Monday, July 18, 2011

Why the Irish are suddenly great at golf Senior Writer Steve Elling said last week - before Darren Clarke's victory in the British Open - that there is "no rational explanation" for why "the Emerald Isle has accounted for five major championships since this very month in 2007."

Now what I know about golf could fit on a matchbook cover. I don't play and I only rarely watch it on television. What I do know is this: Irish people LOVE golf and they play it all the time.

By 'all the time' I don't mean every single Saturday from May - October. They play year round in just about any weather. Honestly, unless the courses are covered in snow - a rarity - or it's one of those days where you can be drowned while standing on the side of a hill - less of a rarity - Irish golfers will be out there playing. {I bet Rory McIlroy will regret his whine about the weather in England this weekend because (a) the average Irish golfer knows he learned to play in those conditions and (b) Irish people don't like weather wimps.}

Playing golf in any weather - warm, cold, dry, damp - has got to be excellent preparation for the rigors of top level golf.

The other contributing factor to Irish success on the golf course is the transformation of life here over the past 25 years. The winding down of tensions in the north and the Celtic Tiger in the south were massive, intertwined confidence boosts for everyone in Ireland.

More than more physically demanding sports, golf is dominated by confidence. Self‑doubt is a killer in golf and if there is one thing Ireland has been great at producing it's self‑doubt. Once Padraig Harrington was able to channel that national confidence into success on the biggest stage it opened that psychological door for Graeme McDowell & Darren Clarke. McIlroy was raised in the new confident Ireland, brought up to believe he can succeed. Greatness awaits.

One other thing the Celtic Tiger brought to Irish golf was a lot more golf courses. The sport, which was a preserve of the well‑to‑do in times past, is now played by youngsters from all walks of life. For that reason, I expect Ireland's golfing prowess to continue to grow. Ireland will be a golf powerhouse.

{Photo - Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell & Padraig Harrington}

Friday, July 15, 2011

Winter trip to Ireland can be rewarding

I realize that visiting Ireland in the winter is not on many people's 'to do' list, but the other night as I was watching an American television show filmed here last winter I was reminded of just how beautiful Ireland looks in the winter.

I was watching the latest installment of the NBC series Who Do You Think You Are on Ireland's national television station, RTE. The episode featured Rosie O'Donnell's search for her Irish roots (in America it can be seen here).

Of course Ireland was always going to look great. The folks at NBC were determined to get fantastic aerial shots of Dublin and the snow-covered Kildare country-side. Yet, those pictures weren't made up either - Ireland really does look great in the winter. And it provides insights into history that are less obvious in summer.

One of my favorite memories of traveling around Ireland is being in the wilds of Connemara one January in the mid-90s. I got talking to a local man, who pointed out vertical ridges clearly visible in the snow on a nearby hill. "Those are the lazy beds. People grew potatoes there before the famine, but not since."

I didn't question it because as I was looking at it I couldn't imagine anyone other than the desperate trying to cultivate such land. I would never have seen those ridges without the snow to highlight them.

The snow highlights the positive in Ireland's landscape. Although most people here preferred complaining about the mess last winter's snow made of the roads (and Dublin airport), I think most Irish people would admit that the snow really looked special on our treeless hills, patchwork fields and old churches and graveyards.

Ireland doesn't just look great in winter either. It smells good too – at least in rural areas. In rural areas people mostly burn turf, not wood, in their fireplaces. I always like the smell of a wood fire in the winter. Turf gives off its own distinctive, appealing smell.

The smell isn't just pleasant. It's part of a memory, the smell my ancestors would have known. In fact, one of the best things about being in Ireland in the winter is the chance to experience the dark, damp, cold, bleak conditions that are part of any Irish-American family's ancestral past. I always think that anyone who only sees Ireland in bright sunshine might well leave these shores wondering why anyone ever left. A few days in Mayo in January will give you part of that answer.

You don't have to suffer long, however, once you've endured a sufficiency of the damp cold, enter the nearest pub and the heat from the blazing turf fire will revive you.

A few caveats, however. It does tend to rain in the winter in Ireland. Of course, it tends to rain in the summer too, but the longer days mean you have a better chance of a few hours of dry, bright weather each day. Last winter's heavy snow was exceptional, usually it only lasts on high ground.

When it does snow on the roads, it quickly makes driving treacherous. Few cars have snow tires and fewer drivers have any snow sense. (I was wondering how Rosie O'Donnell managed driving on rural Kildare's icy, snowy roads, but we didn't see any of that. She probably had a local driver when off camera.}

Regardless, it's worthwhile. If you've seen Ireland in the summer in glorious sunshine (or even in sunshine and showers), come prepared for cold, damp weather and get in touch with the other aspect of Ireland that your ancestors knew well. I doubt you'd be disappointed.

{Photo thanks to Sligo Heritage.}

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Swimming in the Irish Sea – for the fool-hardy & the brow-beaten

Swimming in the Irish Sea is not for the fainthearted. I should know because I'm fainthearted and the Irish Sea is cold - really cold.

How cold? I don't know, but someone I know who has sampled both the waters off Maine and the Irish Sea says the two are about the same. What I do know is it sure ain't summer at Jones Beach or the Jersey Shore.

I don't have a temperature for the water at Greystones, County Wicklow, but it's so cold it hurts. Oh yeah, I go in the water, but resignedly, never happily. It's my family's fault.

We go through the same routine annually. The weather 'heats up' - hits 70F or so - and next thing, "Let's go for a swim" is being uttered enthusiastically. I run through a series of protests until my wife shoots me that 'for the children' look and I cave. Off I go towards my rendezvous with destiny all the while thinking dark thoughts about how those same children eat me out of house and home.

That was the situation yesterday. It was warm, the warmest day of our summer so far. I suspected I might hear the dreaded words, but the fact that two of our three children are away had me hopeful. I was wrong. Just when I should have been eating dinner I was making my way to the sea.

Once I get to the water's edge it always takes me a while to get in. Like I said, it's so cold it hurts, but this time even my wife thought it was cold, probably due to the fact that June was absolutely freezing. Yesterday took me longer than normal.

Bit by bit I got myself in. After each step along the way to submersion I waited til the pain gave way to numbness. Eventually my entire body was numb at which point I started to enjoy myself.

After a few minutes swimming and playing I exited the water only to realize that the sea breeze I'd noted on the walk down suddenly felt pretty sharp. The air temperature was around 65F. It was warm enough to defrost me so I could feel the pain again, but not warm enough to prevent the teeth-chattering, knee-knocking, shivering that lasts about 20 minutes.

On the plus side, the water is clean (far as I can tell). I mean, what self‑respecting germ or contaminant would be caught dead in such cold water? When the heat eventually makes its way back into your body you start to feel good about the swim, like you've accomplished something and you've experienced some form of natural beauty.

That thought keeps you going right up til the next warm day, when the dread sets in again. Is there no chance of rain today?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Death of EU advocate a chance to revisit his vision

Otto von Habsburg died the other day at the age of 98. Otto was the son of Karl I, the last emperor of the now defunct empire of Austria-Hungary.

Otto was more than just another exiled European king, however. He was a hero for peace in Europe - shaking off his family's legacy, standing up to the Nazis and communists and promoting a unified Europe that would never revisit the tragedies that extreme nationalism had unleashed on Europe.

Otto grew up in exile, father-less, being prepared for a life he would never lead. By the time he came of age the misdeeds of his family's empire were fading as to nothing compared with what was then underway in Nazi Germany. Otto argued and pleaded with the Austrian authorities to be allowed to return to lead Austria away from Nazism, to prevent the Anschluss (annexation) with Germany. He was denied and Austria vanished from the map.

After spending most of the war in America, Otto returned to Europe to advocate for a European confederacy. The USSR's 'Iron Curtain' stymied him. He had to be content with a working to unify western Europe, all the while remaining a steadfast supporter of freedom for eastern Europe. He became a writer and then a politician and was eventually elected to the European Parliament.

Otto believed passionately in a unified Europe, as this long article from 1962 on French President Charles de Gaulle makes clear. Otto captures the hopes of a generation of Europeans weary of and wary of war:

Early in September Germany received the head of the French State. Literally hundreds of thousands of young men and women thronged the streets to acclaim the man who for them was France. It was a deep and spontaneous enthusiasm such as is rarely seen.

The older among us could not avoid looking back over the road we have traveled. We had known the Rhine as a chasm separating two deadly enemies. We had seen German troops crushing France, and then the vengeance of the victors ... In the streets of Munich and Stuttgart, on the wharves of Hamburg, Europe has suddenly become alive.

I'm not convinced that a single political entity stretching from the Atlantic to the borders of Russia is necessary to guarantee peace and prosperity in Europe, but Otto believed it was. He was driven by a desire to avoid the calamities that befell Europe in his lifetime.

Otto's experience and vision are relevant in today's Europe because the unified Europe he wanted seems to be falling apart as the financial crisis plays out along nationalist lines. The Greeks, the Portuguese, the Irish and others point the finger at the Germans, French and others and they, in turn, point the finger back at those nations they see as profligate and untrustworthy.

Otto's vision is not being undone by rising nationalism so much as by the failure of those European leaders who opted for back-room deals and veiled threats rather than inclusion, transparency and democracy as they built today's European Union. They didn't build a real "union," one where one region's problems are everyone's.

A prosperous, peaceful Europe requires the type of union where the various nations' people feel as one, where the problems for one nation or region are the problems for the whole union. That Europe is far away today. We're drifting away from Otto's overarching vision.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Ireland and global warming – electric cars, but colder winters

In April 2010 the Irish government announced a whole series of measures that would ensure that battery‑powered electric cars gained a significant share of the car market here. Like Dylan at Newport, Ireland is going electric.

The government's plan includes significant investment including: tax breaks to cut the price of electric cars, charge points provided by the government-owned Electricity Supply Board {photo} and other incentives to encourage the purchase and use of electric cars rather than the gasoline/diesel models we're all used to now. The goal was that 2,000 electric cars would be on the road by the end of 2011 and 230,000 by 2020.

I've indicated before that I'm not totally averse to the idea of a battery-powered car, especially as a second car, but I'd forgotten all about the government's plans for electric cars until last week. I had just parked my car in Dublin Airport's new parking garage when I noticed that the three spaces next to mine were reserved for electric cars, that in fact such cars' batteries could be charged there.

The very next day I saw my first new-generation electric car, a Toyota Leaf. It was in front of me as we headed down the highway. And, although I haven't noticed them yet, the ESB has installed charge points all over Dublin. That's probably my fault because I haven't been looking, from what I hear they look like parking meters and would be easy to overlook.

Charge points around the capital city, dedicated spaces in a public parking garage and electric cars on the road, the government's plans are probably progressing just fine, right?

Maybe, but Dublin Airport and ESB 100% government-owned. They'll do as their owner instructs. The one car I saw still had dealer license plates. I haven't seen one for which a buyer has shelled out $43,000 (after tax breaks) or so.

Will the government's targets be met?

I don't know, but ESB's web site says the plan now is only for 1,500 charge points nationwide by the end of 2011. I'd love to know how the sales of electric cars are going and how many people have had charge points installed at their homes.

More important than the targets, however, is whether this is money wisely spent?

All of the incentives and investment from the government are for one reason: to combat global warming. Maybe the earth is warming up and maybe it's not, but last winter Ireland experienced its coldest winter in 40 years and the long range forecast is that the coming winters will be even colder. Our climate seems to be changing for the colder.

All of which begs the question: is all this taxpayer-funded investment in electric cars the best use of funds if our winters are getting colder? Using the same funds to properly insulate our homes and offices seems more sensible.

In fact, it's possible that the money spent in getting electric cars on the road will seem like a a colossal waste of money if we still don't have the necessary equipment to keep the roads clear when it snows. The fact that a few happy electric car owners can charge their cars for free at Dublin Airport will seem like a sick joke if the airport shut for days on end again due to the lack of proper snow-moving equipment.

Even our European overlords, who are heavily promoting the 'green agenda', will be none too happy if our national coffers suffer another let down due to the fall-off in productivity caused by a few inches of snow. It could be a chorus of boos for the government just as it was for Dylan at Newport all those years ago.

{Photo thanks to}

Monday, July 4, 2011

4th of July in Ireland - a chance to flag up sales

It's the 4th of July and you'd almost think it's a holiday here in Ireland, what with all the mentions of it I've seen. Dublin Airport is decorated in Stars & Stripes, local pubs are offering America-themed entertainments and specials, the local supermarket is using Old Glory to encourage shoppers to buy donuts and other "American" food and the hardware store is selling stars & stripes paper plates and napkins to go along with your Independence Day barbecue (which they're selling too).

These sorts of sales and events have been going on for years, but it feels like it's everywhere this year. Some people might say it's thanks to President Obama's visit in May and how he's made American 'cool' again (or whatever), but I'm skeptical of that explanation.

I think it's more likely that with the recession still biting deep, retailers are just trying any angle they can think of to entice shoppers to part with their money. Thanks to the prevalence of American popular culture the 4th of July is fairly well known as an American holiday, even if what exactly it's all about is lost on many people. It's a case that 4th of July equals America which equals a chance to sell stuff using American flag decorations.

There are no references to Jefferson or Philadelphia or the Liberty Bell or anything to do with what Independence Day means to Americans. It's all about an opportunity to sell things, which doesn't bother me in the least.

America has always been keen on commerce. I seriously doubt John Hancock or Ben Franklin would have any problem with Irish businesses trying to turn a buck piggy‑backing onto our big day. Besides, haven't American businesses been using St. Patrick's Day as a sales opportunity for generations? Turnabout is fair play, as the saying goes, and it won't surprise me in the least if I see someone selling "Kiss Me I'm American" buttons this time next year.

Of course the 4th of July is not actually a holiday here. Most Americans who wanted to observe the holiday did so yesterday. The American Ambassador, however, celebrates today.

Appropriately Ambassador Dan Rooney hosts the grandest 4th of July celebration at his residence {photo} in the Phoenix Park. The Ambassador has invited thousands of people to take part in sports, including football (American style), and American treats. It helps to have 1,750 acres of park land as your back yard. My own gathering will be significantly smaller.

Have a happy 4th.