Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Tourists should not be hassled for bridge tolls

Ireland's Minister for Tourism is in America at the moment in an effort to encourage more of you to come on over for a visit. Great stuff. American visitors get a good welcome here and, well, there are many tourism related enterprises that could use the business.

There two things Minister Mary Hanafin should tackle to make the visitor's experience even better. Both relate to driving in Ireland, which can be stressful enough for visitors to this country. I'll deal with one of those two today.

The first issue relates to road tolls and one toll in particular. A few years ago the government eliminated the toll booths on the M50, which is the main highway that runs around Dublin and connects the Belfast road with the roads to the south and west. It's a key road.

When the government got rid of the toll booths they didn't just forgo all that toll money. Oh, no. They installed a license plate scanning system that records each trip on the road as it crosses the River Liffey.

This development freed up the road; no more lengthy back-ups at the toll booths. All car owners can register their car so that the toll is automatically deducted from an account via their credit/debit card. Kind of like the E-Z Pass system only you don't have to slow down. You can zip through at 65MPH. There are no booths at all. No toll booths where tourists and others can pull up and pay the toll.

That's the crux of the problem. For tourists this becomes a real hassle. The car rental companies are at pains to point out to tourists that they must pay these tolls if they use the M50. And, the only way to pay the toll is to find a store that has the facility to let you do so.

There are a couple of stores near where I live that provide this service, but none of them has easy parking, which only increases the hassle. A tourist has to (a) find one of these stores and then (b) find somewhere to park near to the store and go pay the €3 ($3.65). Oh, and they have to know the license plate number when they get to the counter or it's back to the car to check.

I've never had to go looking for one of these pay-points, but it is easy to imagine how frustrating this would be when you've arrived in a strange country and you're just figure out the roads. You just want to get where you're going and begin to relax and enjoy yourself, but no.

Having to remember to pay the toll is bad enough, but then you must hunt down a shop that may or may not exist, in a town you don't know, with no phone and most likely no suitable map. And you have to do that by 8pm the day after you cross the bridge.

And you may not even realize you've even crossed the bridge {photo of bridge's underside above}. I've talked to a couple of Americans who've driven over that bridge without even being aware of it. It's not hard to miss the signs indicating you've crossed the bridge and there's absolutely no indication on the road itself: no change in surface or even paint, no steel structure overhead that is a feature of most bridges, nothing that shouts out, "This is the toll bridge you've heard about."

This is just plain stupid. Tourists should be exempt from this toll or at the very least, paying it should be no hassle. Instead you have visitors coming here whose last experience of Ireland will be a charge on their credit card for a toll they knew nothing about AND a €50 ($60) fine. What sort of lasting impression is that creating?

This isn't rocket science. The government should exempt tourists, but failing that at a minimum they should make it so that rental companies can add these costs (& nothing more) to the rental bill in order to minimize the upset to tourists. It's simple common sense.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Irishman may have solved baseball's broken bat problem

An underemployed Irish roofing contractor believes he may have the answer to a problem that is plaguing Major League Baseball. Flan Marsh of County Clare is hoping that a treatment he developed for hurleys, ash sticks used in the Irish game of hurling, can be adapted for baseball bats and help rid Major League Baseball of the scourge of broken bats.

Over the last decade or so MLB has seen a significant rise in broken bats and injuries related to those bats. Stories about fans being injured by flying pieces of bats - like the boy hit in the head by a broken bat in Milwaukee during the early part of this season - have become all too common. Players and umpires are also at risk from broken bats.

Marsh developed his treatment for hurleys because of his concerns for the safety of those who play hurling. Hurling is more like lacrosse, with lots of close contact clashes with opponents. These clashes often lead to broken hurleys where the hurley breaks in two with knife-like sharp ends flying amidst the players.

Marsh's hurleys will still break, although breaks are less common. However, when one of his hurleys breaks the two pieces stay together {see photo above} - no sharp missiles are launched.

I think Major League Baseball might well jump at Marsh's development, so long as it doesn't affect the flight of the ball. That will be the real test. The last thing the baseball authorities want is media and fan complaints that the bats are "juiced", although given the pitchers' dominance this year they might secretly cheer a bit more offense.

Something that would save them the bad press and even lawsuits from broken bats flying into the stands would probably sound enticing.

I hope Marsh's approach to MLB works out for him. It's a great story. However, even if MLB turns him down he may well be onto a winner with youth and high school baseball leagues. Many of those have recently banned (the repugnant) aluminum bats because of fears that the metal bats hit the ball too hard. Pitchers can't respond fast enough to protect themselves.

Metal bats have been legally banned for youth leagues in New York and North Dakota. Many other youth leagues have imposed their own similar bans. Metal bats are increasingly being replaced by wooden ones.

One of the worries about a return to wooden bats is cost: metal bats are cheaper because they need to be replaced far less frequently. If Marsh's treatment can solve the problems caused by metal bats, but also make the wooden bat less breakable he could help tip the balance in the direction of wood over metal. He may just be the right man, with the right idea at the right time.

{picture of broken bat in crowd from AP-Charles Krupa}

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Nothing unAmerican about USA's World Cup team

Every four years the same articles appear in the Irish and British press about how Americans don't understand, don't 'get' soccer, err, "the beautiful game." They love to portray Americans, tediously, as looking for touchdowns or home-runs in soccer games.

The journalists who repeat these statements from Americans do so earnestly, not seeming to realize that it's an American way of saying soccer is a big yawn. Although people here can sometimes wax lyrical about the great defense in a 0-0 game that sort of scoring pace doesn't interest a lot of Americans.

However, this year those stories seem to be less common, possibly because it isn't just Americans who've been bored by this World Cup or possibly, just possibly, because they've realized that there are many Americans who do 'get' soccer.

Maybe that's why on Saturday the Irish Times ran with a different variation on the 'Americans & soccer' theme: conservative Americans don't like soccer because it's somehow "unAmerican" or even "Hispanic." As evidence Davin O'Dwyer cited Glenn Beck and G. Gordon Liddy, who uttered negative remarks about soccer, although only Liddy attached his argument to anything even vaguely "Hispanic."

I can't totally fault O'Dwyer, however, because I've come across similar views in the American press. In fact, last week NPR's web site published a piece that said much the same thing as O'Dwyer, basically claiming that race and ethnicity were contributing factors to Americans' failure to love the "beautiful game."

The race/ethnicity argument is laughable and it's a shame that someone outside America would repeat such nonsense. You only have to watch America's sports to realize how wrong that is: black stars dominate basketball and football and baseball features many, many players from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, etc. Conservatives watch those sports, root for those players as much as liberals do. There's not much of a political angle in Americans sports.

Sure some Americans like soccer and some don't. I know plenty of Americans who don't like soccer. They find it boring or can't understand why anyone would watch or play a sport where the opposable thumb is an unnecessary appendage. I also know many Americans who love soccer. Political considerations have nothing to do with it: liberals and conservatives fit into both camps.

Among those who love it are many who've taken to watching the English Premier League and Champions League thanks to satellite television. Mostly these are men who are sports fanatics and who had a gap in their lives for live sports at 10am on Saturdays and Sundays or mid-afternoon on weekdays. European soccer was able to fill that gap.

These guys have a pretty good understanding of soccer. They're watching the World Cup pretty intensely and using the internet to source sports radio discussions or are using Facebook, Twitter, bulletin boards and chat rooms to get more information, analyses and opinions. The World Cup, like the Olympics, also attracts a lot of other American fans, people who'll watch this big festival of soccer, but who wouldn't consider themselves ardent fans of the game. Their interest will remain pretty high so long as the American team stays in the tournament.

All of which brings me to the most important issue of the day: the US team's must-win game against Algeria (10am on ESPN). If you watch you'll see the faces of the American players are the faces of America, their names are not solely Hispanic, but represent all of America and the players give every appearance of being extremely proud to wear USA on their jerseys when they play. UnAmerican? I don't think so.

What's more, Americans take can take great pride in the team because despite being far from the most talented side at the World Cup the USA team plays with real heart, never gives up and leaves it all on the field. What more could we ask for? Go USA!

Monday, June 21, 2010

The ideal time to visit Ireland: RIGHT NOW

What follows is an upaid ad for the Irish Tourist Board:

If you can drop everything you have on your plate at the moment and grab a flight to Ireland for the upcoming week, you couldn't pick a better time. The weather is fantastic and it's supposed to remain so through the weekend (at least). It's warm and sunny and, this is the best part, this is the longest day of the year.

If you live somewhere near the 40o line of latitude (New York, Chicago, San Francisco) you're used to the sun setting around 8:30pm at the time of year. Here it sets around 10pm. If you're lucky enough to be in the west of Ireland that means it's daylight til after 11pm. All those hours of sunshine are a boon to any tourist, so long as you're energetic.

And, of course, the dollar has strengthened against the euro, which has helped make Ireland seem a little less costly to any American visitors these days. On top of that, many prices have fallen thanks to the pretty severe deflation we've experienced over the past 12-18 months.

So you have good weather, long days and, well, more affordable goods and services. Like I said, you could hardly pick a better time to come visit.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

RTE provides masterclass in sports broadcasting

Ireland's national television channel RTE's coverage of the World Cup provides a model that American sports broadcasters should emulate. Actually, I'm not even talking about watching the actual games, although RTE does a fair job on that. I'm talking about the pre-game, half-time and post-game analysis and discussion of each World Cup match.

The World Cup draws a massive audience, including many people who don't watch a lot of soccer. Yet unlike what seems too common on American tv, RTE doesn't dumb down the coverage to meet the limited understanding of the game that some of the less devoted soccer fans might want or need.

There's no razzmatazz in RTE's production. A panel of two or three analysts and a director of the conversation sitting around a big table discussing tactics, performances and using nothing more technologically adventurous than instant replay.

The analysts are all unsentimental, intelligent, and opinionated, unafraid to go against the views of the mob or each other. Even their personalities seem like a slap across the face to an American sports fan used to fake smiles and/or "characters" among our analysts.

RTE's panelists range from clinical (Johnny Giles or Ronnie Whelan) to grumpy (Eamonn Dunphy) to dour (Liam Brady or Graeme Souness). For this World Cup RTE has worked in ex-German player Dietmar Hamann who has fit in well.

If you're a serious sports fan who'd like to understand soccer more, RTE's panel offers a university education. However, if you're a long-time knowledgeable fan of the game, you'll find plenty of food for thought. It's exactly what any sports fan wants from the broadcaster during a major sporting event.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Despite Ireland's absence, Irish keenly interested in World Cup

I know you're up to your eyes in Stanley Cups (congrats, Chicago), NBA Finals and the LeBron saga, baseball and Strasburg-mania, golf, NASCAR and other sports. Soccer news might well have passed you by, but if you were in Europe there would be no doubt that you'd be aware that the World Cup starts tomorrow.

You might be a bit surprised to learn how much emphasis the World Cup is getting here seeing as Ireland will not be playing in South Africa. The Irish team lost out when they received the Andres Galarraga treatment - the referee didn't see what he should have seen last November.

The depth of feeling on that matter all these months later has surprised me, but many Irish people are still really angry that France will be playing in South Africa and Ireland won't. In fact, some Irish people are so angry that they've announced that if it comes down to it they would rather see England win than France, and that's saying something.

Despite Ireland's absence the World Cup is a huge matter of interest here. We have five television channels and one of those five will be showing 56 World Cup games over the next month as well as hours of extra coverage with pre and post game analyses and highlight programs late at night.

It will nearly be wall-to-wall World Cup, with GAA and rugby thrown in for good measure. A full month with little time for anything other than sports. In other words, it'll be heaven

I don't know if 56 games is every single World Cup game, but if there are some games not shown on Irish television you can be sure that (a) there'll be a lot of complaints about what's been missed and (b) there'll be a lot of people looking for those games on the British channels. As I was saying, interest in the World Cup is intense.

So who will the Irish people be rooting for? Well, not America unfortunately, although I daresay that nearly everyone will be rooting for America on Saturday when they play England (2:30pm EDT on ABC).

It's not that Irish people will be rooting against America as such, it's just that, well, they don't exactly rate the American team very highly. They don't see the USMNT as likely to provide any memorable moments, other than the hoped for upset of England.

From what I can make out Brazil is the favorite here, based on the number of Brazil shirts in the stores. You can find shirts for many other countries too - I even found a small selection of adult USA jerseys (no kids' sizes, unfortunately; my son wanted one), which I didn't see in America when I was there in April - but Brazil, Argentina (Lionel Messi) and Spain (the odds-makers' favorites, America's 80-1) are the most commonly available.

I think most Irish people will be happy with a Brazilian win, but mostly they want exciting, entertaining soccer and don't much care who wins - so long as it's NOT England or France.

Tiger will get a warm welcome in Ireland

Tiger is coming to play in Ireland. It was confirmed yesterday. He's coming to play at the Invitational Pro-Am at Adare Manor in County Limerick.

You know what? He'll get a pretty good reception. I'm certain Irish golf fans don't give a hoot about what Tiger's been getting up to off the course and I bet that the vast majority of the Irish public will be more than happy to overlook Tiger's 'addiction problems'.

The Pro-Am is a charity event, which will only help boost Tiger's image here. In fact, I suspect the welcome will be so warm that Tiger might be tempted to stay a little longer.

Tiger was too perfect before, almost inhuman. I know that played well in America, but I think Irish people will actually like him more now, now that he's proven he's human after all. There's more than a bit of an aversion to the squeaky clean image here.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

TV program shows off Irish island in full glory

There are few times when television takes my breath away, but I just watched 30 minutes of television that did just that. It was a half hour documentary on Skellig Michael, the rock in the Atlantic off the southwest coast of County Kerry.

I've seen Skellig Michael in many photographs and even one or two video clips and other documentaries, but I've never seen it like it was presented in tonight's show.

Not only was the island looking great, but we got to follow the show's host as he climbed all over the rock, up to the rocky summit and down the narrow ledge of the ancient pilgrim's trail. All the while he was providing a great lesson on the rock's 1500 year history as a monastery and lighthouse location.

If you have 30 minutes to spare, you won't be sorry if you spend it watching this. You can see Part 1 here and Part 2 here. If you do you'll finish with a desperate urge to visit Skellig Michael yourself.

{It's in Irish with subtitles. I hope that TG4's web site does justice to the video and photography of the program.}

Friday, June 4, 2010

Neutrality doesn't allow for blockade running

During the two decades I've lived here I've grown used to hearing from the same protest groups as they have railed against every small bit of assistance that the Irish government has afforded the United States in matters military. For the most part that assistance has consisted of allowing American planes on their way to Iraq or Afghanistan to refuel at Shannon.

Generally the protest groups would say something like 'Allowing the Americans to use Shannon makes a mockery of our neutrality.' You know what? I'd agree with them, but I didn't think much of "Ireland's tradition of neutrality" anyway.

These protesters rarely represent a majority opinion, but always they manage to get a lot of publicity for their various causes because, well, they seem to have little else to do. They're professional objectors who seem to spend their days bombarding media outlets with press releases and organizing regular demonstrations.

Lately those protesters have turned their attention to Israel and Gaza. Not for the first time, it has to be said. While most of the protesters have stayed here in Ireland organizing marches and 'blockades' of the Israeli embassy, etc. a few of them have actually been part of the flotilla that's been all over the news here recently.

Now if that's what they want to do, if they feel that strongly about the plight of the people of Gaza, that's fine. I don't share their perspective, but part of me applauds their determination.

But, they should be forced to admit that the things they've been doing are not 'neutral' acts. Will they now stop pretending that Irish neutrality is the sacred cow they often make it out to be?

They don't agree with Israel's blockade of Gaza. Organizing protest rallies, etc. is fine. But, fitting out a ship, loading it up with items that Israel has banned and declaring that the ship is going through Israel's blockade is NOT a 'neutral' act. {By the way, have a read of this if legal stuff on conflicts at sea is your thing.}

And whatever about the protest groups, the Irish government's more than tacit support for those involved in the Gaza aid project is not the act of a neutral state. A truly neutral state would have detained the Rachel Corrie {photo} and not allowed it to leave Dundalk port on its well-publicized mission to run the Israeli blockade.

The Irish government did not do anything to stop the Rachel Corrie, other than force it to paint over the Irish flag with which the ship was initially adorned. MV Rachel Corrie is registered in Cambodia.

However, the Taoiseach Brian Cowen and the Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin have been pretty strident in demanding that the Israelis allow the Rachel Corrie to pass through to Gaza. The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) also warned the Israelis that they would face "the most serious consequences" (whatever that means) if any Irish citizens were harmed.

A neutral state would not be asserting itself so forcefully on one side of a conflict. A neutral state would be seeking ways to avoid confrontation with a belligerent party. So let's just ditch this 'neutrality' charade once and for all.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Mark your family's progress with 1901 & 1911 Census returns

The 1901 Census is now available online. For anyone interested in their family roots, this is a great addition.

Now you can actually compare the census returns from 1911 with those made 10 years earlier. Maybe you'll see little of interest or more likely you'll find something wouldn't seem interesting normally but it is of interest to you because it's your family.

For example, on my great-grandfather's 1911 Census form he indicated that only he and his wife could speak Irish. Yet, on the 1901 Census return he indicates that the two of his sons could speak Irish.

Or does he? The more I looked at the two returns the more likely it seemed to me that he didn't fill out the 1911 form. The handwriting is different. I suspect that one of the sons or daughters filled in the '11 form. Obviously not of much interest outside my family, but it's a minor mystery as to why two of my grand-uncles were listed as Irish-speakers in 1901, but not in 1911.

Also, as I said when I first brought up the 1911 Census, don't ignore the House and Building Return. Through those details I was able to see that my great-grandfather had added a room to the house {photo} and replaced the thatch roof with a new slate one during those 10 years. Sounds like things went well for him during the decade.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Revelations show politician to be a loving, honorable husband

News of the Al and Tipper Gore's separation came only two days after I watched an interview with Irish politician about his wife. The former leader of the Fine Gael party, Michael Noonan spoke movingly and lovingly about his wife Florence, who is now in a nursing home with Alzheimer's Disease. The contrast between Al Gore and Noonan is very stark, but at the same time both stories serve as a reminder that you don't really know what goes on in any politician's marriage.

Noonan {photo} was interviewed on TV about this side of his life that nobody - other than his family - knew about. Florence Noonan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's 12 years ago when she was 54. Michael Noonan decided to tell the story of his wife's illness and its impact on her, him and their children following an RTE investigation last week on Alzheimer's and the treatments and help available here.

{You might be able to view this interview here - go to around the 24" mark.}

I was amazed as I listened as I kept wondering how Noonan was able to carry on a normal life in politics while he was going through this traumatic experience. Even in Ireland politics is pretty high-pressure and carries a fair bit of media intrusion, although obviously nothing like what leading American politicians such as Gore have to endure.

Yet Noonan, with the help of their children, was looking after his wife as he assumed the role of leader of the party and fought the 2002 general election. How he managed to do this while nobody even in Fine Gael even seemed to know what he was going through is beyond me.

What I like about Noonan's desire to keep this private is that he must have been aware that one of his big problems was that he didn't have much charisma and his manner made him a fairly unsympathetic character. Basically he wasn't the kind of man who came across as likable on the television or radio.

On Monday night that all changed as I doubt there was a person in Ireland who didn't see him a new light. He came across as incredibly dignified and noble, two traits that would have helped him immeasurably in politics. Yet dignity was more important to him than a base attempt to use his wife's condition in a base attempt to win the voters' affections. Admirable.