Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Pot-Luck of the Irish

Front Entrance to Mercyhurst Dungarvan

I’m in my last days in Dungarvan for this spring, as I’m only here for the first part of the trip. As the students go to Dublin to head out for Berlin, I’ll be going to Dublin to head home to Erie. They will be pleased to be done with my class; it has made for long days for many of them. Indeed, many of them are in class from 8:30 to 4:00 on Monday , Wednesday, and Friday. On Tuesday nights, they are not done until after 8:00 in the evening. My class is being taught in just 5 weeks, so the contact hours are high. A good number of students are taking 4 classes in Ireland, so they have been working diligently to keep up. With all that being said, come this afternoon (when they take the final for my class) they will get some relief. I’m sure they will be pleased about that. I do think we have all enjoyed the class though, regardless of the struggle to stay on task on the longer days. Of course I think that even when things got a bit silly, there was good learning happening. In fact, many have said they loved the class, maybe because how comfortable we all seem to be together. Though maybe it’s because reading Irish Literature in Ireland is easy to love. This is a culture that has always celebrated the story, and I think the class was able to get a sense of that in the short time we had.
      One of the real benefits of these study abroad trips is the time outside of class that we, as teachers, spend with students. Travelling the country, going to sporting events, having meals together, or meeting for coffee all makes the experience worth it for everyone. The “contact hours” go way beyond the traditional classroom setting. At a churchyard cemetery with headstones and trees covered in moss, students talked about how they could understand why Yeats believed in fairies. Watching schoolboys with their hurlies, they connected to the unnamed narrators in Joyce’s Dubliners. Scaffolding in Youghal made them reflect on Heaney’s poem “Scaffolding,” and of course, the bog bodies in Dublin helped immensely with our reading of the later Heaney poetry. The students could find connections to the readings everywhere. Tom Keith recited lines from “The Stolen Child” by Yeats, and their Irish Culture teacher from WIT, Seamus, recited Heaney’s “Mid-term Break” from memory. A student who was touring the west with her parents understood a reference to “The Fiddler of Dooney” at Bunratty Castle. It’s nice to see the connections made.
      This is a talented group of students, and so they easily apply what they learn in the classroom to the outside world. In fact, they are applying what they learn in one class to other classes. That’s what it’s all about my friends. It makes what I do easy and rewarding. Last night, as a way to prepare for the final, and to finish up the memorization exercise I had them do, we all gathered together for a pot-luck supper and recitation. As a way of expanding the Irish theme, I made “Bubble and Squeak” (cabbage, onions, potato, meat, and butter) and “Mushy Peas.” Students brought salad, homemade pizza, grilled cheese, dip, chicken nuggets, cookies, breads, and cake. It was quite a feast. The last few students who needed to recite their poems did so in front of the group. We heard “Scaffolding,” “Dream,” “No Man’s Land,” “Mother of the Groom,” and “Limbo” from Heaney, and “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” “To an Isle in the Water,” and “The Young Man’s Song” from Yeats. Every student in the class of 17 recited a poem, in front of others, and did so professionally. There was a recitation on a bus, in a pub, in the classroom, in small groups, and of course, during the pot-luck gathering. It couldn’t have gone better.  While there were a lot of nerves and reservations about doing this assignment, they all finished without fail. I am proud of them.
      Well, I wasn’t sure what I was going to write this morning, but it seems I had no problem writing it. I haven’t even finished my brown bread and coffee (boy, I’m gonna miss the Irish bread). So as I finish up this post as well as my breakfast, I look forward to seeing and reading how well the students synthesize the course materials on the final exam. Their work so far makes me confident that they will do quite well. This class has been a pleasure to teach, and all the students on this trip have been a pleasure to get to know better. They represent Mercyhurst well.
Eat First and Recite Later
The Aftermath
Getting Ready to Recite
One of the Mercyhurst Dungarvan Classrooms

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Lismore, Ardmore, and more....

  Seamus Heaney’s “In Gallarus Oratory” is one of my favorite poems in the collection we are reading. The last stanza is a follows:

Founded there like heroes in a barrow
Gallarus Oratory on Dingle

They sought themselves in the eye of their King

Under the black weight of their own breathing.

And how he smiled on them as out they came,

The sea a censer, and the grass a flame.

Gallarus Oratory is magical place really. It’s the kind of place that Dr. Owoc would call “thin.” Or maybe I should say, it is built on a “thin” place. It is a high place, surrounded by rock, sea, and open sky; the kind of place that welcomes transcendent thoughts. The Oratory is made of heavy, thick stone, and it only has one thin, small window, and a short passage for a door. Inside is a dark place of seclusion. In one of his writings from Preoccupations, Heaney remarks “[inside] I felt the weight of Christianity in all its revoking aspects, its calls to self-denial and self-abnegation, its humbling of the proud flesh and indolent spirit. But coming out . . . into the sunlight . . . I felt my heart surge toward happiness. “ I think that is represented well in the passage from the poem above. It makes me think about the relationship between the two experiences that Heaney has. I also wonder if we need the darkness to feel the light, if we need seclusion to feel connected, or in another sense, if we need the inside to appreciate the outside, the unconscious and the conscious, the “deep heart’s core” and the “seat of reason.”

St. Mary's Collegiate Church Youghal
This past weekend we were able to visit a number of other religious sites as well as another “thin” place. Each place was unique and inspiring. We saw the Collegiate Church of Saint Mary where Sir Walter Raleigh regularly attended in Youghal, which also was the church where Cromwell spoke, and where Jonathan Swift was baptized. The original baptismal fount, as well as the box Cromwell stood on, and the place where Raleigh hung his sword remain intact. There also are Viking burial tombs inside the church and the whole place is surrounded by the old town walls that were built to keep the Norman invaders at bay. The church incorporates an old tower that must have been part of the defense system; it looked to me like a Norman tower. The history alone makes the place quite moving, but what really made this place a special visit was the musical rehearsal that was occurring inside the church as we visited. Traditional Irish music, tin whistle, guitar, and voice accompanied us as we looked at the windows and monuments inside the church. With Tom Keith telling us about the amazing history of Cromwell’s march to Dungarvan, the Butler family, and the battles of Youghal, it is hard to imagine a more rich historical and cultural experience.

St. Declan's Retreat and Ardmore Bay
We had earlier seen Mount Melleray monastery, Lismore castle, and another old church (Anglican) that I will need to find the name of. It was a beautiful early church with an impressive old cemetery loaded with Irish saints. The ancient trees and headstones drew my attention most of the time here. Finally, at the end of the trip we made it to Ardmore, a coastal town with a wide beach and high surf that is a popular tourist destination for Europeans from the continent in the summer. I’ve been here before on two occasions, once with Tom Keith to look at St. Declan’s retreat, and once with Joe O’Flaherty, Gertie, Jim Breckenridge, Bob Hiebel, Damien Geoghegan, and Jim Snyder for an amazing dinner at the Cliffs Hotel overlooking Ardmore Bay. This was the first time, though, that I was able to get close to Ardmore’s famous round tower. At 1,000 years old, it is an exceptionally impressive architectural achievement. It is in remarkable shape and is the only tower with rings that I am aware of. The highlight for many was the final place we visited in Ardmore, and our last stop before returning to the Park Hotel. It certainly is the most meaningful place for Tom Keith, and it can’t be questioned that the setting is remarkable in itself. This place that I’m referring to is St. Declan’s Retreat, and it is situated up a steep hill (exciting for all of us including our talented bus driver).  From as far as the bus can make it, there is journey down a short path. The retreat includes a ruined church, the remains of an altar, and a holy well. It is surrounded by crashing sea and rocky cliffs. It’s another “thin” space for sure, and yet it is quite different than Gallarus Oratory. In its ruined state, the church is open, allowing into view the sky, grass, and sea. It is a place that Heaney’s King would surely smile down upon.

Today we are all getting ready to head for a Hurling match in Waterford. From the sacred to the profane, some might say. It is something that the Irish have no problem blending together. I’m sure many a prayer will be said over the course of play. And the right team may win, God willing.

Dingle Coastline near Gallarus Oratory

Lismore Castle

Ancient Trees and Burial Grounds of Irish Saints

Looks Norman to me

In Ardmore with Tom Keith

St. Declan's Retreat

Friday, March 22, 2013

Rainy Days and Fridays

Yesterday it rained like crazy. My walk back from class to the townhouses was quite an experience. I stopped by the market on the way home, buying fishcakes, peas, pasta, and brown bread, and was looking forward to a nice warm meal in, on a cold and rainy night out. Unfortunately, about a block after I left the market, the sky really opened up and the winds came whipping through town, scattering plastic buckets, rakes, and shovels from outside Tom Curran’s Hardware, and ripping umbrellas out of shopper’s hands. The wind and rain didn’t really let up for hours. For a while I inched along, ducking under awnings, or in shops, but ultimately I just decided to go for it. I was wet already, and the dinner in my bag was calling to be cooked. I pressed on. In hindsight, that may have been the wrong decision though; I soon regretted it. The wind nearly knocked me off my feet, my hood kept getting whipped off my head, and my shoes were drenched. It was madness. When I finally returned to the warmth and security of the townhouse, I kicked off my wet shoes, hung up my drenched coat, and unpacked my bags from the market. A warm cup of tea and some whirred pea and minty soup I had left over were the first order of business. And the microwave was the fastest means to that end. Toasted brown bread and butter rounded things out nicely. The fishcakes and peas would keep till tomorrow. I just wanted something warm at this point, and soup, tea, and toast satisfied.

The rain didn’t let up all night, and by noon today it was getting insulting. A day trip to some nearby ruins and a castle had to be postponed until tomorrow. But wait. Maybe it’s not all bad. Suddenly today was open. Reading, grading, and creating the final exam for my class needed done. Answering a few emails was also on the docket. And fishcakes and peas for lunch. Oh yes. Perfect. Who ever said rainy days get you down?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Snow Was General All Over Ireland (well...not really)

The final scene in Joyce’s Dubliners is the famous final scene in “The Dead.” After reading stories about the lack of fulfillment, paralysis, entrapment, decay, nostalgia, and angst, we come to a story called “The Dead.” Not a very hopeful sounding title, I’d say. Even so, the students, maybe because of their expectation for happy endings, wanted to see the ending of this collection as hopeful. It is a bleak landscape description of the snow falling all over Ireland, covering the living and the dead, the past and the present, equally. It has a leveling effect. Gabriel, the central character, has spent most of the story thinking about himself, having problems communicating his thoughts, and misreading his wife’s feelings. He is self-absorbed, ineffective, and unreflective. The dinner party he attended, thrown by his aging Aunts, is the same every year. The entertainments are mundane. Like the story of Johnny the horse that Gabriel tells as the party draws to a conclusion, his life seems to be going around in circles like a horse walking round and round to drive a mill. Nothing is progressive. Life seems meaningless. And yet the snow falling at the end of the story is written in beautiful prose, that some may even call poetic. The language itself seems uplifting.

Dinner scene from Joyce's "The Dead" in John Huston's film

Of course, Gabriel has had a Joycian epiphany right before the scene that ends the story, and like the unnamed character in “Araby,” he realizes the world doesn’t revolve around him. His wife has had a meaningful life before he came along, and he can’t understand her deep passions now. He realizes, tragically, that he has never loved anyone else deeply. Gabriel looks outside his window, from his tomb-like existence in the hotel room, and acknowledges the snow falling outside. The whole scene pulls back. Possibly we are in Gabriel’s head as we hear “the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead” (152). Maybe he is coming to grips with his own mortality, or desperately looking for the meaning of life. Maybe on some level he feels spiritually connected with all the living and the dead, a transcendent and hopeful image for sure. He may also be acknowledging that his life in Dublin is like a living death. Maybe Joyce wanted to allow the reader to find different possibilities in the ending. I have no doubt that he did. But the students in my class, who are young and full of passion, had little problem choosing the more hopeful reading of the text. And I agree, at the very least, there is an acceptance of things for what they are in Gabriel’s mind, I believe.

Early March snow in Dungarvan

So why all this talk about snow and death? We did have snow in Ireland soon after our arrival. Not much snow really. Compared to what we are currently getting in Erie, Pennsylvania, not even worth mentioning. This morning there are a few flakes in the air as well. It’s been much colder than it should be. Cold may be general, all over Ireland, but the warmer days are coming. And the few flakes in the air or on the ground all melt before 10:00. Now rain…..there’s another matter. What does it all mean? Well I guess it is how you look at it.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Reading Dubliners in Ireland

Grattan Bridge, Ormond Quay, Temple Bar, O’Neil’s, Grafton Street, Davey Byrne’s, O’Connell Street, Trinity College, Merrian Square, the Gresham Hotel, O’Connell Street Bridge, Georgian Townhouses,  Brown Thomas’s, O’Connell’s statue, the Pigeon House, and the Liffey.  After our trip to Dublin it is easy to visualize many of the settings in Joyce’s stories from Dubliners.  The characters and the phrases they use in the stories benefit from our experiences in Dublin and Dungarvan as well.   When Little Chandler asks Gallaher if he has been to Paris, he answers smugly “I should think I have!  I’ve knocked about there a little” (48).  When Gabriel is self-effacing about his speaking skills in “The Dead” he says: “It has fallen to my lot this evening, as in years past, to perform a very pleasing task but a task for which I am afraid my poor powers as a speaker are all too inadequate” (137), and I can hear the lilt of the voice as well as see the tilting of the head.  Joyce captures the Irish language, syntax, and mannerisms well, but I believe that it is only after visiting Ireland that the stories really come alive.  Some of the students that have read Joyce before have said as much in the classroom.  Being in Ireland helps us understand Irish culture, politics, sensibilities, and religious customs.  Of course, reading Joyce for a second time doesn’t hurt the understanding either. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Clomea is Worth Seeing (and worth going to see).

Birds in the bog along the bike path
This morning has been the best weather we have had so far. It must be 65 degrees at least. Or maybe 50. Whatever, it is a lovely day, “ finally, thanks be to God” (as the locals say). The sun is bright and the sky is blue. So this morning, under the circumstances, I decided to go for a stroll along the bike path that begins in Abbeyside. I had walked out a good way three years ago, but never made it out to Clomea Beach, which is the end of the bike path on that leg. It was a bit brisk as I started out, but the sun continued to warm me, and the other walkers and bikers drew me forward. Needless to say, my stroll turned into a more substantial hike. The walk is really quite lovely. In places it is tree-lined, and in other places it weaves its way through a bog. It has a few bridges and an underpass, winds through farmer’s fields, and past cows and rows of vegetables. In the background to the north are the Comeragh Mountains and to the south, Helvick Head peaks through the scrub brush from time to time. It is easily enough to sustain me on such a pleasant day.

Part of the walk I spent reflecting on things at home, and the people I care about there. Some of the walk I remember the fun “craic” we had watching the Cheltenham horse races yesterday, and thinking about the plans for St. Patrick’s Day in Dungarvan tomorrow. The time went quickly, and soon (just over an hour) I made it to the end of the trail and a most beautiful beach. It was well worth the trip.

During last class, after discussing Yeats’s “September 1913” and “Adam’s Curse,” the students pondered if things in life are more meaningful when they are harder to get. Maybe Yeats is saying that beauty only comes with hard work. With great effort comes great things. Samuel Johnson, on the other hand, once said about Giant’s Causeway, "Worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see." Johnson really didn’t care much for travels in Ireland, and I wouldn’t let his words keep anyone from seeing Giant’s Causeway. And anyway, this morning, I felt that the trip there was half the fun.

Clomea Beach, looking east

Helvick Head, to the west

Friday, March 15, 2013

Bad Poetry about Bad Art

There are four copies of this oversized print in my townhouse. Two are in the same room.

That Red Branch King upon my wall

Knows not of Danaan rhymes at all;

His constancy, his lack of will,

Are fumbles in a greasy till,

A flameless sword unless he act,

And I have no deep core for that.

And yet I swear he’s stalking me,

That blood-dimmed tide of constancy,

My stone in kitchen, bed, and hall,

He utters not a thing at all

A repetitious, fearful frame,

The Ketchup King without a name.