Day nineteen: The Book of Kells

This morning we met in class and Mike went over the format of the final exam. He also did a great exercise in “crowd-sourcing” to help students determine which concepts are most likely to be important to study. Below, he’s telling them how high the bar will be set for this test (yikes).


Our final group field trip was to see Trinity College Dublin and the Book of Kells. On the way there, Mark and Kevin had a special moment as they contemplated the end of our journey.


Inside these lovely wooden doors is a famous seat of learning whose alumni include Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker (which gets Mike very excited; ask him why), Oscar Wilde, and Samuel Beckett, among others. Notice anything about that list, gender-wise? Ironically, the school was established in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I. Here’s a quiz: given what you’ve learned about Irish history through reading this blog, guess which faith-based group was excluded from applying? If you answered “Protestants,” you probably shouldn’t try to get in, either.


Two hundred years later, the doors opened for Catholics, with one catch: they weren’t eligible for scholarships. This was rather like offering blind people free passes to silent movies, but it was a small step in the right direction. And women were admitted starting in 1904. The Catholics opened their own university in 1854, University College Dublin, and to this day, according to Mike, each faith tends to favor its own campus. I need only mention one of their graduates: James Joyce.

That’s the playwright Oliver Goldsmith behind our group, studying for tomorrow’s exam.

By the way, during the Easter Rising, when the rebels were dashing back and forth between the GPO, City Hall, and the Four Courts, Protestant TCD students leaned out of dorm windows with their hunting rifles and took potshots at them.

We then went into the Library to see the Book of Kells. Even if you’re not a total book nerd like me, it’s a beautiful thing to see. Some of the “initial” letters look like elaborate, and decidedly old-school, graffiti. Upstairs (on the “first floor” as one calls it, confusingly, here) in the Long Room was a wonderful display of ancient books, and one comic book, relating to Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf–2014 is its millennium anniversary. Ask your student why he’s such an important figure in Irish history–on tomorrow’s exam, Mike is very likely to.


Also displayed is the iconic “Brian Boru harp,” which appears on many things Irish including coins, stamps, tattoos, and, most notably all things Guinness. In fact, however, this harp dates to the 1500’s, whereas Brian Boru died in the Battle of Clontarf–by legend, after the battle, while praying in his tent.


After leaving Trinity College, several students followed me over to the awe-inspiring National Museum of Ireland, where many of the artifacts we’ve been talking about–tangible “time capsules” from ancient history–are beautifully displayed. If you’re ever here, be sure to visit. We also saw a special exhibit about (yup) the Battle of Clontarf.

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This ends the blog for Landmark’s 2014 “Irish Experience” trip. Thanks for reading, and feel free to follow some of our group as they ramble through the United Kingdom with Ned Olmsted and Lucy Stamp in the coming weeks, on a course excitingly titled Environmental Literature: Writing in the Wild.

Day sixteen: Kilmainham Gaol

Tuesday morning we jumped on another city bus and went through Dublin to Kilmainham Gaol. That last word starts looking like Gaelic after a few weeks over here, but its roots are British, like the gaol itself. An online dictionary offers the following definition, which I love:

    gaol: see jail, you tea-sodden football hooligan.

The jail was built in 1796, and housed men, women, and children in (insert various synonyms for “execrable” here) overcrowded, tiny cells. The bas-relief over the entryway clearly reflects the jailers’ attitude toward those inside.


Kilmainham is most famous for its role in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. Fourteen leaders of the movement were, following hasty “trials,” executed by firing squads behind its high walls over the course of several days.

One cross in the courtyard marks where the first thirteen men met their ends. Note the very tall wall, which the British hoped would hide what was going on inside from those outside. It didn’t.

Another cross, to the left of the wooden doors, marks the spot where James Connolly was executed. He was a Scotsman by birth, and a socialist who urged more radical approaches to gaining Irish independence than those being pursued by groups such as the Irish Volunteers; he was basically the Commander in Chief of the Irish forces in the Rising. Connolly had been mortally wounded in the fighting, so after holding him at Dublin City Hall, the British brought him to Kilmainham in an ambulance, carried him into the yard, tied him to a chair, and shot him.

The general Irish population, whose feelings about the Rising had hitherto been mixed, at best, were appalled at this vicious British response, and became increasingly sympathetic to nationalist groups that favored tactics of violent resistance. This popular support was a key factor in the success of the ensuing War of Independence (1919-1921).

On the way to the jail, JB and Mark embodied the spirit of brotherhood and cooperation, in a more modern fashion.


Tomorrow will be our final field trip, to see The Book of Kells at Trinity College Dublin. The final exam will be served up on Friday, and on Saturday most of our group will head back to the States–though three intrepid travelers will head off to Scotland for another Study Abroad program. You can follow their blog here:

Day fifteen: Dublin ramble

We crossed Ireland from west to east yesterday, a trip of a little over two hours. It used to take at least three hours, meandering through little villages on narrow roads, but the wonders of modern highway design have made it a lot quicker–albeit much blander.

This morning we took the local bus into town from Dublin City University, where we’re staying– about a 15-minute ride. We hopped out right in front of the General Post Office (GPO), which was the principal battleground in the Easter Rising of 1916, when members of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizens’ Army took and held it (and the City Hall, shown below) until the British got their Artillery in place, and a gunboat up the River Liffey, and shelled them into submission. If you’ve seen Michael Collins, starring Liam Neeson, you may recognize this as the setting of the opening scene.


There used to be a statue of Admiral Nelson, the British naval hero, atop a towering granite pillar, right in front of it, but some Irishmen lads, resenting this thumb in the eye, managed to blow it sky-high on March 8, 1966. It was eventually replaced by this abstract, much-more-towering sculpture, which is called “The Spire.” It’s “a spire,” get it? No? Say it faster, while thinking hopeful thoughts.


The River Liffey transects the city. “Dublin” means “black pool,” which refers to the boggy marsh next to which Vikings established it in 841. Every major city in Ireland, except for Galway, has Viking origins. “Location, location, location” to them translated as “on an estuary,” and they found several of them along the coast of Ireland.


We wandered trough Temple Bar, which is where a lot of the night life here happens. Mike knew exactly why I was taking this picture.


In a shaded, grassy spot next to Christchurch Cathedral, with a view of the Four Courts, Mike ran through about twelve centuries of Dublin’s history, from the Vikings to the Civil War (1922-23). Have I mentioned that the weather on this trip has been impeccable–or, at least, barely peccable?


A few blocks from there we went through St. Audoen’s Gate in the original city wall, dating to the 13th century.



Next up on the walking historical tour was Dublin Castle, which was the locus of British forces in Ireland, housing, among other things, all of the intelligence files related to insurgent activities.

In the background you can see the gate at The Castle. It’s topped by the figure of Justice, and the irony of the fact that she is facing toward the Castle courtyard, with her derriere turned to the Irish outside, has not been lost on the locals, who coined an apt couplet in her honor:

“The Statue of Justice, mark well her station:

Her face to the castle and her arse to the nation!”


Last stop, right next to the Castle, was Dublin City Hall, which is now primarily a tourist attraction. During the Easter Rising, the rebels (who were not soldiers by a long stretch) overcame the British forces here, but stopped short of attacking the adjacent Castle: They thought it would be too well-manned to yield, not realizing that only a handful of British troops were there–the majority were out at the Horse Races that day.

That’s Daniel O’Connell, “The Liberator,” looking Roman and waving to our charming group.


It’s a lovely building, and I take this picture of a stairwell every time I go there.


Then, without fail, I make my pilgrimage to the back side of St. Stephen’s Green.



Day eleven: Roscommon and Strokestown


Today we went about 90 minutes northwest to Roscommon Castle. It’s one of those places that by rights should be overrun by tourists, but sits humbly behind some houses, unmarked aside from a small sign that was grudgingly placed in the last several years. It was built in 1269 for the Chief Governor of Ireland under Henry III, partly as a thumb in the eye of Feilim O’Conor, the Irish King of Connaght, whom the English had just defeated. Possession of it went back-and-forth between the English and the Irish, until it was laid to ruin by the forces of O.C. (ask your student) in 1652. ImageIt’s a great place to climb around and take pictures, so we did a lot of both.







Three Amigos (JD, Kevin, Elliot):




Lyn and Caroline:


And Obligatory Group Shot v.4, this time with Mike and me:


Next up was Strokestown, where an 18th century estate has been restored to its original condition. The original owners were loath to have to see, much less interact with, the Irish peasants who served them, so they came up with some innovative design concepts. They built a dark, dank tunnel around the building’s perimeter, coming from the servant wing, and a gallery (long balcony) over one side of the kitchen. Rather than yell down to the sweating masses in the workspace below, they would drop them notes about menus for their multiple-course dinners–the lobster soup recipe looked quite nice. Meanwhile, the Irish locals were getting by on buttermilk and an average of fourteen pounds of potatoes per day. Per person. That’s not a typo.



Strokestown is also the site of the national Famine Museum, which presents a wealth of information about this disastrous era in Irish history. An Gorta Mor (the Great Hunger, commonly known as the Pototo Famine) started in 1845, peaked in 1847, and had lasting impacts on Ireland and the many countries its people emigrated to for survival. In the Famine years, some two million people, a quarter of the population, died or fled the country, and the exodus continued for decades.

The museum contains some profoundly moving documents from those years, including notes from starving tenants begging Major Dennis Mahon, the owner, for food, rent relief, or money for passage elsewhere. He obliged by sending over a thousand of them to Canada on “coffin ships,” on which a quarter of them died of disease or starvation, and evicting over 3000 of them from their tenancies (these documents, many signed with an “x,” are also on display), consigning them to workhouses or, for the even less fortunate, “skalbeens,” which were grass-covered holes in the ground. In 1847, Mahon was eventually assassinated under circumstances that are still unclear.

Strokestown also has a walled and gated four-acre “pleasure garden” that is still wonderfully tended. One hopes that the starving tenants outside the walls could catch a whiff of the roses now and then.


Final notes:

Here’s a shot of our excellent driver, Brendan, whose day job (though he’s working nights this week) is Sergeant in the Galway Garda (police; pronounced “garDEE”). I’m happy to report that he has, to-date, only met your children in his role pictured here.


On Wednesday we had a special guest come to class, fiddler/ storyteller/ actor/ comedian/ playwright/ Irish TV host/ world traveler Aindrias de Staic. I had met him when I was here six years ago, and he brings a strong dose of local flavor, in the form of fiddle tunes and stories (including his own struggles with, and creative channeling of, ADHD) into the classroom. It was clearly an occasion for O.G.S. v.5.






Day nine: Clonfert ad Clonmacnoise

Our trip today was to Clonfert and Clonmacnoise, which are about an hour to the east of Galway. Clonfert is the location of St. Brendan’s Cathedral, which he himself founded in 560 AD. The roofless part on the right is the footprint, at least, of the original church; the intact church was built a few centuries later.


The elaborate “West Doorway” was added in the late 12th century, and is hot stuff among Art History buffs. Ask your son or daughter why that is, exactly. For our purposes, it served as a great backdrop for Obligatory Group Photo v.3 (Heavy Metal version, thanks to Justin).


Just around the corner was another spiritual site of sorts: a “fairy tree,” which is a holdover from Celtic mythology around which some like to leave offerings of all kinds.


It can make for some interesting juxtapositions…

ImageWe then headed to a great carvery pub/restaurant for a group meal. Everyone ate very well; at least one student said it was the highlight of his trip so far (a hint: don’t tell Mike that). We finished with a round of “Happy Birthday to You” and a cake for Caroline–though Julia seemed more excited by the festivities.


Our last stop was at Clonmacnoise. This is the site of an ancient monastery at the juncture of the Shannon River, which runs north-to-south, and the Esker, a ridge of gravel (now overgrown, of course) deposited by the last retreating glacier when it melted. This runs roughly east-west across the middle of Ireland, and since it is fairly straight and elevated above the boggy muck below, it–in conjunction with the Shannon–provided a natural route for moving around the country.

Clonmacnoise is renowned for its collection of High Crosses, notably the Cross of the Scriptures (c. 900), carved from sandstone. The one you see below is a copy; the original is displayed in the visitor center (bottom photo).



And one last stop before getting on the bus. Across from the monastery, out in a field, are the remains of a 13th century Anglo-Norman strong castle. The intersection of the Shannon and the Esker made Clonmacnoise an ideal site for military as well as religious power (funny how that seems to play out throughout history). It was laid to ruin by Cromwell’s forces and left for posterity.


Day four: Inishmore

This morning we hopped on a bus and headed up the coast to the ferry for the largest of the Aran Islands, Inishmore (“inish” means “island,” “more” means “big). After a very smooth 45-minute ride (20-foot waves aren’t uncommon), we landed and bought lunch in Kilronin, Inishmore’s metropolis.  JD and Mark ate by the Celtic Cross (c.1985), harassed by a very demanding local.


Thus fortified, we headed off, first to “The Seven Churches,” although only two remain standing; the rest were tiny stone structures (rooms the size of a sheet of plywood) where the monks slept. They’re what’s left of a monastic colony constructed between the 8th and 15th centuries.



From there we hiked up to the most spectacular site on the island, Dun Aengus, a semicircular stone fort built, in successive expanding stages (four concentric walls), by the Celts, starting about 2500 years ago. It was probably oval or “D” shaped originally, but erosion of the cliff seems to have dumped the back of it into the ocean: archaeologists have found lots of loose stone in the waters at the base of the cliff.


What, exactly, there was to protect on Inishmore during the Iron Age is open to question. At that point the island was barren stone–its settlers, damned hardy people, eventually made fields by building walls, which run everywhere, and dragging seaweed up from the beaches to establish a growing medium.

On a previous trip, I asked one of the guards if anyone had fallen or been blown off the cliff in recent years, and she reassuringly replied, “None that we know of.” We counted carefully when we got back on the bus, and are fairly certain that we still have 16 students.


Our final stop was the Church of St. Benan, who was a contemporary of St. Patrick. At about 10′ x 6′, it’s believed to be the smallest church in the world. Nevertheless, it dwarfs the tiny stone huts and “beehive” structures in which the monks holed up in the face of the island’s extreme winds and rain.

By the time we hiked up to it, the sun had burst out fully, and it was an ideal spot for Obligatory Group Photo v.2 (minus Lina, whose knees were hurting her).





All in all, another spectacular day in Ireland. Tomorrow is another class day. Students are considering a range of weekend activities including swimming in Galway Bay (I was there yesterday, and it was bracing but lovely), a big hurling match involving the Galway team, and delving into the hopping local music scene. And, of course, sleeping and, presumably, some homework.



Day 2: A rath, the Burren, Doolin, and The Cliffs

This morning we hopped on a bus and headed south to The Burren, a prominent ridge of limestone and shale that runs diagonally, like a slash ( / ), northeast to southwest. It’s a barren and exposed place, subject to wind and rain, but we had perfectly (and atypically) clear skies. More typically, the weather is worse: one year, Mike was lecturing in a squall, and a blast of wind blew so much rain into his mouth that he choked. At that point, he let everyone get back on the bus.

On the way there, we stopped at a rath — an earthen “ring fort” — dating back some 5,000 years to the Neolithic Age. Since these features are considered to be somewhat mystical by the locals (homes to the faeries by lore), nobody messes with them, so they are surrounded by mature trees, something one doesn’t see a lot of on this island.


We then moved up onto The Burren itself, to see a Dolmen, which is Irish for “table stone,” for obvious reasons. These are Druid ritual sites, also called “passage tombs,” used for burial and/or sacrifice (animal and sometimes, yes, human), which mostly date from the Bronze Age–this one dates to the same general period as the ring fort.


Our classrooms on travel days are poorly furnished, but make up for that in other ways.


Then we headed down to Doolin (insert dumb “Doolin Banjo” joke here; I did…) for lunch at Gus O’Connor’s Pub, a wonderful, eclectic place that has, among other artifacts, a photo of a rooster drinking a pint of Guinness (the caption says it was his second) and an original, signed copy of Richard Nixon’s letter of resignation, addressed to Henry Kissinger.


I’ll bet you thought I was kidding.

Lastly, we headed to the Cliffs of Moher, which famously rise over 600 feet from the ocean. Students were thrilled to see them, and even more thrilled to hear that they would not be held responsible for remembering any facts or figures relating to them.ImageImage


First day of class

Today students started out in the classroom (laudably, everyone arrived on time) and then took an historical walking tour of Galway, led by Mike. The first site was the original University building, dating back to 1845 when the English established it as Queen’s College (Irish Catholics needed not apply).

ImageAnother roving lecture took place next to a rebuilt fragment of the original city wall, dating to the 1400’s. Ironically, and interestingly (ask your offspring to explain this) it’s now inside an underground shopping mall downtown.


Toward the end of the walk, after explaining the sad history of St. Nicholas’ church, the original Catholic church in the city (ask your son/daughter how Oliver Cromwell chose to use it), Mike explained how to throw a curve ball.


Well, not really. But I did capture version 1 of the obligatory group shot, and a lovely group it is.Image

We have arrived!

The simple purpose of this post is to reassure all parents that we landed safely, gathered our group, and got on our bus to Galway, all very efficiently. The only downside of that is that when we got to Corrib Village, our lodgings for the next two weeks, none of our rooms were ready, so we had a lot of time to have some breakfast (sorely needed), take a leisurely stroll around the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) campus to get the lay of the land, get cash from a convenient ATM machine, and then…

Sit around for a long time. All praise to Maria, the manager here, who expedited the process as quickly as she could, and to our group, who despite major jetlag and general discombobulation, all showed great patience and good humor throughout.

Now we are all, at last, situated, ready for showers and, hopefully, a reasonable nap. After that, we’ll head into Galway for a group meal (free for students) at a great pub called The Skeff. Then back here to rest up for class and another more thorough tour of Galway tomorrow.

Proof that we’re here–making note of the building where we’ll hold class:

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And here’s the right side of this view, wherein Joe and Elliot exhibit their relaxed attitudes toward international travel:

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Last but not least, Happy Father’s Day to all my fellow dads out there. Look for another post and more pics tomorrow.