Donegal Gazette week #1
Donegal Gazette week #2
Donegal Gazette week #3
Donegal Gazette week #4
|Hi there! I'm still trying to catch up after having been away for over a week. On the Monday after the Joe Heaney festival in Connemara, we jumped in the car (and the students jumped in the bus -- no, they actually bounced in the bus; it appeared to have no shock absorbers at all) and headed for the Burren. The Burren is a miles-wide expanse of fissured limestone hills in County Clare (southwest of Galway City), which at a distance appear to be utterly barren and almost creepy in their sameness. Yet when you actually get out of your vehicle and stand or start climbing across the rocks, what you see is entirely different: beautiful wildflowers, thousands of them, most of which are unique to the Burren. For example, the Burren has a special purple orchid that stands about eight inches high. It also has a profusion of violets, primroses, and many other unknown flowers (unknown to me). As a visitor, it makes me want to absorb both the macro and the micro simultaneously, so I find myself looking far distances and crouching to the ground an instant later to observe the minutiae. The birds, insects, and other elements of the Burren are also unique to the area. It's fantastic.
We visited an old castle in Kinvara, followed by a visit to Cormacroe Abbey a few miles away. The abbey was dazzling; fully standing, yet without a roof. There were plenty of gravestones, and some quirk of my wee brain
caused me to suggest that we take pictures of our student Ryan lying down in front of the "Ryan" headstone. My apologies go out to the Ryan families of the world! Sorry -- it was incredibly funny. Several of my students, as
well as Cary, heard an actual cuckoo. Another student, Chris, saw something below a horizontal gravestone, and when he picked it up he realized that it was a skull. Ooops. That was sobering. Then we drove through Ballyvaughan (where I'd gone with students on the last Irish trip three years ago) to visit the famous "Poulnabrone" dolmen (a dolmen is a large marker of tombs, usually involving huge stones placed next to each other with a capstone on top). This dolmen is wel-known -- probably the most-photographed site in Ireland. We were very surprised to see a rope barrier around it. The students' bus driver was talking about how he and his friends used to climb on top of the dolmen when they were teenagers.
After the dolmen we went off to Kilfenora to see a magnificent high cross and have lunch. In Kilfenora there were still fresh green boughs placed on the doors of buildings from May Day. It was lovely. We then stopped in at a holy well for St. Brigid (with its many attendant photos of people, messages of gratitude, and gifts to Brigid in return for her assistance). It was right next to a large field where you could see the remains of a monastic settlement not far from the remains of a defending fortress at the edge of a lake, surrounded by the usual cottages and cows. It was fascinating to see the past so thoroughly integrated into the present.
One of the highlights of the day, besides tramping over the Burren, was visiting the enormous Cliffs of Moher (and there's a great fiddle tune by the same name -- I wish you could hear it). The wind was howling at this point, the skies were threatening rain, and this was probably the only time that I became anxious about the students getting blown off the cliffs. We struggled out to the edge (protected, fortunately, by enormous flagstones standing upright) and looked waaaaaaaaay down below to where the seabirds were circling. There were a couple of musicians struggling to play for change in the wind, and although I suspect that they made a decent haul on nice-weather days, their pickings appeared slim on that day. I asked the students, in my most menacing-mother tone of voice, to DO NOT GO BEYOND THE BARRIER IS THAT CLEAR? Luckily, they humored me, and everyone was safely back on the bus. I really don't like to pull out the mother bit, but it's effective on the rare occasion that you actually need it.
On the way back we went down the Corkscrew Hill Road (an extraordinary switchback that takes you from the highest hills of the Burren right down to sea level in just a few minutes). The road was built as a make-work project
during the Famine; unlike other projects of its kind, however, this one actually was very useful and efficient. Most Famine roads and bridges lead from nowhere to nowhere, and thousands of people died building them. Each time I go on this particular road, I am grateful to those who created it. Now, paradoxically, Corkscrew Hill is also the location of a hereditary "big house" that has been turned into a luxury inn called Gregan's Castle Hotel. I stayed there with my parents on our wonderful ten-day visit to Ireland in May 2003. It is one of the nicest places I've ever stayed in (you can find it online! The pictures are all true to life!), and the food is sublime. It was about 6 pm as Cary and Morgan and I were nearing it, and we had already said goodbye to the students as they headed off back to Spideal on their bus. So I pulled in to the long driveway, just so that Cary and Morgan could see what a nice place we'd visited last year. Morgan was delighted to see a large bunny hopping about, and we pulled over and got out to walk through the arbor and listen to what sounded like thousands of evening birds. After a few minutes there seemed to be nothing for it but to see if they could seat us for dinner, and they could indeed! After being buffetted about all day by the wind and rain, we were ready for a wonderful meal: appetizers of mushroom risotto, main course of duck breast with a sauce of truffle oil... When the waiter showed up with tiny tall glasses of orange sorbet for the "palate cleansing" course, Morgan frowned and said "what is this?" Cary suggested that she might not like it, but that she should really try it because this was a fancy restaurant, etc. etc. It really didn't look like orange sorbet, so of course Morgan's reaction was one of shock and delight. That made it all the more fun. My dessert was lemon meringue pie with vanilla bean ice cream in a brandy-sugar lace cup (edible, of course). The coffee was great. The table was elegant, the room was softly lit (but not dark), and it was all hushed and lovely. After we'd been there an hour, a group of rather obviously rich people went to their table and were loudly discussing race horses (etc.). I kept wondering if they realized how good they had it at this beautiful, gracious inn. It was midnight by the time we returned to our ice-cold B&B, and I'm telling you: it was worth it to spend all that money on one single, incredibly memorable meal instead of on a more comfortable B&B.
We could hear the wind howling first thing on Tuesday morning, and the rain was pelting in big angry drops. This was the day that our students were destined for the ferry to the Aran Islands. I began cringing in anxiety before I even got out of bed. I had a bad feeling about this day. We showed up at the ferry a little early (before the students arrived in their bus) and the waves were a sickening yellow-green-blue color, choppy. The students arrived shortly thereafter, looking sullen and anxious. No one was happy. Their guide for the day (a transplant from Boston named Risteard or Richard) was cheerful enough, but it was looking bad. I had forgotten my motion-sickness medication for the students who might need it. Rain started pelting down again and wind was actually rocking the car back and forth. I paid for their tickets, everyone who could muster a smile said goodbye to Cary and Morgan (who I was about to drive to Dublin), and they trudged down the quay to get on the boat. I felt AWFUL. "Poor students. Poor students. I'm so sorry. This is terrible." We watched until the boat pulled out from the quay and started to hit the choppy waves, then we drove off, with my insides churning in worry. I wasn't concerned that the boat would capsize, as it's a big boat, but I felt terrible for subjecting them to such a trip
on a day with such rotten weather.
We drove off to Spideal for lunch at a fine cafe located in an artists' cooperative, and after sitting there for about an hour I felt a very abrupt release of tension, replaced by enormous relief. Everything was going to be okay. According to the students, right about that same time they had just arrived at the prehistoric fort called Dun Aengus on the island of Inishmore, and the sun came out so they could all get great pictures. I finally let go of my anxiety and decided that since I couldn't make the weather any better (nor could I go out to the island and "help them" in any way), that I would just get over my self and try to enjoy my last day with Morgan and Cary. (footnote: none of the students got sick on the ferry, and they all treated it as they would an amusement park ride -- shrieking with
joy as the boat leaped above the waves and came down with a huge smash, pretending to do the Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio thing on the Titanic in front of the boat, etc.) They were surprised to discover that the "vegetarian" lunches they'd asked for on the island turned out to be tuna fish sandwiches, fish counting here as vegetarian.
Cary and Morgan and I drove to Clonmacnoise, one of several major ancient monastic sites in Ireland. I went there last year with my parents, but what I didn't see last time was the tiny "nun's church" that was outside the walls of the settlement. Was I ever in for a shock! This little partly-restored building was packed with goddess symbols. Everywhere you looked you could see indications of the Goddess in what was otherwise a rather plain rectangular ruined building. The lintels were surrounded by serpents (one of the most important goddess symbols around the world), and you could see nipples on the serpents. Then I looked at the interior lintel, where there were stone vulvas all the way across (except where they'd been chipped away by someone) and a tiny sheela-na-gig (an ancient goddess symbol depicting a smiling woman holding open her vulva -- it often appeared above the openings of some of the oldest structures). Then there were the little heads of cats everywhere. Oh my, oh my. It was staggering. In the gift shop there was NO INFORMATION about it, for all the many books about the monastery, the life of St. Kieran, etc. I even found an article written about the "nun's church" by a woman whose primary argument was whether it was a Romanesque structure. Sheesh. You can bet we took pictures.
About a half hour outside of Dublin we ran out of gas. Ooops. Cary had to get a lift to a petrol station while Morgan and I shivered on the hillside, since we ran out of gas on the freeway. Fortunately for all of us, the whole process was over with fairly quickly (within an hour) because there was a petrol station nearby, but we didn't know what we should do and all our phone calls led to nowhere. I finally reached Liam Cunningham (the director of the Oideas Gael institute in Donegal, where we've been staying and studying), and he told us to do what we would do in America. It turned out to be fine, and we arrived at our very nice B&B at about 8 pm. The next morning, I took Cary and Morgan to the airport, said a sad goodbye, and went to exchange the Alfa Romeo for a Citroen (a major step down in classiness, but the Citroen is actually more comfortable). It's the law here that you can't rent a car for more than a month, hence the exchange.
I arrived in Derry in Northern Ireland, never having passed through an official border. The North's efforts to demilitarize have led to the abolishment or diminishment of many of the things that have made it seem so threatening in the past: tanks, patrols, border guards, barbed wire, etc. We stayed in a peace and reconciliation center on the Waterside, which is the firmly Protestant district of Derry. It's a big house with dorm rooms (I got my own room as the leader of the group), and both breakfast and dinner included in the fee of 18 pounds sterling (about 26 dollars per night). The house is surrounded by a beautiful park, in which we walked and listened to the sound of birds and frogs mixing with the sounds of sirens across the river in Derry City. That first night we met with a liaison to the Derry City council, a woman who works with peace and justice groups. It was very interesting, although it had been a long bus ride for the students and they were pretty burned out (so was I). The next day was packed: we did
a city tour, visited a museum, met with a woman who runs a reconciliation institute, and stopped at the Bloody Sunday Centre (dedicated to uncovering the truth of the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972). We also walked through the Bogside to see the murals. There were terribly chilling moments throughout the day, including the students taking pictures of the watchtowers and then realizing that there were actual people up there in the towers, watching them. Also sobering was the view of the very tall and restrictive "peace wall" that separates the Protestant minority (3% of the Derry City population) from the Catholic majority. There was graffiti everywhere, along the lines of both "No Surrender" from the Protestants and "R.I.R.A. Rules" ("Real" I.R.A.) from the Catholics. And yet there were hundreds of people going about their daily business, just trying to live normal lives. Last time I was here with my students, British soldiers pointed guns at me as I walked past. There were tanks. I felt in terrible danger at all times. This visit, in contrast, felt more as if there was an uneasy truce underscored by threats. After the city tour we gave the students some free time, and that evening after an intensive debriefing seminar we went out to a relatively neutral pub to hear music and hang out.
The next day was one of the most beautiful and uplifting days that I have ever spent in Ireland! We went off on a bus to the north coast, stopping in to visit a monument to a bombing in the town of Claudy en route. We made it
all the way to County Antrim where we walked about a mile and crossed a precarious rope bridge to a small, protected island with spongy turf, rare and beautiful seabirds, and incredible views all the way to a dim and distant Scotland. It was heavenly, warm, dry, and so filled with ease that we could all feel the tension of the previous day and the exhaustion of the days prior simply melt away. It was blissful. Then we went to the famous Giants' Causeway, a group of basalt pillars at the water's edge that extends underwater all the way to Scotland. Before walking down there, a bunch of us had excellent soup and brown bread in the little visitor's center, and the walk was easy and peaceful. We spent about three hours there, simply marvelling at the place's geological formations, the sound of the surf, the incredible variation in types of seaweed, and the benevolence of the weather. By the time we came back to Derry we were all starry-eyed. It was just right.
Our plans for the trip home to the Gleann were thwarted because we'd expected to see the Grianan of Aileach, a major archaeological site of tremendous astronomical import; however, it was closed for May and June. Aargh. And our plans to attend the Donegal Fleadh (music festival) in Gortahork were thwarted by the driver, who simply refused to go!! so we stopped in Dongal Town for shopping, came back to Gleann and rested, did laundry, took photographs, rested some more, regrouped, wrote poetry, went for walks, and resettled altogether. On Sunday night we all attended a showing of a play by the local theater group ("Widow's Paradise"), a farce that was extremely funny and revealing of Irish gender tensions, and we were all prepared for classes to start up again the next day.
Okay, I think you've suffered enough. I hope you're having a wonderful spring! It's hard to believe that we'll be leaving here by the end of nextweek. It seems light-years away from home.
Donegal Gazette week #5
|Greetings! The formatting of this message will probably be a little awkward because I've had to write it over a period of several days on different computers; the main one I use has the tendency to shut down abruptly and I have to continually log off and on in order to get a complete message out. It will be an enormous relief to simply be able to do my work on e-mail without having to wait for the long-distance phone line to Dublin to kick in!
We've begun the countdown now: one week left in the trip and then it's time to head home. The weather continues to improve, particularly the wind; I can walk down to Oideas Gael (where we hold the classes) and not have to grip a fence for stability. The spring lambs are now much more robust and have been engaging in hilarious races, sometimes six abreast, distracted only by the occasional calls of their moms. It gives us all incredible joy to see them bounding across the fields, leaping over stones (and each other) and bonking into each other. A few weeks ago, before Cary and Morgan went home, we watched two lambs following a couple of gray-headed crows. As the lambs crept up on the crows (ears pointed almost directly forward!), the crows would sort of hop away, drawing the lambs even closer. When the crows finally flew away, the lambs looked as if their world had suddenly turned upside down. I imagined the gears in their little brains expanding for an instant, allowing for the possibility of flight.
Classes started up again last week, and it was nice to be back into a routine again after the chaos and upheaval of travel. The students agreed that they're ready for constructive criticism of their poetry (now that they have a good working relationship with the teacher), and they're still appearing to enjoy working with Paddy Mor, the bodhran
(drumming) teacher. The week seemed to fly by (several students asked if last week had actually occurred, or whether they simply made it up). In the pennywhistle class, the teacher brought an 11 year old player (either a relation or a student or both) who went through her paces and tolerated his stern admonishments to keep the tempo steady. [I heard two tunes that I'd like to learn, so I looked them up after I went home and picked them out on both the fiddle and the pennywhistle.] Then the accordions came out and they played for awhile while we listened. It's been quite a musical education for everyone, whether they came here for the music or not.
On Wednesday night we had a terribly awkward session with a local storyteller who is almost always first or second place in the national storytelling competitions. Unfortunately, his only real language is Irish, so he had to struggle mightily to speak to us. He gave a very brief summary of the story, then launched into 15 minutes of
blisteringly fast Irish that I could barely keep up with (for all my years of studying!), and which unfortunately lost the students immediately. We all rose to the occasion by asking questions, encouraging him to tell us a story about such and such, etc. etc. but it was an ordeal. Every word that he spoke in English was a translation from Irish. It was a learning experience! Earlier that day a bunch of us went back to the tapestry weaving place, and I finished my little
tapestry (a three-inch by twelve-inch weaving of hills, the bog, sky, and clouds). I was proud of the clouds: big puffy clumps of wool in a mixed blue sky. It was intensely social, fun, and included lots of laughter. At one point we were all deeply engrossed in the politics of the local gang of dogs (particularly the rivalry between Bruce and
Prince, both of whom hang out in front of the pub). We realized what we were discussing, and had to laugh about how involved we'd become in small town life. There's one dog whose owner passed away three years ago, who hangs out in front of the pub after all this time, still waiting for his owner to come out. And then there are the car-chasing dogs (part of Prince and Bruce's gang) who flatten themselves on the ground at the slightest hum of a motor, ready to shoot out like bullets when the car appears. Most of the dogs bear scars and scrapes from their encounters with cars.
On Thursday afternoon we had a visit from Judith Hoad, a renowned herbalist and specialist in weaving and tweed making. I had known her only as the author of the excellent book titled "This is Donegal Tweed" and it was a revelation to spend a full day with her. She was raised in England and spent twelve years in Wales, though she's Irish, so her accent is a mixture but predominantly English (one's accent matters a great deal here). Anyway, she lives in Donegal now, and the first thing we did was hear a bit of her life story (how she got into ethnobotany because of her own reactions to allopathic medicine), then out we went. We walked along the roadside looking at "weeds" (a term that she regards as derogatory, rather like "Paddy"). Every few steps she would pick one, identify it, and then go into a whole spiel about its growth habits, how one could prepare it, and what it could be used to help or cure. Within the hour, the entire countryside became enlivened and identifiable. It was a stunning transformation! She discussed at least thirty different "weeds" in less than a quarter of a mile -- the time it took us to get to the beach -- and then we went down on the beach and she talked about seaweeds. It was fantastic. My students described it as "awesome" (a word which is so overused that it has lost its superlative connotation, but I think they really meant it). Everything about the talk was fascinating. I took her to lunch at the little cafe right next to Oideas Gael, and then in the afternoon she had a demonstration of how to make creams and lotions. Such glorious alchemy! She created, right in front of us, a lavender cream (and kindly gave us each a small jar of it). She also brought a number of books and creams and this and that for sale, for which a number of us were grateful. I purchased some marigold cream for my eczema (which had begun to flare up and I didn't have my prescription medicine with me), and in the few days since I got the cream, my little flare-up has started to subside instead of worsening like it usually does. It was a lovely day of intense learning and eye-opening for all of us.
On Thursday evening we had an evening of ceili dance lessons, which was nonstop laughter. The fellow who taught us believes that set dancing is a threat to ceili dancing (for the uninitiated, there's set dancing which is like square dancing, step dancing which is what they do for Riverdance, two-hand dancing which is a local style, sean-nos dancing which is like clogging, and ceili dancing which can be in a circle or a long line). He launched into a long invective about current trends in set dancing (involving stiff and expensive costuming, curly wigs, and the very rigid and unnaturally stiff body of the dancer). I had to tell him that it was the same story in the US, only worse because everyone looks at Riverdance and wants their daughters to dance just like that. So we were flinging ourselves around the room with incredible abandon, learning a huge amount in spite of what fun we were having. The big ceili ("dance party") is this coming Thursday, and the students have invited all their friends in town to come and join us. And they will! People here are saying that the ceili we had the last time we brought students here was "the best one ever".
Two students had their birthdays this week, so on Friday night we had a potluck dinner in the "dorm" (a large house with rooms for 12 people and a breathtaking view of the sea), followed by a bonfire. The food was excellent! We played music for awhile and sang, and then went off to the beach for a bonfire. Someone in town had offered our students some wooden pallets to burn (remember, Donegal has no trees at all so trees are as rare as they can be). Between the few pieces of wood, the coal, and the bags of peat, we had a roaring fire. It was misty (deteriorating to drizzle periodically) but it was fantastic to be out there. I left at 1 am and drove back to my place, and thought "there's something odd about the car." It was pulling to the left. Then it started making odd sounds. By the time I got home, there was no doubt that the tire was completely flat on the front left hand side. Dang.
Saturday has to have been one of the most truly magical days that we have had. A bus came to collect us at 1 pm (Irish time) and we bounced off to Gaoth Dobhair (pronounced "geedor") on a beautifully clear day. We passed
dazzling shores with sand and rocks and tiny islands, with a light wind and high spirits. Gearoidin Breathnach (the wonderful singer and storyteller who performed for us a couple of weekends ago) had invited us there to show us where the events leading to the creation of a handful of songs had taken place. We stopped at about four different locations, with Gearoidin (Irish for "Geraldine") saying things like "and this is where the father found his drowned son after he'd walked home alone". It was incredibly poignant, sad, beautiful, and powerful. We were blinking back tears when she stood on the spot where a particularly sad song took place and SANG IT FOR US. We saw a small island where all the local unbaptized babies were buried (accessible only during low tide); my heart was flip-flopping in my chest, knowing that they were exiled from the cemetary forever. Mt. Errigal, the dramatic mountain peak that dominates Donegal, was hovering close by. We walked past fine, large, healthy cows and calves on grass that was as deep a green as I've ever seen. They had plenty of room and were wonderfully calm and at
ease. There were thousands of birds everywhere; on the rocks at the shore the stones were smooth and white and large and round and beautiful, and there were many different kinds of seaweed. Gearoidin pulled up several kinds, telling us their name in Irish and what they were used for or how they were cooked.
One of the highlights of the day was a visit to one of Gearoidin's relatives, who had a lovely new house in a quiet valley. There were musicians, a storyteller, Gearoidin's children (some of them), and food to feed an army: fresh vegetables and fruit, sandwiches, lovely vegetable soup, pizza bread, scones, chocolate, tea, coffee, apple tart....we were all in heaven. We had a fantastic evening of eating, listening to songs, music, and stories, and feeling that this was unquestionably the genuine article. By the time we left at 11, we were all in absolute bliss. And on the bus on
the way home, the students sang songs in Irish and English, remembering all the words and being calm and happy. I was never happier with them than at that moment. The next day Liam Cunningham took us around the local "folk
village," a creation of Father MacDyer (a dynamic and coercive local priest who almost single-handedly revitalized the area in the 60s and 70s, making loads of friends and enemies in the process). They have cottages preserved
from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries there, along with all kinds of farm and household implements. It also has a lovely little tea house there that serves soups and sandwiches (my former student Stacey works there as a baker). After we finished at the folk village we went out to see some prehistoric ruins (dolmens, passage tombs, meeting places) that have been dated to 3,000 BC. No excavation has been done here, at all. Liam was speculating that all the old stone cottages and walls nearby were probably built with stone pulled off the archaeological ruins, and it certainly could be the case...especially because the stones are generally uniform in size.
On Sunday night Sean MacGuire (a well-known local singer) came in to talk to us. He's the kind of much older guy who looks at a woman like me and pulls me toward him as he shakes my hand. Eeeeeee.... anyway, he's got a fine
singing voice and told us stories about some of the local songs, then sangbthem for us. I could have listened to him sing for hours. He peppered the presentation with various ribald comments about sex and gender issues, provoking embarrassed laughter from everyone. I wanted to press the "pause" button on the proceedings and say "Uh, excuse me, everyone, this is all par for the course when you're doing ethnomusicology fieldwork" but I couldn't.
It may seem as if the students aren't actually doing any work at all, but I promise you that they are. In fact, they have started to become desperately burned out with keeping up this grueling schedule of classes (literally morning, afternoon, and evening of every single day that we've been here). I don't think they could handle another week of this; besides, they have to write an enormous integrative paper when they go home that requires them to process what they've learned and how it fits in to the whole school year of Irish study. I wish them luck!