Ireland is the number one per capita destination in the world for learners of English with an estimated 204,000 international students coming here in 2019 to study English and staying for an average of 6.5 weeks. It is estimated that the combined direct, indirect and induced value of the sector exceeded €800 million that year. As part of this picture every year since 1999, hundreds of students of many different nationalities, ranging in age from four to 84, have flown into Ireland and made the journey to a small English language school located in the picturesque village of Schull in West Cork. Here, looked after by the Atlantic School of English and Active Leisure, as well as learning the language, students get to enjoy the West Cork way of life, staying with local host families and engaging in a range of leisure and recreational activities. As a result of their experience, Schull becomes a second home and some of these students return year after year, often bringing family or friends with them.
In April, a retired Swiss couple, who last attended Atlantic SEAL in 2009, will return to the school for a two-week course, staying in Schull for a total of five weeks. They are delighted that that teacher Dawn Evans, who taught them then, will do so again this year.
In August, an Austrian couple in their eighties who have been coming back year after year since attending the school, return with their grandchildren. “They’re a beautiful love story,” shares Atlantic SEAL owner Barbara Connolly. “Lovers in their twenties, they went their separate ways before reuniting in their seventies and coming here on their honeymoon. She’s an opera singer, he’s a physicist who taught physics to Buddhist monks. They’ve been staying with the same family in Schull for many years.”
Founded 24 years ago by Barbara Connelly and her partner Peter McDonnell, a Marine Ecologist, Atlantic School of English and Active Leisure started off in the tiny annex next to their home with a maximum capacity for four students.
Today it remains a small school that believes in a hands-on, holistic and relaxed approach to teaching. Students learn both inside and outside the classroom in a mindful environment giving them the confidence to communicate socially in the English language.
Over the years, the school has been housed in several different buildings around Schull. “None of which was very suitable,” says Barbara, who signed the purchase agreement on two buildings on Main Street in Schull just before the pandemic hit. As it doesn’t fit neatly under a specific category like hospitality or tourism, Atlantic SEAL has not benefitted from any funding for building purchase, development or equipment to date.
“While it was a very challenging time especially after just purchasing the buildings, ninety-nine per cent of students who had enrolled with us for 2020 stayed with us so I did feel very privileged to be in a position of business as usual when we did reopen,” shares Barbara, who also lauds her team for their loyalty.
“Being forced to close the doors for two years and getting off the hamster wheel also really made us appreciate the number of interesting people we get to meet thorough the school and the relationships we have developed as a result over the years. I think the local community also missed the influx of nationalities and their contribution to the local area on a social and economic level.”
In 2018, Atlantic SEAL and Schull hosted over 26 different nationalities. “It was our busiest year,” says Barbara, who shares that the school paid out €250,000 to host families in the area during that season.
Some of the families have been hosting for Atlantic SEAL for 23 years or their children have continued on the tradition.
Host Family Co-ordinator Fiona Cairns, a host herself, says that it’s like welcoming a niece or nephew into the family. “It’s about making the students feel really comfortable and welcome and settling them in quickly, which all of the host families in Schull, Ballydehob and environs are very experienced and good at. You get to share your traditions and way of life and the students share theirs, which oftentimes could be cooking a traditional Italian or Spanish meal for their host family It’s a nice experience for all involved.”
Today the school offers a number of english language and teacher training courses welcoming up to 500 students in a season.
Atlantic SEAL is small team year-round, which is added to greatly in the Easter to autumn period, peaking in summer with up to 30 people working in various capacities on seasonal full-time or longer part-time positions. In addition, the school works with a number of service providers in the areas of leisure activities, transport and accommodation. “On any given weekend, up to 200 students may need to get to or from the main airports or city centres, which is all organised by us through local providers,” says Jonathon Louks, who is in charge of the day to day administration.
Back to the beginning…Barbara remembers touring around Ireland with Peter to find the ideal location for the language school. “It also needed to be somewhere we wanted to live. As Pete’s mother came from Tory Island Gaeltacht and he’s a Marine Ecologist, we both felt very much at home here,” she says. “In Schull we found the location and the community.”
Atlantic SEAL has just launched a bursary in memory of one of their very first hosts, Maureen Carrig, who passed away in 2019. The €1000 annual bursary (two €500 amounts) will go towards the educational funds of two people nominated by Atlantic SEAL hosts.
If you are interested in becoming host for the 2023 season, please text/whatsApp 087 228 3672 or email firstname.lastname@example.org