DUBLIN — The late U.S. senator Eugene McCarthy liked to tell the story of his first visit to an Irish summer school. It was held in Sligo and dedicated to the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Guessing that the literary event would involve some drinking and reciting in Sligo bars, McCarthy, who was not a Yeats scholar, figured out how to make an impression. He told me he memorized some of the most obscure lines of Yeats and then, after listening to predictable recitations of the "Lake Isle of Innisfree" (“I will arise and go now …”) and "Easter 1916" (“A terrible beauty is born”) in a smoky pub, he proceeded to stun the gathered Irish literati with his apparently far-greater familiarity with their own poet.
McCarthy was right in his assumption that Irish summer schools were as much about spontaneity and fun as about listening to lectures. Week-long schools commemorating historic figures and themes have become a seasonal Irish phenomenon. In July and August the country’s politicians, public servants, journalists, poets, musicians, writers, students and other members of the “chattering classes” migrate en masse to west of Ireland villages for long days of lectures, recitations, songs, set-dancing, bathing, walks, drink and devilment.
The fashion for summer schools began four decades ago with the first annual Cumman Merriman Summer School in Ennis, County Clare, named in honor of the great Irish language poet, Brian Merriman (1749-1805). There was a joyful feeling among those attending that they were cocking a snoop at the conservative Ireland of those days, as Frank O’Connor’s translation of the poet’s best known work, "The Midnight Court," was banned by the Irish censorship board in 1946 for some ribald sexual content. The week of merriment at the Merriman school became popularly known as the “lark in the Clare air," after the song "A Lark in the Clear Air."
With its unspoiled scenery, clean beaches and profusion of summer wildflowers, the west of Ireland is a favorite holiday destination for east coast city dwellers and foreign visitors alike, and signing up for a summer school is often part of the deal. Attendance at these events has soared over the years but they are still quite intimate affairs — people can find themselves chatting over a jar with Nobel Prize winners John Hume and Seamus Heaney and world-renowned writers like Maeve Binchy and Colm Tobin — or trying to avoid the attentions of back-slapping politicians.
The themes can range from Ireland’s place in the world, as at a recent Merriman school, to the problems of reporting China, at the Burren Law School last year (where I was recruited to speak), or to the history of traditional music, at this year’s Willie Clancy Summer School.
The Irish like commemorating their defeats, hence the popularity of the General Humbert Summer School in County Mayo, named for the French commander who made a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to free Ireland from the British in 1798.
Upon arriving at this school one year I was assigned Room 4 in an ancient castle hotel, and was that evening warned by a local in the bar that this particular room was haunted, as it was the scene of a long-ago murder. Before retiring I asked the manager if there was a ghost in the hotel. “You’re not in Room 4, are you?” he asked. It was all part of the fun but I didn’t sleep well that night. (The website generalhumbert.com, incidentally, is not the summer school but a pub in La Rochelle, France.)
The Yeats International Summer School is the biggest of the dozens of Irish summer schools now held all over the island, and it goes on for two weeks this year, from July 25 to August 7. The writer Carolyn J. Mooney once described well the atmosphere at this event in her column in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “In the evening the group congregates in the Silver Swan Hotel. There is laughter and smoke, scholarly debate and entertainment. One night a South Korean professor recites his own epic poem, then sings 'Santa Lucia' in Italian. An American scholar takes out her fiddle while a guitarist strums a Yeats poem set to music.”
The schools may gain something from the current recession, as the number of Irish people going abroad this year is down by 13 percent, according to the Central Statistics Office, and many will make a virtue of necessity by vacationing in Ireland.
So I will arise and go now, and go to a summer school. The only problem — which one this year.
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