Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Day 02, "Ireland" seminar trip (expanded)

[These are the daily posts located at Google Maps. I'll post one-a-day in the aftermath.]

First morning in Ireland. There’s always a transition moment here, when everyone (we hope) has managed to stay up long enough, and sleep late enough, that their circadian rhythms are adjusted and the jet lag is past. Magnificent (as always) full breakfast in the Durkin’s breakfast room, wherein almost all of the boys, and a surprising number of the girls, had their experience of the “full Irish fry.” Also always a watershed moment here, when the girls, realizing that Ireland’s cold and wet climate, and the amount of trekking we’ll do through fields in the rain, combine to make Texas-style “big ol’ hair” more than a little impractical. Our girls rose to the challenge like champions, and then it was off to the sites! This area is full of “raths” (ancient mounds which were the sites of “ring-forts”), a term which also occurs in local place-names like Rathcrogan, Rathmore, and Rath Ra (“the hill of the voice”—most striking, as there are very curious acoustical phenomena on the top of this last). This area is especially important in the history of Pagan Ireland because Roscommon contains many sites integral to the history of Queen Maebh of Connacht, one of the principle characters in the Ulster Cycle legends, which tell the story of the Tain Bo Cuailgne (“The Cattle Raid of Cooley”; text in translation available here), when the Queen’s soldiers raided east into Ulster, seeking to steal the legendary Brown Bull of Cooley. They were opposed by the mythic hero Cuchulain (the “Hound of Chulain”), whose adventures are the core of the Ulster Cycle. As Angela’s “Roswell” reference confirms, it is a very spooky landscape; the raths are usually located at high elevations. We will visit Rathcrogan, the site at which Queen Maebh was crowned and from which the Cattle Raid began (provided the present-day bull who lives in that particular field permits us). [Later: We were able to make our way up Rathcrogan: a large flock of sheep and their new lambs were in residence, and the bull was nowhere to be seen. On to Tulsk, where a recently-begun dig explores the area’s extremely rich Neolithic and Iron-Age cultures. Our visit to the Cruachan Ai archaeological site, where a rath is being painstakingly opened and diagramed, was enlivened by making friends with Michael and Lora, director and assistant-director of the Center. They shared with us some absolutely riveting geo-topographical discoveries about the arrangement of the raths and other sacred sites in relation to other places in Roscommon and beyond. Though it’s beyond our powers to know just yet what all these new insights mean, one thing is clear: the ancient peoples of Ireland, like ancient peoples everywhere, were just a sophisticated in their science and insightful in their art as are we moderns—and far more in tune with the landscape.

Boyle Abbey is a beautiful, well-preserved site in the market town which exemplifies the history of both the medieval Catholic church and the Renaissance religious conflicts in Ireland. Located on a bend in the river Boyle which flows from Lough Key to Lough Gill, the abbey’s grounds demonstrate both the financial power and the central social role that abbeys played in medieval life: as libraries, schools, farms, manufacturies, and employers. The grounds include the old chapel, various parts of which were built at various periods, the “buttery” (kitchen, complete with bake oven), the “commons” (where the monks ate, while one read aloud), and all the necessary components for a living-and-working community. Later, when Henry VIII founded the Anglican Church, broke with Rome, and confiscated monastic holdings, the Abbey fell into disrepair, after which it was eventually turned into a cavalry barracks during Oliver Cromwell’s mid-17th century conquest of Ireland. There are good descriptive plaques and a restored upstairs room in the guard tower, which includes a detailed diorama of the Abbey at its height.

North Roscommon/South Sligo is also the heart of a very rich tradition of fiddling and flute-player. Most of the legendary players of Irish music’s “Golden Age” (the 1920s-30s) who recorded in New York and played on its vaudeville stages came from the region, and the place-names “Kesh,” “Culfadda,” etc are name-checked in hundreds of tune titles. We will visit the Michael Coleman Heritage Center in Gorteen, where Coleman, who emigrated first to England and then to America, was born. It’s an excellent small museum (with the mandatory “fillum” video presentation) and a good gift shop, full of rare and top-notch recordings. [Later: magical visit to the Heritage Center, where we greeted old friends from previous years, raided the gift shop, and enjoyed the tea and biscuits laid on for us. Then it was upstairs in the (revamped and expanded) center for the obligatory short “fillum”, and an impromptu concert and visit with bodhran-player Junior Davey and accordionist P.J. Hernon, two legends in Irish music, and great characters both. Their music was so good that it mandated a return raid upon the gift shop, a series of autographs, and an impromptu lesson on the percussive bones.

Sligo town itself is fairly small (it was mostly a Victorian shipping town) but its musical and cultural legacy is very rich (see its arts weekly here): the pubs are jammed to the rafters with great music and dancing (especially Shoot the Crows, the pub owned by members of the trad supergroup Dervish, who have the distinction of coming in last in the execrable pop-song context called Eurovision), and it’s near where the poet William Butler Yeats made his summer home. Yeats Village is a new hostel to us, but comes very highly recommended by other hoteliers who we trust implicitly. [Later: no music on at the Crows, but great craic there nevertheless: our students met up with David, Michael, and Ciarán, three locals who had great stories about their own travels, and great curiosity about ours. They were hard-pressed to believe that we’d only been in-country about 24 hours, but most impressed with our students’ dance and Gaelic language abilities (though they scoffed at the students’ too-good pronunciation of the “Queen’s Irish.”

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