Every other year students in the West Virginia Wesleyan MFA program have the exciting opportunity to travel to Ireland to explore the literature and culture of a literary nation during ten days of writing and literary enrichment in Dublin, Galway, and County Clare. The next trip is scheduled for this summer (June 1-10, 2018), and today's blog post, written by David Evans (Nonfiction ’18), shares what that trip was like during the summer of 2016. Learn more about the WVWC MFA Ireland Residency.
Before my trip to Ireland in 2016, I told myself that I didn't need the aggravation of traveling again. I squirmed at the discomfort of flying, of being packed into tiny spaces, unable to even get up and bump my way to one of the too few toilets. And even before I boarded, I would have to endure endless lines and pretend that passing through metal detectors would keep me safe from terrorists. If that wasn't enticing enough, I could entertain myself by guessing which of the surly strangers in uniform would sniff inside my shoes, pillage my luggage, or stare at the imagery in the metal detector stall to see what contraband I had secreted in one of my aging body cavities. Couldn't I be just as content staying home, reading James Joyce's Dubliners, sitting in the comfort of my own home while sipping an imported Guinness? If I wanted to see the Cliffs of Moher, why not stream "Ryan's Daughter" and watch the steamy scenes of Sarah Miles and Robert Mitchum?
Then I talked to Devon McNamara (Poetry Faculty). She convinced me that Ireland was not just a place. It was more a state of mind where the world suddenly seems kinder, a lot more welcoming. There was no turning back. She breathed life back into my dormant desire to step off a plane onto foreign soil.
I tip my Irish tweed cap to Devon, a master trip planner and organizer. From the moment she met me at the airport at 5 a.m. on June 2, 2016, until we toasted a hearty farewell at our final dinner at the Ballinalacken Castle in County Clare on June 11, Devon was always there to ensure that our small group missed nothing and that all our needs were met. I wish I could go again with the group Devon will lead this coming June. I have spent the last two years recommending this trip to others and will continue to stress that the cost is cheap considering all the benefits and personal attention.
Literature, writing, history, theater, ancient Celtic sites, dramatic scenery, train rides, Guinness Stout, and the magic of Devon to walk you through what I consider the trip and experience of a lifetime—what's there not to like!
I am proud to say I wore out a substantial pair of walking shoes wandering the streets of Dublin in a few days. My companion was the ghost of James Joyce who took me to the spots made famous in Ulysses and in Dubliners, his collection of short stories set in the early twentieth century. Of course, when chasing down the venue for Joyce's stories, one needs liquid refreshment to keep up required energy levels, so I dropped into some well-known pubs—such as the two-hundred-year-old Mulligans ("the home of the pint"), the posh "Writer's Lounge" (known for its afternoon tea) in the Gresham Hotel, and the Davy Byrnes, where Leopold Bloom in Ulysses takes his lunch of a Gongonzola sandwich with a tipple of burgundy.
By mid-morning of my first day in town, I had made my way to the giant Guinness brewery. I was so overwhelmed by the footprint of the place and its high walls that I passed on by and headed for a small pub on the opposite side of the street. When I entered, the locals all stopped talking and looked at me. I wanted to channel the good Mr. Bloom and say, "Ah! Ow! Don't be talking! I was blue mouldy for the want of that pint. Declare to God I could hear it hit the pit of my stomach with a click." Instead, I said I was fresh from America and had a craving for a "real" Guinness. The guys relaxed then, and Hannity and Mike invited me to join them.
Afterward, I trotted the few blocks to the infamous Kilmainham Gaol where many Irish revolutionaries were imprisoned and died during the 1916 Uprising. No matter who you are, you can't help but be reverent when you walk around that stone fortress of a jail with its haunting "Proclamation Sculpture" of 1916 martyred resistance fighters who were tortured to death in the prison. "Dublin Remembers" signs hung everywhere in commemoration of the centenary of the 'Rising.
Before linking up with my fellow travelers—Megan Mallory (Nonfiction '17), Dee Sydnor (Fiction '15) and her husband Dave, and Elizabeth Hawkins (Fiction '17)—at the hotel, I managed a quick walk through St. Stephens Green. At twenty-two acres, it is the largest of the parks in Dublin's main Georgian garden squares. Again, a major site of insurrection during the 1916 Uprising. Only in Ireland could a ceasefire be arranged to allow the park's groundsmen to feed the local ducks.
Our hotel was well located off the main drag of O'Connell St. near Parnell Square, named after the nineteenth-century Irish Nationalist who also spent time in Kilmainham for his land reform agitation, and The Garden of Remembrance, a memorial garden to honor all those who lost their lives for Irish independence.
The next several days of planned tours of Dublin went off without hitch. I love playing tourist, and the morning at Trinity College in Dublin lived up to all expectation. I was delighted to be greeted by the statue of the great eighteenth-century Irish statesman Edmund Burke, who stands tall at the entryway outside the gate. I had reread his essay on the French Revolution just the previous year, so I felt as though I were in familiar company when I entered the magnificent campus. No one should get out of this life without seeing the Long Library, the largest library in Ireland with over 200,000 of the oldest books in the greater library's collection of over six-million volumes. The library is home to the Book of Kells, the illuminated medieval manuscript of the four gospels of the New Testament in Latin. To quote Devon, “Being there is a gobsmacking experience.”
In the days ahead, we attended lectures arranged by Devon and continued our explorations of the city and the surrounding countryside. In the evenings, we enjoyed performances at The Abbey Theater and The Gaiety. On one day trip, we took a bus ride to Newgrange, a prehistoric stone monument on a grassy knoll built around 3200 BC, making it older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. No one knows for sure what the site was used for, but its entrance is aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice, when sunlight shines through a slot in the roof and floods the inner chamber. All the prehistory of the area, not to mention the events and geography of the nearby Battle of the Boyne, made for a history-laden day. I entered my name in the raffle for a special chance to see the next equinox show. I'm still waiting to hear back.
At our stop at Tara en route back to Dublin, we were allowed up close and personal to the Lia Fail—the phallic stone that is said to be the coronation rock for the ancient kings of Ireland. Nothing like a little magic from antiquity to add flavor to a funky bookseller’s shack and adjoining ice-cream café.
Thanks to Devon, we had a wonderful workshop with the novelist, poet, playwright, and historian Dermot Bolger during our stay in Dublin. Much to our surprise and delight, Dermot invited us to his house for several hours. After talking about the current Irish literary scene, he gave us personal critiques and valuable feedback on our workshop pieces.
Before we knew it, our Dublin days were drawing to an end. In no time, we prepared to board a westward train to Galway. Farewell frenetic urban days, welcome rural Ireland. In a few hours we crossed the country and checked in at Pat and Connie O’Sullivan’s B&B. We were soon to discover that Pat’s breakfasts were to die for. Any variation on eggs, poached salmon, homemade granola with dates and figs drenched in honey, bacon straight from the hog farmer, quiche with fresh cheeses and kale from the local farmer's market, and fruit bowls full to the brim with blueberries, mangos, and sliced bananas, all dusted with cinnamon and smothered in fresh yogurt.
On the second day in the rugged, boulder-strewn west of the country, we embarked on the ferry that took us to the Aran Islands at the mouth of Galway Bay. Bikes, horse-drawn carriages, and hiking were island transportation to the ancient Celtic fortress of Dun Aengus, several miles from the dock. A bicycle would probably have been better than my own shank’s mare, but I wouldn’t have traded the peripatetic experience for anything. When I bought Megan, my fellow walker, an ice cream at the small shop just before we climbed the steep path to the stone citadel on the edge of a three-hundred-foot cliff, we felt as though we were real troopers. Megan was braver than I and belly crawled to the edge. We rewarded ourselves at the base of the mountain with more ice cream and some shopping in one of the island’s famous sweater outlets. My wife Jody now sports two of their finest.
During our stay in Galway, we also made a day trip to Lady Gregory’s Coole Park estate, a literary getaway for many the famous Irish writers of the early twentieth century. I have my photo of the famous Cooper Beech “Autograph Tree” in my study. Yeats, O’Casey, Shaw, Synge, and many others carved their initials to prove they were there. The walk through the gardens took me to the pond made famous by the Yeats poem of the local swans.
Our stopover at Thoor Ballylee Castle served as a good substitute for my planned trip to Sligo (next time) to pay homage to Yeats. Confession here: I took a pebble from the Streamstown River flowing by the tower where he lived. This was my only transgression during the trip and certainly nowhere as serious as scratching graffiti on the walls of Newgrange as some eighteenth-century hooligans did.
A few days later, the poet Nicholas McLachlan met us in the charming Salmon Bookshop in the country market village of Ennistymon, which is near the coast in County Clare. Nicholas is a warm and witty fellow who also kept us busy with stories and readings.
The An Gorta Mor ("The Great Hunger") Memorial is just outside town and is a somber reminder of the memory of the victims of the 1845-1850 Great Famine. One side of the memorial depicts a barefoot orphan boy standing before a workhouse door on the freezing morning of 25 February 1848, while across from him is the head of an anguished mother and two hands clenched above the sorrowful text of a pleading note that was pinned to the torn shirt of the boy:
There is a little boy named Michael Rice of Lahinch aged about 4 years. He is an orphan, his father having died last year and his mother has expired on last Wednesday night, who is now about to be buried without a coffin!! Unless ye make some provision for such. The child in question is now at the Workhouse Gate expecting to be admitted, if not it will starve. —Rob S. Constable
Doolin proved a grand finale to our trip. I hopped a tourist ferry early on and saw the seven-hundred-foot-high Cliffs of Moher from the sea before hoofing it back in time to go to the music festival. We all loved the small venue and the great music, not to mention the friendly people. The festival was also a great opportunity to buy some first-quality shirts and gather other memories of Ireland. And did I mention the convenience of the beer pub and the tasty food?
We were blessed during our Galway stay to be driven about by Sean, a most efficient, pleasant, and hardworking man who filled in as tour guide and fact finder. He was always on time and provided a good memory of the fine people of Ireland as he delivered us to Shannon bright and early for our departure.
We had a charmed ten days of idyllic weather with no rain and summer nights that never seemed to end. One man told me he could follow the flight of a golf ball hit well after midnight. I imagined following its trajectory as it sailed westward over the Atlantic, destination Newfoundland—hole in one!