Earlier in the year, on International Women’s Day, our Chairperson, Maria Shanahan, was kind enough to sit down and discuss her role with An Óige, her history with our organisation, and how she became our chairperson.
I was 15 when I first stayed in a hostel. In transition year, my class went to Glendalough with an adventure company to hike, abseil and rock climb our way around the mountains. I’d never been sent to scouts so this at my advanced adolescent age, was my first major introduction to the Great Outdoors and to hosteling. I can still feel the exhilaration of sliding down a muddy gully, the elation of running in to the freezing lakes, the deep sense of satisfaction when I accomplished feats I hadn’t thought I’d be able for. The backdrop to all this was the hostel. My friends and I returned many times to Glendalough that year and for years after to to hike and swim yes, but also to cook together in a big industrial kitchen, to share meals with other like-minded travellers, to play music and tell stories in front of the fire and to revel in our new-found sense of independence. Hosteling introduced to my life, a sense of community and contentedness that I didn’t otherwise have.
Now, twenty years later, I still stay in hostels when I go travelling. Given that I’m the lightest sleeper you’ll ever meet (I could wake up if someone sneezed 5 kilometres away), I tend to stay in private rooms but nonetheless I stay in hostels because nothing is more interesting to me than people and their stories. And the kind of people who stay in hostels tend to have interesting lives and stories to tell. In recent years I’ve made friends in Australian hostels that I’ve then gone on to travel to Cambodia with; I’ve gotten in to heated debates in China with Russians over Putin, women’s and gay rights; I’ve chatted strategy and marketing with international delegates at Hosteling International conferences in hostels in France and Iceland. Everyone I meet has something to teach or entertain me with, often both. This, to me, is the unique beauty of hosteling.
In 2013, a friend of mine asked if I wanted to go to a murder-mystery weekend in Killarney. There would be hiking, a high-ropes course, a murder mystery dinner and a two night stay in a hostel just outside Killarney. I said sure, sounds like fun, and it was. This was my re-introduction to An Óige (“the hostel people?” I had asked my friend), and the first of many weekends away with a group of An Óige staff and volunteers who are dedicated to re-injecting the old An Óige spirit of adventure in to a modern, sustainable and progressive network of youth hostels around Ireland.
Four years ago I was elected to the board of directors and two years ago I became vice-chair on the board and am now the chairperson. I’m on committees for volunteer co-ordination and Information systems but the role I find most rewarding is one I took up last year as one of the volunteer wardens of our Glenmalure hostel.
Glenmalure is a special place – equal parts challenging and other-worldly (come and visit, you’ll find this isn’t hyperbole!). What this hostel lacks in electricity, running water and phone reception, it more than compensates for in character. It has been owned by extraordinary Irish women. One hundred years ago it was owned by Maud Gonne, visited by Yeats and J.M. Synge. It then passed to Kathleen Lynn, Ireland’s first female doctor and chief medical officer in the 1916 rising. Kathleen set up the first children’s hospitals in Ireland. [Why I think the new children’s hospital should be named after this formidable character would need a blog post in its own right! – and be fairly off-topic]. When Kathleen passed away in 1955 she bequeathed her house in Glenmalure to An Óige. Like our Trá na Rosann hostel in Donegal, Glenmalure is run by the most dedicated bunch of volunteers you could imagine and it is packed with visitors year round.
Being involved in Glenmalure reminds me why I became involved with An Óige. I did a warden shift the weekend before the big snow. As I walked through the valley late that night, I saw my first ever live badger, I learned that deer make high pitched screaming noises like foxes, I saw how far the moon seems at its height when its -2 degrees, feeling -10! I visited Bosca Beatha, the travelling sauna (followed by the requisite jump in the cold river). But mostly I took pride in hearing the scouts talk about how cold it was but how magic the candles and open fire made it all. Not much can compare to waking up to the sound of the river running by the hostel, stepping outside with a mug of tea, as you fill your lungs with mountain-fresh air and wonder and hope that the the guests staying there, be they Irish scouts or international travellers, have even half the sense of freedom, contentedness and closeness to the earth that I had in Glendalough, aged 15.
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