Homeless for 22 days, I found myself in an interview with the general manager of Castle Leslie Estate as he said, “So I’m afraid we won’t be able to offer you summer accommodation.” Fact: I have a job. Caveat: I have nowhere to stay. (Normally I’m a tad more prepared for major life events.) The manager continued, “I’m curious why you chose to come to Glaslough instead of pursuing employment closer to Limerick.”
Why did I want to work across the island, braving five and a half hours of trains, buses, and bicycles each way? First, the Scholars visited Castle Leslie during our midyear retreat and I fell in love with the area and their horses. Second, I needed a break from schoolwork. I could stay in Limerick over the summer and work in a lab; but after learning two new musical instruments and a vast repertoire of Irish folk songs on the fly, I needed an environment where I could, as Matt Baum would affectionately say, “feela drop in blood pressure.” Third, I thrive in the countryside. Limerick is actually much nicer than it’s reputation, but while not a thriving metropolis, it’s urban population is still on par with Montana’s largest city, Billings, around 90,000. Relocating to a sleepy town of less than 700 would be more similar to how I grew up. Fourth, I could hop onto my bicycle and over to N. Ireland a few miles away whenever I felt like spending less money. Save an unnatural affinity to Munster Rugby, tea, fish & chips, and an accent that ended every sentence with “like” or “ya,” my generation in Limerick seemed to be, like, a parody of American music, cinema, and even fast-food restaurants, like. (Subway is quite possibly the Starbucks of Limerick. I believe I have counted 8 in the city–3 within two blocks and 2 on campus.) Don’t get me wrong, my classmates at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at UL and my Irish roommates always brought a lot of culture into our music and discussions, but I wanted to live it.
So, in true crazy-Colvin form–to the discomfort of my mother–I began to solicit anyone I could think of to stay with in Co. Monaghan (i.e. peers, friends of friends, pastors) until I could locate an apartment. A special thanks is due to the Dublin Scholars and Lauren for being such great hosts during my limbo. On the verge of defeat, a pastor emailed back saying a family named the Russell’s would be happy to have me for about a week until I got on my feet. Hallelujah! With a feeling of déjà vu, I packed up my clothes, computer, and guitar, then boarded the train for a completely unknown situation. Little did I know that within a few short days I would meet nearly as many people in Monaghan as I knew in Limerick.
The first two days were a whirlwind of relatives and chats over tea. I met David and Millie Russell’s two daughters, son, daughter-in-law, son-in-law, and two grandsons during a Saturday family dinner. The next day, Sunday, I met half the town and more relatives at church. David took me on a drive to Castleshane (well-named I thought) where he grew up and pointed out where three of his eight siblings live within earshot of each other; and of course we dropped in for tea with two of them. The days slipped by and still I couldn’t find a place to live. Completely unexpected, the Russell’s graciously offered to have me at their home until the end of the summer. It has been extremely touching how this family I had barely known for a week has since nearly adopted me.
Strange, how the most basic activities of life can generate such powerful attachments. Millie wakes me up for work in the morning by shouting “Shane, are ya livin’ or are ya dead?” After breakfast (and what else, tea) I bicycle two miles to the Castle (which I’m told is far too much exercise). The staff often get a chuckle from my American ignorance. I once spent half an hour looking for a spare “cot.” To me this meant a full-size, foldable bed, but to them it meant a baby crib. Each day I discover a fascinating antique, painting, or a forgotten, moss-covered corner of the estate. On the ride back from work I usually have to stop to let cows cross the road to be milked; more often than not I will be caught in the rain. During one downpour, a trainer from the Castle Equestrian Centre started waving and hollering from the field; simultaneously, as if rehearsed, a different coworker honked at me as she zipped by in her car. Of course the next day everyone was talking about the attempted homicide and joked in good humor whether “the Yank” would survive the summer. Before and after dinner there is usually time to help about the place by painting fences, pouring concrete, mending things about the house, or learning how to drive a manual on the wrong side of the road. Later in the day we sing Irish songs along with my guitar, watch World Cup football matches (to which the Irish will never forgive the French for qualifying), or have visitors.
One drizzly evening, two of the Russells and a friend were matching me up with all the eligible lasses of the area. Though sitting at the table, I apparently had no say in the matter as they intently discussed prospects.
“Wet the tea there, would ya Millie?”
“Pretty soon we’ll have there Shane married off.”
“Aye, but ya know there wouldn’t be many free ones abou’ t’would there?”
“Aye, surely, there wouldn’ be, an’ that’s the truth.”
“What about your man’s daughter who went to study in London?”
“No, she’d be to old for ‘im so she would.”
“How old is he [Shane] again?”
“Twenty-five just, so he said the other day.”
“Then perhaps the girl there at the wee shop down the hill at Paddy’s.”
“Seventeen just she is, a mite young for ‘im, an’ a redhead at that.”
“Aye, but it’s better to be an old man’s sweetheart than a young man’s slave.”
As I tried to decipher this last nugget of Irish wisdom, I began to worry they were seriously conspiring to have me matched by summer’s end. My father wouldn’t be disappointed if I brought back an Irish lass, but I doubt I would successfully convince her to move to Montana where it snows seven months or more each year.
That’s a small town for you; nowhere to hide. Still, I love that at one end of town rests a sign embossed with Fàilte (Welcome), and another with Slán (Farewell) only three minutes walk away. I know all the neighbors’ dogs, their names, and their favorite places to get a good scratch. The stars are ever clear and vibrant, and the air is always freshly crisp from constant rain. But what I love most of all is the serene silence. Nothing is theoretical or academic…it just is. Real people are leading real lives with sincerity and genuine concern (or in rare cases distain) for those around them. Over the last year, and especially this past month, I have fallen in love with the culture. Paradoxically, I have never been more homesick.
For all the country’s rolling hills and tranquil landscape, the religious and political tensions are extremely palpable. I’ve watched the Protestant Grand Orange Order marching with their full dress and bagpipes, surfacing memories of it’s roots in William of Orange’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne. The next day, a prominent Sinn Fein member, and former mayor of Monaghan, just sat down next to me and started talking politics at a BBQ fundraiser. Perhaps the best representation I have seen of the opposing factions rests in a road project along the N2 near Monaghan to N. Ireland. Three proposed routes have farmers in an uproar, as some options bisect their properties or even run over their homes. Who is on the deciding council? What is the religious and/or political persuasion of those giving or receiving compensation? Who is going to get a job in the construction? Where is the money coming from: the EU, Ireland? In an ideal world everyone might work together to obtain the best, most logical solution. Yet, as David Ford succinctly told the Scholars at Stormont, “Never base politics on logic here.” Until recently I don’t think I realized just how much of a difference there is debating with high up-politicians and universities versus the people who are affected. I wanted to experience the real Ireland; here it is.
If I was brutally honest, would I come back to live in Ireland? Probably not. Despite all its enchantments and deep musical history, my heart belongs in the mountains. Would I come to visit? Absolutely, and as often as I could. David Russell was very pleased with himself that he had seen the old Western movie “Shane” and jokes that when I leave everyone will chorus, “Come back Shane, come back!” I feel I now have two new families: the Mitchells and the Russells. Like a palimpsest, this is another layer of experiences that will not define me completely, as other adventures and journeys take the spotlight; but a portion will always shine strongly throughout my entire life.
There are inherent boundaries of written language, and some things you cannot accurately capture. For me one of them would be the Mitchell experience. Schumann was once asked to describe one of his compositions. In reply he simply played the music. As I finish up an extraordinary first year and anticipate a second, I have only been able to proffer a taste in these reflections. My advice to a candidate or future Scholar taking the time to read this, just go out and live it for yourself. It’s only once… Slán.