Friday, December 26, 2008

Happy St Stephen's Day

Today is St Stephen's Day, which is celebrated in parts of Ireland by "Wren Boys". I can remember Wren Boys going around on St Stephen's Day. It was a rural Irish thing, since when we spent Christmas in Dublin there were no Wren Boys (pronounced "Ran Boys" in Westmeath where I'm from). I could never really understand what it was supposed to be about, and nobody could tell me. It's one of those very old traditions whose use has been lost over time.

The New York Times today has a story about the British "Boxing Day" , which is what they call St Stephen's Day. The article omits the most important aspect of Boxing Day from my Irish perspective: The excellent soccer matches on TV. But, Fox Soccer Channel has a feast of soccer today, including Arsenal vs Aston Villa, so I'm not missing out....

Sunday, December 21, 2008

John Bruton on CNN's GPS program today

John Burton, former Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and EU Ambassador to the US, was on Fareed Zakaria's GPS programme on CNN today, as part of a panel discussion on economic problems. The video or transcript is not up there on the CNN site yet, but will probably be there soon. I'll post a link when it is there.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Jetblue $29 Boston to New York, and other cheap flights from Boston...

Not quite in the Ryanair category of cheap flights, but still a lot cheaper than the usual fare out of Boston to places like New York ($29), Chicago ($49), and Seattle ($99):

http://www.jetblue.com/deals/redsox/

Book before 6pm though....

1890 and all that: Avoiding "LoCall" charges

The Irish telephone systems uses a "1890" number, sometimes called a "LoCall" number, to apply local charges to calls which may not be local. The rough US equivalent would be to allow people to call a long-distance number as if it is a local call within your area code. The problem is that 1890 is a "non-geographical" number (doesn't include an area code) which is billed differently from "geographical" (including area code) numbers. Typically, Irish mobile phone minutes or "all you can call" plans do not include 1890 numbers, so you have to pay for them seperately.

I used the "LoCall" 1890 numbers over the summer to use an international calling card from Ireland. I had assumed that the calls would come out of my prepaid Vodafone airtime minutes, as local calls do. But, no. The 1890 calls all showed up on my Vodafone bill, quite expensive.

Each 1890 number must map to an actual local phone number. What if you just call that number? It turns out that the problem is finding that local number. But, I was happy to see that there is a site called "SayNoTo1890" which allows you to find the non-1890 equivalent.

Aside from my Vodafone mobile bills when I am in Ireland, the 1890 situation is especially important to me because (a) I can't call 1890 numbers from outside of Ireland, and (b) My calls to Irish local numbers are free under my Vonage phone plan.

Today I needed to phone Quinn Healthcare in Ireland, but only their 1890 number was on their Website, and I could not find my Irish health insurance card. So how do I phone the 1890 number from outside Ireland? The solution was to look up SayNoTo1890 and find the Quinn Healthcare entry. I then called that number (in Fermoy, north County Cork) for free.


PS: You know what would be a neat iPhone or Blackberry or Nokia/Symbian application? An application which would simply map the 1890 number to the local number.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

White Christmas?

The weather.com extended forecast for Boston seems to say so....

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"Fringe" in Boston

This week's New Yorker contains a witty review Kalefa Sannah of "Fringe", a medical investigation drama set in Boston. Excerpt:

"The series began in September, with a passenger on a flight to Boston injecting himself with what appeared to be insulin; the syringe actually contained a man-made virus that, within minutes, reduced the plane’s population to zero. The midair gore (the Parents Television Council called “Fringe” that week’s worst show, citing a vivid depiction of “instant, extreme, liquefactive necrosis”) was less spooky than the idea of the ghost plane gently touching down at Logan Airport, guided by computers that must have been slimeproof. Dunham needed help with the case, and, as so often happens at the F.B.I., the experts decided that the right man for the job was a mad scientist who had spent the better part of two decades in a mental institution; in keeping with common practice, the institution agreed to release the man, Walter Bishop, on the condition that his estranged son, Peter, keep an eye on him and give him his prescribed dose of two or three wordy rejoinders per scene."

This review, which I read yesterday night on a plane gently touching down at Logan Airport, is genius. I am always looking for ways of getting some value from the money I pay monthly to Comcast for cable TV, so in the case of "Fringe" I may go beyond reading reviews of TV programs in the New Yorker and actually watch the program on TV. Now that would be something.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Virgin America to fly from Boston Logan to California

The Boston Globe reports today that Virgin America will fly from Logan to California, starting soon.

The most interesting part of this story, for me is that it says that Generation X-ers and Y-ers have no airline loyalty. I guess that means they are not interested in frequent flyer programs? Is that really true? I guess that frequent flyer programs have become more and more "corporate", and often seem largely just a way to try to sell affiliate credit cards, but I dunno....

Personally, I will almost certainly continue to fly United or American to California in order to pick up miles. Although, you know, those touch-screen entertainment systems are nice on Virgin Atlantic, so that is a draw for me to go to Virgin America...

[Crossposted to my Travel Blog]

Monday, December 1, 2008

"A post shall go monthly between New York and Boston"

The Postal Museum in Washington DC has a great exhibit about the early days of mail between Boston and New York, including a simulation of the eerie ax-marked forest path which used to guide the way between the two cities. Imagine traveling along the Mass Pike route without the actual Mass Pike being there. That's a lot of forest, most of which is still there.



By the way, you'll look fruitlessly for an exhibit on the history of "going postal" at the Postal Museum. I know because I looked for one, but I didn't think it was a good idea to ask the staff did they have plans to add it.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Is Lisburn the new New York?

Until the dollar strengthened, Irish shoppers used to travel in droves to New York for Christmas shopping. New York City would advertise on train station walls in Dublin. Now, foreign shoppers in New York are more scarce. So, where does it make sense for Irish shoppers to shop now? The answer is to stay in Ireland, and shop up north to take advantage of the weak Pound and (relatively) strong Euro, in places like Lisburn.

It is interesting to see Brian Lenihan from the Dublin government complain that “When you shop in Northern Ireland, you’re paying Her Majesty’s taxes, you’re not paying taxes to the state that you live in”, because I don't remember any complaints about Irish people saying US taxes when they would leave Ireland to shop in droves in New York (in fact, most were paying no taxes at all, since many goods could be bought tax free by foreigners if brought home immediately).

This is one of the contradictions of Irish partition. Fianna Fail is a party committed to Ireland being a single country, not partitioned into two, but by encouraging people to shop in just one part of Ireland (the expensive part), you are enforcing partition.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Bay State Model Railroad Open House - Dec 7th

This excellent railroad museum is located above Dandelion's Flower Shop on South Street in Roslindale. It's open on Dec 7th from 12pm to 3pm. Entry is $5 for adults, free for children under 12 years old.

This is one of the hidden jewels of Boston. And I do mean "hidden": First you have to find Roslindale, then you have to find South Street in Roslindale, then you have to find the nondescript door which leads up to the model railroad museum. But once you find it, it's well worth visiting.

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DSC00957

Friday, November 14, 2008

Bypassing US Customs at Boston Logan Airport

No, this is not a post about some crafty way to sneak goods past the authorities at Logan Airport. But rather, it's about the new agreement between Ireland and the US which will allow transatlantic travelers to clear US immigration and customs in Ireland, prior to actually crossing the Atlantic. Right now, you clear US immigration in Ireland, but not customs.

At present, the situations for Dublin-to-Boston is:

- Go through US Immigration in Ireland, get your passport stamped.
- Fly to Boston
- Sometimes wait on the plane because "another plane arrived the same time as us"
- A brisk walk to the baggage hall, bypassing US Immigration (as we already went through that in Ireland)
- A long wait at the baggage carousel
- Then a long queue, along with planeloads of people from Frankfurt and Paris and the Caribbean pushing overloaded baggage carts, to then be processed by US Customs staff.

This change means that flights from Ireland could land at a domestic terminal, e.g. the underused Terminal A, which is preferable to dealing with Terminal E with its delayed baggage carousels and long customs lines.

Full details in the Irish Times.

[Crossposted to my travel blog]

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ireland and the EU: buntáistí agus míbhuntáistí

Anthony Faiola has a good article in the Washington Post today about Ireland's economy. It focuses on the pros and cons of Ireland's EU membership, including its usage of the Euro. Although Ireland's membership of the Euro means that has been spared wild Iceland-style currency movements, it also means that Ireland does not have power over its own economy. That power is now centralized by the EU in Brussels. Ireland cannot set its own interest rate, for example.

In October, when Ireland took the unilateral step of guaranteeing all Irish bank deposits, this drew complaints from the EU, and from our neighbour the UK which worried that UK bank deposits would migrate to "safer" Irish banks. The comments on this politics.ie thread sum up the Irish response to these complaints (sample: "The whinging Brits already nationalised 2 of their banks without any regard for the Irish").

It can be argued, as Anthony Faiola does in the Washington Post article, that membership of the EU is both good (more stable currency, free access to market) and bad (loss of economic decision-making) for Ireland. When I would write essays at school in Ireland, an all-purpose phrase I used in practically every essay was "Tá buntáistí agus míbhuntáistí ag baint leis" - meaning "there are advantages and disadvantages to it". So it is with Ireland's EU membership at the moment.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Irish Republicans: Where did Obama *not* win in Boston?

I'm focusing on the negative here, I realize. But, via Universal Hub, here is a link to Matt O'Malley's analysis of the Boston presidential election numbers. He points out some "interesting voter anomalies".

In particular, Obama won everywhere in Boston, usually resoundingly, except for three wards:
  • Ward 6 Precinct 9 (South Boston’s St. Matthew’s) where McCain beat Obama by a vote of 530-467 (52.37% - 46.15%)
  • W7-P2 (South Boston’s L Street Bath House) where McCain beat Obama by a vote of 560-544 (49.69% - 48.27%).
  • W16-P9 (Dorchester's Adams Corner/Neponset) where McCain beat Obama by a vote of 508-476 (50.35% - 47.18%)
Neither South Boston (historically a working class Irish-American area, of course, now more yuppified) nor Adams Corner / Neponset (the area near the Eire pub I believe) would strike me as natural Republican territory. Well, it is natural Irish Republican territory (in the IRA sense) but that is another story.

An "interesting voter anomaly" alright.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Roslindale Open Studios

The Roslindale Open Studios are a fun way to stroll around Roslindale, in and out of artists houses, and view (and purchase) artwork. This article interviews artists from "the heart of downtown Roslindale", a phrase which would lead you to think Roslindale is a lot bigger than it is. It is the smallness of Roslindale which makes the "Open Studios" event work, because there is never too much walking between the various artist homes.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Connacht airport? Massachusetts stretching to the Canadian border?

I realize that pilots do not use the in-flight magazine for navigation, but in the case of this month's US Airways magazine it is just as well. Looking at Ireland, I see a mysterious airport called "Connacht" (presumably they mean Knock Airport?), and I notice that they put Newquay Airport in Wales, rather than Cornwall where it actually is. So if I hear "we are going to make an unscheduled landing in Newquay", I'd be a bit worried.



But just to show that it goes the other way too, here is a photograph from the Aer Lingus inflight magazine which I took a while back, note the position of Massachusetts (and indeed Vermont):

Monday, November 3, 2008

New coffee and grocery place in Jamaica Plain

City Feed and Supply is a good new (well, new for me anyway) coffee and organic grocery place in Jamaica Plain. It's close to JP Licks and the Post Office.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The 4 hour time difference

Because Summer Time ended last weekend in Ireland and the UK, but does not end until this weekend here in the US, we are now in a week when the time difference between Boston and Ireland 4 hours, not the usual 5 hours. This can result in all sorts of confusion. It also means that the time difference from Boston to Ireland is only one hour more than the time difference from Boston to California. It makes Ireland feel more like the 51st state than ever.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ireland gets the snow first this year

Snow is not quite general over Ireland today, but there was a lot of snow in border areas last night. In Boston, the forecast light snow (mixed with rain) last night didn't materialize, and today began clear and dry. I'm sure Boston will make up the snow deficit over the next few months, but right now Ireland leads Boston in the snow stakes.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

No athiests on Aer Lingus

On a recent Aer Lingus flight I took, some unexpected turbulence causes a stewardess to explain "Jesus!". Then later on the same flight, coming into the gate in sleepy dark Dublin at 5am, another stewardess announces "Grá Dé orainn go léir" [God's love on all of you].

As Des Bishop pointed out in his hilarious series "In the Name of the Fada" (where the native New Yorker learns Irish), it's impossible to converse in Irish without bringing God into it. At school I learned that Hello is "Dia duit" (God be with you), with the response "Dia is Muire duit" (God and Mary be with you).

So it is on Aer Lingus. Something comforting about that.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Yah boo - that "English" health system

In the debate last night, John McCain once again got the Irish corporate tax rate slightly wrong (he said 11%, whereas it is actually 12.5%). But, balancing things out, he did get a dig in against the English. As Justin Webb reports, McCain made a disparaging comment about the "English" health system. Though, if the English (actually British) system is bad (free coverage under the NHS, half the spending per person as the US) then I don't know where that leaves Ireland. Or indeed the US.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

"National Cranberry Festival 2008" at Edaville near Carver, Massachusetts

Ever wonder how cranberries are harvested? No? Well, even so, you can find out at the National Cranberry Festival which I visited today at Edaville. Edaville is located near Carver on the way down to Cape Cod from Boston.

Wisely, the festival does not focus on the cranberry harvesting itself (which involves guys wading into water holding some kind of water-rake thing). Instead, there is a two mile long narrow gauge railway, many amusement rides, and a ball pit for kids. Today there was also a display of Irish dancing and trained dogs (not together, though). The narration on the train tells the story of the founder of Edaville, how he built up the train line and developed the impressive Christmas festivities there as a New England institution.

Here is a bunch of cranberries about to be harvested, then to be taken to the nearby Ocean Spray plant:



Greetings from Edaville:

Friday, October 10, 2008

Banks branching out

I guess you know times are hard for banks when you see this:

Thursday, October 9, 2008

New visa to allow Americans to work for a year in Ireland, or Irish people to work for a year in the US

Next month, a new visa agreement between Ireland and the US comes into effect. It allows up to 5,000 Americans to work in Ireland for a year, and up to 20,000 Irish people to work in the US for a year. The visas effectively are one-year versions of the J1 working visa, which people like me used to spend a summer working in the US as students.

These one year visas are a great opportunity to work in a different country, and gain experience of living abroad. I did this myself 15 years ago, and I recommend that Irish and American (and indeed Irish-American) people out there do the same.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

"Polite, yet distant, friendliness"

A good article in the Irish Times today by a Polish person returning home from Ireland:

"To befriend an Irish person is a different story. Coming from my culture, where you say what you think, it was a mighty challenge to understand what was really said in a conversation. Freud was right in claiming it was impossible to psychoanalyze the Irish. That barrier of polite, yet distant, friendliness seemed impregnable. To my delight, I found out that it was actually soluble in alcohol."

Yes, alcohol is the key. Psychoanalysis is one of those foreign concepts which I feel never made sense in Ireland (like communism, or the practice of taking uneaten food home from restaurants). As an Irish person, I think "if I don't tell my closest friends how I feel, why would I tell a psychoanalyst?".

On another note, it is good to hear that people coming to Ireland for work feel welcome:

"In Ireland, I felt welcome. Was this because Ireland never adopted the mentality of an imperialist country? Because Irish people knew best what it meant to look for work abroad? Or more pragmatically, that the economy boomed and migrant labour was now welcome?"

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The staples

Photographed recently: a fridge full of beer and sausages in a Sainsbury's near Bloomsbury Square in London. Add in pasta, and then you would have all three major food groups represented.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Aer Lingus to cut down Boston flights, and move to US-based flight crew?

The Irish Examiner reports today that Aer Lingus is going to cut back some transatlantic flights to cut costs.

Personally, I think that Aer Lingus is being dragged down by unnecessarily engaging in head-to-head competition with Ryanair. For example, I recently flew return from London to Dublin for zero ticket cost, paying only taxes and baggage costs. This is a bit ridiculous, and I would have happily paid a reasonably fare for the flights. I don't see why Aer Lingus has to match all of Ryanair's low-cost or zero-cost flights. They could charge a bit more and I certainly would still always choose Aer Lingus over Ryanair.

According to the article, Aer Lingus is also following a recent trend I've noticed in Europe: moving jobs to the US where salaries are cheaper because of the weak dollar. But this removes one of the reasons I choose Aer Lingus: the Irish flight crew.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Irish language childrens books

Irish language books for children are a lot more common than when I was a kid in Ireland, as this photo shows. Hodges Figgis has a great selection, on Dawson Street in Dublin. I photographed these books in Dublin Airport.

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."
http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/property/2008/0918/1221599462240.html


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.
















...





...




...




Answers:

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:

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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:

17092006(003)

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"
http://www.scotshistoryonline.co.uk/rednecks/rednecks.html

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

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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.
http://www.turbulenceahead.com/2008/09/tolerant-people.html

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