February 26, 2004

Where did the winter go ?

Where has the winter gone ? The rains have subsided, the turloughs have begun to shrink ad cherry blossoms are appearing. Feruary is the month that the heavy, dark coat of winter is finally shook off and we begin to look forward to the real spring. Each week in February grows by an extra half hour of daylight. Of course, it's not quite shorts and teeshirt time yet. We've had flurries of snow this week already, and heavy frost is predicted for the next week. Today is the first day of Lent, traditionally the start of seven weeks of sacrifice (with the exception of St. Patrick's Day). I just hope we all don't have to give up good weather until Easter.

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February 23, 2004

New light on old stones

New moon shines on Cesair's tomb, Knockmaa, Co. Galway. The cross is a more recent attempt to claim the site for Christianity.

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February 22, 2004

Vorsprung durch technik

During the week, I was strolling down the street when my way was blocked by a behemoth - a massive jeep thoughtfully parked on the footpath, forcing pedestrians onto the road to get around it). It was a Porsche jeep - immaculate of trim inside and out (there are apparently only two in the country, so best not go on the lam in one). There's a spirited debate ongoing in the US about the number of SUVs (sports utility vehicles, aka 4X4s) bought by people - since they are even bigger gas guzzlers than normal cars, and when involved in accidents, tend to kill more people (though, crucially, not the people inside the jeep). There hasn't been much of a discussion in Ireland though there has been a similar boom in the sale of jeeps and pick-up trucks. It seems every farmer in the country has one, and every builder, plumber and Sparky too. But judging by the number of D-reg Range Rovers I spend each summer swerving to avoid around the roads of Connemara suggest a wider popularity.

So if you are the owner of such a vehicle, ask yourself a few simple questions. Do you have a tow-hitch on your jeep ? Have you ever carried a bale of hay/new-born calf/gun dog/Moldovian plumber (off the books, like) in the back? Do you have lumps of fur or other matter stuck to the bullbars (bits of the Swedish exchange student that you hit when you drove into the cycle lane in Donnybrook doesn't count) ? If the answer is no, then chances are that little Sorcha or Iseult would make it to her ballet class just as safely in something a little smaller than an urban assault vehicle. And the rest of us might live a little longer too.

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Back on track?

Seamus Brennan paid a visit to the west last week, and had his ear well and truly talked off. The subject - the re-opening of the Western corridor. I've written before about how impractical it is to get from one point to another by train in the west. An independent study costs the re-opening of the line at about 400 million euros (most of the line is open already, for low-speed freight transportation). Seamus wasn't giving much away (in any sense)

The Minister, whose visit incorporated trips to five stations on the Western Rail Corridor, said, “It’s future is on my agenda. It deserves a long look. It could play a central role in the development of the West.”

A definite maybe, then. The Mayo papers give it plenty of coverage, and there's a healthy dose of realism as to if and when there might be some progress. If only P Flynn was still in the ascendancy…there would be a high speed link from the tip of Mayo to Limerick. The Bullet to Belmullet, anyone…?

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Wish you were here?

Last summer, while I was driving in the west of Ireland, I passed by a French family - their car was towing a caravan and there was a couple of rather glum looking children in the back. The reason for their gloom was not hard to fathom - it was lashing rain. Now, I know it sometimes rains in France during the summer, but I really wondered why a French family would bother come to Ireland. They could look forward to a much worse standard of food (and would pay more for it), the campsites would not be of the same standard and there are plenty of places in France that are both beautiful and almost guaranteed rain-free. But no, this family, along with many others, chose Ireland - perhaps seduced by the prospect of the green Irish landscape and the friendly citizens. Hmmm…I wonder if they will ever come back?

There is a growing realization that a holiday in Ireland has become increasingly expensive, but as Mark Twain said of the weather, everyone complains about it but nobody does anything about it. It is still possible to read enthusiastic articles about the Ireland such as this one (from an Illinois paper) about a man who became so enthused with Ireland that he built a replica Irish cottage in his back garden (it's probably easier to get planning permission to build it in Illinois than Galway). But this week's editorial in the Galway Advertiser lists some of the more familiar gripes and asks

But will they [tourists] come back? Not if the ridiculous overcharging persists; not if like the rest of the country, it is nigh on impossible to get a cup of coffee and a bun at nine of clock at night, not if our beaches continue to lose blue flag status; not if attraction opening hours are inconsistent and dependent on the mood of the staff; not if the brown trout that fill our lakes are killed off by pollution from effluent, and not if the Government continues to be blinkered in its attitude to the vitally important Western Rail Corridor.

Mind you, I don't recall ever reading an investigation in any local paper of the sort of prices and services offered in Galway and the other towns in the west. Maybe The Advertiser and other papers should start naming names…

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February 17, 2004

Fáinne Geal an Lae

Good weather always makes Irish people nervous. We can hardly look forward to a fine day, without nervously glancing over our shoulders in the expectation of a deluge. People are getting edgy. It's been a few weeks since we've had any real rain, and the more fickle turloughs have drained away.

There hasn't been much frost either, and the result is that the countryside is bursting with life and colour. Even as the snowdrops are fading, the crocuses have arrived, and tulips and daffodils are not far behind. Early blooming cherry trees have begun to flower, and people have begun to mow their lawns (grass grows once the temperature is higher than six degrees celcius). In my own garden, the leaves of the magnolia tree have appeared, along with the clemitis, lupins and hydrangeas. The downside of the relatively mild weather is that the hordes of grubs and slugs will have survived the winter unscathed. Therein lies the dilemma - an early frost will destroy much of the early blooms, but it would be nearly worth it if it killed off the slimy bane of every gardener.

UPDATE (18th Feb) Meant to mention this yesterday, but the birds are nesting in earnest already. I wandered into the deserted graveyard near our house, and there was two robins furiously grubbing up dead leaves and moss to build their nest (just out of shot in the picture above). As for the human knid of nesting, scientists have just confirmed my worst suspicions.

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A roof over your head

Judging from the weather, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the date was late March rather than mid-February. Reading an article in the Property section of last week's Connacht Tribune, I had to check twice that it wasn't April 1st. The theme of the piece was that it was still possible to buy houses in Galway for under 100,000 euro. Two of the houses were cottages out in the country (near Loughrea and Tuam respectively), costing just under the price limit. The third house cost a mere forty thousand euro. Why ? Because it was a shack - most farmers would be too embarrassed to keep cattle in it. As the article put it

The property has a very attractive guide price and would appeal to a builder or DIY enthusiast.

Or to a complete idiot. It's a sure sign that the country has lost the run of itself that buying a hovel that would require about sixty grand to restore to it's former two-roomed glory is described as a bargain.

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Uisce Beatha

One of the main differences between Irish whiskey and Scottish whisky (apart from the spelling) is the smell of peat. There's no shortage of bog in Ireland but you won't find any of it in your typical Irish whiskey. I guess after a hard day out cutting turf, followed by an evening languishing in a hovel filled with turf-smoke, the last thing you'd want is to taste the stuff of your whiskey too.
Apparently, the Scottish whiskey industry has come up with a simple, instant test to ensure that tipplers are drinking the genuine article rather than cheap imitation. For those that like to lash in a bit of red lemonade or blackcurrant into their Scotch, it would hardly make any difference. But it's no doubt reassuring for the more discerning drinker. I finished the last of my bottle of Laphraoig this weekend (in my defence, I had help). Laphraoig is one of the more astringent single malts, distilled on the Isle of Islay. To fans, it's a bit like having Deep Heat sprayed on your tongue. If you're not, then you probably wonder how they can get the cat to balance on top of the bottle long enough to fill it. I first discovered it many years ago in Dublin duty free - the simple white label gave the impression of a cottage industry - Pa outside stoking the still while Granny sat in the kitchen sticking the labels on the bottles. I was drink the Cask Strength . Fifty seven percent ! They just fish the cigarette butts and dead leaves out of the barrel and bottle it. Reality never disappeared in so pleasant a haze.

I visited the distillery a few years during the summer. Laphraoig is one of the few distilleries that actually malt their own barley, and in the traditional manner to boot. To malt barley, the grain is laid out on a floor and sprayed with water. After a few days, it begins to germinate (converting the starch in the grain to sugar, that will in turn be converted to alcohol in the fermentation process). The germination is stopped by putting the grain into a kiln and heating it (using turf smoke, hence the smell & taste) before the grains begin to sprout. In the distillery, they use the same top floor of a warehouse that they have been using for years. A layer of barley a few inches thick is spread over the vast floor and sprayed. While the germination occurs, workers turn the barley using garden rakes. To achieve a good circulation of air through the warehouse, each wall consists of windows, which are left open during the day. Needless to say, every bird on the island flies in to feast on the barley, and naturally, they leave a few souvenirs behind them. So if you're wondering what is the secret ingredient in Laphraoig, it is birdshit.

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February 16, 2004


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February 12, 2004

Green-eyed monsters

The first Earl of Belvedere was a wealthy man. In the midlands, he built a mansion called Belvedere on the shore of Lough Ennel. He married Mary Molesworth, much younger than himself who dutifully produced an heir. But he was man consumed by jealousy. Convinced that his wife was unfaithful when he was away on his travels, he imprisoned her in another home (Gaulstown) when she was twenty - where she spent eighteen years- she was only freed upon his death. To make matters worse, his younger brother decided to build an even bigger mansion, called Tudenham further down the shore of the same lake, so in 1755 the Earl built a large, Gothic facade to block the view of Tudenham from Belvedere. It became known as the Jealous Wall, and it's still standing today.

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The luck of love

Many years ago, one of the farmers round my way married a teacher - she was known as the 'laying hen' - a good job with a pension, a short working day so she help with the milking and feed the calves, and the whole summer off - so that she could lug bales and help save the turf. Love, eh?

According to the Knock Marriage Bureau, St. Valentine's day always sees a surge in business. No, not from people looking to 'trade up' or trade in, but for those looking to be blessed with love for the first time (at least that's what they put on the application form). According to their 2003 annual report (via the Galway Advertiser), farmers, technicians and tradesmen are the professions of most applicants (and may indeed be the same applicants depending on their relationship with the taxman), whilst female applicants are most likely to be secretaries, clerks, nurses and teachers (who describes themselves as clerks anymore?).

Since the scheme started in 1968, there has been 820 marriages, 10 engagements and 200 introductions are…ongoing. On the other hand, there has been over fifteen and a half thousand introductions in total that suggests a lot of dashed expectations on the first date. (Lads, if you're going for dinner, don't ask her to do the washing up until you know her better. And don't mention the bog). This year, there were ten marriages out of about 200 applicants. Nearly 70% of the applicants were from Galway, so there's plenty of people who won't be expecting a Valentine's card tomorrow.

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Also Rans

Foiled again. Despite a jammy win in a music quiz last month in Bazaar (our first victory) we were well and truly spanked in the Galway Arts Festival Music Quiz last night. The team faded as the pernicious effects of cold porter took hold. Next time, I'm taking a team of Pioneers.

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February 10, 2004

Museum Peace

Direct line to the Heavens - Jewish Burial ground beside an Eircom transmitting station.

When I went to college in Limerick, there was always one place that you could be guaranteed some solitude and peace, and it was on the same corridor as the toilets that always reeked of cannabis. It was the Hunt Museum, up on the top floor, with only a bunch of maths lecturers in the vicinity to keep it company. In the years I spent in Limerick, I never knew anyone who had visited the place, and many students were blissfully unaware of its existence. I wandered into it by mistake one day - it was completely empty save for one very lonely looking receptionist. Despite the fact that there was no charge to visit, the museum was largely untroubled by the great unwashed below.

Nowadays, in keeping with Limerick's renaissance, the museum has its own building in town, it won Museum of the Year at Christmas and now it has its very own looted Nazi treasures controversy. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre has written to President McAleese calling for "EXPOSE HUNT MUSEUM'S COLLECTION ON INTERNET FOR HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR CLAIMANTS, LAUNCH INQUIRY INTO NAZI TIES OF MUSEUM FOUNDERS AND SUSPEND THE IRISH HERITAGE AWARD".

Serious stuff except that there isn't much proof that the Hunt family (who donated their private art collection to the state) actually did any looting, or indeed knew if any of their art was stolen. There certainly isn't much proof provided in the press release. It gets murkier. It appears that the SWC allegations are based on a report commissioned by the Hunt Museum itself - in 1998, it conducted its own investigation to see if any of the artefacts had been stolen by the Nazis from their original owners.

Meanwhile, the art historian who compiled the report at the centre of the controversy, says there is no proof that any item in the Hunt Museum Collection was knowingly acquired by the Hunts from Nazi loot.
She also said that a rare 14th century miniature gold triptych acquired by Mr Hunt was looted in the war but was contained in a London bank vault and was returned by Mr Hunt to its rightful owner.

Hardly an open and shut case, then, but you'd never guess it from the press release.

More seriously, the only major outbreak of anti-Jewish behaviour recorded in Ireland also happened in Limerick nearly one hundred years ago - the infamous pogrom stirred up by a firebrand priest, Fr. Creagh.

Father John Creagh, a priest of the Redemptorist order, incited the local population against 'blood-sucking' Jewish money-lenders and travelling pedlars. Creagh received his theological training in France in the era of the Dreyfus affair, no doubt returning to Ireland having absorbed the antisemitic culture prevalent in France at the turn of the century. His sermons brought about a two-year trade boycott of Jewish businesses which was accompanied by harassment and beatings (although there were no fatalities) and resulted in the almost total departure of the 150-strong Limerick Jewish community.

Though the fact that Ireland admitted only about 60 Jewish refugees up to the end of WWII must rank as a greater source of shame.

Headstones in the Jewish Burial ground, Castletroy, Limerick. There are only six in all.

In little ways, Limerick has tried to make amends. The Jewish burial ground opposite the Hurlers pub on the dublin road was restored a decade ago and remains well-kept. I must confess that I lived near to it and never even knew it was there. One of the lecturers from the college is buried there, almost within sight of my alma mater. I called into it on the day that Munster saw off Bougoin in Thomond Park last month - the Hurlers was choked with Jackeen rugby types looking for directions (they get confused once they leave the Pale, see?).

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February 09, 2004


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Dastardley & Muttley

The days are getting longer. Spring sunshine casts long shadows across the Clare countryside near Ballyvaughan. Photo taken a few weeks ago.

When I was attending secondary school, one of the few opportunities to encounter ladies (or gurrls as we called them back then) was the hour during lunch. While the girls from the local convent school would stroll about the town in one direction, we counter-revolutionaries from the Christian Brothers would stroll in the other direction, giving as many of them as possible the glad eye. And yes, even then we knew how pathetic we were. However, we were not the only ones wandering about the town. One of my abiding memories was of the packs of dogs that roamed about the place. Just like the characters in a Disney movie, the mutts were forever running about having adventures, befriending urchins, stealing food, developing mange and usually ending their days floating in the canal (OK, maybe more like a Dogma movie). One particular pack of strays used to raid a butchers van every morning. This old guy, who ran a tiny butcher's shop used to bring the meat in every morning in a van. He parked the van just outside the front of the shop, and he would always leave the van doors open while he lugged the meat inside - while he was gone, the dogs would hop in and grab whatever they could. The sight of a little terrier running up the street with a string of sausages in its mouth was not uncommon. We used to call the guy the Doggy Butcher and no, we never shopped there.

Eventually, the County Council appointed a dog warden, who promptly declared jihad against the canine multitude. Within a few years, the council declared that about five thousand dogs had been, ahem, processed by the scheme. The streets were never the same again - they were cleaner for a start. Clare County Council is currently proposing a ban on dogs on all beaches in the county. This guy thinks it's yet another sign of rising fascism in Ireland, but I rather suspect that the good citizens of Clare are just sick of threading in dogpoo when they are at the seaside [if making the trains run on time is a sign of fascism taking hold, then I think we're safe].

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More than a mouthful

A decision that's harder to explain is that of Ennis Town Council. They have decided to refuse planning permission for a McDonald on the grounds that obesity is a growing problem and McDonalds would only make things worse. Indeed, as tipplers stagger out of any one of the 80 pubs in the town, it's a relief that they won't be tempted to damage their health by scoffing down a Happy Meal on top of the gallon of porter they had earlier.

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Hibernian Wind Power issued a report last Friday on the landslide in Derrybrien - they are building a huge windfarm just above the village (though work has stopped since the landslide). Their findings indicate that, yes, the landslide was caused by the construction but, no, the wind farm project wouldn't have to be cancelled. A little bit more engineering is apparently all that's needed to prevent any future collapse. Mind you, this is coming from the same bunch that failed to predict the impact on massive amounts of quarry-blasting on the bog in the first place. The locals aren't convinced. Nothing will happen until Galway County Council issue their own report later this month. In the grand tradition of the council, there's a large hole somewhere, and the lads are looking into it.

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February 02, 2004

The dog it was that died

Many years ago, when I was a kid, one of our neighbours discovered that their farm dog had given birth to a clutch of (unwanted) puppies. The farmer's wife promptly filled a bucket of water and drowned them. Her husband called her Hitler for a week. Even to this day, whenever I see a plastic shopping bag at the side of a river or bog-hole, my first thought is that it might contain yet another clutch of freshly discarded kittens or pups.

Karlin had an article in the Irish Times about so-called 'puppy farms' on Saturday (sorry. no link) - it follows the discovery of over one hundred dachshund puppies on a farm in Tipperary last week. There was no food on site and most of the pups were in cramped, filthy cages. The ISPCA effected the rescue and ten of the puppies made a guest appearance (along with their human minders) on the Late Late Show on Friday night on RTE1. Of course the whole country fell in love with them - who couldn't love cute little puppies?

The reason for such puppy farms is that the dogs are raised for the pedigree market abroad. To be honest, the plight of a small number of sausage mutts seems a relatively trivial issue, particularly compared to the treatment of other animals. Actually, if we just stick to dogs, Ireland's biggest canine cash crop is the greyhound. The greyhound has been a part of Ireland's culture for as long as we've been telling stories in this country - Cú Chulainn anyone? - and greyhound racing is still an immensely popular sport. Alas, the life of a greyhound is truly the survival of the fittest. If you think that there is a retirement home where wizened old dogs mutter I could have been a contender, then I've got two bits of bad news for you, and the second is that there ain't no tooth fairy either.

What happens to the slow dogs, or the lazy ones ? For them and the old dogs, it's nothing but a hard road. Officially, many dogs are exported to either the UK or Spain. Maybe I'm missing something, but I'd imagine that those countries are only interested in the fast ones. Even then, the normal way of disposing of an unwanted hound in Spain is literally to string it up and leave it. There is also a growing export market of dogs from Europe to Vietnam (where I imagine the last words many of the dogs would hear are do you want chips with that?). In any case, I can't help feeling that for many greyhounds, for the runts in the litter, their fate is not a whole different from the unfortunate puppies on my neighbours farm all those years ago.

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According to legend (2 ), the cairn on Knockmaa hill is the grave of Cesair, a granddaughter of Noah. She fled the flood and arrived in Ireland accompanied by 50 maidens and three men. Two of the men died, and the third, Fionntáin, abandoned the women. Cesair died of a broken heart and her coterie met the same fate soon after. Thus, the first people of Ireland died out - their story was passed on to later generations by Fionntáin, who lived on for five and a half thousand years as a salmon, an eagle and a hawk (it's a legend , ok?). Knockmaa (the hill of Maedbh) is thought to be named after Queen Maedbh of Connacht (she of the cattle rustlin' varmints of the Táin Bó Cúailgne), and there is a story that she's also buried there (there's four cairns on the site). However, Maedbh's burial place is usually associated with the cairn on Knocknarea in Sligo.

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February 01, 2004

St. Brigid's Day

The rain is falling and the turloughs are filling. Today is St. Brigid’s Day, the first day of spring. It is one of the four ancient Gaelic festivals that once divided the year – Samhain (Halloween), St. Brigid’s Day, Bealtaine (May Day) and Lúnasa (1st August). In fact, the first of February used to be known as Imbolc, which celebrated the arrival of spring and the beginning of the lambing season.

St. Brigid is now revered as a Christian saint, second only in importance to St. Patrick. She is reputed to have set up an abbey in Kildare, but to be honest, most of her life and deeds are probably myths, an amalgam of early Christian and even earlier pagan stories. Most children in national schools are taught how to make a St. Brigid’s cross, a simple cross made from reeds – usually used to clatter the lad sitting in front of you, as I recall.

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