Winter 1998

A Quest for Irish Inspiration

by Alan Neckowitz
photos by Alan Neckowitz and Kristen Heiss

In twos and threes we wandered the winding paths atop the Cliffs of Moher in search of inspiration. The swirling winds urged caution as we crept to cliff's edge and watched the Atlantic pound the limestone a sheer 700 feet below.

The persistent mists and showers could not dampen our spirits; for here the ancient Celts too leaned against the winds, medieval monks scanned the seas for marauding Vikings and Irish balladeers found the breath for their melancholy airs. And on this particular day, 22 JMU students found similar motivation.

"The cliffs of Moher were breathtaking.

Around every corner was yet another impressive view of mossy rock and mountainous cliffs.

The imposing waves of the Atlantic make a thunderous boom as they crash against the base of this 700-foot treasure."

– Student Pat DeBorde

Our experience at the Cliffs of Moher – and later at Biddy Early, a pub that brews its own beer – elicited exactly what was intended from the 22 JMU students who visited Ireland as part of last summer's experimental writing program. The cliffs and pub became the subjects of three fine feature articles, several script treatments, some poems and limericks, a wide variety of journal entries, and an untold number of photographs.

The day was "exhausting" and "exhilarating," as Celeste Legg described it in her introduction to Craic, the student magazine she edited. But, she continued, "since Biddy Early, friendships have deepened, and we've searched together for new adventures – wandering the streets of the cities, attending plays, discovering new pubs ..."

The students who traveled to Ireland – led by two professors and a faculty assistant – were mostly media arts and design, speech communication or English majors, and the program emphasized media writing and production. Students enrolled in four hours of feature or screenplay writing, plus a two-hour media production class, in which they worked on a magazine or one of a series of videos.

We conducted the six-week writing and production program far from home because we hoped a less familiar environment would help us to experience our surroundings more deeply and react to them with fresh eyes and new insights. We specifically chose Ireland for our program because of its strong literary tradition, one that has produced the likes of Wilde, Heaney, O'Casey, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, McCourt and more. And, since English is the country's primary language, we felt there would be few barriers to our experiencing its flourishing cultural renaissance. Judging by our students' writing, and by the magazine and videos they produced, the experiment was a successful adventure.

Summer in Ireland in 1997 was a traveling program, with bases at universities in four cities: Limerick, Galway, Dublin and Cork. Both students and faculty members lived in university housing, used university classrooms and computer laboratories, and explored the Irish culture of each city.

Our first stop was at University College Limerick, where we spent five days. There professors outlined the writing and production requirements for each course. In addition to the assigned scripts and feature articles, all students were required to keep a journal about what they saw and their thoughts on their experiences.

Some students included poems, profiles, drawings, script treatments and even a few short stories among their journal entries. Screenplay students worked as writers, directors, producers, actors and camera people to produce videos based on selected scripts, and feature writing students formed the staff that published the program's 42-page magazine. To broaden the learning experience, all students participated in producing both products. Feature writing students appeared as actors in the scripts that were produced, and each screenplay student had a significant piece published in the magazine.

The five days in Limerick also served as the beginning of our orientation to Irish culture. On our first evening we sampled a variety of Irish dishes at a charming restaurant called Moll Darby's, followed by an evening of Irish music at Locke's Pub. Two days later we visited Bunratty Castle, about 15 miles from the city, where we climbed through a series of rooms – restored to show how Limerick's ruling families lived and loved many centuries ago – to spectacular views of the Shannon river valley. That day we saw an engaging production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, performed by one of Ireland's most accomplished traveling companies at St. Marys, a majestic cathedral more than 500 years old. The next day, our fourth in Ireland, we took our trip to the Cliffs of Moher, and, on day five, we met 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning Frank McCourt.

Like our supper at Moll Darby's and our night of Shakespeare, most of our activities in Limerick and elsewhere were carefully planned. We used Irish newspapers and magazines, a few valuable guidebooks and a variety of contacts we made in the cities and at the universities where we stayed. Most of the choices were successful, providing the meaningful experiences we hoped would stir our creativity. But a few of our most memorable experiences came our way mostly by chance.

Our encounter with Frank McCourt resulted from just such a chance. McCourt had just won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Angela's Ashes, a riveting account of his childhood growing up in poverty in Limerick. While walking through Limerick, we noticed posters advertising his return for a book signing at nearby Eason's bookstore. My fellow faculty member, Charles Turner, who had been reading Angela's Ashes, suggested we work the signing into our schedule.

Students say they were struck by the naturalness of Ireland's ancient ruins, many open to visitiors nad grazing livestock alike. The ruins of Hore's Abbey (top) frame a vew of the Rock of Cashel, a fortress-castle dating from the 1100s (bottom).

It wasn't easy. Our schedule was already crowded, and we didn't want to miss our afternoon art museum outing. We had only an hour to spare for this once-in-a-lifetime literary encounter, so I asked an assistant manager at Eason's for help. The manager allowed us to attend an invitation-only wine and cheese reception scheduled prior to the public book signing.

Arriving early, we sampled some of the sumptuous luncheon offerings, including smoked salmon, liver pāte, cheeses and a variety of wines and other drinks. McCourt appeared a few minutes after noon and soon began signing books and talking with reception guests. Our students gathered at the front of the line and chatted one by one with McCourt about their experiences in Ireland, his book and his years of teaching high school in New York.

When the time of the public book signing approached, a long line of hopefuls had collected, and Eason officials and McCourt's agent had placed themselves between the writer and the public. When the signing began, the public had to pass their books to McCourt through an intermediary. The JMU gang, though, had had a chance to personally meet McCourt and share a few words.

Planned or spontaneous, our activities continued at a similar pace when we moved on after five days from Limerick to Galway, a center for theater and art on Ireland's west coast. During our two weeks there, we saw two award-winning plays by young Irish writers, a concert and five films, all part of Galway's annual film and arts festival. We explored the city's shops, restaurants, pubs and nightclubs. We took a day trip to the Aran Islands, famous for its hand-knit woolen sweaters and spectacular views, and we began earnestly tackling our writing assignments and planning for the production of videos and magazine.

From Galway we moved on to Dublin, where for six days we immersed ourselves in the culture of Ireland's most exciting city, its historical, political, literary and artistic center. We saw three plays in Dublin, including Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan and Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock.

We toured James Joyce's Dublin and visited the National Gallery. But for many the highlight of the Dublin stay was the literary pub crawl, where two engaging actors escorted us from pub to pub and read from the works of Irish authors, punctuated with a variety of traditional Irish folk songs.

Our pace changed after Dublin. From that city we traveled to Cork, near Ireland's southern coast. On the way, we stopped at an 800-year-old fortress-castle, the Rock of Cashel, and nearby Hore's Abbey, a ruined church built not much later than the fortress. Our visit provided a welcome respite from the hurried days in Dublin and a transition to the days of focused work that lay ahead.

In Cork we began our final writing and editing tasks and began production. Feature writing students wrote new articles, revised others and completed journal entries. They solicited material from one another for the magazine and read, selected and edited articles, scripts, short stories, poetry and other materials. They designed the magazine and did the production work as they learned the computer software. Screenplay students, meanwhile, worked on their videos – writing and finalizing their scripts, editing the scenes they'd collected throughout Ireland and tapping the talents of feature-writing students as actors.

A four-bedroom apartment served as headquarters for constant activity. Faculty members claimed two of the bedrooms for sleeping quarters, while a third held rented video-editing equipment and served as a production room for the screenplay students. The fourth bedroom held computer equipment and a printer and served as the magazine production room.

During at least six of our last 10 days there, students were busy in those production rooms from 9 or 10 a.m. until 10 or 11 p.m., with activity sometimes spilling over to midnight or 1 a.m. The enthusiasm, frustration and occasional bursts of joy from the students were a joy to see and hear.

We all worked hard, though we left some time to enjoy Cork, its pubs, parks and people, and a visit to the fishing village of Kinsale, where we held our final banquet.

I think most of us agree that our greatest pleasure in Cork came from our hard work and the sense of accomplishment we felt when we completed the videos and magazine. Both products came from our experiences and from our reflections on those experiences – as expressed through short story and poem, feature article and screenplay, photograph and video. They represent what we learned about Irish culture, what we learned about writing, editing and filming, and what we learned about ourselves.

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