Two Days On Inishmor

2015 Bonfires on the Aran Islands At 9:00am Tuesday, the day before yesterday, we boarded the bus for a half hour ride down the N67 to the small coastal town of Doolin. Doolin is known as home to some of the best pubs for live music in Ireland, but that wasn’t on our agenda, rather, we were catching the 10am Doolin O’Brien’s Ferry to Inishmor, the largest of the three Aran Islands, which sit just off the coast between the Bay of Galway and the open Atlantic. _DSC3660 _DSC3658 After a thankfully placid crossing we landed at the main town Kilronan, found our lodgings for the night, grabbed sandwiches at the Spar Market, then a bunch of us rented bicycles for the afternoon. The island has two main east-west routes, the preferred one for cyclists being the less-traveled northern coastal road. The weather was clear and many bicyclists were out, as well as horse drawn tourist buggies and small tourist vans. Over the course of four hours or so cycling up and back this road, I kept running into Wheaton students on bikes, swimming in the … invigorating… water, cozying up to sea lions, or stopping to see archaeological sites like Teampall Ciaran, of a monastery named in honor of one of the disciples of St. Enda, and built perhaps 1,000 years ago. We chose the 23 June as the day to spend our overnight on the Aran Islands partially because traditionally on this night, St. John’s Eve in the Christian calendar, residents of Aran light large bonfires. _DSC3712 There are lots of stories about the meaning of the fires – that they protect people from drowning, they commemorate summer solstice, they protect the crops, and many others. Just before sunset, we all walked up the road to Mainistir, a small settlement where we had heard one of the larger fires would be set. _DSC3722 _DSC3766 _DSC3738 _DSC3753 When we crested the rise in the road and arrived at the fire, we could also see smoke rising from other neighboring villages’ fires to our left and right. It gave a sense of how the whole island was participating in this summer solstice ritual. And then it was a great surprise to see as we looked across the Galway Bay towards Connamara in West Galway, that there were a string of fires all along the horizon on that side also. Connamara and Aran seem to be about the only places in Ireland where the tradition of the Midsummer Bonfires continues today. It was majestic to see points of light in all directions on the horizon, and to know that at each place people were gathered, thinking about the long winter just past or the summer now just beginning. Our Wheaton group hung out on the edges of the fire for about an hour as the sun went down and the sky reluctantly, very slowly, started to go dark. There were about 50 local residents there, eating, talking, stoking the fire, and after a while, people started to play music as well. _DSC3762 At one point I decided to walk a bit further up the hill, and in just a few minutes came up on a family quietly sitting in front of their own personal fire, drinking glasses of wine. I asked them what the evening of bonfires meant to them; they told me that there are pagan as well as Christian interpretations. And while they didn’t say so explicitly, I got the sense that the bonfires were a way to clean out the old & bring in the new, to show your back to winter and look forward to a warm clear summer.

The Black Fort

The Black Fort

In the morning after breakfast we all headed out walking different directions. I worked on an excellent facial sunburn – for some reason it never occurred to me that there was enough sun in Ireland to burn. Point taken about an innocent looking somewhat hazy sky.


This Is A Workday

The sun is shining! It is an absolutely beautiful and productive day here in the Burren. Students are all working very hard on their projects. You can hear a pin drop in the studios. Projects are beginning to take shape and everyone is becoming more and more excited about their work as the uncertainties drop away. One of the most difficult tasks here is to develop work based on a fairly precise visual concept. For the musicians, the vocabulary may be different from that of the visual artists but developing an idea in a compacted space and time scenario is very challenging. It all comes together eventually but not without a fair share of angst. The universal tell-tale sign that indicates how far a student has come with their work is the size and scope of the smile on their faces. I have seen a few of those in the last couple of days.

Margaret Robe is working on a series of watercolors.  Her visual concept has recently fully come together.

Margaret Robe is working on a series of watercolors. Her visual concept has recently fully come together.

This is the tower at Newtown Castle.  It is also the rehearsal space for our music students.  Each floor has a fully functioning fireplace where peat burns to keep out the draft.

This is the tower at Newtown Castle. It is also the rehearsal space for our music students. Each floor has a fully functioning fireplace where peat burns to keep out the draft.

Our music students pose for a photograph inside the 4th floor of Newtown Castle.  The castle is their rehearsal space.

Our music students pose for a photograph inside the 4th floor of Newtown Castle. The castle is their rehearsal space.

Drew is working out a composition in the shadow of Newtown Castle.  It's a very relaxed atmosphere but still charged with creative things going on all over the campus.

Drew is working out a composition in the shadow of Newtown Castle. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere but still charged with creative things going on all over the campus.

Nesli is working out a musical composition on her auto-harp.

Nesli is working out a musical composition on her auto-harp.

In a future blog post, students will be explaining their visual concepts along with examples of their work. They will also be posting their impressions of this experience. So far, all of this has been pretty much one sided so it will be great for you to hear directly from them.

This evening, Saileog Ni Cheannabhain, a Conamara style singer, will be performing in one of our student houses. This will be a wonderful opportunity for them to broaden their exposure to a very specific style of Irish music. Somehow, everything our students see and hear finds its way into their work.

After her performance it will be time to pack for our overnight to Innishmore, the largest of the Aran islands. Much more on that on our return. We take a ferry from Doolin, Co. Clare, and students will be staying at a hostel in Mainistir. They will have two full days to explore the island before returning to Doolin for a group dinner in one of the local pubs. The trip takes approximately one hour each way and we are hoping no one falls victim to seasickness.

Back to work. Matthew and I spend our days working with individual students, confirming arrangements, double checking all the details, and making sure everyone is progressing, happy, fed and productive. This is not a difficult job as this group is a pleasure to work with.

I may not be able to post for a couple of days as we will be away but you can be sure that you will receive a full report on our return. As I stated in an earlier post, if there is anything that you want to know or if there are specific photos that you would like to see, please e-mail me at howard_andrew@

Sunday is Saturday

Today is Sunday on the calendar but it is Saturday on our schedule as we flipped the two days because of the bus schedule to Galway. Students are working in their studios or out on location developing their projects. The sun is in and out as are the raindrops. We have learned to take what the day brings, accept what we cannot change. BTW, happy Fathers Day to all the fathers out there who may be reading this blog! I wanted to send this quick blog to be followed later by a more extensive one complete with more photographs. Everyone is doing well, and everyone is healthy. No worries. On Tuesday we will be leaving for an overnight on Innishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands. If anyone has any connections with the weather Gods, please put in a good word. I’m a native Cape Codder so I know what wet is, but a rainy day on the Arans gives new meaning to the word “soaked.” It’s about a one hour ferry ride from Doolin. No guarantees about whether it will be smooth sailing._DSC3309 The picture above is a small representative sample of what this area looks like. We are surrounded by panoramas. Absolutely beautiful. More later.

Arts In Ireland Updates!

The end of week one is fast approaching. In this blog I will tell you what has transpired thus far and what we can expect in the near and then distant future. Students have spent the greater part of the first week absorbing huge bits of information about the Burren and trying to determine how a visual or musical concept can be developed based on their compacted experience. We continue to provide them with more and more information about this place with the hope that they will absorb as much as possible and then incorporate this information into their art and music. I think that it is important to keep in mind that each student has a little less than three weeks to develop a body of work that will satisfy our and their expectations. Is this possible? These students were chosen for this program because we feel, that for them, it is not only possible, but also likely that they will produce some amazing and insightful work. Each of them has settled into a rhythm and a routine where they average between 7 and 10 hours each day working on their projects or talking about their work and art and music in general. This conversation continues when they return to their houses and in the Pubs in the evening. This program is an opportunity for them to immerse themselves in their work without having to worry about virtually anything else. Some begin the process quickly. They make decisions, and commit immediately. Others need a little more time. Each day, someone breaks through and begins producing a level of work that they were previously incapable of producing. This is very, very exciting. Matthew and I realize that there are risks involved with the way the program is structured. The worst-case scenario is this: 15 students have the same objective. 14 of them hit the mark and work daily on projects that excite them and are conceptually sound. One falters. This one student sees everyone around him working successfully, happily and experiencing satisfaction. This scenario can turn serious very quickly. Away from home, not living up to expectations. Fortunately we are always aware of this possibility and we are very careful to never let this scenario come to pass. Through steady interaction, and a one on one approach to teaching, we always have a finger on the pulse of each student, not to mention the very supportive atmosphere that students create for themselves. Today was and will be a day chockfull of unique experiences. We spent the morning in the studios continuing to work on projects. Some chose to work from home. After lunch we all went on a Flora and Fauna hill walk at Black Head with our guide Shane Connelly. Shane has been our guide for each of the four times we have done this. He’s a very knowledgeable person who is also a farmer in the area besides being a tour guide. He has a great sense of humor and makes the dissemination of information enjoyable. Unfortunately, the weather was uncooperative. I’m not sure that it actually rained but the fog was so thick that all of us were completely soaked by days end. Nothing that a hot shower, a hot cup of tea and clean dry clothes can’t fix.

The following pictures give you some idea of our flora and fauna

The following pictures give you some idea of our flora and fauna “walk” in the Fog/rain.

_DSC3496 _DSC3483 _DSC3481 _DSC3524 Last evening, (Friday night) Eddie Lenihan joined us to share his stories about the myths and legends of Ireland. Eddie has been collecting and putting in books all of the old stories and legends that have been mostly passed down through the generations orally. His goal is to record them before they are lost forever in the ‘mists of time.” He tells these stories in the classic Irish way, full of animation and energy. To fully appreciate Eddie, you have to know what he looks like. Here are a few photos of him in mid-story:

_DSC3534 _DSC3541 _DSC3532

This blog will be posted sometime on Saturday so my tenses may be a little off. We only have wifi at the college and not in our houses so it isn’t possible to always post at opportune times. Please bear with us. Today, (Saturday) we went to Galway for the day on the local bus line. Galway is a great little city with tons of shops, street performers and craft and farmers markets. Not to mention that Galway is the arts capitol of Ireland. The day began bright and sunny but almost as soon as we got off the bus, it started to rain. Everyone went on their separate way and I don’t think the rain interfered with enjoying the city. (BTW, the sun came out again as we were boarding to return to Ballyvaughan!)

Until tomorrow…lots more pictures on the way, including photos made by students.  If you have any comments or requests, please let us know.  You can also e-mail me at

Music Blog #1

Music blog I: June 18 2015

The students concentrating on music during the class – Drew, Mir, Morgan, Nesli, and Sophia – and I just completed our third morning session in our studio space, the top floor of 16th century Newtown Castle. As a place of residence for 500 years, we can only imagine the music and stories that those walls have heard over the generations. The Castle is at the heart of the Burren College of Art, and lies about a five minute drive or half hour walk from our houses down at the old Ballyvaughan pier. We’re fortunate to have this magical place as the central axis mundi for the class.

This week we’ve been splitting our time so that in the mornings the six of us work together as a group and in the afternoons the students work separately. In the morning sessions I present material on the basic structure and form of Irish traditional music, we listen to and discuss recordings by important artists from all the different corners of the Irish musical spectrum and, beginning on day two, an hour or so of each morning session has been dedicated to the students presenting to each other initial ideas for their eventual musical composition projects. Yesterday that exercise centered around generating variations upon a theme, one of the primary ways in which Irish musicians compose tunes (instrumental dance music) or airs (songs, often in free meter and unaccompanied). And today the students presented to each other the compositional ideas they came up with in the course of research or site visits yesterday afternoon and evening.

As week one transitions into week two, our procedure will change; rather than meeting together in the mornings, the students will be working independently pretty much all day on their individual composition projects. While the main part of the students’ day will be independent work, we will still check in with each other as a group perhaps for an hour each morning, depending on the balance the students end up needing between alone-time work (the “solitude of daily practice” as the guitarist Segovia put it) and social interchange.

I’m impressed with the way the students have jumped into the work, both in their own composing and in the constructive observations and feedback they’ve been sharing with each other in our morning sessions. They are clearly a tremendously supportive peer group, just as they are full of great musical ideas. Several students have said how they want to attempt projects here that they’ve dreamt of doing for a long time but have gotten sidelined along the way, for whichever of the many reasons our dreams are too often deferred. This is an excellent opportunity for the students to dive in to projects they may have only dreamt of being able to tackle thus far in life. Judging from the passion with which they’re presenting their ideas to each other and hearing each other out, the students are taking the opportunity seriously.

Nesli, Morgan and Sophia...three GREAT singers!

Nesli, Morgan and Sophia…three GREAT singers!

Yesterday evening before sunset most of the music students took a quick ride up to the 13th c Corcomroe Abbey outside of Ballyvaughan, then stopped at Bishop’s Beach to catch the sunset on the way back to town. Some of the students combed the fields for materials they might use as musical instruments or for sounds they might sample for their compositions; some skipped rocks in the ocean; some took the opportunity to walk quietly alone down the beach. We all got pulled into how the shifting light generated by fast moving cloud cover projected patterns on the limestone mountains off to our east, and onto the colored bands of seaweed, rocks, and sand which stretched across our field of vision. A day which began with spitting rain ended up with the incredible epiphany of sun breaking through clouds. Home to a quick dinner and a deep sleep.

Rainy Days and Wednesdays!

Morning walks have become a staple of the Arts In Ireland program over its four incarnations. However, this year we seem to have a group that prefers sleeping in. Out of 15 possible walkers 8 walked the first day, 5 the second and 3 this morning. Disturbing trend! The plan is to walk out in a different direction each morning for a ½ hour and then back for an invigorating wake up. I guess hibernation is preferable to invigoration. The walks are optional but it would be really nice, if, just once, we could be at full strength! (students read this blog)

As the title of today’s blog says, it’s pouring at the moment. We hope that this day follows the usual pattern of many weather changes in a single day as students are itching to get out to various locations to photograph, sketch, construct, etc. We shall see.

Seven hours later and I am happy to report that the weather sputtered a little and then cleared nicely. Not without a few wet spots but all in all we have had a very productive day. Elise, Tianxiao, Margaret and Margaret (not a typo, we have two Margarets) and Emma all travelled to Corcomroe Abbey, and the Bishop’s Quarter Beach to take photos for reference material for their projects. Later in the day, Karl, Liam, Jack and Mir travelled to a great beach in Ballyvaughan and then to Black Head. Again, to begin working on their projects, and gather reference material.


Margaret gathering reference material at Corcomroe._DSC3278

Emma Garcelon making photographs for later use in the studio._DSC3290


Jack is VERY happy and in his element._DSC3309

Visitors to Corcomroe..Emma, Margaret, Margaret, Tianxiao, Elise..

Visitors to Corcomroe..Emma, Margaret, Margaret, Tianxiao, Elise..


The process of deciding on a visual concept to be developed while we are here is actually quite complex. Students really have no idea, before arrival, what this place looks like, smells like, and feels like so they are put in the position of having to make choices in a very short time. There are a few false starts but by day five most are on their way.

Matthew will be writing his own blog pages very shortly and will describe what the music students are up to. Most of the time we are all together but on workdays we break out into our separate groups. From observation, I can tell you that they are experiencing a very similar process.

Tomorrow will be another workday with one module in the morning of three hours and a second module after lunch from one to five. Many students also return to the college to work on their projects in the evening. This is where the intensive part begins. Students are already aware that days are passing and time is getting short. Decisions must be made, concepts developed and executed in a short period of time. They are certainly up to it and the evidence is in what we are seeing thus far. There is joy in this process! A great group.