Looking down from the airplane, Ireland appears as a patchwork of green surrounded by deep Atlantic blues. In the airport at Shannon, I got my first glimpse of the people with their spontaneous laughter, warm hospitality, and lyrical brogue. Traveling on an Eirann (Ireland in Gaelic) bus from the Shannon airport to Galway, I surveyed the Irish countryside with its rutted two lane roads, sprawling green pastures with scattered sheep and dappled skies. I arrived at the bus station at Galway’s town center, Eyre Square, in a little over an hour. Sharing a taxi with two students from the University of Arkansas, we drove past the Kennedy Memorial Park. It was a short ride to the apartment at the Gort na Coiribe. The apartments were twenty-minutes on foot from National University Ireland Galway (NUIG) and across the street from a shopping complex, Dunnes, which is open 24 hours a day. We were nestled close to the Corrib River, the shortest and one of the most powerful rivers in Ireland. It is only four miles long from lake to sea and originates at Lough (lake) Corrib. From the bridge above the Corrib, I watched swans splash and glide on its glassy surface.
Just around the corner from my apartment was Coirt na Corribe shop similar to a small 7-11. The young woman clerk was helpful and pleasant. She told me that laundry was 5 Euros per full load wash/dry, cinemas were 8 Euros, nightclubs were 10-15 Euros and a pint of Guinness was 4 Euros. A Euro was equivalent to about one dollar and 33 cents at that time. I witnessed Irish hospitality again on my first day in Ireland. Leaving NUIG, I walked for over an hour in a circle and ended up back at the University. Jet-lagged, exhausted and lost, I asked for directions and was offered a ride by a kind-hearted woman professor. After that experience, I wrote down the number for Big O taxis and bought a map of Galway, which I tacked to our living room wall!
I tasted my first Irish meal at Scotty’s Steakhouse in the adjacent apartment building. American tunes from the 50’s and 60’s were playing, the walls were covered with American logos like a license plate with Route 66 on it and a 50’s Happy Days juke box sat against the wall. I ordered vegetable soup, brown bread, a veggie burger and coffee. The soup and bread portions were so large that I took the burger back to my apartment. I found this same type of blended vegetable soup with corn at most of the restaurants I visited. I still miss the wonderful brown bread I ate in Ireland!
Most days on my way to NUIG, I walked past the remnants of the Terryland castle, a fortified house occupied by Cromwell’s military in the 17th century. The university opened its doors in 1849 to 68 students, now it sprawls across 260 acres and 11,000 students attend the University. It is a blend of old and new architecture. We met in a room at the Quadrangle for our induction. The Quadrangle is the original structure, a central grassy area surrounded by four two-story building with ivy growing up the sides. Fiona Dwyer, the summer school administrator greeted us, followed by an introduction to the teaching faculty: Moya Cannon, Michael Gorman, Donald (Skip) Hayes, Sandra Alcosser and Elaine, a student who tirelessly worked copying materials for our twice-daily classes. There were about 30 students in our group, 20 from SDSU and 10 from other places including a group from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. I have many fond memories of the camaraderie we all experienced in Galway!
The writing program was a rich blend of Irish literature. We studied Irish poets like Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh, W. B. Yeats and Michael Hartnett and many Irish writers including Derek Mahon, Desmond Hogan, Colum McCann, James Joyce, George Moore, Frank O’Connor and William Trevor. There were several writing workshops each week and one or two visits every class day by poets and writers from all over Ireland. Along with the incredible academic experience, there was also excursions and free time woven into the schedule that allowed the student to partake of the rich culture, tradition, geography, history, and people of west Ireland. Our University courses were offered Monday through Thursdays. They consisted of a late morning session at 10:30 AM, usually one or two hours and then a long lunch break followed by an afternoon workshop from 2:30 – 5:00 PM. Friday through Sunday was open for study, travel and a couple of weekends already planned with trips to the islands off the west coast. In July, there is a Film festival called the Film Fleadh and the last two weeks there is the Galway Arts Festival with art exhibitions, film, plays, dance performances, poetry readings and musical groups performing throughout the city.
The sun went down at 10:30 PM on my first night in Galway. I watched black and white magpies fly past clouds that reflected sunset’s colors from my third floor window with no screens. It did not get completely dark until 11:00 PM at night. The latitude is equivalent to the southern part of Canada making it the land of very long summer days!
Our first visiting professor was Hubert McDermott from NUIG, who lectured on James Joyce’s “The Dead.” He told us it had its roots in Galway. Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s wife, grew up in Galway and knew a man named Michael Bodkin in her youth, who died tragically young. McDermott said Joyce’s short story “The Dead” was an exorcism of the ghost of Michael Bodkin. Nora Barnacle’s childhood house is now the Norma Barnacle Museum and is open for visitors. I walked past Rahoon Cemetery and the tomb of Michael Bodkin a few days later. McDermott said Joyce’s short story represented “a personal event turned into art.”
At our first workshop, we met our classmates and were divided into two groups, poetry and fiction. Sandra Alcosser and Moya Cannon led the poetry workshop and Michael Gorman and Donald Hays led the fiction workshop. At the poetry workshop, Sandra Alcosser introduced us to our poetic lineage saying, “Poetry is a 4,000 year old conversation.” Irish poet, Moya Cannon, spoke about focus telling us that “turning your attention outside, tells so much about the inside – stitching them together.”
After class, I walked down Shop Street and the Quays (pronounced like keys) to the Spanish Arch, a surviving stone wall from Galway’s medieval days as a walled settlement and shopped for a few provisions like an electric water kettle, a small fan, a coffee press, a couch throw, bottled water and food. Finding health food was difficult, although a place called Evergreen carried a limited amount of health food, and more importantly, they had dark chocolate, which is very hard to find in Galway. I eventually gave up on non-dairy creamer and soy burgers.
I did find some vegetarian food at the Tesco and Dunnes stores. On my first grocery trip, I bought: Irish muesli, Heath & Heather raspberry tea, brown bread, Bewleys coffee, veggie burgers, salmon in a can, organic bananas, light mayo, loose apples, peanut butter, oatmeal, tossed salad, Cadbury cookies and Rice Dream rice milk, as well as a pair of sunglasses for 6 Euro and an umbrella for 5 Euros. I squeezed everything into spaces in the refrigerator left around dozens of Rolling Rock beer bottles.
I shared my apartment building with two young men. Eric from San Diego was 21 years old and Gregg from Fayetteville, Arkansas was 19 years old. The drinking age in Ireland is eighteen. The phrase for having a good time is referred to as “the craic.” The best place to see the Irish enjoying “the craic” is tipping a pint of Guinness in their famous pubs. There was plenty of craic in our building too! The following week, I realized I still needed washcloths, paper towels, dish soap, toilet paper, a notebook and margarine. In Galway, one pays 15 cents for plastic bags in stores, brings their own, or purchases a cloth grocery bag, tipping is optional, McDonalds was the only familiar American restaurant or store I recognized, and shopping carts are called trolleys. A few quick translations I learned were: Hibernia is another name for Ireland, laced means drunk, blather is nonsensical talk, hurling is an Irish field sport with a stick, petrol is gas, tellie is TV, crisps are chips, chips are French fries, parcels are mail packages, lass cloth is a dish towel, to let means to rent and a tundish is a funnel.
The weekly visits from Irish authors enriched our experience. During the first week, Professor Pilkington from the drama & theatre department at NUIG guided us through the birth of the Irish theatre, its history and an old tradition called Mumming. In the springtime, men dressed in straw with cone shaped hats and unrecognized would go door to door performing plays for food and drink. They were called Mummers. It was a way for them to meet the young women in rural areas and culminated in a Mummers Ball. Professor Séan Ryder gave us a comprehensive lesson on 19th and early 20th century Irish literature with a discussion on Swift, Moore, Yeats, Edgeworth, and Joyce. Louis de Paor, poet and professor of Irish studies at NUIG, read from his book, Clapping in the Cemetery. He writes in Gaelic and performs his poetry in clubs accompanied by the didgeridoo, an Australian instrument and the Bodhran, a goatskin Irish drum. Rita Ann Higgins writes about travelers, a name for gypsies, and young Irish men who race cars at high speeds called boy racers. Kerry Hardie read a poem about a “rag tree,” a white thorn tree tied with rags used as a cursing or wishing tree.
The July climate in Galway might be best described by adding the prefix “sudden,” as in sudden rain or sudden sun and sometimes sudden heat. The weekend started with sudden rain, real rain not Southern California drizzle. One must head out daily prepared with an umbrella, rubber shoes and rain jacket because of the sudden climate. Wool shops sell wax hats, a cotton hat sprayed with liquid wax. They repel water and can be worn in the rain.
My first week, I began acclimating to new things like the term half five which meant five thirty. It would be another week before I would look in the correct direction when crossing the street. They drive on the left side of the road and the driver sits on the right side of the car. Cars whip by at great speeds. I learned pedestrian strategies for circumnavigating roundabouts and crossing streets by watching the locals. I never did resolve the mystery about flies as big as bumble bees. I did battle to get one out of my room since there are no screens and later dealt with a bumble bee. Fortunately, the flies and bumble bees were scarce! I went to see the paintings of a local artist named Barrie Cook at the Galway museum. His mural painting mingled the colors of the pastures and seas and filled an entire wall. Also on display were medieval emblems and stones circa 16th century including the bottom half of a statue believed to be of Francis of Assisi because of the stigmata on the feet. There was a food and craft fair at St. Nicholas’s Church every Sunday featuring local produce, crafts and a variety of other goods.
It was pouring rain on Monday of our first week. I decided to dress in full rain gear including wax hat and go to NUIG for breakfast before class. I bought a hot meal of scrambled eggs, toast and potatoes then ordered a soy latte at Java City (a coffee bar inside the cafeteria). I ate facing the window and noticed a jet-black bird with a flaming orange beak outside. It seemed perfect fodder for a Haiku. I scribbled a three line poem on a napkin.
In class, author Dermot Healy talked about his experience writing plays, films, novels and poetry and read from his book, The Bend for Home. Gerard Donovan was born in Galway and received his writing degree from the University of Arkansas. He read from his novel Julius Winsome about a man living in the woods who after finding his dog shot, decides to hunt the hunters. Author Kevin Whelan talked about the process of writing and how he writes 1000 – 4000 words a day and completed a novel in six weeks then read from his award winning book, Who Is Izzy Baia. Professor Tom Kilroy writes altered versions of stories or plays, weaving old stories into new contexts like his rewriting of Pirandello’s “Henry IV.” He told us the directors of the Abbey Theatre did not want literary theatre but rather wanted to bring great stories from folk tradition into Irish theatre. Poet Paula Meehan wove a passage from an old Irish poem titled Kilcash translated by Thomas Kinsella, “What shall we do for timber / The last of the woods is down,” for her poem titled “What Shall We Do for Timber When the Woods are Gone?” She said, “Poetry is like going to the well.” Her partner, Theo Dorgan, wrote an elegy titled “Michael, Michael” for Michael Hartnett, one of Ireland’s most beloved contemporary poets, who wrote this line in a poem, “Poetry is a rebel act.”
After class on Thursday, I joined a classmate from the University of Arkansas for dinner at Maxwell McNamara’s downtown. I drank a Guinness in San Diego before leaving so that I could compare it with the Guinness in Ireland. That night I ordered a Guinness drawn from an Irish keg. The Irish Guinness was far superior to the one I sampled in San Diego. Later, a group of us attended a film from the Film Fleah (film festival) titled “Molly’s Way.” The two film writers from the Academy of Film in Berlin and the main actress fielded questions from the audience after the film
We spent three days on the island of Inishbofin, which means “island of the white cow” after an old myth. We stayed in the Murray’s Doonmore Hotel, which served two delicious home cooked meals a day, at breakfast and dinner. On Saturday night, author Mike McCormack read from his book Notes From A Coma and some of the students shared their work in an open reading. Later, I discovered Bulmers hard cider in their quaint pub. We walked through bog lands, meadows with grazing cows and up hills to cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. On promontory of the island that juts out to sea stood the ruins of pirate Don Bosco’s castle, later turned into Cromwell’s barracks. The remains of St. Coleman’s abbey sit along the harbor. There were caves tucked back in the hills where centuries past Catholic clergy sought sanctuary from capture and deportation to the West Indies. While high up on the cliffs, I noticed that students from Arkansas and the Midwest stared at the ocean while the students from the coasts stared at the cows. I actually witnessed white cows on the island!
Tuesday we returned to classes. Novelist Ciaran Foley discussed and read from his novel composed of interlinked stories. Hugo Hamilton described how he began to write from his need for belongingness and how he felt he did not belong to the Irish, English or German completely. His mother was German but because his father was Irish, they were only allowed to speak Irish at home. The kids he grew up with spoke English. Hamilton’s book, The Speckled People, is about living this kind of hyphenated existence. He said, “each of us have stories within us,” that we think no one would be interested in. He described taking a leap of faith to write his stories and in doing so discovered they were interesting to other people.
Thursday we took a bus up the west coast to a fishing village in Connemara. Roundstone is located at the foot of the Twelve Pins Mountains, bumped up against the sea. There were dozens of Hookers docked at the harbor. A Hooker is a traditional Irish sailing boat between 28 – 44 foot long with a distinctive sail formation designed for the rough winds and shallow seas found on the west coast. They are usually painted black and have reddish brown sails. Yearly, there is the Cruinniú na mBád (gathering of the boats) festival where the Hookers race from Connemara to Kinvara. We attended a reading in the English garden of Tim Robinson, who wrote The Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage and other books about the Aran Islands, which are sprinkled along the Galway Bay off the west coast of Ireland. He described the shoreline of the island of Inislaken (flagstone land) in a passage from his book: “the shoreline is a necklace of incidentals.” Eamon Grennan was born in Ireland and lives part of the year on the west coast of Ireland. He taught at Vassar and has written many books of poetry. He read to us from his book Still Life with Waterfalls. It was incredibly inspiring to hear such beautifully crafted language. He explained how one must write constantly and that eventually something beautiful may emerge. He quoted Beckett’s lines, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better,” and, “Go on failing. Go on. Only next time, try to fail better.” Grennan said, “The good stuff happens by accident, in art and life.” We took a bus to Dog’s Bay beach from Roundstone. It is pristine beach covered in white sand composed entirely of shells and surrounded by the clearest Atlantic water.
I had acquired an impressive pile of books from Eason’s bookshop, located in the building that was once the Lynch castle, and Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop. I had hoped to travel to Dublin my last weekend in Ireland, but must confess, I opted to stay in Galway, partly to read more about Yeats and Hartnett, but mostly because I was already very familiar with large cities and was becoming very attached to Galway! I spent a marvelous time listening to traditional Irish music at the Crane Bar, eating large portions of potatoes at the Café de Journal, tipping a few pints of Guinness at the Roisin Dahr and enjoying different performances along Shop Street and the Quays for the Arts Festival. On Sunday, I attended mass at the Galway Cathedral. It is a Catholic Cathedral that was dedicated to Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St. Nicholas by Cardinal Richard Cushing in 1965. It stands on the site of the old city jail and is one of the largest and most impressive buildings in Galway.I explored as much of Galway as I could during my last weekend in Ireland.
In perfect synchronicity, our last week started with a trip to Coole Park, home of Lady Gregory and Yeats’s tower, Thoor Ballylee. We watched very informative audio/visual presentations at both places on the lives of Lady Gregory and W. B. Yeats. Coole Park is a nature preserve with many varieties of trees and wild life including a few deer roaming freely on the lawns. The copper birch tree where Yeats and other writers carved their initials stands prominently with a protective fence around it. The lake where Yeats sat and conceived his poem “The Wild Swans at Coole Park” fills in the winter but was a bed of grass on our visit. At Thoor Ballylee we walked up three flights of winding stairs in the Yeats tower and looked through opening designed as mountings for guns.
We attended Alfred Jarry’s play “King Ubu”, rewritten by Vincent Woods at the Town Hall Theatre our last Monday evening. On Tuesday evening, Michael Gorman, poet, professor at NUIG and one of our teachers, did a poetry reading at the Ruby Room in the King’s Head restaurant along with an Aran singer named Lasairfhí ona Ní Chonaola. His poems contained humor and included sections on family, growing up in Sligo and friendship. In fiction workshops Michael would say, “Yes, but does it break your heart?” when reviewing our short stories. That night, my roommates and I hosted a party in our living room area complete with pizza, beer, chocolate cake and a Salsa dance lesson that I taught. I taught social dance for years and wanted to contribute a small token of appreciation to all the wonderful people in our group!
Many of the visiting writers and the faculty at NUIG spoke of one writer, John McGahern, who passed away in 2005. Wednesday of our last week, we watched a documentary film in which he described his life. His book Memoir is a remarkable portrayal of his life and work.
A couple of days before leaving Galway, we traveled to the least inhabited of the Aran islands, Inis Meáin. One can still find a few thatched roof houses, stone walls surround grassy areas and vegetable gardens, there were plenty of sheep roaming free and walking paths. We visited the house frequented by playwright, John Millington Synge, who wrote “The Playboy of the Western World,” and whose work contributed to the Irish Renaissance and the Abbey Theatre. The island was unique in its limestone formations that looked like cement-paved driveways. Inis Meáin is known for its fine handcrafted knitted fabrics. Women have knitted fishermen’s garments on the island for centuries. The knits are made of alpaca, linen and yarns. We visited the Inis Meain Knitting Company, which employs skillful local knitters. I bought a soft scarf and an exquisite sweater with woven strands of pink and peach in a textured fabric.
The Claddagh is a fishing community in Galway that never completely recovered from a fierce storm. A legend arose from this area about a ring with two hands holding a heart with a crown resting on top of it. It was used in wedding ceremonies centuries ago in the Claddagh. Its motif was, “Let love and friendship reign.” The most common legend about its origin is that its creator was a member the Joyce tribe, one of the thirteen tribes of Galway. Queen Victoria wore it and a Claddagh ring was given to President Kennedy on his visit to Galway in June 1963. It can be found in all jewelry stores in Galway. I must confess I bought three. A married person wears the ring with the heart pointing toward the heart, away from the fingernails. If a person is unattached they wear the heart facing the fingernails. The words, “let love and friendship reign,” resonate in me when I think about Galway and remember the people and places. It is indeed a place where love and friendship reign!
International Writers Summer Program
National University of Ireland, Galway
June 29 – July 29, 2006
By Pattie M. Wells