Lauren Schiltz- Final Portfolio Posted on January 31st, 2014 by

Spirit of Ireland Essay: Ghosts

Leprechauns, beards, and redheads. Guinness, drinking men, and bar fights. Rain, clovers, and everything green. These are just some of the stereotypes that were on my mind upon entering Ireland. Just like anywhere else, some of these are true and some are terribly wrong. Ireland is notorious for being picturesque with its green landscape that is rarely affected by the intense heat or freezing snow. Stony castles appear out of the mist and plush, mossy carpets lead visitors around the land. Irish rain soaks the ground, making it soft and pliable and keeps the grass green year-round. This dream-like vision is enhanced as I recall listening to traditional Irish music inside the lively pubs with many happy customers drinking their Guinness. But behind this dream-like veil of Ireland, there is a very long, dark history and many Irish natives still feel the sting.

It is evident that bitterness still hangs in the air between Ireland and Britain because of the way the Irish were treated during the potato famine and their fight for independence. People from Northern Ireland are frowned upon because the area is owned by the UK. Evidence of the Great famine is all over the country and I felt like I could see the ghosts of starving people that would have lined the streets because they had no where else to go. To think that there was nothing the Irish people could do at the time made so sad for Ireland and so sick to my stomach that I could barely choke down my lunch.

The locals will correct you if you use the British form of a word, rather than the Irish, or Gaelic as we know it. Brian, our bus driver, referred to these as the “Anglicized names.” I spent some time in a local shop called “The Green Fox” talking with the store owner, whose name is also Brian. He quickly corrected me when I said “store” instead of “shop” because “store” is the English word. He also shook his head when I said the “police” and said to call it the “guard” if not the Garda because they won’t be happy if you call them the police. Seems like a nuance to me. Even when they speak my language, I can’t seem do it right.

Ireland’s reputation for the endless green fields is not entirely accurate. While you will see many of these, there are some areas that appear more lunar. The Burren is covered in giant tiles of limestone rock that link together and only small bits of green are invited in. Gordon D’Arcy, a local professor and naturalist told us that the rain has an acidic reaction with the limestone and it eats away at the surface, causing dips and craters. Some of these cracks can be 8-10 feet deep. While I am inspired by this unusual terrain, not everyone feels the same way, even some of the locals. I overheard a fellow student talking to a local Irish man in the King’s Head pub and he was confused why we were studying in the Burren; he didn’t think it held any beauty or excitement at all. I would have to disagree because I can’t think of anywhere else in the world where this “moonscape,” as Gordon called it, exists. The rocks run all the way up the mountains. In the summer, small flowers reveal themselves between the rocks and some cannot be found anywhere else in the world, drawing botanists from all over.

There is so much to see in Ireland that can’t be seen through the eyes of a tourist who only stays for a week. I roll my eyes every time I see the huge, kelly-green “Paddywagon” bus with an orange-bearded leprechaun on the side that drives up, full of tourists. You’ve got to be kidding me. All I could think is the name must have been designed by an American and no wonder Europeans think we’re stupid. I wonder if the Irish locals cringe every time they see it, like I do. When you see Ireland with Brian, you see so much more than the whimsical, lush landscape. You see battlefields, rebellions, and ghosts of hungry families. You see thousands of years of history. Anyone who can make you feel so passionate about a country you’ve barely met knows what he’s doing. We’ve had the fortunate experience to spend enough time here to begin to see it through the eyes of a local.

The middle-aged, drunken Irish man is not as common as you would think. Pubs are alive with conversation and people drinking a beer or two but I have not seen a single bar fight while I’ve been here. Customers casually sip their drinks in between bits of conversation and many are only a little buzzed rather than falling over drunk. I only saw one couple that was all over each other. Happy people meander and dance around the pubs and seem to be in a better mood than the sober people. I’ve seen more drunk people in their 20s than anything else. Many of the pubs are small and quickly reach their maximum capacity as live music begins in the evening. Dancing becomes more rigid as the pubs fills and people just sway back and forth, unable to move any more than that. Some days it seemed like the only way to get out was to crawl on the floor through people’s legs

It amazes me that despite Ireland’s turbulent history, the Irish people are so friendly and seem grateful to share about their culture with a foreigner when asked. Many locals have immediately taken us in as their friends. Everyone from the bartenders at Logue’s restaurant to the employees at the Spar wants to know where we’re from, how long we’re here, if we’re enjoying ourselves. Some men that we met at Green’s Pub in Ballyvaughan wanted to hear about Minnesotan legends and stories. I’m not Minnesota is really old enough to have legends. The people of Ireland are interested in our lives just as much as we are in theirs. In the words of William Butler Yeates, “There are no strangers here, only friends we haven’t met.”

Natural Landscape Photo Series: Natural Design

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Urban Landscape Photo Series: Flavor of the City

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Personal Narrative Essay: Let It Go

Flexible would not be a word I would use to describe myself. I enjoy familiar things and familiar people and it takes me awhile to adapt to a new environment. In general, I’m a relatively rigid person. I hate changing my plans, especially at the last minute and prefer to stay in the safety of my comfort zone. I’m not one for “roughing it” and my idea of camping is a three-star hotel. If I have learned anything while being in Ireland, it is to be flexible. It is something that is required when traveling in a larger group, which I have done before, but I feel I have had to adapt on a more personal level this time around.

The physicality of the Burren was something I was definitely not prepared for.  I have traveled abroad before and was ready for the amount of walking and the cobblestone commonly found in Europe, but the terrain of the Burren is unlike anything else I’ve seen. The limestone slabs appear smooth but are on uneven ground and become slippery from a coating of rain. Many are not locked in place and shift under my feet as I slowly place the sole of my boot on the surface of the rock to get my footing. The roads aren’t smooth either, which makes for a bumpy ride. Cars lean back and tip forward over the hills and quickly turn around the corners, sending its passengers flying into each other, making for plenty of carsick college students, me included.

I’ve never had serious hiking experience and I became particularly aware of this on the walk to the Aillwee Caves, which was about a 45-minute walk from our cottages in the rain. It wasn’t pouring but the rain fell down in steady stream until I was begging to God for it to stop because I was already drenched. When the white tent signifying the caves came into sight, my pants were soaked all the way though.  The fabric couldn’t absorb any more water and the blue dye was running off into the fur my boots. My glasses were full of raindrops that had clotted together, causing the road ahead looked like a watercolor painting. I had to rely on the people ahead of me to show the way. I found myself falling behind even though I felt like I was power-walking the whole way. Regret was flooding my mind until we reached the Bird of Prey center at Aillwee Caves. We were fortunate enough to see a flying demonstration, despite the rain and even got to hold the birds on our arms. I have volunteered at the Minnesota Zoo for seven years and have never gotten so close to a bird. Feelings of fatigue and frustration quickly subsided when Jessie, a small white barn owl, landed on my arm. While he seemed unhappy about the rain, he willingly flew to each member of our group before seeking shelter again.

With a little rest from walking and a close encounter a friendly owl, we began the final climb to the caves. The last hill was steep and twisting and I actually didn’t think I was going to make it. With labored breaths, I continued to push up the hill and at some points, I think I was actually gasping for air. I wasn’t sure if my cheeks were so hot because I was embarrassed or because I was exhausted. My aching muscles could handle the climb but I had to stop several times to stop the burn in my lungs that was creeping up into my throat. I almost turned back and kept thinking, I’m going to have a heart attack and they’re going to have to drag me back to Ballyvaughan. Turning back or staying behind all together was a thought that crossed my mind numerous times throughout this trip but I know I would have regretted not being willing to suck it up in order to experience the journey here. After the coughing subsided and I got my breath back, I was able to experience wonder inside the caves. Bones of brown bears lined the sidewalk inside the caves and a waterfall thundered in the background. Little brown icicles draw my eye upward toward the ceiling of the cave, which seems never ending in some places and causes me to crouch down in others. The landscape looked it could be something found on a foreign planet and I feel confident I will never see anything like it again. Caving in general would not have been something I was real excited about doing, but the added stairs, bridges, and sidewalks with railings provide the sense of security I was looking for. While I’m still not keen on hiking, I understand that there are areas here that can only be seen, or are best seen, on foot.

The ever-changing weather causes frequent plan changes depending on the rain’s schedule. There have been times when we can’t afford to wait for the weather to clear up because the clock is ticking until we leave, which was the case with the Aillwee caves. I moaned when I sat up in my bed that morning and saw the rain splashing against my window, but I knew that if I didn’t go that day, then I would probably never see them. Minnesota weather isn’t necessarily predictable but you can count on rain most of the day if it says it’s going to rain. Irish rain comes in spurts, but it rarely rains for more than a half hour at a time, except, of course, for the day that we walked to the caves. Sometimes it sprinkles while other times it sounds like an oncoming monsoon as it pounds against the roofs. Some days it is so loud that I can’t hear the sound of my own voice. Even if the forecast calls for sun, it will probably still rain, so we have to plan accordingly. Packing light is essential, which I regrettably realized when I soaked my passport, journal, camera case, rain coat, down winter coat, and travel itinerary while walking to the caves. While living in the Twin Cities, I can’t even recall the last time when it’s rained and I’ve had to walk farther than the distance from a building to it’s corresponding parking lot. I’ve even seen the Irish locals curse the rain many a time. Days in the sun are cherished, but even long days in the rain can rewarded with a rainbow or two overlooking the city.

I always knew I was a bit of a “city slicker,” but I didn’t realize to what extent. I’ve never lived in a home where the hot water runs out and you can’t shower and do laundry at the same time.  I have always had a washing machine available for use and could air-dry my clothes if I wanted because it was warm enough. I am always welcomed home to a 70-degree home with wifi and turning the fireplace on only requires the click of a button. Adapting to cottage life took a little time and I see that I am very spoiled at home. I sleep in the fetal position here, mummified in a blanket with every other one I can find piled on top. I realize leaving my slippers at home was a poor life choice as my feet are instantly frozen while stepping across the bathroom tiles.

I currently have four or five cellar spiders in my cottage bedroom. They reside on the ceiling, primarily in the corners of the room. If this were the case in my home in Minnesota, I would stand at the top of stairs and call for my dad to come and remove the offenders. Here, I resolve the issue by making a deal with them: if they remain on the ceiling, away from me, I will allow them to remain in the room. After a week of ignoring them, I climb onto a chair to plug in my curling iron and notice a spider several inches from the outlet, slowing creeping down the wall and I remind him that he is encroaching on my territory. I wonder how fast these spiders can multiply because I think five is my limit. I am thankful for every morning that I don’t wake up with a spider on my face and miss my home in Eagan, where spiders don’t feel the need to take refuge from the rain and die out in the winter.

I’ve laughed until I cried some days and I’ve cried myself to sleep some days. Some days I never want to leave and some days I’ve wanted to get on the next flight home. I’ve felt frightened for my life and I’ve felt completely exhilarated. I have to keep reminding myself that I have my whole life to be inside my comfort zone, but since I’m only in Ireland for a month, I should take advantage of the things it has to offer, even if they feel too different. It will be okay if things don’t go according to plan because “then I have something to write about.” I’ve come to understand that the sooner I am able to adapt, the sooner I can enjoy myself in this unusual, but inspiring place.


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