Into the Heart of Irish Culture

Irish Folklore and Ethnography, a course offered by Mason’s Folklore Program, transported students into the heart of Irish traditional culture.


It is one thing to discuss folklore in the classroom. It is something entirely different to be immersed in an environment where you learn by interacting with locals, visiting heritage sites and archives, eating popular foods, and listening to folk music and local lore.

For 12 students this past winter break, they had the opportunity to develop ethnographic fieldwork skills while also embarking on a deep dive into Irish culture, heritage, and history.

Irish Folklore and Ethnography, a course offered by Mason’s Folklore Program, ran from December 28 to January 15th. This trip transported students into the heart of Irish traditional culture. Students traveled from Dublin to County Wexford to Achill Island in County Mayo, engaging with local communities and learning from artists, craftspeople, musicians, and storytellers as well as Irish folklorists, historians, archeologists, and experts.

Group Photo  ireland

“In a typical classroom environment, students rarely get the opportunity to work side by side with their professors and one another in this way. During the field school, not only are they immersed in the culture they are studying, but they learn as much about the process of conducting ethnographic fieldwork from others in the group as they do from the direct instruction,” reflected Folklore Professor Lisa Gilman, who led the course this past winter.

Highlights of the trip included:

  • Touring cultural and historical sites around County Wexford and meeting local people involved in different types of folklore. For example, a farmer who builds his own tractors out of recycled materials, a man who sings ballads about local happenings around the sites where they occurred, and a New Years’ Day polar plunge in the frigid Atlantic Ocean.
  • Visiting archeological sites in County Mayo and Boyne Valley and encountering historical traces of ancient life on the island that related to mythology, folk belief, Paganism, Christian rituals, and spaces that replaced ritually significant Pagan ones.
  • Listening in on a traditional music session in a pub on Achill Island in County Mayo. Also enjoying demonstrations and performances by top musicians, including the harpist Laoise Kelly and Uillean pipe maker and player, John Butler.
  • Exploring the bogs and cliffs of Achill Island as well as the remains of Grace O’Malley’s castle. O’Malley was a famous female pirate who is the topic of many folk tales, ballads, legends, etc.

fieldwork archives pipe

Students who participated in the program came away with many lessons learned and experiences gained.

Alyssa Stough, a current Mason undergraduate English student at Mason, affirmed that “trips like this one can either be very enriching and enlightening or extremely difficult. Professor Gilman kept reiterating, ‘just say yes.’ Keeping this phrase in mind allowed me to reach out and do things that I normally would not have done, like jumping into the ocean in the middle of winter for a little good luck on New Years’ Eve!”      

“This experience has given me an intimate insight into what steps need to be taken when doing ethnographic research. I learned that when seeking out relationships to perform fieldwork, you should offer something to create a reciprocal interaction,” commented current Folklore graduate student, William Patterson.

He adds, “It was interesting meeting white Europeans who had been oppressed by other white Europeans for an extended time. It was apparent that their way of living and worldly ideology was shaped through this tumultuous period of their history. The people I encountered were hard-working and had a resilient nature.”

Alice Christensen, an Anthropology major, saw this field school as a career development opportunity. For them, it confirmed that they are heading in the right direction with exploring the field of folklore. “We went to the National Folklore Collection at the University College Dublin. I’ve always been intimidated by archival work, but this activity helped turn archives into something tangible and useful. I’m sure that I’ll be able to use this new tool in my future studies.”

Rose Larkinpolar plunge

Students (and professors) are notoriously busy, but there are few other times in life when these types of living and learning experiences are possible.

“Traveling internationally is transformative. We met people and went to places that none of us would ever have gone to otherwise. No tour company could curate the opportunities we experienced to meet the spectrum of people we met or to see the types of things we did. No individual traveler would have access to the peoples and places we did,” remarked Dr. Gilman about the unique quality of the experience that students received through this program.


The Ireland Field School was developed by Folklore Professor Debra Shutika in collaboration with the Mason Study Abroad Program and the company Learn International. Chris Lawlor, the CEO of Learn International is Irish, and was especially excited to help to create a custom-designed experiential learning opportunity for students in his home country.

Professor Shutika, the founder of this program, which was first held in 2019, is currently on sabbatical and on a Fulbright Scholarship in Ireland. After a 2-year hiatus due to the global pandemic, Mason Folklore professors agreed that they would bring the program back. With Professor Shutika in Ireland and unavailable to lead the field school, Dr. Gilman agreed to step in. It was an excellent opportunity for her to “learn about Irish culture and folklore, which will enhance her teaching of world folklore in the future.”