Brummana High School certainly boasts some illustrious alumni.
In total, 17 students travelled with their mentor Shady Nkhale, and academics Khalil Abboud and Maroun Salahani. They departed for home last weekend, having arrived on Saturday, April 13.
On their visit, they saw locations in Kilkenny including St Canice’s Cathedral, the James Stephens Barracks, City Hall, Dunmore Caves, the mines, local schools, and of course Kilkenny Castle. Maroun also gave a lecture to Alliance Francaise.
Kilkenny Bishop Richard Pococke – an eccentric, an anglophile, apparently a plagiarist – but a historian and colourful character nonetheless. He travelled throught the East in the 1930s and 1940s, and left his account entitled ‘Description of the East and some other Countries’.
The two men, multi-lingual and well educated, have high aims for their voyage to Kilkenny. As the interview progresses, they speak in unerring English, occasionally mixing in their mother-tongues of French, or occasional Arabic.
“This is not a tourist trip – it has to have a meaning,” says Khalil Abboud.
“We divided the students into work groups, broke the ice and let the talk about each other’s country. Then, they form friendships. What is important is that they go back home after this experience, and it doesnt stop there.”
Khalil says the situation for young people in Lebanon is challenging, due to an ever-present uncertainty between a state of peacetime and wartime.
“Our youth are having a problem identifying themselves, accepting each other and tolerance,” he said.
“We want them to be successful in their career paths. These young people need care and a unique experience – to make their own shared values, to listen, respect one another and to think differently. The situation in Lebanon is always a little troubled and uncertain. We seek a general foundation.”
It’s an unusual cultural exchange, but a progressive one. On Thursday night, the activities – in which the Lebanese students gave an overview of the ‘path of Pococke’ – had an almost university feel to them. Guest speakers included Pococke expert and author Dr Rachel Finnegan, Guy Jones of the Irish Lebanese Cultural Foundation, and Mayor of Kilkenny Sean O’ hArgain.
The bishop is commemorated by a large plaque in the southern transept of St Canice’s Cathedral, but a more-telling legacy is found in the less prominent aspects of the church (such as the names scratched off a tribute to the cathedral’s beneficiaries in the northern transept - they fell afoul of the eccentric clergyman).
But it doesn’t stop there. Dr Finnegan reveals that much of Pococke’s ‘improvements’ to the church got the whitewash treatment from his predecessors, who regarded his supposedly enlightened views on architecture and interior design as somewhat tacky and gauche. A lot of his work was removed, or foisted on other, smaller churches - for example, Ennisnag Church near Stoneyford features plenty a quotient of St Canice’s furniture. Nonetheless, his diary transcripts and letters home from the near east and Europe are
So how did this prestigious Lebanese institution decide upon Kilkenny College?
“We needed to find a partner – a country first, and then an institution,” says Khalil.
“We made contact with our partner in the ILCF, Guy Jones, who lives here is a strong advocate and we had numerous meetings back and forth.”
Maroun, his colleague, takes over.
“Ireland and Kilkenny is a good choice; we’ve lots in common – history, culture, war, independence.
“Importantly, Ireland has achieved through conciliation and dialogue what few other countries have. The success of Ireland’s experience is inspiring.”
But the students have been quick to warm to Kilkenny.
“At first, they were a bit anxious,” Khalil reveals.
“But now they are saying ‘there are only two days left’. They’re sad at the idea of leaving. We think maybe one week is not enough!”
“They enjoy the classes - the history, the geography. But also, the cooking, photography, woodwork. In Lebanon, they don’t do these things.
“They notice how keen the Irish are on sport, and that they have these spaces - we don’t have the same green in Lebanon, so it is often indoors. Ireland is so green, so clean and unpolluted. People don’t scream, they are polite - they stop at red lights!” “They notice that the other boarders pick up their tray and make it into order, it makes them respect that. It’s a daily discipline that keeps the place clean. We are a part of the community – it’s about responsibility; to join hands and help.
And the two men have nothing but good things to say about their hosts.
“We have to acknowledge the tremendous effort, warmth, hospitality, love and care that the Kilkenny College community provided us,” say the pair.
“They have embraced us from the first day as though we have known them for a lifetime. We would be so keen to welcome them to Lebanon at some point in the future.”
“Brummana is also both a boarding and a day school. It is an english-speaking education school
The groups even took part in a ‘debkah’ - a choreographed dance, in traditional Lebanese clothes.
Maroun Salahani speaks of two multi-cultural communities who can benefit from each other’s learning. But, he argues, there is still a lot of shared experience.
“There is history in common – we too had a Great Famine, in 1914, when half our population starved,” he says.
We too had an occupation and a civil war.”
On a second level, Maroun says, Ireland has experience arriving at solutions through a roadmap or reconciliation. He also points out another similarity - after independence, some communities in Lebanon wished to be attached to Syria, not unlike the situation here with the North
He calls the visit an ‘inter-cultural encounter from east to west’.
“It’s a culture shock - we have an organised group dynamic,” he says of the group.
“We want to emphasise ‘catharsis’. It will help [the students] become more tolerant.
“I had a meeting with them soon after our arrival, and they had some interesting observations. For instance, the authority in the schools here is not as visible – but it is there, and everyone still respects the order.”
The Irish Lebanese Cutural Foundation has been active in Kilkenny, under Guy Jones, since 2001. Beirut had its first St Patrick’s Day parade in 2005.
UN peacekeeping missions to Lebanon, a vibrant Lebanese community in Ireland - these things have formed a bond between the two countries in recent years, but the links are deeper still.
In 1738, the Bishop of St Canice’s Cathedral, Richard Pococke, made his famous tour of the region, documenting extensively his travels in what is now modern-day Lebanon.
This group of students followed Pococke’s trail, his anthropological observations, following various studies and advice from Guy Jones.
“We followed what he described in his diaries,” says Maroun.
“So he came back to Ireland with seeds from the Cedrus Libani – or Lebanese cedar – and planted them here; they’re 275 years old. Like Pococke, we brought this tree – saplings. He went to Tripoli and talked about soap, so we went there, saw it, took pictures. He ate beans for the first time in his life in Lebanon, so we taught the students how to cook with them. We mimicked what he did and took pictures, film footage.”
Pococke’s diaries, says Maroun, offer a glimpse of a different model of cooperation.
“When he reached Beirut, he says there he saw Christians, Muslims and Jews living in harmony,” he says.
“Lebanon offers another model of ecumenism and conviviality. Pococke witnessed it and wrote about it in 1738.”