This morning I have managed to surpass the halfway mark, in word count at least. It is Day 13, with 18 days left and I am not yet halfway through my five years in Ireland. I think that’s ok, though, as there will be less details in the last three years…I think.
Yesterday I began to worry that this story is really (really) boring. It seems to almost write itself as I wander through my memories, but reflecting on it, I can’t quite understand why people have suggested that I write it down. It seems less like an adventure in the telling of it, but perhaps that’s just my jaded point of view.
There’s nothing to do, though, but keep writing. I’ve come this far and even if in the end I am only writing it down for me, or maybe for those who shared in my experiences, at least I will have achieved my goal of writing 50,000 words in a month about my life in Ireland.
The chapter below tells about my trip up to the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, to enrol in the Masters in European Union Studies program.
The train journey up to Kildare was uneventful. Niamh was a pleasant travel companion and the two girls chatted about Kildare, about their families, about Francis and about Niamh’s boyfriend, Stephen.
As they rolled through Newbridge, Tea recalled her trip through the county the summer before with her mother. She told Niamh about visiting St. Brigid’s well, where she had, as per the legends, written her wishes on pebbles and tossed them into the well.
Something dawned on her then and she was astounded to think she hadn’t thought of it before; she had been in Ireland for a year. She marvelled at how much time had passed, at how much she had done, and had to admit that she was feeling settled, despite this great change she was in the midst of. She could honestly say now that she lived in Ireland.
“Well, happy anniversary!” cheered Niamh, “we shall have to celebrate!”
They spent that first day with Niamh’s parents, sitting outside in their little garden and popping into the nearby town to do some shopping. The following morning, Tea and Niamh would take the Kildare bus to Maynooth.
The first view Tea had of Maynooth was not particularly striking. It was a small but busy town, and looked like any other small Irish town. Shop fronts painted white, yellow and grey lined the main street in rows, though they were set further back than in most towns due to a wide footpath and a row of trees.
Despite it being summer, Maynooth was obviously a university town; the people waiting for the bus, walking in and out of the shops, and meandering down the street all seemed to have that youthful carefree look about them that belongs only to students.
As they got off the bus, she caught sight of a tall spire through the trees in the distance. They walked the rest of the way, down the main street and around the corner toward the spire. There, before them stood Maynooth Castle and behind that, the gothic 18th and 19th century stone buildings of the south campus of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. Glancing out along the main road, she saw that as it veered off to the left, the footpath narrowed and the buildings became terraces, set much closer to the street. They looked forlorn and dingy. Tea turned back to face the grounds of the university and followed Niamh away from the main road.
Maynooth is Ireland’s second oldest university and began as a religious college for lay and ecclesiastical students in 1795. In 1910, the college became an officially recognized college of the National University of Ireland but continued to offer only theological degrees. While the Department of Sociology was the first non-theological department, founded in 1937, lay sutdents were not admitted until 1966 and it was not until 1997 that Maynooth College became the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, its basis the original college’s faculties of Science, Arts and Celtic studies.
As they passed through the white front gates with their low stone pillars, a low, stocky stone building appeared in front of them. This was the first building built for the college. It was only three storeys and had a white front door and white sash windows. The grounds in front of it were neat and well-kept, with uniformly-planted flowers and towering, ancient trees. From this perspective, the college seemed quaint, old-fashioned. But through the arches and behind this first building, the other buildings rose up, gothic and impressive, towering over and enclosing the first of two large squares of carefully maintainted lawns criss-crossed by paths. The second of these squares was dominated by the tower of the old college chapel. This was the tower they had seen from the town.
Tea left Niamh to wander the gardens and went off to meet with the head of the Modern History department. The EU Studies program was only in its second year and had been started the year before by a professor who had suddenly decided to take a sabbatical, leaving her fledgling program in the hands of the larger department.
Tea wondered whether this boded well for the program, and considered switching over to the Celtic Studies program but, without Old Irish, or even a very firm grasp on modern Irish, she soon abandoned this old dream of hers.
Professor Donal McCarthy, the head of the department, was a small, white-haired man. He was direct, and his handshake was warm and friendly. They discussed Tea’s interest in history, her English and Celtic Studies degree, and her reasons for taking a more modern direction for her Master’s.
Professor McCarthy described how the EU program fit into the larger Modern History context and how he intended to run it in the absence of its founder. He also explained that, as the professors were stretched somewhat thin due to the absence of the program’s lead, he had arranged the classes so that they occurred only three days a week, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Monday and Friday would be days for the students to do their research.
Tea and Professor McCarthy got along well, they understood each other and there was an easiness between them that laid the groundwork for open discussions about difficult subjects in the year to come. On that first day, Tea felt she had made the right decision, if only because the Professor himself had made such a good impression.
Following her meeting with Professor McCarthy, Tea went to the Registrar’s Office to formally enrol. While she was there, she enquired about accomodations. She was informed that student residences were located on the North Campus but that, as a graduate student and one enrolling in August, she would be at the bottom of the waiting list.
A strange looking lady working in the office overheard the conversation and sidled up to the counter. She was tall, thin, older although her shoulder-length hair was still naturally brown. She wore thick glasses which made her eyes seem to protrude oddly. Her clothes could have been called frumpy; they seemed professorial and yet not quite.
She introduced herself as Fidelma Byrne and said that, if Tea was interested, she had a room she could let in her house, though only for the weekdays.
She explained that she lived with her grown son in town. He was studying for his Masters in music composition and went out often with his girlfriend. Her daughter sometimes dropped by but was a nurse in Dublin and lived close to the hospital due to the demanding shifts she worked. Fidelma wanted to keep the house private, to be used by her family alone on the weekends.
Fidelma’s husband had died two years prior and she continued to work in the Registrar’s office, despite being ready to retire, as she wasn’t sure what else to do with herself. Besides, she finished, the government support she received wasn’t enough to live on and so the meagre wage she earned helping out in the university was needed.
Much of these details came unbidden and Tea, to be polite, consented to think about the offer and to take Fidelma’s phone number. She was careful to warn her though that she would likely need somewhere that she could stay on weekends as well. But, at Fidelma’s continued urging, she promised to consider the offer. She finally managed to gather her papers confirming her enrolment and escape to find Niamh.
Tea and Niamh wandered that day through the beautiful old buildings of the South Campus, up the hill and past the Pope John Paul II library, at which Tea looked longingly, excited to peruse its collection and begin her research. They crossed the steep concrete, and rather ugly, footbridge over to the modern North Campus where the buildings, like the bridge, were modern and concrete grey, and the grounds were less pretty. She thought about the Registrar explaining that the student housing would be full. She wasn’t sure she wanted to live on the North Campus anyway.
The rest of their stay in Kildare passed quickly and pleasantly and before they knew it, they were back on the train on their way home to Killarney. On the journey, they discussed Tea’s options for accommodation, giggling a bit unkindly at the poor, strange Fidelma.
As the train trundled through the increasingly dramatic and beautiful countryside into Kerry, Tea thought that she really didn’t want to leave Kerry forever. It was part of why she had come to live in Ireland. While the university itself was striking, the town of Maynooth seemed to be drab, grey, forlorn.
Niamh had an idea. Perhaps Tea could find a small apartment in Killarney and, as she would only have classes three days a week, she could travel up and down on weekends. The room at Fidelma’s was sure to be inexpensive, as would train fare with the student discount. It wouldn’t really be any more expensive than renting something full-time up in Maynooth, especially as she didn’t know anyone with whom she could split the rent. It seemed to be the perfect solution.
And that was how Tea came to live in Killarney.