The Irish history and culture class at the regional high school is a vibrant affair involved with teaching younger children, planting and harvesting potatoes, fielding a hurling team and marking its presence at the school with a wall covered in names written in glorious Celtic lettering.
The class that grew out of student interest in the Emerald Isle has sent 13 trips to tour the country, and following their own customized route, they have embraced the well-known tourist spots and the remote western islands. Through the years, hundreds of young Vineyarders have visited Ireland and have been charmed by its haunting beauty.
In 2001, the group that traveled to Ireland had a mission. We had been entrusted with a sacred responsibility and that was to scatter some of our beloved Eric McLean’s ashes on Achill Island at a place that was so special for Eric that he had described it in detail to his family. Eric had been a member of the 2000 Irish trip group and the project’s most astounding fundraiser ever.
For so many of the students this trip was a life-changing experience. When Anna Hayes went to Ireland, her younger sister, Samantha, was extremely ill. Searching for an idea for a present, Anna decided to adopt a donkey named Timmy at the donkey sanctuary in Liscarroll, County Cork, even though she had no idea if her sister ever received the letters and greeting cards regularly sent by adopted donkeys to their American families.
Some months later when Samantha was asked by the Make-A-Wish Foundation to choose her dearest wish, she asked if she could go to Ireland to meet her donkey. Her whole family got to travel to Ireland and spend some very significant time at the sanctuary. A donkey was born while they were there and it was named after the little girl. This year I took photographs from Samantha’s family to show how well, tall and healthy the young woman is now. The photographs were pinned up in the office of the donkey sanctuary while Paddy, the manager, gazed at them fondly.
“Well, God love her,” he said. “She sure looks wonderful. She’s a fine young woman now.” It’s that kind of heartwarming connection that makes this program of world travel so much more than just a packed itinerary of European sites. It’s a journey of the heart.
This year we climbed the Cliffs of Moher, saw Dunquin Beach and Dingle village, visited the donkey sanctuary and joined the lines of tourists at Blarney Castle. From Cork we traveled to Dublin, where we stayed at the Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel — a very splendid building indeed — where Katherine Reid played the piano and sang, gathering a large crowd of appreciative Irish people who pleaded with her for more.
While in Dublin, we got dressed up and went to the Abbey Theatre to see the play, Sive, a narrative of Irish rural life in the 1950s written by John B. Keane, one of Ireland’s most famous writers. The play centers around the economic basis for arranged marriages, and the young girl Sive who loves her schooling, her books and the young man who loves her, but she is forced into an engagement to an old man who is financially comfortable but extremely uninviting. Ireland is a land where the poet is a hero and stories of everyday life are immortalized in words and song. This small country has four Nobel prize winners for literature.
From the drama of the national theatre, we visited Glasnevin national cemetery where the patriots who created the modern Irish state are buried. We visited the mausoleum of Daniel O’Connell, known in Ireland as the Liberator because of his work for Catholic emancipation and social justice. The students learned about the visit of Frederick Douglass to Ireland and Mr. O’Connell’s lifelong campaign against slavery.
While at Glasnevin, Dan Costello and Ben Lukowitz spent some time at the memorial to the 1981 hunger strikers. They had studied the hunger strike in class, so to see the memorial was very moving.
“It’s not those who can inflict the most, it’s those who can endure the most.” Ben read. “That’s Bobby Sands,” he added.
From castles, theatres and memorials, we moved on to a hurling game in Longford where Luke McCracken was delighted to discover an Irish MacDonald’s.
“It’s real beef,” he remarked happily. “It’s even better than in America.”
We moved on to Mayo, where the entire group attended a play in Crossmolina and visited my house to sample scones made by a neighbor. The entire village turned out to welcome our group and our arrival was applauded. People in Crossmolina still remember the Minnesingers visit there several years ago. Each student received a briquette, which is a compressed peat block commonly burned in Ireland.
The next day we were back to our academic pursuits and spent some time at the Jackie Clarke Library in Ballina, which is a huge collection of materials dating from the 1600s to the present day. Our presentation was mostly digital, but it was the reading chair that caught the attention of most of our party. The chair was apparently built long ago for a man, and accommodated to the masculine form while the woman sat at a stool attending to her chores. Her husband read anything he considered suitable to her. Both boys and girls liked sitting in that chair.
From Ballina we traveled to Enniscrone to the seaweed baths. After our busy schedule, it felt very relaxing to steam in the wooden boxes and bathe in the hot seawater filled with seaweed. On our final day, we were the first guests of the Nephin View Restoration project, where we learned how 100 years ago students had to share their slates and that each student was responsible for bringing two pieces of turf each day to school to provide heat.
“Hard times, indeed,” remarked Mary Lynn, a former school teacher who taught a class for us in gaelige (in Irish). Now, all that was left to do was to shop, and we went at that task with enthusiasm in Galway before gathering our bags and heading to Shannon Airport where Katherine Reid was again the pianist of choice in the airport to the delight of the staff.
It was an extraordinary trip and a privilege to share Ireland. At our annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, we will have much to speak of.
Elaine Cawley Weintraub is the chairman of the history department at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. She was born and raised in Ireland.