ISLAND GETAWAY The George Mason State University students were blown away by the welcome they received in Achill.
Students from the US visited Achill to study local culture and folklore
An ‘incredibly supportive local community’ and a ‘deep engagement with Achill’s history’ were some of the observations made by a group of American folklore students who were on a field trip in Achill this month.
Ten students from the George Mason State University in Fairfax, Virginia, were in Achill for nine nights for the field trip, as part of their folklore studies at George Mason.
Leading them was Professor Debra Lattanzi Shutika, who spoke to The Mayo News at the New Year’s Day Swim in Dugort while many of the students themselves braved the cold weather to take the plunge into the Atlantic. The students were not just here to watch, they had to take a hands-on role too, even if that meant braving the cold waters off Achill Island on January 1!
“The object of the trip is to go in and not just observe local culture but to participate,” said Prof Lattanzi Shutika. “The field school is where I go out and train students how to do cultural documentation. Part of that is participant observation, so the swim is part of that.
“On top of that they are going out and doing interviews with folks, oral history interviews, trying to document local folk culture, the culture of the every day, ordinary people.
“We’re interested in traditional stuff. We followed the pipes on last night for New Year’s Eve … and we’re talking to Irish dancers and other musicians. We’re interested in people who are also part of the local culture – characters and story tellers.”
The students’ activities also included a tour of the Deserted Village, a harp workshop with renowned harpist Laoise Kelly and Irish-language and Irish-dancing lessons.
There was plenty of socialising too, meeting locals along the way to ensure the students and their professor got a full flavour of Achill.
“I would say what we found unique was that it is an incredibly supportive local community. The students have remarked about how friendly everyone is. The locals are very welcoming,” said Professor Lattanzi Shutika.
“The students have been very impressed with the depth of knowledge people have of their own communities. That is something you just don’t have in the United States,” she added.
The students were very taken by a trip to Kildownet graveyard, where local woman Mary Jo O’Keeffe told the poignant stories of the Clew Bay and Kirkintilloch disasters and the prophecy that linked them.
In the 17th century, Erris man Brian Rua O Cearbhain had prophesied that ‘carriages on iron wheels’ would ‘carry coffins to Achill on both its first and last journey’.
The first train to arrive in Achill on the new line from Westport in 1894 carried the bodies of 32 local people who lost their lives in the Clew Bay drowning at Westport Quay.
The Kirkintilloch tragedy occurred in 1937, when ten Achill people were killed in a fire in a farm in Scotland where they were working as seasonal potato pickers. The railway line was closed in 1937, but it reopened for one final journey – to carry home the coffins from Kirkintilloch.
The bodies of victims of both disasters are buried in Kildownet graveyard.
“Mary Jo told us about both tragedies. The students were really taken by what she had to say but also with the deep engagement of local people in Achill with their own history. Americans tend to forget everything. That is not the case in Achill,” said Prof Lattanzi Shutika.
The group from George Mason University arrived in Achill on December 28 and left on January 6, visiting Westport on January 5 before hitting for three days in Wexford.
It was the first time Professor Lattanzi Shutika led a group outside of the US for their field trip, and she was fulsome in her praise of the experience and those who organised it.
“The students have been really amazed by all the people they met and the breadth of Irish culture they’ve been able to witness in Achill.
“People in Achill have been hugely welcoming. The students have been very impressed by how you walk into a pub and strangers might come over chatting. People are so open and engaging. You just don’t see that in the US.
“From an education point of view, it has been a brilliant trip. We would love to come back here again with students,” she added.
Organising the trip was Chris Lawlor from Irish-based Learn International – a consultancy and specialist education tour operator for higher-education institutions. According to Lawlor, Learn International brings between 300 and 400 US students to Ireland every year. Key to the success of such trips, he said, is ‘the community connection’, adding that he believes there is great potential in these trips for communities along the west coast.
“The likes of Kerry, Mayo and Donegal will feel broadly similar in terms of their culture and history to people from America, so the key is the welcome. The community connection is the lifeblood of such trips. The students don’t come here to sit in classrooms, so it is essential there is plenty for them to do. We like trips to be where students get talking to real people, get a proper feel for the place. None of the clichéd diddley-eye stuff; it has to be genuine. We found the community of Achill really rallied around and supported this trip.
“It works well for both sides. It is down season here in Achill, and there is the potential to overlap the down season with university holidays in the US. We try to find a community that ticks a lot of boxes. We have, for instance, a good relationship with Gweedore in Donegal and make five or six trips there every year. There is potential in these type of trips for a lot of west of Ireland communities,” he said.
Chris McCarthy, Manager of Achill Tourism, paid tribute to those who helped with the visit.
“The community went above and beyond the call of duty to make these students feel welcome and showcase Achill in the best possible light,” he said.