Monday, May 30, 2011

Titanic tourism - opportunity for Belfast, all of Ireland

One hundred years ago today the Titanic eased down the slipway and into the River Lagan in Belfast. For the most of the past 99 years Belfast has ignored or at least played down the Titanic connection thanks to the sense of shame that attached to the ship's sinking.

That is all changing today.

Today Belfast is grasping its Titanic legacy with both hands. The Titanic has morphed from a tragedy into a romantic tragedy over the decades, mostly thanks to Hollywood. That process started long ago, but it's only recently that Belfast has joined in. As the great-grandson of one of Belfast's Titanic workers explained to the Irish Times, the Titanic was "a taboo topic. There was almost a sense of shame that she had been built here."

Even five years ago, when I first went to see the Harland & Wolff shipyard where the Titanic was built, you couldn't actually see much. You weren't allowed to walk yourself around and there were no regular tours. I joined a tour run by enthusiasts who were keen to promote the Titanic ties, but their tour demonstrated clearly that these people were in the minority.

All you could see was ruin: rusted iron gates, garbage dumped all around, shattered glass and broken pavements and the main building, where the plans were drawn was just a big, mostly vacant, lifeless shell. I remember thinking "this is what Belfast thinks of the Titanic."

Just a few years later and all of that is changed. Local museums are devoting exhibition space to the Titanic's artifacts. There are regular, various Titanic Tours and the city sponsors an annual Titanic Festival. Soon the center-piece of Belfast's bid to be the Titanic city - the Titanic Building {photo below} - will offer a great new Titanic-themed visitor experience.

There is competition too. Southampton in England would also like to be the Titanic city. The ship was built in Belfast, but most of the ship's crew lived in Southampton. No city lost more citizens in the disaster. Even Cobh has traditionally made more of its Titanic link than has Belfast. Cobh was the Titanic's last port of call before, the place where Fr. Brown left Titanic after taking his famous set of pictures of the liner.

When you add in all the Irish passengers, the tragic story of Addergoole, Co. Mayo the overall Irish connection to the Titanic is very strong.

Although the Titanic story remains a sad one, all those who survived the sinking and probably all those who lost a loved one are now dead. It's become the distant past.

The ship itself has become a cultural icon and it is that aspect of the Titanic that Belfast is belatedly recognizing has a value in terms of tourist revenues. The real history of why the Titanic sank or the shipyard's unpleasant past hardly matter today when tourism development will help all of Belfast, indeed all of Ireland when the full Irish story is told.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Hero-worshiping Obama is not the answer to Ireland's problems

It seems everyone in Ireland is feeling great about themselves after the visit of President Obama yesterday. It was the ultimate feel‑good day, with the most powerful man on Earth and "coolest President ever" shaking hands, kissing babies and schmoozing with the Irish people for a few hours.

The President delivered a speech in front of tens of thousands at College Green in Dublin, a beautiful, mostly sun-drenched setting that looked spectacular yesterday. The speech itself, however, was pure cotton candy: tastes good, but when you try to swallow it there's nothing there. If you read it, rather than listen to it, you'll see what I mean.

Yesterday I said it would be "mostly feel-good platitudes and little else." Platitudes may be not quite right, but feel-good Irish-America boilerplate surely is. Yet, that hasn't stopped people describing the speech as "inspiring" and "electrifying."

If people were inspired that's great, but it was a transitory moment. The Obama-high will quickly pass. He won't be back until after he's out of office. He will be very little help to the people of Ireland, who are in the middle of the worst crisis since the early 1920s. He is, after all, the President of the United States. It's not his job to help Ireland.

Yet all over America - and in Canada and Australia and elsewhere - there are people who have a deep affection for Ireland, who can and will help Ireland. People of talent and experience. Creative, clear-thinking people who do actually understand Ireland, have ideas that could help the country and should be taken seriously when they say they want to help.

A week ago one of those people, former San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery offered a critical analysis of where Ireland is now and where we are heading. He also offered three concrete suggestions as to what we should do next.

McEnery's plan is to utilize the diaspora, don't "lose them in a jumble of compliments and forums." McEnery says we should put a successful Irish-American, like Intel's retired CEO Craig Barrett, in charge of Ireland's development agency. It's a fantastic idea.

The doors that are already opened to someone of Barrett's stature, the knowledge and experience he would bring to the table and the common language Barrett shares with the heads of those businesses we need to target for investment would be massive advantages for Ireland as it competes with other EU nations for American and other inward investment.

McEnery {photo} has other ideas on a global Irish entrepreneurs support system and a role for committed, successful Irish-Americans (and others) in the Irish legislature - a revised version of the current Seanad (Senate), the weaker upper house of the Irish parliament.

McEnery's call to action deserves attention, but I fear it has fallen on deaf ears. Such proposals are a challenge to those currently in positions of power here. They also represent a gamble for all, a leap of faith in those children and grandchildren whose stories were cheered yesterday.

The Obama visit was a fleeting moment. It's over and the problems here remain. McEnery is talking about something long-lasting, with the potential to generate work and wealth, to lift the Irish people, possibly save them the fate of another lost generation and to begin to build the broader, non-geographical linked-up Facebook Irish nation that will benefit those "away" and "at home."

Yesterday was a dream day in the middle of a long nightmare. Now as the dream fades the nightmare looms again. It's time to wake up, get to work and grab the helping hand being offered. It's long past time Ireland brought the diaspora on board to help steer the ship. Things could hardly be worse, but the talents and goodwill of the diaspora can lead to our best days.

{Photos from Google images and}

Monday, May 23, 2011

Jedward and Westlife - perfect openers for Obama

Niall O'Dowd is unimpressed with the warm-up acts for President Obama's speech at College Green in Dublin this afternoon. The two headline acts are Westlife, a rapidly aging boy band, and Jedward, well, if you don't know you probably don't want to know.

O'Dowd's problem seems to be that these two groups (acts/bands/whatever) are completely devoid of talent. He feels they compare badly with Van Morrison, who preceded President Clinton's address in Belfast in 1995. He's right about that. When Morrison sang his song Days Like This the President and the massive throng gathered to cheer him sang along in joy at the prospect of peace. It was a real moment of meaning, something people remember and look back on fondly.

I agree with O'Dowd on Van Morrison and how he compares with Westlife {photo} and Jedward, but today doesn't call for a singer/song-writer of Morrison's ability. Why? Because unlike in 1995 when the people of Belfast, indeed the people all over Ireland, had a real reason to cheer and celebrate the American President, today's love fest has nothing whatsoever to do with anything President Obama has done for Ireland or anything else he has done since taking office.

If today's large crowd was there to cheer the President for his boldness in waging war and especially for the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, I'd be thrilled. Yet, I know that a large chunk - possibly the majority - of those who'll be there will either be indifferent or uneasy about all that.

The mostly young (I'm guessing) crowd can hardly be there to thank the President for the fact that his Treasury Secretary shot down a better bailout deal for Ireland. After all, quite a few amongst the gathering will undoubtedly have to leave Ireland in the not-too-distant future because we owe a debt that we cannot repay priced in a currency we can neither afford nor control.

Maybe they hope that by showering the President with adulation today he will be so moved that he will start pumping Green Cards into the crowd with one of those air cannons they use for tee shirts at sporting events. If that's their motivation then I say "Good luck to them," but there's no hope of that.

The truth is none of that matters to the crowd. They will yell and shout and cheer the President's speech, which I expect to be mostly feel-good platitudes and little else. There will be nothing of any real importance said and his starry-eyed audience will adore him for it.

In other words, he'll look good and he'll probably sound good, but there will be no substance to his lyrics or his performance - just like Jedward and Westlife.

Friday, May 20, 2011

NY Times skips Ireland during Queen's visit

The Queen has now left Ireland. There's no denying that this was a big moment in British-Irish relations, which have been less than ideal for a long time.

It's a big news story, possibly the biggest coming out of Europe these past few days. Britain's Queen in Ireland where she has never been despite the short distance between Britain and Ireland. History said 'No' to such a visit until now.

It wasn't just the Queen who was here either. Prime Minister David Cameron was here for a while and his Foreign Minister William Hague was here for the duration of the Queen's visit. This was a big occasion in the history of both countries.

I would imagine there is no bigger story as far as an American audience is concerned, which explains why I'm so surprised that the New York Times covered the story from London. {I'm willing to concede that the Dominique Strauss-Kahn story is more salacious, but I think less important than the Queen's visit.}

Every story on the Queen's visit to Ireland was filed by Alan Cowell with a dateline London. It seems that neither Cowell nor any other Times reporter actually came to Ireland at any stage to actually report on the events here. I truly find that surprising for America's 'paper of record.'

I know that Cowell can watch events on television and do his reporting from a London office, but that's not really reporting. I mean, that's not really much different than blogging.

It really seems like the Times missed a news story, only passing on the bare bones of what happened this week. No interviews with people involved in the planning or execution of the trip, no quotes from people who could put the trip in a political or historical context, no 'on-the-street' views from people for and against this visit. Nothing, just a summation of what was on television.

I'm not blaming Alan Cowell, for all I know the Times is short-handed in London. I know I didn't see the by-line of regular London correspondent Sarah Lyall.

Still, I can't believe the Times couldn't find someone to report for the paper here in Ireland. The Boston Globe managed it. The Times owns the Globe, but the Globe's correspondent's 'on-the-ground' stories didn't make it into the Times. The Times, the paper of record, apparently just couldn't be bothered.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Strange sights and sounds in Dublin with Queen in town

If a building can be happy then without doubt the happiest building in the world yesterday was the main building at the front of Trinity College in Dublin. Flying on the top of the flagpole above the building, waving wildly in the stiff breeze was the Union Jack, last seen above Trinity 90 years ago. The flag was probably the same one that flew above Trinity in the early 1920s, lovingly stored all these years waiting for this very occasion.

The British flag was in honor of Queen Elizabeth II who was visiting the college on the first day of her visit to Ireland.

According to the media the Queen's visit is all about symbolism and protest, which you can read about elsewhere. From what I saw yesterday the spectacle of the Queen of England on the streets of Dublin was more a matter of curiosity and inconvenience than anything else.

I've read elsewhere that crowds were "thin", which maybe they were, but from where I was there seemed to be a fair few people gathered. Were they all there to cheer the Queen? No, but nor were they there to heckle. Most of them were there to have a look, but more than a few were there because they couldn't get to where they wanted to go.

For many days in advance there had been warnings on the radio letting us know that streets would be closed during the Queen's visit. Like a lot of people, I assumed this would have an impact on those who wanted to drive or take the bus. It hadn't occurred to me that closed meant closed to everyone not in a police uniform.

For the better part of three hours yesterday afternoon you literally could not get from one side of Dublin to the other. O'Connell Street was shut tight; you couldn't walk across it. Dublin was cut in two.

I overheard many conversations between gardaí (police) and those who wanted/needed to get across: German tourists, members of the "new Irish" trying to get to work, men in suits who had meetings on the far side. No one was allowed over. They announced there would be a "ring of steel," but many, including me, didn't really take them at their word.

Like I said, there was a good crowd and when the Queen passed by - fairly quickly encased in a Land Rover - there was some applause and one or two heckles. The people who seemed happiest to see the Queen, those clapping most, were the old people. I can only guess as to why that should be.

I think part of it is the celebrity culture. We all like to imagine that celebrity culture is a new phenomenon. This ignores the fact that there were plenty of celebrities - Marilyn and Joe D were as big as any today - half a century ago. The Queen herself was a well known young celebrity in the 1940s and 50s. For a lot of those older Dubliners (and others) she still is "their" celebrity.

I also think the Queen's older fans perceive her as a symbol of values that are vanishing. Whatever about her life of privilege, the Queen is admired as someone who is stalwart in her devotion to duty. She stands in contrast to many of the younger ninnying royals.

Royalist or anti-royalist you couldn't help but notice how strange Dublin was yesterday. It was incredibly quiet. No traffic, no buses idling at bus stops and on those streets that were closed, but not on the Queen's route, virtually no signs of life at all. Along the route a lot of people standing waiting, but few making noise. Strange. I'm curious to see how different the city is on Monday when President Obama comes to deliver his speech outside the front of Trinity College.

Grand occasion a first in Irish history

Kings and queens of England have visited on many occasions in the past, but today marks a first in the history of Dublin, indeed all of Ireland. Tonight Dublin plays host to a major European soccer final for the first time. Ever.

Truth is I've been underwhelmed by the contest. I'm only a skin-deep soccer fan. It was only the other day that I bothered to go looking to find out which teams were actually going to take part in tonight's Europa League Final and was disappointed to learn that both teams were from Portugal.

I don't really care, but vaguely wanted to see two different cultures in the stands and on the streets of Dublin before the game. However, FC Porto and SC Braga are not only both from Portugal, but their respective cities - Porto & Braga - are only about 30 miles apart.

I had projected my lack of interest onto everyone else here, but I'm beginning to suspect I'm wrong about that. I thought there would be thousands of empty seats, but as of this morning there are reportedly only a few tickets remaining.

Also, reportedly, there will be 25,000 visitors to these shores for tonight's game. I can't argue with that figure, but they're either all arriving today or they've been busy visiting other parts of Ireland because there were very, very few Portuguese fans in Dublin yesterday.

I've mentioned before one of the quirks of tonight's game: that it's being played in something known - for one day only - as the "Dublin Arena." The game is really being played in the Aviva Stadium, but because Aviva Insurance is not a sponsor of Europa League, the stadium's owners have been forced to replace the name Aviva Stadium with green banners {photo}.

The beauty of all this is that any Portuguese fans hoping to ask for directions to the "Dublin Arena" are likely to be met by blank stares from the locals. Fortunately, there are color-coded signs around the center of Dublin directing fans in the right direction. You do, however, have to stare closely to deduce the signs' meaning.

This is a testing week for Dublin. Although the pressure on the police and those involved in the organization to get the Queen's visit right is almost overwhelming it is still vitally important that Dublin and Ireland show that we're capable of handling this big occasion tonight.

At a minimum that means no crowd trouble inside or outside the stadium and no glitches with the broadcast upon which millions of European soccer fans will be depending. I'm confident that the neutral Irish soccer fans and the two sets of Portuguese will get along fine and there is no reason to suspect that Dublin's telecommunications infrastructure cannot handle the rest. Should be a good night.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Jedward - perfect stars for the SpongeBob generation

Maybe you saw a picture of them in the NY Times yesterday? Maybe you've seen that silly hair? Heard their silly name? No, not John and Edward, but Jedward.

Tonight they're competing in the dubiously named Eurovision Song Contest. The actual song seems to be way down the list of priorities for the masses who vote by telephone across Europe. Years ago the contest was all about the song, but no more. Today choreography, costume & charisma of the performers probably count more than the song. For all of those reasons Jedward should do well, although the vagaries of the voting among the millions of people across Europe mean nothing can ever be taken for granted.

John and Edward Grimes are the Irish twins who a few years back made a splash on Britain's X-Factor. During the contest they adopted the name Jedward. They finished sixth in the contest, but the "Planet Jedward" phenomenon was only beginning.

Jedward come across as so innocent that they don't seem to appreciate that there are a lot of cynical people desperately hoping they will err and let what many assume is their mask slip. People in the media seem to be continually trying to trip them up with questions about sex, which the brothers answer unfailingly as if they are living on the set of Leave It To Beaver. It's jarring to witness.

This is what seems to bother people most: they just assume Jedward are a pair of fakes. I suspect that they're more real than most people my age could imagine.

Jedward are SpongeBob, only more like SpongeBob on speed. Actually, they're like a mixture of SpongeBob and Tigger. Ridiculously innocent and far too energetic. They can wear you out. Two minutes of them is enough for me.

What I think doesn't matter, though. Their fans are not men in their 40s, but kids. Younger kids love them due to that energy and their wacky behavior ... and that crazy hair.

Teenagers - mainly girls - like them too. They like their antics and their hair too, but I suspect that many of these girls like Jedward because of their innocence. These are children who have been exposed to a popular culture that is beyond excessively sexual and Jedward are the opposite of that. They are a breath of fresh air.

Can they sing? Not really, but that also misses the point. They're multimedia stars, not music stars. You have to hear them sing, see them dance, listen to them being interviewed and see them interact with their fans to appreciate what it is that appeals to kids.

Can they conquer America? Can they become global superstars? On the one hand I say why not? There's no reason to assume that American kids (or Brazilian or whatever) are any different than kids in Ireland, Britain, Europe. Jedward are just plain fun. Yet, I can't help thinking that it would be impossible to remain as joyously naive as John & Edward are today while raking in huge sums of cash.

Also, I have to assume that the window of opportunity is not going to last long. I don't think they can expect to get away with their current routine when they're older. Even 22 might be too old for it.

They may not "crack America" as the saying goes, and they don't have to. They're doing pretty well for themselves right now. However, I suspect that they'll find their way across to America somehow. You'll probably try to resist, but the children won't. When you see the joy they bring to children, they'll have you hooked too.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Thanks to Obama & the Queen Dublin tightens up

Starting tomorrow Dublin is going into lockdown as the city prepares for the visits of Queen Elizabeth II followed by President Obama over the next ten days. While the heightened security might be necessary, many Dublin residents (and tourists too, I imagine) are wondering if it's worth all the aggravation they have to endure.

Initially the reports of extra security were just shrugged off. It was more a smile than a grimce when we were informed that the gardaí (police) would be examining, and then sealing, all the manholes near where the Queen and President were scheduled to be in order to ensure that nothing (or no one) explosive could erupt from below. It was also reported that end-of-year exams at Trinity College were postponed for next week, but that was either just a rumor or the college changed its call. Students can get access to the college and exams are going ahead.

Trinity is closed, however, if you are not a student. So, no tours of the old campus and no chance to see the Book of Kells.

It's not just Trinity either. You want to visit Guinness's, Croke Park or the Zoo, well that might be a problem too. Better call ahead.

Those traveling by car will face road closures and parking restrictions. Even pedestrians will be affected as the gardaí are planning to erect barriers along some roads to restrict street crossing, something that is a real cramp in the style of jay-walking Dubliners. Oh, and pedestrians will be subject to random searches.

All of this is starting to get to people, some thinking it's excessive. Today there were rumors on Twitter of houses being searched in and around the center of the city, which had some people on edge regardless of whether it was true or not. The latest - and it's not a rumor - is that the gardaí have asked Dublin City Council to restrict the city's bike rental scheme. Why? I have no idea. I can't see what security implication bicycles might have, but there you have it. You shouldn't plan on using the excellent bike rental scheme next week either.

All in all, probably not an ideal week to visit Dublin. Closures and security annoyances probably not ideal for doing touristy things.

Oh yeah, on top of the two state visits, there are two significant soccer games during the period. First up, this Wednesday, Dublin is hosting the final of the Europa League, which features two Portuguese clubs and the following Tuesday the Republic of Ireland v Northern Ireland meet in a Carling Nations Cup game.

Just a few extra security concerns for the gardaí. I'm sure they'll all be on edge until the 25th rolls around, at which point the city and its police force will exhale and get back to the normal easy-going manner Dublin is famous for. Til then, if you're visiting Ireland, maybe stick to other parts of the country.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Tim Geithner helped sink Ireland

"France has no friends, only interests," said General Charles de Gaulle in response to a question from Winston Churchill. It's a telling reminder that in international relations it's one thing to talk about our "friends" in Europe or America or wherever, but quite another to believe such talk.

Saturday's Irish Times carried a column by economics professor Morgan Kelly in which he laid out the events that have led to our "economic ruin." If you've been following this story you already know that the Irish government and banks led us into an economic disaster and that the government then (& quite possibly now) didn't know what it was doing and made mistake after mistake.

Kelly not only points the finger of blame at Honohan for his "miscalculation," but also hints that Honohan undercut the Minister for Finance last November when he sided with his fellow Central Bankers on the European Central Bank Council rather than support the Minister who was refusing a bailout on onerous terms because he rightly understood that the goal of the ECB was to force us to take a bailout that they hoped would stop the panic spreading to other euro member countries.

Damning stuff. Arranged against Ireland were most of the power-brokers in the EU and ECB and, interestingly, US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner {photo}. Kelly says that Geithner torpedoed efforts by the IMF to help the Irish government rid itself of the massive bank debts. In fact, Kelly says that "only one to speak up for the Irish was UK chancellor George Osborne," which goes a long way to proving de Gaulle right.

Ireland's only friend in its hour of need last November was Britain, although not because they love us but because a collapse here was more damaging to Britain than was the collapse of the euro.

I'm not in a position to argue with Kelly's analysis, but I'd like more than he gives me on Geithner's rationale for forcing ruin on us. Kelly implies that it's simply ideological: taxpayers should bail out failed banks. I'd love to imagine someone asking President Obama about this when he comes to be cheered on O'Connell Street and in Moneygall.

Why did his Treasury Secretary veto a deal that could have prevented ruin here? My guess is that European subsidiaries of American banks were afraid of the losses their European off-shoots would incur if euro members were allowed to restructure their debts.

Regardless, Kelly says that it is only a matter of two years or so before Ireland is bankrupt, at which point our reputation will be shot. We cannot recover. Eventually, we will be EU protectorate, "Europe’s answer to Puerto Rico."

We did this to ourselves, but we had help. Our European 'partners' and the European Central Bank were a big part of what went wrong here. And, as it turns out, the Obama administration played a role in twisting the knife when it was firmly planted in our backs. Et tu, Brute?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Carping over Osama's death - you've gotta laugh

It took longer than I expected, but the hand-wringing, breast-beating, someone-ran-over-my-puppy whining about the manner of Osama bin Laden's death has really kicked in over the last 36 hours.

I was waiting for it all day Monday. When I hadn't heard much I thought that perhaps the people of Ireland were so enamored of Barack Obama that somehow the 'usual suspects' would feel compelled to shut up about poor 'ol Osama meeting his untimely demise. I'm certain that if bin Laden's killing had happened under President Bush the "discomforted" would have taken to the airwaves instantly and been firing off op-ed pieces and letters to the Irish Times before bin Laden had had time to make friends with the fishes.

So there was a pause, but since yesterday morning the Irish Times letters page has been chock full of head-shaking tut-tutting about the "extra-judicial assassination" of bin Laden. Cry me a river.

Oh, and it's not just the letters to the editor either. High-profile political television programs, call-in radio shows, political cartoons {see above} and a number of newspaper columns have provided plenty of space for the "disquiet" to be expressed.

From what I can make out these people are scandalized that "the Americans" failed to politely ask Pakistan for permission to search Osama's compound, failed to get an internationally approved search warrant, sent armed men in to capture Osama and failed to acknowledge when he said, "Okay, copper you got me fair and square" all under the watchful gaze of President Obama.

And, yes, they're scandalized by "the Americans", but they're actually horrified that this has happened under President Obama and not the previous occupant of the White House. I get the feeling their little dreamworld is collapsing around them as they digest the image of the President sitting, watching as Osama bin Laden is killed, rather than captured, under the President's orders. Oh, and nobody should have been in any way happy to learn that Osama was dead. Oh no.

There are some Americans here - those who didn't like President Bush and who moved here since, say, 2004 - who are only now realizing it wasn't just Bush that this vociferous group disliked. They don't like the United States of America.

Actually, that's not quite fair. They don't dislike America, but the America they like doesn't exist, has never existed and will never exist. The America they like is one where 300m Americans never vote for a government that would act in the nation's own self interest.

As for me, I find this stuff amusing. I don't get angry, but there was a time when I did. I got angry back in the fall of 2001, but really I'd heard a lot of the same stuff during the 90s and when the rawness of September 11 wore off I was able to ignore it and laugh at it again.

Don't get me wrong. If you let them, these people will get under your skin. You have to ignore them or listen to them as if they're a bunch of 17-year-olds discussing the meaning of life in hushed, serious tones. You know they mean what they say, but you really just want to laugh in their faces.

By no means do these moaners don't represent a majority view among Irish people. I'd probably venture that not even a sizable minority are at all worried by the fact that Osama is no more.

The cry-babies are not a completely insignificant number of people either, though. What's really annoying is that they always seem to end up on the radio, on the television and in the newspapers. They create the effect of seeming to be everywhere, of their views being widely held.

What really has me curious right now is whether the usual rent-a-mob protesters will take their cue and be out in force protesting over the upcoming visit of President Obama. Will they wave placards denouncing him as a war criminal? Will they demand his arrest? As of now, I kind of doubt it.

It was one thing to oppose President Bush, but it will be another to be so vocal in opposition to President Obama, who is very popular here. If they're going to be consistent, however, they can't just moan today and let it lie in 18 days time. They have to be out there on May 23rd opposing President Obama's visit. If they are it will look bad if they're shown in any American news clips, but in a way I hope they are out there making a scene. It will be a really good chuckle.

Celtic blessing no match for modern stupidity

It's dark and damp in this part of Ireland today and for once that's not unwelcome. Large parts of the country have been ablaze recently as unusually dry weather has allowed ludicrously stupid people to set large tracts of land on fire. These wild fires are known as gorse fires here.

Early last month I read that an ancient Celtic custom with a Catholic priest and an Anglican reverend blessed the gorse on a hill overlooking Belfast. The hope was that the blessing would protect the hills around Belfast and save them from fire.

Unfortunately, the blessing was unable to prevent fires ravaging some areas - Counties Offaly, Tyrone & Donegal were particularly hard hit - and causing a serious nuisance in many others. Firefighters have been busy day and night fighting these wild fires, most of which were apparently deliberately set.

That's just it with the modern world, isn't it? I would bet that back in the days of the ancient Celts that no one would imagine deliberately setting fire to a field. Life was hard, plenty of toiling in the fields and the people had enough respect for God's creation not to go playing with something as dangerous as fire. These days, empty-headed, idle teens (and adults too) get their jollies lighting bushes on fire during a long dry spell.

I don't know what success the blessing of the gorse had in the old days, but it can't overcome the free will of those determined to act idiotically.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Bin Laden's death: good news that could have waited

Read more: A tribute to those Irish Americans we lost on 9/11

Read more: Bin Laden death brings justice to still grieving Irish families

When I answered the phone I was expecting the worst, something seriously wrong with someone in my family or my wife's. I let the phone ring once more to try to ensure I was as awake as possible to hear what was being said.

"Hey, how ya doin? It's ..." I recognized the voice and I knew the name - a friend of mine from college. I shook my head and turned and looked at the clock again: 4:10. That's 4:10 AM.

"I'm fine. You do realize it's 4 o'clock in the morning, right?" I can't remember if he said that he'd forgotten about the time difference or not. I don't think he really cared. He was so excited he just had to call to tell me, "Osama bin Laden is dead."

Obviously, that's good news, but I don't think I conveyed that to my friend. There's no doubt I wasn't as excited as he was and the phone call finished up after two minutes.

As I hung up the phone, I became aware that not only was my wife awake, but so were the children. I told my wife who was on the phone and what he had to say. It was pitch black, but I didn't need to see her face to know how she was looking at me.

After reassuring the children that all was well, we settled down to resume our sleep. For me, however, sleep was elusive. At 5:00 I gave up, figuring the alarm would be going off in under an hour anyway.

I put the television and computer on and started to feel it, the satisfaction that Osama had been killed by American forces and didn't die in his sleep as an old man. It is really good news, although I'd have been more excited if it had come in May 2002.

At around 5:30 I started to feel bad. I still wasn't feeling as excited or as joyous as those gathered outside the White House or in New York, but then again I noticed that most of those appeared to be college students who would think nothing of blowing off a class or two to make up for lost sleep. Still I was wondering if I should have been chirpier when my friend called to convey the news.

Then another fact dawned on me: today is a national holiday in Ireland. I didn't need to get up at 6:00 after all. The rest of the family won't be waking for hours.

Grrr. Bin Laden's death is good news, but it's good news that could have waited. Bad news can't wait, but good news can be patient. It would have felt just as good at 8am as it did at 4.

Read more: A tribute to those Irish Americans we lost on 9/11

Read more: Bin Laden death brings justice to still grieving Irish families