Springtime arrived in Ireland on February 1st, a unique Irish tradition that begins my favorite season a month and a half ahead of the US. It’s official, I’m not leaving.
Originating as Imbolc, a festival honoring the Pagan goddess Brigid, it marks not only the beginning of spring but the onset of lactation in ewes. As usual, Christians adapted the Celtic goddess and holiday to suit their own motives and now the Irish recognize February 1st as Saint Brigid’s Day. It is still considered the beginning of spring, but the day is named after Saint Brigid of Kildare, a nun converted by Saint Patrick and named after the county she died in and the one I call my own, Kildare. Although Christians have changed Imbolc, agriculturally February 1st still carries the same meaning, which means that now, in March, our countryside is blanketed with adorable lamb twins.
As a side note: although the Irish like an excuse to party, they don’t celebrate Groundhog Day (perhaps it would have to be Badger Day?), nonetheless my classmates find it an amusing American holiday.
Even though we have had snow since February 1st and frost almost every morning, the birds and trees seem to know spring is here. The days are getting rapidly longer, and freezing rain isn’t as frequent. In fact, the past week has gone by without a drop of water from the sky, making the trail running alongside the Royal Canal extremely pleasant.
Canals criss-cross Ireland, linking the multitude of natural waterways to ensure Ireland’s pastures stay their characteristic vibrant green. The Royal Canal that runs through Maynooth meets the Liffey in Dublin and connects to the Shannon River over 90 miles west in County Longford. Although sometimes it seems more like an avenue for garbage disposal, it is my favorite part of my village. The Royal Canal was originally built over 200 years ago, then it fell into disrepair in the 1970s. Fortunately, the royal canal is now fully functional, with over 46 locks for small boats, theoretically, to pass across the island and a footpath hugging the shoreline its entire length. Sometimes the path is a bit more rugged, but alongside towns it’s usually perfectly paved for pushing prams on sunny days.
Running along the path I encounter other joggers-mostly middle-aged men in skintight spandex, dog walkers, and the occasional couple in love. I’ve also developed a rapport with the caretaker of the Royal Canal Way in Maynooth; he’s always ready with a smile and short greeting. If I get outside a 2-mile radius of towns, I can usually sing to myself without anyone cringing, which is absolutely delightful. Occasionally I spook a heron, which usually ends up scaring me more as it takes off and almost brushes my face with its large wingspan, but the pairs of ducks and swans are usually eager to see if I have spare bread.
Second semester started the first day of spring, and it was good to be back to the books and more importantly, tea breaks with classmates. Despite a more technical coursework load (LINUX, anyone?), I’ve still used my spare days, especially if there is a break in the clouds, to travel and experience Ireland. With graduation looming and final papers piling up, I am becoming keenly aware that my time to travel around Ireland is diminishing rapidly. Delightfully though, the more I see of the country, the more I love.
Sunsets are prized by travelers and locals anywhere you go, and I’ve seen my share of sunsets. Although I’ve experienced some spectacular 2-hour long sunsets in Antarctica, the sunset I watched from the Cliffs of Moher will be forever remembered. I took two dear friends (a former housemate and her new husband) to Galway when they visited Ireland. I wanted them to experience one of my new favorite places (I’ve been three times in the past two months) and we boldly rented a car to drive through County Clare to visit the famous Cliffs. Matt braved the narrow, winding roads and skillfully dodged both fox and tractors that took more than their fair share of the road. It was a clear day and the wind was barely noticeable, so we camped out at the Cliffs of Moher with delicious Guinness fudge to watch the orange sun dip into the Atlantic. It was a rare sight and will be remembered for its beauty and company.
I have had the privilege to host many of my friends over the past few weeks and will host many more as the weather becomes warmer. Ireland seems to be a prized destination for many Americans (I like to think they come to see me though). I’ve traveled to Howth, a peninsula north of Dublin, five times now and still find something new every time I bring someone. The Wicklow Mountains, just south of Dublin, are another of my favorite places to bring friends. The shores of Glendalough in the center of the mountain range makes a great picnicking spot, but the wind blowing across the lake mandates a warm scarf and gloves. Visitors get my version of Ireland, I like to hope it is fairly accurate, but I am always grateful for an Irish friend to add their (more accurate) version.
Although I have a small sliver of Irish in my genes, I never planned to come back to my ancestors’ homeland. I usually seek out developing countries for places to study, volunteer, and visit. I plan to work towards conservation of ecosystems and promotion of public health in developing countries, while living there, of course. I will begin with work in Borneo next year. However, my experiences in Ireland have aided my future endeavors immensely. Immunology coursework, seminars on diseases of poverty, independent research of geographies of health, and biotechnology site visits have illuminated factors that influence health in human populations and mechanisms currently used to combat inequalities. I’ve also benefited from conversations with friends and others throughout travels.
With the improving weather, I can’t help but spend most of my time enjoying the country however I am also increasingly anxious about leaving. Walks along the Royal Canal inevitably become longer than planned and trips across the Island are becoming more frequent. I’m grateful for the introduction to Ireland and am looking forward to adventures in the next few months and to coming back in the years to come.