I went in search of leprechauns, to learn how to Irish step dance, and to expose myself to Irish folk music. Trite and cheesy as it sounds, I came back with so much more than intended.
There are several theories floating around about leprechauns, their origins, and the truth of their existence. Some say that leprechauns were in fact the first inhabitants on the island. As the Scandinavians and Europeans began settling on the Emerald Isle, the Irish were forced into the hills. Not wanting to be overtaken or oppressed, they kept a low profile and were seldom spotted by the new settlers. However, glimpses of these wee "little" people minding their own business eventually evolved into full blown stories of these people of the hills, presently known as leprechauns. Others, however, believe that the leprechaun is a solitary fairy. As an offspring of a fairy goddess and evil male spirit, he is a degenerate fairy and not the most pleasant thing to lay ones eyes on. Unlike many stereotypes of leprechauns being dressed in green, I stumbled upon several people and short stories that describe him as a little man with a red hat. Whatever color clothes he wears, he still does have the sturdiest shoes. All day long he hammers away making brogues (shoes) for the fairies. Incessantly working to ensure a covered foot for the fairies, he is also a vital part of the fairy society since he acts as their treasurer. Reflective of his miserly manner, he closely guards the gold which the other fairies would spend foolishly if allowed. The only time the leprechaun is seen away from his cobbling table is when he is consuming a couple of pints. Beer is his weakness, and if in a drunk enough stupor one may convince him to reveal where his pot of gold is kept. This is quite a difficult task since one must firmly grasp hold of him and never take ones eyes off of him until safely in sight of the gold. One must demand to be shown the nearest treasure or else the leprechaun will take you half way around the globe in hopes of tiring his captor out or else escaping before the treasure is found.
Most stories told about leprechauns reveals the wit and cleverness of these little people. The story of Teig O'Kane is a typical case of the crafty leprechaun. Teig stumbled upon a leprechaun in the middle of the woods, grabbed hold of him and demanded to be shown the treasure of gold. The little leprechaun did show Teig where the gold was. Since Teig had nothing to carry the gold in, he tied a red scarf around the nearest tree in order that he would be able to find the gold upon his return. However, when he returned there was a red scarf tied around every tree in sight. Teig had gotten burned by the leprechaun.
Another of my favorites was about Pat O'Reily who was basically the village screw-up. He ran up high debts and never worked to pay them off. One day he too bumped into a leprechaun. Instantly thinking of the gold, he grabbed this ungainly figure. The leprechaun bargained with him and offered him his red purse that contained the alleged bottomless shilling. It was a red purse much like Pat's own, except once the shilling was used, another one would magically replace it. Pat had placed his own red purse down next to the leprechaun's and proceeded to converse with the little man. Pat bargained with the leprechaun and received the red purse. Pat grabbed the purse and hurried to the local pub. There he ordered up drinks and food for himself and three of his neighbors who reluctantly accepted this generosity. The barkeep at first refused to serve Pat because of his past record and bad credit rating. But, Pat told his story of meeting the leprechaun and how he convinced the leprechaun to give him his magic purse instead of bringing him to his hoard of gold. Unsure of this far-fetched story, the bartender begrudgingly opened a tab for Pat. Well, when it came time to pay the tab, Pat opened the magic purse only to find two shillings inside. He had grabbed the wrong purse. Needless to say, his neighbors were furious. Already skeptical of his rendezvous with the leprechaun, they now really doubted his state of mind. Each neighbor paid his own way as Pat began washing dishes.
My favorite story was about Leam Carney. Leam, the crippled son of a wealthy landowner, heard the clank, clank, clank of the leprechauns hammer in the woods of a town called Macroom (in southwest Ireland, north of Cork). Following the sound he approached the leprechaun. Knowing that he had to capture him fast, Leam swooped him into his hand and placed his glance firmly upon this wee man. The wise leprechaun began trying every trick in the book to tear the glance of Leam away from him so he could escape. Finally, he gave in and began leading Leam to the treasure. Halfway there, the leprechaun told Leam that the beautiful princess was looking at him. Leam had been madly in love with her for years. Unfortunately, Leam was born with a physical disability so he was too self-conscious to profess his love for her. When the leprechaun mentioned her name he was spellbound and whipped his head around to see the lovely maiden. However, she was no where to be found. He turned to curse the leprechaun in his grasp, only to find that he had vanished. Leam was out of luck.
A couple days later he heard the clank of the shoemaker. Again, he seized the leprechaun, Leam was livid. After giving the leprechaun a piece of his mind, they began their journey to the treasure. Further along the route the leprechaun claimed to spot the princess. Leam sneered and told the leprechaun that he would not fall for that trick again. They kept walking when, all of a sudden, he heard her voice. With that, he turned around... only to find no one. Again, the leprechaun disappeared.
Several days later, poor Leam was seen hobbling through the woods overtaken by sorrow. Not only had he missed his chance with the leprechaun, but he never would be able to profess his love to the beautiful princess. That day would, however, became his lucky day. Just as Leam hit rock bottom, he saw the leprechaun in the bushes. He snuck up, grabbed him and demanded that he be shown the treasure. Knowing that Leam would pursue him until he got the gold, the leprechaun took him to the treasure. Here Leam stuffed what gold he could into his pockets and took it back to his family's castle. On his last trip gathering the gold he was so fatigued that he fell asleep. During his nap the leprechaun put a spell on him that cured his disability. As he was walking back from the treasure he bumped into the princess. Speechless, he gazed at her. She returned this look of love. Not knowing that he had turned into this charming prince Leam was utterly surprised at the response he got from her. They spoke and she commented that he sounded familiar, but surely she had never laid eyes upon him before. Leam assured her that she did, indeed, know him. It was Leam Carney himself. She had known how nice he was, but upon seeing him she was absolutely swept away. They fell in love, got married and lived happily ever after. They ruled the village and Leam was known for his great generosity to the poor and disadvantaged.
Hmmm...what a happy ending. Granted, horribly stereotypical, but this was one of the few stories where the individual was able to actually outwit and prosper because of the leprechaun.
My grandfather used to tell me how he would catch glimpses of and exchange a few words with leprechauns as he worked in the hedges at Ashford Castle in County Mayo. I made my way there to see if they may still reside there. My
great-uncle Mike used to work on the grounds there as well, so I figured I could question whether he had any interaction with leprechauns as well. He said, sure he had seen them-- creatures about three feet tall--but he remarked that he was too intelligent to speak with any of them. Anyway, he went on, they were too small to talk to: he would have had to bend down too far.
Whenever I asked the young of Ireland about leprechauns they would stare at me funnily and seemed to think I was missing a few things upstairs. They said it was all a lie and there were no such things as leprechauns. The first time I heard this I was crushed. Was this legend I had believed and embraced for over twenty-one years of my life completely made up? I refused to accept this. One man in Dublin went on to say that leprechauns were actually an invention made by Irish immigrants once they were in America. He thought they had created it for two reasons. First, to instill fear in their misbehaving children. Second, as a joke to see how many foreigners they could get to believe them. Stories about these wee people are included in every Irish fairy and legend book, but it is not a subject not widely discussed. I felt at times as if I was in search of the equivalent of the Loch Ness monster or UFO's. I knew I would have to search this out very prudently.
I traveled from Dublin to Killarney, through the Ring of Kerry, around the Dingle Peninsula, up to the Cliffs of Moher, northbound through Galway to County Mayo, to the top of Croagh Patrick and over the waters to the Aran Islands. I never did catch a glimpse of this scraggy, old cobbler. The closest l came was at a pub in Dublin, O'Donoghue's. Myself and friends I made from Finland, England, and Italy ended up in a small room next to a group of Dubliners left over from happy hour. Hannele, from Finland, struck up a conversation with one of the men, Rinaldo, he said his name was. After we conversed for a while one man requested that we all sing a song from each of our countries. Once the final note of a very bad rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" was sung, the Italians kicked in with "Volare" and kept singing for the next half hour. Soon enough, however, the Irishmen began a few good old Irish ballads. Among them were "Molly Malone" and the "Wild Rover", soon to become my two favorite pub songs. As the night progressed, Rinaldo (claiming to be from Barcelona, yet he had a very strong Irish accent) mentioned leprechauns. I jumped at the chance to press this issue. I asked if he had ever seen a leprechaun. He looked at me and said, "Of course." It was like I had asked someone from the North Pole if they had ever seen snow. This was the first positive response I had within the first week I had been in Ireland. Rinaldo went on to say, "I'll be your leprechaun." With that I excused myself to go to the bathroom. I figured I should observe him from afar rather than getting too close and personal. Of course he did not look like your typical leprechaun, much too tall and he was wearing jeans. Yet he kept buying drinks for his friends all night. I wondered if maybe he had gotten his hands on the little red purse with the bottomless shilling. I did not see a small, red purse, but hey, you never know. Maybe they have been subject to the dictates of modernity and use credit cards with no limits or something.
For the first two weeks in Ireland I resided in Celbridge, a small town about a half an hour outside of Dublin. Here I volunteered as a counselor at Camp Rainbow. I paid a small fee and received room and board in exchange for my work. I set this up so I could actually work with and get to know some real Irish people. Here, both mentally handicapped and non-disabled children were placed in an environment aimed at equally integrating the two groups of children. The age of the children ranged from about three years old all the way to eighteen. They had such disabilities as downs syndrome, as well as other emotional and behavioral handicaps. I worked with a group of eight 18 and 19 year old Irish leaders as well as a group of international volunteers. The kids were absolutely wonderful. Because of their warm, friendly and affectionate nature it was easy to get to know them. There were nearly 100 kids, but because of how it was split into groups, much personal attention was given to individual children. Within a few days the children really began trusting. However, this was probably one of the most challenging things I had ever done. I was working with the group of 3-6 year olds. To get them to all .sit down at the same time was a major task in itself. Coming into the camp with no prior knowledge of the kids background was scary, but proved to be very beneficial. I had to figure out myself what was the best way to reach and motivate these kids.
It was here that I attempted to learn how to Irish step dance. Every Friday was a talent show at camp. There were at least a dozen or so girls each time that got up to Irish dance. In school over there learning the Irish language is compulsory, but it seemed as if learning to dance was as well for little girls. All of them had taken it for at least 5 or 6 years. After attempting to learn, I now know why they take it for so long. A friend of mine, ten year old Mary Cullen, attempted to teach me the basic reel. Needless to say, it was good humor. I think I should stick with MTV/MC Harnmer moves. For some reason I still do not look quite as smooth as Mary. Every morning I would pull her in to the privacy of the nearest hallway and jig away until we were laughing so hard we could not move. Hop-two-three, two-two-three, three-two-three, all the way to eight when we did this little sachet type of move. If nothing else, it was some good aerobic exercise. There are many variations of this dance from the simple reel, which I learned, all the way to steps with funky kicks or a high speed clogging style. Pretty impressive stuff to say the least.
In return, I promised Mary that I would teach her how to play basketball. As the only American and from Chicago, home of the Chicago Bulls, I did my best to explain the fundamentals of this great sport. The teams were split males against females. I had all the female Irish leaders on my team because the other women I was working with refused to play. There were only two of them who had ever held a basketball in their hands before. We were playing against some of the male Irish volunteers and then the other international volunteers I was working with. I soon realized that basketball is definitely an American sport. That day I was given the nickname "the Bull" because of my hoops ability. I was a little insulted, but Jean from Germany thought it was hysterical and kept asking me how Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin were doing.
All together there were nine of us volunteers living in a community for the two weeks. There was someone from Finland, Sweden, Holland, England, Switzerland, Russia, and two from Italy. At the end of each day myself and the others would return to our flat and rehash our days work over tea and biscuits. I have never seen a larger consumption of tea and sweets as when I was over there. It is almost as though their lives revolve around tea-time. Especially when I stayed at the traditional Irish farm of some relatives, I felt as though they could throw me in the Atlantic and let me float home. And rhubarb! I did not realize that people actually ate it. I thought it was like the nasty, seasonal fruitcakes that merely sit out as decoration. However, rhubarb was a staple of many desserts-- I did not know it would taste so good. I could tell I was of Irish descent because I was absolutely in heaven with their diet-- tea, cabbage, brown bread, fresh milk, and of course Guinness. Some Irish abhor it, but then others firmly believe that "Guinness gives you strength."
Basically, being abroad this summer was an extremely eye -opening experience. As I traveled I became foreigners' representative and contact with the "real" America. Especially in the camp I was grilled about what America was like as I tried to dispel all of the preconceptions they held. Peoples' image of America blew me away. The Russian woman, Inna, had the craziest look on her face when I introdoced myself and told her I was from the US. Her jaw almost hit the floor. She looked at me closely and stated, "you look like an American." I had little idea what that was supposed to mean and she said she had no English words to explain it. She could just tell, she said. It is not like I had an American flag stamped across my forehead-- I was just sitting there smiling warmly trying to make her feel welcome. So much for being friendly. We did hit it off-- she sort of took me as her ally and tried to be as "hip" as she felt Americans were.
Seriously, foreigners beliefs are almost virtually founded on American films and our economic prowess. Some people seemed to literally believe that the streets were paved with gold. Several times these Europeans at times put me to shame because they knew more about some aspects of America than I did. They knew ail the words to more American songs than I did and were very well versed in American literature. It is absolutely incredible how closely these other countries study, analyze and examine American politics, economy, and our overall culture. America is a phenomenon placed under a microscope by all these other countries and looked at with much awe and wonder because of how we grew. Many people love Americans-- our clothing, music and the fast-paced, free life we supposedly lead. Others think we are greedy, glamorous people. Leena, from Sweden, commented that she indeed thought that Americans were all "beautiful" and selfish-- but then she met me. I guess that was a compliment. Anyway, Maurizio, from Sardinia, viewed some present Americans as children. Americans, he felt, were always wanting their own way and sporting that "gimme" attitude. I will agree that economically and politically the US often appears greedy, selfish and often times childish, but like children we still have much room for growth and maturation. I guess that this journey was very good for me because it gave me hope for the future. America is a very young country. Time maybe will heal some of our ailments as we mature. Such countries as Sweden and Finland seem to be very together nations. Many of the programs in their nations seem so fundamental and worthwhile. Do not think that I am a Socialist, but I do not think capitalism is the answer either. Things like Cain's work ethic-- build a wall and then take it down again merely to keep individuals employed seems so elementary. Living in this community reassured me that once peoples society and familiar surroundings are stripped away, we all are so much the same. We all feel many of the same things. It truly is our society that affects how we look at things and subsequently internalize them. Opening the doors to other cultures put many things in perspective and seemed to make the world a little bit smaller. No longer does it seem quite so overwhelming.
Back on track here with the three-fold purpose of my trip-- to expose myself to Irish music. (You will have to excuse my little tangents-- I guess it is that Joyceian stream of consciousness influence). The music in Ireland is absolutely wonderful. Only over the past several years has there been a movement to write down and preserve the music that for so long had been passed down orally. The fiddle, tin whistle, bodhran (drum), accordion, and uleen (Irish bagpipes) comprise the most basic traditional instruments. I heard every type of music-- from Gregorian chant based on Celtic hymns, all the way to bad renditions of "Danny Boy" with a cheesy synthesizer accompaniment. The Irish were forced to pass their music down orally ever since the British passed the Penal Codes. In sum, the British outlawed the preservation of anything remotely having purely Irish roots-- their language, dance and music, to name a few. They were all banned and those caught were subject to harsh penalties. Like the underground meetings of the broomstick IRA, the language, music and dance had to be performed in private. Now they are searching to preserve many things that have been fading away. At the Galway Arts Festival an Irish group, Anuna, performed both traditional and newly composed works based on ancient Celtic hymns. Many songs deal with death and love. These two ideas are probably two of the most widely sung topics in Ireland. At another formal performance of Irish music, called Siamsa, they did a piece called "The Wake". Traditional Irish wakes were basically out of hand. Held at home, the Irish would have a night filled with song, drink and dance (as soon as the priest left). Even the dead person would be poured a drink as well as dealt a hand of cards in order that his or her spirit would not feel left out. While modern wakes are usually not held at home and are a little more formal, a party often is held in honor of the dead individual.
Besides these formal concerts, informal sessions of Irish music could be found every night of the week in some pub in whatever town I happened to be. Every village, regardless of size had a minimum of three pubs. If one did not feel like sitting in a pub, the buskers on the streets of Dublin and Galway proved to be highly entertaining. The musicians ranged from kids no more than five years old playing the tin whistle, all the way to men on their last leg playing the accordion. While the formal music concerts I attended were very good, I definitely preferred the informal sessions. In a small town, Doolin, about 8 miles from the Cliffs of Moher on the west coast, I think I encountered the best atmosphere in Ireland. The musicians were literally jamming. As a performer myself, I tend to get caught up in the technical side of music. Here, though, I was swept away by the emotion and heart with which these people played. Vocally, these singers were mediocre, but the manner with which they sang showed me that the entertainment side of performing is far more moving than the sounds emitted.
Music is such a staple of the Irish life. I do not know if it is the time factor that allows them to learn all of these songs and play these instruments, but it is so universal. Especially on the west coast in the smaller towns everyone and their mother fills these pubs.
The last night I spent in Dublin was one of the most authentically happy moments I have experienced yet in my life. I found myself alone, sitting in this pub in a foreign country and yet I was not even remotely lonely. I was talking with virtual strangers about their lifestyles in Dublin. I sat with my Guinness, smooth as a milkshake, and sort of just absorbed the whole scene. The band played my two favorite pub songs, "Molly Malone" and "The Wild Rover" for their "friend all the way from Chicago". I could go one for pages about what a wonderful time I had, but time and space hinder me. I will tell you that Ireland and traveling will become a habit.
While I did not see any leprechauns, and although many people told me that there were no such things, I still can not say for sure that they do not exist. At this small store in Doolin I purchased a book about Irish fairies. I asked the woman working there what she thought of the existence of fairies in general. She replied that she did not have any personal experience, but one could not help to believe in them. The worst offense is a lack of belief. Most people never encounter them because they are either too busy, or too pretentious and into themselves. Fairies only visit the simple people and stay away from scholars. She felt that our worlds were too different and that was the main reason that we do not run into these "good people" very often. Our worlds do not overlap that much. In the book by Carolyn White I purchased, it explained that mortals who care for fairies leave out cold potatoes, milk, wine and any other delicacies left over. I guess I do believe that leprechauns may exist. There is this certain magical quality of the countryside that makes it seem feasible for these wee people to reside in the hills. It is amazing how powerful something as simple as water, rocks and grass can be. Time was against me when I was there. The best way to encounter them would be to hang out in the countryside, live simply and just wait for the sound of their hammer.
I would like to take this opportunity to show you what type of repercussions have occurred as a direct result of my trip to Ireland. Here are a few short examples:
I mentioned in my proposal that knowing how to Irish step dance might be just the impressive fact in an interview to get me a job, and boy was I right. In my third interview with Andersen Consulting the woman that interviewed me asked me a question about Ireland. I proceeded to tell her a few things about my trip. When I mentioned my attempts of learning to Irish step dance she absolutely ate it up. From then on any tension in the interview vanished. At the end of the interview she said she would recommend that I have an office interview. Within the next two weeks they had scheduled me for an office interview at their headquarters in Chicago at the end of January.
Musically, I have begun to delve into the subject of ethnomusicology. This summer ignited a deep interest in Irish folk music within me. I did a research paper on Henry Cowell, a 20th century Irish American avant-garde composer who was strongly rooted in Irish folk influences in his early years. He went on to adopt a desire to synthesize Eastern and Western musical genres t create a "World Music." Cowell hit upon a very important notion-- their is no better way to get to know a people than to enter into their musical life. All semester I have studied 20th century music and have seen the changes of compositional styles from one period into the next. The avant-garde gave way to a more conservative people who realized a need for music to be more accessible. Right now I am studying music that is not always tangible to the masses, but I feel that at some point I will turn to my Irish roots like one of the all-time great Irish tenors, John McCormack. He gave up the operatic stage to perform concerts and recitals of predominately Irish and Afro-American music. I, too, plan to eventually move along A similar path.
On my senior recital on February 20 at 6pm in Duncan Hall (of course everyone is invited) I will be doing a set from the British Isles by Benjamin Britten. The simple, yet elegant folk elements so integral to Irish folk music are evident in this set.
Finally, I did mention that maybe I could find a date while in Ireland. Sure, I got a couple of phone numbers, but I did get a little more than bargained for. I got the Italian stallion of our group in Celbridge trying to romance me as our time together came to a close. There a group of us were in the muddy back trails just past the Gap of Dunloe overlooking the lakes of Killarney when Maurizio attempted to whisper sweet-nothings into my ear. Imagine a twenty-five year old Italian with a British accent beckoning for his "sweetie creature" to come sit in the brush as we waited for the others to catch up. Needless to say, my stomach felt a little queasy as I prayed that the others would hurry up. Besides the Rinaldo, who claimed to be my leprechaun, I found that the Irish men were very short. Maybe I was just too intimidating. I must admit, however, I did get a great date out of my trip to Ireland. While at a party this guy from Duke noticed my shoes-- a pair of blue Dr. Martin's. We had briefly met once previously and now seemed to really hit it off. We ended up talking for hours about our experiences abroad (he spent a semester in Australia). We now keep in touch long distance and have developed a great friendship. If it had not been for those shoes, I may never have gotten to know him.
I would like to formally thank the committee for giving me the opportunity to have such a great experience. I realize you all think I am a big slacker for handing this in so late, but I'll curb my Irish gift of gab and not offer any more excuses. My trip to Ireland has affected me in more ways than I am even aware of. Just this brief moment of time has altered perceptions, views, visions and tastes in life. No, I did not experience some crazy transformation, but it did open me up to a bigger world and has prepared me to accept the uncertainty of this world as well as the life of learning I am about to embark upon.
May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face.
May the rains fall soft upon your field.
And until we met again,
May the Lord hold you in the palm of its hand.