Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Warrior Bard(?)

Well, in the past couple of days I've mostly just continued to agonize over my schedule ("timetable," rather). I have to go talk to the bodhrán guy tomorrow, so fingers crossed for that, and I'm still waiting to hear about the timetable for tinwhistle lessons. Yesterday I attended the first lecture for a folklore class for visiting students that I suspect I will not be taking, but I'm considering going to the second lecture tomorrow anyway just to be sure. Last night was the first lecture for Intro to Irish History for Visiting Students, which I'm very much looking forward to even if it is a night class with irritating timing. There was a short lecture and then we watched a History Channel-style video (in which our lecturer appeared several times, allegedly wearing the same shirt he was wearing in class last night, although I personally didn't notice) about the Famine. I will spare you the rant that belongs here; suffice it to say that I left class depressed by the video but also seriously pissed off, and I am truly sorry that some of my classmates find one of the greatest tragedies in modern history to be so boring.

Probably they are all friends with the people from my archaeology class who found it amusing to lie on the "altar" at Drombeg and have human sacrifice photo ops.

Classmates notwithstanding, I think it will be a good class.

This morning I went, on a whim, to a class in the geography department called "Introduction to Geoinformatics." It sounded interesting and is team-taught by a Sciences person and an Arts person, which is interesting by itself. Unfortunately, I got increasingly concerned during the introduction that there was going to be a lot of GIS. So during the break (it's a two-hour time slot), I approached the lecturers and explained my situation and asked if it would be an appropriate module for me given that I already have some background in GIS. They basically said it's up to me, that some of it will probably be easy for me but the work should be pretty evenly divided so GIS won't be the dominant topic, and that they try to make connections between GIS and the other things they're talking about as much as possible. I said I like that because I'm an archaeology student, which they both seemed very interested in and which prompted a remark from the Sciences/GIS guy about it being good for them to have some idea of the background of the people in the class so they can target the information better. I got a very similar reaction to my presence in Professor Wojtal's GIS class at Oberlin, so that was encouraging. I'm still a little on the fence, though. No more than half the class would be review for me, and even that would be good practice, but I'm not sure whether that makes it worthwhile. I'm considering writing to someone at Oberlin for advice, but I kind of suspect it'll still come down to what I want to do.

That's partly why I'm giving the folklore class another chance tomorrow, because the archaeology lecture I went to this afternoon was dismal, and that was the class I had planned to take before stumbling upon the geography one. "The Paleolithic in Eurasia" was not something I was super excited about, but it would be interesting, and the archaeology class I'd planned to take during the first quarter (since the archaeology department is irritating that way, and pretty much all the classes I was interested in this semester are in the second quarter) conflicted with something I wasn't giving up. Turns out this was not a suitable replacement. I got to spend an hour of my afternoon listening (sort of) to a very confusing overview of evolutionary theory and human genetics, complete with totally meaningless chalkboard scribbles, that, after having already been taught at least three times, in more detail, everything he discussed, was utterly boring. And that was presented so confusingly that I don't think I'd have been able to follow at all if I hadn't already learned it three times over. Plus the lecturer seems dull, and just to top it off, the essay assignment is virtually identical to a paper I wrote for my Human Origins class two years ago. So no. As weird as it seems to keep saying I came here to study archaeology and yet not take any actual archaeology modules until the second half of the semester, that definitely seems the better course of action. Even if it results in the strangest and most inconvenient schedule I've ever had—and I'm the queen of those.

Now that I’ve rambled on too much about classes, I’ll get to what I actually wanted to talk about: today was also Societies Day. “Societies” are basically student-run social clubs (whereas the word “clubs” refers to groups for playing sports). And today there was a fair in the student centre where all the different societies had little booths and information and sign-up sheets. I put my name down too many times: I may or may not be active in the History or Literature Societies, but they might do something interesting at some point; I might take more active part in the doings of the Archaeology Society; the Choral Society was the main reason I went in the first place but, naturally, meets on Tuesday nights in the middle of my history lecture. The lecture is 6-8 and the choral society meets from 7-9, so in theory I can go after my class and catch the end, but it remains to be seen whether that'll be worthwhile. I'm skeptical, but I also don't relish the prospect of another semester without singing.

BUT I also put myself on the list for the Medieval and Renaissance Society, which is basically an excuse for mostly-grown men with some interest in history to dress up in chain mail and whale on each other with blunted swords, then watch movies like Braveheart and A Knight’s Tale.

Honestly, despite my own dorkiness, I’ve never been much for hardcore reenacting, with personas and staging battles and stuff, but I do like the idea of learning how to use weapons and make costumes. And I like hanging out with history geeks.

The first meeting was tonight. It was a little painful for me at first, especially since Tyler’s long-lost Irish twin was there, but once they moved out of demonstration/show-and-tell mode and into first training session mode, and someone gave me a “spear” and started telling me how to use it, I decided I didn’t care anymore.

So it was a lot of fun. Hard (I don’t have the coordination for a sword, let alone something significantly bigger), but fun. I am definitely going back next week, and at some point there will be movies and games and crafts in addition to playing with weaponry. But on that note, it was even hinted that I might get to try swords and archery despite only being here for a semester, even though they usually drag things out over a whole year even for foreign students (and the Irish students are stuck with a full year of mastering the spear before they get to move on).

The people who are involved are really friendly, and most of the others like me who were there for the first time seemed nice. I think I might have been the only American in the room, for the first time ever anywhere since I got to Cork. But also for the first time ever anywhere since I got to Cork, I didn’t feel weird or [too] self-conscious about being American.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Pipes, The Pipes Are Calling

... but I'm not going to play them, because there are things calling louder than they. For me, it's Highland pipes or nothing. All UCC offers is the uileann pipes, and while that would also be cool, I decided I had higher priorities.

I met with the woman who teaches tinwhistle this morning to discuss the timetable for those lessons, which was kind of a disaster because my individual schedule is kind of a disaster and isn’t set in stone yet anyway. I’m probably going to have to email her later tonight or tomorrow and say, “Well, on second thought, the times I’m free are actually these, which is totally different from what I told you before…” It was doubly awkward because she also helps coordinate other instrumental classes, so while I was there I asked about signing up for a second instrument even though I messed up and didn’t pre-register like I was supposed to. She initially said I should be fine as long as I went home and registered as soon as I could, but when I asked about Irish Harp she suddenly got an “Oh dear” expression, which got worse when we further established that I have never played harp before.* So I asked about bodhrán, upon which she seemed relieved and told me to go meet with someone named Colum on Thursday afternoon. So, bodhrán fans: you win by default because I couldn’t make up my mind in time to get into the harp class. (And the carillon class conflicts with my mythology class, to my great disappointment.) Hopefully the guy will take me on despite my never having played a percussion instrument, and hopefully some miracle will allow me to do both of those things and my archaeology classes. This is going to take a lot of hoping.

At any rate, after that I walked into town to buy a new tinwhistle. I’m rather annoyed with myself about this, because I already own three tinwhistles (although, admittedly, one of them is so crappy it hardly counts, and the Clarke my grandfather brought me from Norway years ago took a beating through all my middle school talent shows and class demonstrations and so forth and is probably not up to serious playing anymore), and I pulled them out when I was packing and for some reason decided not to bring even the nicest one. I guess I was assuming I was going to learn new instruments, but then I got here and NOT studying tinwhistle formally while I have the chance seemed pretty stupid.

Now, back in high school I used to walk around Celtic Classic with Tyler and spend ages staring at expensive tinwhistles and dreaming. As instruments go, even expensive tinwhistles are comparatively not very expensive, but considering the five or ten dollar ones are normally perfectly good instruments and even experienced professional players often stick with them, there’s really no need to shell out a lot of money. But I still always kind of planned that my next whistle, especially if I was ever going to really learn to play, would be a really nice one.

But, since it was an unexpected expense, and since I currently have no job, and since for the first time in my life I have to pay for all of my own food, and since, again, you can get a decent quality tinwhistle for under ten bucks, I just bought an everyday factory-made whistle for five euro. It’s an Irish-made brand I haven’t owned before, but it appears to be almost identical to the brass Walton I left at home. I contemplated a similar one made in England that I’m pretty sure was nickel, which I don’t think I’ve ever tried before, but it was slightly more expensive and I’ve heard that that company has some quality-control issues, so I went with the Irish one. I haven’t played it yet, but we’ll see if I can tell the difference between it and the one I already had. Maybe later in the semester, or after, I’ll experiment with other kinds—try a nickel one, replace my Clarke…

I’m probably boring the hell out of you, if you’re even still reading at this point.

My last music thought for today is that while I was at the music shop I looked very briefly at bodhráns. I’m still not sure I’m going to buy my own even if I get into the class and it goes well, but if I do, that’s another good reason to stick with inexpensive tinwhistles for now, because even an inexpensive bodhrán would be a major purchase by my standards, and probably the most inexpensive ones are not up to the same standard as the cheap tinwhistles are and I should plan to go for at least mid-range.

Besides, I held off buying new tinwhistles this long because I haven’t really played in so long, but if I learn to really play well this semester I might be able to better justify the purchase of, say, a handmade rosewood whistle once I have an income again…

Anyway, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what classes I’m taking and when, because of the difficulties of scheduling archaeology classes period and the added difficulties of scheduling them around classes in other departments with slightly less crazy timetables. Or with equally crazy timetables, as the case may be. In hindsight, I think trying to study archaeology and music simultaneously may not have been wise from a sanity perspective. From a “This is my life” perspective, though, I didn’t really have a choice. If I threw in an English class, this semester would pretty much represent everything all of college was supposed to be for me.

I wasn't really ready for classes to start today, though. Even though I’ve technically been back in school for a month, this has felt more like the longest summer ever, and I’m not ready for it to be over or to say goodbye to my wonderful archaeology class and start the real school year.

One last, off-topic thought for today:

“Dear Roommates: You can’t compost plastic. Please stop trying.” —the note I left on our kitchen counter this morning after fishing a plastic bag out of the compost bin for at least the third time since we moved in. I maintain that that was not passive-aggressive, because it was to-the-point and was simply an easier mode of communication than trying to tell all of them in person or figure out who was doing it and target her/them. And more importantly, I resisted the temptation to say “What exactly about the concept of compost do you not understand?!”

I mean, I realize that the fact that composting is common here is probably strange to a lot of Americans from places less environmentally conscious than Oberlin. (Personally, I was just excited.) But finding it novel and finding it difficult are two different things, and it’s really not that complicated. I’m pretty sure that at this stage of our lives, we should be able to tell what decomposes and what obviously doesn’t.

* Okay, technically speaking, I have played a harp before. Once. But even though the harp makes sense to me in a way other stringed instruments don’t and even though I successfully played a tune that first time with no instruction, because I’ve never had instruction I still felt the appropriate answer was No, I’ve never played before.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Nowhere Else On Earth

[It is really hard to come up with an appropriate song-lyric title when there's no clear theme to the post. I was actually hoping to save this one for something else, but I got stuck.]

Confession #1: As of Wednesday and Thursday, I was still catching myself watching out for snakes. The only places I've ever hiked that weren't copperhead country are Arizona and Belize, both of which have even more snakes to watch out for than the East Coast does. It's ingrained.

Confession #2: I can't stop listening to The Chieftains while riding around the countryside. Which seems like a very cheesy-American-tourist thing to be doing. But the other day it just happened to work out such that I was listening to their awesome rendition of the rather eerie instrumental tune "Dunmore Lassies" as the bus was approaching the Cliffs of Moher, and it ended just as we pulled into the parking lot. (Sorry, "car park".) It was perfect.

Confession #3 (and Frustration #1): I still don't know what classes I'm taking starting Monday. Two of the Celtic Lit classes I was really dying to take are offered second semester this year instead of first, which is extremely disappointing. I think I was looking forward to The Mabinogi more than to more archaeology classes. So that's a bummer. Meanwhile, the two archaeology classes I was the most excited about not only present conflicts, they conflict with each other. Story of my life. And archaeology classes are a pain to schedule around other subjects anyway, because the archaeology department operates on quarters instead of semesters, which on the one hand is nice but on the other hand is evil because it means they meet more times during the week than classes in most other departments. And since classes here don't follow organized schedules the way they do at American universities (e.g. instead of Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 9 a.m., you might get Monday at 9, Tuesday at 3, and Thursday at 1, or Tuesday at 10 and Wednesday from 2-4, or... you see my point), the potential for conflict is maximized because you might have two classes that avoid each other for the whole week except for one day when they're both at the same time.

I can only assume this is less of a pain in the ass for Irish students, who are locked into a particular program and don't really get to play around in other departments.

I'll update about my final field trip soon. I've been trying to get uploading pictures to work (Frustration #2), which is also a giant pain because something about the proxy settings on UCC's network is preventing me from successfully using Facebook's iPhoto application (or at least, that's the only explanation I can come up with for why it doesn't work), so I have to take my laptop to somewhere where I can pick up the wireless signal from the apartment complex's common room. And on top of this, Facebook has been doing screwy things like magically losing an entire albums' worth of pictures, or managing to publish the pictures but erasing all my tags. Yesterday I couldn't even successfully delete an album to start over again after it screwed up. It's ridiculous. But I've got one of two summer albums up now, and after the second one I can finally get to work on pictures of Ireland. (My OCD requires that I go in chronological order.)

I guess this is kind of a boring post, even more than usual. Sorry about that.

Tomorrow is the Gaelic Football ( final, Cork vs. Down. It's a big deal, obviously. I think I like Gaelic Football, to the extent that I like watching any sport. It's exciting. But it's pretty confusing. It's like soccer and American football happening simultaneously, complete with two different scores for each team depending on which part of the soccer goal/field goal hybrid they get the ball into. But the important thing is that Cork is playing, and I'm here. I will probably never forget what it was like to be in France when they almost won the 2006 World Cup. I'd been in the country for all of I think 12 hours when I saw my first match, and suddenly I was French. This is not even close to being on the same level of excitement, but still. It's still exciting, and I'm still looking forward to the possibility of feeling a little local solidarity.

Friday, September 17, 2010

By The Dockside On An Evening So Fair

Last Sunday, despite being plagued by the continued incompleteness of that ridiculous essay, I decided to take a little solo side trip south to the city of Cobh (pronounced like “cove”), formerly known as Queenstown, in case that name rings any bells*, which it might if you know your history. It’s the major port on Cork Harbor (hint hint).

The only way to get there is by train, which was fine with me because I far prefer trains to buses, and for short trips trains here seem to be as cheap or cheaper than buses (although the opposite is still true for long distances—I’m still torn about whether I want to plan to pay twice as much to take the train to Dublin next time I go rather than endure a bus ride that long). The downside is that the train station is almost an hour from my apartment by foot—and I walk pretty fast. I guess I could have taken the bus to get to the train, but I kind of want to see just how long I can go without resorting to using the bus system to get around the city.

I did pretty much what I did the day I went to Howth, in that I knew basically what I wanted to do once I got there, but went without a map or a train schedule or directions of any kind. Turns out, the exhibit about the history of the port (specifically, its history as a major departure point for immigrants, as the last port of call for the Titanic, and as the site of the sinking of the Lusitania during WWI) is actually at the train station, which felt like cheating a little bit. It also felt like extortion a little bit, because even student admission cost almost as much as my train ticket (read: not a lot in purely monetary terms, but a bigger investment than the amount of time put into the same venture). But it’s a very well-put-together exhibit and was very interesting, and putting it in perspective, I’m a lot happier to have my money go to something seriously educational and genuinely respectful of history than to the historical playground that is Blarney Castle.

Afterwards, I wandered up the street into town, found the memorials to the victims of the Titanic and the Lusitania, and bought some funny postcards and some ice cream from a convenience store. I ate the ice cream in a lovely little park next to the water. The view of the harbor is beautiful, and despite a rainy start to the weekend I wound up with an equally beautiful afternoon on which to be there. And the city itself is adorable, despite being built on a very very steep hill. It might be my favorite town so far.

When the ice cream was gone, I climbed up the hill (and I do mean “climbed”) to the cathedral, which stands looking over the harbor and the downtown area. The view is amazing, and I took every imaginable picture and stood watching sailboats for a long time. Then I walked around the cathedral, and read the little visitor’s guide they put out (in English, sadly; at Christ Church I picked up a visitor’s guide in French just because I could, but the same did not occur to me last weekend), and gave pointed glares to an absurdly noisy group of either French or German (I CAN differentiate those accents, I just don’t remember now which it was) tourists who clearly had no idea how to behave inside a church.

I’ve observed that European tourists (and French tourists in particular, as long as I’m already generalizing) are often just as obnoxious as the stereotypical American tourist, and in many cases I’ve found them to be more obnoxious than the actual American tourists. That’s not to say Americans are not obnoxious in general. There’s just something about tourists that apparently transcends nationality.

Anyway, I spent most of the afternoon killing time by wandering in and out and around the cathedral, mostly studying the stained glass or staring out at the harbor. I was waiting around until 4:30 because on Sunday afternoons there are carillon recitals. The cathedral in Cobh just happens to have the biggest carillon in Ireland, and I am sorely tempted to stop debating which Irish music class to take and just take the carillon class knowing that A) I will probably literally never have another chance and B) at the end of the semester the class gets to go to Cobh and play that very carillon. Will a semester of carillon lessons EVER be useful? Absolutely not. Would it be worth it just to be able to say that I did it? YES. RESOUNDINGLY YES.

I didn’t stay for the whole recital, because it had clouded up and was starting to get dark and chilly and I was thinking about how I still had to walk an hour after my train got back to Cork. It turned out I could have stayed longer than I did because I ended up waiting a bit for the next train, but it wasn’t terribly bad timing. And in the time I was there I managed to hear a carillon arrangement of the tune for “The Water is Wide,” which is also the tune of my very favorite hymn (“Though I May Speak With Bravest Fire”), and that was worth more to me than all the rest put together.

So that was a pretty good day. Another destination down and another beautiful afternoon by the sea. And a carillon to boot.

* Hahahaha I made an accidental pun. (If you don’t get it, you just haven’t read the whole post yet.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Royal Plains of Meath

Sleeping in bunkbeds in the narrow dorm overlooking a farmyard, with its old-fashioned country style furniture and ten girls to a room, felt weirdly like being in a storybook orphanage. Someone likened it to being at camp, which I wouldn’t know anything about, but was probably accurate. All of us downstairs in the kitchen the next morning scrounging for cereal and lining up to use the toaster, and then a large chunk of the class sitting on every piece of furniture in the living room and most parts of the floor and taking turns playing with the dog, all kind of felt that way too.

Also, the class is about 80 or 90 percent female, and all the girls slept in three or four rooms like the one I was in on the second floor of the main building. The boys were in a small room on the ground floor that had to be accessed from outside. I, for one, thought that was pretty funny.

Anyhow, our first stop for the day was the Bend of the Boyne Cemetery and our long-awaited tour of Newgrange. If you didn’t know/look it up already, Newgrange is an enormous Neolithic tomb, one of three at the Bend of the Boyne. The three of them are roughly contemporary and are all oriented on the rising and/or setting sun at different times so that together they mark the cycle of the year. It’s very cool, and they’re very obvious on the landscape. We passed the tomb of Knowth on the way to Newgrange. I was surprised at how far apart they are; I guess the word cemetery had made me imagine something fairly consolidated, but they’re actually rather spread out. You can only get to the tombs themselves by first going through a visitor’s center that then packs you into small shuttle buses at your appointed tour time, so there are never more than a couple of groups at the actual sites at once. There’s a neat little exhibit about the cemetery and the region and about Neolithic life in general at the visitor’s center, and they show a short film about the astronomical aspect of the tombs that was pretty much THE cheesiest and most unnecessarily dramatic thing I’ve ever seen. It was easily as bad as those middle school science videos that play weird New Agey music while cells are dividing and crap like that. And there was a sort of recurring theme of the great mystery of the seasons and how Neolithic people must have felt so uncertain and feared that without their rituals to appease to ancestors or the gods or whomever, the earth would stop turning and the sun wouldn’t rise again. I actually found it somewhat offensive (when I wasn’t laughing out loud at the narrator’s excessive flair for the dramatic). I mean, that’s a possibility, I guess. But you really have no idea what Neolithic people thought, or what their rituals were, or why. None. Whatsoever. It seems to me that we could give them the dignity of not just assuming that they believed that the pattern that had existed for all time might stop any minute or that the world would end if they slipped up. That seems a little extreme for people who had obviously observed enough continuity to build these massive tombs aligned EXACTLY RIGHT to match up with things that happen consistently year after year.

I digress. We went to the tomb, after a pretty walk across the river and past some cows to the shuttle bus, and a short bus ride down some back roads that was briefly delayed by a herd of more cows. The tomb is large, and impressive, and stands on a hill overlooking the valley, which is beautiful. The front of the tomb is all reconstructed according to someone’s “educated guess”, which is a little disappointing, but what can you do. Inside, on the other hand, is all completely intact and has not changed for more than four thousand years except for the addition of a few support beams (just in case) and a handful of electric lights. The passage into the burial chamber is not for the claustrophobic; it has a low roof and is sometimes narrow and slopes up because the chamber is several meters higher than the ground outside. But the chamber itself has a high vaulted ceiling that is easily as impressive as a Gothic cathedral, as far as I’m concerned, especially considering it was built without mortar and before the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza. And while we were inside, the guide turned off all the lights except for one bulb near the entrance that’s been positioned to simulate what happens at sunset on the winter solstice, when the last rays of sunlight enter the space above the doorway and shine directly into the tomb. It was very cool.

They apparently hold a lottery to choose a small group of people who get to be there at sunset in December for a couple of days around the time it’s supposed to happen, but since I already have a flight home on the 19th, I didn’t enter myself even though it would be amazing to be there for real. Oh well. The odds of being chosen are like a zillion to one anyway.

That afternoon, following a lunch that included some truly fantastic chocolate cake, we went to Trim Castle, which is the biggest Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland and is pretty impressive in its own right. The keep is pretty intact, and some of the curtain wall with a couple of its gateways. There are some ruined outbuildings and across the river, at a fairly short distance, the remains of what was once an abbey. (I think our teacher was over there checking it out while we were on our tour of the keep.) It was pretty cool. I think I found the grounds more interesting than the castle itself. But our guide was very interesting and knowledgeable, and told us some fun stuff about medieval life instead of just sticking to the bare facts about the castle. And he did it in a way that didn’t make me feel like he was just assuming we didn’t know anything about history, which I appreciated because that’s a problem I sometimes have on tours. (The colonial-era Burgwin-Wright house in Wilmington with the tour guide who looked at me as if I were just adorably precocious every time I knew the answer to something pretty obvious comes to mind.) I learned some fun things about where a few English idioms came from. Come to find out, near the end of the tour, that one of the reasons for his enthusiasm was that he grew up in the town of Trim and as a kid would skip school and come play in the castle (which at the time was basically abandoned as far as I can guess, since it wasn’t excavated until the 90s and wasn’t open to tourism until 2000). Like, actually. His playground was a castle. How awesome is that?!

Near the top, before taking us up to the ramparts, he asked if anyone was afraid of heights. I raised my hand. I think I may have been the only one, which was a little embarrassing. But he was really nice about it, and said it was perfectly safe and blah blah blah and there was no need to feel bad because he’d had a PILOT on a tour not long ago who refused to go up to the roof. That’s a little unnerving, and not for any reason having to do with the castle…

Anyway, I was standing there going, “Yeah, I’m not actually that worried… you just asked, so I answered…” I figured the stairs were more of an issue than actually being on top of the building was going to be, and even they weren’t that bad because they had a rope to hold onto like the ones at Blarney. And I was right; between the walls and the very substantial iron railings that have been put up in modern times to keep people well back from the edge, there’s nothing even remotely frightening about being up there. And I really am afraid of heights. I get vertigo and everything. Just not under circumstances like the ones that exist at the top of a building that thousands of visitors are encouraged to stand on top of.

So that was pretty much that. We left for Cork after Trim, and it took the better part of four hours to get back. My iPod held out the whole way even though I’d been using it a lot for two entire days at that point, so I was pleased. It was raining for a lot of the drive, and when we got back into Cork City we were stunned to find that the river had risen so high that a couple of low bridges were almost flooded and the places along the Western Road where I watch herons on the way to town and back were totally underwater. It was quite a surprise. I guess it rained here the whole time we were gone. It reminded me of Belize last summer and coming back to San Ignacio from a long weekend to discover that the river had actually flooded and the bridge was actually underwater and the storm had taken out the tree behind my cabin. Except obviously this was not as bad. And everything was back to normal by the weekend.

I spent most of the weekend, except for a small adventure I’ll recount later, trying in vain to write that essay, which is now complete, still a little too long, and ready to hand in tomorrow when I get on the bus. Lectures are over. One more overnight field trip and then the class is over.


To the Burren tomorrow. I’m excited.

Monday, September 13, 2010

All The World Seems Bright And Gay

Last Wednesday we set off for Dublin just before 8 a.m. (which was a vast improvement over the 7 a.m. originally printed on our syllabus). I was surprised and pleased at how familiar Dublin was. It's amazing how well you can get to know a city in a short time when you're mostly on your own.

We spent the morning at the National Museum of Archaeology, which I was very excited about. (I had to keep myself away while I was in Dublin last month, because I figured I was bound to end up there on a field trip and wanted to use my time for something else... but it was really hard.) Dr. Ó Carragáin gave us a quick tour before turning us loose for half an hour or so. We saw a lot of the same artifacts that had shown up on Powerpoint slides in class, which I at first thought was really cool. But, in hindsight, Ireland is a really small country.

They have a lot of stone tools, and copper axes, and medieval art. They also have a stunning amount of gold jewelry from the Bronze Age. I mean, cases upon cases. It was amazing. And a little gold model boat that's either Bronze Age or Iron Age, I've forgotten which (which is unfortunate since we definitely discussed it in class...). Either way, it was high on my list of favorite things.

But also: THEY HAVE BOG BODIES. Four of them. Mostly only partial, but even so.

They gave me the creeps, a little bit. The one who still had his face did, at least. The others were all right. I still wouldn't want to be the one who finds/studies them, though. I'm a bone person specifically because intact flesh is a little too much for me to handle. But mummies are still really, really cool.

After lunch we walked to Christ Church Cathedral. It was very beautiful, and interesting, and we saw the "tomb of Strongbow" and got to learn exactly why it's unlikely that it's actually Strongbow. But the tomb was anticlimactic (though I guess I don't really know what I was expecting) and the crypt was a disappointment. There's really nothing down there except some plaques and sculpted sarcophagi in the corners dedicated to people I've never heard of, and an exhibit of the "treasures" of the Cathedral (there was some cool stuff in there, I admit). And a coffee shop. Yep, in the crypt. Can you say combining two of my favorite things [in a really creepy way]?

But mostly it was just empty space under the arches. So... it was kind of cool to be down underneath the Cathedral, but there wasn't much to see.

And by the way, I think Christ Church would fit inside Notre Dame about six or eight times.

After that, we walked around the corner to the place where the Viking city was that Dublin's city council rushed excavations of and built office buildings over. I think I mentioned that before. So I heard the more detailed version of that story, and it made me angry again. And then we left.

That afternoon we went to Monasterboice, which was once a very important church site and is now a somewhat disheveled, haphazard-looking cemetery. There are ruins of two chapels (one of which now has graves inside it) and most of a very impressive round tower, and three fantastic high crosses, which are what the site is really famous for. They have the tallest high cross in Ireland and the "best" high cross in Ireland. They are very pretty, but I do not know enough about either the more obscure parts of the Bible or medieval Christian iconography to get a lot out of them, even with a rundown of what all the major scenes are supposed to be. I was really interested in a snake design on the side of the last cross, but did not get a chance to ask about it because Dr. Ó Carragáin was being monopolized (as usual) by that inevitable one kid in the class who thinks it makes them look good to ask five million questions and never shut up, and I did not feel like listening to that long enough to wait for a chance to ask my question.

Anyway. At that point it was evening, and we headed for the village of Slane in County Meath, where we were going to spend the night, and had dinner. Which was awesome, for the record. Afterwards, we discovered that the hostel where we were going to spend the night was a renovated outbuilding ON A FARM. There were cows, and barns, and chickens in the backyard. (I hadn’t heard a rooster in so long!) And some kind of dirty little terrier hanging around who really like to play-bite.

The dorms were adorable and bright and had carpet and cute wooden bunk beds. Even aside from the fact that it was on a farm it was about 587356487 times nicer than the place I stayed in Dublin.

We dropped off our stuff and went back into the village to a pub for “trad music,” which actually turned out to be a couple of guys with guitars who mostly played covers of American rock songs. (I don’t know if that was their original intention or not. I suspect it was, but it was also pretty obvious that practically the entire audience inside the tiny pub was a single large group of American students, so you never know.) But that was still fun. They did play a few traditional songs, with the help of a friend of theirs who was mostly listening but did go up to play tinwhistle once or twice and to sing a song one of my friends requested that the main guy didn’t know. I requested “Dublin In The Rare Ould Times” (of course), but neither singer knew it, which I thought was odd as well as disappointing. Oh well. They were cool, and they didn’t want us to leave (we were probably the biggest and possibly most enthusiastic audience they’d ever had there, and of course we knew most of the songs they were playing).

It was one of the best nights I’ve had since I got here.

That was also the night my friend David discovered a shot called a Baby Guinness, which is pure genius even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with Guinness. He had attempted to order a White Russian, but they had neither cream nor Kahlua, so the bartender offered him this instead. It’s a combination of Bailey’s and Tia Maria. It is AWESOME.

And I’m going to stick to my self-imposed two-page limit here and leave you with that thought for tonight. (Go try it, really.)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Fine Groves Of Blarney

A quote from the abstract for an article I'm reading that was written by the moderator of the seminar in question: "Through several hours of often heated (sometimes quasi-homicidal) discussion there were occasional moments when the moderator could detect what might pass for consensus opinion among Irish archaeologists, i.e. the absence of violent objection."

Of course, you could probably replace "Irish archaeologists" with "scholars in general" and have an equally à propos remark. But it still made my day.

In other news, Wikipedia apparently has (at least normally) a pretty thorough and accurate article on Irish history. This may be the one time ever that I've had the experience of having a teacher actually encourage the use of Wikipedia.

It's interesting to observe the differences in scholarship between Ireland and the U.S. Like, the use of "B.C." and "A.D." is still pretty common in the States, but the political correctness movement has made a real push to replace them with "C.E." and "B.C.E." There has been no such push here. Which is fine by me; I think to the extent that academia is important at all, there are more important things for it to be concerned about. But it's an interesting social contrast.

However, I really got a laugh while reading an article earlier that was saying something about how it was once common to apply the term "Celtic" to all periods of prehistory in Ireland, and the author made the point that certain kinds of cutting tools were referred to as "celts" right up through the first half of the twentieth century. Why is this funny (in a sad kind of way)? Because students in the U.S. are STILL taught that term. Myself included. I mean, I assume it's because it's convenient to have an umbrella term for non-specific tools other than "cutting implements," which gets rather unwieldy. But frankly, I've always been puzzled by the cultural connotations. Turns out I wasn't reading too far into it, because they ARE there, and they are outdated and largely invalid.

Anyway, in case you couldn’t tell, I am posting this partly in order to avoid writing my paper. Not because it’s not an interesting topic. Not because I don’t want to get it done. In fact, I had written a fairly substantial portion of it intermittently over the last couple of days. I am avoiding it now because I realized I was writing a 4000 word essay rather than a 2000 word essay. Unintentionally, not because I misread the assignment. And as of about ten minutes ago I determined that at this point it would be easier to start over than to attempt to complete and fix what I’ve done so far. Needless to say, this conclusion does not please me.

So, here is the belated tale of my trip to Blarney Castle two weeks ago:

I think this was probably the biggest adventure I have had since arriving in Cork other than my class field trips. Carolyn and Kristin (two of the other IFSA-Butler students, from Colgate and Colby respectively) and Johanna (a music major at Wheaton) and I decided to be embarrassingly touristy and make the inevitable pilgrimage to Blarney Castle. It’s less than half an hour from the centre of Cork by bus, which by the way is less than the time it takes to walk from our apartment complex to the bus station, and bus fare only costs something like 6 or 7 euros round-trip.

It’s a giant tourist trap, of course; admission is steep, the historical information signposts are cheesy, there are souvenirs everywhere, and they take everyone’s picture with the Stone and will sell you yours for an exorbitant price (and yes, I have mine…). It’s a little too much like an amusement park. But the castle is unique and interesting, there are all kinds of trails on the grounds, through woods and gardens and around a lake, and I guess it wouldn’t be right to come to Ireland and live half an hour from the Blarney Stone and never kiss it.

But seriously, kissing the Stone felt more like an obligation than an adventure. Definitely one of those I-did-it-because-everyone-does-and-I-felt-like-I-had-to things. And as anyone who really knows me knows, leaning backwards off of a wall at a great height is not my idea of a good time, although as I already mentioned on Facebook, it happened so fast I barely remember it. But I did it. It’s off the list.

I don’t feel any more eloquent.

One up-side to the castle being modified and maintained for tourism: a rope to hang on to while climbing up the stairs, and a full-on metal railing on the other side for coming down. Oh, what a beautiful thing that was. I don’t think you can understand just how beautiful until you have climbed a fifteenth-century spiral staircase without such amenities. It’s slightly less terrifying than climbing up and down a Maya temple, but that’s setting a pretty low standard.

Fun fact: Blarney made the 14th castle I had been to in my lifetime up to that point (I think), and the 9th I had been inside. (Okay, I’m counting a few that are technically palaces, too.) I’ve since been to one more, and there’s at least one more to come this week, which brings me to 16 and 11 respectively. Not bad, huh?

Also, I admit I had to cheat and go searching for an appropriate title for this one, because I couldn't think of one off the top of my head. (But do you see what I did there with the combination of topics in this post?)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Hallowed Halls And Houses: Field Trips Part 2

The second field trip, last Thursday, was a lot less off-the-beaten-path than the first. We stopped first at the Labbacallee Wedge Tomb, which is from the end of the Neolithic. It is literally right on the side of the road. Like, we got off the bus and walked around it, me expecting to walk out into the field somewhere past the cows, and then bam! there it was. It’s not very impressive—probably no more than ten of us could fit inside it at a time—and as it’s the biggest wedge tomb in all of Ireland, that says a lot about the average size. It was still pretty neat, though. And I had a good laugh when the teacher was explaining something about the extent of the cairn that would have covered it originally (were that intact, the whole thing would be a reasonably impressive size), and someone in the class asked, “Why doesn’t that survive?” Dr. Ó Carragain looked at him, motioned to the low stone walls marking the boundaries of the fields (we were on someone’s farm again), and said “Look around you.”

He let us poke around for a while after he was done talking, and some people discovered that we could get inside the tomb. That really bothered me for some reason, although I can’t explain why and I’m not even sure if it’s rational to begin with. There just seems to me to be something really irreverent about playing in a tomb, even after the remains there are long gone. I don’t know. The people who posed for pictures at Drombeg on top of what may or may not be an altar bugged me, too. But in a different way, I think.

Anyway, we moved on soon after that, and the next stop of the day was “just for fun,” according to Dr. Ó Carragáin—not really archaeology-related at all. The Mitchelstown Caves are a series of pretty dramatic limestone caverns inside which it is apparently too cold for bats (which I thought was really weird—is 12º C really that much colder than your average cave in the U.S.?). Our tour was led by a very bored-sounding guide probably not much older than me. I was pretty bored, too. I’ve been to caves before. They’re neat but unless there’s something special about them, they’re kind of all alike, and this one wasn’t any more spectacular than any number of caverns in PA.

Admittedly, after Actun Tunichil Muknal I’m probably a little bit more jaded on the cave front than most of the people in this class. It will probably take a lot to make any future caving experience exciting by comparison.

But as things stand, I would have preferred even a relatively boring archaeological site to the hour we spent looking at damp rock formations. I appreciate the gesture of taking us to something fun and unrelated to our classwork, but as far as I’m concerned that time and money could have been better spent.

After we emerged from underground (the day did seem much warmer after that, so there’s a plus), we drove to the town (village?) of Cashel, where out afternoon was to be spent at the Rock of Cashel, which was in use as a church site throughout the Middle Ages and where people were buried in the cemetery right up to the twentieth century. Calling it “the Rock” of Cashel is not in any way symbolic. It’s really on top of a giant rock. A giant rock from which there are truly magnificent views of the surrounding countryside, may I add.

It’s dominated by a ruined Gothic cathedral (and by ruined I mean it’s missing its roof and that sort of thing, but most of the walls and a lot of the sculptures and such are still in quite good condition considering), which overshadows a very nice (and more damaged than the cathedral, although more complete in terms of structure) Romanesque chapel. There’s also a large round bell tower, which if I remember correctly was the first thing built there. And most of the grounds on two sides of the cathedral are full of graves with elaborate tombstones (you know, the classic Irish crosses and that sort of thing). It’s not like there’s a clearly delineated graveyard with a fence or anything, and they’re not really in neat rows either, just spread out all over the hill, from practically up against the cathedral walls right out to the wall at the edge of the rock. It’s quite a sight with the epic view beyond them.

And that was pretty much that. This week’s trip is overnight, leaving EARLY in the morning to get to Dublin at a reasonable hour and spend the day there, then heading somewhere in neighboring County Meath for the night to visit sites there the next day. This is the trip I’ve been most looking forward to. We’re going to the National Museum of Archaeology, and Christ Church Cathedral (I’m excited about this even though I saw it about 800 times while I was in Dublin before, because I’m hoping we’ll go inside and possibly even into the crypts, which I didn’t do on my own even though I really wanted to), and the biggest Norman castle in Ireland, and, most importantly: We are going to Newgrange!

At orientation, when Dr. Ó Carragáin had his turn to talk about his early start course and was running through a recitation of the sites we were going to be visiting, I was sitting there whispering, “Newgrange? Newgrange? Newgrange?” loud enough for people sitting close to me to hear. And I got a little bit ridiculously jubilant when he finally said it. I suppose a less dorky person would be embarrassed about that.

I almost did a day trip while I was staying in Dublin that would have gone to Newgrange and Tara, and decided against it on the chance that this class might be going to one or both of those places, which is partly why I was so eager. And I think we’re not going to Tara, but of the two that was the less important for me, and I might still see about trying to work it in when I go back to Dublin later.

If you don’t know what Newgrange is, you’ll just have to wait until I come back and write about it.

Or I guess you could Google it. That probably makes more sense. It’s just a lot less satisfying for me.

(By the way, did you know that Word’s spellchecker does not recognize “Google?” Behind the times, Microsoft. Of course, ironically enough, it also does not recognize “spellcheck,” although it does know “spellchecker” and “spellchecked.”

Today’s pointless computer fact brought to you by coffee at midnight.)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Hallowed Halls And Houses: Field Trips Part 1

I’ve been trying to study for a quiz tomorrow, which is probably not a big deal but which is very intimidating because of the sheer amount of material we’ve covered. I’m very unmotivated. Instead (for irony’s sake, I guess) I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on how Oberlin and its lack of actual testing in social science and humanities classes have kind of ruined my study skills.

I learned my shit in Amy Margaris’s archaeology and human origins classes because I had to. Ditto for my history class about humankind’s relationships with animals. I half-ass learned my shit in my Classics courses—and it showed. The rest of my history and anthro classes were basically in one ear and out the other, if they even got that far. Sure, I’ve forgotten a lot from the classes I had exams in, but I’m sure it would come back to me with a little reminding. Meanwhile, I barely remember anything from the ones I wasn’t tested in, except for what I researched on my own for papers. Maybe it doesn’t really matter, but I’m positive some of that would have been useful to me in the future. And maybe I would have been overwhelmed if I’d had to remember all of it AND write papers and do projects, but as it was I wasn’t motivated to learn much of it at all because it wasn’t going to affect my grade and my other work was.

I think what I’m getting at here is that I might do better in this system.*

Of course, since I’m only here for one semester and will therefore end up having to write extra papers instead of sitting exams anyway, we may never know for sure.

Anyway, I promised an update about the field trips I’ve been on, so here goes:

We covered a LOT of ground the first day out, starting with an early medieval ringfort. They are apparently the most common type of archaeological site in Ireland (there are thousands of them), which is partly because a lot of them were left alone over the centuries because there was all kinds of folklore about fairies living in them and stuff like that. There wasn’t a lot to see, although I will put up some super-exciting (that’s sarcasm) photos later on. It’s all overgrown and there aren’t any structures left except for part of the embankments.

But it is on somebody’s farm, and you do have to troop across a pasture and through two gates to get to it, and there are cows watching you the whole time. So that was pleasantly familiar, and I think that probably had more to do with the big stupid grin on my face when we walked into the fort than the actual fort did. (Although, I was a lot more respectful of the site itself than some of my giggling, complaining classmates.)

But you know, I think I’d take barbed wire and fire ants over electric fences.

The next stop was Ballinacarriga Tower House, which was built in the fifteenth century. A tower house is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. This one is up on a steep hill and looks very imposing even as a ruin.

And after we stood outside and looked around for a while, and Dr. Ó Carragáin (look, I learned!) talked about its history and defensive features, he produced a big key and led us over to the barred metal door.

Some people started wondering aloud why he has a key, but I was pretty much going, “You’re seriously going to let me roam around inside a medieval fortress that hasn’t been touristified with signs and cleaning up and sections blocked off?!” Big stupid grin again.

It wasn’t actually as exciting as I thought it would be, and we didn’t get to explore all of it, just the ground floor and up the narrow winding staircase to the top floor, which was once a chapel (there are interesting carvings on the windows) and which is now open to the air because the roof is long gone. (As are all the wooden floors on the middle levels, leaving vast empty space inside most of the tower except for some small rooms along the front and sides that are entirely of stone, floors included.) But it was still pretty cool, at least partly because it’s not a tourist site. It is dark and dirty and sad, except for the chapel, which is bright and beautiful and sad.

We stopped for lunch at a hotel in Clonakilty, which is the village where Michael Collins was born, where we were given vast numbers of sandwiches. Afterwards, we saw another ruined stone house, this time bigger and less fortified and built in the early 1600s. We weren’t allowed to go in that one because it’s basically at the point of disrepair at which chunks of wall might fall on you at any moment. (Unlike Ballinacarriga, which is under the protection of some government organization, this house has not been preserved in any way and is now probably too far gone for anyone to start.)

The last place we went was Drombeg Stone Circle, high on a hill overlooking the ocean. It’s smaller than you might expect (rather than being disappointing, it just makes Stonehenge look all the more impressive), but very, very beautiful. I think that meant more to me than the tower house did, even though where Europe is concerned I normally think I’m more interested in the historic than the prehistoric.

So, that was a long day, but it was a very good day. I took lots of pictures. And it was really nice, for me, at least, to be out in the field poking around things (not to mention things you have to hike to from the road because they’re in the middle of a field or because the last stretches of roads are too narrow for a bus) and getting dirty and sweaty instead of staring at a Powerpoint—even if paved country roads in a chartered bus don’t really compare to being bounced down dirt lanes in the back of a pickup truck.

* I definitely pay attention better in an intelligent lecture than in a discussion class full of pompous idiots who think they’re intelligent. I’m also more likely to participate if a direct question is asked in a lecture than if I’m just expected to contribute to a class discussion. But I could have told you all that years ago.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Summer's Gone

So, despite all the adventures I was having at first, and the fact that I wander around town and write blog posts instead of doing homework, it turns out I am in fact here as a student (not that I’ve actually gone to the Immigration office to get the official paperwork for that yet, but it’ll happen…). And as of last week, I have class for about three hours a day, every day except field trip days (when, arguably, I’m in class all day long).

I don’t remember what my class is called; it has a very long, generic name. But it’s a survey course about the archaeology of Ireland from the Neolithic all the way up through the early modern period. As of today, we’ve covered all of prehistory and started to get into the early medieval stuff, which means by next week we should get to Vikings! which is very exciting. Ireland has a surprisingly different archaeological record from that of Britain even before the Roman Empire (which took over Britain, but not Ireland), which I find very interesting. Maybe you don’t, I don’t know. But there’s a lot I didn’t (and still don’t) know about prehistory in any part of Europe, so up to now everything’s been new and exciting to me. And now that we’re moving into the historical period I can start filling in some of the gaps (read: gaping chasms) in my knowledge of Irish history, which was never very well covered in either my Western Civ class in high school or my European History survey course at Oberlin (the latter didn’t even come as far West as England very often).

These Early Start courses are only open to visiting international students, and apparently aren’t very popular with students coming from elsewhere in Europe. So my class is pretty big, but is made up entirely of Americans except for one Norwegian. On the one hand, I’m happy about this because it’s way less intimidating. On the other hand, it’s not exactly giving me any indications about what actual classes—or, more importantly, Irish students—are like. I kind of wish I could just stay in this forever instead of having to start the real semester in three weeks, which is partly due to being afraid of the Irish students (which I’m aware is ridiculous) and partly due to really liking my class. I’ve taken very few classes at Oberlin that could consistently hold my attention for the entire period. Sometimes even a really great professor can’t do it.

Anyway, this teacher has a name so Irish I can’t even spell it. Or pronounce it, for that matter.* He’s a historical archaeologist, which makes me think the lectures might get better as the topics get more recent, which would really be a treat considering I already enjoy them. He seems like a really nice guy and is a lot more laidback than I think the stereotype of a European professor** is made out to be. He’s quite happy to just chat with students after class or on field trips, and routinely tosses in corny jokes or snide remarks while lecturing. He’s not teaching any classes this fall as far as I know, which is a little sad because I probably would have tried to take something else with him. (As my Oberlin transcript can attest, I tend to latch onto teachers I like.)

We had our first field trip last week and our second tomorrow, both to sites that are all within a couple of hours of the city of Cork. I’ll discuss all that in a separate post since this one’s getting long. Next week we have an overnight trip to Dublin and County Meath, and the last week of class we’re going overnight again to the Burren (that’s the name of a region, not a single site), which is in the West of Ireland pretty far North of Cork.

* This seems like as good a time as any to mention that Irish Gaelic has me thoroughly mystified. I mean, I’ve started to recognize some words. But saying them out loud is something else entirely. For example, one stop on the DART is at Dún Laoghaire. You say, “Dun Leerie.” What? And I’ve heard people complain that the French use too many extra letters…
** That’s actually not a correct usage of the term over here, because you only get to be called Professor if you’re the head of your department (which he’s not). But it sounded better than “lecturer” in that sentence.