Out of the mists as if by conjured up by a wizard, a minibus full of American university students drove into the heart of our village recently. It was as if they’d arrived specifically to check out the veracity or otherwise of a claim made only ten days earlier by IrishCentral.com that our west Waterford Gaeltacht of An Rinn is one of the top hidden beauty spots in Ireland.
They pulled up outside Ring College, a long-established institution, where Irish has been taught to students and teachers for over 100 years. Scheduled to stay here for a week in the heart of the Ring Gaeltacht, it wasn’t long before they were taken up with classes in beginners' Irish and Irish dancing, tours with talks to a Famine graveyard, an ancient Holy well, a busy tv production company and an art gallery as well as lessons on how to play the tin whistle and how to make a St Brigid's Cross.
They attended traditional Irish music sessions, Irish literature talks and they enjoyed restorative seaweed baths at the local Sólás na Mara (solace of the sea) healthcare center on Helvick quay. Every little detail such as stepping through a gate over a cattle grid was worthy of note and these cool urbanites were quick to make friends with the pet goats, rabbits and other animals, which are kept at the college.
“It’s actually been really, really wonderful,” says Lexi Bond (22), a young graduate from Northeastern University and the oldest in the group. She was especially fascinated by the making of the St Brigid’s Crosses, a practice, which combines pagan and Celtic traditions.
All nineteen students in the group attend Northeastern University in Boston. But this summer they are staying in Ireland for over a month with the aim of immersing themselves completely in a country that is new and different to most of them. They’ll be staying for periods in Dublin, Kilkenny and Galway as well as in Ring.
Noam Gal, an Israeli student from Tel Aviv, studying international affairs at Northeastern, says the highlight of the week for him was cycling on the Waterford Greenway, the longest off-road walking and cycling route in Ireland, which follows the forgotten route of an old railway line. Others also loved the experience of traveling across old Victorian viaducts and through beautifully carved stone tunnels to emerge into woodland where echoes of the past reverberate all around.
“I think they’ve been very impressed with the natural beauty that sometimes we take for granted,” says Dr Mícheál Ó Drisleáin, deputy manager of the Ring college and one of the trip’s organizers. “When we are looking out from Helvick towards the Comeragh Mountains over Dungarvan Bay, we don’t always see the tranquillity of it. But they’re coming from Boston, a very busy city and it’s the total opposite…it’s the simple things that they absolutely love.”
“I think this is only the beginning of it,” he continues. “Universities have been coming to Ireland for quite a number of years and they would have been linked in with Connemara and Donegal and other places but I think what we’ve done this week is to show what we have to offer here in An Rinn and in Waterford in general.” Looking about him for a moment, he sees fishermen are preparing their trawlers to head out to sea. It’s hard not to be moved by the charm and loveliness of the place.
Head of literature at Boston College Prof Joe Nugent, the group’s instructor along with Prof Patrick Mullen, of Northeastern, says the students “really came here wanting to know everything they could about Irish culture and history. So it’s a very interactive, energetic, very exciting classroom space to be in. There’s something about summer courses …the intensity of them, the freedom from the typical rules and the requirement to throw oneself headlong into it, means that within the classroom there tends to be really great energy. The students become very deeply engaged straight away.”
This inaugural visit of a group of international students is the first of its kind to Ring College but it's expected that more will follow in the years to come.
“Dia dhuit,” says Maryam Mallic, a fourth year student of finance, who is from a Pakistani heritage. For a moment, your humble scribe is taken aback by her greeting and the uncanny authenticity of her accent or blas, to use the correct word. Like the others it’s the musicality and guttural quality of the Irish language that’s appealed to her. “It’s a really cool language. I thought that everyone spoke English here.”
“Is mise Olivia,” says another Northeastern scholar, Olivia Gibson from New York, wanting to show off her grasp of Irish.
Yes, the language has dazzled them but it is “its place within the culture: these are the questions that interest them,” explains Prof Nugent. They want to know about “its importance, its role in the history and in the culture of the country”. And, coming from Mullingar himself having learned his fluent Irish from the Christian Brothers and in the Gaeltacht of Rann na Feirste in Donegal, he adds that “as one is explaining those things to them one rediscovers that territory for oneself”.
“Coming here to Ring is the highlight. It’s the best and I’ve been to a lot of places in Europe and the Middle East,” declares Sarah Bernt, a political science student from Boston.
Perhaps it’s Denise Bates, another young Northeastern undergrad, who shares the most telling image: “My friend and I stayed out in a field overlooking the ocean last night to watch the sun set and see the stars. It was fabulous,” she says, her eyes brimming with joy. We in An Rinn can only hope students of such passion and idealism will return to us every year.