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A Day in the Life: Breda Ban Mhic an Ultaigh

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A HOME AWAY FROM HOME Bean an tí Breda Ban Mhic an Ultaigh with her husband Michael outside their home in Dooega on Achill Island.

I get up at 6.45am every morning in order to allow myself peace of mind to relax, shower, have my own breakfast and not be rushing or panicking for breakfast time for the students.
I call the students then at 8.20am and they are down for breakfast at 8.30am. They prepare their own lunch then and leave for the Coláiste at 9.30am.
Coláiste Acla opened here in Dooega on Achill Island 25 years ago this summer and I’m a bean an tí for the last 24 years.
It is an Irish language adventure college so students spend half of their time in the classroom improving their Irish and half of their time doing outdoor activities.
The Coláiste has been brilliant for Dooega and the whole Achill area since it opened.
At the minute I have 16 girls staying here, from various parts of Ireland. We started with seven students but extended our house to enable us to take in more students.
I’ve always treated kids here as if they are my own and I love having them here. You want them to enjoy the experience of being at the Gaeltacht.
There has always been a strong tradition of Irish speaking in my family and it is lovely to be able to pass that on.
There are six courses in the summer, each two weeks long and our house is full for each of them. One course leaves on a Sunday morning at 6am and then we have to get the house ready for the next gang coming in that evening.
We would take some school tours then as well in other parts of the year.
Once the girls leave in the morning, I go down and empty all the bins in the rooms, clean the bathrooms. The girls make their beds themselves.
After that we would get whatever shopping is needed and get the washing done during the day.
Then you start preparing dinner around 3pm. It’s a different dinner every day so it could be roast chicken and potatoes, spaghetti bolognese, chicken curry, fish and chips or chicken pasta.
It can be challenging cooking for 16, especially if you have to cook three or four dinners if you have a celiac, a vegetarian and maybe some fussy eaters. I’m lucky that I have my friend Ellen and sister Kay who will step in for me if we have hospital appointments or weddings on during the summer.
The students are back in the house around 4.30pm and have dinner at 5pm. They then clean up and start getting ready for the evening, where they go up to the Coláiste from 6.30pm to 9pm for, depending on the night, a disco, a céilí etc.
They really love it down here. I find this generation of teenagers are full of confidence and much more assertive than students we would have had ten or 15 years ago. That said you would find the younger teens might think they know more than they do but the 15 or 16 year olds would have more cop on.
I’d use that time in the evening to go and visit my mother in Dooniver for an hour and then rush back for supper, empty the dishwasher and serve the kids supper around 9.10pm.
After supper they get their phones for half an hour - it is the only time they are allowed them all day. It is a great rule because it means they have to talk to each other in the rooms and at the dinner table, rather than being stuck in their phones. You would always help along those with poor Irish and it is lovely to hear them talking Irish in the house and you can really see the improvement in the students in the two weeks.
The kids can sometimes get homesick but I always encourage them to stay for a couple of days and see if they will start to like it. Once they get into the swing of things and the spraoí and rí rá with all the water sports and the fun at the disco and the céilí, they really get into it. You would sometimes get girls or boys coming on their own and you always try and make sure they pair up with others who they can gel with and always try and make sure everyone is getting on well in the house, that there’s no cliques or tension.
At 10.30pm they go to their own rooms and then it is lights out for them at 11pm. I might watch a bit of television myself around then. I used always be giving out about programmes like Big Brother when they first came on but I must admit I’ve got hooked on Love Island!
The hardest part is saying slán when a gang is leaving at the end of a course and we have got on very well. Some students will leave lovely, long lasting impressions. There are children too who will push your buttons but I am sure, as adults, we often push their buttons too. As an adult you have to get to their level. They have no experience of being an adult, you’ve experience of being a teenager. The old Irish saying mól an óige agus tiocfaidh sé - praise the youth and they will flourish - holds very true.

In conversation with Edwin McGreal

Factfile

Name: Breda Ban Mhic an Ultaigh
Age: 63
Lives: Dooega, Achill Island
Occupation: Bean an tí

Quickfire questions

If money was no object, what would you do all day?
I’d spend more time with my two children, Charlene and John, and my four grandchildren. I would like to live in Spain for part of the year but I think I would still want to take students as well!

Tell us something about yourself we don’t know?
We had a lot of milestones in my family last week. My husband Michael was 70, my daughter Charlene was 40, my brother-in-law Thomas was 60 and my grandson Bennett was born. It was a busy week!

What makes you angry?
When people don’t listen to what I say and only heed me when it’s too late!

Your first hero?
My husband Michael. I didn’t have great health in the early years of our marriage and Michael was my rock, he was so supportive.

Most famous person you’ve met?
I was four or five years old when I was held up by my parents to shake the Queen Mother’s hand as she went by in a stagecoach in a parade in Birmingham when we lived there. I remember it and it was like something out of a storybook. I’ve also met my idol, Rod Stewart.

What do you miss most about being a kid?
Playing with my sisters around the house with all the time in the world.

What’s your most prized possession?
My wedding band and a gold chain I got for my 50th birthday from my brothers and sisters.

Best advice you ever got?
A hug and a plaster goes a long way and that the love and support of your parents goes a long way to making you the person that you are.

Describe yourself in three words?
Kind, tolerant and hardworking.