Archive | October, 2011

Merry Old Soul

29 Oct

Frankly, it is a bit disappointing to me that I know so little about coal considering my grandfather comes from a mining family in Pennsylvania  coal country. 

But until now, I have never lived in a house where coal was a principal part of the heating system, so I’m learning a whole lot here.

First off, I have to say that going out back to the great big coal bin in the crisp fall air, or even in the pouring rain, makes me feel kind of…(and here the Irish *and* the Pennsylvanians will laugh at me)…but it feels kind of manly.  It’s like going out to get water from the well, or out to the woods to chop wood, or some  “I’m a guy and I’m taking care of my family” kind of thing.

Diamonds in the Rough

Secondly though, there is the simple appreciation of the coal itself which, when the light hits it, reflects a glint of petro-chemical rainbow off some of the smooth surfaces amongst the craggy bits.  I see these and think of how these wondrous black bundles of energy could someday become diamonds – if they didn’t go out in a flash of light and heat in the fireplace in our apartment.

Cozy warm bed of coal

I only feel a small sense of regret that they won’t ever become diamonds….mostly I just feel the warmth.


No Nuthin’ in the Tunnel

28 Oct

Ok, so I’ve started working for the Irish Chamber Orchestra in Limerick.  Don’t get all excited yet, it’s only two days a week, but still, it’s a great organization and I’m really enjoying it and they’re actually paying me. 

That said, the I.C.O. building is in the middle of the University of Limerick campus and although my blog posts tend to point out the Irish things that I find different to those I’m used to in the U.S.  I’d like to take a brief moment here to point out that apparently Univerity students have universal attitudes toward road traffic – specifically: college students here have as great a disregard toward oncoming cars as those in the states…they just walk right up to the edge of the crosswalk and continue onwards into the street without looking in any direction regardless of how close or how fast any oncoming cars might be going. 

Fortunately, regardless of what side of the road I’m on, I’m good at noticing pedestrians about to jeopardize their safety and I slow down appropriately.

There's a lot of fundraising behind this gorgeous building.

Anyway, the whole point of this post was supposed to focus on the commute to Limerick which takes me through a toll tunnel under the Shannon (IRL=”The River Shannon”). 

The reason this tunnel is post-worthy is that there is a series of road signs leading up to the tunnel which tell you what kinds of vehicles are allowed inside the tunnel.  These are very similar to such signs in the states in that there are the requisite “No Pedestrians” and “No Bicycles” logos on the wordless sign as well as an indication of the height limit of . 

But it’s not these that I find fascinating:

First off, I think it is noteworthy that in Ireland of 2011 they still feel it is important to make sure that you don’t drive your donkey and cart through the tunnel on the highway. 

One of maybe six identical signs just like this

Secondly though (and this is possibly even more interesting than the “No Donkey Carts” logo) there is a logo with an “X” over an empty space!!!  What on earth are they prohibiting here?!?  Nothing?  Like “don’t let the tunnel go empty” or “no driverless vehicles in here”.  Or maybe it can be read as “Nothing is Prohibited Here”…the converse of which could be “Anything Goes”.

Regardless, I honestly have no idea what on earth the empty “X” circle is supposed to mean.  I hope I don’t get pulled over for doing it.

Every Vote Counts

27 Oct

Today the Irish voted to elect a new president – unfortunately I didn’t arrive in time to get myself registered to vote so only Mary got to represent our family’s voice. 

Here’s a fact about the election that I found interesting: they vote on a ranked system so they get to choose who they like best, second best etc etc.  Pretty cool.

Is it still a Secret Ballot now that I've taken the photo?

Mary’s polling place was in the Knockaneen school nearby where she had actually gone to school when she was younger.  In those days there were only two rooms, one had a combined class of 4th, 5th, and 6th classes and the other room held all the younger kids. 

Today, there were many classrooms and a couple new buildings and on all the walls some of the nicest work I’ve seen from students at those grade levels.  If we stick around the neighborhood for a while, maybe the girls will go to school there too.  Who can say. 

(Oh, and we ran into old old old Mrs O’Connell of O’Connell’s Field fame who told us in more detail where the Holy Well is – and when I say detail I mean like “oh yes, the old well…it’s just over the hill there and then up the rise, and there’s a gate that might not be open to a field where there might be cows so you’d want to be careful, but…”)

In the meantime, another memory has been created at this school, and maybe, just maybe, Mary’s vote helped push a candidate to the Presidency.

Like A Duck To Water…

26 Oct

On Saturday I raced in the Saint Michael’s Rowing Club Masters 8 at the “Castleconnell Head of the River” race in Castleconnell.  The course is approximately two miles, so not as long as some Head races, but plenty long enough by the time you get to the finish line.

You can just make out the boat through the weather (I'm the 5 seat).

The weather finally lived up to its reputation.

Absolutely torrential rain – verging on hail or at least it felt like hail on my back – a solid headwind through much of the course and freezing cold.  Just like the Irish would have you believe it was like all the time.  Of course, being in a t-shirt in a boat during this kind of innundation would tend to sear the memory into your head and have you chicken-littling everytime you felt a drop of dew on your cheek.

This kind of devotion is par-for-the-course for die-hard rowers – and I guess I’m one since it didn’t seem to bother me – but what  impressed me was that Mary and the girls came down to watch the race….and actually stayed around to watch (and take the above photo of me rowing). 

Before we left, I think Mary had a sort of idealized (IRL=idealised) vision of what being a spectator at this event would be like.  Maybe she had in mind something like the Head of the Charles race which was being rowed simulatenously way off in Boston.   The banks of the river along the racecourse might provide a seating area or some refreshment concessions or, this being Ireland, there might be a cute little town along the river with a small cozy pub or cafe in which to grab a hot-chocolate for the girls and sit by the river watching the boats going by.

As we approach Castleconnell, the little town is indeed a cute little Irish village with exactly the type of small pubs and cafes in which one could get a hot chocolate for the girls.  Although on this particular day, you wouldn’t want to drink it by the river, you’d want to sit by the fire in the restaurant and warm/dry yourself while you sipped your hot beverage. 

Unfortunately, even this quasi-idyllic vision wasn’t to be.  Castleconnell turns out not to be on the river at all.  The town is a good bit away from the actual river, and there is a (muddy) dirt road of about two kilometers leading down to the boathouse along the river.  All the rowers and their boats and their boat-trailers have made a grassy soupy sort of consistency to the ground that you slosh through if you dare venture out from under the canopy of the tent that the club has set up on the bank. 

I told the girls that they were under no obligation to stay around and that they would probably find much more interesting stuff to do in dryer and warmer places, but they still decided to stick around.  Truly amazing.

Because the race is a head race, the course is longer and curvier than the sprints, and consequently the boats start one at a time and row the course for time rather than side-by-side.  Consequently, at the end of the race you only have your own impression of how it went, you don’t have any kind of result as to who won and how fast you went.

It took a few days to get the results back, thus the delay in mentioning this event on the blog.  There were only three Masters 8’s in the race: us (St. Michael’s); The Shannon Rowing Club; and The Castle Connell Rowing Club.  So the competition wasn’t all that broad, but we had no indication as to how strong or fast any of the other boats would be.   Tuesday evening I found out that we came in first. 

My first Irish rowing victory and hopefully not the last.

Fall has Fallen

23 Oct

Just the other evening Fall occurred.  This is of note to me because I have only spent six years of my life living in places with seasons (and for those of you who know my history and are counting – 5 were Boston-ish and 1 was Paris). 

Fall, Autumn, whatever, it will last for three months give-or-take but it always seems to happen in an identifiable moment.  I remember from all six seasonal residences I’ve had that every year there is one moment when you step outside and you say to yourself or the person you’re with “Well, it’s Fall now.” 

Girls At King John's Castle

The Other night Jim and I went up to Quinfor a pint at a pub across from the Abbey with a beautiful view of the ruins.  I love it because there is a herd of jersey milk cows all black and white that graze right up to the crumbling stone walls and it looks like a scene from a movie. 

When we stepped out of the pub it was clear:  The brisk clean air filled our lungs, chilled our faces, and tickled our noses with the faint scent of turf burning in local fireplaces.   As we shoved our hands into our pockets and out of the cold, we commented simultaneously to each other “Well, it’s Fall now”.

In a single moment, Fall had fallen.

Girls At King John's Castle - Take Two

Hunting for History

21 Oct

I have this feeling that the Irish are laughing at me quietly behind my back because of my wide-eyed wonder at all the “normal” things around here – like forgotton Holy Wells in people’s fields.  Actually, that’s not really just a feeling, and they’re not really doing behind my back so much as right to my face which I suppose is better. 

As I mentioned before, there was a casual brunch-time mention of a Holy Well in someone’s field just over a hill behind O’Connell’s field.  This fired up my imagination, and I had to go looking for it so I took Mary on little walk to find it. 

It was a beautiful day, and perfect for a walk.  By “beautiful day” I mean that the space in between the clouds was large, the sun – when it shone – was strong and the air was clean.  Perfect day for a walk.  It may be important to mention at this point that during those moments when the sun wasn’t shining, it was absolutely *DUMPING* rain and the temperature was probably somewhere above freezing.  But it did seem like a perfect day for a walk, or maybe my quest to find the forgotten-to-everyone-but-the neighbors well was clouding my judgement.

"Perfect day for a walk" - The View From the Well Hunt

Trying to remember how Jim described getting to the well during the casual mention of it during brunch several days prior, Mary and I set off down the road next to the highway.  As we climbed over the first fence, Mary asks me “whose fence is this and are we allowed in here?” “of course we’re allowed, but if anyone asks, I’ll do the talking and with my American accent I’ll say something like: ‘I’m just searching for my Irish heritage and I heard my ancestors were from somewhere around here…”

So far so good.

The next detail I remember Jim saying was that we would branch off from the road onto a path that would lead us straight over to where the well was.  So as Mary and I walk along, we’re looking for something that could fit that description.  In short order we see what appears to be an old road with stone walls bordering it that looks like it could lead us to somewhere that we might find a well.

Old Road that looks like a Path to a Well

So far so good.  Did I mention that the beautiful fluffy white clouds were releasing a lot of water as they passed by?  Oh yeah.  Old dirt road + torrential rain = muddy shoes.  But despite the mud, we found that if we stepped carefully, we could avoid most of it and it did look like there could be a well just over the rise.

Shoes still clean and dry?

But as the road progresses, it gets a little smaller, it gets a little muddier.  We see a small plastic pipe that is carrying water from somewhere to somewhere and we decide that it is carrying water from the well to the fields.  It is also leaking quite a bit of that water in tiny little jets over the “road” which has now gotten considerably smaller than we expected.  also considerably more muddy, but still we journey on.

Really, there's a path under there...

At this point, Mary and I can hardly walk because we are laughing at ourselves and the ridiculousness of trudging through the mud and brush down paths that clearly weren’t used recently.  I’m thinking that we’re going to find the well and then, in full irony, see a nice paved road that leads up to it from the other direction.  

Note to self: it’s about the journey not the destination. …truer words were never spoken.

But then out of the underbrush emerges the ruins of civilization.  Or at least some former buildings and ancient walls. 

good candidate for some weather stripping

You can guestimate the age of the walls by how thick they are, the older walls being sometimes three or four feet thick with stones, and newer ones being less than two feet thick.  By that measure these were very very old walls since they were much thicker than they were tall – proably even when they were built.

Nonetheless, we spot what appears to be a fenced yard area adjacent to a former building structure at the edges of a couple of fields – remember we’re reconstructing all this in our imaginations  from piles of rocks set into mud and covered by moss, ivy and other organic material – some of which comes from cows and/or sheep.

Mary and her big, wide....wall

So in the end, we decide that a squarish structure in the corner of this walled area is the Holy Well we were seeking.  I’m pretty sure it isn’t the place we were looking for but I’m glad that we found it in any case. 

same square stone structure shown in previous post and designated "The Holy Well"

At a minimum we had a great adventure and a lot to laugh about later.

Oh, and Mary says “you’re taking all these pictures for your blog aren’t you?” and I’m like “of course – are you kidding?” and she says “there aren’t any pictures of you on there.” So I hand her my phone, and…well… here’s a picture of me:

must be a holy site because my shoes look miraculously white (which they weren't any more at all)

Historical Complacency

19 Oct

I am constantly amazed by the depth of the history that surrounds one everywhere and every-when in Ireland.  At the same time, the constant presence of legendary occurances has made the locals a little complacent about it. 

If you keep your ears open you will hear the most amazing stories casually inserted into a conversation and then left there, not mentioned again, not made a big deal about, and possibly just brought back out some time by a listener sometime later, slightly diluted, the memory slightly weaker: “I remember old Mr. So-and-so telling me about that rock there and how one time a long time ago….”

I think this is the kind of thing that happened to Saint Imy.  Everyone around here is like “oh yes, of course, Saint Imy…” and then I say “who was she? what did she do?” “uh, hmmm…well, she’s one of the local Saints donchaknow”.  Madeleine says “I think she might have been a hermit…” but I suspect Madeleine might be referring to Conaire of Rineanna who did hole up in a cave for quite some time after she had her visions and before she busted down the doors of Saint Senan’s Scattery Island Monastary.  I’m thinking Imy might have done something important sometime, and then people just took it for granted “oh yeah, Imy, she saw the Virgin that time over there….” and so on for generations until we arrive here now and her bona-fides are no longer “bona” nor “fide”.

On that note, we were having brunch as a family on Sunday which included both Madeleine and Jim, the four of us Pollocks and the four Lyonses from Quin – Sean, Trish, Saiorse and Aideen.   It was a beautiful day and we were discussing the O’Connells’ field across the road and Jim mentions that there was a mass held the other morning in the next field just on the other side of the hill that we look at.  Sean says something like “oh, at the holy well there?” and Madeleine says “Did you go Jim?” “No, I wasn’t able to make it.” and then the conversation moves on to the next things.  I have to interject here and say  “whoa, wait a minute…Holy Well? Priests in fields at dawn? what’s the story there?”  They all rather matter-of-fact-ly agree that there is an ancient well in the field beyond the field across the road that has probably been there since ancient times and once a year at some particular moment in the annual cycle, they say a mass at the well in the field, and the families of the neighbors attend and if you go over there you might find evidence of offerings people have left there when they visited to pray for somebody or get cured of this or that and that’s pretty much all there is to it.

(now here is the place where I wanted to put a photograph of the aforementioned Holy Well, but I didn’t have one, and of course there isn’t one findable online, so I grabbed Mary and said “c’mon, let’s go for a walk” and she said “where to?” and I said “we’re going to find that Holy Well beyond the O’Connell’s field” “Do you even know where it is?” “Well your dad said if you went down the road by the highway you’d see a path off it that would take you straight over to the well” – You see where this is going don’t you….anyway, here’s the photo – but the rest of this story deserves it’s own entry.)


The casual holding of a mass at a well in someone’s field is the kind of thing that everybody seems to think is normal around here – or at least only worth a passing mention, but I’m like “we don’t have a lot of holy wells where I’m from” and besides the earthy-crunchy-hippie- type-earth-goddess-tree-hugger people, there aren’t a lot of rituals performed in fields at dawn at specific times of the year back home – and certainly not by the established patricarchal authority.  Here it’s a given that there is a holy site nearby that’s been holy long before it was Christian and the mass that they say there is just a continuation of a tradition that started long before anyone can remember.

I can’t wait to go to the torchlit mass at dawn at Corcomroe Abbey in the Burren where they burn fires all night long in the ruins of this ancient site and celebrate mass at Sunrise on Easter morning in what even very staunch Catholics will admit is a rather pagan sort of ceremony.  Jim says he’ll go with me – very exciting.

Seriously though, there is so much history and tradition and mystical magical miraculous stuff around here that people seem to forget that most of the world isn’t quite as full of this type of thing.  Nobody notices here when a Saint fades into obscurity because there’s just so much history all around you couldn’t possibly keep track of it all.

As a closing image to support my mystical magical moments theme, here is a picture I took on the walk back from the well of the Lyons house with a rainbow touching down directly on it.  Unfortunately, the iPhone doesn’t really get much of the rainbow but you can see a small trace of color above the house.

Moy Tura House at the End of the Rainbow

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