Becoming Extraordinary at St. Bonaventure University
February 9th, the day of my 21st birthday, saw my first trip to the Giant’s Causeway, a peculiar rock formation flanked by picturesque rock coves and towering, grassy peaks on Northern Ireland’s shore. Our mixed crew of international students stopped at Carrick-a-Rede island along the way, a small island that is only accessible by a rope bridge that would look perfectly at home in an Indiana Jones film, and stands parallel to a physical panorama of cliff-strewn Irish countryside.
The journey there, like all bus journeys have the strange tendency to do, seemed to take longer than it should have. I wasn’t complaining though—there was too much potential for adventure for me to complain about anything. Although the trip was open to all residents of my community, the bus was crammed with international students hoping to break out of the university cycle and see a wild and untamed bit of as-seen-on-TV Irish countryside. My group alone was a ragtag one of Americans, Australians, Brazilians, Swedes and British folks.
Such a mixed crowd always invites active conversations about the differences between countries. I’m always keen on learning as much as I can about cultures I should probably know more about, but I was occupied with something else this time. My window seat zoomed past flocks of sheep grazing behind makeshift and weathered wooden fences, crumbling cottages with mossy sides like boulders, and wide, open fields with crops I couldn’t identify. Towering briers and scraggly bushes dangled out into the dirt road as we journeyed deeper into the core of the country, threatening to scratch the windows I looked out of. Yet, above all these things, the clearest memory I have was of the green.
Anyone can watch the television show “Friends” but that doesn’t mean they understand what New York City is like until they’ve seen the buildings that cast shadows that scratch the bases of other buildings or until they’ve felt the overwhelming immensity of the place. My feelings on seeing Irish countryside for the first time without some kind of digital medium as a middleman were not so different. Every portrayal of Ireland in the media shows these things that I’m describing: thatched roof cottage scenes ripe with moss and ivy, clovers and green, green fields with tiny, antique stone walls. But there was something about experiencing this with my own physical body; something about knowing that there was an actual, breathing and living organism of a place that I’d only seen from what photographers told me that it looked like. I tried to count the sheep as we drove by fields full of them—funny that the last thing I wanted to do was sleep when I finally had enough sheep to count.
I awoke from my transfixion with the countryside scenes passing by on the roadside as our bus crunched its way into a gravelly dirt parking lot of what I assumed was the Carrick-a-Rede information area. I turned to look out the opposite window and was shocked with my first sight of the shores of Ireland, featuring “Sheep Island” and a vast expanse of lime-tinted blue. Joyce referred to the sea as “snotgreen” in Ulysses and I never quite understood the comparison. Although they struck me as some of the most beautifully wild greenish waters I’d ever seen, I could see what he meant. Needless to say, I wasted many of my infinite amount of digital photos on the first of the many islands I would see set amongst the churning waters.
To get to Carrick-a-Rede required a mile or two of a hike along the elevated shoreline—I wasn’t going to complain if I got to take in more of the scenery I’d already marveled at. The cliffs and smaller islands surrounding Carrick-a-Rede jutted into the sea at odd angles, rough and jagged like a hard loaf of bread sliced into pieces with a butter knife. Dozens of international students walked along the trail, snapping pictures from cameras of various sizes with itchy triggerfingers. I found myself staring out into the proud cliffs as the waves battered them, trying to find the perfect photo angle, when I realized I wasn’t seeing them anymore. My camera may have been, but I wasn’t. I looked outwards, for myself. The power of this place—the power of the cliffs that curved gradually like the shape of the planet, the power of the greenery that thrived on them defiantly—became immediately apparent.
Crossing the actual rope bridge was a terrifying experience for some of the international students, although I was actually quite enthusiastic about it. If hundreds of people had crossed it before me, then the chances of me plummeting to my rocky death were minimal. Even with this comforting thought in mind, I still wasn’t eager to look down as I made my way, rickety plank-by-plank, to Carrick-a-Rede Island. When I reached the other side, the words of the tour guide from the bus ride over came back to me: “That bridge is the only way off of the island. If it were to fall, you’d all be trapped there.” Being on the actual island felt different that the mainland, somehow, as if I was no longer on the island of Ireland as a whole, but observing it from the perspective of the sea. Thick cords of grass knotted with one another and released pockets of captured rainwater with each step I took closer to the sea. I decided that if the bridge did fall, so long as I wasn’t on it, this wouldn’t be too bad of a place to be trapped.
Leaving Carrick-a-Rede would have been much less difficult if I could have known what seeing the Giant’s Causeway would be like. After a filling lunch of Guinness and Steak pie at the legendary Bushmills distillery and a few solid bus ride talks with my Australian friends—the kind of conversations a person can really only have in the midst of honest adventuring—we arrived at the Giant’s Causeway.
I don’t remember the circumstances—I think I was in art class, actually, for some reason—but when I was a child, I was read the story of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his triumph over another giant. The legend went that Fionn had a grievance against another giant who lived on the coast of Scotland. In the height of his anger, Fionn cobbled together a rock bridge to reach the giant on the other side, the mythical explanation for the natural landform that would come to be known as the Giant’s Causeway. He didn’t complete the bridge, however; the second Fionn got close enough to the see clearly to other side, he realized his enemy was a bit bigger and nastier than he had been gambling on. I hadn’t made the connection that this place, the Giant’s Causeway, was the subject of the story I had been read as a child until our tour guide began to spin the yarn I had heard from so many years before. I couldn’t stop the unreserved smile of my 9 year old self from spilling across my face.
I wasn’t overly impressed with the gift shop area we had to traverse through to get to the Giant’s Causeway. It’s to be expected, but it was the only aspect of the trip that felt manufactured, even artificial. T-shirts with legends like “I [HEART] THE GIANT’S CAUSEWAY” surrounded me on all sides, along with all sorts of other souvenirs that would eventually end up at the garage sales of the tourists who impulsively bought them. As a Buffalo native, I’ve been on day trips to Niagara Falls dozens of times since I was a kid—a fact that my Northern Irish friends found much cooler than the Giant’s Causeway, though I failed to see what the big deal was. Apparently commercialism can’t help but pop up at these sorts of places. Yet, it never quite drowns them out—the Falls always mesmerized me and I would soon find that the Giant’s Causeway would only do so to a greater degree.
A tour guide handed me some kind of Gameboy-like device that would apparently read all kinds of information about the area to me as I started the hike along the shore to the Causeway. It was clunky and awkward and had big, ugly headphones that blocked out the sound of the waves. I fiddled with it for a while, accidentally set it t o Japanese, then stored it in my coat pocket until we returned. I preferred to watch and listen. And there was no shortage of things to see—a few minutes of walking and, to my extreme shock, I was presented with one of the few sights I’ve seen that has earned the literal title of “breathtaking”.
The cove reached farther than any camera could do it justice, rocks bumping out in thick piles like massive rock-pieces of popcorn. The surrounding hills actually scraped the sky—I could see the points where their tips penetrated the low, foggy clouds. It was just then that it became apparent to me why the producers of Game of Thrones had chosen Northern Ireland as the ideal location to film their fantasy epic. This was the Ireland I’d dreamed of seeing since the moment I was told that I was “Irish-American” as a small-child; this was a land of magic and faeires and all of the things I could have only believed in before I started to use rational thought. They could have existed in these cliff tops, these thick patches of grass. I took some time to just look out into the sea, to deliberately appreciate what had been laid out before me.
Once I saw the Giant’s Causeway, I was more tempted to give credibility to the story of Fionn and his grudge against the Scottish giant than the allegedly scientific explanation that had something to do with volcanoes. The pillars of the Giant’s Causeway erupted in perfectly angled pentagons and hexagons and jutted out into the ocean as if someone had laid them there deliberately. We crawled on them like ants and played on them like children. Friends took pictures of one another in funny poses, skipped amongst the sea-crusty boulders and stuffed their pockets with small pebbles so they could take a piece of the bridge that Fionn built home with them. I spent the majority of the trip admiring the landscape with my American and Brazilian friends, expressing what we could of our sentiment for the land around us with words. We couldn’t help but get to know each other better in this place that was so welcoming, but still foreign to us. But, for the first time since I’d arrived in this new country, I craved solitude for a short period of time. I wanted to be alone on those pillars, alone with the waves and the sound of the sea. I wandered off by myself and stood silently for a few moments.
Because the legal drinking age is lower in Northern Ireland, the celebration of the 21st birthday isn’t quite as big of a deal as it would be in America—at least, from a partying perspective. I knew I would go out with my friends that night and meet all kinds of interesting characters and experience the pub atmosphere of some of Belfast’s most welcoming nightlife hangouts. But, for now, this mattered. The music of the waves breaking against the bridge built by a giant reassured me that this was the way I would remember becoming an adult.