Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Town I Loved So Well

There are posters all over town for a play: Sinbad and the Sea Pirates. As opposed to what, exactly? Mountain pirates? I know, savanna pirates.

The other day I was sitting in a café down the street from the university reading the textbook for my Viking archaeology class, and who should walk in but the lecturer for said class, who is also the editor of said book. I waved, and he came over to my table, saw the book, and laughed. I bet I'd get bonus points on this essay if he knew what my name was.

It snowed last night. I mean it snowed hard-core, albeit for less than an hour/about an inch. I spent most of my last day in Cork trooping around to music stores on a bodhrán quest (mostly for a friend, although I also bought a small cheap one for myself, because I thought it might lessen the pain of the nice one not being for me) through a layer of snow I had not expected to see while I was here. The pond in Fitzgerald's Park, near the river in between my apartment and the city centre, was frozen solid where a day or two ago it was mostly water with some slushy ice. The ducks and terns had fled, presumably to the river. I was one of several people walking back and forth to photograph the snow-covered rose garden from multiple angles.

My last walk by the river. Farewell my lovely swans, my awkward terns, my elusive cormorants. Farewell my funny/creepy rooks. And farewell my herons, even though there was a good deal of love lost between us after I discovered this: (I just couldn't look at them the same way after that.) It's funny, I never though I cared much about birds, but I may have spent more time this semester watching birds than in all my time before now.

I meant to mention before, I think, that I count swans compulsively. I like the way they're so often in even numbers. When they're not, sometimes if you watch them for a bit you can guess which is the odd one out.

It took me a month or two, but eventually I saw exactly six in the same place at the same time.*

I also don't think I realized how much I cared about water. Everywhere I have gone this semester, I have gravitated toward rivers and bays and the open ocean.

I am very sad I did not get to go back to Killarney. There is a lot that I didn't have time for, but I think that is my biggest regret.

I feel like there is so much more I wanted to say here on my last night in Cork. I could say it's strange to think I won't walk down the Western Road again, or hike up the ridiculous hill to the music building, or see the spires of a cathedral from my living room in the early morning. I could rejoice that I no longer have to live with the slovenly roommates who after a semester of unabashed disgustingness left yet more for the two of us here until today to clean up. I could mourn that I will no longer drink a pint in The Gallows on Wednesday nights, or find live trad music whenever I want it, or be able to get on a bus and be any of a several dozen beautiful and interesting (and preferably by the sea) places in less than an hour or two. I already miss some of my classes and lecturers, and I already miss MedRen and O'Bhéal and assorted friends and acquaintances, some of whom live here and some of whom have already left for wherever they came from. (And to those I would have seen if I'd made it to Tom Barry's on Friday night—I'm sorry I missed you. I hope it was fun, and I wish you all the best.)

But I don't think any of that is what I really wanted to say.

I've never been good at goodbyes. They're always awkward. And in ten minutes there's going to be a taxi outside waiting to take me to the bus that's going to take me to the plane that's going to take me to New York.

So goodbye, Cork. Goodbye, Ireland. It's been quite a ride. I hope we will meet again someday.

Good night [morning?], and joy be to you all.

* This is a geeky fairy tale reference. Look up "The Six Swans" by the Brothers Grimm, or "The Wild Swans" by Hans Christian Anderson, which as far as I can tell is based on the Grimms' story and which I think might be the only happy thing Anderson ever wrote. One of my favorite novels ever is a retelling of these tales, set in medieval Ulster. (I think. Maybe Leinster. But probably Ulster.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Land of Song

I meant to post this earlier, while I was studying for my exams and coming up with all of these, but somehow I never found the motivation and the time simultaneously. Actually, that's true of a lot of things I've intended to post and never have.

Anyway, for your amusement, I present: Highlights* of Medieval Irish Legends (all from the Finn Cycle). Citations available on request, but I'm too lazy to include them up front in something this informal.

The winner for best euphemism for sex/possible sexual assault: "He took her, and she was in his company."

Finn is psychic**: "At the end of the day Finn came to the hut and found the headless body. 'This is a body without a head!' cried Finn."
You go, Finn. Great clairvoyant hero, indeed. Nothing gets past you.

Creative Writing 101: Descriptions are important. "[blah blah blah] on two hills equally high with one another. And there was a black gloomy deep dangerous horrible precipice between them." Got enough adjectives there?

From the next paragraph in the same tale: "'and although your accoutrements and your clothes and your garb are hideous, and your own appearance not the most beautiful, if you make the leap she will be with you and accept you.'"
Well. When you put it that way.

This one even confused the lecturer: "and he [Finn] was dead between the two rocks. Fishermen of the Boyne found him... Aichlech cut his [Finn's] head from him, and then the sons of Uirgriu killed him." Wait a second...***

Apparently adjective abuse was a common problem in medieval Ireland (this might be my favorite): "Then a fierce pitiless powerful manly vengeful virile battle was fought between them."

Unintended double entendres: always a win. "'Perhaps the men of Tara think that we have been long enough conversing here, maiden,' said Finn. 'If it be long enough,' said the maiden, 'since you made a start to the talking, it is up to you to wrap it up.'"
Hurr hurr hurr. Man, he's trying to be all suave and subtle and she just gets right down to business. (He takes it in stride, though—his next line leaves nothing to the imagination.)

This is the one that made me decide to do this little compilation in the first place: "'I will depart, son of O Duibhne,' said he, 'and I leave this advice with you, not to go into a tree of one trunk in fleeing from Fionn, and not to go into an underground cave which has only one entrance, and not to go into an island of the sea which has only one way leading to it,'" and the reader is thinking, Yes, yes, all sound advice to someone in hiding, "and he said, 'whatever place you shall cook your meal do not eat it there, and whatever place you shall eat do not lie there...'" uh-huh, uh-huh, that makes sense... "'and whatever place you shall lie do not rise there.'" Ok, ri—, wait what?!

This is followed shortly by sex euphemisms AND random double entendres in the same paragraph: "'Diarmaid,' said she, 'though your valour and your bravery be great in conflicts and in battle-places I think myself that that little drop of errant water is more daring than you are.'
'That is true, Graínne,' said Diarmaid, 'though I have been for a long time keeping myself from you through fear of Fionn I will not suffer myself to be reproached by you any longer; and it is hard to trust women,' he said. And it was then for the first time that Diarmaid ó Duibhne of the bright-tooth made a wife of Graínne, daughter of the king of Ireland... And Diarmaid rose early on the morrow and went to the Searbhan Lochlannach and made a bond of contract and agreement with him and got permission to hunt and to chase from him and never to touch his berries."

Also, sometimes when a lecturer says something particularly funny or witty, even if it's not really important, I write it down so I can laugh at it again when I read over my notes later. I ran across two of those from this class: "It's hard to find a point in this depressing little story..." (So we're reading it... why, again?) and "There may be a tradition in Irish literature for how you talk about sinister meals of fish in abandoned houses with severed heads." (I don't think you need the context for that one to see its ridiculousness.)

In the interest of not being a total dick (although possibly it's too late), here are a couple of things I picked out that I really liked in a serious way rather than a WTF way:

"'What is sweeter than mead?' said Finn. 'Trustworthy conversation,' said the maiden."

And Graínne speaking of Diarmaid (in a poem that's not connected to the Diarmaid and Graínne story quoted above; don't even get me started on what a bitch Graínne is there): "There is one on whom I should gladly gaze, for whom I would give the bright world, all of it, all of it, though it be an unequal bargain."

There are also some good statements made about life in the forest, close to nature, being infinitely better than life at court surrounded by fancy things, but I don't have any quotes at hand.

Conclusion: If I were a lit major, or I'd had the foresight to make an independent major in folklore and mythology, I would totally be planning to come back to Cork for a postgrad diploma from the Celtic Civ department.

* meaning: Unintentionally Hilarious Sentences
** No, really, that's actually an important theme.
*** If you're trying to figure out how many times this man has to die, as we were, here's a hint: Pronouns are ambiguous.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Time Draws Near

Well, the pretty little blue and red hat I knitted myself last winter is now somewhere in Galway. I hope some other poor university student finds it and likes it and gives it a good home.

I guess I haven't really written that much this semester about actually living in Cork. I've been trying so hard to keep up with everything else that the day-to-day stuff has sort of slipped through the cracks. Most of it I don't suppose has been remarkably interesting—ask many of the American students here and they'll tell you that they go about their lives between trips and adventures not all that differently from the way they would at home, except that every once in a while as you walk down the street it suddenly hits you: Hey... I'm in IRELAND.

I think what I'm trying to say is that despite all the frantic weekends here and there trying to experience as much as we can before leaving, this isn't entirely the extended vacation it sometimes appears to be. We're living here. We go to class and write papers and buy groceries and do laundry and clean the kitchen. And sometimes that's all we do. If you're one of those that thinks even the mundane becomes exciting just by virtue of being in another country, well, no, it really doesn't. Maybe for like a week. After that, you forget where you are and just do whatever it is you do.

I think I first realized this back in October when I was in Killarney and went riding with that couple on vacation from Georgia (that would be the state, not the country). They asked me what they should do in Cork, and I had no idea what to say. I have not experienced Cork the way they would. Other than the Public Museum, I haven't done a lot of the touristy things. (I think I meant to, at first, but it just never happened and after a while it didn't seem important anymore.) When I have free time, I walk by the river or sit in a computer lab on Facebook. I've gone to very few restaurants. I'm a college student; usually my version of eating out is cheeseburgers and kebabs from places a middle-aged tourist wouldn't want to set foot in. I don't even know that many pubs, because I'm not the kind of person who goes out that much, and when I do, it's the same places over and over again. If someone were to visit me here, I'd be glad to show them MY Cork and maybe explore some new things—but I have no idea how to instruct someone else on how to enjoy Cork. At least not reliably.

People have been asking if I'm excited to go home. It's a hard question to answer. It's a little like when you're a kid, and it's August, and summer's gotten kind of boring, but starting school doesn't exactly sound like the way to fix that. (Not that Cork is boring.) I think if you had asked me two months ago if I wanted to come home, the answer would have been a resounding yes. In fact, someone did ask me that, a certain blunt and insightful friend, and I almost cried. I wasn't homesick, exactly; I never really had the whole culture shock thing. I was lonely and isolated and watching my friends back home go on with their lives without me and feeling like I was missing everything important.

I still feel that way, but now I'm also more invested in my life here. I've gotten to know people and gotten involved in things that are going to be hard to leave behind. It could be worse—I know at least one girl who found a boy, and it started out as a nice casual thing, but it started too early, and after a whole semester it's gotten out of hand and she's realized just how much she's going to miss him when they never see each other again. Studying abroad, I've discovered, is more of a blessing-and-a-curse situation than anybody tells you beforehand. It's a good experience to have. It's fun. You learn a lot about yourself and about life and about connecting across cultures and all that other cliché stuff. But at the same time, it's a terrible thing to be somewhere just long enough to get to know it and start to find your place, only to have to leave it again.

I've been struck by how different this experience is than my experience with Belize, and I'm not talking about the difference between the two countries here. I expected it to be different because here I'm a regular student going to class and joining societies and just generally managing my own time and decisions, whereas there I was basically working. I was a student, yes, but the classroom was an excavation and I was there all day, every day, and I lived and worked and played with the same people all the time. It was meant to be a different experience, but I was unprepared for some of the ways it's different. For one thing, the scatter of goodbyes here feels strange and disconcerting. Things are not over all at the same time, and it makes for awkward situations when you realize that you've just done something for the last time and probably aren't going to see someone again even though you'll be here for days more. Plus you're inevitably going to miss saying goodbye to some people because you didn't know ahead of time that you weren't going to see them again.

Leaving Belize also felt less final, somehow. Or maybe that's just the way I remember it now, because I have kept loosely in touch with so many people via Facebook. Maybe it was the constant close proximity; I think a lot of us really didn't expect our goodbyes to be final, but planned to meet again sooner or later, even if not all in one group (and many have). Maybe it was just that we all knew we had the option to come back again the next year, or the year after. Obviously we knew we could never come back and have it be exactly as it was then, but it still felt different. I can't really explain it, I guess.

Here, we have no illusions. I have already said a few goodbyes in which there was no pretending that we had any expectation of ever seeing each other again. ("Have a good... life, I guess...") I walk the streets of Cork in these last days knowing that although I hope to return someday, I might very well not. At the very least, there's a very good chance that I won't before many of the people I know have moved on and some of the things I love have changed beyond recognition.

And so the answer is yes, I'm excited to go home, but I'm not excited to leave.

(And you can tell because my room doesn't even look like packing everything I own is on the horizon, let alone imminent.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Come Join Me In Rhyme

At the risk of getting a lot more personal than I tend to like to do in this blog...

There's a place I go sometimes called The Hayloft. It's a tiny room (the bar takes up fully one quarter of the available space) in the upstairs of a pub in the city centre, and on Monday nights it plays host to O'Bhéal. (I'm supposed to know what that means, but I can never remember.) O'Bhéal is "Cork's weekly poetry event". The evening starts off with a silly poetry exercise, with a free pint for the winner, then a guest poet brought in for the night reads for about an hour, and then the rest of the time until close (usually around midnight) is an open mic. I've seen the crowd vary from less than a dozen to more than you'd think the room could hold, and ages range from twenty-ish to the 67-year-old who tried to buy me a drink last night. Many, if not most, are regulars.

I stumbled upon this by accident: They had a special event for Cork Culture Night in September, on a Friday instead of the usual Monday, and I saw it in the Culture Night listings and went thinking it was a one-time event. And it was love.

I forget sometimes that social science is not where I planned to end up. Four years ago the direction my life has gone, and more specifically the extent to which it sometimes seems I've turned my back on the arts, would have been unthinkable. The only literature courses I've taken since beginning my second attempt at college have been my French classes, and sometimes I'll sit down to write a French paper and suddenly remember that hey, I actually enjoy this, and I think this is what I meant to do once upon a time.*

I could go on about that for a while, but that's getting pretty tangential to the story, even for me. Anyway, I hadn't been to something like this in ages, and it used to be a huge part of my life, and it was really refreshing. And it made me really, really happy at a time (the semester had just started) when I didn't really know what I was doing yet and was trying to figure out what my life here was going to be.

I wound up not going as often as I wanted to. Sometimes I decided it was cold and I was lazy, and sometimes I was disappointed by my failure to get other girls to go with me (I succeeded twice, but that was it), but after a while I had to stop caring about both of those things because I was running out of time to say "Next week," so for the last few weeks I've gone pretty regularly. It's always a good time, and I've never felt unwelcome or out of the loop even when I'm there by myself. The guest poets are always great (the first one, on Culture Night, was a comic who recited, among other things, a very long poem that was a dialogue between Cathy and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights and was absolutely hilarious), and although the things read during the open mic sometimes vary in quality, everybody gets applause and support.

The MC (and, I believe, the guy who started all of this in the first place several years ago, and who kind of reminds me of Liam Neeson) always approaches everyone in the room with the open mic sign-up list, including me. For a long time, I just smiled and shook my head. Like I said, it had been a very long time, and I was a newcomer (and a foreigner to boot), and those two things together made me very uncertain about reading anything myself.

But also, and perhaps more importantly, it had been a very long time since I really wrote anything to read. I wrote poetry constantly in high school and my first semester in college, but after that it sort of stopped. I don't think it tapered off as I got busy with other pursuits, either, it just stopped. I'd written two poems since then that I can think of, and most of another that got lost because MS Word's autosave function sometimes fails to save automatically even though I'm pretty sure that's why it exists, which sort of sucked any remaining motivation out of me. That was it.

Now, I have a theory about this cessation of writing that involves my need to write a specific poem, and you can feel free to ask me about it sometime, but I'm not going to get into it here because I don't think it's really an appropriate topic for this blog. The point is, on my way home from Culture Night, I wrote a poem. I wrote THAT poem, in fact. And it was like magic: in the last two and a half months I've written more than I wrote in the two and a half years before it.

I finally read one of them last week. I'm pretty sure it's the best poem I've ever written, and reaction I got from the audience was more positive than I would have ever dreamed. There were actually spontaneous grunts of approval somewhere to my right, at least three people made a point of telling me in person afterwards that it was great, and the young woman who was MCing that night reclaimed the mic after I sat down and said, "Erica, you can come back anytime."

I don't think anything else I have to offer would measure up, but it was pretty satisfying nonetheless.

Last night I read the poem I wrote that first night. I wanted to explain it, the story behind the writing of it if not the subject, but things were running behind and so I just got to the point. But I read it.

What I really wanted to do was write something during the semester specifically to read last night, something about O'Bhéal; it would have ended with something like "I came all the way to Ireland to find myself again," but working backwards from an ending has pretty much never worked out for me and I never really found the time to work on it anyway.

Anyway, I'm going to miss O'Bhéal a lot. I walked away from The Hayloft last night very sad to know I won't be back again. It wasn't until the last couple of weeks that I really started talking to people there, but it's been really important to me all along, and I don't have anything like it back home to return to. I'd like to try to find something, or start something at Oberlin. Whether either of those things happens or not, and despite the fact that I didn't go as much as I intended to and kind of wish I had, I think it's always going to be one of the things that defines my life in Cork as I'll remember it.

* That's kind of an unintentional play on words that no one is going to notice unless you know that my primary French professor and I share a certain fascination with fairy tales and folklore.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Too Full of Memories

My enchantment with Belfast—with its charming Christmas spirit, its exciting markets, its handsome Victorian pubs with great trad music—ended abruptly when we commenced our “Black Taxi Tour”* on Saturday morning. Other city tours I have been on have taken in all the major buildings of the city, discussing all sorts of miscellaneous facts along with history, taking topical detours to point out something important even if the tour has a theme into which that something doesn’t fit. Tour guides are enthusiastic and convey a love of where they are even when exploring somber topics.

When we got into our cab to go learn about the Troubles, I guess I assumed we were going to drive around and see the sights and hear about religion and politics along the way. Instead, we left the city centre at once and went straight to the troubled neighborhoods, divided by a wall, and stayed in that part of the city for the next hour and a half. This was not a tour of city halls and churches and historic homes, but of bloody streets and memorials and political murals. The driver wasn’t eager to share, or even bored; he was bitter.

As we got underway, the cab driver glanced in the rearview mirror and asked if any of us were Catholic. We looked around at each other awkwardly. The boy sitting next to me said yes. “Well,” said the cabbie, “You and I couldn’t live in this neighborhood, just because of being Catholic.” He then pointed out a side street down which was a shop or two that would be closed by the police by five or six in the evening, “just in case there’s any trouble.”

“That’s how daft this city is.”

We stopped first in that Protestant neighborhood, which is filled with huge murals of assorted historical figures, as well as one of a camouflaged gunman who, eerily, seems to keep his painted gun trained on you wherever you walk. One of the murals is of a man who, according to our guide, single-handedly killed fifty-something Catholics.

“In most countries, that would make you a serial killer. Here, it makes you a hero. You get your face on a building.”

He told us about how the two groups are distinguished in a conflict where race and appearance don’t differ, where you can’t tell on sight who’s different from you: names. Catholics have names that are Irish and/or Biblical: Patrick and Matthew, Niamh and Naomi. Protestants have English names: Victoria, Elizabeth, Henry, Winston. William can go either way—but Protestant Williams are called Billy and Catholic Williams are called Liam. What I took away from this? Obviously there were times someone targeted a whole neighbourhood populated by one side or the other, but as for individual killings? They weren't random, at least not all the time. You knew who your victim was.

We went next to the wall dividing the Protestant neighborhood from the Catholic neighborhood. On the Protestant side, it’s painted and visitors write their names on it alongside messages of peace. On the Catholic side, there is a memorial garden with plaques listing the name of various categories of people who died because of the Troubles. The list of murdered civilians gives their ages. Two of them are little girls aged four and five.

After some more murals and depressing exposition, we headed back to our hotel. “See those taxis over there?” asked our driver as we started down the street from our last stop. Apparently, they only operate in that part of the city. The drivers won’t take you from there to, say, the city centre. If the potential destinations are restricted to one area, then if “you get into one of those taxis, you know you’ll get home safe.”

This is not the way things were. It’s the way things are.

“Are things getting better?” asked the guy in the front passenger seat.

“I think this is as good as it’ll ever be,” said the cab driver.

* Our taxi was actually painted with a multicolored checkerboard pattern. Whatever.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

'Twas In The Town Of Belfast

(And some other places, too.)

Thanksgiving weekend (last weekend for the non-Americans), after a late night Skype date on Wednesday with my entire family including my grandmother and one of my aunts, was the trip to Northern Ireland.

I’m not sure how long it would take to drive directly from Cork to Belfast. For us, going first to Dublin to pick up the IFSA Butler students studying there and in Maynooth, it took a solid six hours, not including the brief stop in Dublin. It’s something I’ve remarked on before in contrasting my experiences living in an urban setting in PA and a rural one in OH, but it never ceases to surprise me how much your surroundings can affect your perception of distance. Six hours is a long drive in America, too, but nowhere near as unbearable as it seems here where I’ve gotten used to getting everywhere within no more than an hour or two. On the other hand, walking thirty or forty minutes to get somewhere is something I’d have to be really in the mood for and have nice weather for back home, whereas here it’s normal. Not having a car really changes the definition of “walking distance.” Of course, a big part of it is that here I am always in compact cities or towns—not everywhere I might consider walking in Bethlehem or in Ohio is necessarily pedestrian-friendly.

But I digress. The most striking thing to me about the drive to Belfast was that I had absolutely no idea when or where we crossed into Northern Ireland. I was expecting it to be fairly obvious. I mean, it is technically another country, and I’m not sure I’ve ever crossed a border without realizing it before.* I wasn’t expecting it to be a big deal (certainly not like crossing borders in Central America… holy crap), but I thought there’d be something.

Oh well. Belfast is a small city. Our tour guide the following morning was going to claim it was no more than a mile square, which I suspect is untrue (I’m not sure what she meant, but there’s no way the whole city is that small; probably not even the downtown area) but it’s probably not as big in area as Cork, anyway. It does have more people than Cork. It does not have more people than the Lehigh Valley. I believe it’s comparable to Winston-Salem. And it’s the second largest city in all of Ireland.

The city centre area, where we stayed, is pretty enough, and currently filled with Christmas decorations. Outside the city centre there are some much rougher-looking neighborhoods. Carolyn and Kristin and I walked as far as the Queen’s University on Saturday afternoon, though, and the university neighborhood seems fairly quiet and attractive. I think I expected the city as a whole to be a lot harder and seedier than it actually is. I think I could have been happy living there. Especially if I didn’t have to live so bloody far away from everything the way I do in Cork.

We also went to the Ulster Museum, which was moderately interesting. It’s a history museum and a natural history museum and an art museum all rolled into one. (We skipped the art floor.) I thought it was pretty nifty to be able to learn about the Troubles and look at stuff from a Spanish shipwreck and see dinosaur fossils all in the same place.

Thursday night the Butler staff had arranged a “Thanksgiving” dinner for us at a
neighboring hotel. The restaurant was really nice, and, like everywhere else in Ireland, already had Christmas decorations up, which made the Thanksgiving confetti scattered on our tables pretty funny.**

Dinner was, as someone else put it, “a good try.” The food was decent, but they focused more on presentation than on quantity, which I guess is typical for a fancy restaurant, but is not the point of Thanksgiving dinner. Also, the two Thanksgiving staples that should have been guaranteed to be present in Ireland—bread and mashed potatoes—were missing, much to our disappointment. BUT, the turkey was free-range, and dessert, which was practically a meal in itself, was fantastic.

Belfast’s City Hall is home to an awesome outdoor holiday market, with stalls selling all kinds of gifts and decorations and tons of awesome international food and sweets you’ve never even thought of before. I drank mulled wine and ate a kangaroo burger! because who knows when I’ll have another chance at that. There must have been half a dozen places to buy crepes, Bailey’s hot chocolate abounded in multiple flavors, and I’ve never seen so much fudge in one place before. And it’s basically on City Hall’s front lawn, and the building is all lit up at night. It’s really lovely and it made the snow fun instead of annoying.

On Friday morning we had our tour of the Antrim coast. Beautiful, and so different from other parts of the coast I’ve been to. Very very rocky. According to our tour guide (although, see my above comment about what she said about Belfast and decide for yourself whether you believe her), it’s someone’s job to drive along part of the coastal road early every morning and make sure there haven’t been any rock falls that need to be cleared away.

Also—you can see Scotland!

Our first destination was the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which is maybe twenty meters long and suspended over the ocean between two cliffs. Apparently it was first built by fisherman, but whenever that may have been I sincerely doubt it was the same bridge that’s there now. I know this because I was able to cross the bridge that’s there now. Needless to say, I did not look forward to it, and I considered not doing it right up until it was my turn. But it’s far sturdier than anything I’ve ever imagined from the term “rope bridge.”

I still snapped when people*** decided on the way back that jumping up and down on it would be fun.

I’m a little disappointed that it wasn’t quite as dramatic as expected, although for me, something more epic probably would been a no-go.

Next stop: Dunluce Castle, allegedly with one of the most dramatic settings of any castle in Ireland.

Honestly, I was kind of indifferent. I was riding along thinking how absurdly pretentious it seemed to be mildly bored of castles. But bored I thought I was.

Then we saw it.

As our guide put it, even Scottish visitors have to admit it’s pretty impressive.

It’s literally on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. When I say literally, I mean that back when it was inhabited, the family elected to move elsewhere after the kitchen FELL OFF INTO THE OCEAN. This cliff is actually a very high, steep island; there are some outbuildings on the mainland and one accesses the keep by crossing a short bridge.

It’s amazing. A fairy tale ruin. Like something out of a movie. It actually made me think of the castle by the ocean in The Last Unicorn, although if I remember correctly there was beach in between that castle and the water. Not so much here.

I need to look up more about it, though, because as usual the guide didn’t really “guide” us, and there was only so much information posted. I didn’t really understand the layout.

Of course, part of the problem was that we were given FIFTEEN MINUTES off the bus to explore. Seriously?! If it was a tower house that might be one thing; as castles go, they’re usually pretty small. But this is a sprawling Norman castle on a cliff. You can’t possibly appreciate it in fifteen minutes. I don’t know what this woman was thinking.

Possibly it was that we were losing daylight. I’ve mentioned how early it gets dark here. This was several hours farther north than Cork. The sun was distinctly in the west by 12:30 in the afternoon, and for all intents and purposes we were at the Giant’s Causeway at sunset—at 3:30.

The Giant’s Causeway was pretty neat. It’s bigger than I thought, not in terms of rock size but in terms of how spread out it is. It just goes on and on. And it’s not flat, either; there are all kinds of interesting steps and formations to climb. (I didn’t, much.)

So that was that, I suppose. There was snow on the hills when we set out that morning, and it hailed and/or sleeted more than once while we were out adventuring. It snowed off and on the rest of the weekend, and there was quite a bit in Dublin by the time we took the Trinity and UCD kids back on Sunday. Apparently it’s snowed quite a bit more this week. We didn’t get much here in Cork, and it melted within a few hours. The city salted its sidewalks maniacally for what no one in Ohio or PA would bat an eye at.

* That actually may not be true, because I’ve gone from France to Monaco and back again and it occurs to me that I don’t remember that at all, so it’s quite possible it’s also a totally open border.
** We’re not sure where one acquires Thanksgiving confetti in Europe. We suspect it may have had to be ordered specially for us.
*** read: assholes

Friday, December 3, 2010

Fare Thee Well, Dear Anna Liffey

I don’t think there is much of interest to you about my most recent Saturday in Dublin, the day before the odd bus tour of my last post. I woke up early and availed myself of a truly impressive continental breakfast in the hostel before walking to the Collins Barracks Museum of History and Decorative Arts (or something like that). I went there back in August with some of the other IFSA Butler kids, but very briefly and I wanted to see the rest of it. I got there right after it opened for the day and stayed for almost three hours*, after which I walked back up the river to Temple Bar, where a really neat outdoor food market was underway. (I ate grilled lamb meat on a stick and bought a pecan tart that looked like it might measure up to my mother’s but sadly did not.) That afternoon I revisited the National Museum of Archaeology, just to take a closer look at the Viking exhibit since I kind of got rushed through last time and since I’m now taking an actual Viking archaeology class. By the time I was done with archaeology (which took a surprisingly short time because it’s a small museum and I was just there a couple of months ago), I still had about an hour before the museums closed for the day, so I went around the corner to the natural history museum, a.k.a. “The Dead Zoo.”

Ireland’s National Museum of Natural History is an interesting place. It’s a very small building and it’s called the Dead Zoo because the only exhibits are of stuffed animals. Most of them have been there forever. The museum opened in (I think) the nineteenth or early twentieth century, and basically hasn’t changed since then. Most of the displays and the labels are exactly as they’ve always been. Specimens are mostly grouped with others they’re at least vaguely related to, but sometimes there seem to be multiple groupings in the same case that don’t really go together at all. (The ground floor, which is all Irish animals, is a bit more consistent in this regard than the exotic animals section upstairs, where, for example, there is one case that has a family of lions side-by-side with an assortment of South American monkeys.) Also, a fair number of specimens are just mounted heads hanging along the walls and around the support columns.

On the one hand, this is pretty neat. I like old things. I like seeing how things used to be, and keeping them that way where it’s practical.**

On the other hand, I do think there are some problems with it from a museums-are-for-educating-the-public standpoint. Species names and classifications sometimes change, and I definitely noticed some labels that are either outdated (i.e. a name that isn’t used anymore, or a subspecies that’s no longer recognized) or not very specific.*** (And since I’m not a biologist, if I noticed some… God knows how many there actually are.) There was also a specimen or two that I’m pretty sure represent species that are now extinct, but which are still mixed in with everything else with no indication that that’s the case. So I guess we’ve found the point at which I stop being in favor of avoiding change just for the sake of preservation.

However, something encouraging from the frontlines of the war on ignorance: More than once during my museum adventures that day, I heard parents actually gently correcting their children when they announced something that was wrong, or explaining something to their children that was actually correct. So often I just get depressed and angry overhearing conversations in situations like this, because it’s obvious the parents are just as uninformed/misinformed/just plain stupid as their kids and end up reinforcing their wrongness instead of teaching them something (or, God forbid, reading a sign and learning something themselves). It’s really nice to know there are people out there who do value knowledge.

Unfortunately, that good feeling was slightly dampened by my acute awareness that Irish children are just as obnoxious as American children, and Irish parents apparently no more interested than their American counterparts in attempting to teach their children that different situations call for different standards of behavior—e.g., use your inside voice, or better yet, just shut the hell up once in a while.

I don’t hate children. I hate badly behaved children. Just like I hate poorly-trained dogs. In both cases it’s not their fault; it’s the fault of the person responsible for teaching them manners.

Of course, there are plenty of rude adults in museums, too, and I’m not sure I can believe that they just don’t know any better.

Moving on. That evening I think I just hung around my hostel. The next night, after my day trip, I went to a pub around the corner for trad music and what I’m pretty sure is the best whiskey ever made. It was a personal goal this semester to find a whiskey I like at least as much as (and preferably better than) Jameson that’s not prohibitively expensive. Success. Massive success. It’s a little more expensive than would have been ideal, but it’s not outrageous and it’s so good I don’t even care. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to obtain even here. I’m hoping to hunt down a bottle before I come home, but I may not be able to outside Dublin. Sigh. At any rate, I thought that was a pretty good way to end what was potentially my last trip to the first part of Ireland I saw.

I said when I left it the first time that I’d be content never to go back to Dublin once I’d seen what there was to see. Now that I’ve done that, it turns out I was wrong. I have a soft spot for it after all.

I’m still not sure I’d ever want to LIVE there, though.

* More than a third of this was spent in a single exhibit: “The Way We Wore”—roughly three centuries of clothing styles. Conclusion #1: I really need to get back on friendly terms with a sewing machine. Conclusion #2: Wherever I find myself after college, I really need to find myself a theatre company to work for.
** Alternative sentence: I have a pathological aversion to relatively minor changes that can’t be undone. Specifically, changes that involve undoing something, like putting away a puzzle you spent hours putting together. So leaving displays exactly the same for decades kind of works for me.
*** “Tapir.” Right… that’s nice. You know there’s more than one kind, right?