This weekend, while Lauren was in Belfast with her Mitchell gang, I travelled into the Burren with my fellow philosophers.

The Burren-which means the rocky place- is a rugged, rural part of western Ireland known for its natural limestone formations and the unique plant life that find a way to live there. Our university, NUI Galway, owns a beautiful small retreat center and research facility in the Burren that is predominantly used by natural scientists conducting field research.

On Friday afternoon the 12 students in my program and one of our professors, Heike Schmidt-Felzmann, drove caravan style for an hour from Galway to the Burren site. The primary purpose of the retreat was to work on the service-learning component of our master’s program. Basically, we will each be doing at least 100 hours of work with a community organization around Galway. The work will in some way be tied to the philosophical and ethical issues explored in our courses and dissertation work. Service-learning is a particular type of pedagogy that is very new for NUIG and the students here haven’t had much experience with it. So, the retreat was designed to introduce the idea and give us a chance to brainstorm potential project and placement ideas. Having worked on the coordination side of service-learning for two years in Chicago, returning to the receiving end as a student is fun. And, combining deep discussions about the role of service and ideas about democracy with a weekend in a beautiful remote place was particularly enjoyable.

On Saturday evening a handful of us ventured out into the wilderness for a walk and ended up in a pub named Cassidy’s that literally felt like it was in the middle of nowhere. Somehow, however, the parking lot was full. Inside we found something special and quickly learned why so many people had flocked to this remote rural pub. A 13-piece traditional music group that included 2 fiddles, 1 banjo, 3 Irish button accordians, 2 guitars, a tin whistle, a flute, two bodhrans (Irish drumb), and a beautiful Irish harp was playing. We learned that a local resident was hosting some friends from Germany and had organized a special group to play for the night to show his visitors the best example of traditional Irish music.

I wish so much that I could bottle up the hour or so we spent in that pub and share it with everyone I know. The experience of basic, authentic community felt among the people there was inexplicable. Every person knew all the words to every song played. Most people–except us and the Germans–seemed to know each other. The owner handed out free snacks a few times, as if we were guests in his house. Several times older men sitting at the bar would just start singing a known standard, and the band would start playing the melody along with him. When the harpist played a solo ballad, people started off in to the distance with smiles. Some closed their eyes. A few teared up.

In this global world of ours where technology and complexity rule, the basic coming-together of neighbors seems to happen less and less. But the Irish surely haven’t forgotten the value of the local community and the meaning of tradition.