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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