Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Mayo Mud, Blood and Football

I hale from northern Minnesota, where it is currently thirty below zero Fahrenheit.  I enjoy skiing, adore cross-country ice skating and will snowmobile until my thumb throbs from holding down the accelerator.  I’ve gone ice fishing at midnight on the middle of a glassy lake, been pulled for miles on my sled behind a four-wheeler and golfed through numerous blizzards (thanks dad).  But I have to admit that I have never shivered so consistently in all my life as the past two days in County Mayo, Ireland.  Even now, as I write in front of a roaring peat fire, I feel tense muscles readying for another assault.

What do people do in Ireland for fun during one of the coldest days of the spring?  How about a five mile run through raging rivers, waist deep mud and soapy water?  Sound crazy?  That’s exactly what these past two days have been: crazy, dirty, Irish fun.

Darcee Roeschlein, whose blog can be found at http://finaldestinationireland.blogspot.ie/ , signed herself and ten other students up for the Mayo Mud Run before my bags were packed to leave Minnesota.  All spring I’ve listened to them talk about the run, what they’re going to wear and where they can buy shoes that will probably never see the light of day again.  Ready to watch (yes, watch) my friends embark on this fully Irish experience, I volunteered to play the part of their photographer.  At ten thirty Saturday morning, we filled Pat’s bus and set out for Moygownagh.  We rode for several hours up the western coastline of County Mayo, vibrant blue sky loosing beams of glistening sunlight over the Atlantic.  We followed narrow roads through moss draped forests, sheep flecked hills and rugged, weather beaten mountains before arriving at the little town of Moygownagh.  To my surprise, almost two-hundred competitors were already milling about the starting line, registering for the race and sharing laughs.  While my group found their numbers, I talked with the directors and volunteers.  They were spectacularly friendly and helpful, showing me the best place to photograph the start of the race and encouraging me to point out the Americans when they came in.  While waiting for the race, I found a few of the more…colorful characters.

At one o’clock, the music stopped and the race began.  A tasseled line bearing Mayo’s red and green was lifted and two-hundred runners sprinted toward the road, rounding the corner of the street and heading for the forests of County Mayo.  I can’t say that I was entirely sorry for not entering the race as I wrapped my scarf tightly around my neck and began my wait.  I spent the next forty-three minutes talking with Pat, our bus driver, and staying warm near the kitchens, listening to the stories from previous years.  When I heard the first runner returning, I hurried to the finish line.  The tall, muscular Irishman was soaked to the bone and splattered with mud, his bleeding knees and ripped shoes writing volumes on the nature of an Irish mud race.  The next three men to finish were in no better shape, although since they were the first to return, they did get to soak in the massive, black tub filled with freshly heated water.

The racers began to trickle in.  I waited, camera in hand, scanning each of the returning faces in search of my classmates.  The announcer asked me as each new racer finished if he or she was an American, and I continued to shake my head, wondering after twenty minutes passed if they were alright.  A volunteer laughed when I asked him if it was usual for the race to take longer than an hour, answering, “I’ll bet they’ve never seen anything like this in the States!”

Half an hour later the wind picked up, the sky darkened and many of the onlookers abandoned their positions for the warmth of the building.  The announcer asked one of the helpers to bring me a cup of tea, which I stuffed inside my jacket and held there until my shivering began to slosh the liquid over the cup’s edge.  I felt worse and worse for the soggy racers as they returned, only to be blasted by cold water from the power sprayers before they were allowed to jog inside for their soup and tea.  At an hour and eleven into the race, the first student sprinted across the finish line, his face smeared with mud and his red cap askew.  When I asked him how the race was, it took a couple of tries before I could make out his answer through the chattering teeth.

Nearly an hour later, the last American jogged over the finish line.  By that time I had abandoned all hope of keeping the video camera still, deciding that they would probably understand the shivering.  Despite the cold, after the racers had a hot meal and a change of clothes, energy began to pour back into the group.  From what I was told, the Mayo mud run was fantastic—full of wild obstacles and, of course, lakes of good, old fashioned, Irish mud.  Every face, weary or not, bore a massive smile and well deserved pride.  As for me, I came to two conclusions. The first was that Darcee had a wonderful idea and that students should partake in the Mayo Mud Run every year.  The second was that I had never been so cold in all my life.

Silly of me to think so, really, now that I know what the next day would hold.

I had never heard of Gaelic football before coming to Ireland.  Is it soccer?  Is it like American football?  So my curiosity supplied a good deal of my excitement when I learned that Owen, our coach driver, had managed to find twenty-four tickets for the Mayo versus Donegal game in Castlebar.  The morning after the mud run, I hopped out of bed, grabbed a shower and was on the bus at 8:15 with a smile on my face.  Of the twenty-one students, eleven slept very soundly during the drive there and while my muscles still hurt from shivering, I really had nothing to complain about in comparison with the brave mud runners.  I had, however, learned my lesson.  I wore several layers and packed a blanket for the stadium.

As it turned out, we ended up seeing two games. The first was a hurling match; yet another game I had never heard of.  It is something like a cross between soccer and cricket.  All I could think of through most it was how much it would hurt to be hit with one of the bats the players dauntlessly wielded, the wood cracking whenever it came in contact with the ball…or another player.  The match lasted for two hours, the first half of which we were the only people in the stadium.  For a while, I thought that perhaps the weather had chased off the rest of Mayo’s fans.  I had, once again, underestimated the Irish chill.  Wind whipped down the field, bearing tiny flakes of snow and whirling shreds of plastic.  While we were mostly protected from the gusts, the temperature continued to drop throughout the game and by the end of the two hour hurling match, I was hunkered beneath my thin blanket, shivering twice as badly as the day before and staring in a kind of frozen wonder as the three thousand stadium seats were packed full of cheering, Mayo, Gaelic football fans.  The game was just beginning.

Despite my icy eyeballs and beet red nose, I instantly was absorbed by this rough, fast paced game.  The players wore rugby style jerseys, no padding or helmets, and played with what looked like a soccer ball.  They ran the length of the massive field as easily as I would jog down a city block, cutting around one another and speeding toward the goals in packs of colorful, darting warriors.  Gaelic football is more active than American football, more physical than soccer and tempers run just as high as in a Minnesota hockey game.  There is never a dull moment…especially not if you give in to your bursting bladder partway through the first half and have to crawl over the rows of enthusiastic, Irish football fans in search of a bathroom.  When I made it back to my seat, I found that my blanket was ice cold and it was with a heavy heart that I once again slid into the frozen chair and began to shiver.

In the end, frozen or not, the game was fantastic.  Mayo beat Donegal by a goal and the red and green colors were blazing through the screaming fans by the end of the second half.  I got to meet and have a picture with Ireland’s Prime Minister (although my leg muscles cramped during the shot and I’m afraid to find out if I fell down before or after the picture was taken) and even though my teeth chattered for the duration of our supper, I’m thrilled to have had the experience.

But man oh man, does this peat fire ever feel good.


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Slieve League

The Cliffs of Moher are one of the most photographed places in Ireland, their sheer drop into the Atlantic attracting thousands of tourists from around the world.  But, as our bus driver so subtly announced, County Clare’s Cliff of Moher are a cute stepping stone to the less known Slieve League Cliffs of County Donegal.  Rising nearly twice as high as the Cliffs of Moher, these majestic giants stoically embrace humanity’s awe without the hustle of tourism that inevitably congests County Clare.

Of course, as with most things, to avoid the crowded streets and clogged pathways, one must go where it takes an effort to reach.  County Donegal is a beautiful area, with rolling pastures and abrupt ridges that protrude unexpectedly from the traditional Irish landscape.  Our coach driver, Owen, took a recently updated road along the coastline, winding along the rough contours of the Atlantic.  While narrow, the road was in good condition—the same cannot be said for its predecessor, which would abruptly vanish over the ridge’s side at random intervals during our drive.  I should have guessed that things were soon to change when Owen pulled over and declared that we would be switching busses.  Our second coach was considerably smaller.  When asked why, our new driver, Barry, chuckled and mentioned that the first one would not be able to turn around at the top.  It was not long before I realized that this was not entirely true.  Yes, the first coach would not have been able to turn around.  It also would have been hanging over the edge of either side of the road on the way up.  Which, by the way, supports traffic from both directions.  With sudden switchbacks and abrupt corners, the narrowing roadway had many of the students on the edge of their seats.  Barry had mentioned that the people on the left side of the bus should probably not be the faint of heart…how could I resist?  Front and left, I clung to my seat with white knuckled fists as the ground was suddenly swallowed beneath the edge of my window.  Three hundred feet straight down, the Atlantic surf foamed against the edge of Slieve League’s cliffs.

By the time we reached the car park, I was more than ready to have my feet on solid ground.  A mixture of wonder and terror swirled into my gut as I stepped free of the coach (no, it had nothing to do with the windy road we had just climbed).  The power of Slieve League is beyond words.  Pale cliffs spread against the brilliant blue of the Atlantic, sunlight pouring over the rocky landscape.  We had one of those random, unlikely days in Ireland where the sun exists in more than theory and the view was spectacular.  From the car park (or parking lot, depending on where you are from) a muddy pathway of carved, stone stairs crawls up the steep hillside, winding up and up and up to one of the highest points along the cliffs.  The ground surrounding the pathway is blanketed in short, cedar-like plants bearing what resembles blue juniper berries, these spiky plants growing from a solid mat of sphagnum moss.  Should you decide, like me, to venture free of the pathway, know that this carpet of vegetation can conceal unlikely surprises.  I was lucky enough to be watching my feet when I discovered that one step more and there would be nothing but empty air beneath them.  Hidden in the center of the hillside, a gaping crevice plunges into the earth, granite and quartz rock peeling back to reveal the bones of Slieve League.  Upon climbing down into this unlikely chasm, I found handfuls of quartz crystals and a heart-full of wonder.  Sunlight seared through the surface and settled on the dew encrusted stones, endowing this hidden world with golden light.  Thin rivulets of water trickled through the mosses, adding to the deep aroma of earth and water and I filled my lungs with the impossible beauty of this secret place.

Eventually I made my way farther up the hillside, where I once again lost my breath to awe.  On a clear day, you can see seven surrounding counties from the top of Slieve League.  Normally cloaked by the rolling countryside, I was surprised to see sunlight glistening from pockets of lakes, their bodies tucked into the swells of moss and stone.  Ocean winds blasted over the cliffs, whipping down the backside of Slieve League and tossing the grasses far below.  I turned in a slow circle.  There was nowhere I could look without being moved by a building sense of wonder.  If you are ever in Ireland, go to Slieve League.  Spend the day in Donegal.  Have fish and chips in Killybegs, where the incoming fishing vessels carry that day’s lunch.  Wander the hidden pathways and wonder at the power of the Atlantic.  And when you climb along the cliffs, take the time to lose the time.  It was my idea that I would find out who I am during my travels through Ireland.  At Slieve League, you don’t find out who you are.  You find who you were meant to be.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Of Peat and Plastic

It’s spring break here in Ireland and students have ventured off to explore Europe, leaving myself and two other students to watch over the Louisburgh cottages for a week.  Having my own place has been wonderfully relaxing and peaceful, although I will admit that I am looking forward to the girls getting back.  I’ve enjoyed my time sitting in front of the peat fire, crocheting and sipping massive cups of coffee while watching movies and listening to annoying music that I make an attempt not to frustrate my dear cottage-mates with.  All in all, it has been a peaceful break.

            Of course, with St. Patrick’s Day quickly approaching, Ireland is beginning to pick up the spring time pace.  Lambs need moved to greener fields, peat is being harvested and the pubs are preparing for the wave of tourists that make it a point to see Ireland during the most famous of Irish holidays.  So while the cottage is getting a little lonely, I know that I need to enjoy my peace and quiet while I can—it’s about to disappear.
I woke up yesterday morning to find this little guy sulking in my kitchen window…I know that I am deprived of company when I start saying good morning to visiting arachnids.  Figuring that he would take care of any insect visitors, I left him to his web building.  Since he was gone this morning, I can only wonder what part of my house he is making a new home in.  Perhaps I should have evicted him when I had the chance.
            Spiders aside, there have been quite a few things I have learned about life in general over this break.  The first is that no matter what anyone tells you, corned beef is not an Irish tradition.  We visited several butchers over the past week and have been offered everything from strange, ham-bacon substances to straight cabbage and salt until finally a man said, “we don’t have corned beef.  That’s an American tradition and you aren’t going to find it anywhere in Ireland.”  End of story, I guess.  Maybe I’ll have to try to find a new St. Patty’s day tradition.  Or, better yet, I’ll sample the bacon-ham and look forward to an American Irish feast for next year. 
The second thing that I have learned (or rather, perfected) is the art of building a peat fire.  It’s really not as easy as it sounds.  First, you lay down a good bed of coals, arranging a few pieces of a fire starter through the cracks.  Then I used three small pieces of wood kindling, placing them strategically over the starters so that they will catch, but won’t block all of the flame or air.  Then comes the turf.  Since this is several centuries worth of Irish mud that has been cut and dried under an Irish sun (yes, there is such a thing), burning it takes a good deal care and more than a great deal of planning.  I try to make either a Lincoln log style fort or the more customary tent out of the longer strips.  Then I put a compact peat piece somewhere near the middle where it will catch most of the fire starter’s flame.  You know you’ve done well if you can drop a match through a pre-arranged crack and sit back while the fire starts up.  Last night I had a particularly beautiful fire going.
Which brings me to my third life lesson.  I was crocheting in front of this wonderful fire, sipping pint of Guinness and watching Mel Gibson learn what women want when I noticed that the plastic bag my yarn came in was adding to the clutter around my feet.  Thinking this a simple problem, I kicked the bag into the fire.  Of the funniest sounds in the world, I think that the whomp a bag makes when it goes up your chimney has to be one of the greatest.  Well, the bag stuck in the flue.  My cottage was quickly rolling with smoke and after a few minutes of staring at this disaster in a kind of baffled disbelief, I ran to the windows, threw them open and began to tear apart my fire.  In case you’ve never been to Ireland, peat smoke smells remarkably like burning hair or horse hooves.  It’s not exactly pleasant.  The coals, which are usually a blessing, now were adding to chaos…they don’t go out easily and even after I had removed my smoking peat, the fire still was rolling.  It took a good half an hour before the thing was reduced to a mess of glowing embers and ash, during which time I had made and disregarded several plans on how to fix this ridiculous situation.  I attempted to push a stick up the chimney, but because of the angle, nothing would go far enough in.  I tried vacuuming the flue, but this only resulted in a pile of soot falling onto the embers and creating yet another wave of foul smelling smoke.  I opened a vent and tried vacuuming that, but all I achieved was a face full of soot and the realization that the vent doesn’t connect with the chimney.  I looked outside, but in the dark and the rain I quickly decided that climbing onto the roof was a horrible idea.
I know when I’m licked.  I went to bed last night covered in soot, reeking of smoke and freezing while I waited for the gas heat to warm up my cottage.  This morning I had to swallow my pride and ask for help…one of the wonderful cottage managers came over with a long, pliable piece of plastic and managed to pull the bag down.  So I am pleased to say that I am writing this in front of a peat fire, sipping my coffee and chuckling over how quickly one little whomp can flush a perfectly peaceful evening down the toilet.  I think that I’ll spend the rest of my day making some challah bread (which I will raise in front of the fire) later and maybe finish learning about Mel and what women want.  For right now, I’m perfectly happy listening to the birds sing, the fire crackle and the wind whistle.  There’s no place like Ireland in the springtime.


Monday, March 4, 2013


I always have had difficulty remembering historical dates (and a few present ones, although that is a story for another day).  They either blur together or present themselves only long enough to finish a final exam.  I was never overly concerned by this fact.  So long as I remember the important centuries and a handful of world changing years, I am under the impression that I will not be any worse for my lack in memorization.  After all, its knowing what happened that counts.

But there are a handful of dates that I simply never will forget.  One is September 11th, 2001.  Another is January 30th, 1972.  Granted, when I read about Bloody Sunday in my high school textbook, it had only been another date to me.  I had scanned the page, taken the test and moved on with my life.  This fact only made standing in Derry all the more moving, the more chilling and, frankly, filled me with all the more shame.  Bloody Sunday should never be forgotten or ignored.  And, should you find yourself in Derry, it is something that never will be.

January 30th, 1972 would have dawned not much differently than the day that our college group took the walking tour of Derry.  Overcast skies breathed icy wind down our backs, twenty-one students huddled together as a violent scene was painted before our eyes.  Forty-one years ago, in a peaceful attempt to bring equality to Protestants and Catholics in Derry, Ivan Cooper led an unarmed march for the Civil Rights Association down the streets of Derry.  Men, women and children cheered for peace and justice as they walked.  Engines hummed, gravel crunched and the wind sighed through the protesters’ hair just as it now twisted through mine.  The British army, brought in to maintain order during a troubled time, watched from the safety of their stone walls, rifles lying heavily in their gloved hands.  The march was going peacefully, as Ivan Cooper had intended.  As nearly everyone in that march had expected.

When the first shot rang across the streets, were the people confused?  Afraid?  Did they understand what was happening?  Or did the realization not sink in until they saw the man sprawled in their midst, bleeding from a wound he had not foreseen and screaming from a fear that he had never known?  When the marchers were peppered by the frightened bullets of a foreign army, did they know that they were in a war zone?  Did they stand in confusion as the women, men and children were shot down?

Thirteen Irish citizens died that day.  Fifteen others were wounded, one of whom dying in the months to follow.  An investigation, initiated by the British army, followed immediately afterwards.  The inquisitors refused to hear from eye witnesses and only took testimonies from disguised British soldiers.  This was later admitted to have been tampered with.  A second investigation was conducted in the following years, during which time it was proven that none of the marchers had been armed and that every person killed had been shot down in cold blood.  It was a mass murder and one that still bleeds in the hearts of the citizens of Derry.  Memorials have been sculpted, murals painted by the Bogside Artists and statues erected to remind people of the violence suffered here.  But the Irish people will never forget, especially not when the deaths are still in living memory.  Ivan Cooper is alive today and has in the past years talked to visiting St. Scholastica students.  I was told that when he was asked for some bit of advice, he responded, “Stand for something.” 

Perhaps the most heart wrenching story from the Derry Troubles for me was the death of Annette McGavigan, whose walk home from school was ended by the gun of a British soldier—who later stated that he mistook her book bag for a bomb.  Her mural was not allowed to be painted until after the British army had admitted its wrong.  Called the ‘Death of Innocence’, it depicts a young girl with her school things scattered around her feet.  There is a butterfly to symbolize innocence and rebirth and a broken rifle to plead for an end to violence.  Her plaque reads, “Shot dead by the British Army.”

While Derry is on the road to improvement, the two sides of the River Foyle still separate the majority of Protestant and Catholic peoples.  Old wounds are still bleeding, shown on the walls as murals and on the gates and signs as graffiti.  Bloody Sunday is fresh in Ireland’s history.  Violence is fresh in the Irish heart.  A statue near the dividing river is of two men reaching out to one another—representing Catholics and Protestants—with their hands almost touching.  Almost, not quite.  Derry is almost there, a finger’s brush away, but they aren’t there yet.  And as the newly constructed, winding foot bridge over the river shows, the way is never sure.

If you want to see history live, visit Derry.  Northern Ireland is steeped in political involvement and Derry drums near the heart of the troubles, pulling violence and injustice into a city that has rarely known peace.  And while in the ideal world the people will eventually forgive, no one can ever forget.
IRA: Irish Republic Army http://www.fas.org/irp/world/para/ira.htm

Yeats Country

“Everything is changed, changed utterly.  A terrible beauty is born.”—W.B. Yeats

Over the previous week, our group took a five day journey into and around Northern Ireland, experiencing the island in new and powerful ways.  We visited Derry, Bushmills, Slieve League, explored Donegal town, Sligo, Kellybegs and took a driving tour through the land known simply as ‘Yeats Country’.   The sheer amount of history, beauty and culture that we saw gave us a new and profound respect for this battle worn country, reminding us of Ireland’s recently violent past.  From the majestic power of Slieve League to the bloody innocence of Derry, our journey North was an invaluable experience.

In a country so shaped by the willpower of its people and the beauty of its land, it is small wonder that a poet as famous as William Butler Yeats would find his inspiration here.  Known worldwide for his powerful writing and political involvement, W.B. Yeats has left a permanent mark on Irish history.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923 and as a member of the IRA, he saw first-hand some of the greatest changes in Ireland’s recent history—experiencing the 1922 independence of Ireland by becoming its Senator.  He managed to maintain a balance between his poetry and his politics, his writing bringing both the passionate endurance of the Irish people while still listening to the serene beauty of the landscape he called home.  Many of his most famous poems are about County Sligo, where our group took several hours to simply drive through the picturesque countryside.  It is easy to see where Yeats found his inspiration.

Our study of Yeats did not end with touring his homeland, however.  In fact, we began with the end—the first stop of our trip being the graveyard at Drumcliffe in County Sligo, which is known for being the final resting place of Yeats.  Surrounded by the rugged terrain of this region, Drumcliffe bears a majestic serenity that slows the gears of progress.  The church is shaded by massive oak trees, their sprawling limbs twisting into the chill, Irish air.  Moss covered gravestones and vine bearing walls soften the stone surrounding Drumcliffe Abbey, the only sounds arising from flitting song birds and a quiet wind’s hollow breath.

While exploring the grounds, I discovered multiple references toward Yeats’ work—one of the newest sculptures to be added was inspired by Yeats’ ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’.  It took me a while to find the poet’s grave, but once I did I was struck by the strangest feelings.  I’ve read Yeats’ work for years and during the past month in Ireland, we have discussed his influence multiple times.  So to stand near his final resting place filled me with a sudden appreciation for human mortality and writing’s immortality.  W.B. Yeats has not taken a breath since January 28th, 1939 and yet still he speaks, filling the world with the voice of the past and the prophecy of the future.