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 SibĂ©al 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.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

We kept running into Joe Biden

Just to show how small a country Ireland is, we kept bumping into Vice President Joe Biden, who was here to not only meet with Irish officials but also explore his family heritage a little bit.

As Elizabeth, Jason and I were looking to get dinner Tuesday, we found the street that ran past Merrion Square and the key government buildings were blocked off. So I asked the Garda – policeman – who told me it was secured for the vice president's visit there that evening.

"That's why there's the barrier. He knew you would be here," the Garda joked with me.

Only people who knew the password could get through. I tried "big teeth" but was wrong. 
The next day we saw more Garda, TV cameras and people in suits blocking off the entrance to a building between the National Library and the Archaeology Museum. (OK, that turned out to be a women's rights rally, so maybe some of these brushes with Biden were in my imagination).

But as we were leaving Dublin on the M50 out of the airport, we saw the world's longest motorcade going in the other direction.
The vice president's motorcade on the other side of the M50.

This was the shot Elizabeth got of the Biden family's car after the string of a dozen or so Garda motorcycles. Can't you see the vice president in the back seat of that SUV?

We did learn that Ciaran Reilly, a historian at Maynooth University, met with Biden to tell him about his family and one of his ancestor's role in helping employ people during the tough times and famine of the mid-19th century. We listened to Reilly's interview on a Kilkenny radio station on the way south from Dublin.

Meanwhile, after being here more than three weeks, I'm still waiting to bump into Bono.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Sign of the day: Apocalyptic variety

Ryan unexpectedly bought a new pair of shoes in Kilkenny, and they might be his favorite thing ever.

He is so proud of them that he actually asked me to take his picture in them in front of the super swanky hotel where we are staying in Cork, the Hayfield Manor. (How swanky? There was a Jaguar in the parking lot, a practice putting green in the room itself and actual honeycomb to eat at breakfast. Swanky.)

You have to have swanky shoes to stay at such a swanky place.
If Ryan asking me to take a picture of his shoes isn't a sign of the end of times, I'm not sure what else would be. You've been warned.

Here's a close up of the Lloyd & Price shoes that started it all:

If the shoe fits ...

Ryan meets Peggy. Fortunately, it wasn't love at first sight.

We left Dublin today, which triggered the event we were both somewhat dreading: Ryan driving the open Irish roads.

The rental car system at the Dublin airport was a mess. We got everything sorted at the counter, then we had to wait for a shuttle to take us to the car lot. Ryan had to wait in line again to receive the actual car assignment. "B39," he said when he emerged. And suddenly there was nothing between us and the M50 that was our first motorway en route to Kilkenny. Except Peggy.

Peggy is what I am calling the tiny Peugeot that is our transportation for the next five days. 

The prettiest compact car in all the land.

There was an initial burst of nerves: "Is it hot in here, or is it just me?" he asked as we pulled out of the rental cars agency lot. After that, he did just an outstanding job, just as I knew he would.

His superior driving talents included weathering my first navigation flub that took us about 15 minutes out of our way. Despite the three maps I was consulting, it seems as though very few streets are signed here in a clear and timely fashion. Twice, I said, "This is our turn," as we sped out of the roundabout but ended up going in the opposite direction.

Ryan kept his patience, even when Booking.com's directions I had printed off confused us by saying "slight left." We needed to take a "hard left" but instead landed directly onto the main tourist street in the middle of rush hour ("Slight left is really a gross understatement, don't you think?"). He was trying not to hit people, help me spot the hidden street signs, and not run over curbs (although we might have grazed one) in addition to shifting and the whole left lane issue.

I'd like to say this was Ryan doing some fancy Italian Job maneuver, but truthfully it was going about 50 KPH in the slow lane of a very sedate national road.
But we eventually found our hotel, tucked Peggy into the carport, and had an immensely enjoyable night in Kilkenny.

Ryan's rules for driving in Ireland so far*:

1. Don't EVER drive in Dublin.

2. Never be first in line at the intersection.

3. Act like you are checking the window each time you try to shift with your right hand.

4. The slow lane is perfectly acceptable.

*He reserves the right to amend these with more experience.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

How we learned so much from an exhibit that's not open yet

(NOTE: This post was adapted from what I first published on our program's blog, Murray State Irish Literature Study Abroad.)

I've heard about so many amazing things to do and see in Dublin that sometimes I forget the details. In our first lecture of the program, an Irish historian, Mary McAuliffe, told us about a special exhibit opening up about the 1916 Easter Rising that would be different than all the other museum displays around the city because it focuses on the 77 women who played key roles in the rebellion but were almost forgotten by history. I thought it would be an ideal starting point for Elizabeth to get into the Easter Rising history.

I might have forgotten that Mary McAuliffe said the exhibit didn't open until June 27. 

The yard at the jail where the Brits executed the rebels.
All I did have stuck in my head was that the exhibit was at the Richmond Barracks, so I took Elizabeth and my fellow graduate student on the trip, Mary Hays, there on Tuesday. The Richmond Barracks sit a half-hour bus ride away amid the Inchicore neighborhood – one hill over from the Kilmainham Gaol (jail), where the British executed the Rising’s leaders.

We had a little trouble finding it (one wrong turn from the bus stop), but eventually located the long building that used to house troops and served as the holding pen and courtroom for rebel leaders after the Brits crushed the Easter week rebellion 100 years ago. 

When we reached, the door, we saw the sign that said it opens June 27. I tried the door anyway.

It was locked, but a woman with sandy hair and big smile opened it up and asked if she could be of help.
She turned out to be Eadaoin Ni Chleirigh, the energetic and enthusiastic executive chair of the 2016 Richmond Barracks exhibition, and graciously gave us a tour.

“You’re from Kentucky? Well if you’re from Kentucky, you must come in,” she said.
Eadoaoin Ni Chleirigh points to the Countess Markievicz panel on the quilt at the Richmond Barracks exhibit.
The main chamber of the barracks, where the 22 rebel leaders were taken after their capture Saturday, April 29, now features displays detailing the contributions of many of the women who helped carry out the rebellion, such as Rose McNamara (who became vice-commandant at the rebels’ outpost at the Marrowbone Lane Distillery), Winifred Carney (top aide to Joseph Connelly) and of course Countess Markievicz, who was a catalyst for the Rising and is the most well-known of the women involved.

A French paper snapped Markievicz being taken by ambulance to the jail.
In all, 77 women are honored on squares of a quilt that hangs in the back of the barrack’s main room.

“Some of these women only had a sentence or two written about them before this,” Chleirigh said.

That made researching them difficult. Chleirigh initially drew Bridget Hegarty to investigate. That meant tracking down family members. It turned out they knew little about her role in the Rising but became so intrigued that Hegarty’s grandniece then took over the research and design of Hegarty’s quilt square.

“When the family discovered what she’d done,” Chleirigh said, “they were so proud of her.”

Many of those stories would have been lost to history had it not been for McAuliffe, the professor who gave us our first history lesson here. She literally wrote the book on them. Much of the information she found through military pension applications the women submitted to the government – sometimes unsuccessfully for decades. That's how McAuliffe learned that her own grandmother served in the 1921 War for Independence, she told us.

The Richmond Barracks display not only features the women but also the stories of the leaders who were held and tried in the barracks before being marched up to the Kilmainham jail where 14 were executed. 

Chleirigh showed us letters written on scrap paper by the father of Joseph Mary Plunkett, one of the rebellion's leaders whom I specifically studied. Plunkett's parents, who had nothing to do with the Rising, were held in the Richmond Barracks for about a week, and his father was asking his daughter to bring supplies, including food and specifically butter.

The view from a window in the barracks after the war for independence as the British troops leave and the Irish troops move in.

She also showed us the rest of the barracks, which were used as a Catholic school for part of the 20th Century.

Elizabeth and Mary check out one of the digital displays.     

Yes, Ireland really is this magical place of hospitality in which even when I screw up and show up at the doorstep of an exhibit that isn't yet open, they welcome us in and give a private tour.

So as they say here in Dublin: Thanks a million!

Around town: Randomness of a Belfast Saturday

The view of a Belfast street.
Sometimes not having a plan means stumbling onto parades, passionate football fans, anime and comic characters, as well as inventive seagulls and water skiers. In other words, you never know what you're going to find when wandering around a city (or perhaps just Belfast.)

Q-Con in action.
Five of us set out on foot last Saturday for downtown Belfast with only a rough plan for the day. We knew we'd stop by St. George's Market to check out the food and music and explore the city, which despite the tensions, has enjoyed a tourism and economic revival since the peace agreements.

Beyond having a rough direction to walk, the rest would be up to serendipity.

And serendipity delivered in a kind of Alice in Wonderland way where everything seemed to get curiouser and curiouser. 

First, as we passed through the center of Queens University, we started noticing people in colorful wigs and costumes. It turns out, this was Q-Con, Queens University's answer to Comic-Con. It offered a weekend's worth of anime screenings, social activities (such as Pints Against Humanity) and a concert by the Irish Video Game Orchestra.

When we arrived at St. George's market after a 25-minute walk, most of us were hungry enough to test out the crepes, pastries and coffee for sale.

(From left) Peter Murphy, Jason Spann, Mary Hays, Derek Stine and I take in the market while a musician (playing a mix of traditional Irish music and James Taylor songs) entertains the crowd.
Not sure what the puffy rock thingy is.
In addition to finely prepared foods and fresh seafood, it also boasted a healthy array of veggies of fruits of all sizes and colors.

We split up from there as Mary and Peter decided to walk back to the Botanic Gardens near the university. Jason, Derek and I walked back into town where crowds already assembled for a parade that started at noon.

"We'll just wait around and check it out," we collectively decided.

Once the parade got going, it was an endless stream of regiments and divisions from Ulster that fought as part of the British Army in World War I, as well as other Protestant loyalist groups.

This went on for 20-30 minutes.
Many of them marched to their own beats. And because Jason was a percussionist in Murray State's Racer Band, he offered an interesting critique about their techniques.

"The drumming was terrible," he said flatly.

Some drummers in the same group were using opposite hands, which he said made it look discombobulated. He pointed it out to me. I couldn't tell.

Others carried – or drove – with big guns. The forces from Ulster got hit hard in World War I, particularly the Battle of the Somme in France, which was supposed to be a major offensive campaign for the Brits and the French. But it quickly turned costly for the Brits after the French diverted many of their men to reinforce Verdun.

"Everything went wrong that day," as one soldier from the 36th (Ulster) Division put it.

This World War I era soldier surveys modern day Belfast before the parade begins.

After the parade, the randomness of the day only increased.

How does a seagull fix dinner? She dives for a mussel, carries it to a stone walkway and drops it from about 20 feet in the air to break it open. Then she dines. 
A leprechaun with a "Frozen" backpack? What's going on here? We would soon find out. 

Yes, she is waterskiing around the docks of Belfast with a pulley system.
This is where the leprechaun with the "Frozen" backpack was going. Outside the Titanic Museum, they had set up a stage with a giant screen ("The biggest in Ireland" the sign boasted) to show the Republic of Ireland play Belgium in the European Championships. Jason and I watched the first half, which was good for Ireland. It was 0-0. Then the second half happened. It did not go well, and Ireland lost 3-0. 

We tried to watch the end of the match in this pub, the Cuckoo near Queens University, but the sign on the door said: "No sports jerseys allowed inside." That should have tipped us off. Instead, the bar is decorated with women's underwear and wrestling action figures. Of course. 

Jason and I eventually found another pub to finish watching the night matches, including the Gaelic football championships in which Galway came back to defeat Mayo in a stunner. In all, we did another 8-9 miles. Here's a rough estimate of how far/where we walked:

The circle at the bottom is where our dorm was. The Titanic Museum with the screen for the soccer match is at the top right of the map.