One of the biggest challenges in running a co-curricular programme for American students is finding things to do that are both cultural and educational, but not what we in Ireland describe as ‘diddly-eye’. We want our students to learn about the real traditions and culture of Ireland, and not experience it through green tinted glasses.
So when I first visited Cnoc Suain in Connemara I knew I had found something very special; a family run business centred on innovation, Irish culture and music. The family moved to Cnoc Suain over 20 years ago, and set about renovating the 16th centenary farm cottages. The cottages are located in the middle of an immense bog land overlooking a lake, on our visit there last week I couldn't help thinking of Heathcliff on the moors in Wuthering Heights.
Our evening began with an introduction to the cottages and a history of the area by the woman of the house, Dearbhaill. She was able to give the students a really insightful picture of life in Connemara in the 20th Centenary. An accomplished storyteller, she brought us back to a time in Ireland where immigration was the norm, American wakes were common and everyone looked forward to arrival of the American parcels of goodies and much needed money orders for the family back in Ireland. Dearbhaill also demonstrated the Irish language to us, explaining how like many people in Connemara she grew up bi-lingual; Irish is the language her family communicate in, it’s even the language she would communicate with our bus driver in. We were given tasters of seaweed, as she explained how foraging, the way of living off the land had been decimated by its connection to the Famine and poverty, but is now making a huge comeback and quite in vogue. Finally we all got a taste of Irish brown bread while Dearbhaill demonstrated how it was made – its very simple!
Following our demonstration with Dearbhaill, her husband Charlie gave us a presentation on the bog land. The bog covers 20% of Ireland, and most of the time we don’t think of it, although many of us still use it as a fuel source. Charlie got scientific for us; showing us the plant that forms it, its properties and different ways it was been used all over the world. He demonstrated how it changes and grows over thousands of years, how we cut it, dry it and burn it for heat. But Charlie also showed us something often unknown about the bog, that it acts a preservative, and that the bog is potentially preserving parts of this country’s history going back 5000 years, such as the mummified bog bodies found in Meath dating back to the Iron Age. We finished our demonstration with Charlie by rush weaving a St. Brigid’s Cross, something elementary school children in Ireland do every February and now our students have a nice souvenir to bring home.
The third and final part of the evening was centred on Irish music and dance. A local musician and one of the few remaining lilters joined us to with his accordion and tin whistles, giving the history of the instruments, the music and the origins of lilting. We even did a bit of lilting ourselves – and I thought we were actually quite good! The evening finished with Dearbhaill teaching us a bit of Irish step dancing; now the students are prepared in-case they ever get invited to an Irish wedding.
What a wonderful evening, thanks so much to everyone in Cnoc Suain and the students who participated!