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The End of the Line

Day Twenty-Four/Airport Day (July 22nd):

As it was our final airport day, we had another early day. I am happy and proud to report that the students left their apartments in near perfect condition, which was certainly an improvement over some past years. We rolled our luggage cases out bleary-eyed. Everyone said goodbye to Paige early because she was heading out to see her uncle.

Our ride to Shannon airport was just long enough to catch a few extra winks. However, once we arrived it was time to bid farewell to Brian, which was only the beginning of the ensuing waterworks. We checked our bags in and said goodbye to Allison and Emily who had their parents pick them up at Shannon and then stay on longer in Ireland.

We made it through security with very little hassle and we were very early. All of us grabbed snacks or waters for the plane. Joe took a small catnap on the chairs. We got to board slightly earlier than expected and settled in for a nice long plane ride.

The landing in Boston could not have been smoother. After gathering up luggage we said even more goodbyes. Counselors then escorted students with connecting flights to their respective terminals or stayed with students waiting to be picked up.

Thank you, parents and guardians, for trusting us with your kids. From all of the staff, we are so privileged to have been able to teach them and learn from them. We hope they all made memories that will last a lifetime and fostered a connection to this amazing country.

Until the next time we meet. May the road rise to meet you — ILE18 out! Remember to keep an eye out for our Dropbox, and we will be notifying you once it is created via email.

Wrapping Up

Day Twenty-Three (July 21st):

Here it is. The last full day of the ILE.

This is one of the hardest days for everyone. It means packing suitcases and praying they aren’t weighted down by too many souvenirs, cleaning apartments and more importantly starting to say a few goodbyes.

Today serves as the final free day for the students. There is no mandatory wake up time or trips during the day (though we do plan something special for the evening and night). All of the students decided to make a communal breakfast for each other in one dorm and created a beautiful feast.

From there, both students and staff split off. Our counselor Casey had lunch with a friend in Galway, while our bus driver Brian had a well deserved day in. Most of the students went into Galway to see the art festival or do shopping. Nancy in particular enjoyed the festival and used the opportunity to do more thrift shopping.

By five p.m., students had to sign in and stay on the Gort na Coiribe campus until it was time for the final dinner, lovingly referred to as our banquet. For the banquet, we went to a local restaurant in a hotel. The options were fish and chips, curry or pasta and we all had a lovely, lovely meal. By the time the dessert samplers came out, the students had concocted a plan. No one can agree on who inspired decision to pretend it was counselor Michael’s birthday, but somehow the students pulled it off. The restaurant staff came out with a candle in Mike’s dessert and the restaurant was roused into a ringing chorus of “Happy Birthday”.

It was, of course, not actually Michael’s date of birth. But that didn’t matter to the students as they played one final prank on us.

We got on the bus for a final scenic drive around Galway and down towards Salthill and the coast. The famous ILE bus dance parties were put to shame as we blasted our favorite hits and bumped around town.

After we returned to Gort na Coiribe, the counselors set up the final activity of the ILE. Casey and Taryn created some amazing slideshows and video montages of all of their collected photos. The room was misty eyed even as we laughed at the shenanigans of Joe and Clare heel-kicking, and Anna dancing everywhere we went. We spent around two hours reliving the highlights of ILE18 as the students snuggled under blankets and on pillows. The end of the trip is so bittersweet.

When we fly out of Dublin, we tend to leave at the crack of dawn but since we fly out of Shannon tomorrow, students had the time to get some well-earned shut eye after our concluding events. This was the time for some very last minute packing jobs and a final scrub of the apartments.

There was also no curfew tonight, so students could hang out in each other’s common rooms until whenever they chose to. We recommended getting to bed at a reasonable hour to prepare for the early day tomorrow. Tomorrow will be another long day, but one filled with happiness and memories too.

Since there were only a few photo opportunities today, here are some past ILE18 bloopers for your viewing pleasure. Family and friends, eventually there will be an ILE18 dropbox with all of these videos and photos available to you to download. Don’t fret!

1. A group photo with Anna and her beau Conor:

2. Taryn giving Anna a piggyback ride:

3. Joe spills his fries on Taryn’s foot:

4. The photographer’s process:

5. The counselors with TK heads:

Here We Go Again!

Day Twenty-Two (July 20th):

The end is nigh. Time creeps closer. Our staff tries very hard to keep the fact that the trip is nearing end from the forefront of our students’ minds — and the best way to do that is to keep them busy!

We had yet another early start today and a few breakfasts were snuck onto the bus despite the watchful eye of Brian. Some dozed as we drove through the countryside to catch our ferry in Rossaveal, because today we’re heading out to the Aran Islands. More specifically, Inis Mor (or Inishmore).

The drive out to Rossaveal was cloudy and grey but still gorgeous. We were able to catch an earlier ferry than we had planned, but the boat ride over was choppy and took a bit longer than usual. The students pretty much split in half, with one group on the top out in the fresh air and the others down below. It grizzled rain but once we reached the island the sun peeked back out.

Since Inis Mor is only 8.7 miles long, the ILE staff traditionally rent bikes for the students to spend the day traversing the island independently. Of course, if students don’t feel up to a day of bike riding, we also hire a hop on/hop off bus run by local residents that takes students around the island.

The big things to see in Inis Mor are Dun Aonghasa (or Dun Aengus), the Aran sweater market, the Seven Churches and the heritage park at Dun Eochla. On the coast, there are beautiful — albeit cold — beaches and a few seal colonies. Scattered across the island are hundreds of miles of winding, ancient stone walls. The main exports from the island are cattle and crops like potatoes. Despite the massive deposits of exposed limestone that is technically an extension of the Burren, the island is well known for its biodiversity — especially its plantlife.

Typically, students bike around the island until they find a likely spot for hiking or swimming and then relax for a few hours too. The hop on bus route typically takes you around the island from the bike rental up to Dun Aonghasa for a few hours of hiking, then down around the coast to the seal colony and the churches.

A few of our kids did brave the freezing water for a quick dip! Others bought souvenirs and jewelry from the local shops. The wee cafes on Inis Mor are amazing, so everyone had full bellies at some point in the day, but everyone was exhausted from biking, hiking, swimming and walking by the end. We re-grouped outside the bike rental at 4:30 to return our vehicles and catch the ferry. Sitting on the dock wall, students showed each other what they had bought and traded stories.

But the day was far from over. After our return to Galway, students cooked their own dinners and prepared to head off to see Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again with the staff! The majority of students had seen the first Mamma Mia!, but a few were a little lost. I heard a lot of whispered questions back and forth, like, “Why are all of these people singing?” and “What is he wearing?” Students enjoyed popcorn, small quarts of Ben & Jerry’s and other typical movie foods.

Not to give out too many spoilers, but the movie ends with a real tear jerker which prompted a lot of bawling on the bus ride home along with an impromptu karaoke party. Angie sang a few hits with the kids, using her glittery sandal as a microphone.

It was a bit of an emotional day over all, but a wonderful one. We are so lucky to have such an amazing group! Our solemn facades are beginning to crack as we reach the end of our journey.

On Our Turf

Day Twenty-One (July 19th):

Despite the lack of sun, the day began temperate and continued that way. The sky was washed with grey clouds but instead of dulling the natural beauty of Connemara, it enhanced it. This is the place where sky meets water and earth in the most spectacular of ways. We hit the road bright and early. Fortunately, we seemed to miss most of the Irish traffic (sheep) but students were still startled to see so many sheep eating casually on the side of the road.

Now, Connemara is not a county but rather a cultural region in County Galway. It is predominantly Gaeltacht (an area where the primary language spoken is Irish Gaelic). Michael would point out these signs to the students to hear the responding roar from the back seats of “Dia duit!”

Our first stop was to stretch our legs at the monument constructed in 1867 in remembrance of nothing actually happening. The students got a real kick out of this and Ethyn asked why it was even built then.

The second stop was similar. We paused on the shores of a lake to stretch our legs and take photos. Joe, Ethyn and Clare skipped stones across the water.

From there, we drove to Kylemore Abbey. Now typically, we hike up to the Sacred Heart statue (fondly referred to somewhat sacrilegiously as “Jimmy Jesus”). But unfortunately due to heavy rains in the winter, the trail is under reconstruction. Students ate or bought lunches at the cafe and spent a pleasant half hour in the gift shop.

After Kylemore, we went into Clifden for shopping and leisure. Some students picked up sweet treats here to supplement their lunches while others found Prendergast’s Antiques. The stores selling traditional sweaters were big hits, as was O’Dalaigh Jewellers. Anna found a small fairy house outside a store, complete with miniature surfboards.

We drove out into the hillside to visit our final stop for the day: Dan O’Hara’s Homestead. The cottage here is a rebuilt replica of the original which was a pre-famine farm destroyed by an angry landlord. If anyone knows the traditional Irish song “Dan O’Hara” or “Dan from Connemara,” well, here is the origin place of Dan himself.

Martin, the groundskeeper/owner of the homestead, drove us in his tractor up the hill to the cottage and told us about the history of the region in great detail. We discussed technology, emigration and language and it was enthralling. Before entering the cottage he demonstrated the art of cutting turf using a slean, which is a traditional tool. Ethyn, Joe, Anna, Clare and Mike all tried it and did very well! Around us, chickens foraged and the three donkeys here at the cottage actually broke out from their pasture and ran amok. Inside the cottage, Martin told us what life would have been like for Dan and his family.

After saying a final goodbye to the donkeys, Martin’s tractor pulled us back down the hill and we boarded the bus back to Galway.

Gimme Moher

Day Twenty (July 18th):

Our meandering travels took us all across County Clare today. To make sure we had sufficient time everywhere we went, it was a bit of an early start. The day began with a bit of a solemn start as we went to Corcomroe Abbey on the Burren. Corcomroe is a 13th Century Cistercian monastery where families are still interred to this day. A few days ago, we had student pick up stones to put in their pockets and today the students placed them in the Abbey in remembrance of anyone they chose. It was a quiet affair, but it placed the students in a thoughtful mindset for the rest of the day.

We traveled deeper into the Burren for our next few stops. The Burren is a very distinctive landscape of exposed rock, mostly limestone. Many plant species grow in the nooks between exposed plates, including gentians and a few types of orchids. Underneath the surface of the Burren, there are no doubt huge systems of undiscovered caves and caverns but instead of intrepidly spelunking, we played it safe and just went to Aillwee Cave instead.

Aillwee is one of the oldest caves in Ireland but was only opened to the public in the late 1970s, despite being discovered by a farmer chasing his dog in the 40s. According to our guide, Aillwee was used as an ancient bear den until the brown bear became extinct in Ireland. Indeed, there are still some bones on display from ten thousand and three thousand year old skeletons, and the nesting depressions in the earth from the bears still remain to this day. We only got to see a small section of the much larger system as unfortunately it is prone to flooding in some parts.

After the tour was over, we didn’t linger long in the caves — no remakes of The Descent franchise here! — and we headed right next door to the Birds of Prey Centre. We were booked in to see a flying exhibition which was an incredible experience.

Our handler Sean flew a Bateleur eagle, a Barn owl and a falcon for us. Anna got to hold the Bateleur and Nancy got to hold the Barn Owl! All three birds flew around the audience prompted by treats and lures in the hands of Sean. The eagle in particular flew right past Angie several times, prompting laughs from the students. After the show, we toured around the enclosed aeries of more raptors like Great Horned owls.

The next stop on our outing in Clare was the Poulnabrone dolmen or portal tomb. While there are over a hundred other tombs on the Burren alone, this is one of the most famous by dint of having been excavated. At least thirty-three distinct individuals were uncovered along with various personal items. We spent some time clambering over the rocks and looking at the wildflowers.

For lunch and ice cream (yes, I know, yet more ice cream!), we stopped at Lahinch beach for an hour. No one went into the water this time but students walked up and down the promenade and climbed around the rocks. The cliffs of Moher are just visible from Lahinch, so as we drove up the anticipation mounted.

Before heading up the cliffs, we stopped at St. Brigid’s Well for the students to see what folklore extolls as healing waters. Fortunately, no healing was required (or will be for the rest of the trip), so we merrily headed up the cliffs. The weather continued to hold out and the sun warmed the usually chilly area.

The views from every angle of Moher are completely spectacular. We had an hour to walk up and down the paved paths to O’Brien’s Tower. Of course, no blog entry would be complete without the usual list of films and the cliffs of Moher have played host to the Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride and the location of a horcrux in The Half-Blood Prince.

Thank goodness no one tried to recreate the iconic scene where Westley scales the rocks in search of Buttercup. That is all we ask in life.

We headed home in the evening thoroughly tired out. Rather than brave the stove, a few students ordered out for pizza and even the counselors found a take-away place. Tomorrow we visit one of my absolute favorite places on earth and we all can’t wait to show the students what we have in store for them!

Castles, Counselors and Other Antiques

Day Nineteen (July 17th):

The morning of our move to Galway has dawned. Students combatted the chaos of packing with hearty breakfasts of toast and cereal, and packed their lunches before cleaning up their apartments. On top of doing their own shopping, cooking and budgeting our students are responsible for keeping their apartments nice and tidy. They absolutely succeeded in their efforts and we hit the road on the early side.

The day was absolutely gorgeous with dry heat, lots of sun and few clouds. Our plan for the day was to head down to Bunratty to spend the afternoon while Angie and Taryn got the apartments in Galway sorted out, and then meet them for an introduction to Galway. And more grocery shopping — students are starting to run out of jam for their PB&Js

But before we could reach Bunratty, Brian Farrell (our beloved bus driver) decided it was high time for a little cinematic education. We were treated to a bus ride filled with episodes from the cultural landmark and Irish sitcom Father Ted. We watched the episode where Father Ted goes to Aillwee Cave and the timing could not have been more perfect as that’s where we’ll be tomorrow!

After a few hours of watching priestly shenanigans, we arrived at Bunratty! We began with a tour of the castle. Inside the castle there are incredible examples of 15th Century craftsmanship including a Belgian armoire that is exquisitely carved. The students took lots of pictures of the restored tapestries and the Irish elk antlers hanging in the great hall. After the guided tour, the students wandered around the towers to get incredible views of the valleys below us.

Over the years, a folk park has developed around the environs of Bunratty. After spending quality time in the castle, the students then dispersed around the grounds. Some of the attractions include a 19th Century village street, a fairy garden and a walled Victorian garden. Scattered throughout are small livestock pens containing goats, turkeys, donkeys and more. The baby goat was no doubt the most popular among these.

After visiting the gift shop, students piled back onto the bus for the remaining leg of our journey into Galway.

The apartments in Galway are part of the Gort na Coiribe Student Village and are approximately the same size as the Gleneagle apartments. From the village, it’s a short walk to Dunnes for groceries and about a fifteen minute walk into the heart of Galway itself.

Students prepared dinners for themselves or ate in town and had free time until the curfew at 10. Everyone drifted off to sleep to prepare for another fun filled day tomorrow in Connemara.

Weekend at Murphy’s

Day Eighteen (July 16th):

There are few things as epic as the ILE 18 — and the Star Wars saga might be one of them. Today in our travels we passed by several filming locations for the most recent installation of The Last Jedi! I think Brian and the staff were more excited by this than the students.

We all ate breakfasts and hauled ourselves onto the bus for an early day into the Dingle peninsula. It was a very similarly scenic day to yesterday. We stopped very briefly in the town of Dingle on our way in. It’s possible that we saw the splashing of Funghi the dolphin down in the bay, but we’re not sure. The boating tour of Dingle seems to be something we should put on our list for next year’s trip as a possible outing.

During our brief stop, Anna and a few others went into Murphy’s Ice Cream for waffle cones that were swiftly eaten before they could be brought onto the bus. I know the students were mentally planning what they would do next when we came back later, and more ice cream seemed to be at the top of the list.

Boarding the bus again, we drove through the crags of the peninsula and dodged sheep. The views were spectacular and we could see Skellig Michael on the bright blue horizon. Joe and Clare joked about rowing out to the island to explore, the counselors clutched their seatbelts a little tighter.

The great thing about having a group that is on the smaller side is that we have such flexibility and instead of going to our usual haunt of Inch Beach, we went to the smaller and wilder Coumenoole on Slea Head. According to the signs, a view panning shots were taken here for Star Wars! This is where a few scenes from Ryan’s Daughter were shot as well. The beach was bordered by rock formations and filled with lovely golden sand.

Joe, Caitlin, Issie and Ethyn jumped in the water almost immediately, which was approximately one degree above its usual freezing temperature. After deliberation and consternation, others poked their toes in and ran back out with shrieks.

Anna and Mairead made some beautiful sandcastles sheltered by the worn black rock during their free time. Others sunbathed, including the staff. Lunches were eaten. Brian imprecated us harshly about bringing sand back onto his bus, so we washed off our feet in the tide pools before walking back up the cliff.

We drove back in a loop to Dingle proper again, after stopping at Ceann Sibeal for another epic Star Wars view, complete with official plaque. The students had lots of fun dancing on the coast and taking in the sea breeze. Once in Dingle, students went back for seconds at Murphy’s, looked at sweaters and took in the small, vibrant town. Anna also met a young man who worked at the ice cream place and happened to fall deeply in love with him much the amusement of everyone involved.

Ah youth. We headed home to prepare one final dinner in Killarney before we move to Galway. The counselors slept the sleep of the just after a beautiful and energetic day.

The Ring

Day Seventeen (July 15th):

The day began a bit on the grey side and while the clouds lingered and a few desperately needed raindrops fell, the day was mostly clear. We got started in the small town of Kenmare. Now, Kenmare is a very special place to the ILE staff. Not only is it a gorgeous wee town full of brightly painted storefronts and front gardens, but Kenmare is also home to a stone circle. The circle is surrounded by fairy trees where wishes can be tied.

We walked through the heart of the town only a few minutes to reach the circle, but we got a little stalled on our way by the pasture next to it. It was full of some particularly fluffy sheep and the students decided to have a little fun. We divided into two groups on either end of the fence and tried to summon the sheep to either end. Sheepishly, we moved on after a few fruitless minutes.

Inside the stone circle, Brian told us a bit of the history of the circle and of the ancient Celtic religion. It was so satisfying to see the students who attended my workshop on mythology catch my eye and grin. The group of us then ringed the circle — ignoring the side-eyes and raised eyebrows of the other visitors — and joined hands. All of the counselors were visited by a solemn and sacred power that required us to give students special “earth names”. Stunning examples of these names include “Slanty Rain”; “Aurora Stardust”; and “Fern.”

After that little interlude, we headed to Cromwell’s (*queue spitting noise*) Bridge after trekking through the gorgeous streets in a light drizzle. There were several dogs that students stopped to pet as well, which was delightful.

After the bridge, students had freetime in Kenmare to eat or grab lunch. Once finished, we boarded the bus to do a partial tour of the Ring of Kerry! The views were incredible and students had a blast on the bus ride through the craggy areas. The ILE playlist included hits from our favorite bands like ABBA, Toto and Michael Jackson.

We passed Moll’s Gap and Ladies View, stopping at as many places as we could for pictures. The drizzle had thankfully cleared by the time we hiked up to see Torc Waterfall. The local legend behind the waterfall goes that Fionn mac Cool was hired to deal with a man who could shape shift into a boar (or a torc, in Gaelic) and during the battle, Torc lake was created. The trees and the dappling of the light on the rushing water was gorgeous.

On our way back, we stopped briefly at Muckross House for a photo opportunity. Then we headed on to Ross Castle where we had a bit more time to admire the swans in the river and explore the ruins. We also paused on our way back into Killarney to view the lakes.

Once again safely ensconced at the Gleneagle, students had free time to cook dinner or go into town. Kennedy, Clare and Paige decided to head to the movies while others hung out in each other’s apartments. Tomorrow will be another amazing day.

That’s All Blarney

Day Sixteen (July 14th):

We bid a very fond farewell to Dublin. King’s Hospital was home for a short period of time: full of fun, discos and vending machines. Starting in Killarney, the students begin to experience what we fondly call “vacation” which means no more classes, slightly later wake-up times and a relaxed schedule.

To begin this segment of our trip (and the days are going faster and faster), we stopped off at Blarney Castle. Goodness knows our kids don’t need the gift of gab as they are already appropriately blessed. But that didn’t stop some of them from trying to kiss the stone! We spent a good deal of our day exploring the grounds and gardens and paths of Blarney, then the Blarney Woolen Mills. The day was sunny and bright, perfect weather.

Personally, I spent the day on the Riverbank and Forest trails, and actually stumbled on the Colthurst family pet graveyard. The macabre aside, it was a very relaxing day for all after the chaos of moving out. Many of the students visited the Blarney gift shop or the nearby cafe for coffee, waters and snacks.

From Blarney we headed into Killarney. Before we stopped at the Gleneagle Apartments, grocery shopping was next on the agenda. There were four apartments for the kids and each apartment got €100 for food for the next few days. Students are now responsible for cooking or ordering themselves breakfast, lunch and dinner! Most of the students picked up pasta or pizzas for the next few days, and of course some of the apartments co-operated cooking.

Before we knew it, we found ourselves at the apartment complex, the place we will call home for the next few days. Clare was absolutely delighted to find a Riverdance poster in the elevator, featuring the face of Bobby Hodges. As mentioned before, Bobby had winked at her and a few of our girls in the front row the other day. It made an indelible impression.

Students got themselves situated and unpacked and then the cooking began! The air smelled delicious for the rest of the night. We all fell asleep early that night with the promise of a sleep in for the next morning.

Forever Hold Your Pearse

Day Fifteen (July 13th):

Our day felt like a perfect and exact transition from the last. We ventured out from King’s Hospital to begin our day at the General Post Office or GPO. This iconic building has a central vantage point of the city and was therefore the chosen headquarters for the 1916 Uprising, where Plunkett and Pearse and Connelly planned.

The tour did not begin when we set foot in the building — no, it started at the very pillars supporting the architrave and frieze. Those pillars still bear witness to the bullets that tore through the streets. It was a very grave day from the first. All of our students took in the information presented with respect and dignity. The museum of the GPO is contained within the basement, while the upstairs continues to function as a working post office.

During the tour, we watched a brief interpretive film that condensed the actions of that fateful Sunday. The students then had free time to wander the museum and the interactive exhibits. There were several complimentary videos, antique clothing and photographs on display as well.

After visiting where the Uprising began, we saw where it ended for a few. Kilmainham Gaol had fallen into disrepair after the Civil War but has been gradually restored. Our guide began us in the chapel where Grace Giffords and Joseph Plunkett married. We saw several cells in the oldest section, then moved into the wide, Panopticon-style atrium. Grace Giffords was later imprisoned in Kilmainham like her husband, and painted a moving image of the Virgin and Christ inside her cell.

The Gaol has an additional wing that has been converted into a museum space full of exhibitions concerning the Gaol, famous people imprisoned and a seasonal exhibit on Nelson Mandela. The Mandela exhibit took a complete floor and while there was an especial focus on his time at Robben Island, it also tracked his life and the relationship between Ireland and South Africa. Personally, I was intrigued by a small exhibit on Dorothy Macardle, who went on to become a horror writer.

Despite the serious tenor of the day, our students maintained their sense of humor. I hope the love they brought into Kilmainham could be felt by any who linger on in this vale of tears.

Their spirits were also raised after the return to King’s and the promise of free time. Actually, Emily ran into her mom at Liffey Valley! They both knew they were in Dublin but they were so surprised!

To end our last day in Dublin, we finished with the parallel of our talent show, which is our final drama presentation night! Each of the three groups did an amazing job with the time they had to do their project. However, it was Casey’s group of Clare, Ethyn, Nancy, Anya and Kennedy who took home the bacon with dual wins for both the music video and presentation.

For the music video, they recreated “Molly Malone” with a human wheelbarrow. And for their presentation, they took a very unique twist on the life of Patrick Pearse featuring Ethyn as a…modified Pearse. Congratulations!! They earned themselves ice creams and fun prizes that are yet to be distributed!

The rest of the night was spent packing and preparing for an early morning ride to Killarney!