with the greetings from the always cheery locals, but by 6 o’clock p.m. most shops and restaurants were closed and the town’s people were tucked into their homes (or the pub) for the evening. Meanwhile the lively and boisterous Spaniards were active until midnight. Life with the Spaniards is…well, lively! Their high spirits and enthusiasm for everything is infectious. The drives to distant, or even not-so-distant, sights and attractions featured exuberant conversations in rapid Spanish and very loud music which usually resulted in a sing-along.
The excursions took us to Blarney Castle, Killarney National Park, Dublin, Cork and Limerick. All were the highlights of our trip. In these places we explored urban and rural landscapes, old and new sites (mostly old). In the cities we discovered international communities. In the towns and parks, we mostly encountered local tourists exploring their own backyards. The exception was Blarney; there were more American tourists, fresh off the cruise ship, than there are in Disney World.
Our home and our family in Ireland was the school and our Spanish hosts. The students ate together, traveled together, practiced sports, hiked, went to classes and learned new dances together. Bonds were formed and by the end of the journey, goodbyes were tearful and hard to say. The shared experience of exploring Ireland with our new Spanish friends is perhaps the most valuable reward of the trip. We formed lifelong friendship and plans to see each other again soon are already being made. Some of our new Spanish friends will visit Episcopal School this fall, and at least one of them hopes to join EHS for the whole school year in 2017. This trip was unique in almost every single way. I cannot wait for the opportunity to take another group of students to Ireland to live and learn not only Spanish, but to develop their independence, enhance their perspectives of this world and to make connections with people from all walks of life.
Clara Howell, Episcopal High School Social Studies Teacher