“I found my ‘Muse’, in Ireland!”

A few years ago, I decided to join a group of artists and photographers on a Study Abroad Trip in Ireland.  Ireland has always been a place I dreamed of one day traveling to because it is also the birthplace of some of my ancestors.  Following are some excerpts from students that participated as well as a running commentary on our day-to-day experiences.

Leaving Phoenix with 80 degrees plus temperature, and arriving hours later to overcast skies several thousand miles away in Dublin, Ireland. The city became alive to my sight, people about everywhere, taking long strides on missions to places unknown, the hustle and bustle, the vigor, the friendliness, the color of the pubs, the greens, the golds and reds, the contrast of doors of shops and houses, in all colors, but still the gray buildings and the gray skies. A city with a unique color of life.The next three days were full of new sights and experiences, talking with the local, visiting small shops, as if holding court talking about the United States, Phoenix College, Ireland the land of my great-grandfather, I have arrived at the land of my heritage and was not disappointed.”-Murphy

“Having arrived at the North Star hotel by 8:30 or 9:00 am, our rooms were not available until 11:00 am. So I told a fellow traveler from our group, “Let’s go get an Irish breakfast.” He agreed. We found this pub (We won’t give the name). I pulled the door. It’s locked. Nearby a man standing by the door asked as to what we were looking for? I told him,” An Irish breakfast.” He told us one moment and pulls a coin out of his pocket and bangs on the smoke glass part of the door. Someone inside opens the door and lets us in. The man outside explains it is 9:30 and not “legal until 10:30”. The place is loaded with Guinness drinkers!  This was like a speakeasy of the 20s. We were served breakfast and a Guinness. I told my friend, “You know if this place gets raided we could conceivably end up in jail on our first tour of Dublin.” Well, of course, that didn’t happen. Finally 10:30 came and I let out a sigh of relief telling my friend “Phew we are no longer illegals in Ireland.”-Richard

“We took a tour of the National Museum, and rode in an open-air bus, but the most memorable moment was going to Trinity College and seeing the ‘Book of Kells.’ I was impressed with the vibrant ink that has survived over such a long period of time. The techniques and attention to detail in compiling this beautiful manuscript is fascinating! We walked around St. Stephen’s Green, visited St Patrick’s Cathedral, and toured the Guinness Brewery. At the brewery, we went to the very top of the building where there were panoramic views of Dublin and the surrounding area – spectacular! The National Gallery had incredible art displays, and my favorite was that of the Irish artists (Jack B. Yeats in particular).”-Julia

The group met Count Randal McDonnell of the Glens who escorted us on a tour of Trinity College. A celebrated writer, historian and the Chieftain of the Clans of Ireland, we were honored by his presence and knowledge. Able to read the Book of Kells, his insights added greatly to our understanding and appreciation of this amazing manuscript. Following our time in the Trinity College Long Room (the old Library) the Count (as we called him) escorted us around the corner to the Offices of the Chief Herald of Ireland.

We were then introduced to Michael Comyns, the Chief Herald of Arms. Mr. Comyns was so gracious to spend time with us and opened the Heraldry Museum especially for us to examine and enjoy the ancient crowns, shields, and armor on display. As we had the entire museum to ourselves he was able to spend time explaining the ancient art of Heraldry, the creation, and the establishment of coats of arms while authenticating the historical providence of family lineage or place in history.

The Chief Herald of Ireland is the State’s authority on all heraldic matters. The Genealogical Office, which is the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland, is the oldest Office of State. We were amazed at the complexity of this art and these cultural icons while enchanted by Mr. Comyns’ knowledge and entertaining banter. What an amazing morning!  

Early Sunday morning found us on our way to Tullamore and Charleville Castle by bus. I grew up in California where everything is so green, but nothing prepared me for the various shades of green of the Irish countryside. Like looking into a box of green Crayola crayons, and trying to give names to every shade.”-Celeste

Part of our group stayed at the Moorhill Manor House, a sprawling two-story Manor House of gray stone and dark oak wood trim. Brookville Bed and Breakfast down the street would be where the rest of us would stay. It sits on the Grand Canal. Both hotels are situated right in the middle of a neighborhood, and in walking distance from downtown Tullamore giving then both a feel of being part of the community; we were not just tourist staying in a hotel.

We had a few minutes to rest and then we were on our way to Charleville Castle for a tour of the place where we would have our classes and use as the subject of our various art projects.

Calling Mac’s Cabs, who provided the transportation for our group for the majority of the trip and took good care of us, we were on our way! Mac’s became our stalwart friend and protector— even going so far to find a camera left by one of the students in a cab and making sure it was returned. Just a small example of the friendly people we met here.  Entering the gates into Charleville you are met by the King Oak Tree said to be the oldest in Ireland—a thousand years old! Its branches reaching out in every direction I felt like we were being welcomed by Charleville Forest.  

We met Dudley Stewart the steward of Charleville Castle, and then went on an impromptu tour of the castles and grounds. We explored from the dungeons, that still felt pretty eerie, to the very top tower of the castle. Two fireplaces in the morning room with 30ft tall windows overlook what was once a magnificent garden where the junipers bushes that were shaped into a British union jack now towered as high as 50 ft. We even had a chance to go into an old Druid mound near a stream running through the woods. With 2,000 surrounding acres, we were in the middle of a primeval forest and felt like we had taken a step back in time.  Class started at 10.00am the next morning in the courtyard in front of Charleville Castle under the shade of the oaks. Here we were briefed on our classes, meeting times, the equipment we could use for our projects and what we would be doing at the end of the week.

John Mercer, Phoenix College photography instructor, arrived for a lecture on proper use of our camera equipment. Some great pointers on white balance and better shot composition helped even the novice photographer to get better shots! Then everyone broke and went their separate ways to start on their various projects. The photographers searching for the special shot with just the right light. The sketchers finding a nice sunny place that would show the right shadows to emphasize. The painters finding the best shade under the heavy branches of one of the trees, and the writer who would let the castle and it’s surrounding woods tell her the story she would write.  

Our next few days passed quickly with lessons and opportunities for creative endeavor everywhere we looked. A gourmet bistro lunch was served “picnic fashion” under the oaks by Bonnie (the Castle’s owner) and Ana and Sam (Castle interns) each day, and we stayed late into the day as the sun does not set until close to 10:30 at night. Each evening brought new opportunities for fun and fellowship in Tullamore’s pubs and restaurants as the entire town seemed to know of our arrival! Monday is “Charleville Night” in Tullamore and all the restaurants and pubs give discounts to students and volunteers “up at the Castle”. We were welcomed and sought out at every turn.  

Although Charleville is not a pleasant memory for the Irish, it is being restored to be part of their history. The Castle will support the town and its people through increased tourism and by preserving a great historical building and site. Charleville Castle is considered the finest example of Gothic Revival architecture in Ireland. Designed and built by Frank Johnstons (the architect who designed the General Post Office in Dublin) this is the only other public building he ever designed.  Charleville Castle, home to Quest College is a chartered educational institution and Dudley Stewart’s base for his vision. Addressing the issues of the “World 13” [problems that globally impact everyone] and creating an environment where people from any country can come and learn from each other while working to solve our planet’s most pressing issues. What an inspiring setting for our classes!

“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.” -George Bernard Shaw

On Wednesday some of us went to Durrow Abby, home to the  Book of Durrow, for pattern day. Pattern day is a combination of the old Pagan religious beliefs and Christianity. Bagpipes, drummer, psalms, a walk the ancient well of St. Colm Kiln was mystical and solemn. Truly an insight into rural Irish beliefs and culture.  On Thursday, Dudley (scion of the Irish fight for Independence) accompanied us as we took a boat trip down the Shannon River. Dudley gave us a deep historical understanding of the importance of this vast river, the largest river in Ireland, and the major waterway that divides the East of Ireland from the West. The Vikings used the Shannon to establish themselves in the Midlands and create a stronghold along the Eskar wall – the gravel mound that rises above the Bogs.

We were here to visit Clonmacnoise (the Irish Cluain Mhic Nos) an ancient ecclesiastical site, situated south of Athlone, near the center of Ireland. It has a large collection of grave-slabs dating from the 8th to the 12th century, as well as some of Ireland’s finest surviving High Crosses. Photo opportunities abounded an out time there passed quickly. Here we were met by our bus driver to transport us to our next adventure.  

On we went to the Bogs. Here we took the blog train and learned about Ireland’s natural fuel and how it was cut from the living earth. What an amazing enterprise. Green gives way to deep brown with a rich earthen scent. I was fascinated that the bogs are slowly being renewed through a new “green” initiative. Ireland is keeping an eye on the future while mining the resources of the past. Then it was back to Tullamore to get ready for our special treat – a trip to the West Coast of Ireland to the town of Lisdoonvarna, the Match-Making town with its natural sulfur springs.   Early Friday morning we departed Tullamore for the West Coast.

Our driver, Terry Barton, was kind enough to take us to a few “extra” places that he knew we would enjoy. The first stop was Bunratty Castle; Bunratty was a Viking Trading Camp in 970. It’s now a tourist stop with shops; restaurants and tours of the castle where you could book parties and events.

Then further down the road and we come to the town of Ennis. The town takes its name from “Inis”, meaning an island which was formed between two streams of the River Fergus. Here, there were more little shops to explore and shop, and of course, lunch at one of the many pubs.

The countryside was full of grey stone fences and green pastures full of sheep, cows or horses. Sprigs of wildflowers in every color could be seen peeking through the stone as we passed by on the narrow one-lane roads. Castle, towers, and old abbey ruins dotted the countryside, each with a story to tell.

We were treated to seeing some thatched roofs where I learned that each thatch at the top has a design that is exclusive to that person who did that particular thatched roof which could last almost ten years. An artist’s signature!  Passing through Limerick City and catching a glimpse of great castle of King John and where the University of Limerick has also become one of the most prominent cultural and educational centers of Ireland.

Finally, we arrived in Lisdoonvarna. It is the only active spa town in Ireland. The beneficial effects of its water were first noted by writers as early as 1740. Matchmaking soon became one of the main activities of Lisdoonvarna’s holiday-makers. September was, and still is, the

peak month of the holiday season and with the harvest safely in, “bachelor farmers” flocked to Lisdoonvarna in search of wives. We spent the rest of our day relaxing in this sleepy town before our trip in the morning to the Cliffs of Moher.

After our typical Irish Breakfast, we load up on the bus and are on our way. The first stop was to the Burren Center located in County Clare. At the Burren Center, I learned about Michael Cusak who started the Gaelic Athletic Association. Because of Michael’s stature and big booming voice, James Joyce patterned his Cyclops character after him in his work “Ulysses”. Now for a writer, that was really interesting! Irish for Burren is Bhoireann, “a stony place”. Rain falling on The Burren pours right through and as it does, the acid rain dissolves the limestone and creates caves and potholes, which flood in the winter. The signs on the roadways warn of “Flash Floods”. I felt like I was home!

We stopped briefly to see a Poulnabrone – a Dolmen or Portal tomb in the Burren. This one is considered one of the finest examples of Portal Tombs in Ireland. Portal Tombs were the ancient burial grounds in times long gone. These tombs usually have two imposing portals or entrance stones flanking the front of a relatively small rectangular chamber. The capstone, which sometimes rests just on the end stone and on the portal stones, is often very large. The Cliffs of Moher were a definite high point for me. Get it? High point! The cliffs stand some 700 ft high from the Atlantic Ocean below. What an amazing sight!

The flocks of seabirds nesting in the cracks and slits of the cliffs look like tiny dots of white against the dark stone walls. Some of us brave sorts actually laid on the ground and looked down the face of the cliffs. I wondered if this was Joyce’s inspiration for the clashing rocks in the story of Ulysses’ journey home. If you could feel the excitement of the photographers at this location! A few of us hiked up the steep trail to the ancient Viking tower that stood on a high cliff.  We left after spending some considerable time there and headed back to Lisdoonvarna, stopping at St Bridget’s Healing Well, listening to Terry tell us stories of true healings.

Going into the little sanctuary and seeing all kinds of crosses, pieces of cloth, pictures of loved ones, all asking St Bridget to have mercy and heal my loved one. A moving experience for sure.  Our last stop was in Lahinch where we kicked off our shoes and cooled our feet in the Atlantic Ocean.  We had traveled from Coast to Coast!. Lahinch is said to be a good fishing town also. We lazed away an hour drying our wet feet, enjoying a cool drink and sharing a plate of fresh mussels. Straight from the ocean, I had never tasted anything so good. That and a pint of Guinness with all my new friends is a cherished memory.

Then the highlight of our last night in Lisdoonvarna is to see a live band play some traditional Irish tunes while we eat dinner at a local pub in the Rathborn Hotel. One of the old gentlemen in the band waltzed with us and showed us a few Irish dance steps. What a great evening!

Back to Tullamore Sunday evening. Monday would be our last full day at Charleville. Everyone was trying to fit everything into those last free hours.

The highlight of our last night in Tullamore was a banquet held in the great morning room of the Castle. Long table laid end to end, flickering candles, roaring fires in the massive ornately carved fireplaces, classical music in the background—it was a scene from the turn of the century. We dined on some wonderful Irish dishes of stewed chicken and beef. Awards, certificates, and trophies were announced and awarded, silly prizes given to each student for some memorable moment, toasts and cheers—we were in fine fellowship!

We sat around the fireplaces and were treated with two solos on the bagpipes by a new friend named Patrick. If you could just imagine the haunting pipes played in that great room. The melody was so moving. When Patrick finished, one of our students, Nick Kizer, and a friend from Mexico, Juan Antonio, treated us to some of the best impromptu playing of the guitar and mandolin. We were mesmerized!

The acoustics, the music, the surroundings made it a magical evening. Remember Bruce Hornsby’s, “Listen to the Mandolin play?’ Well, when you hear Juan play the mandolin you think about that song, it was beautiful. They were followed by another student, Kim Schneider, who sang a melodic ballad and I sang a little jazz tune to make the music well rounded. We finished the night telling stories, singing our songs,  and enjoying the company of new friends who we will see again. Veronica Moreno and her husband and Juan Antonio became interested in our group when they attended a lecture in Mexico by Roman of his artwork on the “Lord of the Rings” films.

Roman was pleased to be able to do that presentation for some of the local kids in Tullamore and we were all thrilled to see it.  We finished up our visit with our last “Charleville Night” down at the Brewery Tap where the local musicians invited our students to play and sing with the band, (Far Tulla). We received final hugs and farewells from the town folk – we were tearful but warmed by our place in this community.  I could go on and on because each place we visited had its own charm, but in Galway where I had my first horse-drawn carriage ride around the town, I found a statue dedicated to Oscar Wilde, that said, “Art is, and must be, universal. No national walls should be allowed to partition or divide it.”

For the first group of artist, photographers, and writers on Phoenix College’s Study Abroad in Ireland, there couldn’t be a truer statement!  So artists took advantage of everything they could capture on their sketchpads, while the photographers never passed up an opportunity

to shoot it, and me? Of course, I kept my journal close by so I would not miss any tidbits of a story.   We are all making plans to return to Ireland. Our imaginations were engaged while our hearts were filled. This was an experience of a lifetime!

I not only met so many wonderful people, I also learned more about the heritage of my Great great grandfather.  Eventually, I went back to Ireland three years in a row and lived there for almost 2 years; where I spent the time learning how to drive, traveling and learning more of the history, and meeting great individuals I now call family.

Thinking of Traveling to Ireland?  Contact Celeste