The dry stone walls
Trim the crests of the hills like black lace
The wind passes through church ruins
Like a dead man’s breath through a flute
The wool on your back
Scratches your skin like a father’s whiskery kiss.
In this place
Life is not a game of politics or dreams
Life is a thing you scrape from the land.
As we enter the second week of our time in Ireland, Bruce and I can’t help feeling that we have a nearly perfect group of students with us: smart, skeptical, funny, game to hike across the mountains in pouring rain, and so enthusiastic about being here that they’re almost exhausting us. :-)
The first weekend was, in theory, “off” for us, but weekends are busy by Ballyvaughan standards. On Saturday we all went to the farmer’s market in town, then hiked nearly two hours to Ailwee Caves. This is one of my favorite walks in the area, along the green roads that connect low and high pastures, with beautiful views back down over the village. We had discount tickets to tour the caves (thanks to Robert Wainwright), and also to visit the Birds of Prey Center, where Kaitlyn, Emily, Erin, and Quinn got to handle a Harris hawk, and Chloe, and Michelle Z handled a beautiful owl as part of the demonstration. The show was cut short by rain (surprise!), but we had time to see the aviary before heading back to town.
On Saturday night, there was traditional music at Greene’s Pub. Though I have trouble staying up to enjoy sets that begin at 10PM, this was a particularly lovely session: not a band, just a bunch of local people who like to play together. Add in a harmonica player from North Carolina who’s working at the Burren College right now, and it was a pretty cool performance all around.
On Sunday a few of us went to mass at the Catholic church in Ballyvaughan. Given the importance of religion in Irish history and identity, this was one more way for us to understand and show respect for community that is welcoming us for this month. Afterwards, we checked out the craft fair in town, and at night we went to a ceili (dance) in Kilfenora, a nearby village with a grand tradition of dancing. We had arranged for a lesson in Irish set-dancing beforehand, and the instructor (a moonlighting special-ed teacher) liked our students so much that she stuck with us through the entire evening, coaching us and matching up partners. The locals were very welcoming and very forgiving of our many missteps. Good craic! (and another late night)
Tomorrow we are leaving bright and early for a couple of days on Inish Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands. It would be reasonable to ask when, with all this touring, do we find time for study and art making? Somehow, it happens. When we met for “class” in the studios today, I was impressed by everyone’s readings of Eavan Boland’s nuanced poetry, and the students already have proposals for their visual work evolving.
Time and memory
in a secret landscape
Wandering a lost
Cow pies covering the morning road
later squashed from a horse’s journey
The future’s forgotten history
within those past generations
with quiet ghosts lingering
on a map of untraveled dreams
Let’s start by playing catch-up: as I narrated our hikes to Glenaragah and Rathboney Churches yesterday, I neglected to mention our encounter with the Book of Kells. This masterpiece of early monastic manuscript illumination has survived from the 12th century. It contains period versions of the gospels, along with commentary and marginal notes. In the 1970’s, the Irish government underwrote the creation of 100 facsimile volumes so that the singular calligraphy and illustration of the Book of Kells could be viewed around the world. One of those copies has found a home at the Burren College of Art. Donning cotton gloves, we were able to page through all 340 surviving folios, and to find inspiration in the beautiful meldings of nature and religion, text and image, that characterize this remarkable work.
Last night, Eddie Lenihan came to Orchard House. One of Ireland’s most famous traditional storytellers, Eddie started out 30 years ago as a linguist who intended to analyze dialects that survived along Ireland’s west coast. As he interviewed elderly people, he realized that he cared less about their accents than he did about what they had to say. And so he began to collect their stories as well. His presentation last night was mesmerizing: whether he was telling a recent story about being mistaken for an Orthodox priest as he rode the Moscow subway (well, he really does have extraordinary whiskers!) or relating an ancient tale about innocent pedestrians being forced to play ball with the faeries, we found ourselves immersed in vivid and inspiring narratives.
This morning, Friday, we woke to something entirely unfamiliar: SUNSHINE!! And, almost unbelievably, it lasted through the entire morning, as we explored Corcomroe Abbey and its grounds. Occupied from the 11th through 15th centuries, Corcomroe’s location in an isolated valley speaks to the rugged ethos embraced by Cistercian Monks throughout the Burren. Though the modern village of Bell Harbor is within walking distance, the vistas you see from the Abbey might be largely unchanged from the early days of its existence.
The warm, windless morning allowed us time to learn about Corcomroe’s history, explore its ruins, take stock of the many historical environments and human experiences we have encountered so far, spend some time on creative writing, and reconvene to share our reflections in a sheltered alcove. There were only minimal interruptions from other tourists.
Back to the BCA for lunch. En route, Robert Wainwright showed us the house owned by Luna Lovegood’s parents — I mean the actress that played Luna Lovegood, of course, since her father’s house was destroyed in one of the movies. Apparently, Mad-Eye Moody also has a house near Ballyvaughan! Very appropriate attractions for those of us who come from the MAGICAL Institute of Art and Design.
Back at the college, we finished up sharing our home-made myths. They were wonderful, explaining everything from the soggy weather, to the creation of the mountains, to the supernatural density of the moss, to the reason why rabbits grow so big here in the Burren.
Perhaps it’s best if I stop recording this day’s events at this point. I tried to show several students the back way from the college to Ballyvaughan this afternoon, and lost the trail. Rosie, one of the village dogs who had accompanied us, stood around impatiently until we figured out where we were going: then she bounded ahead, reminding us that she knew the route all along. Thank you Rosie! I hope you’ll speak up a little sooner next time.
Tomorrow we’re hiking to Ailwee Caves. Stay tuned!