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July 2018 - Irish Life Experience

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!


Day Fourteen (July 12th):

It’s certainly ironic that almost none of our students have accounts, but today only proved that you don’t have to be on social media to appreciate the monumental force that is Facebook. We visited their headquarters for lunch and a tour. One of our 2004 alumni Eric Shadowens works here in Dublin and we had the absolute pleasure of being shown around the facilities. Funnily enough, Eric is also one of Clare’s family friends and she only realized that after meeting him!

We began with an absolutely delicious lunch that was themed after French cuisine. As you can imagine the kids lost it when they saw all of the amazing desserts. We met some of Eric’s coworkers and started our tour. Of course, we could not interrupt the daily work lives of the employees, but we toured recreational spaces. The design and thought that went into the office itself was remarkable. There were air purifying plants everywhere, plus very carefully constructed light and sound features.

At Facebook, the balance between work and play becomes blurred to enhance creative thinking. Our tour started on the upstairs level right next to a Lego wall where employees could spend time creating. Our students made their own marks too — writing their names, or just creating aimlessly. We learned about some of Facebook’s initiatives to become more green-friendly and to work with satellites to spread internet access. After we bid Owen a farewell (with some students threatening to just stay in the cafeteria for the rest of the trip), we headed down to the small square between Facebook and our next destination for a quick coffee.

The next stop on this technological roadshow was at Google’s headquarters. We were welcomed warmly and toured a facility very similar to Facebook’s, but slightly more formal. There was also an official Google souvenir shop, where a lot of the girls bought matching sweatshirts.

We headed home for a delicious dinner and our last drama sessions before final presentations tomorrow. However routine this might sound, after drama tonight became one of the most iconic nights of the ILE: the talent show. Our students had a diverse selection for us — from Nancy singing “Bear Necessities”; Anna singing the iconic “Pure Imagination”; Ethyn doing magic tricks; and Joe dancing (??) with bubbles, among other performances. The staff even participated, chiming in with a few traditional ILE songs.

To finish off the night, Eric rejoined us with his bandmates Matteo and Eddy for a session and they regaled us with traditional Celtic tunes. They sang a very timely rendition of “Grace”, which recounts the heartbreak of Joseph Plunkett and Grace Giffords. Joseph Plunkett was a hero of the 1916 who married Grace not even hours before he was executed in Kilmainham gaol. We will be visiting the GPO and Kilmainham tomorrow. There was not a dry eye to be found. However, other classics like “Whiskey in the Jar” cheered the room up considerably.

After the session, students went off to bed contemplative and exhausted from a long, spectacular day. Our stay in Dublin has almost come to an end.

My Goodness, My Guinness…

Day Thirteen (July 11th):

Next on the list of our adventures was…the Guinness Storehouse and Factory tour! This location at St James’ Gate has brewed since 1759 and their museum is shaped like a massive pint glass. We ate breakfast first and then headed down to the quays on the Liffey to tour the facility! Contrary to popular belief, Guinness is not brewed with water from the aforementioned Liffey but instead with mountain spring water!

The tour opened with exhibits on the ingredients that make Guinness so unique and apparently two-thirds of all Irish grown barley are purchased and used by Guinness in their brewing. After ascending floor after floor, we learned more about the Guinness family and the art of brewing. I think one of the student’s favorite floors was the one entirely dedicated to the famous advertising campaign that so universally endeared them. The “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” quote was a big hit with students, especially upon discovering it on a t-shirt in the gift shop. Allison was very impressed.

None of the students were allowed to sample the Guinness but several did buy coffees or chocolates from the gift store.

After Guinness, Mike showed the students around the heart of Dublin. This tour featured the statue of Oscar Wilde in Stephen’s Green, the National Museum of Archaeology and Trinity College. The students then split off, with a group going to the museum and another group heading into the city for food and shopping.

I’m not sure if anyone has been following the news lately, but there was a certain couple in Dublin at the same time we were…and myself, Issie and Caitlin saw…Prince Harry and Meghan Markle!! Unfortunately, none of us managed to get pictures but we saw them in the motorcade — and that’s what counts! Clare and Paige were deeply upset that they didn’t see them.

Most students spent their time exploring the city, ducking into coffee shops and looking for the various statues and historical markers dotting the streets.

We headed back to King’s Hospital to relax and unwind. It was a long but fun day!

Tiny Dancer

Day 12 (July 10th):

We are slowly starting to wrap up classes this week. No one can believe how fast time has been flying by. In class, all of the students presented on Irish or Irish-American figures of their choice. Counselors Miles and Taryn were blown away by their preparedness and humor. Several students also did family members or local immigrants. Angie has also slowly been readying herself to cover James Joyce and continues to inspire students to seek out Irish literature on their shopping trips. Our teachers cover a diverse range of topics in their lectures, from slang to pop culture, and it makes us all so happy when our students really engage with the material.

After classes and lunch, I presented my optional workshop: an Introduction to Celtic Mythology and Folktales. I was so excited to prepare this because for the past year I have focused my studies on modern mythologies and the structure of fairytales. I am so pleased and grateful that so many students came to hear me babble about one of my passions! We covered a basic idea of the soul and death, some specifically Irish gods and goddesses, the evolution of mythology and the four cycles of Irish mythology. I especially wanted to focus on the Tain bo Cuailnge or the Cattle Raid of Cooley from the Ulster cycle, which is one of the most important pieces of Irish literature. Anna was very interested in the goddess known as the Morrigan and I happily provided a recommended reading list.

After that, the students had a workshop on genealogy with Taryn and Miles. Students received images of family crests, name meanings and locations of origin. I always feel the need to emphasize that even if a student has no Irish heritage or is unsure if they do, they should still apply for the ILE. This is a program about education and appreciation — you don’t have to be Irish to be entranced by the beauty and history of this island!

After doing workshops, students had more free time at the Liffey Valley Shopping Centre. We have noticed that the girls are all slowly getting the same pastel pink skirt from Penney’s and it just cracks us all up. Of course, some students chose to nap or putter around the grounds of the school.

In dance, students continue to practice fundamental jigs and soon Casey will be offering her Advanced Irish Dance workshop. We have some really talented kids this year in particular and the staff are so glad they’ve been having fun with it! Family and friends, please ask your kids to show off everything they’ve learned when they get home!

And of course, today we went to see the world famous Riverdance. All of the kids dressed up in their best and they had front row seats!! Everyone was just enthralled, even if they had seen it before. Of course, for Clare and Paige the highlight was the principle male dancer — who winked and smiled at them! Everyone came back to King’s Hospital in a music-induced daze and we all fell asleep early.

I can’t believe we’re officially half way done as of today! 🙁 Because of this occasion, here are some bonus pictures from the very beginning of the trip: