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W&L Students Parade in Ireland

The Festival of Bealtaine celebrates the coming of spring throughout rural Ireland.  Bealtaine (pronounced “bee-ELL-tah-nah”) is a version of the May Day festivals that one sees throughout European folk traditions.  This month, in the lovely town of Dingle in the Irish-speaking region of south Kerry, Ireland, 24 Washington and Lee University students took part in the Festival Parade.  The students joined up with a local drum corps and played everything from large upright bass drums to the Irish version of the maracas to the cowbell and the tom-tom. They pounded and paraded through the ancient streets of this fishing village along with schoolchildren, marching bands, a bagpipe corps, costumed mummers on stilts and other local groups.

“It was just a delight to watch,” said English professor Marc Conner, who created and has led this study abroad program to Ireland six times since 2000.  “There they were, marching along with hundreds of Dingle locals, drumming away, taking part in a festival that in a way goes back centuries.”

Said Sean Pol O’Conchuir, a Dingle native who helped organize the rehearsals for the drum corps and invited the students to join it, “It was amazing how fast the students learned the various drum rhythms, and to see the students in the parade, enjoying themselves and interacting with the locals. It was wonderful.”

Jake Struebing, a sophomore from Amherst, N.Y., said the experience was “a spiritual encounter with the local culture as we learned how to drum in cadence, work together in synch, and open up our ears to music of what’s happening around us. Our studies have certainly expanded outside the classroom, giving new depth to the course.”

The W&L students are spending four weeks in Dingle studying the literature, history and culture of Ireland, focusing especially on the west of Ireland and its rural traditions.  To prepare for the trip, they took a 300-level seminar with Conner in the winter term on Irish literature and history. In Ireland, they are studying Irish poetry and history, learning the rudiments of the Irish language, studying traditional Irish music, participating in a traditional ceili (an evening of song and dance), and traveling to sites ranging from prehistoric burial tombs to medieval castles to island villages.

“To experience the Irish culture as close as we have been is beyond anything I have ever taken part of. We feel like the new locals in Dingle when we run out for scones, take walks by the harbor, and sing at the pubs. Now if only I could perfect my Gaelic,” said Katie Ackell, a junior from Appleton, Wisc.

The photo above and the short video below are courtesy of Conner: