Reflecting on Irish Studies in Ireland

26 October 2020
By Lena Stein

Over this snowy weekend, I sat down with Naomi Brim ’21 to talk about her experience in slightly more green Ireland over the summer of 2019. Naomi, a senior English major and Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies minor from Portland, Oregon, took part in the summer Irish Studies in Ireland OCS program with Professor Constance Walker. The English Department plans to offer the program again over summer 2021. Applications for this program are open now and will remain open until January 25, 2021!

Image of river and hill
Image: Constance Walker

Lena: Where in Ireland were you?

Naomi: “We traveled a lot — we started our first week on the west coast of Ireland in Mallaranny and then spent about a month in Dublin at Trinity College. Though we were based in the city, we went on a lot of day-length excursions. Then, we traveled to go to the Galway International Arts Festival, visited Belfast in Northern Ireland, and returned to Ireland to attend the Kilkenny Arts Festival.

Why did you choose to go on the program?

I had taken a few classes with Connie before applying and liked that the three classes planned for the trip were in a few different disciplines (English, History, and an independent research course). I also was excited about the really beautiful nature of Ireland as well as Connie’s focus on the experiential learning part of the trip rather than an emphasis on heavy reading about the places to which we traveled.

How were the classes you took different from other classes you’ve taken within or in addition to the English major?

I felt that our learning was much more experiential than would be possible on Carleton’s campus. It was a more reasonable and seemingly pertinent workload, considering our days were full of actually seeing the places and things we were reading about. For example, we would read some of James Joyce’s Dubliners and then the same day we would go to the street in Dublin that’s discussed in the text. Everything kind of flowed together. I also really loved the chance to work on an independent project that could be based on whatever interested you over the course of the trip.

Who do you imagine being a good fit for this program?

I think the students that would get the most out of the Ireland program are people who are flexible and eager to move around the country a good deal, appreciative of the natural world and Ireland’s beauty, and interested in exploring the arts and vibrant culture in Dublin and other cities and towns.

What’s something that surprised you in your travels?

Live acoustic music is, like, super common, especially in Dublin. You can go out any night of the week and hear people playing! I was surprised, too, about how excited I became about my independent project, which really intrigued me.”

image of sheela na gig
Image: Naomi Brim ’21

Through her research, Naomi investigated the history, historiography and cultural significance of the figure of the sheela na-gig, a figurative carving of a nude, bald woman with an engorged vulva. After first spotting one of these carvings on a stone well near a medieval church that the group visited (Naomi actually learned that the carving was originally part of the church but was removed and attached to the less public-facing well), she became interested in the meaning of the figure. While the sheela-na-gig bore some resemblance to romanesque figures popping up during the same era in continental Europe, Naomi saw that this was clearly a unique Irish manifestation of the icon and had its own history. 

medieval figurines of women in archives
Image: Naomi Brim ’21

Over the course of her research, during which she spoke with Irish researchers and explored the private vaults of the National Museum of Ireland, Naomi found herself at odds with some scholars who believed only in the negative function of the icon and who were somewhat averse to reliance on folklore as legitimate historical evidence, as a mode of interpretation, and as a site of cultural significance. In addition to exploring museums and museum archives herself, Naomi was able to interview Jack Roberts, a scholar who has written against the primary mode of understanding the sheela-na-gig as a reminder of chastity and sexual confines and has approached the figure as a potentially more transgressive, liberated character and icon. 

Naomi is still excited to talk about and learn more about the sheela-na-gig and is keeping the possibility of returning to Ireland one day very open.

If you’re interested in attending the 2021 Irish Studies in Ireland program with Professor Walker, you can learn more on the program website!