by Maureen Quinlan
Ireland is a very popular destination for study abroad students. The reasons can be obvious, it is a first world English speaking country, it is part of the European Union, and its stereotypes can be appealing. For me there was no other option simply because of my heritage, deep-seeded desire to visit this country and my natural ability to fit in with the locals. But I had three programs to choose from. I eventually landed on the CIEE program because of its location at Dublin City University, class options and core program that is integrated into our experience. As a part of this core program, we take two field trips to other parts of the country. This past week we took our first trip. We headed west and saw an important and sad part of Irish history.
The Western shore of Ireland suffered most greatly from the Great Famine years. Its population either emigrated or died, leaving the culture, land and people of Western Ireland destitute for many years. As part of our trip we visited many different aspects of the Famine. Our first stop was the Strokestown Park, a mansion built by a landlord of the area in the 17th century. The house showed the lifestyle of the richer folk of the area and the stark gap in equality between the British landlords and the cottier farmers of the land.
Our next stop was Hennigan Heritage Centre just outside Swinford. My great-grandmother on my father’s side was born in Swinford, so seeing the small town felt like returning to my roots. The heritage centre was a small glimpse into what life was like for the poor farmers of the area. A very small three room house with a central room with a peet-burning stove, one small bed, storage and artifacts of the past showed that life was much simpler then. We also learned of customs of knitting, shoemaking, poitín (bootleg whiskey) and the school. It was like walking back in time.
Two things from Tom Hennigan’s farm stuck with me. He said that even
during the worst years of
poverty in Ireland, love always flourished. It was all the people had left. There is always love in the world even amidst the worst conditions of life. The other piece of information that stayed with me is the saying many natives would say when announcing where they were from. “County Mayo, God help us.” This sums up the devastation suffered by County Mayo and much of Western Ireland. It was also important to me to understand the environment my great-grandmother escaped from and the place my family came from.
We stayed in the cute coastal town of Westport, and it was nice to have a hotel room. The next day we climbed to the first stop of the St. Patrick pilgrimage on Croagh Patrick, a large peak just outside of Westport. In June, many people try to climb the peak barefoot as a pilgrimage. The day we arrived in Westport the snowy top was visible, but the day we climbed the base of the peak, the entire mountain was obscured by fog.
We also visited the National Famine Monument, which commemorates the thousands of souls lost on the coffin ships en route to America or Canada. Our next stop was Achill Island. The vistas were spectacular, as you will see from my pictures, but the wind was atrocious. I felt like I was going to blow right off the cliffs into the sea. We also visited an abandoned village, believed to have been desserted during the Famine years due to lack of food and resources in the area. It was a piece of history preserved in stone and grass.
Learning about the Famine is one thing, but seeing the different aspects endured by the people of the time made it much more real. It was fascinating to see a part of history not often mentioned in American history classrooms.
The trip ended by heading to Galway the short way, since inclement weather prevented us from taking the scenic route. One of the cutest parts of the trip was seeing the sheep and lambs dotting the landscape. What is more quintessential Ireland than sheep on the green rolling hills?