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July 2019 - Irish Life Experience

It’s The Final Countdown

Today is our last day in Galway– cue the sniffles and tears. The kids had a full free day in the city, in the midst of the art festival. It was lively and extremely busy downtown, and the kids were soaking it all up!

Most of the girls went to the Thomas Dillon Shop, the original Claddagh ring shop of Ireland, and purchased authentic Claddagh rings. The ring shows two hands holding a heart which wears a crown. This motif is explained in the phrase: “Let Love and Friendship reign.” Culturally used as a wedding ring for over 400 years. Now days, many Irish woman wear them to represent their culture.

At 5:00 PM, we banded together at the apartments to get ready for our final banquet. We celebrated our time together with a lovely dinner at the Nox hotel restaurant. After our “Last Supper,” we took a drive around town while dancing and singing our way through Galway. As a general consensus, it seems that “Get Low” by Lil John is this year’s theme song.

Bringing back the memories, we showed a compilation video of all the pictures throughout the trip. Give or take a couple, the tears were flooding. Happy memories but sad to say goodbye. Within the small amount of time we spend together, some of the greatest bonds are created. My best friend to this day was a girl I met on the ILE in 2013.
Friendships like that happen every year on this trip.

The kids are given extra time tonight before bed check, allowing them to spend as much of their final hours together. The kids will return with more knowledge than they could learn in a book or classroom. As intended, the leave us being more culturally aware and open to what the world has to offer. Lifelong memories and friendships have been created– 2019 has been another successful year on the ILE.

Thank you for following along with our journey.

Let the Rain Pour Down

Of all days, today was the day we were most hoping for nice weather and it just so happened to be the rainiest day we have encountered on this trip. We had our tour of the Aran Islands today, and it is typically toured by bike. The morning started off with a slight drizzle, so we held out hope that the rain may break on the Island. The climate is slightly different than the mainland of Ireland, known as the tropics of Ireland by the locals. Unfortunately, we were not so lucky today…

As we departed the ferry, the rain immediately down poured. We sought out shelter as Angie and Taryn sorted out an alternative to the bike tour. We all sighed a huge relief when they came back with bus tour tickets.

On the tour, we learned that the largest of the three Aran Islands, Inishmore, only reaches a population of around 800 people year round. They prosper off of tourism and farming, and the locals have maintained the rich traditional culture. On Inishmore, we visited Dún Aonghasa which is an ancient Christian hill fort. It is not known exactly when Dún Aonghasa was built, though it is now thought that most of the structures date from the Bronze Age and Iron Age.It is located right on the edge of the Island, as many of the kids gave us a heart attack while peering over the edge for a breathtaking view.

After the tour, the kids had some free time to grab lunch or a treat in the quaint cafes. Some of the best food on this trip were in these cafes, made with love by sweet little grannies in the back of the kitchen.

By the time we got back to the ferry, the sun finally came out. We still had an incredible time despite the rain.
The rest of the evening, the kids had free time to explore Galway or stay in their apartments and cook. Tomorrow will be the kids full free day, and then we will have our ending banquet.

Stay tuned for our final post!

A Slean Day

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. We took a pit-stop near a lake so we could try and capture some of the beauty.

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).

From there, we drove to Kylemore Abbey. This picturesque castle was built in 1868 as a private home for the family of Mitchell Henry, a wealthy doctor from London. He and his wife Margret moved to Ireland after traveling here on their honeymoon in the mid 1840s. Margret fell in love with the land and the culture of Ireland, so he promptly built her the acropolis.

For the remainder of the 1800’s, the Castle was used as a primary home for the Henry family. It was then sold to the Duke of Manchester at the turn of the century. It was purchased by the Irish Benedict Nuns in 1920, and then used as an all girls school until 2010. It is now used as a museum and picture destination.

fter exploring the grounds and enjoying a treat at the cafe, 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.

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 (pronounced “Schlong”), which is a traditional tool. Conner, John, Sophie, and Aiden B, all tried it and did very well! Inside the cottage, Martin told us what life would have been like for Dan and his family.

Before saying our final goodbye’s, we took turns holding a baby goat. He was not too pleased with us passing him around!

Not a “Burren” Day

We traveled deep into the Burren of county Clare on Wednesday, the 17th. The Burren is a very distinctive landscape of exposed rock, mostly limestone. Many plant species and wild flowers grow in the nooks between exposed plates, creating a gorgeous composition. Underneath the surface of the Burren, there are huge systems of undiscovered caves
and caverns. We got the chance to do some cave exploring ourselves.

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 headed right next door to the Birds of Prey Centre. We were booked in to see a flying exhibition which was an incredible experience.

The separate handlers flew a Bateleur eagle, a Barn owl and a falcon for us. All three birds flew around the audience prompted by treats and lures. While showing off the birds’ skills, the handlers educated us on the habits and distinctions of the animals. A few of our students were given a chance to hold the magnificent creatures.

For our next stop in Clare was the Poulnabrone dolmen or portal tomb. While there are over a hundred other tombs on the Burren alone, this is one is famously known for its folklore tale that is associated. If you walk clockwise around the dolmen ten times, you are to be granted with the gift of fertility. Don’t worry parents, I completed the jaunt over seven years ago and no babies to speak of!

Because no Ireland trip would be complete without seeing the Cliffs of Moher, our next stop was this iconic destination. Despite the dreadful weather, the views from every angle are completely spectacular. We had a couple of hours to walk up and down the paved paths to O’Brien’s Tower. However, once we all had our fill of the views, we took respite from the wind and rain in the gift shop cafe.

At 4:30, we set off back for Galway. The kids had the rest of the night to make dinner and get much needed rest.

The Final Stretch

“We Made It to Galway!” Many of the students cheered as we pulled into the vibrant city. This portion of the trip is always the student’s favorite. They get to experience the funky and hip city, which also has the youngest population in Ireland due to the university. There is also an art festival taking place in the town center, and that brings in street performers and a electric energy to the town folk.

However, I am getting ahead of myself. The day started off with packing the apartments in Killarny and loading the bus with our loved bus driver, Brian. We made a mid-way stop at Bunratty Castle and we experienced a tour of the 15th century structure.

Afterwords, the students had some time to explore the Folk Park, which are reconstructed grounds to represent the town and homes during the 19th century. Finished with the tour, we headed towards our new apartments in Galway.

Upon our arrival, the students were given their keys to their rooms and money to budget for their weeks worth of meals. After everyone settled in and had their dinner, we celebrated John Stone’s birthday with a surprise birthday party. All 19 of the students, and staff, crowded into the living room of one apartment to wait on his arrival. Hopefully he felt the love we have for him on the ILE.

Dingle, Dolphins and Drives

This morning we all ate breakfasts in our respected apartments and hauled ourselves onto the bus for an early day into the Dingle peninsula. It was a very similarly scenic day to yesterday. For our first stop, we spent a brief 15 minutes in the actual town of Dingle. This quaint beach town is known to the ILE for Fungi the dolphin tours and deep fried Mars Bars. The group that won the drama presentation was awarded with the special boat tour to drive alongside Fungi. He has bee alive and swimming in the bay of Dingle for nearly 45 years. This first encounter with Dingle was a quick one, as we just stopped long enough to grab the tour tickets and a few of the kids were able to snag the, sinfully delicious, fried Mars Bar.

We loaded back onto the bus and drove along a treacherously steep and windy road along the Dingle Peninsula coast. It is an unspoken rule to local Irishmen that this loop is to be driven clockwise, as it is only wide enough for one car at a time. However, it is technically a two-way road and we came across a few uninformed tourist driving the wrong direction. To their misfortune, they had to reverse down the mountain to let us through.

We finally reached the peak of the peninsula, and we stopped at a gorgeous sandy beach for lunch and a swim. The weather was rather cloudy and a bit windy, but the students did not let that stop them. All but a few, braved the cold Atlantic waters and had fun doing it!

Cold, happy, and covered in sand, we loaded the bus and headed back to Dingle. Some of the group set out to see Fungi while the rest of the students had free time to explore the colorful beach town and eat Murphy’s famous ice cream!

When we assembled back together at 4:00 PM, we headed back to our Killarny accommodations. Tonight is our last night in these apartments and tomorrow we will be off to Galway, the last portion of our trip… It is safe to say that we all feel that the trip is going by way too fast.

Until next time!

Ring Around the Kerry

Sunday, July 14th, the day began with beautiful blue skies and the day only increasingly got warmer. We lucked out with the beautiful weather on our tour day of the Ring of Kerry, or part of the ring to be precise. 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.

Inside the stone circle, Brian (Our favorite bus driver extraordinaire) told us a bit of the history of the circle and of the ancient Celtic religion. All of the counselors were “taken over by a sacred power that that gave us the ability to gift each student with a special “earth names”. Stunning examples of these names include “Lighting Strike”; “Sunny Dandelion”; and “Oak Age.” In actuality, the stone circle was likely an ancient burial site with the stones marking the grave.

We happened to stop at this quaint town on Bastille day, which is a French holiday. There is a French influence in the town so they were holding a little festival in the town square. Some of the brave kids got the chance to try escargot, a French delicacy of boiled snails. After watching some of the reactions, I could not get myself to be so adventurous.

After our Kenmare visit, we loaded the bus and drove to a few more stops along the Ring. These scenic stops included: Muckross House, Torc Waterfall, and various breathtaking lake-view stops. This was, hands down, my favorite tour day of the trip. We could not have asked for better weather or more beautiful scenery.

Once completing the loop and ending back in Killarney, the kids were dropped off in the tow square. They were given the option to do as they please for the rest of the evening. Some ate dinner out on the town, while some explored before going back to the apartments to cook.

Thanks for staying tuned!

Farewell Dublin

Sad to be leaving Dublin but excited for our next adventures, today we bid a happy farewell to King’s Hospital. Our Dublin accommodations 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 recap our last day in Dublin, the students were given a free day to explore the city at their own leisure. The only stipulations being, no pubs, drinking, or tattoos. The kids seem to have an amazing day of museums, shopping and lunch in the town. They met us back on the bus at 4:30 and we headed back to King’s Hospital for a barbecue dinner.

After dinner, the kids delighted us with their final drama presentations. The presentations were based off of an iconic historical figure in Ireland. One team did a spin off of the show, Drunk History, and they covered the life of Patrick Pearse. The second group to present their skit told the story of Eamon De Valera’s life by remastering an episode of the Office. The final group, who happened to be the winning presentation, told the story of Michael Collins. They portrayed his life story with a sock puppet play. They were all brilliant but we had to choose a winner, as a boat ride to meet fungi the Dolphin was on the line.

An early bedtime followed the presentations. We wanted to ensure that the kids were packed up and ready for our departure to Killarny in the morning.

To begin the next 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.

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!

Before we knew it, we found ourselves at the apartment complex, the place we will call home for the next few days. The students are so excited for their newfound freedom and responsibilities. They are currently in the process of getting situated in their new apartments!

Ireland’s Got Talent

Upon arriving to our first destination, Facebook International Headquarters, the kids were asked if they had a personal account on this particular social media platform. Ironically, the majority of the students did not, but it didn’t minimize their appreciation for the monumental force that is Facebook.

One of our 2004 alumni Eric Shadowens works here in Dublin, and we were pleasured with his company as we had lunch and toured through the facility. We indulged at the fantastic French inspired lunch. The cafeteria was set up as an all-you-can-eat buffet, including a salad bar, vegetarian and vegan area, and ending with a beautiful dessert bar. I was told by many of the students that it was some of the best food that they had ever had. We also had ice cream, after the tour, on the sky deck of the 6th floor. One of the employees giving us the tour, joked that the the “Facebook Fifteen, ” is unavoidable.

On the tour, we were guided through the multiple floors, being amazed with each level. 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.

To finish off our night, the kids delighted us with a talent show! We had so much fun joking around, as most of the acts were comically inclined. However, some of the students did an Irish Dance skit with the direction of Casey, and they have become surprisingly skilled.

Trailing the students, Eric rejoined us with his band-mates, Matteo and Eddy, for a session and they regaled us with traditional Celtic tunes.

A Giant Day of Exploration

Despite a brutally early wake up and a short breakfast, this trip is universally regarded as one of the most exciting and rewarding days of the trip. The students immerse themselves in the beauty of nature in Northern Ireland. This is their first introduction to the Northern part of the country, which is technically part of the United Kingdom. However, if you ask Angie, she will deny such connection.

Our first stop was the famous rope bridge here links the mainland of Ireland to the tiny island of Carrickarede. To get to it, we walked along a narrow paved path that hugged the curve of the coast, bordered on each side with vibrant wildflowers and grasses. The kids were awestruck by the transparency of the sea and the air was deeply refreshing.

After the quick tour, Next up was the famous Giant’s Causeway. Legend has it that Irish hero Fionn mac Cool created the bridge to fight a giant in Scotland, but upon realizing his size Fionn ran back along the Causeway so fast it disintegrated under his feet.

The columns seen in the pictures below are naturally occurring basalt pentagonal formations. We spent extra time here to explore the tide pools and rock formations. The rocks being very slippery, many of the students returned back to the bus with muddy bottoms and wet shoes.

After all of the hiking today, the kids were rewarded with free-time in the small town of Ballycastle. They were given a stipend for dinner, and they were off to explore. Muddy, wet, and blissfully exhausted, we ascended the bus for a three hour bus ride back to Dublin.