Category Archives: Ireland

‘Where are all the birds?’

'We're after eatin' all of dem," he said, without missing a beat.

‘We’re after eatin’ all of dem,” he said, without missing a beat.

We were on a carriage ride through the beautiful Killarney National Park on March 19, and our driver was a guy who had no problem playing to tourists’ expectations. He was a burly guy in a cloth cap whose previously broken nose made him look like an ex-boxer — an Irishman who embraced all stereotypes, cracking a steady stream of jokes that prominently featured Guinness, leprechauns and Irish whiskey.

And he did it in such a natural, unstudied way, and seemed to be enjoying himself so, that it was for me a highlight of our trip to Ireland.

As we rode through the park admiring the scenery, the medieval ruins, the miniature deer and other attractions, one of the ladies in our carriages noticed something I had not. She asked the driver, “Where are all the birds?”

He didn’t miss a beat. Looking over his shoulder with a smile, he said “We’re after eatin’ all of dem.”

As I tweeted at the time, I hadn’t kissed the Blarney Stone, but someone had…

My wife later said she would have liked a serious answer to the question. Me, I was delighted because I’m pretty sure that’s the only time during our almost two weeks in the country that I heard someone use that famous Irish construction of “after” followed by a gerund. Word guy that I am, it made my day.

So much for the anecdotal lede.

For those of you still after wanting a serious answer to the question, I’ll be after giving it to ye, soon as I finish me Guinness…

OK, here you go…

It was in The New York Times today, an opinion piece headlined “Three Billion Canaries in the Coal Mine:”

A new study in the journal Science reports that nearly 3 billion North American birds have disappeared since 1970. That’s 29 percent of all birds on this continent. The data are both incontrovertible and shocking. “We were stunned by the result,” Cornell University’s Kenneth V. Rosenberg, the study’s lead author, told The Times.

This is not a report that projects future losses on the basis of current trends. It is not an update on the state of rare birds already in trouble. This study enumerates actual losses of familiar species — ordinary backyard birds like sparrows and swifts, swallows and blue jays. The anecdotal evidence from my own yard, it turns out, is everywhere.

You may have heard of the proverbial canary in the coal mine — caged birds whose sensitivity to lethal gasses served as an early-warning system to coal miners; if the canary died, they knew it was time to flee. This is what ornithologists John W. Fitzpatrick and Peter P. Marra meant when they wrote, in an opinion piece for The Times, that “Birds are indicator species, serving as acutely sensitive barometers of environmental health, and their mass declines signal that the earth’s biological systems are in trouble.”

Unlike the miners of old, we have nowhere safe to flee….

It’s an ominously interesting piece, so I thought I’d bring it to your attention.

And now this picture I took last year of a dead bird on a street in my neighborhood comes in handy:

I was struck by the beauty of this dead bird. Can anyone identify it for me?

I was struck by the beauty of this dead bird. Can anyone identify it for me?

Oh, you mean THAT Scandinavian girl…

By the time we got there, the demonstration was fairly impressive.

By the time we got there, the demonstration was fairly impressive.

You ever notice how some people have a gift for summoning up a situation in a few words, while other people will give you War and Peace in response to the simplest questions?

I experienced that walking down a street in Dublin back on the Ides of March.

There were all these kids walking toward a demonstration carrying signs. Groups of them were converging from all over the city, wearing the uniforms of the schools they were skipping that day. So I fell in step with a woman who was with group of particularly young ones, like fourth or fifth graders, apparently as some sort of chaperone, and I asked her what was going on.

“It’s their first demonstration,” she told me. So I asked what the demonstration was about.

She started telling me about this Swedish schoolgirl, who had started a movement, and now all these Irish kids were caught up in it, and that’s about all I could make out what with the street noises and the bullhorn at the actual demonstration site, which we were approaching, and the lady’s accent, and my hearing problems.

She could have just said, “global climate change,” but she was not so verbally economical. From the signs and what I heard in the next moments, I figured that much out. But I went the rest of the day wondering what some Scandinavian girl had to do with it.

Well, by the time Greta Thunberg sailed across the ocean, I had put two and two together. And now kids around the world have skipped school again for the same purpose, and Greta herself has delivered her message to the U.N., and it seems she’s really ticked off about it.

Anyway, I’m all up to speed now.

They kept coming, in groups large and small from all over Dublin.

They kept coming, in groups large and small, from all over Dublin.

The weather app on my phone is torturing me

In the foreground the old boards, in the background the new ones. In the far background, you can see some new ones that we've stained.

In the foreground the old boards, in the background the new ones. In the far background, you can see some new ones that we’ve stained.

For the last few weekends, we’ve been engaged in a project.Dublin

The deck on the back of our house has two layers of boards, running perpendicular to each other. I don’t know whether this is standard deck construction, but that is what we have. I suspect the top layer is newer than the other. When we bought the house 21 years ago, the deck was a roofed, screened-in porch. Since the roof was removed, the top layer of deck boards haven’t weathered well. So we’re replacing them with new, treated boards. We’re also spacing them a bit so we don’t get standing water on the deck any more.

We’re doing it in stages. We’ll tear up a section — a tedious process that involves various implements of destruction (hammers, flat bar, crow bar, my old cat’s paw I’ve had since I worked construction while in college, and occasionally my reciprocating saw). Then we clean and repaint the boards underneath. Then we buy enough lumber to do about ten rows. Then we repeat. We’re a little bit past halfway done now.

Of course, the last couple of weekends have been brutal, thanks to the weather. What, I must ask, will August be like if May is like this?here

But it’s made worse by the way the weather app on my iPhone keeps taunting me. I keep consulting it with the thought, “Let’s see whether the heat is going to try to kill me again today.”

For some reason, when I tap to call it up, it does not default to the weather where I am. Oh, no. The first thing I see is the weather in Dublin. So on Saturday, I was told the high would be 67, and the next day it would be 63, and the day after that 58, with a fine sprinkling of God’s generous rain. I could almost hear it add, “And would ye be after havin’ a Guinness after yer toil today, me lad?”

When we were in Ireland, the difference between the weather here and there was not that huge. A little cooler, and I was glad most days to have taken my water-resistant winter coat, although some days I took it off for a short while. Decent weather for the end of winter and start of spring.

But now, it’s like being on different planets. Ireland is the sane, normal, temperate planet. And West Columbia is on the one ruined by greenhouse gases. I’m reminded of the line from “The Matrix” to the effect that “It was us that scorched the sky.”

Last week was absurd for May. This coming week will be more so. Why must we live like this?

boards close

The shadow that hung over our time in Ireland

Of course, the threat of Brexit didn't keep us from having plenty of craic. Here a couple of ladies from our group celebrate with some local lads on the evening of March 17.

Of course, the threat of Brexit didn’t keep us from having plenty of craic. Here a couple of ladies from our group celebrate with some local lads on the evening of March 17.

While we were in Ireland recently (March 13-22), we didn’t follow news all that closely — and we never let it spoil our fun — but we were aware that the biggest story in the Republic’s media was Brexit. Not just because it was a big drama playing out right next door, but because it was an issue with ominous implications for Ireland itself.

It might even, we kept hearing, bring back the Troubles. Here’s a fairly succinct description of the situation:

Brexit, in its most basic sense, means that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will exit from the European Union and, as voters in the 2016 Brexit referendum were told, will “take control” of its border. Brexiteers promised that the U.K. would be able to restrict the free movement of goods and people—thus abandoning the central commitment of E.U. countries—and discard E.U. regulations.

But the U.K.’s borders also draw a line between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which is—and will remain—a member of the E.U. The Irish border meanders for some three hundred miles through towns, villages, and the countryside, separating twenty-six counties in the Republic from six counties in the North—a division that emerged from the Irish War of Independence and the creation of the Irish Free State, in 1922.

Here’s the problem: the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland are parties to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which relies on the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland. For example, the accords created common Irish cross-border institutions, such as a joint parliamentary association, and removed the checkpoints and watchtowers at which British soldiers had been stationed during three decades of strife known as the Troubles. During those years—chronicled in Patrick Radden Keefe’s new book, “Say Nothing”—the Irish Republican Army conducted a violent campaign to push the British out of Northern Ireland; unionist paramilitary groups, whose goal was to remain part of the U.K., committed their own acts of violence; and British forces were frequently complicit with the unionist paramilitaries and, at times, engaged in torture and illegal killings. Sinn Féin, the political party associated with the I.R.A., is also a party to the Good Friday Agreement, as are parties associated with unionist paramilitary organizations. The accords have worked, bringing peace.

This is the paradox and the tragedy: Brexit fundamentally conflicts with the Good Friday Agreement, but the U.K. government is in a state of denial about that conflict. It insists that it is committed both to Brexit and to the peace accord: Brexiteers claim that they can maintain a “frictionless” open border with the Republic of Ireland after Brexit—in the same place that the newly hardened border with the E.U. will be….

Ireland doesn’t need that kind of tension on its border with Ulster, a place that will be freshly seething over what Britain has wrought upon them. Britain doesn’t either. Yet the U.K. keeps staggering toward what increasingly looks like a ragged, disorganized exit, with little provision made for the aftermath. That’s what government by referendum gets you.

I thoroughly enjoyed visiting that beautiful country, and hope and pray its future isn’t like its past. That past was always with us, and not just because of our tour manager, a bluff, ruddy Englishman who sometimes seemed to forget that this American tour group contained a healthy proportion of Irish Catholics (you’d think my brother-in-law’s name, Patrick Cooper Phelan, would have been a reminder to him). He made a number of references to the IRA, only he always said “IRA terrorists.”

But that’s nothing compared to the carelessness of his countrymen who voted for Brexit.

A Kilkenny street scene...

A Kilkenny street scene…

Looking ahead: Have a nice St. Pat’s. I’ll be in Ireland

My brother-in-law, Patrick Cooper Phelan, in 2007.

My brother-in-law, Patrick Cooper Phelan, in 2007.

As long as I’m wishing you appropriate holiday sentiments, I hope y’all all have a great St. Patrick’s Day. I see tickets are available for the Five Points bash, and you get a discount if you buy them in advance.

I urge you to go to Yesterday’s and buy one, have a pint and remember me to Duncan and my other friends there.

However, I won’t be joining you on the day of. I’ll be in Ireland.

See how I just reeled that off so casually, as though going to Ireland is a small thing that I do all the time? Well, it isn’t. I’ve never been before. But my colleen and I will be boarding a plane for Dublin a week from today, and we’re kind of excited about it. We’ll spend a couple of days there, and on St. Paddy’s Day we’ll be in Waterford, which is my wife’s ancestral home. She’s a Phelan, which is to say she’s an Ó Faoláin.

We have tacitly agreed that while in Waterford, I won’t mention my descent from the guy the hard cider is named after. Although while in Dublin I plan to quietly go to the National Gallery and see his wedding picture, which depicts his taking Irish Princess Aoife Ní Diarmait as his bride. (And if anyone asks me, I’ll stress that I’m just as much descended from her as I am from the Norman. Ahem. So don’t blame me.)

And it promises to be a great St. Patrick’s Day, because my wife’s brother and his wife will be with us. And the most fun I ever had at the Five Points celebration was in 2007, with that same brother-in-law.

Having the two Phelans with me should give me all the cred I need among the Irish. Or so I hope.

Anyway, I’m really looking forward to it. So much so that I started reading Ulysses a few weeks back, to get into the mood. But a couple of “chapters” in, I decided that was unnecessary, and that having read Dubliners is more than enough preparation….

 

‘Dooanld the Ready’

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I’ve called your attention before to the hilarious Twitter feed Donaeld The Unready, the chronicles of a king from the era of “The Last Kingdom” and “Vikings” who goes about blustering and promising to “Make Mercia Great Again!”

Sample recent Tweet:

As you probably know, my first name is Donald. My first name comes in handy because I can always tell when I’m being addressed by people who don’t know me or anything about me — they call me “Donald.”

But I was really confused this morning. My wife and I are planning a trip to Ireland in a few months. We signed up for a package deal that my brother-in-law and his wife are also planning to go on, out of Memphis.

Today, I got an email from one of the organizers telling us that… well, I’m still trying to sort out what it’s telling us. Something about our flight to Heathrow and from there to Dublin, I think.

Anyway, it addressed me as “Dooanld.”

Is that an ancient Irish version of “Donald?” No, that would be “Domhnall.” (The name is of Gaelic origin, by the way.  It means “world ruler,” which tells you I have yet to come into my birthright, and I’m kind of getting impatient about that. I mean, don’t names mean anything anymore?)

Also, how is one to pronounce “Dooanld?”

Whatever. I’m looking forward to the trip. Call me Dooanld the Ready…

Actual photograph of Dooanld the Ready. OK, so technically it's an actor portraying my ancestor Ragnar Lothbrok. Best I could do...

Actual photograph of Dooanld the Ready. OK, so technically it’s an actor portraying my ancestor Ragnar Lothbrok. Best I could do…