On Saturday, April 30, we graduated our 124th class of undergraduate students. It was one of the best days of the year, with sunshine and moderate temperatures. Becky Ankeny, superintendent of the Northwest Yearly Meeting, inaugurated the beginning of our 125th anniversary with a graduation message centered on our founding and vision. It was a great day – and week, when you include the commencement events of our graduate students – of celebration. For me, it is one of the more exhausting times of the year, with constant events for more than a week! Usually I spend Saturday afternoon and evening recovering from the week. This year was unique: I have the opportunity to participate in one of our most important programs – Juniors Abroad – so Saturday was a day of preparation.
The program, started in the late 1980s, is one of the most anticipated opportunities our undergraduate students look forward to when they enter as freshmen, as it involves spending an intensive time with two professors (or administrators) in an academic experience somewhere in the world. This May professor Mark Weinert and I are leading a trip examining Celtic spirituality (along with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) in Ireland and England. I’ve looked forward to this trip for almost a year. There is nothing more important than advancing our relationships with undergraduate students in a learning environment, and I feel privileged to have this opportunity to engage a group of juniors (and a couple of seniors) on this excursion.
We arrived safely by Wednesday, May 4, and began an exploration of Dublin. Our first afternoon was spent getting oriented, covering safety protocols, use of public transportation, and getting a perspective on the city. We had our first taste of Irish food and then returned to our hotel for a deserved evening of rest.
Perhaps the primary lesson we learned during our initial stay in Dublin is that you can understand a lot about the culture in the way that it tells its story to the community, and in particular, to visitors. We arrived during a very unique week – the centennial of the 1916 Easter Rising, one of the most historic attempts to rid Ireland of British rule. During April of 1916, more than 450 Irish people were killed and 2,600 were wounded. The leaders of the insurrection were arrested, 16 in all, and executed by the British military during the first week of May. We actually toured the jail and execution site on the centennial anniversary of a number of the executions (Kilmainham Gaol).
Whether during our tour of the Kilmainham Jail or visits to the national museums, a central narrative was prominent – the history of the Irish people is a story of consistent oppression by conquering forces, particularly English forces. For centuries the Irish have been attempting to gain freedom and self rule for their people.
It was interesting to reflect on how differently we think about our story as Americans. In a similar context in 1776, a group of rebels revolted against their British overlords and engaged in a struggle that lasted seven years before they gained the independence they sought. There were no firing squads, hangings or beheadings. Our story quickly became one of “victory” and consistent celebration of the “rebel” heroes who established the American experiment. In Ireland, the story is one of loss, of pain and of suffering. Independence was only achieved after long suffering.
During my initial tour, we entered the execution area where the spot where the men were shot was marked with a cross and a mark on the ground. For me it was a story of interest but primarily one of history. As the tour guide spoke, an older Irish woman in our group walked slowly over to the execution spot and stood in silence for perhaps five minutes. I initially wondered what she was doing, but then I noticed tears flowing down her cheeks. It is quite different to learn of another’s story. It is quite a different thing to know it personally and to feel it from within.
As a teacher you never know what you will encounter when you visit another culture, but it was a good first few days for two professors and 19 George Fox students.