Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Where does the water in Guinness come from?

The word "Guinness is made using water from the River Liffey, right? Wrong. According to this sign at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, the water comes from the Dublin mountains.

Diageo (the UK company which owns Guinness) is planning to open a new brewery in Leixlip, south of Dublin, to "operate in tandem with its iconic St James's Gate facility". One of the reasons for choosing Leixlip is because it's beside a reliable source of water. This source of water in Leixlip is... the Liffey. So that means that the urban myth of Liffey water in Guinness will come true.

[ The word "Leixlip" comes from a Norse word meaning "Salmon Leap", because it was settled by Vikings. In Irish, "Salmon Leap" translates as "Léim an Bhradáin". This means that, unlike many places in Ireland where the Irish placename is the original name, in the case of Leixlip the original name is Norse and the Irish name is the "new" name. ]

Monday, September 29, 2008

Dublin Signs

"Drinking alcohol in public places is prohibited" (Really? This was news to me, and to the many people enjoying the sunny weather this weekend, drinking outside Dublin pubs). Blowing bubbles while falling backwards in public places is also prohibited, as you can see below:

The new "Intoxicating Liquor Bill" makes an exception for St Patrick's Day. This notice is shown on a potato and fruit counter at Marks and Spencer on Grafton Street in Dublin:

This Vodafone advertisement uses the Irish symbol of friendship, pouring someone a cup of tea. I'm not sure how well this would translate to the US, however. The cowboy does look overjoyed to get a cup of tea though.

Finally, in the Guinness brewery, Gravity goes up (the Gravity Bar is on the top floor of the Guinness Storehouse):

Friday, September 26, 2008

Guinness in the morning

This week I've been working at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.

To get there, I take the DART train and then the Luas light rail. Here are a couple of Luas trains in the early-morning Dublin fog:

The Luas goes right past Guinness:

In early morning, walking through streets that haven't changed since Victorian times, the Guinness complex is very atmospheric. Part Charles Dickens and part Charley and the Chocolate Factory. Tall chimneys blowing steam, huge warehouses behind gates, and enormous vats.

Here we see one of street gates:

And here is an iconic Guinness gate:

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Morning train commute in Dublin

When I'm in Dublin, I commute from Bayside into central Dublin to my company's offices there.

I take the DART train from Bayside (Cois Bá in Irish, which of course means "bay side"):

A return ticket costs 3 euro and 80 cents. That's well over 5 dollars for two 30 minute train trips. Over three times the price of the equivalent trip in Boston, although the trains are arguably cleaner and more comfortable.

I missed a train and have to wait 14 minutes for the next one:

Here comes the train:

As in Boston, there are free newspapers on the train. Here in Dublin there is the Metro and the Herald. Unlike Boston, the free papers in Dublin have full-page advertisements in Polish and Cantonese, but no Spanish.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Harvest Time

On Sunday we harvested the barley on the farm in Ireland. It was a nice sunny day. Here is a photo prior to the combine harvester doing its work:

Here is the combine harvester:

And here, in the distance, you can see the combine harvester emptying barley into a trailer.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Postscript: Tyrone Wins

Postscript to my post on the Red Hands on Friday: Tyrone beat Kerry in the big game yesterday.

The game was close, but Tyrone nosed ahead with a gold just after half time and then won it. As the Tyrone manager, Mickey Harte, said: "When you win, you don't do everything right and when you lose, you don't do everything wrong, but we did enough right today to get by."

I saw some straggling Tyrone fans this morning at 7am on O'Connell Street. Maybe they were starting to feel chilly in their Tyrone shirts, but they looked happy.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Red Handed

Tyrone play Kerry in the All Ireland Football Final this Sunday [note to US readers: Gaelic Football, not soccer]. The emblem of Tyrone is the red hand, so you would see many red hand flags around Tyrone (although not in government car parks, as this story sadly proves). There will be many red hand flags in Dublin too, where the game will be held on Sunday. I will be in Dublin on Sunday, but not at the game. Even though Croke Park seats around 85,000 , tickets are almost impossible to come by for this game.

[ Here is a large Tyrone red hand image courtesy of Wikipedia ]

As well as being the symbol of Tyrone, the red hand is also the emblem of Ulster, where it is one of the few symbols which is embraced by both sides of the religious divide. The red hand is also the symbol of the O'Neill family.

Where does the red hand come from?

The most common story is that at http://flagspot.net/flags/gb-ni-ty.html, concerning "the war between two kings for Ulster. The kings had decided that too many had died and a peaceful solution was to have a sea race as both were fond of this sport. As the race was coming to a close the King of Tyrone, O Neill saw he was loosing and thinking of the rules, first person to put a hand on the shore would be king, he cut off his hand and threw it to the shore giving rise to the legend of the red hand of Ulster and of Tyrone. The Tyrone county name comes from the Irish Tir Eoghain which translates to Eoghain county after Eoghain O Neill, the great king of Ulster.

Slightly different version on Wikipedia:
A variant famous myth recounts how Ó Neill and a man named Dermott both wished to be king of Ulster. The High King of Ireland suggested a horse race across the land. As the two came in sight of the ending point, it seemed that Dermott would win, so Ó Neill cut his hand off and threw it. It reached the goal ahead of Dermott's horse, winning for Ó Neill the crown of Ulster. The Gaelic war cry Lámh Dhearg Abu (Irish meaning- Red Hand to Victory) was forever associated with the O'Neills through the centuries.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Property Management company behind Boston's Columbia Point to build and manage developments in Dublin?

I'd heard this discussed in Dublin a few months back, and today I see it mentioned in the Irish Times:

"COLUMBIA POINT used to be one of the worst slums in North America. Despite its beautiful location on Boston Harbour, not far from the Kennedy Library, it was wracked by every imaginable social problem, mostly drug-related. It was a ghetto, physically isolated from the city, a place nobody wanted to go.

Mostly boarded up when developers Corcoran Mullins Jennison (CMJ) arrived on the scene in 1987, it became the first federal housing project in the United States to be converted to mixed-income housing.

And with the end-result winning several awards, it has served as an exemplary model for similar schemes elsewhere."

Corcoran Mullins Jennison now are in the frame to also provide property development and property management for Dublin Corporation and Fingal (north Dublin) Council.

The anecdotal angle I heard in Dublin was that CMJ are seen as being tough, no-nonsense, efficient operators who would enforce control on public housing developments in a way which is not now taking place in Dublin. The Irish Times piece does allude to this, but in a nice way, talking about how people must be interviewed to get places at the housing developments, and so on.

I hope they get the contracts. Some problem developments in Dublin could do with being remodeled along the lines of Columbia Point.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Girl Talk coming to Foxborough (but catch the New York show instead)

Girl Talk (AKA Gregg Gillis) sounds like what mash-ups are supposed to sound like. A single song blends Salt-n-Pepa, Nine Inch Nails, 50 Cent, and about 20 other artists. This makes for an uneasy relationship with copyright law, but for great music. The songs are mixed live on-stage using Audiomulch on a laptop covered in Saran Wrap.

Any performer who arrives on-stage to an ecstatic reaction while dressed in a suit and carrying a laptop is OK in my book.

- New Yorker Profile (scroll down a bit if you don't want to read the whole thing)
- "Pay what you want" album for sale as MP3s via Paypal off his MySpace page
- Wired Magazine's visual analysis of a single Girl Talk track which contains 35 samples

He plays Foxborough in November, but it's sold out. However, shhh, there are tickets available for an extra New York date at Terminal 5.

Girl Talk at Terminal 5 in New York has "Gig of the year" written all over it.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A hornets' nest

Spotted at the weekend in the Arnold Arboretum

Monday, September 15, 2008

Where in Boston?

A tunnel, a castle, a drop-down window, an onion-domed church in suburbia, a train yard.

Answers at the bottom of this post.





1) Franklin Park. This tunnel runs under the road which runs past the golf course, close to the Forest Hills entrance.
2) This is a former armory which is now the Boston Smith and Wollensky's restaurant, near the Park Plaza hotel
3) ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art: http://www.icaboston.org)
4) Church on South Street, Roslindale. Near Fallon Field
5) Bay State Model Railroad, again in Roslindale.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Roslindale Farmers Market

A great little farmers market every Saturday until 2pm. As well as the fruit and veg, there are also people selling free-trade coffee and chocolate, cheeses, flowers and plants. And, as the sign below says, the best tomatoes in Massachusetts.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Why does the frog at the Frog Pond playground in Boston Common hold a test tube?

Maybe it used to be a cigar in the past? But why a test tube?

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Children of Lir

Last night I read my son the story of the Children of Lir , an old Irish legend in which four children are turned into swans. It struck me how sad the story is. The children are turned into swans against their will, their father dies, they spend 900 years in miserable conditions, then they all die. I could not see the story turning up as one of the stories Steve reads on Blues Clues. Many old Irish stories are sad like that.

We learned the story at primary (elementary school). I was interested in the story as a child, and when I read it again last night, new meanings strike me. Lir's new wife had said the four children were drowned in the lake, but Lir did not believe her. He went down to the lake where he saw four swans who he believed were his children. He spent the rest of his life living down by the lake with those four swans, and people came to help him and also to watch out of curiosity. As an adult now, I wonder was Lir just compensating for the loss of his children, who were actually drowned.

The lake is Lough Derravaragh. Derravaragh is Irish for "Lake of the Oaks", or "Lake of the oak groves". Doire means Oak, hence Derry in Ireland, and hence Derry in New Hampshire.

I grew up about 8 miles from Lough Derravaragh, so the story was local for me. The story was set a long time ago, but the site of Lir's castle is said locally to be the present site of Tullynally Castle, again a place familiar to me too.

Given that the story was taught by my teacher in primary school, and part of it was set locally, it seemed quite "real" to me.

Here is a page of the story, taken from the excellent Irish Fairy Tales book by Una Leavy and Susan Field:

The hill which Aoife walks up, beside Lough Derravaragh, is Knockeon (in Irish: Cnoc Eoghain, hill of Eoghan or Eyon).

Here is a photo I took of the shores of Lough Derravaragh, showing Knockeon sloping up on the right. This is where the children would have been turned into swans. I had been here with my son, and it was good to explain the site of the story to him as a place we had visited:


When I travel up to lakes in Maine and New Hampshire, I often think that they are similar to Lough Derravaragh or many other lakes in the Irish midlands. But, in Ireland there is much less pleasure boating and much less development around the lakes. For many lakes, pleasure boating is forbidden by law, and you would not get planning permission to build the kinds of lakeside houses which are common in New Hampshire or Maine. So the lake is as it was in the time of Lir.

Crookedwood is the closest town to that part of Lough Derravaragh. Here is a picture of Lough Derravaragh from the Crookedwood road. You can see more of the shore and hill here, as well as the oak trees which give the lake its name:

Lough Derravaragh from the Crookedwood road

And here is the same landscape in, uh, landscape:


At a pull-off on the Crookedwood road, there is a poster explaining the story of the Children of Lir. I have photographed it in three pieces and pasted them below:

As the story above says, after 300 years at Lough Derravaragh they moved on to other locations around Ireland. I suspect that the reference to God was tacked onto the story when Christianity came to Ireland with Saint Patrick (many Irish stories have a Christian ending tacked on, such as the story of Tir na nOg).

If you visit Westmeath, or the Irish midlands in general, grab a copy of the Irish Fairy Tales book before you go, and then be sure to visit the site of the Children of Lir story.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Scots-Irish

Todat the BBC today carries an article by Joe Bageant about the influence of (what he calls) Rednecks on the US election this year. Rednecks are the descendants of the so-called "Scots-Irish", people who left Scotland for Ireland partly because of disagreement with the Church of England, which is "high church" and closer to Catholicism than their own "low church" Presbyterianism. Indeed the word "Redneck" comes from this background:

"Many Covenanters signed in their own blood and wore red pieces of cloth around their necks as distinctive insignia; hence the term "Red neck", (rednecks) which became slang for a Scottish dissenter"

Originally Celtic, like many people already in Ireland, the people who came to Ireland from Scotland were independent and combative. These were the people who, in the past, had produced William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. The English were happy to move these troublesome people out of Scotland by granting them land in the north of Ireland.

The Scots-Irish "Redneck" vote has been a common sub-theme of this election campaign, lying somewhere below the major themes of pigs, lipstick, and house-counting. This Talking Points Memo article on Obama's Appalachian problem covered the ground, back in the Democratic primaries. The Bageant article goes beyond the Appalachians, mining areas such as Northern Minnesota in search of Scots-Irish rednecks.

James Webb wrote an important book on the Scots-Irish ("Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish shaped America") and for a while he was considered as a potential running mate for Barack Obama. But, Webb was not chosen, and now the Scots-Irish ticket is McCain-Palin. McCain is considered Scots-Irish, and up in New Hampshire I saw "Irish for McCain" placards.

I can see a lot of my own background in Ireland here. Where I grew up, in the hilly country of the north midlands of Ireland not far from the border, the population were hard-working small farmers who had guns (my father shot our neighbour's dog dead for disturbing our sheep), the signposts were pocked with bullet-holes (i waited for a school bus beside one such bullet-riddled Stop sign), poitín (moonshine) was popular as was whiskey, I went to stock-car races and demolition derbies, there was very little trust of "Dublin" (i.e. central government), and people worked hard and were (are) proudly self-sufficient. A compliment in rural Ireland is that someone is a "divil for work" [a devil for hard work, i.e. a hard worker]. Distrust of the "Dublin" government echoes the distrust here of the "Washington" government. When traveling in New Hampshire or West Virginia, I have thought "this feels like home". I mean, it literally even looks like home.

There is a religious aspect here too. But, I don't think it's as simple as people make out. Certainly, the Scots-Irish mostly come from a "low church" Presbyterian or evangelical background. They would be very much a product of the Reformation, very different from centralized, "big church" Catholicism. I'd definitely see the distrust of "big church" as sublimating into distrust of "big government", and I'm certainly not the first person to notice that. And, you can trace the thread of self-sufficiency, and the virtue of hard work (salvation through work, no predestination, etc). But, it's not so simple. In Ireland, where I grew up, the instincts for self-sufficiency and hard work stretched across the religious divide, it was not Protestant thing or a Catholic thing. I would attribute this to a number of factors: the hardscrabble life (everyone had to work hard), Saint Patrick's "Celtic Christianity" ("Christ beside me, Christ at my right hand" in Saint Patrick's Breastplate which we all learned at school) which talked about a personal relationship with God (no "big church"), the local influence of Protestantism, and the Irish (and Scottish) resentment at being told what to do. So, I'd argue that there is a lot of "Irish" in the Scots-Irish, and it should not only be seen in sectarian terms.

My own background includes the old Irish aristocracy who lost to the English at Kinsale, then lost large tracts of land to the Ulster Plantation. But it also includes people who moved to Ireland with the Scots-Irish hero (and probable homosexual) William of Orange, AKA "King Billy". One family legend is that we supplied King Billy with the white horse seen in paintings such as the portrait in the Bank of Ireland in College Green in Dublin. However, my family would be more "Anglo-Irish" than Scots-Irish. There are also French Hugenots thrown in for good measure (a story all of its own).

Like me, Ireland itself is a product of all those influences. In Ireland itself, there is a gradual acceptance of the "Scots-Irish" as being, well, Irish. Historically, the problem was that the land they were given in Ulster (the "Ulster Plantation") had been forcebly taken from Catholics (including the land of the old Irish aristocracy in places like Tyrone). That created grievances which have lasted to this day. Arguably, the conflict in Ireland was as much about land and freedom as religion. Indeed, Presbyterians fought alongside Catholics against the British in the Irish rebellion of 1798, not long after their co-religionists across the Atlantic had fought for freedom against the British in the US War of Independence.

Ireland now is moving on to include the "hillbilly" [the name itself means a follower of King Billy] Scots Irish in the definition of what it is to be Irish, through events like the opening of the Battle of the Boyne center which commemorates the famous victory by King Billy which is celebrated by Scots-Irish on the 12th of July.

And, indeed, the "hillbilly" Scots Irish are becoming part of the definition of what it is to be American, thanks to books like Jim Webb's "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish shaped America".

Locally here in New England, the common definition of "Irish" seems to be all about more recent mostly Catholic Irish immigrants rather than the Scots-Irish who came before. It excludes people like John Stark, whose Scottish-born father first settled in Derry before sailing to America, whose special forces beat the British at the Battle of Bunker Hill in Boston, and who popularised the motto "Live Free or Die" which is New Hampshire's motto to this day. "Boston Irish" seems to apply exclusively to Catholic immigrants, whereas the Irish immigrants who came earlier now seem to be assimilated "non-hyphenated" Americans. Although, in another (good) way, it is often said that everyone is to some extent Irish in Boston, regardless of background.

Getting back to the main point, will these people decide the election?

Further reading: A great backgrounder on the Scots-Irish on Eric Stewart's Old Style Liberal Blog


And here is an extract from the Joe Bageant BBC article:

American ethos

The term redneck indicates a lifestyle and culture that can be found in every state in our union. The essentials of redneck culture were brought to America by what we call the Scots Irish, after first being shipped to the Ulster Plantation, where our, uh, remarkable cultural legacy can still be seen every 12 July in Ireland.

Ultimately, the Scots Irish have had more of an effect on the American ethos than any other immigrant group. Here are a few you will recognize:

  • Belief that no law is above God's law, not even the US Constitution.
  • Hyper patriotism. A fighting defence of native land, home and heart, even when it is not actually threatened: ie, Iraq, Panama, Grenada, Somalia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Haiti and dozens more with righteous operations titles such as Enduring Freedom, Restore Hope, and Just Cause.
  • A love of guns and tremendous respect for the warrior ideal. Along with this comes a strong sense of fealty and loyalty. Fealty to wartime leaders, whether it be FDR or George Bush.
  • Self effacement, humility. We are usually the butt of our own jokes, in an effort not to appear aloof among one another.
  • Belief that most things outside our own community and nation are inferior and threatening, that the world is jealous of the American lifestyle.
  • Personal pride in equality. No man, however rich or powerful, is better than me.
  • Perseverance and belief in hard work. If a man or a family is poor, it is because they did not work hard enough. God rewards those who work hard enough. So does the American system.
  • The only free country in the world is the United States, and the only reason we ever go to war is to protect that freedom.

All this has become so deeply instilled as to now be reflexive. It represents many of the worst traits in American culture and a few of the best.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

EU report finds that Irish people have less perception or experience of discrimination than the EU average

After Ireland's glorious 0:0 draw against the footballing might of Montenegro, another reason for Irish people to feel proud: A European Union survey shows that we are a tolerant people.

The EU report says that:

"In Ireland, all forms of discrimination are perceived as being widespread by a lower proportion than in the EU. This gap is at its highest for discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, but is generally a wide one for all types of discrimination under consideration. Discrimination on grounds of ethnic origin is the only type thought to be widespread by more than a half of Irish respondents."

The EU report shows that Ireland scores high on toleration for ethnic diversity, toleration for different sexual orientations, and toleration for religious diversity. It says nothing about toleration for alcohol, where I'd hope we'd score highly too (sorry, I could not resist).

Compared to the European average, Irish people were more likely to be happy to live next door to someone of a different ethnicity, religion, or someone who is homosexual.

The report shows that Irish people were less likely, compared to the EU average, to know someone who is homosexual or of a different ethnicity. I am reminded of my time growing up in rural Ireland, when it was hard to tell if racism was an issue, because there simply were no non-white people around. Most people, when asked, would have said "I have no problem with someone of a different ethnicity as a neighbour", but in reality there was very little chance of that happening. It would be like saying "I have no problem with a Martian as a neighbour". But, Ireland has changed a lot since then. As Gerald O'Neill notes:

I think by far the most powerful measure of our tolerance is the way in which we have responded to the extraordinary speed and scale of immigration to our country over the past 10 years or so. As noted in new research by my own company, the majority of Irish people consider immigration to have been a good thing on balance for Ireland. Almost no other country has experienced such a surge in the share of foreign nationals in its total population (to 10% in just 10 years) with so little real social, economic or political strife as Ireland. There is no greater testimony to our tolerance as a people in my opinion.

This is good for the Irish economy too, since it means Ireland is a good place for people to move to, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. This is what benefits certain US cities in "new economy" areas such as technology and media.

The full report is here: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_296_sheet_ie.pdf

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Ireland has no balls, but too many bats

Over at the other Boston Irish in Dublin, Cormac Eklof puts out a plea for baseballs. He reports that "right now, Irish baseball has no balls. Send us anything you got! ... That's what I said. Irish baseball has no balls." I may bring some over when I am heading over to Dublin in a couple of weeks. If I am stopped by customers officers, I can say that I have just brought over "a load of balls" from America (they will ask: "What, you've brought over a box of election promises?").

Up north in Derry (not the one in New Hampshire), they have the opposite problem, too many baseball bats. A judge told the court there he is "amazed by the number of baseball bats in this town". Famously, during the "troubles" in the North of Ireland, there was a brisk trade in baseball bats, but very few balls or gloves were sold, and indeed there were no baseball teams. But why not whack people with hurley sticks, which are more common in Ireland? This discussion thread ponders that important question (snippits: "I believe that they are often heavier than hurley sticks--and they in recent years now tend to be narrower at the base where you grip them.", "I think that weight for weight, you'd get a bigger whack with a baseball bat. It would have less air resistance and force over surface area would mean greater pressure on impact.", "Protestant bad guys may prefer to be unarmed than to use this symbol of a Gaelic sport for their misdeeds").


Monday, September 8, 2008

$14.6 billion later, life is created

The Silver Line bus was a side-effect of Boston's Big Dig.

At Courthouse Station on the Silver Line we see another side-effect: The Creation of Life. Not only are the overhead wires live, they are also alive.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Postscript: Kilkenny Cats

Postscript to my match prediction: Kilkenny absolutely annihilated Waterford

"The winning margin of 23 points was every bit as devastating as it sounds, as Kilkenny simply out-classed and out-played Waterford in every sector of the field, inflicting the sort of defeat no team could have deserved, let alone expected."

Kilkenny Cats

The All Ireland Hurling Final start in 15 minutes, and I'm getting my prediction onto the blogosphere: The Cats (Kilkenny) will beat Waterford. There is a match-tracker on the RTE website.

[ Where does the "Cats" nickname for Kilkenny come from? I've heard several stories behind it, all involving unpleasantness towards cats, and the stories are collated together on the Wikipedia Kilkenny Cat page ]

Allez les chats

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The best way to get crabs in Boston

I think this slightly risqué sign for the Barking Crab is new, catching the eye of people (like me) exiting the Children's Museum.

"... and make them snappy."

Friday, September 5, 2008

Getting paid $25,000 to go home

This week a politician suggested paying unemployed foreigners over $25,000 on the condition that they leave the country. Where? In Ireland. Leo Varadkar represents Dublin West, and suggested that unemployed foreigners receive six months of benefits (equivalent to over $25,000) if they agree to leave Ireland. The reason is that Ireland, like much of the Western world, is experiencing an economic downturn.

In Spain, the same Irish Times story reports, unemployed foreign nationals from 20 countries have been offered €18,000 to go home on condition they do not come back for three years.

In the UK, there does not seem to similar calls to pay people to leave, but the Economist reports that some of the people who moved to the UK since 2004 from Eastern Europe, numbering over one million people, are returning home now.

It is hard to draw analogies with the US. In many parts of the European Union, it is possible to travel and work anywhere. Ireland and the UK allow people from many Eastern European countries to work in their countries, and have seen an influx of people from Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, etc. As such, the analogy may be migration between US states rather than immigration into the US from (let's say) Mexico. It may be more analogous to like California paying migrants from the East Coast to return home. Also, European countries have more generous benefits, so they are worried that yesterday's visiting worker becomes tomorrow's benefits tourist. Finally, most of the workers being paid to leave by Spain (and maybe Ireland if Leo Varadkar's idea takes off) are there legally. But, in the US much of the discussion seems to be about illegal/undocumented workers. Indeed, I have seen some US proposals that are the opposite of the European idea, where the workers themselves are paying to stay (rather than being paid to leave) and become legal residents.

In any case, Leo Varadkar's proposal was shot down in Ireland. It is good to see that Ireland is still "Ireland of the welcomes".

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Cultural vagueness and an "extratropical" storm

Boston is set to experience an "extratropical storm" this weekend. What is an "extratropical storm"? Well, according to the Boston Globe, it means that:

"...the center of the swirl of clouds will cool down, causing the storm to lose some of its punch. The strongest winds will be aloft -- not on the ground -- and less rain is likely to fall than would with a warm tropical storm or hurricane."

One striking feature of the US is the level of technical jargon about weather (witness the "doppler radar" forecasts on Boston TV). When I look at weather forecasts in Ireland, they seem hopelessly vague by comparison. I hear "there may be some scattered showers over the weekend" and I think "where?", "when exactly will the showers start?", "how long will they last?". But, in my experiences of Boston weather forecasts, the very technical and specific forecasts often do not actually turn out to be accurate, and I think "why be so specific?".

Where does this difference come from?

Shades of grey ("gray" in US English) are acceptable in Ireland, and it is often seen as being unreasonable (or worse, "pushy") to try to nail something down. Whereas, by contrast, in the US things have to be black and white and it is unacceptable to be vague about anything. Remember that the Irish Language survived for thousands of years without words for "Yes" and "No" (as William Safire notes in the New York Times). One of my personal theories is that the Irish weather itself may contribute to this vagueness, since it is never really summer or winter weather, even in winter or summer, and always somewhere in between. It is often "half-raining", and "half-light" goes on for hours in the evenings during the summer months.

As an Irish person, I also think that often life itself is vague. In the US, there is a strong cultural pressure to have a life plan, to plan things exactly. When the plan breaks down, you make another plan, but you don't say "maybe it's futile to plan like that, maybe I should just formulate rules which will work in an unplannable world". In Ireland, people are more likely to "muddle through". This looks hopelessly disorganized to Americans. By contrast, Americans may seem to Irish people to try to place undue expectations and controls over inherently vague things (like the weather). I think this goes back to the cultural DNA of America: pioneers taming the natural country and forging their own destiny.

A case in point is travel and holidays. One lesson I've learned is that when planning a holiday in the US, it is perfectly acceptable for Irish people to say "We'll arrive into New York on Friday, then leave from Boston the next weekend, and when we're there we'll figure out the bit in between", and have a great holiday. By contrast, most American holidays in Ireland are planned ahead like military operations, with schedules nailed down and little leeway. Then, pieces do not work out as expected (e.g. a B&B loses a reservation) and all hell breaks loose. If you forced an Irish person into this nailed-down schedule, they would feel constricted, and think "how can you plan like that?". If you forced an American into the free-form roving holiday ("vacation"), they may feel annoyed by the lack of a nailed-down schedule. Americans expect this nailed-down black-and-white organization. Irish people expect vagueness.

Yes, I am generalising here. But, just my observations from living in both countries. I would be more in the "shades of grey" camp. But, I'm a bit vague about that...

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

ICONS Festival of Irish Music and Arts

The ICONs Irish Festival in Canton, Massachusetts (which has a blog here) takes place from 12 to 14 of September.

On Saturday 13th it features Irish Dancing sessions for kids, and then Cape Breton music in the evening. Hopefully I'll be there...

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The US J1 visa rite of passage

The Irish Times today features a piece written by a 61-year-old who traveled to the US this summer on a J1 visa. Now, usually J1 visas are used by considerably younger people, as it's designed for students who want to spend a summer working in the US. But, you can be a student at 61, so you can of course work in the US in the summer on a J1.

"Doing a J1" used to be a rite of passage for Irish students, and indeed still is. The popularity of the J1 visa took a bit of a hit post 9/11 when the US gained a reputation for heavy-handedness when issuing visas, but it's rebounded somewhat. However, Australia stepped in to become a favoured destination for Irish students. And, there is always the European mainland (a friend spent a memorable summer in Germany, in sweltering heat, cleaning the tin roofs of a former concentration camp under the watchful eye of a very conscientious foreman).

I "did the J1" in the summer of 1994, when I worked for a traveling carnival on the US East Coast. I spent time in Amish Country, on Cape May in New Jersey, Atlantic City, New York State, and rural Virginia and West Virginia. I have fond memories of meeting Oliver North (whose family is from Cork), calming down co-workers who had Vietnam flashbacks, and one night making an elaborate crop circle. After saving up money at the carnival, I hitched a ride to New York City on the back of a pick-up truck, then flew to San Francisco. From there I took a went down to Southern California and Arizona (Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino, like in the Route 66 song). Then Flagstaff for the Grand Canyon. Then up to the Mid-West where I met my friend John who'd spent his J1 on Cape Cod, and together we traveled to Chicago and then down to New Orleans for the jazz (John is a big jazz fan). After that, we headed to Washington DC, and spent some time there, staying in Georgetown. Then New York, and then back to Ireland to start college again.

Reading that last paragraph, I wonder how I managed to do all that in the days before I had a mobile phone, a US bank account, a credit card, or ready access to email. I wonder now "how did I book that flight from New York to San Francisco" (the answer, thinking back, is that I simply walked into a travel agency next door to the youth hostel near Columbia University in New York City, and paid cash).

I encourage any student in Ireland thinking of a J1 to take advantage of it. Although working for a traveling carnival was insane at times, it was a better experience than flipping burgers on the coast somewhere.

It is a little known fact that the J1 arrangement between Ireland and the US goes the other way too. US students can work in Ireland legally for a summer. We don't have traveling carnivals over there, or a Grand Canyon, but even with an economic downturn there is plenty of casual summer work to go around.

[ Cross-posted to my Travel Blog ]

Monday, September 1, 2008

It's Kerry versus Tyrone

After the semi-finals over the weekend, Kerry and Tyrone won through to play each other in the All-Ireland Football Final on September 21. I'll be in Ireland that day, though I don't have tickets for the game.

I'll watch it on TV instead, and hear commentators talk about Kerry's "champagne football", comparing them to the Brazil soccer team, and hear them talk patronisingly about the "more workmanlike" football of Tyrone. [well, the RTE commentators will say that, but the BBC Northern Ireland commentators would be more sympathetic to Tyrone].

I'll be supporting Tyrone. After all, it's the "O'Neill County" (whose logo features the O'Neill Red Hand shown below) and I'm an O'Neill. And, I know more people from Tyrone than Kerry. Although, I do remember, as an eight-year-old farm boy up in Dublin for the Spring Show, being thrilled to get Jack O'Shea's autograph. But now I'd like to see Tyrone win in 3 weeks time.

Tír Eoghain Abú

[ Tyrone image from this Tyrone Supporter's Bebo page. Kerry image from Wikipedia.]