Sunday, October 31, 2010

If you want a traditional Irish Jack-o'-lantern, get the right turnip

Maybe it's just me, but it seems like the story of Halloween's origins is EVERYWHERE this year, which means that just about every local paper in America is letting readers know about the day's connection to Irish culture, folklore and immigration. It's all good stuff.

I just thought I'd provide a little note to all the stories about Ireland and Halloween, particularly as it relates to the Jack-o'-lantern. Most of the newspaper articles explain, rightly, that in Ireland a Jack-o'-lantern were carved out of turnips. However, this may or may not mean what you think.

What am I getting at? Well, I'm saying that what one person calls a turnip may not be what you call a turnip.

I only became aware of this a couple of years ago when I was home in upstate NY with my family. My mother took my son to the supermarket to get the groceries. At one point my mother told him to go over and get a turnip, which he duly did. However, when he returned with the root vegetable my mother wanted, some busy body lady butted in to inform my mother that wasn't a turnip, but a rutabaga.

When they got home my son related the exciting tale of the woman who tried to tell him that a turnip was called a rutabaga. (Oh and was that name ever fun for the 6-year-old boy.) My mother than calmly stated knew it was a rutabaga, but she also knew what she wanted and what she wanted was known as a turnip in Ireland and knew that's what my son would get her.

That's all well and good, except I was raised in America and never once did I hear that vegetable called a rutabaga. My mother, born and raised in Ireland, never used the word, but neither did my grandmother, born and raised in America. What was going on here, some kind of conspiracy to keep me in ignorance? I had passed my 40th birthday completely unaware that what I called a turnip many called a rutabaga.

My wife didn't know about the rutabaga either, but she deftly dropped into the conversation that in England they call them swedes. So, now I know that there are three different names for a vegetable that I only ever knew as a turnip. And, apparently, I've never had the 'other turnip', which is not yellowy orange. I bet it's not as tasty.

Anyway, this is all beside the point. What you need to know is that if you want to make a traditional Irish Jack-o'-lantern today you need to get a turnip/rutabaga/swede, the one with the purplish top and yellowish bottom. No other turnip will do.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

NY-based hero of Irish independence all but forgotten in Ireland

Naas, County Kildare is going to honor the county's native son John Devoy with a statue. All I can say is that it's about time Devoy got some acknowledgment.

Devoy is one of the giants of Ireland's long struggle for national independence. Yet he is almost completely unknown here, which is par for the course when it comes to Irish-America. {You can get some idea of how forgotten Devoy is here from the local Kildare paper, which says he was born in 1861. Devoy was actually born in 1842.}

It's great that Naas is commemorating Devoy, but he only lived in the area a short while. The statue will be in the center of the town. There is a memorial along the road near Kill, Co. Kildare, which is where Devoy lived as a small boy. It's great that he's remembered in north Kildare, however, truly, Devoy should be honored in the capital, in Dublin.

During his life Devoy ...
  1. Was a Fenian – he joined the British Army in order to enlist Irish soldiers to join the Fenians. The Fenians were badly led and Devoy and his fellow Irish rebels were easily thwarted

  2. Lived as an exile – Devoy spent four years in prison for his Fenian role and was released on condition that he never again set foot in the United Kingdom (Ireland or Britain). He went to New York, where he lived out the rest of his days

  3. Organized a daring escape – from New York Devoy organized an escape of his fellow Fenians who were imprisoned in Western Australia. In 1875 he arranged for a whaling ship to sail from Bedford, MA to Australia to rescue the men who got out of jail through the assistance of Devoy's agents. (The Catalpa story deserves a big Hollywood production, but they'd probably ruin it.)

  4. Worked tirelessly for Irish independence – Devoy devoted his last 50 years to Irish independence. He led fund-raising campaigns, promotional tours for leaders from Ireland, helped organize the Irish Race Convention in NYC in 1916 and edited the Gaelic American.
He wasn't forgotten at the height of the struggle for Irish independence; Padraig Pearse said Devoy was "the greatest of the Fenians" and when he died in 1928 his body was returned from New York for burial in Dublin's Glasnevin Cemetery. You'd be hard pressed, however, to find his name in any of the schoolbooks used today.

The statue in Naas is a great idea. A better idea would be a joint project, one that would see two statues of Devoy - one in Naas (or Dublin!) and one in New York. Naas could feature a young Devoy and New York the elder statesman of the movement that he was in the early 20th century. It would be great if the Naas folks could collaborate with Irish-Americans on such a project.

It would be even better if the people of Ireland would simply remember him.

{Read more in Terry Golway's excellent Irish Rebel: John Devoy and America's Fight for Ireland's Freedom. Image above thanks to UCC.}

Friday, October 22, 2010

Rooney fails on The Decision

What is wrong with English soccer players, their clubs and the people who run them? And what about British television channels? Don't they know anything? Any American could have explained to Wayne Rooney and his club Manchester United how to do this right.

For the past week or so we have had daily press reports about how unhappy Rooney is at United, how he would be open to playing elsewhere (Manchester City, Chelsea, Real Madrid, wherever). We've also had his manager explaining in somber tones how disappointed he is in Wayne and then exploding at the media for ... I don't know what, but just because he's Sir Alex Ferguson, soccer manager god.

Mixed in to all this were the tabloid stories about Rooney's marriage, whether his wife would forgive him or not and, amazingly, one story in today's Daily Mail about how Rooney's Mother-in-law was calling the shots on where he was to play his soccer.

You really had the feeling that the media frenzy hadn't yet peaked, that Rooney could be allowing the speculation to mount, generating suspense in us as if he were a Stephen Spielberg. But, lunchtime today Rooney announced that he had signed a new five-year contract and was staying at United. Just like that the suspense is over and we're left with a flat feeling of having been robbed. We needed something bigger.

This is where an American sports fan could have advised Rooney. Any of us would have said to him, "That's just not how it's done these days, Wayne. You don't just issue statements to the press with this sort of thing. No, no, no. You arrange for a one hour, prime time television program where you will announce The Decision. That's how young sports stars handle these matters nowadays."

It could have been great. A live audience in a small sized theater with two chairs on the stage. One for Rooney and one for an agreeable television sports personality, who would set the tone for the occasion. Heck, they could've thrown in a third chair for Rooney's Mother-in-law, which would have made Rooney's program much better than LeBron's. But no.

Now we're only left with "what might have been" because Rooney didn't follow the appropriate path. He has denied his fans and really all sports fans their due. He has not made The Decision.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Joining the euro was 1801 all over again in Ireland

In 1800 the Irish parliament voted to accept union with Great Britain, a move which was an economic disaster that snuffed out a burgeoning economy, led to decline, de-industrialization and, eventually, a disastrous famine that killed a million people and drove more than that out of the country. A complete catastrophe unrivaled in Irish history. If anything comes close, it was 1992.

In 1992 the people of Ireland voted to accept the Maastricht Treaty, an arcane document that few voters really understood. It committed Ireland to joining a single European currency, but the pluses and minuses of such a decision were never even considered in the run-up to the referendum.

The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Albert Reynolds sold the amended European Union treaty on the basis that we would get billions of dollars in aid and there would be no impact on our laws banning abortion. The only references made to the pending currency union were about how we'd enjoy the same low interest rates as the Germans. There was zero debate on the merits of joining a currency dominated by countries that, combined, accounted for about a third of Ireland's trade.

Today we're reaping what was sown in 1992. Most people here are blaming the "greedy bankers" or the "greedy property developers", but that doesn't explain why this property bubble and subsequent crash were so much worse than those that had gone before. Greed is part of the human condition and bankers' and/or property developers' greed is a constant.

No, another explanation is required and that's where the euro comes in. We exercise no control over the euro. Interest rates are determined to suit Germany & France, but the Irish economy does not move in synch with those economies. Ireland's two largest trading partners are the United States and United Kingdom, both of which are outside the euro. The fluctuations in the exchange rates between the euro and the dollar are not a reflection of economic conditions in Ireland, but serve to enhance our boom when America's up and Germany down and vice versa.

Anyone who visited Dublin before the bust would have recognized that Dublin's architecture is dominated by two eras: the recent boom and the late 18th Century. The Customs House, the Four Courts and Dublin's famous Georgian squares and many other buildings were built before 1800 by a confident, thriving Dublin. It wasn't just Dublin either. Great Georgian buildings can be found in other cities and throughout the country.

The modern equivalent of those great Georgian houses and official buildings are the large rural homes, the expensive apartment and the modern, confidence-oozing glass and steel office buildings that dominate our city centers. Gradually, however, those modern buildings and modern country estates are looking like symbols of another era, a time past, just as the Customs House would have seemed to 19th Century Dubliners.

Many people believe it will take nearly a generation to work through the problems caused by the recent boom and bust. Presumably this will not include anything like a murderous famine, but economic decline and emigration are sure to be part of Ireland's future for some time. And, just as in 1800, it was all avoidable if only Ireland's political class had recognized that union has a cost.

Monday, October 18, 2010

'Bankers' hours' – a phrase from another time

Bankers' hours. It was a phrase I was familiar with before I moved here, but I didn't quite understand it until I arrived in Ireland.

I had worked in a bank as a teller in Albany during the summer when I was in college. The bank opened at 9am and closed at 4:00. After closing the staff had to check their figures and paperwork and count the cash in their drawers which meant it was usually after 4:30 at the earliest before anyone left. Twice a week, however, we had 'late hours' when the bank reopened at 5pm for two hours. And the bank was open from 9 – 1 on Saturday mornings.

All in all, I never had the feeling that the people working there were under-worked. They sure as heck weren't underpaid as the rates of pay were pretty abysmal for tellers and the branch manager alike. {I'm not talking about me here. My parents were still housing, feeding and clothing me; I didn't need the money. I was making the minimum wage and saving most of it.}

All of this explains why I was so surprised when I got here and found out that (a) bank employees were fairly well paid as compared with wages generally and (b) banks were almost never open. The banks were open from 10-3 each day, BUT they closed for an hour at 12:30 for lunch. Suddenly I understood what bankers' hours was all about.

There were no late hours and no Saturday hours. If you had any sort of a job at all you probably couldn't get to the bank unless you opted for a late lunch and were willing to wait 30 minutes or so on line.

The banks and a large number of those who worked in them were arrogant. Nobody involved in banking seemed much interested in the customers' concerns. ATM's, which were a recent development when I first got here, were the only nod to the customers.

Gradually over the years the banks' hours changed. These days banks are open to 4 (5 on Thursdays) and the lunch break has been eliminated. A few years ago one Scottish bank tried to make its mark here by opening some branches on Saturdays.

That bank is now gone from the Irish market, but the other day I was in my own bank's local branch and they had a sign up advertising that they were now open on Saturdays. My first reaction was 'about time', but then I thought a little more and I realized they're too late. I only go into the bank two or three times a year. I do all my banking online these days.

Of course not not everyone banks online - yet, but that day is coming. Regardless, I can't understand why anyone would need the bank to be open on Saturdays, what with the ubiquitous ATM's and debit cards and telephone and online banking. Who cares what the bank's opening hours are now?

So it's come to pass that bankers' hours has lost all meaning here. Decades too late. Just as it was too late when the Irish people shed the deference they used to show bankers, a deference which the bankers arrogantly demanded before they ruined the country.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ireland is green, but her people are not

Ireland's winters and summers will get warmer thanks to climate change, according to a report published last week by a team of experts. The prospect of milder winters and summers is hardly the stuff of climatic nightmares. An Irish summer generally means temperatures in the 60s and winter, although not icy cold, is typically damp and raw, with temperatures around 40oF.

For the most part the issue of global warming, climate change (what have you) worries Europeans far more than Americans. At least that's my impression. However, the average Irish man or woman is hardly quaking in their boots and reports like last week's are unlikely to scare anyone into changing their ways.

"You have the Green Party in government," you might say. That's true. The Green Party has two seats at the ministerial table. Those ministers and others in the party make a lot of noise, but the party makes up less than 4% of the Irish parliament. And, even that share of the vote can be attributed in large part due the Greens' image as innocently incorruptible rather than as a sign of any great support for the party's views on saving the planet or whatever.

All the other parties utter appropriately green statements on occasion, but it's always obvious that the environment doesn't excite them. EU environmental regulations are strict and, well, membership has a price.

All of which explains how the same people who voted for a government that banned the sale of incandescent light-bulbs also took to SUV's during the boom years like ducks to water. It's a case of appeasing the EU on the one hand and letting the market decide on the other.

I expect this situation to continue well into the future. I mean, after all, why would the people of Ireland want to prevent their climate going from north Atlantic to Mediterranean? All we have to do is carry on as we have been and wait for 2080 to bring the good weather.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Troy, NY snubbed in two Irish documentaries

Twice in a few days Irish television has snubbed Troy, NY. Twice! And, let's face it, Troy doesn't exactly get a lot of opportunities to be featured in the media outside of newspaper and television reports in and around Albany.

Early 20th Century Irish revolutionary James Connolly was the topic of both programs. In each case the producers traveled to New York cover the time Connolly lived and worked in America. Connolly spent about seven years in America, mostly in and around New York, but he lived in Troy from 1903 to 1905.

I wasn't too surprised that the TG4 program skipped the trip to Troy, but I hoped that RTE with its bigger budget would have made the journey to the Collar City, birthplace of Uncle Sam. The RTE documentary is one of a highly-promoted RTE series, Ireland's Greatest. Given the importance of this series in RTE's calendar I actually presumed last night's installment would include something about Troy. I mean, come on, cut Troy a break.

I know a mention in an Irish documentary is hardly the stuff that a city's tourism and commercial authorities dream of, but it would have been nice for Troy to get the acknowledgment it deserves as having been home to Connolly for two years.

Yet, there's more to the omission than simple sentiment on my part. I'm genuinely interested in what Connolly did in Troy. I had always believed he had helped organize meat-packers in the city, but when I searched online all I could find was that he had sold insurance there, hardly the kind of work you associate with a socialist agitator. He lost his job when his employer went bust and he then moved down to Newark.

I was really hoping RTE's program would shed some light on Connolly in Troy for me. Did he continue his work for socialism and labor? Or was the plan that he would give that up, sell insurance and take care of his family - he had a wife and five children - in Troy only to be drawn back to those efforts for organized labor after the insurance company folded? Is it possible that one of the key leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising may never have returned to Ireland if his job as insurance salesman had worked out?

Unfortunately RTE left me with this gap in the Connolly life story, one that I'll have to fill in on my own.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Forced emigration is not a lark

Everyone with an interest in Ireland and/or the Irish should read Niall O'Dowd's column on the Working Abroad Expo, better known here as the Emigration Expo, held in Dublin over the weekend. O'Dowd describes a scene that is incredibly sad, thousands of people hoping to find an opportunity to work in Australia or Canada or just about anywhere.

If you worry that O'Dowd's description is a bit overdone, you can find similar descriptions of the Expo in today's Irish Times. According to Twitter posts I read, people were lined up for more than 100 yards in wind and rain just waiting for the chance to pay their €10 ($13.70) to talk to people who might have some insight on possible leads on jobs outside Ireland.

While these scenes are not surprising given the state of the economy here, what has really surprised me recently is the flippant, disdainful responses of some people in the media when the discussion turns emigration. Some talk about emigration as if it's not much of an issue, that the whole experience will do the emigrants the world of good. "I went to London for two years when I graduated." That sort of thing.

That kind of thing gets my goat. First of all it's not that straight-forward. As O'Dowd's and the Irish Times' reports make clear, many of those who are looking to leave are not young, recent graduates. Many at the Expo were in their 30s, some even in their late 40s. A large percentage of the would be graduates have families.

Even among the young and single, not all have been prepared for this step. They came of age in an era when they were promised that emigration was at an and. They bought into the proposition that you could go abroad for a year or two and return if you so desired. They expected that when they left it would be temporary, just to get experience. And those who never wanted to leave, felt no need to get that experience outside Ireland, would be able to stay and work here forever.

That belief is gone now as many of those who are looking to leave don't want to go and don't expect to return. They're emigrating, not going abroad temporarily. Glib descriptions of the benefits of emigration to Ireland or suggestions that we need to "redefine emigration" and claims that emigration is "not really a problem" reek of indifference and arrogance. Such talk is insensitive in the extreme to those whose lives have been turned upside down, who feel they must leave to avoid unemployment, bankruptcy and despondency.

Sure going abroad for a year when you are 22 can be a big adventure, but leaving your homeland to seek work elsewhere because you were laid off and have no hope of being hired anytime soon is nothing less than traumatic. I can accept that many people feel helpless to do anything about the political or economic situation that's forcing people to leave. That's understandable, but it's unfathomable that even a minority of Irish people can be so dismissive of the difficulties that face these latest emigrants.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Ryder Cup would be nothing without anti-Americanism

The Ryder Cup teed off this morning and, well, I don't care. It's probably more than not caring because I actively dislike the Ryder Cup. To me it's an event that is built solely on hype and a ludicrous battle between American chauvinism and anti-Americanism.

The ridiculous, over the top, embarrassing nationalistic displays and language used by the American team is intended to lure Americans into rooting for the team (and helpfully boost the TV ratings) because it's "America vs Europe." Despite these efforts, from what I can make out taking American newspaper sports sections and web sites as a guide, American interest in the event is not great.

Over here it's a huge deal. I don't know if people in Germany, Spain or France care about the Ryder Cup, but in Ireland and in Britain this is one massive event.

Golf itself is a big deal over here and I can accept that golf fans would want to watch the Ryder Cup. What I don't understand is all this 'rally around the blue flag' nonsense because nobody really feels "European." Even the flag is a fiction because that is the EU flag, not the flag of Europe. Would the European Ryder Cup team shun a Swiss or Norwegian player because those countries are not EU members? I seriously doubt it.

So, as I stated above, the Ryder Cup's appeal outside of true golf fans is to anti-Americanism. There will be a lot of let's stick it to the Yanks type rhetoric from the tabloid media and those ignoramuses who pay attention to golf every two years. The ostentatious displays of American patriotism play into this anti-Americanism beautifully.

I am sure that the PGA loves encouraging all this WWE style nonsense because it boosts the ratings. They probably also like it because it might actually, hopefully, possibly get the players to really care, almost as much as they might if they were playing for a genuinely desired golf title, like the Masters and British Open, or even a minor title with a tidy pay check.

Fortunately for me, the Ryder Cup is on a pay TV station, one I don't subscribe to. So I'll have absolutely no trouble avoiding it on my TV this weekend. For the past few days it has led every single sports bulletin with the latest on what the players are saying, eating, scratching, whatever.

Maybe there just aren't enough big-time sports here at this time of year and the sportswriters and broadcasters have to do something and the Ryder Cup is it. I just wish they didn't have to stir the pot of anti-Americanism to generate interest. Of course, it probably wouldn't exist without it.