One of our field trips moved out of the metropolis and into the country--a country not bigger than many US states and smaller than quite a few--becomes a thousand times more beautiful. I left Dublin for the mountains, bogs and ocean of western Ireland. This trip is one of two that CIEE takes with its students every semester. My entire program came along for the trip. It’s defined as a ‘field trip’ by CIEE but I can tell you absolutely that not a single one of my elementary school field trips were like this – people could take a pointer or two from CIEE Dublin.
We started the trip by piling onto a bus at what felt like the crack of dawn, but was really 9 am, and began to make our way to Westport County in Mayo. As twenty-somethings who have made a hobby out of cursing the inventor of the alarm clock, the group wasted no time in getting comfortable. Bus seats became beds, backpacks became pillows, jackets became blankets and the intermittent fun-fact lectures by Martin via intercom became the most relaxing of lullabies. While surrounded by closed eyes, I watched a country roll by with mine.
There is really nothing that can accurately describe the beauty of this place. This isn’t saying that
there aren’t beautiful views in the US—I have seen many and left a far larger portion of them unvisited. But what I've seen here is different... I think it is the continuity of these views that has left me the most breath taken. You don't have to enter a national park or drive along a coast to see it, because the beauty is everywhere. You move twenty minutes outside of the city and it's there, and it’s not dotted with suburbs or interchanges or office buildings or billboards. Certainly, those things do exist in Ireland, but to see a landscape so interrupted by people, and yet so obviously utilized by people, is something amazing. You can look out your window and feel like you’re looking into someone's backyard and across the entire country all at the same time. And it is as you’ve heard it—green on green on green, with more sheep than people. It is crazy beautiful and I haven't taken a single picture yet that has translated the awe that I experienced simply driving on an Irish highway. If I could apply the scenery to my life like you do a background to a phone or computer, I would in a heartbeat--as soon I chose which view was the most impressive.
Despite seeing so much, in less time than it takes to drive from Columbus to Cincinnati, we were at our first stop of the trip: Strokestown House and the Irish Famine Museum. Both of these are located at Strokestown Park, where the restored mansion shows how the upper lived and the museum shows how the lower suffered. The entire estate was sold in the late ‘70s when the last of the family moved out, but the house and most of the land was preserved due to its historical importance. Speaking of that...I would absolutely love to tell you all about that historical importance, but as it’s been over a month since I took the tour I have to admit the details are no longer with me. Nevertheless, the house was impressive. It is furnished with the same furniture that was used up until the family moved out. We toured through the sitting room, the master and mistress' bedchambers, a children’s study and playroom, the dining hall, and the kitchen. It was strange to see some of the items in each place, having been used to taking tours of such estates in the States. In the US, houses like these are the estates of our early presidents or other historical figures. They're all in the country's early history. Here, while the estate began in the 17th century, it was lived in by the same family through most of the 1970s. There doesn't seem to be as big of a time gap between history and present in Ireland, which I think has contributed to the people here showing more appreciation of how the two are linked.
Our next stop of the trip was the more memorable of the day: Hennigan’s Heritage Center. Here we met Tom Hennigan, who is quite possibly the most interesting man alive. He greeted each of us with a strong handshake and a gracious welcome, clad in a bright orange shirt and brown corduroy bell-bottoms and all around seeming like a man who had just stepped out of a time machine. About a minute after sitting down in the thatched cottage that was his childhood home, I began to think that a more accurate description is that he is the time machine.
The first thing he said after we crowded the cottage's small entry room was, “I was born in that bed right there.” My first thought was, "Surely
not the bed that I'm sitting directly in front of…surely not." (It was.) The cottage boasts three rooms—one for the children, one for the kitchen/parents/sitting room, and one added on for grandma. There was no electricity or running water. There was a potbelly stove. There was a side of bacon hanging from the ceiling, which Tom made sure to point out was real and 100% edible with the proper preparation. He pointed to the basin he bathed in throughout his early life. Where the milk was placed after it was collected each morning. Where the family stored certain small valuables. He did what I'm sure most educators think is impossible--just by talking, he quieted a room full of young people from the "ADD generation" and brought them to attention for the duration of his speeches. It is impossible to write here all of what was said and learned in the two hours we spent in that room.
We sat there listening to him speak of how he grew up and I am positive I am not the only one who likened it to elementary school lectures on pilgrim life in the New World--except that, that was centuries ago and this was only a few decades. His was a completely waste-less existence. Animal fat soap, reused bath water, meals from his own family’s land, meat cured and buried for preservation. All of this while the rest of the world was buying radios and then TVs; refrigerators and then microwaves. His carbon footprint must have been as close to zero as a human can be.
Tom now lives right next door, in a house he constructed for his own family. The Hennigan farm is still a functioning farm, and Tom still very much holds on to as much of his early life as can be expected in this modern age. It is quite clear he misses living so purely, and doesn’t understand an entire world which condemns or just forgets this way of life.
After homemade scones and jam with tea, the group bid farewell to the Hennigans and continued to Westport, where we stayed for the next two nights.