Friday, July 1, 2016

Lost in ... wait, where are we again?

Ryan has a sense of direction so remarkable that it is nearly superhuman.

My grandmother loved to tell the story about how Ryan once picked up a Honeybaked Ham from the West Broad Street store in Columbus and dropped some ham off at Aunt Dee's townhouse one Christmas Eve. By himself. After having only been to Dee's house on one prior occasion. In a snowstorm. (Really, that last part is entirely true.)

In the States, Ryan abhors Google Maps (and not just because the government could be using it to track him). He thinks map reading is a lost art that should be taught in schools.

Credit: Mark Anderson/

I, on the other hand, can't get anywhere without some navigational assistance. One time I tried to get to a doctor's office in Paducah without looking it up first, and I got so turned around that I finally had to call from a McDonald's parking lot to cancel the appointment.

But this trip has forced me to admit the failings of electronic navigation. The Complete Road Atlas of Ireland is invaluable for the motorways but is hit-and-miss within cities. As we mentioned in an earlier post, the directions provided us to get from Dublin to our Kilkenny hotel were rather lacking. I attempted to remedy this for our trip to Cork by using Google Maps. If it's Google, it has to be correct, right?

Ryan had to drive down this street without hitting anyone. Multiple times.
Nope. We spent nearly 45 minutes driving around Cork trying to find our hotel on Friday. And one of us (Ryan) really needed to use a bathroom after an impromptu tea stop in Castlemartyr. Finally, Ryan pulled over to ask for directions in a shop. The clerk had never heard of our hotel, so she had to look it up online to show the map to Ryan.

These are the directions Google gave us:
  • Turn right onto Washington Street
  • Turn left onto Western Road
  • At the end of the road, turn right onto College Road
  • Turn left onto Perrott Avenue
  • The destination is on your right
These were the actual directions Ryan figured out to find the hotel by looking at the map:
  • Continue on Washington Street, which turns into Western Avenue
  • Turn left on Donovan's Street before the entrance to UCC
  • Turn right where this street dead ends, onto College Avenue
  • Make a quick left onto Perrott Avenue. This street turns into the Hayfield Manor entrance.
See the difference? An entire (major) street was missing!

Ryan's note: Elizabeth deserved a pint for her excellent navigational work.
Our navigation problems weren't restricted to driving. On Saturday, Ryan wanted to visit the house where Frank O'Connor was born. As we have learned, O'Connor is a bit out of fashion with modern Irish readers. His birthplace is home to the Munster Literature Centre. It's not even a museum. Basically it has a plaque and not much else.

The search proved tough. We spent about 20 minutes exploring and backtracking through a Cork neighborhood trying to find it. 

Ryan was at peak frustration over our inability to find the sought-after Douglas Street when we reached a major intersection. The street sign told us we had been on Douglas Street for at least two blocks without realizing it.

Rather than alternating odd and even house numbers on opposite sides of the street as we do in America, one side of Douglas Street had No. 1 through 60-something (not all houses had numbers), while the next number through No. 108 were on the other side of the street. Very confusing. So back up the street we went, looking for No. 84. Ryan believed the house was pink, and this time we found it with only two modest signs to mark its history.

Now we think we know the inspiration for U2's 1987 hit "Where the Streets Have No Name."
We learned our lesson though, and for the rest of our trip I made sure Ryan consulted a visual map and took screenshots of the streets around the final destination every time.

There was a momentary panic when I thought Dingle wasn't listed in our atlas (What I actually said: "We can't possibly be going some place too small to be on a map, can we?") Then Ryan had the brilliant realization that County Kerry is one of the parts of the republic that preserves the Irish language. We found Dingle listed under its Irish name, Daingean Uí Chúis, and plotted our route.

We survived a five-hour driving tour of the peninsula with a few minor misdirects and confusing signs. Later we found the Rock of Cashel with nearly no issues (I even took a nap in the car on that drive). Eventually we made it to the airport hotel for the night before our Wednesday flight home.

At the Rock of Cashel, an abandoned chapel and cathedral that previously was the home of the Kings of Munster (one of Ireland's four provinces).
That last morning in Ireland, Ryan suggested I ask the hotel clerk for directions to the airport.

As directed, we turned right out of the parking lot and then went left at the stoplight and were supposed to follow the highway signs from there.

That advice landed us in a private Dublin residential neighborhood and facing an Irish version of a "No outlet" sign.

Ryan grumbled mightily as he reversed. "The Irish make great beer," he said. "But they sure need lessons in signage and directions."

Interview with a cab driver: Making sense of Irish sports edition

When taxi drivers in the United States discuss hurling, it's usually in the context of "please don't inside the cab."

In Ireland, it's more likely that the topic is the sport of hurling (although the former still applies.)

Early on during my studies in Ireland, we had to take taxis from the University College Dublin one afternoon because a marathon had shut down the main road and all bus service from UCD. As a result, I and the others in the taxi were treated to an incredibly valuable introductory tutorial about Irish sports – and diplomacy – from our cab driver, Michael.

A shot of a hurling match we watched at Galway pub.
For instance, he called hurling the "fastest game on turf" – a brilliant blend of lacrosse, football (soccer), field hockey, rugby and possibly a few other sports thrown in there too. The sticks looked like sawed off field hockey sticks and they can whip a baseball-sized leather ball at 90 mph. There is some combination of passing and blocking and scrum-like pile-ups. And a team can score by hitting the ball through field-goal uprights (one point) or into a soccer-like goal below the uprights (three points).

He wasn't kidding. While we were in Galway, a group of us went to a pub and caught the second half of a hurling match between Dublin and Kilkenny after which I decided the sport got its name from the fact that bats, balls and elbows are being hurled in all directions all the time. The field is huge and the players will randomly hit the ball toward the uprights from literally anywhere on the field. One Kilkenny player cracked one from three-quarters of the field away dead-center through the uprights. There are rules about passing and dribbling that I don't understand yet.

Even if the TV weren't blurry, I still would struggle to explain it.
The other prominent Irish sport is Gaelic football. Like hurling, it's played with a soccer goal/field goal combination (one point for kicking the ball through the uprights, three points for a goal).

The scores in both sports, by the way, require some math because the format separates goals from field goals. For instance, in the Dublin-Kilkenny hurling match, Kilkenny had 1-25 (one goal and 25 field goals) to Dublin's 0-16. So actually, Kilkenny won in points 28-16. It took us a while to figure that out.

In Gaelic football, the rules about dribbling and passing and how many steps you can take are equally obtuse.

Michael, our cab driver, played for Dublin's top club, the Kilmacud Crokes and said some of the sport remains a mystery to me. "I played for nearly 30 years, and I still don't understand all the rules," he said. All the Gaelic football and hurling players are amateurs, he said. "But they're totally committed and train as hard as any pro player," Michael told us.

Gaelic football looks a lot like rugby at first, but there are fewer scrums and it seems to put a premium on good passes and the finesse of soccer rather than tackling and blocking of football or rugby.

The two sports experienced a renaissance in Ireland in the late 1800s as Irish nationalism increased. The Gaelic Athletic Association formed as a way to further promote these truly Irish sports and, thus, Irish culture. But for nearly a century, the rules about participating in the GAA were particularly strict. Michael told us that when he was a young player, GAA members were forbidden from playing non-Irish sports, such as rugby or soccer. If they were caught participating in some "foreign" sport, they'd get kicked off their GAA team.

"I still played all the sports anyway," Michael said. "I believe sports are meant to unify, not divide."

So I asked Michael, our philosopher/diplomat/cab driver, whether he and other Irish sports fans root for or against England in big tournaments, such as the Euro 2016 football tournament that's been going on this month.

He laughed. It's a rivalry, he said. "If Ireland were playing England in chess we'd all watch it," he said.

Michael said he has an English friend who roots for Ireland if England isn't playing and once asked him if Michael would root for England after Ireland was eliminated in a European tournament. Michael told him that he would support England right up to the championship game and then would root for the Brits to lose. "It's like big brother versus little brother," he said. And the little brother is tired of seeing the big brother win everything.

But what we've found is that not everyone in Ireland is as generous toward English teams. In fact there was more than a bit of schadenfreude Monday night when England played Iceland in the round of eight of the Euro 2016 championship – a match that Iceland went on to win 2-1. Murphy's Pub in Dingle erupted in cheers as the clock ran out on England.

Iceland, which has more volcanoes than people as the commentators kept pointing out, celebrated its upset in style.
My only regret is that we didn't get to see any matches in person, which I contend is a worthy excuse to have to return to Ireland one day.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Star power

The Dingle peninsula is literally one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.

From our trek halfway up what may or may not have been Mount Eagle (nothing is signed).

An abandoned, crumbling stone house.

Brandon's Creek.

Don't trust my judgement? Ask J.J. Abrams.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (episode VII) shot the Luke Skywalker and Rey meeting at Skellig Michael, an island off the Dingle peninsula.

The untitled Episode VIII film directed by Rian Johnson recently finished shooting in the area as well. Our B&B host John showed us a photo he surreptitiously snapped before they dismantled the set that had been built at the nearby Ceann Sibéal golf course. And he said Mark Hamill stayed just up the road with an impressive security force.

Ryan, of course, drove us to the golf course and had us slogging through the fields behind it. But I told him I thought this adventure was dropping him a little too low on the Barney Stinson hot-crazy scale. He finally agreed to hop back in the car and continue our driving tour in areas a little less likely to get us thrown into jail for trespassing.

Fortunately, I spotted this sign on our drive and we backtracked for Ryan to get a picture. 

This information made some other signs we saw in town make way more sense.

Dick Mack's is a local bar.

Coffee shop somewhere on the peninsula.

The most impressive non-Star Wars site we saw was a stone chapel built in the 8th century. It's still intact and entirely watertight.

We also stopped at the ruins of this 12th century church, which is similar in structure to modern Irish churches (except for the missing roof).

Supposedly if you're able to fit through the "needle," you are headed to heaven.

And we went into these old Beehive houses (date uncertain, but believe to have been occupied by hermit monks).

Yes, this would be way too close to camping for me. I did like the secret tunnels though.

Dingle has in some ways been the most touristy place we've been. The area seems to survive on it. Every other house is a B&B. But it's absolutely been worth the visit.

This annoyed look wasn't even Star Wars related.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Feeling sheepish

Ryan told me some inane story about Irish cows and sheep being the happiest in the world because they eat fermented grass. (Ryan's note: It's true. It's called silage, and it keeps the grass nutrient rich while fermenting in giant black bags. So seriously, they're all drunk). 

I'd been trying to see whether this was unscientifically true but we observed almost exclusively cows the first three days outside of Dublin. "Where," I asked, "are the sheep?"

Irish shops cash in on the sheep connection. Woolen shops are everywhere.

Apparently, the sheep are all in the Dingle peninsula on the western edge of Ireland.

Here, I can see them out the window of Room 3 at Browne's B&B.

I saw them dotting the hills on our driving tour around Dingle Bay on Monday.

I snapped Ryan checking out one.

Then Ryan tried to get artsy with sheep shots ...  

And I knew it was undoubtedly time to go home.

Fortunately, I achieved one of my Ireland goals that same afternoon when two sheep cut us off on the road to Brandon Creek.

Where's the sheep crossing sign?

Zombies versus ninjas!!!

Elizabeth and I have made it our unofficial mission on this trip to support local bookstores across Ireland. In every city. Sometimes multiple times.

I have been searching for a Frank O’Connor book for my Irish literature class paper and Elizabeth is, well, a librarian. Plus, just like the plot of any good novel, you never know what you might find in a bookstore.

A brilliant local bookstore in Kilkenny.
So in our first evening in Kilkenny last Thursday, we found our way into Stone House Books. As we were perusing, Elizabeth noticed the staff was preparing for a book launch. (I was so focused on scanning the shelves for that elusive O’Connor book, I’m embarrassed to say I missed the fact that many of the shelves had been moved aside to clear a large space and that there was a table of wine and soda – or fizzy drinks as they call it.)

It turns out this would be the site an hour later for the launch of the third book in a series called Zombies v. Ninjas, written by a local author who goes by R.A. Barnes.

Zombies against ninjas! Now this was worth further study. (As many of you know, I think it’s best to be prepared in case of a zombie apocalypse by having a “go” bag ready, by knowing the back routes out of town instead of getting stuck on a highway with everyone else and by keeping a crowbar in the car – it's swift, quiet and heavy enough to break zombie skulls.)

The trilogy on display. Go ninjas!
The clerk said the author was coming and there would be a brief reading. “You’re welcome to stop back if you’d like,” she said.

Of course we did.

When we returned, the store was full of people, including many in full karate uniforms. The author, R.A. Barnes, is actually a pseudonym used by Mark Turner, who also is a student at the Evolution Martial Arts Academy in Kilkenny. It appeared that the instructors and students at Evolution provided Turner with plenty of material for his characters. Several times during the reading, the students began buzzing and laughing when they figured out the inspiration behind a certain character.

The reading included a part about a hairdresser/martial arts student finds that one of her customers was a bit off – in this case, undead. I don’t want to spoil the craic (Irish for “fun”), but the scene in which Jane recounts to her fellow martial arts students how she dealt with Betty Malloy was quite funny. At one point, Jane pulls the evidence out of her duffle bag to show off to her fellow students. It caused a few to throw up or faint, which meant 50 “press-ups” for them – a line that got laughs from the martial arts students. 
The author signs a copy for his fans and fellow ninjas.

The man doing the reading, a local celebrity named Pat who does radio commercials, finished the scene with this line: “Jane looked at me with a crazy smile on her face, as if having an old lady’s severed head in her hands was great craic.”

Pat also praised Liz, the owner of Stone House Books, for her unwavering support of local writers and for weathering the recession that hit local book shops hard. So Elizabeth and I decided to buy several more books we had been eyeing, including Neil Gaiman’s re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White that was immaculately illustrated by Chris Riddell, a novel by Donal Ryan (one of the new Irish writers I had heard great things about) and another book that will be a gift for Elizabeth’s best friend.

And of course, we bought the first book in the Zombie v. Ninjas series. (Hey, all the proceeds were going to help send the Evolution students to a competition next year in Florida.)

Plus, as Mark Turner/R.A. Barnes said: “It reassures me that if there is a zombie apocalypse – and there will be a zombie apocalypse – we are your only hope.”

P.S. – I think this had a profound effect on Elizabeth, who used to make fun of the crowbar. When I asked her if she’s more convinced about a zombie apocalypse, she actually said “maybe.”

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sign of the day: It's in the bag

We couldn't understand why Rick Steves completely skipped Cork in his 2016 Ireland guide. I mean, it's the second largest city in the Republic with a population of 119,000 in 2011.

A view of the River Lee. 
The downtown is cut into thirds, bisected by two channels of the River Lee and has charming bridges and colorful houses. It has literally the most beautiful university campus I've ever visited, University College Cork.*
George Boole is everywhere around UCC. 

But Cork mostly seems to be a shopping haven. There isn't a lot to do.

We spent the day wandering from one shop to another, and getting lost trying to find something we had spotted earlier amid the curving streets that inexplicably become something else. To put it in perspective, Cork puts Lexington to shame on the street name-switching frustration scale. It wasn't, however, as much of an epic navigational failure as Venice. Or maybe the fact that it wasn't raining made it seem slightly better.

These girls were so engrossed in their books, they were oblivious to the shoppers rushing by. 
Amid our lazy Saturday, we stumbled across this shop name that we found amusing. That it was among the highlights of our Cork visit should tell you a little something.

They have quite a selection of d'bags.
*Librarian trivia bonus: The library at UCC is named for George Boole, who was the first mathematics professor here in the mid-19th century. And of course, the "father of the digital era" for giving us the logic that underlies computer circuits and allows for our legendary Boolean searching skills.

Vitriol and divisiveness trumps logic in United Kingdom

Once again we find ourselves abroad amid a major British crisis.

This time, instead of a newspaper hacking scandal (2011) or a banking scandal (2012), we watched the unfolding shock of the Brexit vote, a decision that will have a tremendous ripple effect on the United Kingdom and Europe for decades.

We – like most others in Ireland, Scotland and England – went to bed Thursday night having watched pundits say the exit polls looked to give the Remain coalition a slight victory. One of the leaders of the Leave campaign even issued a statement saying it appeared to him as if Remain would edge out the victory.

Then we woke up to headlines Friday bearing the stunning opposite news.

This, as you can imagine, has dominated the conversations and media – even to the degree of pushing Donald Trump to the background. 

Pretty much all of the newspapers' analysis of the Brexit vote reflected disgust and doom.
The Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole in his front page opinion piece compared the vote to a drunk man trying to whip off a table cloth in a “fast, clean snap.” Of course, that does not go as planned, and everything ends up crashing on the floor even if the drunken lout looks triumphant.

“Brexit has achieved the breathtaking feat of causing deep cracks in four different polities at a single stroke,” O’Toole wrote in Saturday’s paper.

Not only does it drive a wedge between England and the European Union, it reveals the divide within the English population fueled by what O’Toole calls the anger of “racism and chauvinism.” His point is that the Leave campaign tried to capitalize on working class voters’ frustrations at the job market and economic opportunities, as well as xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments. (Sound familiar?)

Cork was not looking forward to Trump. He decided not to show.
It also has severe consequences for Scotland and Ireland. Voters in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are part of the UK, overwhelmingly voted to stay in the EU. Now Scotland is discussing another referendum to vote for independence so it can rejoin. And rumblings have started as well about Northern Ireland potentially bolting to unite the island under the Republic of Ireland's flag.

Meanwhile, Ireland is bracing for the economic effects of more complicated trade and border security rules with England.

“Ireland caught in the middle of potentially nasty divorce,” another Irish Times headline blares.

And the Irish are beyond annoyed at this, as stock markets almost immediately took a hit.

“No man is an island, no more than any nation,” the Times’ editorial says today. But now that English voters have spoken, they have succeeded only in inflicting “a deep wound on their country, economically and politically.”

American voters take note.