Geography field school in Ireland

Land of the giants

(July 8, 1999, Gazette)

By Kelley Power
Special to the Gazette

In History of Ireland, Desmond McGuire wrote that "Irish people everywhere retain a lasting interest and fascination in their island's history."

In my opinion, nowhere is this more evident than in Newfoundland. Most of us cannot even claim to be Irish, since the last of our ancestors to come across the Atlantic were our great-grandparents, or perhaps their parents. However, the dilution of Irish blood in our veins has not diminished the pride we feel at having a cultural tradition as rich as that of Ireland woven into our history.

It was this pride, coupled with a desire to travel abroad, that spurred me and nine other Memorial students to join with 14 students from Montreal's Concordia University for a 19-day field course in Ireland to examine the geography and history of the Irish landscape. Dr. Trevor Bell of the Geography Department here at MUN coordinated the trip and accompanied us along with Drs. Monica Mulrennan and Robert Aiken of Concordia. The itinerary they prepared brought us to sites in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. At each stop we met academics and resource people who had donated their time to teach us about the geographical, historical, and cultural significance of the landscapes we observed.

A walk through the streets of Dublin, for example, guided by Dr. Anngret Simms, University College, Dublin, brought us into the city centre and along the banks of the River Liffey where only a decade ago derelict buildings lined the river-front. Today these districts are home to Dublin's International Finance Centre and Temple Bar, the latter considered to be the city's new cultural quarter (complete with dozens of pubs). This typified the urban renewal seen all across Ireland, courtesy of the thriving Irish economy, termed the Celtic Tiger. While in Belfast, Kiltimagh and the Gaeltacht we were shown similar signs of the island's recent economic turn-around. Success in the Gaeltacht, an Irish-speaking region concentrated along the western seaboard, is particularly important. The mandate of businesses, schools and community groups in the area is to preserve and promote the Gaelic language in Irish society and their efforts are unparalleled in the Republic.

Obviously, then, economic and cultural aspects of Ireland were explored during our trip, but what about the mysticism, history and outstanding natural beauty that make the Emerald Isle famous? We were not left unsatisfied. Generations of peoples, from the Celts to the Vikings as well as the Normans and the English, left a legacy of architectural delights for us to enjoy. Dundrum Castle in Northern Ireland, for instance, is a reminder of the animosity between invading Anglo-Normans and native Irish in the 12th century. While there, we learned about and handled some of the weapons used by soldiers of the time: the long bow, cross bow and short sword to name a few. The majesty of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin attested to the importance of the Catholic Church in Irish life and to the skill of contemporary masons. We were fortunate enough to see the grave of St. Patrick on the grounds of Down Cathedral in County Down. Well, one of his graves.

Visits to monastic sites, like Devenish Island and Clonmacnoise, familiarized us with round towers in every size and state of disrepair (most towers have had the misfortune to be mistaken for lightning rods). In the west we visited the Burren, and learned that its extensive tracts of cracked and jointed limestone, as well as its botany, make up a landscape that is unique in Europe, perhaps even the world. We were treated to the sights and sounds of a medieval banquet at Dunghaire Castle in Kinvara. Two of our own group were chosen to reign over the four-course meal, complete with crowns, while the players entertained us with song and poetry. All hail King Brad!

Also not to be forgotten were the Cliffs of Moher, which rise almost 700 feet from the ocean, and Bru na Boinne (the bend of the Boyne) where we visited the Newgrange passage tomb. Inside, the walls are covered with spiral, zigzag, serpentine carvings whose significance still eludes archaeologists.

We bicycled along the roads of Inismore, the largest of the Aran Islands, and saw a seemingly endless patchwork of stone walls and pastures. Over the centuries, the people of these barren islands have survived by creating their own soil for farming made of sand and seaweed and by acquiring peat to heat their homes through trade with the mainland. Atop the cliffs on the southern side of the island sits Dun Aonghasa. This Celtic Iron Age structure consists of three semi-circular stone ramparts with their open ends meeting the sheer drop-off of the cliffs. Those of us who were feeling especially brave crept to the edge to watch the waves crash against the base of the cliff, nearly 300 feet below. Unfortunately, not everyone had a good sense of direction and some got conveniently lost on the way to the site, much to the advantage of the shopkeepers on Inismore.

Another adventure brought us to the Antrim and Causeway Coasts, guided by Noel Mitchel, Queen's University, Belfast. That day, we followed the shore of the North Sea up to the Giant's Causeway and were treated to some of the most breathtaking scenery of the entire trip. Cliffs of white chalk capped by dark basalt towered over the roadway in places, and in between these ridges were glens filled with fields and foliage in every shade of green. The highlight of the day, however, was the Giant's Causeway. Legend has it that a giant, Finn MacCool, built the Causeway in order to travel dry-shod from Ireland to the coast of Scotland. Looking at the hexagon shaped columns of basalt that make up the causeways (there are actually three), it is easy to believe that they were indeed laid by hand; they fit together like stacks of interlocking bricks. Alas, those of you who enjoy a good legend will be sorry to learn that geologists attribute Finn's masterpiece to slow cooling, stationary pools of lava that covered the area in prehistoric times.

I'm only realizing now, when I'm limited in words, just how much we experienced during our almost three week stay abroad. Even to read my narrative, though, would not be enough Ireland has to be experienced. No description can convey to you the feeling of actually walking in such a mystic and beautiful land. I feel confident in saying that you could never forget it.

We would like to thank various people for the donation of time and funds that made this trip the success that is was. Under the Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of Ireland and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, which encourages cultural and educational exchange, our own government generously donated $10,000 while the Irish government contributed $8,200. Our benefactors also included the Geography Department and William F. Summers Endowment Fund. Not to be forgotten are the professors from various departments who gave their time for orientation lectures and supported our fund-raising. We wish to thank the women in the Geography Department office whose help was invaluable. And last but not least, thanks to Dr. Bell who put a lot of time and energy into making the 1999 Irish Field School the adventure that it was.