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Street Legal

25 Jun

I got my “Tax Disc” the other day.  Mary says to me “You’re not seriously going to write about this on the blog?”, and I’m like “This is interesting to me, the way the Irish do this stuff…”  She yawned.

But I tell Mary, “a Tax Disc entry could be entertaining…it sounds like a Frisbee for accountants or something” .  Unfortunately, it’s just a piece of round paper that you display on your car’s windshield to prove you paid the “Road Tax”.

And you don’t mess around with stuff like this in Ireland because the police set up roadblocks all over the place to check on you.  At first, I thought there was something serious going on, like an accident or someone digging a ditch, but no, just a totalitarian-police-state-style shakedown in progress. 

I suppose people are used to this here what with “The Troubles” and all, but in the states I only ever saw this kind of roadblock on Memorial Day weekend or one of the major three-day-drinking-and-bbq-ing  holidays.   Here I get stopped at least twice a month.

The first time I experienced this, I made the mistake of rolling my window down politely and the Garda asked me was I here on my holidays, who owned the car, had I been drinking, and all the other “probing-for-a-reason-to-haul-me-in-or-fine-me” questions.  When he asked to see my license, I gave him my California license because I’m still on the “learner permit” in Ireland and that doesn’t allow me to go on the Motorway like my U.S. one does.  He looked at it and told me to watch myself and let me go.  Whew.

Now I’ve mastered the art of looking bored, nodding and giving them the finger-lift salute so they know I know what I’m doing and they just wave me through.


But now that I’ve figured out the whole Road Tax thing, I also understand that the ubiquitous presence of all these tiny little fuel-efficient cars on the road has nothing to do with being green and environmentally conscious…it’s a tax thing! 

They calculate the amount of tax you pay based on the size of your engine.   Smaller engines are much cheaper, so they become more desirable and more accepted and automakers make more of them and the virtuous cycle really can start from regulation…and gestapo tactics.

In the end though, you get a society that thinks a BMW mini is an oversized, overpowered extravagence….for example look at the substitute family car Mary had last week….I couldn’t believe they actually got four doors onto it!


water view

25 May

One good thing about being a rower is that it gives me an opportunity to see things that non-rowers usually don’t.  Often these things happen very early in the morning when the water is calm.

The other day I was up at dawn which is very very early these days what with the northerly latitude and all.  As I was driving on the bypass headed out from Ennis over to O’Briensbridge for the Limerick Regatta I looked off to my left and saw the ruins of the Clare Abbey rising out of the misty fields with the light hitting them in the most magical way. 

So I took a picture of it.

Now, anyone who was up at that time could have seen the same view, but I think most people driving the bypass at that hour are probably either still partially asleep or eager to get where they are going and might actually miss it. 

When I arrived in to O’Briensbridge for the racing, I parked in the village and walked down the river to the launching dock and took another most magical photo of the calm and glorious view that rowing exposed me to.

There is, however, a darker side to all this “I get to see things most people don’t see” stuff.  Being in Ireland in the midst of an economic depression means a lot of psychological depression is happening too and rowing in the middle of Limerick city shows this to me in the form of the Civil Defense boats that dragged the river pretty much every weekend from January through March looking for “missing” people that might have gone missing right around the Sarsfield Bridge.

The longer days and warmer weather seem to have lifted people’s spirits a bit and the search and rescue folks are getting a little breather on the missing people searches.

And I’ve finally managed to get used to the funny rowing terms they use over here like bow side” and “stroke side” insteady of “starboard” and “port” or “easy all” instead of “weigh nuff” and “backstops” instead of “at the finish” and…now that I think of it, maybe the American terms are a little funnier.

Here’s a video I managed to take while we were tying in on the water, and you can hear the cox telling us to start from “backstops” here just before I throw the phone into the hold.

The Roundabout as Metaphor

14 May

You gotta love a place that has roads without names, towns with names that change, and yet every roundabout has a distinctive name and lots of signage from whatever direction you enter.

Among the roundabouts on my route to work is The Rocky Road Roundabout. I feel a particular affinity for this roundabout because as a child my mother used to bring us to Edy’s Ice Cream Parlour where Rocky Road ice cream was invented in the throes of the Great Depression as an attempt to lift people’s spirits.

So every morning as I pass around the Rocky Road Roundabout I think of the state of Ireland’s economy and how fitting it is that the statue in the middle of the roundabout is of Icarus with his great waxen wings about to fall from the sky – a victim of his hubris. When they built this roundabout in the middle of the booming Celtic Tiger I doubt they meant to predict where the Irish Icaruses (Icarii?) would land.

I salute him as I pass and give thanks that we have found so much support and opportunity here while 14% of the country have no work and so many (50,000 people each year which is over 1%) are forced to leave the country in search of jobs.

We are enjoying being here, but it is most surely a tough time in this country and we are aware every day of our own friends and others we don’t know who are struggling down the rockiest of life’s roads.

Imy of Killimer

10 May

A little background here: last October I noticed a banner in the church referring to a “Saint Imy” who I had never heard of. A little poking around proved that pretty much nobody else had either.

Since then, I have been quietly researching and trying to figure out who she was and what she did that was so Saintly. The only productive result I could find online was a small dot on a “Points of Interest” map in a town called Killimer on the Southern Coast of County Clare. So when Mary’s friend invited us to Kilrush on Sunday I set a course through Killimer to find out what was at that dot.

We almost missed it. The road follows the coastline and affords views of the wide Shannon estuary and glimpses of the ancient monastary and round tower on Scattery Island (founded by local Saint Senan – one of St. Patrick’s “12 Apostles of Ireland). But in between stretches of scenery and a few scattered houses, we blasted past a small whitewashed shrine with a cross on top and Mary screeched the car to a halt so we could see if this was the “point of interest” we sought.

Inside the shrine we encountered a lovely statue of a Saintly looking woman and a plaque on the wall next to her that told me more in two sentences than I had learned in hours of research and countless conversations with pious people.

The best info I previously got was stuff like “oh yeah, Imy, she’s one of the local Saints, but that’s all I know” or “I knew a couple of girls named Imy from around Kilrush”. But nobody could tell me anything about teh actual Saint until this:

It isn’t much of a description – and frankly I wasn’t sure if it meant she was Senan’s sibling or a nun. But it gave me something to go on and some more research revealed that St. Senan’s sister was also called Ibie which probably means some transcriber had a cold when he told his scribe to write “Imy”.

But, Ibie was also called Imer sometimes which I should have figured out because I knew “Cil” meant church and towns with “Kil” at the beginning were always the “Church of Someone” so looking for Imy in Killimer should have been a clue…oh well, I guess I’m not DaVinci code material.

If I was more like that Tom Hanks character in the Dan Brown movies, I might be able to figure out who is buried under the unmarked headstone built into the wall around Imy’s shrine. I’m pretty sure it’s not Imy because legend has it that she wanted to be buried on Scattery Island but women weren’t allowed there so her brother Senan buried her under the sands at low tide so she could be on the island but not on the land.

E.S.L. in Ireland

6 May

This may seem obvious to many, but the official state language of Ireland is Irish (also known as Gaelige, or Irish Gaelic).  Which means that technically, English is a second language here.  In practice, however, there are only estimated to be about 90,000 people who speak Irish as their first language and unless you go to the Gaeltacht areas where Irish is spoken regularly outside of the classroom, you are unlikely to hear anything but English.

Where I do see the impact of English being a second language here is mostly in the signage: all road signs are listed in both Irish and English, which apparently leads to some inconsistencies in the translation. 

Seriously though, it’s not as bad here in Ireland as the stuff you see on the Engrish website  above, but here’s a real practical example:

In February I wrote about Liscannor which is on the coast next to the town of Lahinch.  As I wrote, I couldn’t remember if the town was spelled “La”-hinch or “Le”-hinch so I went online.  I found plenty of examples of both spellings and attributed the inconsistencies to typical internet inaccuracy.  On the advice of the local residents and the world famous golf course, I decided to go with “La”-hinch.  And then I noticed the road signs:

(the extra blue sky is from the tinted windscreen of the car)

When I saw that sign, I thought they might have just made a mistake, but even the Ordinance Survey map – which is about the most official map there is – spells the town “Le”-hinch.  Now that I was attuned to the spelling variations, I started to notice versions of Lahinch spelled both ways in many different places.

And it’s not just Lahinch that changes spelling: notice Ennistymon in the above sign and compare it to this:

The more I started looking at the town name spellings on signs around Ireland, the more inconsistencies I noticed.  That’s when the lightbulb went on in my head and I realized what was causing this phenomenon:

It  isn’t Lehinch vs. Lahinch,  it’s not Ennistymon vs. Ennistimon: the towns are named An Leacht and Inis Díomáin.  English is the second language here, really.

It’s the little things that get you…

2 May

When people think of culture shock they mostly think of the big things like whether you shake hands with people or whether you can get rocks thrown at you for wearing short sleeves and stuff like that.  They don’t tend to think of the little things that can really make your life complicated if you don’t understand them.

For instance: color paradigms for auto fuel.   What? You never thought of this? Of course you didn’t, you may not ever have noticed that there are standard colorings for auto fuels….why would anyone ever think that this could be a significant cultural complication?

But in the U.S. most cars run on unleaded fuel and only very few run on Diesel.  I had the good fortune to drive a diesel-fueled car in the states so I learned that 1. it is very important that you do not put unleaded fuel into a diesel-fueled car; and 2. that the diesel pump is always the green one at the gas station…doesn’t matter which station, what company, or where you are in the states, the diesel pump is colored green.

Here we are in Ireland now, and a large percentage of the cars run on diesel.  In fact, both Mary’s car and my car both run on diesel fuel.  It is still important to make sure not to put unleaded into our diesel fueled car, but here the color paradigm has the diesel pump colored black and the unleaded pump colored green.

On more than one busy, distracted, unthinking moment, I have pulled into the petrol station (which is what they call gas stations) thinking “ok, remember, it’s diesel” to myself.  I have jumped out, grabbed the green handle, placed it in the gas tank opening and caught myself just before squeezing the handle of doom.

The tiniest little details of cultural adjustment can sometimes have great significance.

Over the Hills and Far away

16 Apr

The pictures I’ve put up of Sonas (the house where we’re living) make it look like we live way out in the country, and in comparison to those “in town” we do live in the country, and we do look out on those gorgeous fields and hills. But we also have neighbors, so it’s not like we’re out in the middle of nowhere.

Here is a picture of the neighborhood looking back from the little road that runs up over the hill (hint: our house is the green one).

Just past Sonas is the amazing and luxurious Woodstock Hotel and Golf Club. You get some great vistas from up on the hill here, and I took a video of Mary driving on this road headed for the Holy Well just over the hill. Oh, didn’t I mention there’s a Holy Well in the area? Did I need too? This is the West of Ireland, there’s a Holy Well within a walk of everyone.

With Grace’s first Holy Communion coming up next Saturday, we figured we’d better put some Holy Water into the little fonts. We have two, one is from the set of Tara dinnerware that Jim Lyons gave to us (for Tara someday), and the other came with the house.

If you need holy water for your holy water font, what better place to get it than the local Holy Well. So we set out on the little road over the hill to our local Holy Well. And just so you know how darned scenic it is here, I took a picture of the nameless castle ruin between our house and the well:

Just past the castle you will find the following shrine which marks the location of the holy well. If you can’t see the well itself, you will not be alone, it is hard to find. In fact, the water flows in the small dark square just behind and to the left of the shrine.

Here’s Mary squatting down and filling our container with the Holy Water.

Having made our tiny pilgrimage, I felt it important to take a picture of the field where some farmer has trimmed his bushes into topiary. Nice to be able to use that word once in a while….topiary.

So next week with the communion on, everyone will head out to the countryside filled with Castles and Topiary and dip their fingers by the door into our own local holy water. Woo hoo!

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