The Dunbrody vs. the WIT bus

Yesterday was one of my favorite field trip days of our program: the day we spend in Co. Wexford. Wexford is the county just northeast of Waterford, is the home of our illustrious consultant Jonathan, and is the birthplace of the tastiest strawberries I’ve ever had. We made an ambitious four stops in Wexford over the course of the day, and I’m willing to acknowledge that our reach may have exceeded our grasp ever so slightly.

First up was the Irish National Heritage Park: 9000 years of Irish prehistory and early history in a 35-acre site. The park presents a walk-through tour of reconstructed settlements that begin with Mesolithic hunter-gatherer huts and end with a Viking long ship:

Our petite student at right in the aqua green shirt was, according to our tour guide, about the height of the average Mesolithic person (she is 12″/30cm shorter than me).

Neolithic thatched-roof dwellings–unlike the earlier nomads’ huts, these houses are larger and fixed in place.

Walking through time . . .

Students learning about human sacrifice in a stone circle. My “Nobody’s dying today!” approach to study abroad was tested!

The “buachaill” (lookout tower) of a ringfort. “Buachaill” is Irish for “boy”; boys would have stood guard in the lookout tower. Ringforts were in use around 600-900 CE.

An early monastery.

Listening to our tour guide by the monastery chapel.

I am just tickled that I managed to sneak this picture.

Students were enchanted by these birds. But what are they?

A crannog or artificial island used for settlement and defense from about 1000 to 400 years ago.

Our students inside a replica Viking long ship.

The park lies alongside the River Slaney.

The Heritage Park is so impressive. The tour guides really know their stuff; the exhibits are obviously very well researched; and the park brings to life and illustrates the abstract idea that humans have lived in Ireland for nine millennia! You can even spend the night in the ringfort (it’s on AirBnB) or eat a meal cooked in their fulacht fiadh–a Bronze Age way of cooking by heating water in a pit with hot stones. For all of us who have a hard time conceiving of history as being more than about 250 years old, it’s an excellent experience.

Our next stop was a quick dip into Enniscorthy for lunch. Enniscorthy is a small town anchored by a Norman castle and a cathedral; it prides itself on being “the home of Brooklyn” because the main character of the book & film sets out from there for the bright lights of NYC. We are guilty of just using it as a lunch stop, which is why I only have 2 pictures:

(Those are our students gazing up at the umbrellas. Their order of operations was 1. Notice something pretty; 2. Take selfies with it; 3. Look at it with their own eyes.)

Lunch was quick and then we were off to the 1798 Rebellion Centre for a tour. I have to confess that I am not a fan of this place even though I know it’s really good. The “interactive, hands-on” museum model just is not my jam, and I am not hugely into military history either. But it is a great place that brings history to life. I’ll be sitting in the café with the bus drivers in gladness of heart while you all enjoy it.

At this point in the day, things started to go a bit sideways. We had enough extra time before our tour and dinner at the Dunbrody Visitor Centre to make a quick photo stop at Sliabh Coillte (there are 5 ways to spell it; all of them are wrong), a 268.5-meter (881 feet) hill in Wexford from which you can see into 5 counties. Slievecoilta is a gorgeous place and I was very excited that we had a chance to go there.

A hasty snap at Slieve Coilte.

Unfortunately, no sooner had we all piled off the buses and scattered about for photos than Jonathan told me our bus had overheated. Seamus (intrepid driver, extremely determined mechanic, and my occasional Irish accent coach) was working on it but it looked like the bus might have to be towed down the hill. We hastily arranged to ferry the students down in 2 groups on the remaining, non-crippled bus while a replacement bus would be en route to meet us at the Dunbrody by the time we finished our tour and dinner there: a relatively uncomplicated solution as we were to have done the tour in 2 groups anyway. As program director (official payer-for-things) I went with the first group (so I could pay for the tour) but let them go ahead on the tour while I sat on the balcony of the visitors’ center restaurant and drank a latte. Being the official payer-for-things has its privileges. But, again, the tour is excellent and you should do it. The Dunbrody is a replica of a mid-19th-century “famine ship.” Built in 1845–the year the famine began–as a cargo ship, it was refitted to carry passengers as demand for emigration from Ireland grew. This tiny-looking ship is recorded as having carried as many as 313 passengers. No surprise that there were fatalities on these “famine ships,” especially among steerage passengers who were provided little in the way of food or sanitation, though the Dunbrody saw fewer fatalities than others. The tour lets visitors hear stories from Dunbrody passengers via live re-enactments while they sit inside the ship’s hold. It’s a particularly interesting tour for Americans because of our close historical and genealogical ties to Ireland–when famine sufferers left Ireland aboard one of these ships they were most likely coming to the U.S. Ships like the Dunbrody are literally where the Irish-American immigrant experience began.

Somewhat ironically after visiting something called a “famine ship,” we all sat down to a delicious dinner. The visitors’ center houses a restaurant that looks out over the ship and the River Burrow, and we always eat there after taking the tour–maybe to reassure ourselves that the famine is comfortably in the past.

Our replacement bus arrived during dinner, as did two students who managed to get themselves left behind on Sleevequiltcha–major shout-out to bus driver Liam who made the run down and back three times. So I can comfortably say all was well that ended well. Yet my colleague couldn’t resist observing that the Dunbrody made it across the Atlantic dozens of times intact, while 170 years later we couldn’t get a bus up a hill ONCE.


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