Friday, October 29, 2010

The Gifts of Mind

Me: Guess what I did today!
Tom: Robbie Keane.

He is married, thank you very much. And not that attractive anyway. And yes, I did have to Wikipedia him to learn both of those things.

This happened last Saturday, and I’ll write about what I really did later. Along with an assortment of other things that have happened in the last month… I fail at blogging. For now, the prospect of going all the way back to my adventures in County Kerry is too daunting, so I’m going to ramble about life in Cork for a bit. Bear with me.

One other lingering thought about the field trip to the Burren: On the bus ride home, we filled out course evaluations. I tend to take a pretty lazy approach to course evaluations, although I recognize that this may not be helpful to the instructors or, by extension, to future students. Furthermore, I tend not to give highest ratings unless I really think they were deserved, and I am sparing with praise in the comments sections. (Actually, I routinely leave comment sections blank unless I really do have something to praise or I need to criticize something.) So, it’s a pretty big deal that I wrote a paragraph about how much I enjoyed that class and how much I think the field trips (we went on more than any other Early Start) added to my experience not just of the class but of being in Ireland in general. I also made a point of saying what a fantastic lecturer Tomás is, making this what I believe is only the second time in my college career that I have used the phrase “one of the best” on a course evaluation.

I wish I’d found reason to be as enthusiastic about my other classes. I’m enjoying them, I suppose, as much as classes are generally to be enjoyed. Just not on the same level.

The following are the topics for my history essay, verbatim:

1. Assess the historical significance of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1852

2. Write an essay on Irish emigration in the nineteenth-century.

3. Assess the historical importance of the Easter Rising, 1916.

4. Why does Ireland have one of the most interesting culinary traditions in Europe? Please make reference to the idea of ‘tradition’ in your argument.

5. Write on essay on the development of the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1938
Discuss Ireland’s changing role in international affairs since independence.

That’s it. No other guidance other than 1500 words, typed, with citations. So, in other words… Write an essay on whatever the heck you want, with as broad or as narrow a focus as you please, that has something to do anything that’s covered in the lectures for this course. I feel like they could have saved themselves a lot of time and the world a lot of paper if they’d just told us to choose a relevant topic and have done with it.

On the one hand, I find the lack of directed work and, more importantly, the lack of graded assignments, here very stressful, and the emphasis on in-class essays for what grades we do get extremely intimidating. (I loathe in-class essays. Give me a multi-question exam (two or three essays does NOT count as multi-question, either), or let me write my essays at home.) On the other hand, the expectations seem low and the workload [at least from where I’m sitting] is negligible. I guess I don’t have any firsthand experience with the culture of large public universities in the States, and Oberlin is tough even by selective-private-school standards, so maybe I’m biased. I’m also used to working while in school and to taking discussion-heavy classes where keeping up with reading is necessary to avoid embarrassment if nothing else, which no doubt also contributes to my perception that I have a surprising amount of free time on my hands. I hear often that Irish students don’t value the opportunity to go to college very highly because it’s virtually free for them, but I know for a fact there are plenty of American students who don’t care about education either. And we all find ways to coast, even in places like Oberlin; that’s student culture, not Irish culture. What I’m surprised by is the way in which professors here seem to make it relatively easy to coast. Readings, at least in the classes I’m taking, seem to be a lot more optional than in most of my classes at Oberlin; you might do better if you crack a book once in a while, but good lecture notes will mostly get you through. That’s true sometimes at Oberlin (I would know), but usually not entirely. And having just one paper to write for almost every class, and rarely more than 1500 words? I write two or three or five times that much for nearly every class at Oberlin. It’s the price one pays to major in social sciences and/or humanities.

There is going to be a big student protest in Dublin next week. I am not well enough informed about Irish politics to understand the details, but it has something to do with a proposed increase in university registration fees and with the sense that the government should be doing more to stem the tide of college graduates emigrating in search of work (and thus depriving Ireland of their potential contributions to society). International students are being encouraged to go along, but I’m not sure this is an instance where curiosity about the experience is a good enough reason to do something. I’m not entirely comfortable lending my voice to something I can’t understand (and frankly, my student loans alone are more than it costs an Irish student to go to university, so even if it is a totally different system I find it a little hard to be sympathetic when they complain about fees) and I’m also not entirely comfortable with the idea that I have any right to get involved in this—or in anything to do with Irish politics, for that matter. I’m a transient with a foreign passport. I don’t even have a work visa. I’m not even pursuing a degree here. This is not my battle, nor is it a human rights issue where saying that would just be a cop-out. This is, as far as I can tell, purely a political fight, and I think it should be a fight for the people who are actually affected by it. I’m not at all convinced that my opinion should matter even if I did understand exactly what’s at stake.

That was all a lot heavier than I think I was intending to get in this post, so I’ll end on a lighter note. Earlier this week, I had the surprise/pleasure of partaking in an experience I did not expect to be cross-cultural: The Rocky Horror Picture Show, complete with props and audience participation. How funny is it that ordering a sandwich can be a giant culture clash and yet shouting and throwing toast in a movie theatre is something everyone can understand? Life is awesome sometimes.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Ramble Through Old Ireland

Sorry for the absurdly long delay between updates; I was away for two weekends and lazy this one, and I've been sick for a solid week now (but getting better). Sorry also for the unusually long update I'm about to inflict on you now. And for the song-quote title that I'm not positive is from an authentically Irish song.

So about that last archaeology trip (which was almost exactly a month ago at this point). All the stops were pulled out for this one: we went to the most beautiful landscape yet, saw more sites in one go than ever before (even I was tired of going places by the end), had some of the best meals I’ve had in Ireland, and stayed out until the wee hours of the morning (whereas on the first overnight trip Tomás ushered us out of the pub and back to our hostel shortly after 11pm). It was truly an amazing day and a half.

The Burren is beautiful. I know I’ve been saying that about everything, so let me put it this way: Remembering how my landscape photography through the bus window got out of hand when I was in France and I wound up with far too many slightly blurred pictures of the countryside eating up space on my memory cards, I had been determined that I would not take pictures from buses here, since there are so many good opportunities on the ground. I had done very well with this decision for over a month by the time this field trip took place. The Burren, much to my camera’s battery’s dismay, completely destroyed my resolve. It is wild and desolate and completely stunning. I had never seen anything like it. I met a girl at the Medieval/Renaissance Society meeting last week who comes from County Clare, and I may have been just a little over the top in my praise for the region, but I just couldn’t help myself. There are plenty of lovely places in Cork, and yet Cork is dull by comparison.

The first place we went was Kilfenora Cathedral, where there are some neat high crosses. I have now seen three of the four medieval diocesan cathedrals in Ireland (Christ Church, Cashel, and Kilfenora; the rest of the cathedrals I keep mentioning are 19th century neo-Gothic cathedrals that only look that old). Don’t get excited, though—Kilfenora, as Connacht’s cathedral, is a testament to the remoteness and to the lack of wealth, shall we say, of the West as compared to the other regions. Next to the others, it does not look like a cathedral. Admittedly, some of this is due to the fact that unlike Christ Church, which has remained in use, and unlike Cashel, which is a ruin, Kilfenora is half and half: part of it has been repaired and remains in use for a local congregation, but they didn’t need the whole structure and enclosed a section of it while leaving the rest in ruins. It’s interesting.

I don’t have very much to say about a lot of the sites we visited. Some of them we just saw from the bus, so I don’t remember much about them anyway. We went to two abbeys (Cistercian the first day, Franciscan the second), both of which were very nice, but an abbey is an abbey and I don’t remember anything especially interesting about either of them, other than that at the second, after a quick tour of the church, we were allowed to basically run amok and explore what’s left of the friary on our own. So that was cool. Also, one of my classmates said, as we were photographing the ambulatory from every conceivable angle, “I’m pretty sure this is what Hogwarts is supposed to look like to non-magic people.” I said, “… Maybe we’re in Hogwarts RIGHT NOW.”

(Yes, I know Hogwarts is in Scotland. And fictional.)

Among the other sites was a “castle” that is, I believe, unique in being a medieval tower house to which a sixteenth-century fortified house was basically added on. I guess that’s the correct way to explain that, although it sounds odd considering the “addition” was considerably larger than the original building. I’m not sure whether to consider it awesome or an architectural travesty. Either way, we only got to see it from outside the fence, because the owner of the property and whatever government organization handles these things apparently have differing ideas about how to manage the site, and the landowner’s response to not being able to get someone to build a visitor’s center is to just not let anyone into the house at all. So there’s not much to say about it except that it’s a weird house. And has an interesting history due to a woman who had three husbands, two of whom were on opposite sides of the political conflict of the day. I think one of them may actually have been indirectly responsible for the death of the other, but I don’t remember the details of the story offhand.

At any rate, the other two I don’t think are very interesting to write about are Moughaun Hillfort, which is Bronze/Iron Age and where a really cool hoard of artifacts was found, and Bunratty Castle. I was excited to go to Moughaun, but it turns out there’s not really anything to see. The path crosses over some ditches that are vaguely recognizable as being what’s left of what were once earth walls. And there are some foundations of small stone buildings built by medieval people living in the remains of the fort. That’s basically it. Bunratty Castle was also more exciting in theory than in actuality. It’s also a tower house. I want to say it’s the biggest in Ireland but I might have that wrong. It’s definitely very large and very distinctive. And it’s not only well-maintained, but furnished, with the most recent owners’ incredibly extensive collection of medieval and Renaissance antiques. So you can actually see how it might have looked five hundred years ago, which is a very different experience from wandering through empty rooms with blank walls and no ceilings. I actually learned some interesting things.

On the castle grounds there’s also a folk park. I had no idea what that meant when I got to Ireland, but there are quite a few of them. Basically it consists of reconstructions of historical buildings, furnished with artifacts/antiques or replicas of things that would have been in said buildings. Sometimes there are reenactors and/or period-appropriate livestock. (At Bunratty, at least the day we were there, they have the latter but not the former.) Bunratty Folk Park is a reconstructed 19th century village and an assortment of 19th century cottages that represent typical houses from different parts of Ireland. It was vaguely interesting. I think with more time to not rush around, and if I were to go on a day I hadn’t already had just about all the history I could handle from things that were far less visually stimulating, I might enjoy it. As it was, I was mostly intrigued by the apparent unconcern with fire hazards like leaving peat fires unattended in open hearths in empty cottages. And with the wolfhounds who totally refused to come to the fence so I could pet them.

Poulnabrone Portal Tomb was the most haunting site from this trip. Even if you don’t know what that is offhand, I guarantee you’ve at least seen a picture of it somewhere at some point without realizing it—it’s quite famous as an image of Ireland and of the Neolithic in general. It was smaller than I expected, but still very striking, and all the more so because it’s just there. Alone on a rise in the middle of this vast field of exposed bedrock. It kind of embodies the Burren. I could have stood and looked at it for a lot longer than we did, despite the fact that it was windy and starting to rain. (We’d had pretty awesome weather for every other trip, so we were probably overdue for a crappy day at that point.)

That just leaves Cahercommaun Cashel. A cashel is essentially a ringfort that’s made of stone instead of earth. This one is on the edge of a gorge. ON THE EDGE. Of a GORGE. Very impressive. Not something I expected to see in Ireland. There’s not as much to see as you’re probably imagining—haphazard looking piles of rocks that you can see were once walls and foundations, and some that weren’t as obviously anything. The innermost enclosure is fairly intact; parts of the outer two survive. There’s a modern wooden walkway over the last bit of uneven ground, leading up to an observation deck overlooking the inner enclosure. After Tomás gave his spiel (again, in the wind and rain), he somewhat apprehensively gave us permission to hop down and explore. He spent most of the next half hour or so standing on the wall shouting at anyone who pushed the boundaries of acceptable distance between oneself and the cliff. It was cute.

Getting out to the cashel from the road is a nice little hike of maybe 20 or 30 minutes. I spent most of it, both there and back, talking to David, whom I’ve mentioned before. We were mostly trading field school stories, and it came to light that he applied to the same human osteology internship program at Notre Dame that I applied to for this past summer. Small world.

The last thing we saw (none of this has been in order, by the way; chronologically speaking, this was our last stop on the first day) was the Cliffs of Moher (again, I promise you know what they look like even if you don’t know the name). They don’t have any archaeological significance; they’re just awesome. The wind was terrible, and I was literally almost blown off my feet a few times. The view was spectacular. It made Howth look like a playground. Even more spectacular was the very odd pattern of clouds and late afternoon sunlight that David and I couldn’t stop taking pictures of. It was always just out of reach of being able to get both the cliffs and the sun-shining-on-the-ocean effect in the same frame. I’ll include some of those pictures when I eventually post field trip pictures at all, but I warn you that none of them really do it justice. I also have video of the waves crashing against the base of the cliffs (waaayyy below the place where the camera and I were standing), but I doubt that does anything justice, either.

By the way, the main reason I have yet to post those pictures is that over the course of six days of field trips I managed to take 646 of them. Actually, I probably took more than that; 646 survived the possibility of being deleted in the field and were ultimately uploaded to my computer. The prospect of going through them and coming up with a reasonable number to post online has been somewhat daunting. I think I have fewer pictures than that from my weekends in Dublin and in Killarney combined. Possibly from everything else I’ve done combined.

Friday, October 1, 2010

I Was Dreaming Of Old Ireland And Killarney's Lakes and Fells

Well, my post about my last archaeology field trip (two weeks ago now... oops) is going to have to be postponed again, because I am currently sitting in a hostel in Killarney trying to decide if I want to venture out tonight or wait until tomorrow and risk rain.

I'm traveling alone again, which is a little sad, but I'm over it. When I first got here I was surprised to find it was lonelier than Dublin; I don't know if that's because I'm used to having people around now and feel like I should have been able to find someone to come with me, or if it's just that the hustle and bustle of Dublin was too distracting to bother with being lonely. Either way, after I wandered around town for a bit, and looked around a few shops that were still open, and started realizing how much there is to do here that can't possibly be done in less than three days, I remembered that I'm perfectly capable of entertaining myself, and if I'm alone then I can do exactly what I want exactly when I want without having to worry about what if someone else wants to do something I'm not interested in or has no interest in what I really want to do. Plus, I am more confident on my own here than I was a month and a half ago in the big city. Ireland is not strange anymore, and although Killarney, specifically, is strange, it is small. If Dublin is Philadelphia, and Cork is Allentown (because we're talking about size here, not likelihood of being mugged or shot), Killarney is not even Bethlehem. Not even Easton. (Still bigger than Oberlin, though.)

I am in a very cheap hostel, which is not as nice as the one my class stayed in in Slane but still several times nicer than the one in Dublin. (Conclusion: I am staying somewhere new when I go back to Dublin.) There are wooden bunkbeds and one metal twin bed (mine! ha!) in my room, not as cute as the ones in Slane, but arranged in a rough circle in a normally-proportioned, brightly-lit room, as opposed to the weirdly long narrow room at Abbey Court with beds end-to-end along the sides. No lockers. But because I am a genius (and because I had to buy extra padlocks for the locker fail in Dublin), I have padlocked the zippers of my backpack and then padlocked the whole thing to the underside of my bedsprings.

Probably unnecessary anyway, because there are only two other women in my room, and neither of them seem to be concerned about leaving their things unattended. But I was still proud of my ingenuity, and plus I brought my laptop and am taking no chances. [insert rant about how if my Dell Mini hadn't decided to go into a kernel panic the night before I left home, then I could carry my computer in my purse everywhere I go and never have to worry about it].

I also brought a kind of an absurd bag of snacks with me, partly to make sure things in my kitchen that might not last the weekend get eaten and partly to avoid buying a meal or two while I'm here. Someday I swear I will learn that bananas don't travel well.

Killarney, from what I saw on my walk this evening, is extremely touristy. I knew before I got here that it's one of the biggest tourist hotspots, but that knowledge didn't fully prepare me. But it's still cute, and there's a huge assortment of pubs, most of which seem to have live music on weekends.

Tomorrow I am going on a bus tour of the Ring of Kerry, which allegedly has the best scenery in Ireland. We'll see how I think it compares to the Burren. Then on Sunday I'm going on another bus tour out along the Dingle Peninsula (which is a Gaeltacht) to the westernmost point in Ireland. It's supposed to be gorgeous as well. Monday morning before I head back to Cork, I may or may not go horseback riding in Killarney National Park. If not, I might still go to the park and hike for a bit if the weather's nice. So all in all, a busy weekend with numerous outdoorsy opportunities. That's why I decided to come now, to adventure before autumn gets too carried away with itself and is cold and rainy more often than not. And because I only have Mondays free from classes until the end of October.

In other news, I had my first music lessons this week. Tin whistle went well, and even after just an hour of observing up close someone who knows what she's doing and receiving a couple of instructions, I feel like some of what I never managed to teach myself has magically fallen into place. Things I couldn't figure out on my own make perfect sense now. I'm excited for the rest of the semester. Bodhrán went less well. Not that it went badly, it was just more unfamiliar. Even if I'd never held a tin whistle before, I'd have the advantage of being a woodwind player. I really had never held a bodhrán, and there I have no advantage whatsoever. I am small and it is awkward, and I am uncoordinated and it is extremely physical, and my ability to keep a steady beat is about as close as I come to having any percussion skills. But the teacher is very friendly and talkative and I like him a lot. I share my lesson time with just one other person, also American, but he is a shy, unnaturally tall drummer who laughed (not in a mean way, just an entertained way) at the idea of a petite clarinetist randomly choosing bodhrán lessons. I didn't mention my harp dilemma and the fact that my mind was ultimately made for me because the class was full. But now that I'm thinking about it, I think it's kind of great that my choice was between the two traditional instruments that are arguably the most masculine and the most feminine respectively.