As I walked back to my dorm room this evening from the 18th-century south campus of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, I reminded myself how much I love being in places where the history is literally within an arm’s reach. Old Ireland, if the distinction can be made, is still very much alive all over the place here. As a Musicology student with strong interests in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, I learn to appreciate, along with the Irish themselves, Old Ireland more and more the longer that I’m here. After all, it seems so fitting that I can be flipping though manuscripts that were written almost three hundred years ago in a building that’s not much younger.
This is obviously a somewhat shallow observation, but such an experience is so rare in America that it’s at least important to me. Maynooth just seems to be the perfect place to study both Irish music and history—especially in the sense of how they together compose so much of the identity of the Irish people—and to get a sense of how these subjects seem to captivate generation after generation of Irish students. They’ve certainly won me over. It’s obvious that my department lecturers are passionate about the music culture here—both past and present—and they seem to add to this unseen energy about this subject that’s everywhere. Because Ireland is unique among European nations in that there has never been a strong academic study of the history of music in Ireland before the middle part of the last century, there really is a strong sense that even I as a lowly M.A. student am part of something special, and cutting-edge.
I’ve been playing in the university’s traditional music ensemble. I play Bluegrass fiddle; they play Irish pipes, banjos, flutes—and fiddles, too. We sit around and jam to folk tunes each week. I’m even getting to take lessons from a County Donegal-style fiddle player starting in the next couple of weeks. I came here to study Irish music, and study I do; when I’m not practicing, transposing manuscripts, researching for my thesis, or analyzing written music for its harmonic characteristics, I’ve got something playing on my MP3 player as I jog (which inevitably includes U2 and Cranberries tracks). The academic program I’m pursuing is both challenging and rewarding, and it’s really everything I wanted it to be.
I’ve been traveling quite a bit, although I’m toning it down a little this month in order to concentrate on my studies. I spent my birthday weekend in October in Iceland, where a friend and I rented a car and drove much of the southwestern quarter of the country. I couldn’t believe how gorgeous the landscape was. I also spent part of my fall break in the Algarve region, in the southern part of Portugal, driving around the countryside in search of Moorish castles and beaches. As one might expect, it’s certainly possible to get flights to the Continent for about $30 roundtrip, and plenty of websites sell highly rated hotel rooms for practically nothing during the non-peak seasons. Depending on my homework schedule, I might try to do one more weekend trip to a major European city, but we’ll see.
Traveling in Ireland has been a fun experience, too. In the States, I’m used to walking out my front door, getting in my car and driving pretty much wherever I want to go on the Interstate. It’s been something of an adjustment to have to align myself with the schedule of the transportation machine (namely, the buses and trains) rather than the other way around. But I’ve kissed the Blarney stone, circled the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry, and spent plenty of time in Dublin. I’m looking forward to some family visiting so that we can spend some more time traveling around the island, especially to places like County Donegal that aren’t as easily accessible to people without cars. It would be cheaper to rent a car (all over Europe) if I knew how to drive a standard transmission, but unfortunately I’ve never had the opportunity to learn. As someone used to the American side of the road, I’ve decided that Ireland probably isn’t the best place to learn this skill.
Anyway, I’ll close this entry by saying something quickly about the food here (partly because it’s why I’m closing the entry): I love it. I was raised on beans and cornbread and all the home-style food with which many Americans tend to identify, and I’ve been really impressed with how the food at the pubs seems to be in the same spirit: lamb stews, all kinds of potatoes, shepherd’s pie, cabbage and bacon, etc. The bread here is to die for, and so is the local cheese. And as I make myself hungrier by discussing such things, I’ll say goodbye for now, or as some of my Irish friends say, “cheers.”