Monday, May 31, 2010

Honoring the Irishmen who died serving the CSA

Today is Memorial Day, a day when Americans honor those who died serving the nation. Elsewhere on this site you'll find an excellent article on the Irish/Irish-American recipients of the Medal of Honor. It's great stuff.

However, there's one group of Americans who did not die serving the United States of America who we also honor this day. Memorial Day is also for those Americans who died fighting for the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, although it took a good few years for everyone agree on that.

Of course, among those Americans who died fighting for the Confederacy was a large contingent of Irishmen. At the moment I'm reading Green, Blue and Grey, which is about the Irish involvement in the war and I have to admit I'm surprised by how many predominantly Irish units there were in the southern army.

I'd never really considered how many Irishmen had made their way to places like Birmingham, AL or Nashville, TN before 1860 or that so many New Orleans Irish had joined the Confederate cause. Although I had a vague idea that Irish units faced each other at Fredericksburg, the book's author points to numerous other battles where Irishmen were opposite each other.

Patrick Cleburne was one of two foreign born Major Generals in the Confederate Army. Cleburne was from Cork and was as senior partner in an Arkansas law firm when the war started. Cleburne joined as a private, was elected Captain and was soon a General. His cool head saved the Confederates at the battle of Chattanooga in November of 1863. Cleburne was killed at the Battle of Franklin, TN in 1864.

To my shame I have to admit I had only a vague idea about the Davis Guards before I read this book. The Davis Guards - named for CSA President Jefferson Davis - were 47 men, all Irish, who prevented a Union flotilla carrying 5,000 men from entering Texas via the Sabine River.

The Davis Guards were led by Dick Dowling {photo} from Tuam in Galway and his foresight and planning saw off the flotilla, forcing its retreat. The Davis Guards were "the only Confederate unit to be awarded a medal of honor during the war by the Confederate government."

Sunday, May 30, 2010

18th Century Irish manor 'priced to sell'

This week the Irish Times reported that a property for sale has had it's price cut. Last June the family of businessman Tony Ryan, who died in 2007, had put his 600 acre Co. Kildare estate on the market. The family were hoping to get €80m for the "Georgian stately home" and surrounding lands.

According to the Irish Times Ryan {photo} had spent millions on repairs and refurbishments and "threw all his energies into creating one of the finest estates in the country" after he acquired the property in the 90s.

However, Ryan's family learned the same lesson that thousands of Irish home-owners have learned in recent years. This is not a seller's market.

This week the family announced that they have reduced the asking price to €50m. Obviously, that represents a significant cut in the price. However, if you happen to have some spare cash around and you think you might like a 600 acre estate in Ireland you might want to consider this: the decline in the price as measured in dollars is even greater. Last June the Lyons Estate would have cost you $112m. Today it can be had for a snip at $61.4m - a 45% savings.

How can you resist?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Rest may elude Bono at his Dublin home

Bono might be returning home to recover after his back surgery, but rest might be harder to come by.

I have sympathy for Bono, suffering with his bad back. I'm sure if I was 20 or so my reaction to Bono's injury would be something along the lines of, "What's that old guy doing anyway, trying to behave like a young rock star. He's lucky he can still stand at the microphone." But, I'm in my mid 40s and can fully understand why Bono doesn't want to give up yet. Who wants to be old?

The media says Bono will do his recuperating in his home on Killiney Hill in south County Dublin. What better place? It's beautiful there. Tremendous views looking out over Killiney Bay from Bray to Dalkey and Dalkey Island {photo}, with its medieval church and 19th century Martello Tower.

I went for a walk in that neighborhood earlier in the week. It's just a perfect place. So quiet that the predominant sounds are the birds in the trees and the sea crashing off the rocks below. And, at the moment many of the roads around Bono's house are closed to traffic due a to a rock slide in the area, making it seem even more secluded.

If you have to recover from serious surgery, Killiney Hill is probably about as good any place I can think of. Except for Bono's house right now.

Bono was clearly not anticipating spending a lot of time at home over the next few months, what with his hectic tour schedule (the tour he was training for when he got hurt). He was probably figuring he wouldn't be home much before Christmas. His wife and children probably arranged to be away a lot too.

Why do I think that? Because Bono, as as a lot of people would do, decided to get some work done around the place while he was away. From the looks of it, he's getting a lot of work done. From what I could see his house is one big building site. I'm not certain, but I think Bono and his wife must be getting a whole new top floor. The house suddenly seems a lot more visible than it used to be and there's scaffolding all around the top.

Oh, and there's a huge crane looming over the house, doing the things cranes do, making the noises cranes make. And based on the number of what looked like workmen's cars parked on the road outside Bono's gate I would guess his house is crawling with workers too.

Will they leave him alone? Probably will, actually. That's how Irish people generally are. Still, life in a building site is hardly going to be stress free. I don't care who you are or how much money you have, the sound of things crashing around, the sight of workmen spilling cups of coffee or bags of cement in your house is hardly the recipe for a restful recovery. Bono might do well to reconsider coming home to get over his surgery.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Open the window to let in the warm Irish air - insects too

As any visitors to these shores this past weekend could tell you the weather has been fantastic. Forget all that moaning about the cold - this weekend we had mid-summer temps. (And, yes forecast is for them to head in reverse, but the memories of this weekend will sustain us for a while.}

The weather was tremendous on Saturday and Sunday. It wasn't too shabby on Friday or Monday either. And today again, sunny and warm, down to mid-60s from the weekend's highs in the mid-70s, but in Ireland mid-60s is a pretty warm day.

On these warm days you have to open the windows of course. Back door too on the really warm days - like this weekend. I've lived here long enough to feel like I'm melting when the temperature hits 74°F.

The only downside to all this is the lack of screens on the windows. No screendoors either. I don't really know why, but the most common windows - those that seem to be on at least 95% of houses - don't have screens and can't have screens. To open them you turn a handle and push out the window. You couldn't put a screen on such a window. Oh maybe you could, but I can't see how. Regardless, I've never seen window screens here.

There are no mosquitos in Ireland, unlike where I grew up, which probably explains why we have no window screens. Still, I get fed up chasing flies and moths and the occasional wasp out of the house. Screens would save me that hassle.

Don't take me the wrong way. It's a little hassle. I'm not longing for the cold weather to return.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Ireland's corporate tax rate not a factor in economic bust

During the Celtic Tiger years there were all sorts of articles in the press outside Ireland trying to explain why we were having such a boom. Some were better informed than others and just about everybody better than Tom Friedman, who declared that it was thanks to "free" college education and national health care. (Can we now blame college professors & doctors for the bust?!)

Given all the attention the Celtic Tiger received it's hardly a surprise that there are many who are now trying to explain what went wrong. Again, however, some are way off the mark. This week we had two prime examples.

Richard Murphy on the Guardian's web site and two economists, Peter Boone & Simon Johnson, on the New York Times' web site identified Ireland's low corporate tax rate as a primary cause of the burst-bubble economy we have now. They are wrong, wrong, WRONG.

Ireland's 12.5% corporate tax rate is one of the best things that the Irish government has done from an economic policy perspective. The low corporate rate is one of the (often the only) key incentives to attract footloose capital to Ireland, which is after all a fairly underpopulated, small island with difficult transport links to Europe's main population centers. The recent disruption to Irish commercial life caused by the volcanic ash made that pretty plain.

There is a lot of guff spoken about how foreign companies are attracted to Ireland's "well-educated population", but there is no way that any American (or other) company can objectively assess the Irish education system and compare it with any other EU nation's. The best we can hope for is that we believe our own propaganda so that we make a convincing case to those corporate heads who are looking for an EU base.

It is true that we have a younger population, which I'm sure helps bring in companies like Oracle, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and others. Still, I doubt that would be sufficient if not for the fact that those companies know, without a doubt, that their profits here will be taxed at 12.5%. The tax rate is so important that no major political party makes a case against it and it is often spoken of as being so crucial to Ireland's economic well-being that the Irish government would block any EU move to force a change (sort of a nuclear option).

I don't know what their motives might be, but these gentlemen would be better served investigating the effect of being part of an economically inappropriate (for Ireland) currency union or the failure of government regulators to control the banks than to deny the success and benefits of one of the government's few genuine successes. 12.5% is what it is and where it should stay.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Walking away from mortgages will be Irish emigrants' revenge

A couple of recent reports here say the fall in house prices is declining. That's the good news. House prices are still falling, but at least they're not going down as fast as they were.

I know American house prices have also declined, but nationally the price of the average American house is down about 20% from the peak. Here prices are down about 50% and we have another 10% decline to go - at least. {Ireland's experience matches that of Las Vegas, which is appropriate given the way the government and the banks kept doubling down time after time til the bubble finally burst.}

In the area where I live I've seen two "SOLD" signs recently and those are the first in quite a while. That had me believing that maybe we were really near the bottom and that things might get better.

HOWEVER, this past week I came across another report, this one aimed at investors in residential property. The report focuses on Dublin, Cork & Galway so it's not a full national picture, but still the headline figures are chilling. Houses are still overvalued by somewhere between 37% and 43%! That would mean that a house worth €500,000 in 2007 will eventually fall in value to around €150,000*.

Already approximately 40% of Ireland's homeowners are in negative equity. How many more will end up there if houses are still 40% overvalued? It doesn't bear thinking about, although looking away probably won't make it go away.

What does this mean for Ireland's future? It means a generation or more of Irish people are trapped. They can't move to a bigger house as their family expands and they can't move to another part of the country if there is a job there for them. Trapped.

Unlike in America, Irish homeowners can't just walk away from their mortgage. Bankruptcy laws are different and the bank can (& will) pursue you for the loan even if you've handed back the keys. The only way someone can walk away from a mortgage is to walk away from Ireland, which I suspect many will eventually end up doing.

At least that will make a change. In the past, official Ireland was all too relieved when the potentially discontented, underemployed young people left for opportunities abroad. This time, at least, they'll take their free college educations and leave behind a big hole in our already devastated banking system.

For the first time departing emigrants will be able to stick their fingers in the eyes of those whose policies drove them away.

*I'm willing to believe I'm misreading or misunderstanding these reports. If I am please let me know.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

No need to ban plastic bags

I read recently that lawmakers in Vermont may tax plastic shopping bags and some in California want to ban them completely. If the Irish experience is any guide there is no need to ban them. The tax will do.

It's been 8 years since Ireland introduced a 15c tax on every plastic bag. During that 8 years the plastic bag has almost disappeared from view. Oh sure you can still find them and every so often you'll see some sucker paying (now 22c) for a bag, but mostly you see people using reusable canvas bags rather buying the plastic.

I can't recall all the arguments in favor of the plastic bag tax when it was introduced, but I do remember what I think was the main one: blowing plastic bags seemed to be everywhere. No matter whether you were in a city or in the country you'd see plastic bags hanging from bushes and trees or lying in the gutter. They made the place look trashy.

It didn't take long for that to change. Most Irish people seemed to immediately vow that they would never pay for a plastic bag. And they didn't. Within a few months plastic bag use had declined by 90% and the blowing bags were gone. They have never reappeared.

I doubt many people would thank the government if it repealed the tax now. I'm probably as negative on the law as anyone and even I can't deny the benefits.

What's my problem with the law? Well, first of all, I don't like the idea that law-abiding citizens must be punished because the state is incapable of enforcing its laws (on littering). Also, I won't pay for a cheap plastic bag, I don't like having to remember to bring a bag with me and (mostly) I don't like walking to the store with an empty bag swishing along with me.

One of the more amusing effects of the law in our family is that my daughters love having shopping bags from stores you don't find around here. So we have bags from Wal-mart, Hannaford Brothers, Sainsbury's (UK) and Carrefour (France) in our vast collection.

So, when I was in America at Easter time I thought I'd try something that might appease me on those walks to the store. I took a cue from my daughter and decided I'd buy a bag I'd feel better having with me as I walk along. Hence, the bag in this picture here {left}. And it helps, a little, but it still swishes.

Friday, May 14, 2010

'Say nothing' culture makes Ireland an Islamic extremists' safe haven

Ireland is a hotbed of Islamic extremism. Shocking, right? Of course it is. However, that's the view of Imam Ali Al-Saleh, who is the head of Ireland's biggest Mosque, the Islamic Cultural Centre in Dublin {photo}.

Speaking to the Sunday Tribune newspaper Al-Saleh said many of the extremists came to Ireland as asylum seekers and now their children are becoming adults, taking over university societies, brainwashing other students. These "indigenous" extremists are being bolstered by students from the Middle East.

This may explain why American Jamie Paulin-Ramirez came to Ireland after she told Colleen LaRose (aka Jihad Jane) in an e-mail that she would like to join her in Europe at a place that would be both a jihadist "training camp" and home. As Al-Saleh puts it, Ireland is an extremist "safe haven" and an al Qaeda "base."

Yet, unlike France, Britain, Holland and other European countries, Ireland does not have a large Muslim population. Ireland has no colonial legacy among the Islamic nations - there is no Irish equivalent to Algeria, Pakistan, Indonesia or any ex-colony among the Muslim nations.

There are only 30, 000 or so Muslims in Ireland (approx .75% of the population) and no areas where they live in large numbers. There is no Irish equivalent to Marseilles, Bradford or Detroit. Muslims are, as Al-Saleh says, "an integrated part of Irish society."

There are no Muslim neighborhoods teeming with loads of innocent Muslims just trying to fit in and get by, amongst whom extremists can hide, using the innocent mass of Muslims as a shield. So where are Ireland's Islamic extremists hiding? In plain sight, it seems.

This is why I think Jamie Paulin-Ramirez's marriage is so important to the story. True or not, I can easily see a situation where a public official might bend the rules to suit a Muslim, immigrant couple because we 'mustn't judge' and 'we must accommodate them' are two overriding themes when it comes to Ireland's treatment of immigrants.

Irish people are actually very reticent when it comes to criticizing people, despite the "fighting Irish" stereotype. Most Irish people wouldn't complain in a restaurant even if there was a worm in their soup.

This reticence combined with a relentless, dogmatic campaign promoting multiculturalism has the effect of muting criticism and thwarting questioning. Most Irish people would be very reluctant to say anything even if they heard a 6 year old boy recently arrived from America saying "all Christians will burn in hellfire," as Paulin-Ramirez's son said to his grandmother, Christine Holcomb-Mott {photo}.

Paulin-Ramirez's brother Mike described her son's school in Ireland as "a radical Muslim school." He made that assessment from 4,000 miles away.

I would bet there are plenty of people in Waterford who feel the same way about the school attended by little Christian, now Walid, but who would be very wary of saying anything publicly. This is the culture, the atmosphere, the society in which the radical Muslims are thriving.

Al-Saleh cannot be the only one. The Christian majority have to join him in condemning this sort of thing. Otherwise we risk becoming al Qaeda's European headquarters, a place where silence abets Islamic terrorism.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Where did Jihad Jane plot suspects marry?

Something's bothering me. Where did Jamie Paulin-Ramirez get married?

You might remember Jamie Paulin-Ramirez. On April 2 Paulin-Ramirez was arrested in Philadelphia after she arrived on a flight from Ireland. Paulin-Ramirez had been arrested and released in Ireland in March in conjunction with the so-called Jihad Jane plot. Paulin-Ramirez is a Muslim convert, but not Jihad Jane, which is a pseudonym allegedly used by fellow American, Colleen LaRose.

Paulin-Ramirez {photo} is from Colorado and according to the federal indictment against her Paulin-Ramirez left America last September, around the 12th. She arrived in "Europe" the following day and Paulin-Ramirez "married CC#2, whom she had never before met in person." (CC#2 is unidentified in the indictment, but it seems pretty clear CC#2 is Abu Nabil Charaf Damache or, sometimes, Ali Charaf Damache.)

Nowhere in the indictment does it say that Paulin-Ramirez traveled to Ireland on September 12. Only Europe is mentioned. However, Paulin-Ramirez's mother Christine Holcomb-Mott says her daughter "went to Ireland" with her young son.

Given that Damache was living in Waterford at the time and that Paulin-Ramirez was living in Waterford when she was arrested in March it seems likely that she did, in fact, come directly to Ireland from Colorado last September. That would also mean, if the indictment is accurate, that Paulin-Ramirez married Damache in Ireland that same day.

Yet, under Irish law that should not have been possible. Irish law mandates that couples intending to marry must present themselves to the Registrar three months before the wedding date. This applies to any marriage, whether it's a civil ceremony or religious rite.

For a while I figured that the indictment had to be wrong. Some of the Irish media referred to Paulin-Ramirez as Damache's "partner", which could have meant that the two were not legally married. However, this week's Waterford News & Star carries a letter from Damache written in a "detention center" in which he refers to Paulin-Ramirez as his wife.

So, I ask, did the two get married on the day Paulin-Ramirez arrived in Ireland? If yes, how could that be?

I don't think it can be a case of the two marrying in Islamic law, but not legally in Irish law. "There is at present no provision for the civil registration of Muslim marriage ceremonies solemnised in the State," according to this web page from an Irish government body. And if the marriage was not legally recognized in Ireland I doubt the federal authorities would have used the word "married" in the indictment.

I can only speculate, but I would guess that they found a sympathetic civil Registrar, one who was willing to overlook the law on the three months notice. Maybe he (or she) was duped, lied to or bribed. I don't know.

Or maybe he (or she) was uneasy at the thought of saying 'No' to these people from a religious minority. Even though that might sound far-fetched, offending minorities in today's Ireland is what spitting on a Catholic priest would have been in the 1950s - not so much a legal offense as a social crime of the highest order.

All of this might seem a very minor point, but I think it hints at a bigger issue. Why Ireland? Why did Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, a woman who the federal government claims wanted to move to Europe to "to live and train with jihadists," come here to live?

'Say nothing' culture makes Ireland an Islamic extremists' safe haven.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

It's summer, but don't pack away the winter coat

I offered my daughters some fashion advice the other day that I thought I'd share with you: May is the new February. Dress accordingly.

It's been cold here. Not icy, but cold. Too cold for the first week of May, which in Ireland is the first week of summer. ("Summer?", you ask. "Yes," I reply, "in Ireland summer runs from May 1 through July 31." "Why?", you ask. "Well," I reply, "I don't really know, but that at least puts midsummer right around June 23 when Midsummer is celebrated. I guess.")

Anyway, back to the cold. Last Friday evening I was out for a post-dinner walk with the family along the seafront in Bray, Co. Wicklow. It was breezy and pretty cold, probably in the mid to high 40s. It wasn't late; the sun hadn't even set yet. Besides, the east coast of Ireland is not the kind of place where it's 85 at midday and 35 at midnight.

It was a cool day followed by a cold evening heading into a cold night.

That was when I passed on my advice. One of my daughters was decidedly under-dressed for the weather. She'd read the calendar, not the forecast. That was the 7th of May and it had already been a cool first week. This week has, if anything, been cooler. Temperatures are struggling to reach 50.

None of which is all that interesting, unless you're planning to visit Ireland soon (might want to pack an extra layer of clothing).

It's just that we're coming off the coldest winter in 40 years and now I'm wondering if we're about to have an equally cold summer. Seeing as no one has mentioned it, I presume that ash from the volcano in Iceland won't affect our weather, unlike 1816 when an eruption in Indonesia produced 'The Year Without a Summer'.

No, probably nothing to do with the ash or the volcano. Just one of those things – a cold spell. Still, there doesn't seem to be any warming in the offing, which means my fashion advice still stands: dress as if it's February. Unless, you're like these three guys (below) and decide that regardless of the weather the calendar says it's summer and you're going to behave accordingly.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Gerry Ryan's pro-America view will be missed

Gerry Ryan was a giant on Irish radio and there's no doubt that people here are shocked by his sudden death last week. I still find it hard to believe that he won't ever again fill three hours daily on the national airwaves.

To be honest, I wasn't a big fan. Often his show ventured from earthy to bawdy to crude. I usually bailed at earthy.

Other times he dealt with stuff I simply had no interest in - the everyday little things that are important when they happen to you. He'd take calls from people who were having trouble getting a passport or dealing with noisy neighbors or a cheating auto mechanic. I know a lot of people liked his personal approach to radio - it was like a one to one conversation with 300,000 people - but it's just that when I listen to the radio I prefer a discussion on politics or economics or sports.

Having said all that, there was one aspect of Gerry Ryan's persona - and, therefore, his radio show - that I really liked: Ryan was no anti-American. In fact, I'd say that Ryan was the most pro-American radio or television personality in Ireland. For that reason, I'm going to miss his presence.

He wasn't a ra-ra, 'Yay America' guy, but Ryan didn't take his cue from those sneering arbiters of correctness who seem to like nothing better than taking a shot at America. Sure he could be critical, but you were never in doubt that Ryan perceived America as a force for good in the world. If there's someone who can replace Ryan in that regard I haven't heard him or her yet.

Monday, May 3, 2010

'Foreigners' may yet end up running Ireland

I want to finish my thoughts about foreigners 'telling us what to do' from the other day.

You might recall that elected representative Ned O'Keefe (TD) said we don't need "foreigners running our business." What makes O'Keefe's argument almost amusing is that whether we have any choice regarding "foreigners running our business" hangs by a thread.

Look at Greece. The Greeks probably don't want foreigners running their business, but they no longer have the option to keep the foreigners out. The Germans are now Greece's masters. And while it's true that Ireland is not Greece, let's just say that financially and economically we're in the same neighborhood. Irish independence is on a knife edge.

Our new 'foreign' Financial Regulator, Englishman Matthew Elderfield, is actually doing a bang up job of trying to save us from the Greeks' fate. Unfortunately his efforts (and those of the head of the Central Bank and others) may be in vain.

We're in a very bad situation, trying to row back up stream against a strong current pushing us towards a waterfall. For that we owe thanks to some of those who O'Keefe {photo} calls "our Irish people who are well educated" and who O'Keefe would like to see remain in charge of "running our business."

O'Keefe's demand sounds like a sure-fire way to ensure that the foreigners really do start "running our business." I prefer the 'foreigner' working for us any day.