Study Abroad

In May, 2013, the University of Limerick’s International Education Division’s Summer School hosted our MOSAIC group, which consisted of students from Maryville University, Columbia College, and Central Methodist College in Missouri. We joined students from colleges and universities across the United States attending UL summer school. Students chose from six different courses taught by UL faculty, including classes in Irish Literature, Sociology, Law, Film and media, History and Creative Writing. The apartments they shared, each with private rooms and en suite bathrooms, were located in Cappavilla Village on the north campus, overlooking the River Shannon, and included full kitchens with daily breakfast service and housekeeping. Students were provided with vouchers for lunch and supper that could be used at any of the on-campus cafes and restaurants.

Excursions to major Irish attractions were provided by UL, including a trip to the nearby Craggenowen and Bunratty castles, Limerick Milk Market, and more distant excursions to the Burren, the Atlantic shoreline at Kilkee, the Flying Boat museum in Foynes, the Falls Hotel in Ennistymon, and to Dublin, where students visited the Guinness Storehouse, Croke Park Stadium (home to the Gaelic Athletic Association), and the Book of Kells in Trinity College. Two of our MOSAIC students attended one of the World Cup 2014 qualifying matches between Ireland and the Faro Islands while in Dublin. We were also hosted with food and drink vouchers to attend the UL annual Party on the Plaza, celebrating the university’s accomplishments during the previous year.

Our MOSAIC sponsored excursions included a trip to the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, the Aran Islands and Galway Bay, and the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. Students participated in a photography contest sponsored by the University. Our MOSAIC students, Gabrielle and Mack, took first and second place respectively. Gabrielle’s first-place photo from her trip to the Dingle Peninsula can be seen on the UL International Education, Summer School web site.

MOSAIC students also received credit for our Maryville University study abroad course, “Exploring the Culture of Ireland.” Examples of their essays and photo essays included reflections on The Troubles, GAA Irish sports of hurling and soccer, the fallout from the Celtic Tiger economic bubble, Bloomsday and the books of James Joyce, and the Irish diaspora. For 2014, UL will again offer courses in Irish Literature, Sociology, Law, Film and media, History, and Creative Writing, and they will add two new courses: Irish Myths and Legends, and Nursing.

Ireland is known internationally as the Land of a Thousand Welcomes, and the faculty and staff at University of Limerick demonstrated that sentiment every day of our experience there. I strongly recommend this study abroad opportunity for undergraduate students who want to earn 6 hours of credit and experience three weeks immersed in Irish culture. For more information, visit the MU Study Abroad web site:


The Burren Trip

12 June, 2013 – Our group of American students and faculty traveled to the West of Ireland, into northwest County Clare and through the Burren, land of the fertile rock. Steady rain accompanied us and the views were partially obstructed by mist. Still, the contrast between the shades of gray in the Burren and the green rolling meadows we’ve become accustomed to seeing from the windows of our charter bus was striking.

In this rocky landscape lies an abundance of native flora, including 22 of Ireland’s 27 native orchid species. Alpine and arctic wildflowers grow side-by-side in compact clusters between the stone clints and grikes. We learned there are over 500 ring forts and eighty known Neolithic tombs in the Burren, along with labyrinth caves and disappearing streams and lakes. We were able to view one of the portal tombs.

Along the twisting, narrow roads that cut through the Burren were dark bogs where turf is cut and the small, white flowers that grow there are known as bog cotton. Towering hazel and gorse laden with yellow blooms line the edge of the road and dissect the karst meadows. We skirted the shores of Galway Bay and the Atlantic Ocean where waves crashed with spectacular force against the rocks.

The Burren is comprised of 216 square miles of limestone and granite that was deposited over millions of years as the Atlantic formed and reformed. We passed the Cliff of Moher, rising 668 feet from the shoreline along the southern rim of Galway Bay. There were many fewer sheep and cattle than in other parts of Ireland, although we spotted some hardy ewes and rams climbing the steep hillsides.

The Burren is a protected area in County Clare. We were advised to take away only our photographs and memories, and to leave only our footprints. Which is precisely what we did.


Croke Park and the GAA

I visited the Gaelic Athletic Association Stadium at Croke Park in Dublin on Friday, the site of events on Bloody Sunday, November 21, 1920. A GAA football match was planned for Croke Park that Sunday with the proceeds to go to the Irish Republican Prisoners Fund. But the match never was, as the Crown forces and the Black & Tan, a British paramilitary group known for their brutality, had other plans.

The GAA was then and continues to be amateur athletics. Players represent the counties where they were born. In 1920, it was the Dublin team to play Tipperary, the champions from Munster.

On the night before, Michael Collins’ squad converged upon the Cairo Gang, a British undercover force, killing fourteen of them. It was a crushing defeat for the British at the hands of the Irish Republican forces. On the day of the match, the Crown forces and their paramilitary compatriots went to the football match for what was first described as a planned search but was in reality an opportunity for reprisal against the Irish.

The Republicans got wind of the British plans but too late to cancel the match, as some ten thousand Irish men, women and children had filled the stadium. At 3:15 the match began and within five minutes, the British forces invaded the stadium with rifles and revolvers, shooting immediately from the northwest end of the field, near the canal.

When the massacre was over, fourteen Irish were dead, including a Tipperary player, Michael Hogan, and a fourteen year old boy, William Scott, who was so badly mutilated he was believed to have been bayonetted to death. That night, three more died when Irish Republican prisoners were executed.

Official Dublin Castle versions of the event placed blame for the start of the violence on the spectators, contradicting witness accounts. It was widely considered a cover-up for British thuggery. The stadium crowd included women and children and was an easy target for the British forces. The Black & Tan were notorious for brutality against all Irish, not just the men of the IRA. No arms, aside from those used by the British forces, were found in Croke Park when it was searched later that day.

But the Bloody Sunday that occurred in 1920 wasn’t the only Bloody Sunday where Irish nationals were massacred by British. The 1972 events on 30 January, also known as The Bogside Massacre, took place in Northern Ireland, in County Derry, when 26 unarmed civil rights protesters and bystanders were shot by soldiers of the British Army. And again, the official British version was a whitewash of the true course of events. These unjustified and unjustifiable acts were the basis for the U2 1983 song, “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”

In 1998, a thorough inquiry into the incident began in the UK and took twelve years to complete. In 2010, it was determined that none of the soldiers had been threatened as they claimed; they did not fire in self-defense. Many Irish were shot while waving white flags, while going to the aid of others, and while trying to get away. Five of the wounded were shot in the back. At the conclusion of the inquiry, the British PM, David Cameron, finally issued a formal apology.

Today I’m watching the GAA Hurling match on the Gaelic Grounds here in Limerick to determine the Munster Championship for 2013. Limerick is playing Tipperary and the winner will go on to the Munster Finals. One of these teams may find themselves in Croke Park for the national championship game later this year. The stands are jammed with fans in green for Limerick and Blue for Tipp. It’s gratifying to see how strongly the Irish football and hurling leagues continue to be supported. These amateur players show great will, great heart and great enthusiasm and the crowd is testament to the dedication of the Irish to their Gaelic sports.



Midwife to the Fairies

I read this story by Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, a Dublin-born novelist and playwright who writes in both Irish and English. What stuck me about this story initially was her facility with the Irish country dialect. I struggled at first to comprehend the structure of the prose and found myself having to re-read the first few paragraphs, but soon became accustomed to the dialect and was able to hear the musicality in it.

Midwife to the Fairies blends the old ways of Ireland, with its folk tales and superstitions, and the new order of technology and economic austerity. The narrator is a nurse named Mary whose hospital staffing cuts have left her exhausted and disillusioned. Her family history includes midwifery but she no longer cares for mothers and newborns since the shuttering of the hospital’s maternity ward. When a desperate father-to-be shows up at her door late one night, she’s conflicted about helping him. “Sure I’m off duty now anyway, amn’t I?” she tells her husband. But he urges her to hear the man out and soon she relents.

“Well, says I then, closing maternity wards won’t stop them having babies.” And she goes off with the man, with some trepidation, counting on her generosity to pay off in indulgences.

Eilis Ni Dhuibhne intersperses bits of a couple of old Irish tales in the story of Mary and the late night delivery. Soon it is evident that the old tales include warnings about dealing with the ‘wee folk.’ Mary is late to realize that the incongruities of her experience delivering the baby and the people who ushered her into and out of the gated estate were not of her community at all. When tragedy strikes and Mary is racked with guilt, she discovers that confession is the worst solution possible.

I chose this story soon after my trip to the Burren where I visited the part of Ireland that remains unchanged since the Ice Age. It was on that trip that our Minder told us about the Fairy Forts and how belief in good luck and bad luck lingers in Irish society. And, while I understand that many modern Irish are as skeptically scientific as we Americans and do not cling to auld ways and superstitions, their heritage is never too far removed from everyday life.

I can relate to that kind perspective. As my own grandparents who were Kentucky farmers warned me about things like breaking mirrors or walking under ladders, there may or may not be consequences, but why tempt fate?


Irish Time

You don’t have to be here in Ireland long before you learn about Irish time. When a meeting time is set, the Irish will be there sometime soon after but usually not precisely on time. Which is a nice way of saying the Irish are chronically late. This is an understood and forgivable sin of perpetually running behind.

The exceptions to this rule are twofold. Public transit runs on schedule. Irish rail is as dependable as a sundial. You best be on time to catch your train because they leave on the minute they’re scheduled. I’ve watched as a train pulled away while tardy riders ran through the station lobby only to gaze with disappointment from the platform as their train departed without them. Busses are likewise reliably on schedule.

Irish shops also close on time. Do not imagine that you can enter at closing time and have the shop keepers wait for you to browse. Lights go out and doors are locked at closing time and the clerks make their way onto the street within minutes.

I’ve noticed the effect of this disconnect between personal timekeeping and public schedules on our hosts. They work exceptionally hard to, as they say, keep things sorted. Minding eighty-some American students requires a good deal of flexibility and they do it with tremendous good humor. But it also results in no small amount of what we Americans call “hurry up and wait.”

We’re in our second week of intersession Study Abroad. It’s been gratifying to watch our American students assimilate. They’re less demanding than they were just a week ago. less anxious, too. You might attribute that change to their youth and flexibility, but I think some part is due to the simple charm of Ireland and the Irish people we’ve encountered. Our students’ eyes have been opened to all the Irish offer. And they are worth the wait.


Fairy Forts

During our excursion to the Cliffs of Moher we heard about the many superstitions that continue in Ireland, and the most intriguing was the preservation of the Fairy Forts. Roadways have been re-routed and developments scrapped when fairy forts are threatened. It’s bad luck to disturb the fairy forts and there are many stories, old and new, about misfortune as a result of destruction of these special places.

A fairy fort is an earthen mound, also known as raiths, and they date back to the pre-Christian era. They can be identified by their circular remains. They’re found all across Ireland.

The belief that terrible consequences will befall those who disturb the fairy forts still persists in the Twenty-first Century. Most recently, a very wealthy Irish developer by the name of Sean Quinn purchased land that contained the remains of a fairy fort and bulldozed the land, despite the warning of the fairies’ revenge. In 2008 he was the richest man in Ireland, but was subsequently ruined, lost all of his fortune and went to prison in 2011. Most Irishmen will tell you that it wasn’t the banking or the development scandals that were his undoing, but rather his failure to heed the superstition about the fairy forts.

Claire Keegan

I brought the Granta Book of the Irish Short Story with me to Ireland and am reading a story a day, although I started with a couple of stories under my belt before I embarked. Thus far, I’ve read stories by Roddy Doyle, John Banville, Frank O’Connor, Clare Boylan, Mary Lavin, Colm Toibin and Claire Keegan. Laudably, they’ve showcased the literary acumen that readers expect from Irish short fiction.

Keegan’s Men and Women is one of my favorites. She’s a relatively young writer, born in 1968 and just 31 years of age when she wrote this story in 1999; she writes about rural Ireland with a deft hand. In Men and Women we experience the inequalities of gender roles in traditional Irish society through the eyes of a country girl. Both her brother and her father take liberties with their positions in the family, working less and taking more from the women than their share. Her mother is seemingly resigned to the unhappy situation and has but one desire that she keeps secret from all except her daughter. It’s during a holiday celebration when the worst of the men’s behavior emerges that the girl experiences a sudden epiphany. Only later, when she witnesses her mother’s mutiny, does she recognize how shallow her father’s power really is.

What I liked about this story was Keegan’s ability to intermingle the comic and tragic. The narrator who is never named is both the biggest girl in her class and at the same time, the last one to believe in Santa Claus. She loves her dolls, but she also rips their heads off when she tires of them. She has an inkling about her father’s deceptions, but only through her mother’s eyes does she truly see him for the bully that he is.

Anne Enright edits the collection and in her introduction notes some of the threads that run through these stories, common to the fundamental unit of Irish identity, the family. Perhaps the strongest of these are shame and humiliation. Keegan capitalizes on these emotions, showing us the way Irish men and women use them as weapons against one another. Men and Women is a tightly plotted story that, through the experiences of its most vulnerable character, pulls the reader into the family and reveals its destructive core.