Saving Orphans and my Sanity. Working with SOHO while on the job hunt

We moved back to the states about two months ago, looking for jobs. Perhaps, and to our surprise, the most interesting/frustrating/complicated adventure yet.

In the meantime, I decided to reach out to a group that I worked with in 2013, Saving Orphans Through Healthcare and Outreach (SOHO).20131129-IMG_6173

I thought, perhaps they have some contacts for me to aid in my job search. Little did I know during that meeting, they had a lot more in store. October 14th was SOHO’s fourth annual awards gala to raise awareness for gender abuse and trafficking in both Indiana and Swaziland, Africa where the organizations focuses it’s work. They needed help with creating visuals for the gala and assorted organizational tasks in preparation. And there I was, on their doorstep with too much time on my hands and a desire to be productive while in job-search limbo. I was ecstatic that they needed me. Let me tell you, there is nothing more discouraging than looking for jobs sometimes. There have been many incidents where I have wondered if getting my master’s degree was even worth it. Emails not responded to, phone calls not returned, no sign of life on the other end of the search at all. I have learned a lot from this experience, but working with SOHO has been integral in not only keeping my sanity, but also introducing me to individuals who have inspired me, motivated me, and shown me there are much bigger needs going on in our world than my sometimes self-pitying state of jobless-ness.

Each year for the past four years, SOHO has honored special guests at the awards gala. This year, there were two honored guests, Gail Masondo an author, motivational speaker, and life recovery coach; and Yvonne Chaka Chaka- the Princess of Africa. I have been told Yvonne is the equivalent to the Angelina Jolie of Africa (I would say she is more like Whitney Houston) a very prominent singer and humanitarian especially during the Apartheid.

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Gail (left) and Yvonne (right) at the Prayer Breakfast.

On Monday the 12th we hosted a prayer breakfast at SOHO to prayer over the events for the week and to ask God to help our organization reach those who are abused both at home and in Swaziland. We had various community members, pastors, priests, and a police officer there to tell us about the trafficking situation in Indiana. I was SHOCKED to discover that Indiana has the 5th highest population of trafficked individuals in the country. It was also an emotional time for some individuals who opened up about how they had been abused as children.It is hard to describe the mixed emotions of anger and disgust I felt at hearing this news. My heart burned and ached. The room became immediately smaller and I felt suddenly trapped in its four walls. There is so much pain outside and I feel helpless to do anything about it. Even the strong individuals in front of me have suffered. We all have suffered in some way, I suppose. For me, the difficult thing is not accepting the pain of others, but how to react to it–  how to balance the anger with empathy. In that moment, we just put our hands over each other and prayed.

After the breakfast there was a forum at IUPUI sponsored by the University, the Desmond Tutu Center, SOHO, amongst others. The panel consisted of our two honored guests, Elna Boesak, two IUPUI students, a professor of social work, and a state representative. All had really interesting things to share about their experiences with women’s empowerment, gender abuse, and trafficking.

Christina Hale, the State Rep for District 87 made some really thought-provoking and rather shocking points during her talk about Indiana in regards to issues of gender violence, equality, and activism in INDIANA. She stated:

  • 1 in 6 girls are violated sexually by the time they reach high school
  • There are 33 counties in IN with NO OBGYNs
  • 1 in 5 children suffer from “food insecurity”- I put this in quotes because it is sort of a new term, a buzzword word that refers to economic inequality, food insecurity being a side effect.
  • IN had the lowest voter turnout in the nation in 2014

She encouraged the audience to participate politically. “Hegemonic, old-fashioned mindsets” are making the decisions here and we absolutely have the power to step in and shift the power relations. She talked about her story getting to be a state rep and it actually seems that if more of us were encouraged and became familiar with the process and duties, perhaps we would be more interested in making our voices heard. It was a great talk and encouraged even me, someone who tends to stay away from politics, to become more politically active. Changes need to be made.

Yvonne, reiterated some of her favorite speaking points during this talk as well as the Womens’ Breakfast on the 14th, the day of the gala. (Wo) man is a (well-organized) man. We can REARRANGE the world.

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20151013-IMG_3558 Yvonne singing for us at the Womens’ Breakfast.
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Yvonnne, Gail, and the Chicago Con. General of South Africa, Vuyiswa Tulelo.
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Cynthia, Gail, and Yvonne.

Gail, as a motivational speaker, was particularly moving as well. She has a power behind her voice and words that demanded attention.

“We need to mentor our daughters and nurture our sons.”

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Gail speaking at the Womens’ Breakfast

This statement turned things on its head for me. I began to see gender abuse differently. It is not always about a perpetrator and a victim. It is not black and white. Boys need to be nurtured to become gentlemen and women need to become empowered and educated. There are two sides to the coin as they say, both of which require equal attention.

Apathy is our only enemy. It is the heart of a lot of disengagement of these crucial issues. We have become, around the world, a culture of silence. It is intimidating when you are not deeply embedded in an organization to find a passion or cause to support. What can we do as individuals? Gail’s response: “make yourself a committee of one and do your part.” Choose your cause and move from table talk to action. From personal experience, engagement happens quickly. One day I am in SOHO’s office, only familiar with one face. Within a week I am surrounded by women who inspire and motivate me, involved in an issue of which I was little aware, but to which I now feel intrinsically connected.

On the 14th we hosted the awards gala, once again featuring the honored guests. It was an incredible experience to assist in planning such an impactful event. I am so thankful I was able to be a part of it. There is so much that goes on inside organizations like SOHO to get their programs off the ground. It is easy to become completely embedded in the cause and through the work, the long days, the phone calls, the feeling like you’re running around like a chicken without a head, you become part of a family, a community. This has become everything to me. Volunteering again for SOHO reinvigorated my job search and my desire to join a team that does good work. To be surrounded by people with equal passions and diverse skills, to see our ideas becomes realities– real events, real programs, that save real people.20151013-IMG_3704

Volunteering for SOHO this year, I think I felt more connected to the children in Swaziland– more so than when I actually went to Swaziland in 2013.  It is (somewhat) easy to look into a child’s eyes and feel moved by their hardships. You would certainly have a heart of stone not to. However, its back at home when those eyes start to fade from memory, and the burning passion to save the children begins to dwindle that I realize most of the work is done here. In 2013 I documented the events that took place in Swaziland with a hope to spread awareness of the work SOHO does in Swaziland. This year, I have not stepped foot on Swazi soil, but I have felt more involved in aiding the Swazi people than before. I have been a part of the hard work it takes to raise money, design programs, and build relationships. It is long, long hours some days. It is pain, sometimes. It restarting from scratch and frustration, in some cases. But it is all blessings; what I have learned, the people I now call my friends, and the motivation I have gained to continue to do good work. It may be difficult, I may still not have a job, but I can always do work that means something to someone. And that is all I live for.

The Wedding

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Our first dance to La vie en Rose Louis Armstrong Style.

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It has been two months and 16 days since we were married in Ireland. Since then, I have been asked several times, naturally, how it went. I have had many opportunities to summarize the experience and because there are so few words that can truly grasp the amazement of the day, I will share the few that are worthwhile to say.

Surreal. Seeing my friends and family in Ireland to celebrate John and I, to see where we have lived and gone to school, to be a part of the life we made in Ireland, felt like an absolute dream. Even after all has been said and done, I still can’t believe they were all there. Our parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, best friends. They spent real money and took long flights to be with us in our little world that until this point we were only able to share vitually.

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Natural. It felt that it was only to be expected that everyone was there. This day wasn’t just about me and John, it was about our families and friends who have supported us throughout the entire journey. This was also a chance for us to thank them by giving them an evening to remember. The whole process was a combination of Irish and American traditions. We had a ceili (Irish dancing party basically), we drank, we ate– it was all a natural culmination of our life together in Ireland. A little hodgepodge of our two homes.

Ceili. I loved how "into it" our families and friends got. They truly tried to embrace the Irish culture.
Ceili. I loved how “into it” our families and friends got. They truly tried to embrace the Irish culture.

Smooth. Believe it or not, the entire day went off without a hitch. There was never a moment that didn’t feel right. It was simple, easy, and beautiful.

Impeccably charming. Every detail was stunning. From Barberstown Castle (the bedrooms, the reception halls, even the bathrooms) and Lady Chapel Church, to the flowers and cake. We had so little to do with the beauty of the day other than choosing the vendors. Each and every one of them was incredible and made our day better than we could have ever imagined, and most importantly, intrinsically us. 

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Surprising: When you try to plan a wedding, you get so focused on each and every detail that sometimes you forget to enjoy the process and allow it to unfold in front of you. We were so busy with school as postgraduate students that we really only had time to make the major decisions and we sort of let the little details go (which is very unusual for me). This led to us being very pleasantly surprised during our wedding day. We forgot that we would be ushered in by a bagpiper, we didn’t know we could cut the cake with a sword, and I forgot about the afters dinner at 11:00pm so that’s was extraordinarily exciting after hours of dancing. My mom added a beautiful floral arch to the church entrance unbeknownst to me until I arrived. It was amazing. We enjoyed not knowing exactly what was to happen next and it kept the day just as exciting for us as it was for our guests.

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My wedding planner, Michelle at Waterlily Weddings and photographer, Kara from Kamienski Photography both have posted wonderful words about our wedding:

http://www.waterlilyweddings.com/2015/10/allison-johnny-la-vie-en-rose-in-kildare/

http://karakamienskiphotography.com/allison-johnny-august-5-2015-ireland/

I can’t thank Michelle from Waterlily Weddings enough for having everything to do with our day going so smoothly and Kara for documenting the essence of the day with incredible art and energy.

Writing this a few months after the wedding I think is appropriate. As John and I look for jobs and travel from city to city and back again, it is so lovely to remember the day I married him. It represents not only our relationship, but the immense support we receive from both our families every single day.

I cried only twice during the wedding. Seeing my dad for the first time before loading the bus to head to the church was so emotional. He has been there for everything, both of my parents have been. They have allowed me to be so independent and I suppose taking this step made me gush with gratitude. I would be nothing without there unconditional love and guidance.

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The second time was during my sister’s speech. Our relationship growing up wasn’t the easiest, but as we’ve gotten older (and I’ve gotten to know myself better) we’ve become best friends. We don’t always talk about it, so hearing her say it was so special.

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I also ate waaaaayy too much. The food was just too good. I loved that we took the meal slowly, which is the Irish way. I always feel so rushed at American wedding because usually you have to be out of the venue by 11:00 or so. Here, the party was allowed to continue until the wee hours of the morning so we could take our time with the meal and enjoy every minute.

There’s not much more I can say about the beauty of the day. The ceremony was lovely and meaningful. We handpicked every reading and the gospel, but we also had the opportunity to read a traditional Irish blessing that is typical at Irish weddings.

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On a misty, grey Wednesday on the 5th of August we got married in our little town of Maynooth. We will always cherish these memories. Someday in a new home, I will find a place to hang these pictures, adding them to our other adventures, but leaving space on a white wall for more to come. 

Cheers to our wedding and cheers to all of those who helped us and continue to help us on our little adventure. 

Cheers to Patrick- giving his best man's speech.
Cheers! 

The months, the memories, and moving on

Back in the United States, something often catches my eye that reminds me of Ireland. Silly things. Little things. Thoughts that lift my lips in a bittersweet smile. I see a reflective vest on a school traffic director, and it reminds me of vest-laden cyclists and traffic directors in our town of Maynooth, a bustling town with three local schools and a university. I see Irish oatmeal at Meijer and I think of how much I prefer calling it porridge now. Even the word warms me up!

It is also the things and people we don’t see every day that remind us of Ireland. Not being offered a cup of tea or biscuits every time we enter someone’s home, or our friends James, Sarah, Jenni, Siahbh, and Louise, Francois, Katalina, Myriam… They were integral to the amazing experience we had and it was difficult, as moving away tends to be, to leave not only the physical space we lived in, but the people who made it feel like home.

Starting from where I left off in December (though I did post about the month of March. It was a good month) and ending just before the wedding.

February

Valentine’s Day at Bistro 53 on the main street in Maynooth. The night that we learned

1. Many restaurants schedule reservations in block times  (such as you make a reservation for 6pm or 8pm and you have until the next slot to eat) unlike the U.S. which tries to turn over as many tables as possible).

2. How to remove the bones from a fillet of Black Sole and not look like fools.

3. There is no bad way to make/eat tiramisu.

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National Museum of Ireland, Archaeology- Bog bodies, really old jewelry, and other incredible ancient artifacts. I started my anthropology education as an archaeology degree, but after a few years switched to cultural. Archaeology is still a major passion of mine and this museum made me reconsider my choice…. just kidding. It’s a love I will always have and who knows, maybe I’ll do a dig one day because why the heck not?! I’ll just put that on my bucket list.

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March

St. Paddy’s Day OF COURSE. We started the day with a little morning parade in Maynooth which showcased local kids participating in bands, karate, dancing, etc. Everyone dressed up and was havin’ the craic. We treated ourselves to some Irish coffees at O’Niell’s to wake us up and prepare for the evening at a friend’s party in Drogheda, about an hour away from Maynooth.

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Guinness cupcakes and chocolate crinkle cookies I made for Jenni’s party!
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Irish coffees at O’Niell’s. Please don’t stir. They are a work of art.
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St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Drogheda. Home to the severed head of St. Oliver Plunkett, martyred in 1681.

IMG_4627Other bits from March: Dublin adventures and John’s birthday. It started to warm up slightly in March so we explored some corners of Dublin we hadn’t yet seen such as the mazes at Iveagh Gardens, National Museum of Ireland Natural History, and breakfast at the Docklands. It snowed as well! It probably only snowed three or four times during the winter.

It was John’s birthday at the end of the month and we learned that it is common to receive lotto tickets on your birthday. He didn’t win anything. But we did go to another favorite restaurant to celebrate, Avenue Cafe. They have the BEST chicken wings. Nothing will compare to those dripping, spicy, garlicky wings.

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Snow tracks on Main Street.
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Iveagh Gardens
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Doors of Dublin. Its a thing. And a hashtag.
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Natural History Museum. Kids checkin’ things out. A small museum, but it was neat to see some species I may never have an opportunity to see again as they  are very remote or extinct.
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Breakfast at the Docklands.
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I’m pretty stoked for my gluten free waffle.
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Art of all sorts.
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We switched around the layout of the apartment. There are some staple items in here that must be noted. The pink and white bag of candy from the candy store, the plant we left behind that our neighbors nursed back to health for us after our trip in July, and stacks on stacks of books. It was home!
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Birthday wings
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Birthday lotto!

   April:

My birthday and spring in Maynooth!

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I WON 2 EURO!
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My favorite place in Dublin. Yogism. It has pro-biotic frozen yogurt (Ireland’s cows are THE BEST dairy you’ll ever have). But I especially love the buckwheat pancakes. It is SO hard to find clean food to eat out. This was my birthday treat!
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Almond milk cappuccino and froyo with the all the toppings.
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Campus in the Spring!
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I finally cashed in on last years birthday gift from John, a new tattoo. Five hours at the parlor later, I was sooo hungry, so we got some BBQ pork and beans at the Bison Bar across the street. Felt like home.
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Sunday pre-church cuppa outside of Maynooth Castle. Just another day.

May:

A trip to Brussels and visits from friends!

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Our Air BnB home in Brussels! Such a nice couple that let us stay in their guest room right on the main street in Brussels! It also happened to be a gay pride festival that weekend and a bank holiday so we were in the heart of it all.
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Breakfast cuppa in a bowl/mug. Still haven’t found one in the states yet that I like as much as this one. It’s on my list!
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Breakfast! So delicious and I also finally figured out the proper way to eat an egg out of a little egg dish with a spoon.
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Waffle from a waffle truck. The. Best.
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More waffles and chocolate.

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A confused Spring day…

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The first day that I hear thunder in Maynooth. It was so strange, the weather. It was so bright and sunny on one side of the library and quite foreboding on the other.
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Caty came to visit!! Caty and I are friends from work before I moved to Ireland. She and her family were doing a little European trip and had a stop in Dublin. We went to this great little spot outside city centre with all the healthy options like coconut yogurt. It was such a treat (for me especially, but I think John enjoyed it too)!

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John’s first time not attending the Indianapolis 500 in 13 years! We made the best of it, though.

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This is how we stream the Indy 500. With homemade queso and quac. And then a few weeks later, get charged 200euro for the internet bill. Whoops.
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Friends from the States! After a short trip to Iceland, they stopped over in Dublin before heading on an Irish road trip. We loved the wide angle I-phone lens attachment.

June:

Katalina visited! And we were knee-deep in our theses so most our life revolved around the library, but we always made time for even the smallest adventures. There is always something around the corner in Ireland. Castletown House is one of those. Hidden (relatively speaking) on several acres of rolling land and trees, I never knew the beautiful restored mansion was a ten-minute bus ride away. And we happened to go on the one free day of the month.

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Trip to Celbridge to see Castletown House.

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July and August were just a whirlwind. We went back to the states for weddings and parties and then back to Ireland for the wedding in August!

Even thought there is much I miss about Ireland, much we don’t see every day that because are part of our life, we have been given the incredible opportunity to start new traditions where we are now. I can still offer cups of tea and biscuits to my guests, we can still FaceTime our friends, and I will always say “cheers” and mean it. Maybe in a few years we can even travel to see our friends wherever they are, an experience we never would have imagined if it weren’t for our lovely year in Ireland. As they say, this is never the end. Truly, its not even a new beginning. Its simply a continuation of our adventure. I imagine like the changing seasons. It doesn’t happen all at once, the green leaves gradually shift to orange, red, brown. We toss the fallen leaves aside as each day the path we’re walking becomes more cluttered with colored remnants of summer. We are walking down the same path, but differently now. We see the sun a little more clearly through the bare trees, and more trails become apparent in front of us. The paths are many, but i’m sure no matter which we go down, we will be happy. The moment is ripe with opportunity and we are eager. 

We do scratch-offs amongst other things

Another year gone! Well, its been gone for four months now. Today is my birthday, but most importantly it’s the first day I’ve allowed myself the time to return back to reliving my Irish experiences on this blog. It is interesting how things we enjoy so much get so easily discarded to the side and replaced with seemingly more important work. What’s important is a balanced life and if I stay too far away from the things I enjoy, I begin to lose little happy pieces of myself. I’m sure we can all appreciate this phenomena. As the school year begins to close, I will commit more time to detailing the magic here before it is so shortly gone!

So, what’s the story with us?

Well, when it’s our birthdays, James gives us scratch-off cards and we indubitably lose every time.

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We also make each other brunch on our birthdays. (The black stuff is smashed black beans leftover from dinner the night before. I like them with my eggs. Protein!)

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We take a lot of walks. This walk was at sunset through the golf course at Carton House.

Below, we walked to Iveagh Gardens in Dublin. Even after living here for eight months, we still manage to find places we’ve never been. For us, the best way to discover Ireland is to wander. It’s what we always suggest to people who ask what to do in Ireland. We tell them, “The best way in our humble opinion, is to rent a car and just drive. You can’t get to lost– its a small country. And if you do, stop in the nearest village and the people will welcome you with a pint and a joke and remind you that sometimes the best adventures are the ones we don’t plan.”

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We discovered another corner of Dublin by our wandering that led us to the most eclectic antique/ bizarres shop.

Against the Grain  (below) was a craft beer pub we found on the same street as the antique shop. The entire street is lined with pubs boasting about their international craft beer selection. We found this pub to be one of our favorites. Possibly because they serve a pretty solid veggie burger which makes me happy. Brew Dog beers in one of the brewing companies we tasted here and loved. Turns out they are going to be opening a brewery in Columbus, Ohio soon!

 

 

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The doors of Dublin. A great pastime leisure activity as well as a neat hashtag.

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This month, we can’t hardly forget one of the most important events– St. Patrick’s day. A classmate of mine invited us to her home in Drogheda for a party that evening. In the morning we enjoyed the little school parade down the main street with live on and then treated ourselves to an early-bird Irish coffee. Naturally, I brought some baked goods to share at the festivities including Guinness cupcakes with Bailey’s frosting and John’s favorite crinkle cookie with appropriately colored M&Ms.

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We arrived in Drogheda (I wish you could hear how to say it because it’s not what you think. Most Irish names aren’t…I think it’s sort of a game they all like to play. Let’s hear the Americans try to say basic Irish names and laugh at their terrible accents. Jenni took us to St. Peter’s church which holds the head of the decapitated martyr,  Oliver Plunkett (1625-1681). I didn’t take a picture of the surprisingly taught-skinned, Oliver. I was hoping to be respectful, but I do sometimes wish I had just to prove to you that it is there.

 

 

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Another incredibly charming town of Ireland checked off our list. Off to wander some more…

A Mayo Christmas

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First view of the country side. The rainbow is back!!

Our Christmas in Mayo hosted by our friend James McHale and his generous family. John and I felt so welcomed during our time in County Mayo. I was worried about spending the holiday away from my family because of how much my family means to me, I tend to get pretty homesick during these seasons as most do who have to spend the holidays away from home. However, being invited to spend the time with the McHales’ helped me to understand how special the holiday can be no matter how many miles away from family you have to be. It was really a special honor to learn Irish christmas traditions as well as the traditions the McHale family celebrates. I am not sure how to describe how the experience has changed my view of Christmas.. It is so full, its an entire holiday season that is just so full of traditions, love, and kindness all over the world that we only experience a tiny part of in our own families. Experiencing the birth of Jesus in a new place, experience the exchange of gifts, of eating and drinking, of relaxing, and spending leisure time with friends and family, it all is cherished differently and even exemplifies our own traditions at home. Its just so full of possibility! As much as I missed my family, I feel that I was able to appreciate the holiday more by spending it in Mayo. rous family was a holiday we will always cherish.

James’ family lives in the countryside County Mayo in the town of Turlough, just about an hour from Galway. When we arrived, his father had already made a full Irish breakfast for us knowing that we would be hungry after the early bus ride. Bacon, black pudding, sausage, eggs, tomato, soda bread, James had even bought me almond milk which is what I typically drink in place of dairy milk. I was astonished even by that little act of kindness. Most people don’t even know what almond milk is! There was probably more I am forgetting, but it was such a kind gesture and we felt so welcomed immediately.

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James’ old family home where is grandmother was raised– this picture is only of the barn portion. 
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Inside the house
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Attic discoveries. I would love a vintage tea set like this some day. Family heirlooms are so special. The family already has a similar complete set like this in the house. These are just some mix and match pieces left over from the old house.

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A side-stop. I believe this home is abandoned which is common, but couldn’t you just imagine fixing up this little cottage?

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There are many loughs in Mayo, this one is close to James’ home in Turlough. You can view it from the road that runs alongside it or from the top of many of the hills that surround it. Each way its inspiring.

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The white house in the forefront of the image is James’ home. The lough is to the left. As the setting sun took away the light of the day, it left a soft purple haze over the countryside.

A few more fuzzy friends. The little black one was immediately interested in me as I sloshed through a bog ditch to make it to the pasture where he was grazing. Just a few moments later, a little grey spitfire with energy bigger than his size came rip-roaring around from behind a bush. He was much more protective of his friend, but interested at the same time, not aggressive. You can tell their personalities a bit from the poses they gave me, one a bit more calm and curious, the other assertive with his head high. 
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On Christmas day John and I were invited to join an intimate tradition with James’s father, Jim and his his brother Patrick. We joined the boys as they laid holly on the resting places of two of their relatives. The first was at a very old Church site with a large tower as was typical accompaniment to churches. If threatened by raids, the monks would climb into the tower and pull up the ladder. It wasn’t until much later that it also became a cemetery which explains why the graves are haphazardly scattered across the landscape. It was difficult to navigate from one grave to another while not stepping on the graves like stones across the hill.

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The next graveyard is much newer and cleanly aligned in rows with a beautiful sculpture at the top and a few idyllic sheep grazing at the top of the hill that the graveyard occupies.

20141225-IMG_1030I always thought of visiting graves as a horribly depressing experience even for individuals I care deeply about. However, being able to attend this annual tradition with Jim and Patrick allowed me to experience the joy that can come of it.  A few moments of prayer and several minutes of stories of the relatives led to laughs and good memories. I think I would like to visits the resting places of my relatives when I return home.

Christmas presents in this family are opened Christmas Eve night. This was familiar to me as my family opens up one gift on Christmas Eve as well, but just the one! Christmas dinner was incredible. A starter of vegetable soup followed by smoke salmon, salad, and crab and prawn meat with black pudding on soda bread. For the main, gamon and turkey with stuffing and veggies. I have never eaten so well in my life I would venture to say.

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I enjoyed the tradition of Christmas crackers and doing scratch-offs as well! I think I’d like to do this every year!

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I have never had stuffing sandwiched between two pieces of meat, low carb! No, it was delicious. I can never decide between which meat to have so it was nice not to have to choose!

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The main meal! Writing this post I feel that I am reliving the joy of this Christmas meal. My stomach is reeling with the thought!

St. Stephen’s Day is a holiday that we don’t celebrate in the States, but it is the second largest drinking holiday in Ireland second only to St. Patrick’s Day, I was informed. Most people go to the pubs and celebrate all day. The tradition, however, began with the Wren boys. Children who took a dead wren bird around and sang and danced at houses along the street to collect money to bury the wren. Its not a widely acted upon tradition any longer in that manner, but a neighboring family with musically inclined children visited James’ family as they do ever year and played some music for us with a fiddle, flute, and banjo. It was so sweet– I can’t post the video here, but I will have it on Facebook if you’re interested.

The next day James took us to the only National Museum of Ireland outside of Dublin, The Museum of Country Life in Mayo.

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 Weaving hay into everyday tools was in Irish culture was, and is still in some isolated places like the Aran Islands, a very important way of living. The work was intricate and essential for survival. The thick warps and wefts, beautiful in their repetition, create a physical representation of the tradition of sweat and hard work the Irish experienced each day.

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Nothing is done seriously with these two.

We ate fully, drank well, slept warmly, laughed constantly, and experienced a Christmas with such a kind family we’ll always cherish in Mayo.

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The Twelve Pubs of Christmas in Galway and a trip to the Aran Islands

To Ellen its the Twelves Days of Giveaways, on the radio there’s vocal variations of the ;Twelve Days of Christmas,’ and for Ireland… its the Twelve Pubs of Christmas. While this tradition is primarily celebrated by college age individuals, not surprisingly, it is a widely acknowledge tradition and one John was quite interested in partaking. I was quite interested in watching the whole event unfold pub by pub by pub. We were invited by our friend James and were quickly informed of the rules: Christmas jumper of your choice required, one pint per pub, the group would only remain in the pub for thirty minutes at a time, and twelve pubs would be visited in total. I invited a couple girl friends to come along as well, Katalina and Myriam. They have since moved back to their home countries of Germany and France as they were only here for a semester. It was a great last trip with them. We actually met on the very first trip of the semester and closed our time together in Maynooth with this trip to Galway and the Aran Islands.

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James and Richie looking oh so merry in their light up homemade sweaters.
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John borrowed this adorable jumper from James. This is the thirdish pub. Katalina and I had dinner before meeting up with the boys so we jumped in a bit late and found them like this.

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Candid. Not really– whenever they saw the camera they acted the part to make sure I had a good shot! So thoughtful

While the boys recooperated from their feat over the twelve pubs of Christmas in the lit and overflowing cobbled streets of Galway, Katalina, Myriam, and I took the opportunity to take the ferry to the Aran Islands,  in particular Inis Mór, the largest of the three Islands with a population of about 850. It was an hour bus ride and then a forty-five minute ferry to the island. We first spent some time in the Sweater Shop and then caught a sight-seeing bus to see as much of the island as we could. Only one ferry in and only one ferry out. You better be there or you’re spending the night.

While waiting for the bus we explored a bit of the docks in Galway. The sun was rising and the colors on the city and boats on the water seemed to grow brighter with each moment of the sun’s rising.

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We took then took the bus to the ferry and loaded aboard with a handful of other families visiting their island relations. The ferry ride was so calm and peaceful. There was a beautiful rainbow that accompanied us from the drive and continued on the ferry. I haven’t been on water in a long time and typically large bodies of water make me anxious. On this particular occasion,  however, the rocking of the boat in the dips of the waves felt as if I was being rocked to sleep. The sun was warm through the large ferry windows though the splashing water made it difficult to see so I just closed my eyes and allowed the cradle of the boat on the waves to lull me to a quiet place.

It felt nice to be off the mainland for a while, to get a way somewhere new and separate. The Aran Islands are isolated and thus have preserved many Irish traditions and ways of living that have faded from the mainland. The island natives still speak fluent Irish and in some parts continue to weave hay into every day tools and work their farms. The islands are still very tourist driven and depend on supplies to come from the mainland, but they are primarily home to some of the mos kind individuals I have met thus far who take pride in their island and strive to maintain its Irish cultural tradition.

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The rainbow and a view of the island from the ferry dock
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The beaches here a rocky and full of life. Inis Mór has its own sea colony and a few species of bird that I’ve never seen before. One species in particular looks very similar to a penguin and even dives in the water. I’ll admit I actually was convinced I had seen a penguin, but later saw more of the same bird and realized I hadn’t.
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A little tourist village. Inis Mór did not receive electricity until the 1970’s as I recall our bus driver saying. I felt like the telephone wires in the background of this image were ruining it and then John pointed out that it is interest to see elements like that in the photo especially when you find out they’ve only had electricity for 45 years.
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Our trail to the fort Dún Aonghasa. You can see the ruins there at the top of the hill. The fort is thought to date from the late Bronze age ( 1100BC) through to the Iron age (300BC-500AD) and there are several across the islands and the mainland as well. Over the past decade a number of these forts including Dún Aonghasa on Inis Mór have been excavated as part of ‘The Western Stone Forts Project’. What the function of these forts was is unclear. Some suggest as well as being habitation sites they may also have been used for ritual purposes.
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20141220-IMG_0543 View from the fort.
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Beautiful view from the top of the hill of the town below. You can see the rainbow just barely as well. The weather was fascinating. Blustery rains for a few minutes and then a gorgeous, warm burst of the sun through the clouds.
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Dappled grey pony. Wish I had known our equine friends on the island were as friendly as the people. I would have taken an apple with me.

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20141220-IMG_0626 Myriam made a friend too.

Back in Galway the girls and I had a lovely pizza dinner at Fat Freddy’s, a charming little Italian eatery which used 00 Italian milled flour for the pizza crust. Apparently its a hard to come by flour outside of Italy that makes the best crust and we don’t find it a lot in the state because it’s expensive to ship over. I’ll have to go to Italy and compare….

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Not sure how I feel about this donkey and dog being used to collect money. The poor donkey was clearly unhappy, his ears were jerked back the entire time, but he didn’t move a muscle expect for when his caregiver asked him too. Donkeys are a staple of Ireland as essential tools in the past for transport and farming. Still used in farms, but they are now often subjects in artwork and scenes like this image to attract tourist attention. The influence of tourism on traditional culture and consumption is an interest of mine and I debated looking into it more in Ireland for my thesis, among the thousands of other ideas I have.

Overall Galway was lovely. The cobbled streets lined with colorful pubs, shops, and restaurants made for an eventful weekend. John didn’t make it through all twelve pubs, but the experience none-the-less was grand! Making it through all twelve pubs on your first go would’ve been a heroic (or maybe stupid) feat of mankind. Hidden tea shops, juice bars, scenic beach views, and island getaways make the tedious three hour bus ride to Galway worthwhile and I know it will be a place we return to often.

Belfast and the Titanic Experience

Two weekends ago John and I took a trip to Belfast in Northern Ireland. You wouldn’t think there would be much difference crossing the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, but I was surprised to find the differences almost instantaneous. It became hillier and the hills were spotted with red brown woods. There were flags (The Union Jack mainly or sometimes the Northern Ireland flag as well) hanging on posts, on lights, and hanging proudly on nearly every home. We drove straight to the Titanic Experience and then lunch in Belfast at the incredibly beautiful and intensely occupied Christmas market.

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This metal art structure was designed to be the same thickness and the metal sheeting used on the Titanic. You can’t see it here, but the metal was about 3/4 of an inch thick.

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It was interesting to see all of the different media surrounding the Titanic. There were several movies I had never heard of used even as war propaganda films.

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  Belfast Christmas Market. Brats and Swedish Sandwiches for us.

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I found the only way I could describe Belfast was that is had a historic bite. Belfast was beautiful in its harshness, in its rough edges carved by decades of protests and riots, and in the old, damp grey buildings that have withstood that tumultuous history. The Christmas lights made the city centre brighten and twinkle, but there was a bite in the air and it wasn’t from the cold.

A Million Curiosities

The other night I decided to listen to Ted Radio Hour on my phone as I cooked dinner. The segment was about creativity, what it means, where it comes from, etc. After an interesting interview with Sting, author Elizabeth Gilbert (known for Eat Pray Love) said a profound statement about curiosity versus passion that resonated with me and something serious clicked in my mind. One of those ah-ha! moments people talk about.

She said:

“We keep telling people to follow their passion and I feel like that can be an intimidating and almost cruel thing to say to people at times… because first of all if somebody has one central powerful burning passion, they’re probably already following it because that’s sort of the definition of passion, is that you don’t have a choice.
If you don’t, which is a lot of people, have one central burning passion and someone tells you to follow your passion, I think you have the right to give them the finger. Because it just makes you feel worse….If you don’t have an obvious passion- forget about it. Follow your curiosity because passion is sort of a tower of flame that is not always accessible and curiosity is something somebody can access any day. You’re curiosity may lead to your passion and it may not. It may lead to “nothing.” In which case all you’ve done your entire life is spend your existence in pursuit of the things that made you feel curious and inspired and that should be good enough. If you get to do that, that is a wonderful way to have spent your time here.”
This curiosity is what led me to the trip to Newgrange, an wonderful and inspiring experience. Its the same curiosity that led me to study development here in Ireland. Sometimes I get angry that I don’t have that one burning passion and rather many curiosities that are furiously chattering away in my ear and pulling me in a hundred different directions at once. It can be so frustrating. I fought against these curiosities, as I’m sure so many other people do as well, because I thought, “I must pick one! One passion!” However, Elizabeth Gilbert’s perspective shed a new light on the matter for me. I’ve become much more grateful for each and every curiosity I have because well, those curiosities have led to this place and moment. I couldn’t be happier.

It all goes on the same, but differently.

Study, study, study. When I say study I actually mean classes, lectures, read, read, read, write, present, read, read, discuss, and write. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, school is work. In Ireland school has shown me the many ways the world goes on outside of the United States. You may think, “well, duh. of course the world goes on outside the U.S.” However, what I mean the ways in which the world goes on. It goes just on alright, but each city, each country, each continent, just goes on differently. When it goes on a lot differently we may have culture shock, but here in Ireland its just different enough to broaden your scope of the world and begin to taste the differences instead of simply reading about them.

School is still school, but how I’m reading and discussing, how I’m interacting with the class, its all just a bit different. I use Prezi, Irish students read aloud their essays mostly. The department drinks with their students in Ireland- on campus, in the department, or at a pub if you like as well. At home, you could get kicked out of your department for such fraternizing. Here I still have two essays and a thesis to work on while I’m supposed to be on “break.” At home I would’ve had it turned it before the end of the semester. This could also be because I’m a masters student now and the work really just doesn’t end, classes just pause for a bit though the readings and writing must go on! I learn a lot every single day and that has not changed.

The lines in the road are different, but cars still abide by them. There is a lot of honking. I never honk. The roads are narrower and curvier, and in the winter it gets icy in the morning. Just like home, though they are overly-prepared with layers of salt before the first car revs its’ motor in the wee morning hours. They don’t get a lot of snow and after the freeze in 2010, they’ll be dammed if they let it happen again!

The pubs are always full after 10, but the food stops at 9. I like to eat while I drink and I don’t drink a lot so mostly I just like to eat while other people drink. Most of the time I can still get a tea instead which doesn’t happen back home. Tea. So much tea all the time. Its grand.

I live next to a night club. It’s called Mantra. There’s only an alley in between us and we fall asleep listening to the music every night. Sometimes its good, sometimes its bad. I quite often hear the Jackson Five. Those are the good nights. We also quite often here vomiting in the alley, or I come home to someone peeing on the apartment. Those are the bad nights. The night life is active every night of the week, except maybe Tuesday nights. I suppose it depends what’s going on, you can usually find live music most nights of the week, but the clubs are open especially on the weekends like home. The girls shoes are little (okay, a lot) higher. I wear my wellies. I don’t want the rain to ruin my suede pumps, the only ones I brought and we all know its going to rain or mist or just spit at you. The dresses are short. That’s not very different than the night attire at home, except you’re hard-pressed to find a single girl wearing anything that measures below her fingertips at any temperature. Summer, fall, winter, they’ve added some fur vests over top the dresses at it’s gotten colder so that’s nice. There’s never any complaints of being cold; these are tough women.

The groceries stores are small and closer together. No big Walmarts, but they are Tescos which are similar having homegoods, food, automobile, electronics, etc. We live on the mainstreet and are within a 5 minute walking distance of one, two… four grocery stores, two butchers, one fish monger, at least four pharmacies, two dollar stores, and two convenience shops. We have options. We may have to go to two or three shops to get all we need, but theres little doubt we can find most of what we need within a short walk as long as it is within opening hours. There’s no 24/hr CVS. I took that for grantid and the one morning I was very ill I had to stay awake in pain for several hours before I could get to an open pharmacy. Speaking of, there are many, many more herbal remedies at the pharmacy. The pharmacists are always out from behind the counter asking if “you’re okay,” which is the same as asking,  “how can I help you?” They usually always recommend a natural-based medication first.

It is interesting what we cannot find in Ireland though, creamed corn is only in the Asian market in Dublin for instance. We can find a lot of Porcini mushrooms fresh here which you can’t back home. The milk tastes creamier and the butter is better, according to John. The almond milk tastes the same to me. The vegetable soup is blended and is always served with brown bread.

Most things close early a week or so before Christmas and a few days after as well. Every single shop along the mainstreet has Christmas-themed painted windows, garland lining the interior of the windows, and lights hanging from the exterior doorways and roof. It seems as if they sun never really went down because the streets are so lit up! There may not be snow, but there is bundles and bundles of cheerfulness and holiday spirit, Oh and Christmas Markets! There are Christmas markets in most major cities. The food is cultural and delicious. Tower cakes, crepes for days, bratwurst, mulled wine and cider, trinkets and fudge, carousel rides, it goes on. Yes, it is a “Happy Christmas.” I am very much looking forward to Christmas in Galway (outside of Galway in Mayo’s countryside specifically). Look for that post in the next few days on an Irish Christmas.

Main street of shops and pubs in Galway decorated for Christmas
Main street of shops and pubs in Galway decorated for Christmas

And so we’ve learned how to go on a little bit differently as well. I want to know how the rest of the world goes on now as well. Sadly many of our international friends have left us to return home, but we have invitations to see how they go on in their home countries; France, Germany… we have a great opportunity to see how they world goes on the same, but differently.

Newgrange, Dowth, Mellifont Abbey, and Mainistir Bhuithe

My curiosity has led me here, to thousand-year old monasteries and to my prime curiosity- the megalithic tombs of Ancient Ireland. My fingers can’t type fast enough to begin describing this particular piece of the ever-so dramatic history of Ireland.

Our guide was Dr. Eoin Grogan, a professor of Early Irish at Maynooth and an archaeologist for the Centre of Irish Cultural Heritage. Needless to say, I was hanging on to his every word. Upon coming on the trip, I knew nothing of the guide and was thrilled to discover his archaeological background. He provided a unique perspective to each site we visited, teaching us the deep history of the locations- a treat most tourists aren’t lucky enough to have. In some cases, especially at Newgrange, he contradicted a few of the statements the guide there told us. His expertise helped us to tease out the accurate to inaccurate information and I am so grateful for that. It made me wonder how many monuments I’ve ever gone to in my life and never known the true history behind it.

Monasterboice (Irish: Mainistir Bhuithe)

Dr. Grogan on his hill top of history.
Dr. Grogan on his hill top of history.

We began the day tour at Monasterboice. Well, truly we began the day in the restroom. A round tomb shaped toilet with one stall and a queue of 45 crossed-legged women. After this we all congregated outside the monastery to receive some history into our eager minds. I, naturally, pulled out my little notebook and pen with my camera tucked in the crook of my arm, and began furiously noting each bit.

A quick history: Mainistir Bhuithe was founded around 700 A.D. by a small group of monks who were soley concerned about farming and their own personal salvation. During this time, authority and wealth was base on kin-basaed relationships. This is how land was passed down. The monks became their own kin-group and likewise it was their families that donated land to the monastery. During this time, Christianity was a very internal process, it was about one’s own relationship with God, not about charity to others. You could only glorify God by constant prayer and asceticism or for the common folk, by donating to the Church. This is how wealth was accumulated by the Church and eventually the idea that the more wealth a monastery had, the more you glorified God. Naturally, rivalries between monastery began and a culture of “showing off” erupted as well. This is where, in 900 A.D., we begin to see stone building. The stone structures signified religion, scripture, and wealth through their ornate architecture, design, and carvings. The High Cross below is an example of this incredible stone work.

A High Cross in front of the bell tower.
A High Cross in front of the bell tower.

As he takes another drag from his cigarette, Dr Grogan describes the mastery and story of the High Crosses. This High Cross was erected by the Abbott in conjunction with a stonemason. It was built in three pieces, the pyramidical base, shaft, and upper piece always in the shape of a church. These high crosses were works of art, but more importantly they were teaching aids. Using pictorial scenes of the Old and New Testament, homilies and sermons, the crosses educated the local community while glorifying God in a rich, elaborate stone work.

Above is the ruin of Mellifont Abbey. A rather tumultuous history.

In 1140, due to the increasing corruptness of Irish monasteries, The Bishop of Down invited a group of strict French Cistercian monks to set up a monastery as a reforming example of expected behavior. This new influence instructed monks on how long to sleep, how many changes of clothes they were allowed (two), when to pray, etc. Construction began in 1142 and by 1152 there were over 400 monks residing in Mellifont as it became the mother of 21 additional monasteries.

The construction of the abbey was very intricate indeed, both in architecture as well as sustainability. The abbey, as required by Cistercian practice, was to be next to a river which provided power to the abbey. The abbey also hosted a myriad of drinking channels throughout the structures.

There was no other architectural work as magnificent and impressive as Mellifont in Ireland during this time. Every important member of society gave gifts to the abbey and Mellifont became instantly wealthy. It became the single richest landowner in Ireland. Fortified farms with attending friars looked after Mellifont’s 70,000 acres of land which sustained them.

Almost inevitably, the wealth relaxed Mellifont’s austere ways of living; more wine, more sleep, the election of Irish monks (non-traditional and uneducated), they rejected instructions from St. Bernard in France (the founder of the Cistercian church) and an army was sent to starve the Mellifont monks out of their bad habits.

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII, Mellifont Abbey was demolished and sold. A fortified Tudor manor house was built on the site in 1556 by Edward Moore, using materials scavenged from the monastic buildings. By 1727, the site was abandoned.

During the excavations a small pouch of gold coins was found under the rubble of a roof that had collapsed during the invasion of the abbey. After all the years, and it still lay hidden. It must have belonged to a monk. Why did he have this money, it was against his belief. Was he saving it to leave to abbey? The coins survived the fire, did he? We’ll never know, but we’ll always have his coins.

Here we are, visiting it as a rather interactive historical account of the religious history of Ireland. You can touch, feel, and even climb the structures at Mellifont. It is not supervised and only has one sign which explains in short detail the abbey’s history. Its wonderful that we are able to have such a close relationship with the site, but it is sad that it is, in some terms, being allowed to continue its dilapidation rather than being conserved as a vital physical historical record of Ireland.

The lavabo, an octagonal washing house, is the focal point of the site with its partially intact architecture and decoration. Built in the early 13th century, it used lead pipes to bring water from the river for washing up- a very untraditional habit as this behavior was seen as an excessive indulgence by the Cistercian monks.

This tunnel really shows the intricate layering of stones. I can just imagine the meticulous nature of placing one stone on top of the other to build a strong, but seemingly insignificant tunnel structure that stills stand today.

Cigarette three or four, I am not sure, but I smell its sweet smoke as I ask Dr. Grogan about the reformation of the Church in Ireland. We have been talking about it in my anthropology classes and having his undivided attention and these sites within my grasp, I can feel the drumming beat of the soldiers coming to destroy this place. I can smell the smoke of the burning buildings-no that’s just Dr. Grogran. I am so thankful for our guide on this trip. He was a wealth of knowledge at my fingertips, ready and willing for me to pick his brain. I couldn’t peel my eyes from the words he was saying except to watch a small, black, winged bug make a home in his peppered beard.

Newgrange, Dowth

The bend of the River Boyne, the site of the three megalithic tombs: Newgrange, Dowth, and Knowth.

Newgrange was built around 4,000 B.C, during the beginning of the stone age. There is little known about the function of the tomb except for the it is aligned with the Winter Solstice. The rising sun sits directly opposite a small window above the entrance and as the sun rises is perfectly illuminates the entire chamber.

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The entrance to Newgrange.

Only about 12 or so individuals are able to enter the tomb at a time. Despite the tombs’ outward appearance, the chamber is surprisingly small. No pictures are allowed once inside the passageway and you must hold your bag directly in front of you as you travel so as to not brush against the ancient symbol writing the decorates the walls. Once inside there are three incredible chamber “rooms” each with its own decorated stone. Archaeologists are not certain what they symbols mean or the purpose of the tombs, but cremated human remains were found during excavation. I won’t bore you with the details, but the mystery surrounds these tombs is fascinating.

The sincerely depressing aspect of Newgrange, however, is that archaeologists were not the first to enter the tomb. For years people had been carving graffiti inside the walls on top of ancient writing. My stomach twists at the sight of it. It is examples like such that motivate archaeologists to continue their work preserving these sites, but there’s alway the tension between conservation and tourism. We want to educate individuals, but is it worth the risk of disturbing these incredibly rare pieces of ancient architecture and art?

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Dowth

Dowth is the youngest of the three passage tombs and the final one of the visit. Due to time constraints we were unable to visit Knowth. Another day then!

Dowth is actually 5 meters larger in circumference that Newgrange. We know this because of small, almost invisible curbstones around the base of the tomb. In its original state, the tomb would have extended to these stones and appeared much larger. Dowth is interesting because it appears on the outside as untouched and blends in with the landscape. This is how Newgrange would appear if it hadn’t been excavated and its stone work restored on the outside in the 1960’s. 20141011-IMG_9825

Visitors at one time were allowed to enter this tob as well, but when an American tourists fell and sued the pants off the Irish government, it become strictly an archaeological site. Again, this dynamic relationship of tourism and archaeology reappears.

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Cigarette six, seven? He points out this inconspicuous rock. We look closer.

It is very difficult to see, but there are three replicated symbols lined up on the face of the stone that do not appear on any other tomb. You can best see one symbol on the left of the image. While Newgrange is lined up with the Winter Solstice and Knowth with the Summer Solstice, researches investigated the possible celestial significance the symbols that appear here. At times thought to be relating to religious beliefs, the rising sun, amongst other theories, the symbols are now believed to represent the alignment of the Playadaize constellation (cluster of 30 stars approximately all the same distance from the sun, also the Nissan logo) during the late summer and early autumn when they appear halfway up the horizon. For a culture to have noticed this phenomena and marked its importance thousands of years ago is humbling.

Another interesting piece about this monument is that in 700 A.D. it became reoccupied by a branch of the royal O’Neill family. Yes, they lived inside the tomb! Despite being Christians who even paid for the local monastery, they were still conscious of the potential of neolithic Gods. The family never abandoned the old ways and chose to live in what they believed to be the halfway point between the underworld and the Earth. They were “hedging their bets” so to say.

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Next to the Dowth monument is Dowth Hall and an adjacent chapel that also belonged to the noble family who occupied Dowth Hall in the 19th century. This home represents a time in Ireland beginning in the 18th century when it became safe enough for families to build more house-like homes, less like protective fortresses. This particular home is also unique because it is built with brick quite rare for the time. Also, I am standing on top of the mound tomb to achieve this view. What I see form above is beautiful, but I am more curious to know what’s below.

I am so grateful my curiosity led me to this trip. I may not have one single passion, but I feel lucky to have several curiosities that I follow in adventures lie this. It ignited so many questions for me that I am considering working towards in my Masters Thesis. If nothing else, the trip was well worth it just for its aid in developing my potential thesis on conservation and tourism of ancient archaeological sites. (But I may still do the legitimacy of Visual Anthropology as an anthropological discipline…who knows!!)