Monday, September 8, 2014

More Irish than the Irish themselves?

     Following the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169, it has often been said that the original English settlers became more Irish than the Irish themselves. After almost three weeks here, some of us are starting to feel the same way. Since arriving, we’ve spent countless hours in a crash-course on Irish history and culture. I’m not sure if it’s possible to absorb an entire culture in three weeks, but our instructors are definitely doing their best to make that happen.

     In addition to time in the lecture hall and the library, we’ve been making a number of cultural excursions. During our first week we were exposed to some modern Irish cinema. Well supplied with popcorn and gummies, we watched Adam and Paul, the story of two homeless addicts wandering the streets of Dublin. Loosely adapted from Waiting for Godot, it has the feel of either a very depressing comedy or a moderately funny tragedy. Its dark, dry humour wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The perspective it presents certainly isn’t the one you would get from the guided tours – and that was exactly the idea. According to Ciaran, one of my favourite professors in the course, the movie was an experiment on their part. We seem to be the guinea pigs this year.

     Our next visit was to Croke Park, the headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA).
The museum at Croke Park.
Home to the All-Ireland finals in both Gaelic football and hurling, it can hold over 82,000 people. Each one of Ireland’s 32 counties puts forth four teams: men’s football, men’s hurling, women’s football, and camogie (women’s hurling). The teams are all amateur – none of the players get paid for playing. All the money the teams make goes back into training, development, and travel. Since the stadium was being prepared for the Penn State-UCF game the next day, this fact started an interesting analysis of the merits of amateur athletics. Our tour took us through the entire stadium, but I was most interested in the mechanics of field. Turns out, they need to use large rolling grow lights because they grass doesn’t get enough natural light to stay in playable condition. And even though it rains almost everyday, they still have a comprehensive watering system. Apparently the field drains so well, in order to remain playable in such wet conditions, that the grass needs to be watered every second day or so. And in order to maintain the field’s usefulness in the colder months, it is fitted with an underground heating system.

     This past week, we had our first introduction to Irish theatre. The show was George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House. Part comedy of manners, part satire, part reflection on the nature of violence, the show was both hilarious and quite dark (often at the same time). Are you beginning to sense a pattern here? It played in the Abbey Theatre, the national theatre of Ireland. It is a beautiful proscenium theatre with a single tier of seats. The explosions, lighting design, and set concept were all incredible.

Imposing? Check. 
      On Friday, we took a trip into the past. Loaded onto buses at an ungodly hour of the morning (9am) we headed about an hour out of Dublin. It had all the trappings of a middle school field trip, down to the bagged lunches and chatty girls in the back of the bus. Our first stop was in the small town of Trim, Trim Castle. (They filmed sections of Braveheart on the castle grounds.) The largest Norman castle in Ireland, its grounds cover over three acres and are completely enclosed by a large curtain wall. The central keep stands over three stories tall – dominating the surrounding countryside. It was built in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries by the lords of Meath as the seat of their power along the river Boyne. We had free reign of the castle grounds for an hour before our tour. We explored the foundations of the Great Hall, the cellar, the dock. Taking advantage of the large tower between us and the visitor’s centre, we even managed to scale a section of the curtain wall.

The enemy takes the walls!
     Our tour took us inside the cavernous keep. With walls over 4 metres thick and 50 feet tall, it is an imposing structure. Originally guarded by a garrison over 20 soldiers, along with the lord and his family, it is now only home to a number of sparrows. After receiving a quick history of the castle from our guide, we ascended the spiral staircase. (We were warned to beware of the trip steps, a set of steps slightly smaller than the rest which were designed to – you guessed it – trip an attacking soldier as he ran up the stairs.) The view from the top was absolutely stunning; you can see the remains of four medieval monasteries in the immediate vicinity. Following lunch in the shadow of the walls, we journeyed to the hills of Tara. Home to the ancient High Kings of Ireland, Tara has been used as a ceremonial and burial site for well over two thousand years. Dodging copious amounts of sheep poop, we spent the afternoon exploring the ditches which mark the site. I even hugged the stone that declared the King worthy of joining with the goddess Maeve and ruling all of Ireland. I am not worthy.

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