by Patricia Ash Korpan
As our plane landed at Shannon Airport early on the morning of July 11, the slanting golden rays of sunshine glinted off the glassy lakes and meandering streams. In many of the fields cattle grazed in the dewy early morning, completing the serene pastoral scene. Everywhere — green — this is IRELAND!
Before checking into our hotel, we traveled by bus to Knappogue Castle for a traditional Irish breakfast, which turned out to be quite a spread. Upon alighting from the bus, we were greeted by our tour director, Mary Meehan, and an Irish bagpiper dressed in traditional tartan garb who piped us into the castle banquet hall. One of our group remarked, “Now I know I’m in Ireland!” This medieval castle and its recently restored walled garden was the first lovely highlight of our trip.
The Old Ground Hotel in Ennis became our home for five days during the Northwestern Alumni Association’s Ireland — Ennis and Kilkenny trip, giving us time to explore this small town in County Clare and take many excursions into the surrounding countryside. We began this part of our adventure by visiting the preserved ruins of Ennis Abbey, a former Franciscan friary where we were introduced to early monastic life. The emphasis on the division religion has caused in the development of this country began with the first lecture.
In spite of the conflicts, or maybe because of them, Ireland has spawned numerous authors and poets, one of whom was William Butler Yeats. An excursion to the 16th-century tower of Thoor Ballylee, the summer home of Yeats, gave us insight into the daily lives of famous Irish writers and dramatists.
On the only rainy day of our tour, we visited the Cliffs of Moher. As we departed the bus, the clouds parted as we made our way to the edge of the rocky cliffs for a spectacular view of the Irish coast.
Traveling through the Burren, a weathered limestone landscape along the coast of County Clare, we stopped to visit a dolmen, an ancient Celtic burial site for people of nobility and their families.
By bus and then by ferry we arrived on the Aran Isle of Inishmore, where early settlers mixed sand and seaweed to form the only soil on the island. Now lush fields and crops grow amid miles of stone fences. A visit to the island’s fortress, Dún Aengus, gave us a chance to stretch our legs and test our endurance as we climbed the gravel path to the top of the hill, where ruins perch on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The bravest among us laid flat on our bellies and peered over the edge, looking at the waves crashing hundreds of feet below.
During the trip we learned that nearly 35 million Americans trace their roots back to Ireland. Many in our group were excited to look up their family heritage. Each county in Ireland has a heritage center that can assist individuals in trying to trace their genealogical history. Many Irish immigrants who came to North America arrived after the Great Famine hit Ireland in the 1840s. That emigration has now been turned around, and the Republic of Ireland is experiencing a booming economy.
We spent the second half of the week based in Kilkenny in southeastern Ireland. En route to Kilkenny, we visited the Rock of Cashel, another highlight of our tour. We climbed the hill, a giant outcrop of limestone, to the fortress of Brian Boru, an early king of Ireland and the subject of many storytellers. The “Golden Vale,” the lush farmland region of County Tipperary, spread out below us in the sun.
In Kilkenny, considered Ireland’s most enchanting medieval town, we stayed at the very modern Ormonde Hotel. We enjoyed a walking tour and met with the mayor for a question-and-answer session. Since several of the people in our group were serving on city councils, it was a lively session.
We also learned about Dame Alice Kyteler, a local woman who was tried for witchcraft in 1324. Our group also visited the Old Jail House and spent a wonderful afternoon touring Kilkenny Castle. The castle gardens were the perfect place for our group picture.
There were many opportunities to learn more about early life in Ireland. We visited Brod Tullaroan, a 17th-century farmhouse restored to 1880s conditions, where we had a typical Irish dinner, complete with potatoes. Almost every meal in Ireland except breakfast featured potatoes in some form. When our tour guide asked us what we thought the surprise dessert for the evening would be, one of our tour members quipped, “potato pancakes!”
On that evening we were treated to Irish coffee, Irish music and storytelling, which is such a large part of Irish history that sometimes it is hard to tell the history from the “story.”
Many of the stories show the Irish interest in the world of the fairies. During one of our bus trips we stopped at a “fairy bush” strewn with pieces of clothing. Our tour guide explained that this was a fertility bush — if a woman ties a piece of intimate clothing to the bush, she will be successful in having a baby. None of the women left the bus to test the legend!
Our group was especially touched by the visit to The Dunbrody in New Ross. Aboard the coffin ship replica, each member of our tour was given a ticket with the name of a real emigrant. Thousands of emigrants died of disease on the ships before reaching North America. Actors described living conditions onboard and explained the stark conditions of the voyage. This experience was in contrast to the session we had with local residents of Kilkenny who explained what life is like today.
And of course there was shopping! There is a great shop for beautiful Irish wool sweaters, socks and much more at the Clare Museum in Ennis. Kilkenny has a design center directly across from Kilkenny Castle that sells fine Irish crafts such as ceramics and jewelry.
With suitcases packed to the brim, our bus headed for the Dublin Airport early on our final day. We all came away with many souvenirs, but, more important, with a sense of Irish history and culture and memories of good times and new friends.
Patricia Ash Korpan (WCAS64) is a retired school guidance counselor. Her husband, Richard Korpan (EB64), a retired CEO, accompanied her on the trip.
For more information on upcoming NAA trips, call 1-800-NU-ALUMS or visit www.alumni.northwestern.edu/travel.