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Robert Morris Goes Storytelling in Ireland

From May 9-23, Andrea Frantz, Ph.D., associate professor and head of RMU’s Department of Communication, and Christine E. Holtz, RMU professor of Media Arts, accompanied 19 journalism and photography students to Sneem, Ireland, a village of 400 in the Ring of Kerry in the Southwest part of the country.

While there, the journalism students focused on learning the stories of the community by interviewing villagers and photographing, writing, and blogging about them. The photo students were challenged to develop themes for their photography and shoot with the goal of creating photo books. The students also sought to learn about the culture of rural, southwest Ireland by listening to and practicing traditional Irish storytelling and performing music.

The group’s guide, Mr. Batt Burns, offered several workshops in storytelling as well as a great deal of historical insight into the area.

Frantz, Holtz, and their students traveled to the Cliffs of Moher, Galway, Killarney, and the Blasket Islands. Students also took part in hiking, biking, kayaking, and golf. One evening the group even enjoyed a traditional pub night in which the students shared their own talents in music, dancing, and storytelling, alongside the locals.

“For me, this was a real high point in my teaching career,” says Frantz. “I have long advocated a community journalism approach in my traditional classes, and I’ve challenged my students to see their university community as the home-base for learning. But this was the first time I’ve had the privilege of doing community reporting in a foreign country, and Sneem couldn’t have been a better place to pull it off.”

By challenging students to practice community journalism in a small village in which they were forced to quickly learn its people, geography, history, and customs in order to locate and re-tell its stories, they were pushed out of their comfort zones.

Following a particularly challenging interview with a local farmer, who possessed an extraordinarily thick Irish brogue and was very reticent to talk about himself, senior Heather Lowery told Frantz, “This is the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my four years as a journalism student.”Later on, however, when her story was complete, Lowery’s tune had changed. “I have never been more proud of any story I’ve written,” she said.

During their time in Ireland, the students recorded their reactions, observations, and first impressions of Ireland and the experience in general via a series video blogs, which you can view through the following links:

Right on the tails of the journalism class came another RMU group led by Jim Vincent, associate professor of English studies, along with Heather Pinson, Ph.D., assistant professor of communications, and Alisa Krieger, student leader.

Arriving on May 25, the group, which was made up of 25 students from Vincent’s Irish mythology and literature course, began its Ireland adventure in the town of Mullaghbane in County Armagh. There they stayed in the cultural center of Ti Chulainn, an agricultural, isolated, mountainous region, famous for being a stronghold of the home hunting grounds of the Red Branch Knights of ancient Ireland, and their leader Cuchulainn.

Students also climbed the mountain of Slieve Gullion and visited Navan Fort and Giant’s Causeway. They even toured Newgrange, which is 600 years older than the pyramids of Egypt and contains passage tombs of Irish settlers from well before the Celtic Age.

During the second part of their trip, on the way to Sligo, they stopped at the Ulster American Folk Park in Omagh, County Tyron, which is a large park full of re-enactors who depict both Ulster and American life in the late 18th century.

“Many Ulster Scots, generally Presbyterian, emigrated to western Pennsylvania,” said Vincent. “Thomas Mellon has a replica of his house there, and a friend of mine actually plays Mellon at the park.”

While at the park they had a night of music with local musicians as well as RMU singers Dawn Savage ‘11, Shaun Sweeney, and Melissa Curiale. The visit to the park was coordinated by former Rooney Scholar Marie Martin and her husband Joe. The group also enjoyed a lunch hosted by Southwest College in the town Omagh.

At Sligo (name means shallow or shelly), students concentrated on the life and poetry of Ireland’s most famous poet William Butler Yeats. Sligo was Yeats’ summer home; his poems “The Stolen Child” and “The Lake Isle of Inisfree” have their sources in this region. Here they explored by bus and by boat, and climbed Knocknarea, on top of which is the legendary burial site of Queen Medb.

During their stay at The Yeats Village, since there wasn’t any cafeteria, the students got the chance to cook for themselves. “We found out who could cook and who couldn’t,” said Vincent.

They also had a lot of fun, too. “We heard poetry, visited churches, drank in pubs, sang and danced,” added Vincent. “Generally, we had a good Irish time.”

To wrap up their journey, the group spent a day and a half in Dublin, where some students visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral, others the Guinness Brewery, and some took pictures of Ireland’s scenic capital city.

For more on RMU’s trips to Ireland, find them on Facebook (search “RMU Claddagh Club”) or on Flickr.

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Written by Valentine J. Brkich

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