Martin Sheen, the 'President,' at School
Thursday, December 7, 2006; 3:19 PM
GALWAY, Ireland -- The President carried his own books, no bodyguards in sight. He ate in the cafeteria, took cigarette breaks and sat through lectures. And for a 66-year-old former denizen of the West Wing _ the television show, not the Pennsylvania Ave. address _ it was a fabulous performance. Martin Sheen, perhaps best known for his stint as President Jed Bartlet on the award-winning "The West Wing," attended classes at the National University of Ireland, Galway and played the role of a regular student.
"This is one of the greatest adventures of my life _ this romantic fantasy I have, studying in my mother's home," Sheen said. "I feel more human here than any other place on earth."
Sheen was born in Ohio, but his semester at the seaside university in Galway, western Ireland, has left an imprint. On Wednesday night, taking questions after an on-campus screening of his new film "Bobby" _ written and directed by son Emilio Estevez _ he answered to the Irish pronunciation of his name, affected a brogue, and unwittingly adopted Irish slang, such as "the lads," when chatting about his friends.
But Sheen grew serious talking about his own country, and the questions after the film _ which traces characters and events leading up to the 1968 assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy _ focused more on U.S. politics than on the mature student's Ireland experience.
Sheen, however, drew the two areas together.
"I think that the solutions to a lot of our problems are threefold: Education, education, education," he said, borrowing a pet slogan of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Sheen took his education seriously, though his presence in some classes threw students _ and lecturers _ off their game. It's challenging enough for a Ph.D. student to teach several hundred philosophy students, but lecturer Erin Flynn said looking out and spotting Sheen was daunting.
"It was a little bit on the surreal side," said the 30-year-old, who is studying for her doctorate in philosophy. "You're kind of scanning the class, and there he is."
Sheen mentioned Flynn's class on Wednesday night, saying that the discussion was compelling.
"I've come in this very lecture hall and heard lectures on philosophy ... violence, terrorism ... that I had never imagined it was explored on a college campus," Sheen said. "My image of university, college, academia has been expanded hundred-fold."
And the student's image of their famous classmate has changed from an unapproachable Hollywood icon to a regular guy, plodding through courses just as they do.
"He has his glasses on, he's carrying his books. It's cool," said 20-year-old psychology student Eimear Lee.
"He totally just hangs out," Ph.D. student Jen Smith added.
It seems nearly all the students have stories about spotting or chatting with Sheen, who frequented the cafeteria and the campus coffee shop, and always made a point to talk with fellow students.
Some helped him get his college ID. Others joined him on smoke breaks. The majority simply enjoyed brief chats with Sheen.
"He's fitted in very nicely," University president Iognaid O Muircheartaigh said. "He's been very visible around the campus, and yet people have let him be."
Flynn said she found herself immersed one day in a long conversation with Sheen regarding her thesis on the Roman Catholic Mass, and she was struck by his interest in her life _ asking about her family, her studies, her university experience.
"He was just really friendly," Flynn said. "We talked for about 15, 20 minutes."
She admitted feeling a bit of Hollywood magic.
"I was giddy like a schoolgirl," she said. "All my students were laughing at me."