Llewellyn King's Notebook: Of seaweed baths, the Humbert School and Boston's mega-Irish


St. Patrick’s Day will be celebrated with special gusto in Boston. But then it should: The Boston Irish are, if I might say so, more Irish than their relations in the Old Sod.

I used to be the American director of one of Ireland’s summer schools -- peculiarly Irish institutions, dating back to when Ireland was a lot poorer than it is today, and when vacation travel was a lot more expensive.

The Irish used to stay at home for their summers rather than flying, as they do now, to the United States, the Canary Islands or mainland Spain, and other countries. They traveled to their own sea coasts, which are lovely but the weather does not always favor swimming.

So, other entertainments abounded, such as seaweed baths. These – there are few left – are rather fun, though slimy. You are immersed in a bathtub with, if you like, your nearest and dearest -- there are doubles. It is filled with warmed seawater and lashings of seaweed.

In Enniscrone (also spelled Inniscrone, and officially named Inishcrone), a small seaside town in County Sligo, I got slimed with my wife. It does a world of good, and it keeps you out of the pub for a while -- at least that is what I was told when I was getting initiated into the joys of seaweed bathing.

For those who wanted to do something a little more inspiring than take a slime bath, they could attend the so-called summer schools.

The one I was affiliated with, which is no longer in operation, was the Humbert International Summer School. These are not schools with desperate students attending make-up classes over the summer. Rather the summer schools -- there are as many as 40 of them -- are think-tank weekends or longer.

They started with literary schools, as you might expect in Ireland. Soon musical schools opened and in due course, as you also might expect, knowing the Irish love of politics, political schools.

For example, there is a Yeats School, for scholars of the famous writer and a Parnell School, named for the great Irish politician and member of the British House of Commons, until he fell afoul of the prudery of his time and was destroyed by his love affair with Kitty O’Shea, nominally a married woman.

The Humbert School, created and directed for three decades by John Cooney the Irish historian and journalist, was named for the French Gen. Jean Joseph Amable Humbert, who led an expedition to liberate Ireland in 1798: The Year of the French. Humbert and his 1,100 men were defeated by Gen. Charles Cornwallis and his British regulars, who then took a terrible revenge on the Irish patriots, hanging them 20 at a time. The song, “The Wearing of the Green,” commemorates the fact that after the 1798 rebellion, wearing green was assumed to be a sign of defiance, punishable by death.

The Humbert School, which was based in Ballina, County Mayo, concentrated on the troubles in Ulster and Ireland’s position in the world. The current Irish prime minister, or taoiseach, Enda Kenny, was a frequent participant, as was the first woman president of Ireland, Mary Robinson. Over three decades, all the Irish prime ministers participated in the Humbert School as well as some names from Northern Ireland, including John Hume, David Trimble, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, with whom I debated.

Back to Boston and the joy that will be overflowing there this Friday. Some of the revelers there might find Ireland not quite what they expected.

Over the years, everyone I invited to attend the Humbert School – none had been to Ireland before -- were enthralled with the place, except the American Irish. It just was not, well, Irish enough.

The worst sufferer from this culture shock was a dear friend and one time co-worker from Boston, who had very definite ideas about what Ireland would be like -- and it was not like that. He even dressed head-to-toe in Donegal tweed. My Irish friends asked, “What’s your man wearing?” I had to tell them to drink up and be nice because he was from Boston -- where they are sure they know what the real Irish are like. And maybe they do.

Slainte, Boston!

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle,  on PBS. His e-mail is llewellynking1@gmail.com.