Ryan Horner ’15 – If you’re ever blessed with the opportunity to travel anywhere in Ireland, you can expect two things: plenty of talk about Guinness, and a full exposure to Irish pride. For a class studying Irish author James Joyce, the discussions of his work often turn into conversations about “Irishness” and whether or not certain things are more Irish than others.
In a way, this “Irishness” concept is similar to a sense of “Hoosierness” back home in Indiana. Activities that have a greater connection to Indiana’s history have a positive connotation to Indiana natives, like basketball or the Indy 500.
The argument could be made that Dublin is the only city worth visiting for Joyce studies, since his books take place there. However, that is a vastly oversimplified view. In both Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man and “The Dead,” Joyce’s characters are faced with tensions between the old Irish tradition/nationalism and a desire to figure life out for themselves. This nationalism is related to “the west” by a character in “The Dead” including areas like Galway, where Joyce’s wife is from, far from urban Dublin.
Our first day of this immersion trip was spent on Inishmore, an island off the west coast of Ireland. The island is remote; the population of the town is about 900, the size of our own college at home. The land is fairly rugged and filled with ancient ruins; it seems as if you’ve stepped back into another age.
Using bikes rented on the island, our class traveled yesterday to the northeastern corner of the island to visit the ruins of Dun Aengus. The island and ruins are a window into Ireland’s past, and due to the Irish tendency of nationalism that Joyce was not fond of, they are a wonderful opportunity to judge for yourself whether or not Joyce was on target when he critiqued nationalism.
The ruins of Dun Aengus date from over 500 years before Christ. We walked up a long slope dotted with stone walls before coming to the outside defenses of the fort, which are thick walls and buttresses of rock. The site was also a spot for religious ceremonies, before part of the land underneath fell away into the sea, leaving a sheer cliff. We stayed away from the dangerous edge for the most part, but the view was too good to pass up. Along with the ruins of churches, it was neat to see parts of the history behind Ireland’s fabled religious tradition.
In a large way, places like Inishmore and Galway represent a constant fear or opposition in Joyce’s works. In the last scene of “The Dead” Gabriel decides that he must go west, back to the start, where his wife grew up. In the same manner, we went back to the start of Irish culture, where the natives still speak Irish, play traditional music, and live a life deeply connected to Ireland’s origins. The best parts were our interactions with the local townspeople: hearing them speak Irish, or explain the ruins, or elaborate on their way of life in one of the oldest sections of Ireland.