From medieval holy wells and towers to rugged shores and gritty city streets, Ireland's culture and history unfolded for University of Virginia students in a January term course, "An Irish Sense of Place: Literature, Language, Music and the Arts."
They learned how the arts are intertwined with the landscape as poets, sculptors and musicians in the flesh shared their work and as the class studied Irish literary giants, such as William Butler Yeats, James Joyce and Seamus Heaney.
The husband-and-wife team of Elizabeth Fowler and Victor Luftig, English professors in the College of Arts & Sciences, have co-taught the intensive two-week class about six times now and established contact with some of Ireland's most distinguished contemporary writers, musicians and artists.
"We have the logistics down," Luftig said. They recommend students bring good walking shoes and warm raingear.
The success of the course depends on the students, Luftig said, "and whether they embrace the possibility of learning together joyfully in this short span of time."
This year's group of 18 students, who varied from first- to fourth-years with different majors, fulfilled his expectations. "I feel great admiration and respect for what the admissions office does at U.Va.," Luftig said about the high caliber of the students.
To hear a poet read in the setting where the poem takes place is a way to experience art coming alive, he said.
One of the first days in Galway on the western coast, the class heard Moya Cannon read several of her poems set there, including one, "Bright City," that is inscribed on the Wolfe Tone Bridge above the Corrib River. Fowler mentioned that when Cannon read her poem, "Demolition," they were standing outside a building whose side had been knocked out, making it open like a dollhouse. The group could see an intact kitchen on a higher-up floor.
In the evening, Moya's nephew, Cormac Cannon, played the uilleann pipes at the hotel and gave the group an introduction to local traditional Irish music. Luftig said the students went out on their own to hear more music on subsequent nights.
"By being in Ireland, we saw how much literature, history and the land were so closely intertwined and deeply rooted in their culture," said Nica Basuel, a fourth-year student who said visiting Ireland was on her "bucket list."
"I was amazed of how important their literary history is to them – there are photos of W.B. Yeats and James Joyce in all the pubs, quotations from various Irish poets (even living poets, such as Donnegal native Moya Cannon) memorialized on plaques and strewn all over their cities," Basuel said. An English major and future English teacher, she said it was refreshing to see the great emphasis on literature.
"We don't see photos of Whitman or Dickinson in our bars," she said, referring to 19th-century American poets Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.
"From reading the poetry and literature, I naturally learned much about Irish political and cultural history," fourth-year English major Annelise Musgrove said. "However, reading the poetry and literature in Ireland, at the very locations where it was written or that it was written about, I learned about the author's relationship to place and the material's relationship to place, which is a living relationship."
Another way the students learned Irish poetry was by reciting poems. Musgrove said, "Some of my favorite memories are our group poetry recitations, where each person would choose a poem and, standing in a circle, we took turns reading them. I had never done that before and feel very lucky to have been a part of it; in today's society, it's not a common experience you share with people."
When the group went to Thoor Ballylee, a tower that was Yeats' home, "the students were bouncing off the walls with excitement," Fowler said.
Devin Underhill, a fourth-year Echols Scholar, said the Ireland J-term course was very different from the rest of his college experience. "Being able to see the places that Yeats and other poets were writing about brings new meaning to the works. It inspired me to appreciate how art plays a role in my own life," Underhill said.
"This trip was probably the best way I could think to start off my final semester at U.Va., because it opened my eyes to how much more I can learn in the future," he said.
"Professors Luftig and Fowler are so passionately committed to the material," Musgrove said, "that it was impossible not to share their enthusiasm for and reverence of the traditional and contemporary works and authors we read."