Monday, December 28, 2009

I wouldn't bet on horseracing's popularity

One of the biggest racetracks in the country, Leopardstown, is not far from where I live and racing on St. Stephen's Day (Dec 26) is one of the biggest days of the year on the sport's calendar. I'm not a big fan of horseracing, but I've always assumed St. Stephen's Day racing is a big deal given all the media coverage Leopardstown attracts on the 26th.

However, a report in today's Irish Independent has me wondering about things: Is the Stephen's Day festival that big? Is horse racing as popular here as I've always thought?

Why am I asking such questions you ask? Well, the Independent says the attendance at the racecourse on Saturday was 14,605, down by 1,400 over last year. So 16,000 attended the year before and, I'm guessing, that is about normal for Stephen's Day.

Like I said, I'm not a big fan of the sport, but when I was younger I used to go to Saratoga, which is near where I grew up. And on a big day at Saratoga the crowd would be a lot closer to 50,000 than 15,000. Yes, it's winter here and yes Saratoga is only on during the summer, but still.

If horse racing as a sport is as big as the media coverage would indicate I would've expected a much bigger crowd at Leopardstown on St. Stephen's Day. A million people live in this city and although it was cold, it was dry. The Leinster vs Ulster rugby game on the same day - a relatively minor affair based on media coverage - attracted a bigger crowd.

Irish people love gambling; there's no argument on that. Horseracing and gambling are closely entwined and it can be difficult to separate the fans of the sport from those who simply like betting, but the small crowd on Saturday tells me that gambling and not the racing is the real attraction.

Real fans would like to see the action live, no? 18,000 rugby fans could have watched Saturday night's game on t.v. but opted to put up with low temperatures to experience the game in person. If horseracing were truly a widely popular sport then a big event like the St. Stephen's Day meet would attract a much bigger crowd than that which turned up for the rugby game. It didn't, but I assume the bookies - all legal here - don't care.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Destroying land certificates seems so stupid.

I agree with the head of the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations that these documents should be preserved.

Sprouts shortage?

I have no idea where the brussels sprouts sold in Ireland are grown, but I won't miss them if the cold weather means there are none this year.

New home

As you now know, this page has moved and looks a bit different. I might try a few different things too.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Government's message to the young: there's always the emigrant boat

Posted by TheYank at 12/10/2009 10:54 AM EST

Budget day. There's nothing like it in America. Oh, sure there's the always exciting appropriations bill, but that's hacked together publicly over a long time in the two houses so that there's no mystery when it's passed and sent on for the President's signature (or veto).

Here the government drafts the bill in secret. Nobody is supposed to know what's coming before the Minister for Finance rises to tell the nation - via live t.v. and radio - what the coming year will mean in terms of government spending and taxes. For days, weeks really, in advance the media is all of aflutter with speculation and leaks (since no one ever loses their job over these leaks I have to assume they're pretty deliberate) as to what the bill will contain.

This year the speculation was more intense than I've ever known it because the country is in worse shape than it's been for a long, long time. And we're still getting used to that idea. When you're in bad shape economically, but used to being in bad shape economically, you worry less.

Yesterday Minister Brian Lenihan delivered his message: 2010 will be a year of PAIN. Lots of it, unevenly distributed, but in such quantities that almost no one will escape unscathed. Cuts in pay for public sector workers, cuts in social welfare, cuts in spending in all sorts of areas. Cuts, cuts, cuts. Oh yeah, an increase in the price of gasoline and home heating oil/natural gas through a new "carbon tax" (pull the other one).

Amusingly, the government has also cut one tax: the tax on alcohol. So, at least we can drown our sorrows for a few dollars less.

Lots of people are angry today. Really angry. Funny enough the group that I think should be angriest is also the least likely to take revenge on the government: the young. No, not children, but those in their 20s & 30s whom the government has all but told to hit the road. They don't vote, however and probably still won't.

Yup, it's young people who have suffered the most in the current downturn what with their exorbitantly priced houses all too tenuous (well-paid) jobs. Thousands of young builders, IT workers, accountants and brokers & traders have gone from earning good salaries to the unemployment line. It seems likely they'll be there for a while yet. Many won't wait to see how things are going to turn out here.

It's almost like one of those natural phenomenon where some animals migrate to a specific hunting ground every twenty years. Young Irish people are the same as they head out - again - for Britain or America (if they'll have them) or Canada or Australia or New Zealand or continental Europe or ... wherever. And we can't afford to lose these people. All that energy and creativity is what the country sorely needs right now, but they were given no encouragement to remain here in yesterday's budget.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Another holiday tradition to resurface

As I was reading Piaras Mac Éinrí's article on the return of emigration it struck me that if Mac Éinrí is right, and I think he's a little ahead of the game but he will be right soon enough, that another Irish Christmas custom will be revived soon: the emigrants' Christmas visit.

Before the Celtic Tiger this was a phenomenon that everyone here knew or at least understood. RTE would report on it each year in the days before Christmas with clips of tearful, joyful reunions from the airports. The returnees would then embark on a week or two of living like there was no tomorrow, because for too many of them that's how it felt. And then, just like that, the Christmas visit was over and RTE was back at the airports, providing clips of tearful, sorrowful farewells.

The story was so familiar that the Electricity Supply Board ran an ad campaign that featured an emigrant returned for Christmas, even though if you watch the video you'll see nothing that blatantly says (a) it's Christmas or (b) the young man is an emigrant. Still, anyone who came of age here in the 1980s will recognize all the clues. For a lot of those people, even those who returned during the booming 90s, this ad is still very poignant.

Maybe the ESB will run this ad again.

Friday, December 4, 2009

'Gutted' by the lack of decent t.v. this Christmas

Posted by TheYank at 12/4/2009 10:04 AM EST

Christmas is really kicking in now. Christmas FM opened for business again the other day. You can listen in no matter where you are and it's quite an education as you soon realize that the number of truly awful Christmas songs or horrific renditions of Christmas favorites is far closer to infinity than you would ever imagine. Christmas FM is a new tradition and it's all done with a light heart and for charity, so much (but not all) is forgiven.

One of my favorite older Irish Christmas customs is the 'There's nothing on over the Christmas' tradition. 'There's nothing on over the Christmas' refers to the television and the paucity of good programming for the two weeks surrounding the big day. Today's Irish Independent got the ball rolling declaring RTE's Christmas schedule to be a "turkey."

But it won't just be cynical newspaper columnists who'll be pronouncing the Christmas television offerings as not up to scratch. Just about anyone and everyone will let you know that 'There's nothing on over the Christmas.'

At some point in Ireland's mythical past - a mythical past with a lot to answer for - Christmas was a time of two weeks of unbroken, spectacular televisual entertainment. This can be discerned easily as you'll often hear people add "this year" to "There's nothing on over the Christmas." The "this year" implies that there must have been some Christmas programming worth watching at one time, probably during the golden age of the Celts when Brian Boru ruled the land.

Regardless, the Christmas edition of the RTE Guide will sell in large numbers as people can't wait to see what's going to disappoint them this year. Many will even plump for the BBC's version (weirdly) known as the Radio Times, even though the RTE Guide provides the listings for all of the British channels too.

It took me a while to get used to just how important t.v. is in Ireland at Christmas time. All the Christmas specials are shown right around Christmas day, which is the opposite of how it works in America. In America, by the time Christmas Day arrives there's absolutely nothing worth watching unless you like the NBA or college football. When I first arrived here I was hard-wired to anticipate seeing Charlie Brown & The Grinch closer to Thanksgiving than Christmas. Here those shows are on right near - even after - Christmas Day. Bizarre, I know.

In addition to all the Christmas specials, the Irish t.v. schedules will be full of blockbuster Hollywood movies (not as good a selection as in previous years, of course) some embarrassingly bad Irish made programming, and depressing, holiday-themed episodes of over exposed (mostly British) soap operas.

Truth be told, I hate - HATE - those soap operas and would much prefer to watch Brian Boru hunt down, capture and gut a live reindeer on t.v. as I licked my fingers clean of my Christmas dinner. Maybe everyone else here feels the same, which would explain the annual disappointment.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

It takes a true turkey to get the wrong turkey

Posted by TheYank at 11/26/2009 4:53 AM EST

What I'm about to say is such a cliche that I'm reluctant to even tell this story, but here goes.

There are times when I amaze even myself with my ability to accomplish things that probably are beyond most people's imagination. Or at least most women's.

Remember yesterday how I mentioned that I was going to collect the Thanksgiving turkey we'd ordered? Remember?

Pretty straight-forward, right? Drive to store, give my name, receive turkey from butcher and pay. What could be easier?

I drove to the store all right and then my innate talents took over. My actions were so swift, so graceful that even now I'm dazzled by them. The way I was able to so deftly and so quickly snatch defeat from the jaws of a certain and easy victory... Let's just say not many could've managed it.

The trouble started when the butcher handed the turkey to me. It looked huge. We'd ordered a 14-15lb turkey, but this one just looked massive. So, I checked,

"This is a 15lb turkey?"
"Oh, yes, is there a problem?"
"It seems awfully big."
"I might be able to get you a smaller one, about 12lbs."
"That would be great."

Five minutes later he came out with a turkey that he said was 12lbs. It looked a lot smaller, which only convinced me that the other one was just too big. I didn't look too closely, just said thank you, took the turkey, paid and left. I was feeling great the whole way home.

As soon as I walked in the door and my wife said, "That looks awfully small." "It's a 12lb turkey." "It's too small."

Not feeling so great now, but an hour later I finally decided to look at the turkey and the packaging and what did I see? Well, the turkey comes from the Smiths' farm in Newbliss, Co. Monaghan. That's nice and reassuring. But then I saw it. I smoothed out the plastic wrap and there was the weight, clearly marked: 4KG.

I would love to be able to fall back on all sorts of claims of ignorance, such as I'm not used to the metric system (sort of true, I still think in pounds & ounces) or I didn't know the conversion (I did and I do - 2.2lbs to every kg) or I couldn't do the calculation in my head (4 times 2.2 - ehh, I don't see how I can even try that one). So, now we have an 8lb 13oz turkey instead of the 14lbs we were supposed to have.

We'll still have enough for dinner, but my weekend of turkey dining is out and I have only one person to blame. As does everyone else in my family.

Thanksgiving – a piece of America that Ireland should embrace

Posted by TheYank at 11/25/2009 8:14 AM EST

You'll often hear people in Ireland complain about the American influence on the culture here. I don't always disagree. American television, music and movies seem to be everywhere and a lot of it is just garbage. Anytime I see or hear Britney Spears I know they have a point.

Holidays too, are not beyond American influence. People frequently blame the changes in the way that Christmas, Easter, St. Patrick's Day and Halloween are celebrated on American influence.

In a week or two many Irish people will have their homes bedecked in flashing Santas, snowmen, sleighs, and all sorts of light displays. None of this existed here 15 years ago. Back then all you'd see was the family Christmas tree in the window of a house - there would be no outdoor decorations. Now every neighborhood is like Times Square. American influence.

Yet, there's one American holiday tradition that refuses to leave America's shores – Thanksgiving. Yup, tomorrow is one of the biggest days of the year in America, but here it's simply Thursday, November 26. No holiday, no parades, no football (that's another sad story), no nothing. It can be the most depressing day of the year for an American in Ireland.

Instinctively all Americans know when Thanksgiving comes around. It's ingrained in our DNA. When that 4th week of November comes around you begin to salivate at the thought of the big turkey dinner, like some Pavlovian dog. Whether you're state-side or in Ireland or anywhere else for that matter you've just gotta have turkey.

It's easier said than done, however. You can't find a turkey in the stores here. All the turkeys in Ireland are earmarked for December 25. And if you have to work a full day tomorrow, there's no time to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner.

Those are obstacles, but not insurmountable ones. First, many Americans here shift their celebrations from Thursday to Saturday, when they have the time needed to prepare the dinner. Also, for those who don't have family here, a Saturday celebration makes it easier to invite over a few Irish friends to take part in Thanksgiving. (Just because it's not a holiday here, doesn't mean Irish people will turn down a nice big dinner and a couple glasses of wine.}

As for the turkey, you have to order in advance. We order from a supermarket near enough to the American embassy. They're used to us Yanks and our specific needs for turkey a month in advance of the Irish populace. When I called to place my order a couple of weeks ago, Dave the butcher heard my accent and right away stopped me with, "Thanksgiving, right?"

Somehow I like that. I like talking about Thanksgiving. I want people here to know about it. In fact, I think it would be great if Ireland took up the tradition.

Who doesn't need a day to take a time out from all the hustle and bustle? A day with no cards, no gifts, no nothing other than time? Time to reflect? What's not to like? And this year, possibly as much as any in the lifetime of anyone alive here today, Irish people could use such a break. It's bad here, but we still live in a safe and relatively wealthy country. We still have quite a bit to be thankful for. It's not Somalia.

Me? I'll be picking up our turkey later this evening and the whole family will sit down to Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow afternoon (after school - life's tough for some). My stomach and I can hardly wait.

Happy Thanksgiving to you.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Speaking in Dallas, President Kennedy said ...

Posted by TheYank at 11/22/2009 4:20 PM EST

Back in the summer when I was in America my father and I were going through his collection of old newspapers and clippings and other things. One of my favorites was a clipping he had from the old New York Journal American from November 22, 1963 - the day President Kennedy was killed.

The Journal American was an afternoon paper and the copy my father has was an extra brought out following the assassination. The front page is exactly as you might expect.

However, this paper was - as it shouts at the top - an Extra. The first two pages or so were all about the assassination, but inside the paper was as it was supposed to be on that afternoon. Included inside was an article that was written and published about an event that hadn't taken place yet, yet the report was as if it had taken place: a full report from the Associated Press on the President's speech to the Dallas Citizen's Council, the Dallas Assembly and the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest.

In the article it says President Kennedy "lashed out" at Senator Barry Goldwater, although he never mentioned him by name. The President also "took a jibe at Sen. Harry F. Byrd of Virginia," who I'd never heard of before I read his name in this article..

There is nothing earth-shattering in the article, other than it exists at all. Given all that happened on that afternoon and over the weekend I wonder if the Journal American ever regretted the hasty Extra or if the AP regretted writing the news before it happened.

President Kennedy was killed 46 years ago today.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Aren't all Irish teens just like Americans now?

Posted by TheYank at 11/16/2009 3:05 PM EST

I was surprised that fellow American Bridget English says that Americans in Ireland are still easily identifiable. Bridget says she was told that even if you ignore clothes are overlooked, Americans' teeth tells people where they're from before they speak.

Why was I surprised? I guess I figured that Bridget's fellow students at Maynooth would be like those whom I know through my daughter. I'll admit I'm not the most observant person when it comes to fashion, etc., but unlike 20+ years ago when I came here as a student, young Irish people seem to dress and look the basically the same as young Americans.

Irish girls have long hair, wear lots of make-up, etc. In the 1980s I often heard about American girls' "big hair." And the make-up? Maybe it was too pricey back then, I don't know, but Irish girls didn't wear much of it.

As for the teeth, all of my daughters' friends seem to have had braces. In fact, I thought the braces were pretty much the norm throughout the country now.

Other fashions that were once peculiarly American have also taken off here. Loads of people wear baseball caps - most seem to have the dreaded NY of the New York Yankees - and men wear shorts. In the 1980s men just didn't wear shorts and those who did - mostly American tourists - were objects of curiosity and, often, a bit of light-hearted fun.

Never mind the look, to my ear the accent has even become more American. Californian, really. I'm sure anyone from California would not agree, but today's teens - in this area, anyway - sound more like extras from 90210 than Dublin/Wicklow kids. Maybe I'm just getting old, but I find it annoying hearing all these Irish kids sounding like they're from Glendale or Marin County.

It's beginning to smell a lot like Christmas

Posted by TheYank at 11/16/2009 10:03 AM EST

The Christmas lights are going on all over Ireland now. No, not in people's homes, although the Irish Mail on Sunday carried a report yesterday about a Muslim Iraqi family who love Christmas and put their tree up early, very early, November 3 this year. But, for the most part the Christmas lights being turned on are in the stores, malls, and the main streets of Ireland's towns and cities. No different than America, really.

Although there are few Christmas sights inside people's homes, it's the time of year when people can enjoy some of the smells of Christmas. This weekend my wife made the Christmas cake, Christmas puddings and mince pies, filling our house with an odor that is distinctly Christmas. All that fruit, nuts, flour, whatever, oh, and the alcohol - whiskey in the cake, brandy in the pudding - baking & cooling fills the house with a happy smell.

Even those in this house who don't eat any of the traditional Irish deserts - just for the record I eat 90% of it - like the smell. For some it's just a pleasant smell and for others it's the first sniff of Santa.

Of course, the cake isn't done yet. It's a three act play. Saturday was only the first act - the mixing and baking. Next, in a few weeks, will come the almond icing. Then, nearer the big day,
the white icing and decorations are added. Usually the decorations are left to the youngest, for whom adding sugary Santas, snowmen and wreaths is part of the excitement. Then it just sits there, taunting me until Christmas Day.

Monday, November 9, 2009

President Obama should have been in Berlin

Posted by TheYank at 11/9/2009 3:21 PM EST

I'm sitting in my living room here in Ireland where I just finished watching the ceremony from Berlin marking the 20th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a tremendous spectacle and a great occasion. There was only one aspect of the ceremony that struck a discordant note: the absence of President Obama.

Where was he? I cannot understand why he wouldn't want to be there. Everything that happened in 1989 was the culmination of a long, hard struggle undertaken by the United States and our NATO allies.

Celebrating the end of Communist rule in Europe is not a Republican vs Democrat thing. It's an America vs totalitarianism thing. By not going to Berlin today President Obama signalled that to him the destruction of Communism was not all that important.

Well, it was important to President Truman who decided that the Soviet Union had to be confronted. In 1948 when the Soviets tried to starve the people of West Berlin, President Truman ordered that the city be supplied by air. This was a costly, logistical nightmare that stretched the American and British air forces, but it was a price worth paying as far as President Truman was concerned.

In 1963 President Kennedy made his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, indicating America's support for the people of West Berlin who were then penned in by the new Berlin Wall. In 1987 President Reagan, in a speech to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of Berlin, challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall," which was a symbol of the four decades of Communist tyranny endured by the people of Eastern Europe.

It wasn't just those three either. Every President throughout the Cold War reiterated America's commitment to the people of Europe in the face of the Soviet threat. For that reason President Obama should have been in Berlin tonight. The celebration was about more than the removal of a few pieces of concrete: it was about the victory of freedom over tyranny.

It wasn't solely an American victory, but America played the leading role. I have no doubt that any of President Obama's predecessors would have been in Berlin to celebrate what was accomplished and to mark the sacrifices made by Americans over a 40-year period. He should have been there.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Dublin in the dark

I spent a good chunk of my day in Dublin - where I rarely venture on the weekend - and now I'm back in the city, near the Custom House. Not really accomplishing much. I was walking around for a while and now I'm drinking coffee while I type this.

I had to be in Dublin this evening to run an errand. Rather than go right home, I decided to go for a walk. The streets where I was walking were mostly deserted - it's pretty cool (about 45) and breezy - and there's not a lot happening down this end of town. I saw no tourists out tonight and the average Dubliner has way more sense than to be out walking on a cold, dark November night.

Dublin doesn't have a bright skyline like most American cities have. In fact, the only things that stick up high into the sky are the ridiculous spire on O'Connell Street and the dog ugly Liberty Hall. (Can you say a building is "dog ugly"?)

However, if you do walk around at night* you can find some well-lit, attractive old buildings like the Customs House. That's why I wanted to go for the walk this evening because even though a walk in late June would be more pleasant, the sun doesn't set until well after 10pm so you can't experience Dublin's fine buildings all lit up.

Earlier today I was at the new National Museum at Collins Barrakcs down the Liffey from here. I was there only once before and it was shortly after they had opened this new facility. I was unimpressed then and was in no hurry to return. However, today they advertized a family day to learn about Ireland and the Great War, so clearly I had to go. The family came too.

It was a mixed bag on the WWI events - they called it a family day, but really it was mostly aimed at gray-haired men and definitely not at anyone under 21 or so. The museum itself, however, really impressed me. The displays were a lot more substantial than I remembered them and there were enough interactive displays to amuse and educate the under-10-year-old. We all agreed that we'd have to make a return visit.

Before the National Museum moved in during the 90s, Collins Barracks was the oldest military barracks in the world still in use.

*Do watch where you go if you venture out at night. Don't go up the dark streets. It's far from danger free.

Dublin in the dark

Posted by TheYank at 11/7/2009 4:06 PM EST

I spent a good chunk of my day in Dublin - where I rarely venture on the weekend - and now I'm back in the city, near the Custom House. Not really accomplishing. I was walking around for a while and now I'm drinking coffee while I type this.

I had to be in Dublin this evening to run an errand. Rather than go right home, I decided to go for a walk. The streets where I was walking were mostly deserted - it's pretty cool (about 45) and breezy - and there's not a lot happening down this end of town. I saw no tourists out tonight and the average Dubliner has way more sense than to be out walking on a cold, dark November night.

The Customs House

Dublin doesn't have a bright skyline like most American cities have. In fact, the only things that stick up high into the sky are the ridiculous spire on O'Connell Street and the dog ugly Liberty Hall. (Can you say a building is "dog ugly"?)

However, if you do walk around at night* you can find some well-lit, attractive old buildings like the Customs House. That's why I wanted to go for the walk this evening because even though a walk in late June would be more pleasant, the sun doesn't set until well after 10pm so you can't experience Dublin's fine buildings all lit up.

Earlier today I was at the new National Museum at Collins Barrakcs down the Liffey from here. I was there only once before and it was shortly after they had opened this new facility. I was unimpressed then and was in no hurry to return. However, today they advertized a family day to learn about Ireland and the Great War, so clearly I had to go. The family came too.

It was a mixed bag on the WWI events - they called it a family day, but really it was mostly aimed at gray-haired men and definitely not at anyone under 21 or so. The museum itself, however, really impressed me. The displays were a lot more substantial than I remembered them and there were enough interactive displays to amuse and educate the under-10-year-old. We all agreed that we'd have to make a return visit.

Before the National Museum moved in during the 90s, Collins Barracks was the oldest military barracks in the world still in use.

* Do watch where you go if you venture out at night. Don't go up the dark streets. It's far from danger free.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Blown away by the north coast

Posted by TheYank at 11/4/2009 3:20 PM EST

As I mentioned yesterday, we were up north last week. Just a day trip, which is possible now thanks to the vast improvement in the roads here. There was a time not that far back when a day trip to the north was such a bone-shaking, nerve-shattering experience that advertisements in the national papers advised people against making journeys of over 150 miles in length, such was the state of the roads. That lasted right up until, well, the current decade.

The roads are better, but there is still nowhere to stop for a bathroom break along the whole route except the Outlet in Banbridge. The clever folks who run the Outlet lure in the unsuspecting motorist from the south with clean bathrooms and two choices of coffee and then mesmerize them with shop-loads of cheap goods. Before they know what's hit them their wallets are empty and they're loaded down like pack mules and searching for their car in an over-flowing parking lot. The spell's only broken after they've forced down the lid of the trunk and have started the engine.

When we finally escaped the clutches of the Outlet we made our way north to the Antrim coast to fulfil a two-year-old promise to our youngest to bring him to the Giant's Causeway. {Cursed teachers and their continued insistence on educating the young. Don't they know us parents would rather plop them in front of the t.v. and let it be at that?}

I've been there four or five times before, but in all prior trips I was able to plan around the weather forecast. This time the promise of the trip was made so far enough in advance (two days) that there was plenty of time for the forecast mild sun to be replaced by cloudbursts and gale-force winds. It wasn't actually all that bad when we finally got there, but it was very gloomy and very windy.

We stopped first at Bushmills distillery for no good reason other than it was there. It's not like anyone in the house drinks whiskey, although I came away with a sampler. Then we made our way to Dunluce Castle. Every time I'm at Dunluce all I can think is, "Who on Earth would build a residence there?" Last week in the gloom and wind and threat of rain it was even more striking how inhospitable the location is.

From Dunluce it's only a short hop to the Giant's Causeway. I've gone through two completely different reactions to the Causeway: on my first visit I couldn't get over how odd the geological formations were. On my second and third trips I coudln't get over how many people made the trip to see what are, after all, not much more than oddly shaped rocks.

Now I just appreciate it for what it is: interesting, peaceful and beautiful, although not breathtakingly so as are other parts of the north coast. Worth visiting. And, given the numbers of people who were there on the day we were there, bad weather
and all, many people agree.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Way up north, where the shoppin's good

Posted by TheYank at 11/3/2009 1:30 PM EST

I was shopping 'up north' last week. That might not sound like a big deal, but it is something of an issue here.

Now, just to get a few things straight - (a) no, I wasn't shopping alone; it's not my thing and (b) shopping was more of an incidental part of our journey north and not the main focus. Still, the weather was so bad we ended up extending our shopping by about two hours, which suited some members of the family just fine.

For a lot of people who live on this side of the border, however, the trip north these days is all about shopping and nothing else. The strength of the euro and the difference in the VAT rates (sales tax, but it's always included in the price) combined make the price of goods on the far side of the border much cheaper than here.

Obviously, the store-owners on this side are not happy about this. Nor is the government because they're losing out on tax revenues. Of course, the retailers and the government have it within their powers to change those factors that make the trip north so inviting, but they'd rather moan and curse than do something constructive.

{Oh, and there's one more group that's not all that happy - those northerners who live near the border and now find their shopping centers, and the roads to them, over-crowded thanks to the people flooding in from the south. A recent survey found that 70% of the cars in the parking lots of border-area shopping centers were from this side of the border.}

We get fairly regular pep talks from various government ministers and retail representatives encouraging (begging) us to shop local and not go north, but it's a lost cause. Some commentators try to use economic logic on us - saying that the price of gas & tolls for such a trip can be €30, which means you need to make a lot of savings to make the trip worthwhile.

It's all to no avail. If Yogi Berra lived here he would undoubtedly say something along the lines of, "Nobody shops up north any more. It's too packed." And if my family is anything to go by, it doesn't take long to recoup your €30 investment in gas and tolls through savings.

In fact, thanks to the stupidity of some of the big UK retailers here, we can see what the savings are with little effort. The price tags have both the euro and the sterling prices, depending on which side of the border you're on.

One top my wife bought was marked at £30 and €47, which is a difference that is far greater than can be explained by the differences in the exchange and tax rates (should be closer to €35). It doesn't take a genius to realize you're being overcharged in euros. You buy a two such shirts and a couple bottles of wine and you've saved your gas and toll money.

Of course, nobody stops at that. You shop til your car can hold no more and drive home with savings measured in hundreds.

This isn't a new topic, but thanks to the near death of the economy it feels more desperate than it has in the past.

Way back when I first came here there was a lot of chatter about people going north to buy alcohol, which was (and is) a lot cheaper up north. Stories about people driving north to fill the trunks of their cars with crates of beer and spirits were a part of the Irish Christmas back then. However, there was rarely any discussion of people buying other goods - it was always only about alcohol. These days alcohol is only a part of the story.

Last week along with those shoppers just looking to dress their families, etc. there were reports of wedding parties and wedding guests heading north to take advantage of the savings. I heard one couple on the radio describing how they'd saved hundreds on an engagement ring. I could almost hear every other engaged couple instantly saying, "We should do that."

And now Christmas is coming. The economic downturn was bad enough, but retailers down here fear that the lure of big savings north of the border might be the end for many of them.

Sure we'll all regret it when our shopping centers are full of emptiness, just rows of abandoned stores, but unless the prices on the two sides of the border equalize it is pointless urging people to think about the big picture. People will always go to shop where they get the best value for their money.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Yesterday was April 15 in Ireland

Posted by TheYank at 11/1/2009 3:12 PM EST

For some Irish people yesterday was the most frightening day of the year – the day when they finally finish filling in their annual tax returns and pay what they owe the taxman. In America the big day is April 15, but the Irish tax authorities allow an extra 6½ months and require that returns be filed and money owed be paid by October 31.

Now the truth is that for most Irish taxpayers the day passes without notice. If you're an employee whose tax is deducted from your paycheck – known as PAYE – and you have no other source of income you don't have to file an annual return. The PAYE workers have the right amount deducted during the year so that they owe and are owed nothing. (Funny enough most PAYE workers could probably get some money back if they filed, but many, probably most, don't.)

However for the growing number of people here who, like me, work themselves or in temporary positions, October 31 is the day the return must be filed*.

The October 31 deadline surprises me now that our tax year matches the calendar year, but it wasn't always so. Until 2001 the tax year ran from April 6 - April 5. Odd dates, no? Well there's an interesting bit of history to that tale.

Centuries ago it was common to call March 25 New Year's Day. "What?," I hear you ask. Yep, March 25 was thought of as New Year's Day in many places around Europe, including England and Ireland.

"Why March 25?," I hear you ask. Well, you have to think back to year 1 and why 1 was followed by AD. That AD – anno domini – meant that year 1 was the year when the Lord was first among us. Okay? Now when would the year have started? Well, Jesus was born on December 25, but his conception was presumed to be nine months before that. So, March 25 was the first day of Year 1. March 25 was New Year's Day. Hard to get your head around that, isn't it?

So when accounting first began many businesses, guilds and/or cities adopted March 25 – March 24 as the accounting year. "But," you reply, "how do we get to April 6 – April 5 as the tax year?"

Well, hundreds of years ago the calendar was changed to adjust the leap years/leap days rules to better keep the calendar in line with the sun. So, what was March 25 was suddenly April 6. Hence, the accounting year changed and, therefore, we got the strange tax year that prevailed here until 2001 (and which still prevails in the UK).

Now fast forward to 2001. The government decided to make the tax year line-up with the calendar year. The move meant that the tax year ended 3 months earlier than it had, but the government decided not to shift the deadline for paying and filing. So we now have 10 full months to clear up our tax affairs after the tax year ends.

Unfortunately, for some of us that means an extra three months of procrastination and does nothing to alleviate the tension associated with the last week of October. October 31 remains the scariest day of the year.

* In a bid to reduce the amount of paper the revenue authorities need to handle, the the filing date is extended by two weeks for those who file and pay online.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Halloween - Irish invention, American export

Posted by TheYank at 10/27/2009 10:38 AM EDT

Halloween was invented by the Irish, but when I first moved here it wasn't that big a deal. Not when compared with the Halloween I remembered as a kid in Queens & upstate New York. Back in 1995 I took my daughter out trick-or-treating for the first time and it was something of an eye-opener for me. We went to five or six houses and two handed her the traditional Irish Halloween treats: an apple and some nuts. The other houses had nothing.

Apples or nuts, that was the tradition here. Kids who rang the bell didn't say, "Trick or treat" they asked, "Any apples or nuts?" (The nuts are called 'monkey nuts' and are peanuts in their shells and are strangely unpleasant compared with the peanuts you get in America.) There wasn't much of a tradition for dressing up either. Some kids might have thrown on something that their mother or father owned, but that was about it. Mostly what you had was youngsters with fireworks. And bonfires.

Everywhere you went in the weeks before Halloween you'd see piles of garbage - empty boxes, mattresses, couches, loads of empty pallets, even car tires (Uggh) – waiting for the big night when the bonfire was lit. There are still bonfires, but nowhere near as many as there used to be and they seem to be better controlled as to what can be added to it (no tires). Too disgusting, too many injuries and too much clean-up afterwards for much of modern Ireland, which has mostly turned its back this tradition and I don't miss it at all.

The bonfires are gone (or going, anyway), but not the fireworks. The fireworks seem to be more extensive nowadays with a lot of fathers involved in putting on their amateur displays (bottle rockets & roman candles mostly). I could live without it.

The biggest change in Halloween is not the demise of the bonfire or the growth of the macho father fireworks shows, but the Americanization of the day. As Frank McNally put it in a column for the Irish Times last week, Ireland may have invented Halloween, but then
we exported the cheap raw materials for the festival, lacking the inclination or wherewithal to process them ourselves. Then the Yanks developed the ingredients into a more sophisticated product, with slick packaging, and exported it back to us at a large mark-up.

Which is true. Ireland now has a version of the Halloween I remember as a kid. Decorations on the windows, carved out pumpkins as jack-o-lanterns and kids in costumes – generally store-bought – going door-to-door collecting chocolate bars and other candy. Apples and other fruits are frowned upon as are the dreaded monkey nuts.

The whole adult Halloween thing has even caught on here, although that's always struck me as kind of creepy. Halloween was, and should be, for kids.

So, we have an American Halloween, although so far we don't have the religious, political, excessively child-protective objections to the day that seem to have ruined the day for kids in many towns across America. Not yet, but I expect to start hearing that stuff any day now.

Happy Halloween.

Monday, October 26, 2009

I doubt De Valera was a spy

Posted by TheYank at 10/26/2009 8:36 AM EDT

I guess I should wait to read the book, but right now I'm very skeptical of the claims coming from historian John Turi. According to today's Irish Independent, Turi is a retired retired US naval officer and historian John Turi from Princeton, NJ.

According to the article in the Independent Turi has a new book coming out in which he claims that Eamon De Valera was "England's Greatest Spy." I'm skeptical for a number of reasons.

First, it's not as if De Valera's life has not been the subject of in-depth historical study before. De Valera had a lot of detractors when he was alive and at least as many among historians since his death. There have been quite a few biographies of De Valera. I read two: one by Tim Pat Coogan and the other by Ryle Dwyer. I've also read many other books about Ireland during the period, 1900-1925 and Ireland during the Second World War. Not one of those books ever suggested that De Valera was a spy.

Coward? Yes. Trouble-maker? Yes. Fiend? Yes. I've come across each of those, but spy for England? Nope. Never.

Another reason I'm skeptical is that despite what Turi seems to say, I don't think De Valera had to trade something so crucial to remain alive at the time they were executing the '16 men. De Valera wasn't so high-ranking among the Easter Rising leaders that his execution was high on the list of priorities for the British. By the time it was De Valera's turn to face the firing squad pressure from within Ireland and from America was already on the British authorities to halt the executions. I suspect any good excuse to not execute De Valera would have done the British at that time.

And, lastly, Turi says Irish neutrality during WWII was "a hoax on the Irish people and a major boon for English interests." I can't see how keeping Ireland out of the war, while helping the allies with their effort is anything other than a good deal for Ireland. Hoax just seems such a strange claim.

Like I said, I'll have to read the book, but Turi had best have very strong evidence to back up his assertion and not just a lot of psycho mumbo jumbo. Right now the little snippets we have sound more like a marketing trick than real history.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Driving us back to our homes

Posted by TheYank at 10/24/2009 3:38 PM EDT

At a meeting last Tuesday 20 members of the Fianna Fáil party publicly objected to the government's proposal to reduce the blood alcohol content limit for drivers. Despite all the problems in the Irish economy, health system, etc. it was this issue which caused the biggest ripple in Fianna Fáil for sometime. Their complaint centered on the fact that the lower limit will discourage rural people from going to the pub at all and a part of their way of life will disappear.

It's a difficult proposition to defend driving after drinking – especially in the face of what is a very emotive campaign by those backing the proposed change – but that doesn't mean that the 20 don't have an argument.

The government proposes to reduce the allowable limit of alcohol – technically the Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) limit – from 80mg per 100 ml of blood to 50mg. The new limit will make Irish law among the most restrictive in the EU and more restrictive than the law in the United States and Canada.

The Road Safety Authority, a government agency, is the driver of this change, pressuring the government and pump-priming the media with projections on the numbers who will die if this change is not made. They have also involved relatives of victims of drunk drivers to lend their extremely credible and effective voices to encourage us to support the government's move.

The RSA's campaign is a difficult one to refute. After all it's not easy to argue with those who are trying to save our lives and there's always the fear that your wife or son or daughter could be killed in the same random manner as those whose sad and/or angry faces are asking us to back the lower limit. Yet, each of these unfortunate victims of drunk-drivers was killed by someone who was over the current limit, not the new proposed limit, which begs the question, 'Is the problem the current limit or current enforcement?'

The RSA has not made any real attempt to explain the change or even accept that there might be a counter argument. They brow-beat and they fear-monger. That's about it.

For example, the RSA says that under the new regime one drink will put a driver over the limit. But, for how long? How long does it take for that drink to wear off sufficiently to allow a person to safely operate an automobile? The RSA will not say, although it would be helpful to know (on average) how long will it take for a person's BAC to get below the limit after a drink (that is, for it be safe to drive).

All you ever hear from the RSA is that if you're going out you should either take taxis or not drink. Okay, for me that isn't all that onerous, but if I'm in a restaurant the new law will mean I cannot have a glass of wine with my dinner. Does this mean I can't enjoy my dinner? No, but the wine adds to my dinner, just as desert does. The omission of either lessens the enjoyment. And as for the taxis, well, the extra €20 also has the effect of lessening the enjoyment.

Like I said, I'm not that put out, but others are. One of the great social problems in modern Ireland is the isolation and loneliness of many of Ireland's old, single men, of whom there are many. President McAleese recently launched a new initiative with the GAA to tackle this problem, which she herself had identified based on her travels and meetings up and down the country.

The RSA and its backers say that these men should go to the pub and not drink. That's the sort of indifferent glibness that passes for argument from the RSA. They don't even acknowledge the near impossibility of pubs existing where nobody is drinking.

Is the marginal increase in road safety worth it if we take away the last bit of social life that these men have? Already men over 65 living alone are the second most 'at risk' group to suicide and the rate is rising. I can't see how this move to force these men to stay home more will alleviate that problem.

Sure it would be great if there were no road deaths associated with alcohol, but such a utopia is unachievable. We have to make trade-offs, between our freedom of action and safety. The BAC represents one of those trade-offs. We need to get the level right.

Anyone who's ever driven a car knows that there are all sorts of things that can make someone less sharp behind the wheel. Is a BAC of 60mg more dangerous than
(a) driving tired; (b) driving when late for an appointment or work; (c) driving when distracted by troubles at home; (d) driving with children fighting or playing in the back of the car. Maybe it is and driving after a beer is far worse than each of those, but I'm dubious.

I can't help thinking that lowering the BAC is merely an easy option, something that will simply discourage people from going out socially at all, which will inevitably lead to fewer road deaths and enable the RSA to trumpet its success. A success built on denying many the simple pleasure of a glass of wine in a restaurant and others all the social life they know.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bruce O'Springsteen

Posted by TheYank at 10/19/2009 8:01 AM EDT

A week ago or so I mentioned my first trip to Ireland back in 1985. This week's news that Bruce Springsteen is Irish is another reminder of that trip to Ireland. Why? Because my first trip to Ireland coincided with Bruce's.

I can still remember clearly walking around Dublin on the morning of the show. I was on my own as Tom & I had split up for a few days. I was due at my Aunt's house that evening. I was eating a sandwich in some coffee shop in the center of the city and I got talking to some guy about my age. He asked me if I was going to see Bruce at Slane later that evening.

I don't think I was even aware that Bruce was in Ireland at the time. He said he could get me a ticket and the bus to the show would cost me £25 (less than $25 at the time). I was tempted, but after a brief pause I said, 'No.' I thought it would be too rude to my Aunt, who, after all, I didn't exactly see all that often.

So I passed up the chance. Later on when I got to my Aunt's house she was surprised to see me. Her first words were, "Oh. I thought you'd have gone to Slane. I'd love to have gone." She meant it.

I quickly recognized that my Aunt would have thought I was insane if I'd told her that I opted to spend time with her and her four young children (oldest was 7) rather than with 60,000 other people my age, including my wife who I didn't know yet, enjoying a great night of music and revelry on a a beautiful summer's evening. I kept the ticket offer to myself, although I think I told her later.
The next day I went to a Gaelic football game in Meath and there were a lot of kids my age there still signing and dancing while watching a pretty dull affair on the playing field. I remember how weird it was listening to them singing "Born in the USA" with their Irish accents.

Now, with hindsight, it doesn't seem as strange now as it did at the time. In 1985 he told the crowd at Slane that his grandmother was from Ireland, which may not have been accurate. It seems she was born in the USA. But she was Irish too. Similarly, Bruce's fans here are Irish, but 'born in the USA' too. So many of their hopes and dreams are fired by America, its culture and its appeal as the land of opportunity that spiritually everyone here is at least partially 'born in the USA.'

Although I passed on the Slane show I've seen Bruce four or five times here and he always mentions his Irish roots. Bruce knew he was Irish and didn't hide it. He always seems quite proud of it.

Irish people love Bruce and recognize that his songs are about them as much as they're about anyone from New Jersey or Oklahoma or Arizona, which makes this week's 'news' was hardly news at all.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I've decided — President Obama should come for the ND vs Navy game in '12

Posted by TheYank at 10/14/2009 6:28 AM EDT

This idea just popped into my head, but I think President Obama should come to Dublin for the September 1, 2012 college football game between Notre Dame and Navy. A few years ago I thought the game was a bad idea, but given the sea change in attitudes to the United States in this country since last November's election it doesn't seem like such a bad idea anymore.

At the time the game was announced I thought the anti-Americanism here would spoil the day, but if the President came it would change the atmosphere to one of unadulterated joy. {Unless President Obama's star wanes significantly over the next three years.}

It would be a good time for the Irish government to have the President visit because the influx of all those Navy personnel - even if only those based in Europe come, it'll be a lot - will be a security nightmare for the government. Croke Park and anywhere else that members of the United States Navy congregate will be a target for those whose anti-Americanism is a far greater worry than the feisty-little-sister attitude that too often prevails here.

The security is going to have to be very tight in Dublin in the run-up to that game because, let's face it, seven years is plenty of time to plan something odious and America's terrorist enemies might see Dublin as a soft place to carry out such an attack. Having the President here at the same time would allow the government to smother the city in security and deflect the annoyance of the locals who will be happier to greet President Obama than those who serve under him in the Navy.

So, that's settled then. President Obama to visit Ireland in September 2012. I'm preemptively dismissing all those concerns about re-election, party conventions, etc. that will be in full swing during 2012.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The debutantes ball

Posted by TheYank at 10/9/2009 6:13 PM EDT

I've lived in Ireland for 18 years now and during that time I've experienced pretty much every big Irish occasion - baptisms, weddings, funerals - all of them but one. Until last night, when my daughter went to her 'debs', which is the Irish for prom (not really - I made that up).

So, how does the Irish debs compare with the American prom? Well, the debs is basically a senior prom. It's a formal dance, where the girls wear long dresses and the boys wear tuxedos.

Luckily for my daughter's date it's not 1981. He was wearing a classy-looking black tux with a black bow tie and plain (enough) white shirt. When I went to my junior prom (I skipped the senior prom) I wore a hideous baby blue tux with with a baby blue shirt with ruffles ... ... horrific. Thinking back to that outfit is like a bad dose of LSD - the flashbacks are unbearable.

Yeah, the 'debs' is basically the same idea as the prom, only you don't go to the debs while you're in high school (secondary school), but about 4 months after you've finished there. That's the strangest thing to my mind.

These kids are already well ensconced in their new, college lives yet they have to set aside a night - a weeknight too, which rules out going to classes for a day and a half - to go to their first reunion. It's like a combination 4 month reunion and a prom. Strange. Yet, other than the one girl who's now going to college in America, all of my daughter's class showed up last night.

Having such a formal dance four months after graduating would never work in America because high school kids scatter as soon as the summer's over, heading to colleges near and far.

At first I thought I'd wax lyrical on all the differences between an American prom and an Irish debs, but the truth is I know nothing of proms in America other than my own.
I have no idea if it's normal for parents to have parties in their houses on prom night - parties that continue even after their son or daughter has left for their big shindig. We didn't do that, but many (all?) the other parents apparently did. (I was just glad that I only missed two innings of the Phillies & Rockies.)
I have no idea if parents would take days off work and take their other children out of school on prom day as parents of my daughter's friends did yesterday. (We didn't.)
And, I have no idea if there are places in America where kids go to four, five, six or more proms as some around us are doing? The fact that so many of the boys and girls go to single sex schools means that some of each get asked to the debs at a number of schools. I don't know how any parents could for their daughter to go to 5 debs - these things are expensive.
Where I grew up there was one school for all the boys and girls in about a 10 mile radius. There was one prom on offer and I don't think any parents had parties that continued on after the prom-goers had left. But, for all I know, that could be the norm in other parts of America or even New York State. Maybe over the last 28 years the way proms work has changed in my town. No idea, but if they have I think they - like the debs - use a bit of down-sizing.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Dublin in the 00s, the 1900s

Posted by TheYank at 10/6/2009 5:41 PM EDT

I'm about a third of the way through a short biography of the mostly forgotten Irish Nationalist Tom Kettle. I was interested to read about him after I learned that he was a Nationalist MP, who died in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. I found his name on the monument at Thiepval.

No, not more WWI I hear you say. Well, not today. I'm not even going to try to summarize Kettle's life here. Not much anyway.

No, what I want to talk about is Dublin in the early 1900s. At that time Dublin was the center of a budding national revival. The Irish language revival movement was flourishing in Dublin. The Gaelic Athletic Association was flourishing in Dublin. Of course, there was a literary revival led by Yeats, Synge, Lady Gregory, George Russell (AE) and others.

And there was a political revival going on as well, with the Irish Home Rule Party bouncing back after the battering it took following the fall of Charles Stewart Parnell in 1890. In addition, Sinn Féin was born at this time and its found Arthur Griffith was also making a name for himself and his movement. Eamon De Valera has just appeared in the story and even ex-Tammany Hall head Richard Boss Croker turns up to help a Nationalist candidate in a January 1906 election.

What amazes me is how exciting Dublin in the 1900s seems. Kettle was in the mix of all of them. He was younger than Yeats and Lady Gregory, but he knew them - even if only at something of a distance and they knew him. Kettle knew better those who were his own age, friends of his from college. Oliver St. John Gogarty, Padraic Colum, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and others who made names for themselves in 20th century Ireland.

Kettle also knew James Joyce and Joyce's younger brother Stanislaus. Joyce flits in and out of

the Kettle biography, but I can see why he chose Dublin in 1904 for his masterpiece. The place a bubbling cauldron of political intrigue and artistic - mostly literary - experiment and endeavor.

In fact, reading Kettle's biography is making me want to read Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man and Ulysses again (read both in college - sort of) and maybe one or two others. All the people Joyce wrote about in his novels - including Kettle's wife Mary Sheehy, who Joyce had a crush on before Kettle and she were a couple - seem so alive and interesting in the Kettle biography.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Don't let hotels and restaurants charge you in dollars

Posted by TheYank at 10/5/2009 1:33 PM EDT

It's time for more free travel advice.

Back in May I offered the opinion that the travler's checks of years past are no longer necessary. I recommended that you use your ATM card to get cash (depends on the charge for using your ATM) and your credit card wherever you could. That's still true, but after Saturday night's experience I want to amend my credit card advice.

On Saturday night my wife and I went out for a meal. All was fine right up to the moment it came time to pay. I decided to use my Capital One US$ credit card rather than my local euros credit card. Why? I don't know, every so often I wonder what it's like to behave like an American tourist.

Using the American credit card puts two issues in play and I wanted to see how this establishment handled them. The first is that lack of a chip on the American cards. Over here the credit cards have a small microchip that adds layers of security to our credit/debit cards (so we're told) and requires a PIN in order to use it. We don't sign for credit card purchases these days, but rather enter a PIN at the checkout.

The gold 'chip' can be seen on the left hand side above the card number.
I've heard of a few retailers who won't accept the American style, chipless cards, but I had no trouble on Saturday night. I doubt any retailer that deals in American visitors would refuse a chipless card. That would include hotels, restaurants, visitor attractions, car rental companies, etc.

The other issue is more odious because it's a semi-hidden extra charge that some hotels and restaurants are adding to Americans' bills. On Saturday when I presented my card the waitress took it away and came back a few minutes later with a slip for me to sign. Only the price of my meal had changed from euros to dollars. I wasn't asked if I wanted this done so I was surprised when I saw the change to dollars.

This is really annoying because the exchange rate that the hotels and restaurants are using is - in my experience - much worse than you'll get if you just let the credit card company handle the currency exchange. Now, for my meal it wasn't a huge deal - maybe $3 or so - but if you're spending a week or two at a hotel that difference would be huge. And, even if it's only $5 on a meal, why should you pay it?

The key is to NOT let them charge you in dollars. (And this goes for car rental companies too, although I'm not sure if they do this sort of thing or not.) At a minimum they should ask you if you'd like the final total in dollars. If they ask, say 'No'. If they don't ask and they present you with a bill in dollars ask them to refund the purchase and redo the sale in euros, although you may lose money on the purchase and refund*.

* Your credit card company may use two different rates for the purchase & refund, which would mean you'd lose out on the refund. I'm not sure how you might get that lost money back, but I'd have no problem asking the hotel/restaurant to refund that difference when you've established what that is.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

When the bells tolled for me

RTE Television unveiled a new version of the Angelus a couple of weeks ago. It wasn't a huge news item here – notwithstanding the Irish Times' decision to put the story on the front page – but the 'new 'Angelus was the subject of some comment and debate.
{Here's one from Christmas a few years ago. I assume the new one is less religious than this one. When I first moved here the television picture was simply a shot of a painting of Mary with baby Jesus.}

Whenever the Angelus comes up for public discussion I'm reminded of my introduction to it. I was raised in a Catholic house, went to Mass every Sunday (still do), but I'd never heard of the Angelus before I turned up in Ireland in 1985 following my junior year in college. I had no idea that Catholic churches rang their bells at noon and 6pm and that the bells were a signal to Catholics to say the prayers of the Angelus. I never heard the 'Bells of the Angelus' in Clifton Park, NY or at Manhattan College in the Bronx.

Nope, no idea what the Angelus was before May 1985. That month my friend Tom and I were traveling around Ireland, visiting relatives in various parts of the country. It was our 3rd or 4th day in the country when we showed up just before noon at some elderly relatives (that's how they seemed then, anyway) of Tom's in Feakle Co. Clare.

Everywhere we stopped the relatives were incredibly welcoming. These people were no different. They had no idea we were coming to visit, but 5 minutes after we arrived the man (can't remember their names now) had abandoned his chores in the field to talk with us while his wife started whipping up a small feast.

Before long we were stuffing food in our mouths, yapping away between bites. Then it happened. Tom elbowed me in the ribs, which I mistook as a signal to wipe my face, which I did, and went on stuffing & yapping. A second elbow and I looked up and realized that our hosts had put their forks – and heads – down and were praying. It was then I became aware of the sound of bells coming out of the radio near the table. It was noon and the Angelus was playing on RTE radio.

Of course I instantly slammed the brakes on my mouth and sat silently, not exactly sure what was going on, but sure our hosts were wondering what sort of an ignorant pagan had their relative brought amongst them. Oh yeah, that was the real beauty of the moment: Tom knew all about the Angelus and what to do because he'd been to Ireland only year a or two earlier.

So I sat uneasily, but silently with half a fried egg in my mouth waiting for the bells to end, but dreading that moment at the same time. I was sure that my relatives would be disgusted with me if they knew what I'd done and that those who were dead were calling down curses on my heretical head.

Posted by TheYank at 10/3/2009 1:18 PM EDT

As soon the bells finished and the man and woman picked up their knives and forks again I started blurting out apologies. Fortunately they were nonplussed by my behavior and put me at my ease. We had a great stay with them and a day or two later when a similar situation arose at different relatives, mine this time, I was able to behave myself like an old pro when it came to the Angelus.
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Tags: religion, media

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

It's time for a Fr. Doyle Square in Dublin

Posted by TheYank at 9/29/2009 10:35 AM EDT

You know who Fr. Duffy is, right? (If you don't, well, we need to remedy that. You can get a snippet here.) Anyway, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers had their own Fr. Duffy during World War I. He was Fr. Willie Doyle, a Jesuit priest originally from Dalkey, Co. Dublin, who was a hero to the men of the 16th (Irish) Division in the British Army just as Fr. Duffy was a hero among the men of the Fighting 69th later in the war.

Fr. Doyle's first taste of combat was at Loos in France in the spring of 1916 at the same battle where, I believe, my wife's was killed. From the first day his unit went into battle Fr. Doyle ministered to the troops with no regard for his own welfare. He heard their confessions, said Mass for them and, frequently, dashed out into danger to give a dying man last rites. He also risked his life to help retrieve wounded soldiers.

In this more comfortable and cynical age it's difficult to appreciate how important Fr. Doyle was to the men of the 16th Division. They were predominantly Catholic and much more committed to their faith than today's average Catholic. And that was before they were stripped of all worldly comforts and forced to live in trenches and face bullets, shells and poison gas.

General Hickie, commander of the 16th Division, wrote of Fr. Doyle:
Many a dying soldier on that bloody field has flashed a last look of loving recognition as our brave padre rushed to his aid, braving the fearful barrage and whistling machine-gun bullets, to give his boy a last few words of hope.

Two monuments along a road near the Messine Ridge in Flanders. The one on the left is for the "Loyalist" Ulster 36th Division and the one on the right is for the "Nationalist" 16th Division. The two divisions fought side-by-side in June 1916 in one of the war's rare clear-cut successes. Fr. Doyle was with the 16th Division then, but frequently found himself among the 36th.
Hickie also said that Fr. Doyle was "one of the bravest men who have fought or served out here." Fr. Doyle was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery during the 16th Divsion's assault on Ginchy during September 1916 during which thousands of Irishmen were killed.

Fr. Doyle was killed on August 16, 1917 during the infamous Battle of Passchendaele. Like thousands of others who died in that muddy hell-hole, Fr. Doyle's body was never identified.

Perhaps the greatest testimony to Fr. Doyle's commitment to the Irishmen who fought and died in WWI comes from this anonymous Ulster Protestant who wrote to the Glasgow Weekly News after Fr. Doyle's death.
Fr. Doyle was a good deal among us. We couldn't possibly agree with his religious opinion, but we simply worshipped him for other things. He didn't know the meaning of fear, and he didn't know what bigotry was. He was as ready to risk his life to take a drop of water to a wounded Ulsterman as to assist men of his own faith and regiment. If he risked his life in looking after Ulster Protestant soldiers once, he did it a hundred times in the last few days. . . . The Ulstermen felt his loss more keenly than anybody, and none were readier to show their marks of respect to the dead hero priest than were our Ulster Presbyterians. Fr. Doyle was a true Christian in every sense of the word, and a credit to any religious faith. He never tried to get things easy. He was always sharing the risks of the men, and had to be kept in restraint by the staff for his own protection. Many a time have I seen him walk beside a stretcher trying to console a wounded man with bullets flying around him and shells bursting every few yards.

Father Doyle's body was never identified. He's listed along with 35,000 others on the wall at Tyne Cot Cemetery near the town of Passendale in Flanders. Coincidentally, his name is beside that of the Reverend John Eyre-Powell, a Protestant Chaplain also from Fr. Doyle's hometown of Dalkey, Co. Dublin.

Father Doyle was recommended for a Victoria Cross, the highest honor for a soldier in the British Army, but it was denied because, according to his biographer, the "triple disqualification of being an Irishman, a Catholic and a Jesuit, proved insuperable."

It's well past time that this is put right. He should get that Victoria Cross now (if that's possible, I have no idea). More importantly, he should be honored in Dublin. New York has Fr. Duffy Square, but there is no Fr. Doyle Square or even Fr. Doyle Street in Dublin. There should be.

jacersisityourself wrote:
Thanks to Yank for this article. Nice little bit o' history that I wasn't taught about. I never heard of Fr. Duffy. If a heroic man needs to be recognised, then let him be recognised. There are many others who are recognised by monuments etc who weren't actually heroes or heroines, just famous people. Let's give recognition to the rightfully entitled ones. Given your story, Yank, I agree... But even if Fr. Duffy isn't recognised in memorium, or in a statue, at least we can be comforted that God will recognise his work on His behalf. *High fives*
9/29/2009 6:49 PM EDT

Ajreaper wrote:
Yank I very much appreciate and enjoy your "history lessons" thanks for a very interesting piece of history.

Both Father Duffy and Doyle would scoff at being honored as they would view what they did as not heroric but simply doing thier jobs- we should honor men such as these anyway.
9/29/2009 9:56 PM EDT

TheYank wrote:

Yes, Ajreaper, you're probably right, but I wonder if Fr. Doyle wouldn't concede to allow such a monument to him if it helped revive the memory of the men he served with. It is almost impossible to convey just how much the Irishmen who served in WWI have been blanked from history here.

I know that to an American you might think, well, what about Vietnam? And it is sort of analogous, but not quite.

It took a few years for Americans to come to terms with the war in Vietnam and to honor those who died and give the vets their due, but the Irishmen who served in WWI fought for an army that was then later discredited in the eyes of a great many people here and in the official history of this state. The veterans never spoke of their service; the maimed suffered silently; the dead were never honored.

This is despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of them joined up at the behest of Irish nationalist leaders who told them that fighting for Ireland's honor and for Belgium against a ruthless German foe would secure home rule for Ireland - a 100+ year old dream.

So, I guess I'd like to see Fr. Doyle honored because it will indirectly honor all those thousands of others who didn't deserve what they got, even if it was understandable in the context of the War of Independence and the need for a new country to develop its own myths and heroes.
9/30/2009 9:52 AM EDT

Ajreaper wrote:
Yank- I never thought about it in that light before. Thank you for the explanation and the example of Vietnam very much paints the appropriate picture for me about how WW1 service for an Irishman was viewed- I would hope they were, at least, not looked down upon for their service by many as American vetrans of Vietnam were. I completely agree Fr. Doyle would concede if it brought attention to the sacrifices of the men he served. The service and sacrifice of men and women in uniform should be honored and respected regardless of one's politics or opinion of any conflict they serve in.
9/30/2009 1:30 PM EDT

jacersisityourself wrote:
On a tourist trip to beautiful Austria, I visited a church to say me prayers. Afterwards, I went into the adjoining graveyard. I was privileged to see families' honouring their sons and daughters who died youngly in battles that they didn't know what they were fighting for. Vietnam comes around again. Young people being sent to war on behalf of Old Men? Again, pls explain the American sacrifice in pursuit of the harmony that doesn't exist in the US of A.
9/30/2009 8:28 PM EDT

kickstar wrote:
I don't agree with anything being named after any clergy, Brothers, priests,nuns bishops,Cardinals,Popes ministers, or vicars I am sure you get the point.It gives the false impression that they are somewhat better that regular folk and we now know that is far from the truth.Being that so many of these folk have been found guilty of sexual and physical abuse against children and it still goes on......
9/30/2009 9:56 PM EDT

kickstar wrote:
yank you are so full of it, The British were only too glad to award the VC to an Irish man and did so very many times and certainly during a grinding standoff like the first world war as it helped with recruitment as for priests were not issued with arms and were not as such under orders so it was quite unlikely that any would be in a position to win a VC, Can you imagine the Citation "He fearlessly sprinkled holy water (as he called it)all over the trench as the shells rained down".. Here are some Irish VC winners.....
9/30/2009 10:14 PM EDT

Ajreaper wrote:
LOL, so Kickstar because some- and I would presume a small minority of clergy were involved in such terrible crimes we should paint them all with the same brush? How pathetic and small minded is that?

The vast majority of Priests are decent men who would no more harm a child then the average person would- no one should be held accountable for the sins of others.
9/30/2009 10:29 PM EDT

Padraig wrote:
Kickstar. You truly are a jaded one. Yank writes and correctly describes a good man with no prejudices, religious or otherwise. You seem very quick to point out negatives. Yes allot priest have done terrible things but so many have done so much good. People should be honored, no matter of their background. You, my jaded tart, are racist. Not in the traditional sense, but you have the combined intelligence of a goat and are as closed minded as moth to a flame. You are not able to get out of the way because of a one tract mind. You say this would give a false impression to honor a man's greatness. We as human beings need human heroes, something that we can aspire to. Humans are capable of the worst atrocities and if judged by history, we are the most terrible animal on the planet, capable of genocide. Honestly you think the Germans were the first? What about the British trading small pox filled blankets to American Indians? That killed 3/4 of the whole population. They didn't have the immune system to combat. Genocide can go farther back than that, but the point is we need heroes. There needs to be some light in the darkness, no matter where they come from. If a man grabbed your family members hand on the edge of a cliff, would you tell him to let go because he was a Catholic Priest? Or would you say pull them up? If you said pull them up, “Does that give the wrong impression.”
10/2/2009 2:13 AM EDT

TheYank wrote:

First of all, thank you for that link to the web page of Irish VC winners. I'll have to have a good look at that. My first impression is that very few of the WWI winners were from the Irish Divisions - 10th and 16th. Will have to look again.

Second, I never said that the British didn't award any VC's to Irishmen, I quoted Fr. Doyle's biographer who said that Fr. Doyle had three disqualifying marks: Irish, Catholic & a Jesuit.

As for your belittling of Fr. Doyle's bravery, that barely requires a response. General Hickie described Fr. Doyle "as one of the bravest men" who served under him. That's among thousands. You may think the sprinkling of holy water a matter of amusement, but your view is not relevant. What mattered is how the men felt about Fr. Doyle's work among them.

Also, Fr. Doyle often left the relative safety of the trench in order to retrieve a wounded soldier or - as that anonymous Protestant attests - to bring water to soldiers. Bravery has nothing to do with having a bun in your hand.
10/3/2009 1:12 PM EDT

TheYank wrote:

I'm wary of contradicting you because I'm not 100% sure myself, but the only incident I know of where the small pox blankets were used was actually as a weapon of war during what we call the French & Indian War (the Seven Years War on this side). I think it was in an attempt to lift a siege near what is Pittsburgh today. Again, I'm not that sure of my memory on that score.
10/3/2009 1:15 PM EDT

TheYank wrote:
Bravery has nothing to do with having a bun in your hand.

Too funny. There's a lot of bravery required when eating a hot dog in a bun from some of those street traders in NYC.

Obviously, I meant "gun in your hand."
10/3/2009 1:17 PM EDT

chicagoaoh wrote:
Dear Yank,

I very much appreciated your piece on Father Doyle. It has personal significance for me. My Mayo grandfather (who was of age in WWI but joined the IRA instead) had a 1920 copy of Alfred O'Rahilly's book "Father William Doyle, S.J." throughout his life. My grandfather said it was one of his favorite books, and was please I was interested in it when I visited my grandparents. After he died in 1976, my grandmother gave the book to me. It remains one of my treasured possessions. Doyle's was a unique story of courage and faith, and I am pleased you wrote about it.
10/4/2009 1:06 PM EDT

Padraig wrote:
I'll be bit more clarified in the future. Your correct 7 years war Lord Amherst. and mmm. by the way. I liked this piece.
10/5/2009 1:24 AM EDT

TheYank wrote:

I wish I had a copy of O'Rahilly's book. You're fortunate to have one. It's hard to find. You can find a copy of the text online here - which is where I got a couple of the quotes above - but I'd like to own a copy of the book.

I'm very interested in your personal story. I've often wondered how IRA men of the time felt about Fr. Doyle. Your grandfather obviously thought highly of him.
10/5/2009 4:44 AM EDT

edmundburke wrote:
Dear Yank,
I have a two screen names here, because I forgot my first, so I am both chicagoaoh and edmundburke.

Since you were curious about my grandfather in the IRA and his subsequent veneration of Fr. Doyle, I thought I would give you some information about him.

His name was James Curry and he was born in Mayo in 1891. His nationalism was ingrained in him growing up through the general nationalist sentiments of his east Mayo Catholic community and his involvement in the GAA, in which he played excellent football.

His GAA athletic career allowed him to score a lower level position with the railroad. Since he had such a job, he did not have to enlist in the army and escaped service in WWI. (As you know, conscription never went into effect.) Like many others, he was radicalized by the English response to the Easter Rebellion and joined the IRA by 1920. (Whether he was a member of the IRB before that I do not know.) Even though he was 29 then, he was one of the younger members of his east Mayo unit (interestingly). Due to his age, lack of seniority, and his job with the railroad, he was specifically not assigned to armed duty but was assigned to report on the movement of personnel by railroad. In so doing, he was able to report on troop movements and informer movements, the latter leading to reprisals. He volunteered for one military action but did not make the cut. During the last week of the war, the auxiliaries came to his town of Swinford to round him and his comrades up, but he was able to escape to the surrounding fields with the help of townsmen. While he was in hiding, the Truce was declared, and he returned to civilian life. He did not take part in the civil war. He was decorated for his IRA service in the War of Independence, and my grandmother gave me his medal after his death in 1976. The identical medal is on display (or was) in the Kilmainham Jail museum.

My grandfather became a Fianna Fail supporter. Other than that he did nothing political for the rest of his life. He was a devout Catholic and socially conservative. He told me in the 1970s that he did not favor IRA physical force in the North. As I mentioned, he admired Fr. Doyle. His sympathy to the IRA extended to his old comrades and ended in the 1920s. I hope this answers your questions.
10/6/2009 9:46 PM EDT

TheYank wrote:
Dear edmundburke,

First of all, have you looked for your grandfather's family in the 1911 Census? Be sure to check the House & Building Return. It's can be interesting when you're looking at your ancestors' hand-writing.

Thank you for the your grandfather's story.

10/7/2009 11:56 AM EDT
jacersisityourself wrote:
Lovely bit o' story by edmundburke/chicagoaoh. I hope the GAA back here in Ireland see it and record it in their future annals.
10/13/2009 7:41 PM EDT