December 23, 2004

The light of day

Long before events in Palestine caused the western world to celebrate December 25th, people in Ireland commemorated the half-way stage of the bleak midwinter. December 21st is the winter solstice - the day the sun stands still - and the shortest day of the year in Ireland. I suspect that, in the past, it was commemorated by ancient astronomers staring glumly at a cloudy sky and telling their expectant companions that, "um, you'll have to take our world for it". This year, the winter sun made an appearance on the day and, while much of the media coverage centred on the path of the dawn sunshine along the passage at Newgrange, the same rays of light marked their path on stone circles across the country; in Glebe, at Broadhaven and on the slopes of the Sliabh Aughties. The solstice also marked the half-way point between the two pre-Christian festivals of Samhain (now the Gaelic word for November) and Imbolic (the coming of Spring, celebrated on the first day of February).

So this holiday period has been celebrated since the beginning of recorded time in Ireland. Mind you, in those days, people didn't jet off to New York for a bit of pre-holiday shopping, though there was probably quite a bit of feasting and drinking - so no change there.

To everyone who has wandered over to this site for a read, left a comment or sent me an Email, Happy holidays to you all.

Posted by Monasette at 11:57 AM | Comments (6)

As Gaeilge

The bog at Cloch na Rón or Roundstone - whatever it's called, you can still sink to your arse in it.

There is a great oil painting* of Roundstone Bog for sale in Kenny's gallery at the moment - a snip at 7000 euro for someone with a huge mantelpiece. Mind you, you won't be able to find Roundstone (or it's bog) on a map or sign from January - all names in the Gaeltacht will revert to their Irish names only. I have mixed feelings about this. I'm all for keeping Irish names, and restoring Irish names, since the old Gaelic names often point to a long-forgotten historical or long-gone geographical aspect of a place. And certainly in Gaeltacht area, all new place names (i.e. new estates in Gaeltacht areas) should have Irish names (personally, I think all new place names should have either some local significance rather than some bland, generic name). But at the same time, given that many foreign visitors are destined to stare blankly at these signs without a hope of pronouncing any of names on them, let alone finding them, I think a bit of compromise would be in order.

After all, if you haven't learned some bit of Irish, how exactly do you pronounce Rós an Mhíl, Cloch na Rón, An Fhairche or An Teach Dóite or know that they are, respectively, Rosaveel, Roundstone, Clonbur and Maam Cross?

* The artist is Jerry Marjoram, and you can see more of his work here.

Posted by Monasette at 11:47 AM | Comments (3)

The Nag's Head

If a visitor to Ireland chose to drive through Ballinasloe in east Galway on the first weekend in October, they would encounter scenes straight out of The Quiet Man. Men in cloth caps sizing up fillies; young fellows riding bareback on horses of questionable parentage, etc. And later on, should that visitor choose to stay for a pint in the town, and perhaps make an ill-judged comment about Tuam, he might find himself in a faithful recreation of the scene where Victor McLaglen and John Wayne beat each other up and down the street. And, last but not least, big piles of steaming horse poo.[Not that I’m suggesting that the movie is anything other than a classic. Honest].

We live in an era when every town and village in the country is trying to think up a festival to attract tourists. Arts festivals seem to be a favourite. It’s amazing how many writers or poets will turn up somewhere if you promise (a) a free bar and (b) to actually listen to them. Ballinasloe has no need for such flim-flammery – it has been hosting one of Ireland’s longest-lived fairs almost continuously since the middle of the eighteenth century, when George I awarded a charter to the Trench family (Earl of Clancarty) to host two annual agricultural fairs.

Today, the October Fair in Ballinasloe attracts mainly horse dealers, but it wasn’t always like that. Frederick Trench obtained a patent for a sheep fair in the town in 1722 (it probably helped that he owned most of the place at the time) but it was as a cattle fair that it became nationally known. Samuel Lewis, that great chronicle of 19th century Ireland, noted that

the celebrated cattle market of Ballinasloe is the greatest cattle market in the Kingdom.

I like to think of Ballinasloe as a natural gateway to the west - even though there is a county of Connacht to its east (Roscommon), one hasn't really entered the west until Ballinasloe, built on the western side of the River Suck, a river that stretches north and fences off the "Leinster" side of Roscommon from it's Connacht side - to the south, it joins the Shannon, which effectively fences off the rest of the west. The connection with cattle stretches back to the beginning of history and legend in Ireland too. The great Irish saga An Táin Bó Cúailnge* tells the story of how Queen Maeve of Connacht led a great army to Ulster to steal the legendary Brown Bull of Cooley, the only rival to her own prize white bull, only to be denied by the warrior Cúchulainn. Legend has it that Mave's army rested near Ballinasloe on their way north.

There is a certain irony to Lewis's account of the Ballinasloe fair. He wrote those words in 1837, less than 10 years before tens of thousands of people in Ballinasloe and all points west would literally drop dead from hunger during the Great Famine. However, even by 1800, Ballinasloe was also becoming known as a horse fair. The Napoleonic Wars were in full swing, and the armies of Europe had many cavalry regiments. And the insatiable demand for reliable horses led both sides to the horse fair of Ballinasloe. In fact, Napoleon's horse at the Battle of Waterloo, Marengo, had been purchased at the fair. In case you're wondering, the Duke of Wellington's horse, called Copenhagen, had been bought in Cork (at the Cahirmee fair). Wellington, of course, once said (on being reminded of being born Irish) that being born in a stable didn't make one a horse - grumpy old sod. Actually, I think what really irked Arthur Wellesley was that people might think that, having being born in Meath, people might think of him as a Navan man. Can't say I blame him.

Back then, it was draught horses that were in demand - big, sturdy horses that wouldn't spook under fire and whose thunder of hooves would scare the daylights out of enemy infantry. Nowadays, it is mainly Connemara ponies (and assorted piebalds) that are on sale. And while plenty of horse dealers from around the country attend each year, it is the Travellers that constitute the biggest single group of buyers and sellers, and contribute the most colour to the weekend. Though you're more likely to see a Traveller driving around in a van or four-wheel drive, horses remain central to their culture, and no horse is bought or sold before being 'road-tested' at the fair. At the foot of St. John's Protestant church on the hill overlooking the green, there is a stretch of tarmac. Over the weekend, horses are raced up and down this stretch, either hitched to jaunting cars (like the one pictured above) or ridden bareback. The nags are driven at full pelt right up to the end of the track, before skidding to a halt and being wheeled about and urged on again. Beside the track, the crowd shrewdly evaluate the performance of each animal alongside the dozens of Travellers caravans are parked on the grass along the hill, between the church and the track. No sooner does an rider or driver pull his steed up to a halt before a small crowd surround him and the bargaining begins. Anyone not interested in the horses can always pay a vist to one the many fortune tellers parked around the green.

* The Cattle Raid of Cooley

Posted by Monasette at 11:44 AM | Comments (0)

December 20, 2004


One thousand years old and still leaning - the round tower at Kilmacduagh, Co. Galway.

Posted by Monasette at 12:02 AM | Comments (1)

December 19, 2004

Turlough, East Galway

It rained non-stop on Saturday, and the walls surrounding the low turlough fields can't fence out the water. Photo taken at sunrise, Sunday morning December 19th, 2004.

Posted by Monasette at 11:59 PM | Comments (2)

December 12, 2004

Lough Graney

I had assumed that this sandy 'beach' on Lough Graney was artifical, but later on, while exploring the Bleach River (that drains into the lake), the same coarse sand was in evidence. So mabye it's natural. Notice how the water level is still quite low. The colouring is definitely artifical, and hopefully, is only a small spill from the machines escavating a new walkway round the lake.

Posted by Monasette at 12:04 AM | Comments (1)

December 11, 2004

A hand out, not a hand up

The path from Kylemore Abbey to the top of the hill behind - no longer accessible

A few months ago, I was exploring an old ruined church in Co. Clare. Standing on a wall, I jumped down to a flat stone platform about four feet below. Alas, I wasn't really paying attention to what I was doing, so rather than land on the ground with both feet together, one foot only caught the corner of a stone block with the tip of my boot. My foot was bent upwards violently and a vicious streak of pain shot through my ankle. I hopped around in pain for a few minutes swearing before collapsing in a heap.

As it turned out, I only suffered some bruising, the pain subsided after a little while, and I only had about a mile to hobble back to the car. So what, you say ? Stupid is as stupid does. Unfortunately, lots of people slip and fall over, bump their heads or injure themselves while out walking - whether it is walking down the street, across fields or even while on a night out. I say unfortunately, not because most of them do any lasting injury to themselves - in fact, they all seem to recover fully eventually - but because their first instinct is to sue. It is amazing the amount of psychological damage as well as physical discomfort that such injuries cause. It's equally amazing how much money each of those injuries cost. Strangely enough, these injuries don't require that much hospital treatment ( which obviously would cost money) - no, these injuries just require time off work (on sick pay). And the main source of the cost is not treatment but compensation. And for what? Well, as often as not, it's not for fractures, or scarring or 'visible' injuries. No - it's often for back pain, aches, whiplash and other "I'll have to take your word for it" -type injuries.

Every week, the national papers carry accounts of cases and settlements. The papers are very careful to report these cases as neutrally as possible, but some of them are unbelievable. People falling into holes in the road (holes that are big enough to cause injury but not big enough to see), slipping on footpaths, etc. and in each case, a pay-out. And not just for the 'injured' party.

The lawsuit industry is a big one. The biggest beneficiary is, by far, the legal profession. Many lawsuits never make it to court, simply because the cost of defending a lawsuit, however frivolous, is prohibitive. The Irish legal system requires barristers to argue cases in court before a judge, instructed by solicitors. They all need to be paid. There are plenty of solicitors who will take a case on the basis that they will take a percentage of the award if they win. So, with weary resignation, businesses often pay up straight away to avoid incurring an even bigger bill later on. [Supermacs, the Galway-based fast food chain installed dozens of hidden cameras in their outlets - an RTE documentary showed some of the footage used by Supermacs to defend lawsuits - footage of litigants pretending to be injured after falling. Those guys got nothing].

It's not just the lawyers. To make an injury claim, you need expert witnesses. There is a thriving business for doctors certifying injuries. Hey, if somebody comes into the surgery claiming to suffer from back pain and nightmares after slipping in the supermarket, it might be true. Who can tell otherwise? The doctor writes up the cert, claims his wad of 100s, and prescribes some painkillers. Likewise, there are plenty of engineers that have gone over to the dark side, providing expertise to certify that a council was indeed negligent for not ensuring that every square inch of footpath was a smooth as a billiard table, that the youngster that injured himself vandalising council property was really a victim because the fence he broke through was not secure enough, and so on.

Personal injury judgements are a source of constant amazement for me. Maybe it's just after a while, legal folk get so used ot the concept of "getting money for old rope" and therefore have concluded that everyone else should get in on the act. (If you've ever bought or sold a house, and paid a solicitor one or two thousand euro to spend about ten minutes rubber-stamping a standard set of deeds, you'll know what I mean.)

And the effect? Well, insurance costs are huge in Ireland, to the point where running a business or organizing public events have become prohibitively expensive practice. It also means that landowners are not encourage to allow walkers onto their land. In fact, more and more of them are posting "Keep Out" signs in order to head off potential lawsuits.

So what is to be done? Well, it was thought that the 1995 Owners Liability Act would solve the problem. This law was passed into law after a number of cases involving trespassers suing farmers and other landowners, and also received input from the Mountaineers Council of Ireland (MCI) ( the principle representative body of walkers and climbers in this country. In their words

The MCI worked with farming organisations to achieve the 1995 Occupiers Liability Act. Since then everyone has understood that to be liable under the 1995 Act, a landowner would have to harm someone deliberately or show them “reckless disregard”. Our legal advice since then is that that means “no throwing grenades, and don’t plant landmines”*.

However, in 2003, a woman who crossed a broken fence onto a cliff walk on private land to view a sunset in Donegal, slipped, slid down the cliff and injured herself. She was awarded over 80 thousand euro on the basis that, though she was found to be 25% negligent, the landowner should have taken more care to protect trespassers, given that the walk in question was a well-known beauty spot. Though the judgement is being appealed to the Supreme Court, it had a chilling and immediate effect. There are 2000 miles of coastline alone in Ireland - should there be warning signs every 200 yards? What about hills and bogs ? Does a landowner need to put a sign on every slope, warning that it is slippery? That if you fall into a bog hole, drain or river, you'll might be drowned?

The Donegal judgement would bankrupt most farmers or businesses (or least render them uninsurable). To be fair to the legislators and the organizations that contributed to the 1995 Act, it was an unforeseen interpretation of the Act, and, should the ruling be upheld, the Act must be amended.

Other good work is being done, and though sometimes it seems like the only relationship between walkers and farmers is an adversarial one, it is not always so. The Minister for Rural Affairs, Eamonn O'Cuiv has expanded the Waymarked Ways of Ireland system throughout the country - these are agreed walks that stretch across both public and private land. Coillte, the state forestry organisation, has also done good work in creating a system of public all-accessible walks through their managed forests. And the REPS scheme has encouraged farmers to make their land accessible, providing an allowance in return for, among other things, the building of stiles and pathways [Farmers in Co. Galway alone received nearly 200 million euro since REPS began]. So yes, there are still large stretches of the country, at least in the West, open to the public.

From my own experience, any time I've asked, I've never been denied access to someone's land. But I do come across a lot of Keep Out signs, so there are plenty of spots that I cannot visit. There are times of the year when animals are particularly vulnerable and/or aggressive - the lambing season has just about started, for example - and you can understand why a farmer would prefer not to have people wandering through the fields.

But it all comes back to the lawyers in the end. As an MCI member, I have my own insurance - it covers me if I do damage to someone's property or injure some one in the course of a walk or climb. But if I injured myself on a farmer's land, and was so inclined, I could sue him, irrespective of whether I was a trespasser or not. One could make a good argument that most of the West of Ireland is beautiful (it's beautiful to me, anyway) and therefore, it was incumbent on the landowner to expect trespassers.

I'm not sure how this situation will ultimately be resolved. I'd like to think that a large measure of goodwill or good sense is the solution. But this is Ireland - far too many people see a lawsuit as easy money. Actually, it's worse than that - there is a perception that someone - anyone - must pay for their misfortune. Nobody can just be a victim of bad luck anymore, or accept responsibility for their actions, however unfortunate or unpleasant. Perhaps a mandatory insurance scheme will be required, or the onus of care will fall entirely with the visitor. Whatever happens, the current situation means that more and more "No Trespassing" signs will go up, and more and more barbed wire will be strung around fields - all the more ironic since, due to the European Union's agricultural reforms, there will be far less animals in those fields. And slowly but surely, less and less people will get a chance to enjoy their own countryside, at a time when the opportunities for hill-walking, rambling and other country pursuits are never greater. And, more than the financial cost, would be the greatest impoverishment of all.

[* The law specifically excludes the case where a landowner takes action against an intruder to defend his/her property. We'll take that issue on another day.]
[**I'm not suggesting that the Donegal case was frivolous or flawed- only that it proved that the 1995 Act did not provide the level of protection to landowners that was originally envisaged ]

Posted by Monasette at 11:04 PM | Comments (2)


I don't know anything about the little village of Flagmount, lodged on a hill overlooking Lough Graney in South Galway. But judging by the belltower , I wouldn't at all be surprised if the Nativity Scene in the Church was based on characters from a galaxy far far away rather than one closer to home. Stranger things have happened.

Posted by Monasette at 04:28 PM | Comments (2)

December 09, 2004

The grass is greener on the other side

St. Patrick's Well beside Nephin Mountain, Co. Mayo.

Posted by Monasette at 11:14 PM | Comments (3)

December 07, 2004

Cold snaps

Duck standing on ice in Stockholm, 1999. The purple/blue colour cast was due to the fading light and a characteristic of Velvia slide film.

The Guardian ran a story on Saturday about the chances of a cold winter this year. The chances are good, apparently, based on the signs. And those signs would be?

Well, the first sign is the huge number of waxwings in the UK, feasting on the bumper crop of autumn berries that still festoon hedges around the country. Some of them have made it to Ireland too, and there is certainly no shortage of food in the hedgerows. Another sign is supposed to be a halo around the moon in an otherwise clear sky. To be honest, I think that you have a good chance of seeing such a phenomenom on any frosty night.

I seem to remember similar talk last year. Every time we have a reasonably mild Autumn, the natural inclination is that Winter will exact retribution. Didn't happen last year, and hopefully, it won't happen this year either. Though, from a photographer's point of view, a bit of snow is always nice.

PS The Guardian also ran a story about Ireland's poor environmental record. It makes grim reading.

Posted by Monasette at 10:16 PM | Comments (2)

December 05, 2004

A small glimpse of sky

Sruhir Beach, Co. Mayo - November 2003

Posted by Monasette at 09:52 PM | Comments (1)

December 02, 2004

Walking backwards to Christmas

Sulphur Tuft mushrooms (Hypholoma fasciculare), photographed in Portumna forest at the end of October this year.

It's only the second of December and already, the first frost and the first Christmas card has arrived. I don't know which is worse.

Posted by Monasette at 10:43 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack