Brendan Maloney, Final Project

Posted on February 2nd, 2014 by

Spirit of Ireland

            One of the first things that I did when I got here was to go on a long walk and get a feel for the area.  I had just arrived in the Burren the night before; it was dark and I was tired and I just wanted to get to bed, so I didn’t really appreciate the energy of the Burren when I first got here.  But the next morning, when I woke up in this strange new place and looked out my window to see a rainbow over the bay, and the green fields just on the other side of the street I felt something.  This place was just so alive and full of nature…and I had to experience it first-hand.  So after I got out of class that day, a couple of my classmates and I decided to take the scenic route back to our cottages.  During the walk I looked out over some bushes where I could see to the other side of the valley and I stopped to take it in for a second.

In front of me there are the brown leafless branches of a dead bush.  Just beyond the bush I can see large, flat, fields of different shades of green all throughout the lowland area.  They are separated by old handmade stone walls, blackened roads, and small trees.  If not for the 1950’s style houses scattered about the roads and plots of land I would feel as if I were in the medieval ages, back when things were so much more natural and man’s presence on the earth more subtle.  Still, even with the modern houses, man’s presence is subtle here.  There are only 5 or 6 of them, most of which are on the main road that goes through the valley to the nearby village and one along a road that goes up the valley to a small pasture.  This pasture is on the far side of the valley about half way up the hill, right beneath the brown and grey upper third of the valley wall; where the bedrock is showing through and the grass that tried to grow on that barren surface, dead.  If it had just tried to grow 50 feet lower it would have flourished, but there, at the top, it cannot survive.  Just to the left of the house by the pasture I can see a small, long, cloud moving slowly along the hill.  It reminds me of a small child that has wandered off from the group and is happily exploring some new place that it has just discovered along its path; not where it belongs, but not lost either.  I can’t help but feel like I’m just like the cloud…curiously exploring this new land and all of its beauties.  My classmates – who had kept walking – yelled back to me, I had taken in the sight for a bit too long.  I had to shake myself out of the moment and run to catch up with them along the road.

The rest of the walk was also gorgeous; but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I hadn’t experienced all that I could.  I knew that I would have to revisit that sight, but from somewhere different…like the top of the valley wall, where the rock is the oldest, but still showing its wisdom to the world.  I would have to get up there and sit with the rocks that could see it all.  I would have to climb, and get to know the land; get to know its dangers, and its beauties.  I made a point of getting to the top of the valley at least once before this trip ended.

After several days and two attempts, I had finally made it to the top of the valley.  From up there, I could see it all.  To my right the valley wall stretched so far out that it eventually faded from my vision; it began to blend with the fields of green, and dark grey rain clouds that were further inland.  To my left I could see the ocean.  I was so high up that I could make out distinctive lines in the water, where it morphed from the wild ocean where all sorts of dangers lie to the calm repetitive waves that the people and animals of this land could play.  In front of me, all I could see of the valley was the last half of the fields on the other side.  I had climbed so high up that most of what I could see was just the rocks in front of me.  The climb had been a series of plateaus and ledges, so all there was behind me was a sea of rocks.  Then I decided to have a seat and just absorb the place for a while, so I climbed down a few ledges so I could see the valley below, and sat on one.  It was a little scary sitting there, because at the top of the mountain – and especially right on the ledges – the wind was strong.  It was howling in my ears like the banshees of lore; and I finally understood, really understood, what that old phrase meant.  It was like these mythical beings didn’t want me there, up on their mountain, in their land and they were doing all they could to get me out.

On the way up, I had read three signs that were part of what appeared to be an art project.  They read “Listen” “Really Listen” “What do you hear?” and on the way to the top I was so concerned with making it to the top that I hadn’t…listened.  This crossed my mind while I was sitting on the ledge, and so I did, I closed my eyes and listened.  At first all I heard was the wind, howling and whipping around in my ear and I acknowledged it.  I told the wind that I knew it was there, and that it didn’t want me up on the mountain, but that I was there to stay, there to take in this land.  It didn’t stop, but after a while my mind began to quiet.  I could hear the cows down below, mooing as they grazed and the sound of the mountain grasses blowing in the wind.  It was funny, for as powerful as the wind was up here the only thing that I could remember of the grasses was them bobbing gently, like they were immune its violence.  Then the thought occurred to me, maybe the wind wasn’t being violent, maybe it just wanted me to keep moving, keep exploring.  After all that was the energy that I had felt from this land, that it wanted me to just get up and go!  It was what had gotten me up and out of bed so many of my mornings here, what made me have to make it to the top of the valley.  Maybe it was just pushing me to keep going.

I opened my eyes and I could see the shadows of the clouds in the valley below, and the sunshine coming through between them.  The light was moving across the valley and it was magnificent!  It was like I was in a movie and had discovered this hidden village where everybody was happy but nobody else knew about it.  Like this was the discovery of a lifetime, I had found a place that people only dreamed of; and here I was up on the top of a mountain.  I had tried to get away to get a better perspective of what the valley was, but when I got up there, the mountain was telling me to go back down and experience it!  I smiled briefly to myself, patted and rubbed the rock I was sitting on like it was my dog resting next to me, a loyal companion.  Then I stood, grabbed my bag, and headed back down the mountain.  I headed down to experience this beautiful place, which I had just tried so hard to removed myself from.

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Irishness & Stories

            All my life, I grew up thinking that I hadn’t any connection to my Irish heritage; and really, I don’t.  I’m half Irish and half Mexican; my grandparents immigrated from Mexico, so I have always had a strong connection with my Mexican heritage, but my Irish side immigrated so long ago that my Irish side had lost most of its identity.  However, one thing has stuck with my family that is a very big part of Irish culture that I – or anybody else in my family, for that matter – had realized…we tell stories.  I have come to realize that in Irish culture stories are a very important way of passing knowledge and tradition through generations.  Now, I’m sure that story telling is a big part of most cultures, and that just makes sense; before there was writing stories were the main apparatus of passing along histories and knowledge.  But for the Irish I feel like it is especially prevalent in the culture, for example, I’ve heard the saying multiple times that, if you ask an Irishman a question, you won’t get an answer, but a story.

The oldest family story that I know is the one of my ancestors, and how my family first came to America from Ireland.  My great-great grandfather and his brother were the first of my ancestors to come to America.  The reason they came to America was because his brother had stolen a horse, and was sentenced to be hanged; so before the Irish authorities caught him they bought a ticket and came by boat over to America.  They were running from the law.  This story was, for the longest time, all that I had of my Irish heritage – aside from just knowing that I was Irish.  Ever since that time, my family had become more and more Americanized; so much so that we couldn’t even really associate with our family heritage.  However, as I said earlier, there was one major thing that my family had retained of our Irishness without even knowing it.  We all love to tell stories.

Every time we get together for a family gathering it’s just story telling galore!  There’s always something that has gone on in everybody’s life that is exciting and deserves to be told to everybody, often times with much exaggeration.  I had always noticed my family, my father especially, had a tendency to over exaggerate a story in the interest of making it funnier or more interesting to everybody.  Like when he tells the story of when I was concussed during one of my football games and I “walked into the other team’s huddle,” when really, all I did was stumble in that direction.  Or the time that he was in high school and he punched a kid in the face because he wouldn’t stop harassing him; and when he did how the teacher yelled at the other guy for not stopping.  Storytelling, it’s just something we do, it’s how we pass along our history and traditions…and apparently it’s in our blood.

For example, we had a professional storyteller and collector, Eddie Lenihan, come visit our class for a night and tell us a few stories that he’s heard over his life.  He told us several stories about other’s real life experience with fairies – which, in Irish culture, are quite troublesome.  The one story that he told us that sticks out is the one about a man’s father who built a house on a fairy path.  When this man’s father was close to finishing the house an old traveling man came by and told the father that this house would know no peace as long as it was built there and walked away.  The father paid no attention to the old traveling man and continued on with the house.  A few days later when the house was finished, the family got no sleep because there were all kinds of noises like furniture dancing around their kitchen going on all night.  This happened several nights in a row, and eventually the father ran into the old traveling man later; bought him a pint and asked him how he knew the house would know no peace.  The old traveler told the father to finish his pint, and that he would show him why.  They then walked back to the house and the old man showed him a fairy path that the house was built right on top of.  He told the father to leave the back door open so that the fairies could pass easily through while they were traveling, and that their nights would be sound.  Sure enough, leaving the back door open allowed the family to get a sound night’s sleep every night; but, once every seven years, as the story goes, the walls would smell of steak and one of the family’s cows would be dead.  This happened on the same day every seven years, and is believed to be the fairies’ toll for the family having built a house on their path.

Now, I know that this story is less than believable, and that the only evidence to prove it true is the word of one man, but I don’t think that’s what’s important about the story.  The importance of the story is that it’s keeping the culture of ancient Ireland alive in modern times; that it’s passing down the knowledge and traditions of the ancestors through the ages.  This is the primary way for Irish culture to keep its spirit alive and relevant through the generations.  It’s the way that people relate to each other and how they associate with their history.

Everybody knows the stories of Cuchulain, and how he was a hero in old Irish lore.  People use him, and look up to him for inspiration; that’s why there’s a statue of him in the GPO in Dublin.  People looked up to him and his strength as inspiration to fight for their independence from England.  Some people might not see these stories as real, but to the Irish, they are real, and are a source of inspiration to take action.  These stories have real, and significant, effects on those who know them well, and grew up with them; because of the stories of Cuchulain, people felt like they had the strength to stand up to their foes.  They felt like they could stand up to the English oppressors and make a difference in their country.

Just as these people heard and used the stories to carry on their heritage and pride, so does my family use their stories to keep our history alive.  While it might not be to the same extent and significance as the stories of old Ireland, they are still the major way that my family keeps its’ heritage alive; unconscious as it may be.  Before coming to the country of my ancestors, I thought that I had lost my entire heritage; but ever since I’ve been here, I’ve learned that my family has kept its’ culture alive through story telling.  We haven’t been aware of it, but we have kept being Irish this whole time.  Now, every time I hear one of my family’s stories I’ll think about this land and how we are staying connected to it through them…especially the exaggerated ones.

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