Before you post that photo . . .

Last week one my students, Brianna Barkocy, wrote a blog post about some questions that she’s been struggling with over the course of her time here in Ireland. To my mind, it’s a profound piece of thinking that asks difficult questions about what happens when we remove ourselves from the familiar and how social media allows us (if we let it) to inspire misperceptions of others as well as ourselves. I encourage you to read Bri’s piece.

Bri’s piece is interesting and useful because she gets underneath everyday life and she questions practices that are so quotidian that they seem normal. Upon closer inspection, though, these practices actually reveal something about our inner lives.

Bri describes a condition that she terms ‘social media travel.’ As she explains it, the social media traveler posts photos on her Facebook feed that show ‘ceaseless adventures into new landscapes.’ Here in Ireland, it’s the inevitable drinking a pint of Guinness in a pub, walking along the Cliffs of Moher or kissing the Blarney Stone.

Bri cautions us to ‘beware of the social media traveler,’ because behind that veil of good times is oftentimes someone who is homesick, bored, lonely, tired and afraid to show the world the challenges anxieties of traveling abroad.

On the surface, Bri’s piece is an honest look at some of the pitfalls of living and studying abroad. What it really does, though, is lay bare some essential and difficult questions regarding the nature of our lives, especially what happens in those moments when things get really quiet, our minds start to wonder and we are left with ourselves alone. Travel does that to you, if you let it.

We enjoyed a robust conversation about Bri’s blog post in class the other night. At one point in the conversation, one of the students, Molly, raised her hand and said, “Bri, this is a really important piece and I think everyone who studies abroad at Regis should read it.” As Molly was finishing the sentence, though, her voice trailed off, she paused and then concluded, “No, never mind, you know what, I don’t think it’s possible to understand what you are saying until you have been abroad for a while. People will just have to figure this out on their own.” I loved Molly’s comment for its pure phenomenological insight: you have to experience the world on your own terms to really understand it.

I suppose that the phenomenon of the social media traveler that Bri identifies is shared across nations and cultures, but I don’t know enough about the minds of people from other places to say whether that’s so, or not. I do think, though, that there is something terribly American about Bri’s piece and what I perceive as our dread of quiet, of being alone and of loneliness. As Bri so eloquently writes, social media travel allows us to fill a void and to do it in a rather unconscious manner. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course–travel in particular and life in general should be joyful and exciting so by all means, keep posting those shots of you skiing through powder, enjoying a cocktail on a beach and hiking through the woods!  But, as Bri notices, social media often acts as a cover for our fear of making ourselves vulnerable, of telling people things they might not want to hear and of revealing our anxieties and second thoughts.

I appreciate the unvarnished honesty of Bri’s post and it highlights of the reasons I still enjoy teaching after 22 years: I find myself continually inspired by young people like Bri, who is just one of twelve wonderful Regis University students studying here at the University of Maynooth this semester. They are all writing blogs and they are all producing thoughtful and entertaining vignettes of their lives here in Ireland.

You can find all of their collected blogs here on our class blog spot.

We Attend the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin and Stop in at the Maynooth GAA Club

We woke up this morning, ate breakfast and took the early train into Dublin. We met Andy at the Hodges and Figgis bookstore on Dawson Street, stopped in for a nice breakfast at KC Peaches Cafe and then found a nice place on Dame Street to watch the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

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Spending time with Andy in Dublin before the parade
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The only flag Sujata will ever wave

After the parade, we said goodbye to Andy (see you tomorrow for the Ireland v. England rugby match!) and took the Sligo Express back to Maynooth. On our way back home from the train station, we stopped in at the GAA Club in Maynooth. The place was lit up with families enjoying St. Patrick’s Day and we were happy to run into some of the families from the children’s school.

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Impromptu soccer game outside the GAA Club
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We feel like welcome visitors in Maynooth

The parents waved Sujata and I over, we pulled up chairs, ordered a few Guinness and spent a delightful two hours socializing. The kids went off to play soccer on the fields and an hour later, they came back, soaked, thirsty and starving. I enjoyed spending time in Dublin and watching the parade, but sitting in the local GAA club, chatting with parents, watching kids run in and out and all around, sipping Guinness and munching on crisps . . . feeling and being treated like a local, really, was the highlight of the day.

We walked back home in lashing rain and wind, tumbled through the front door and all of us agreed that we couldn’t have had a better St. Patrick’s Day.

The only thing that could possibly make this day any better would be a Spartan win tonight, but I’m not holding my breath.

On a final note: our children are attending Irish schools this semester. Gaelic is a required part of the curriculum in all the national schools so both of the kids are learning Gaelic. Yesterday, my son came home with a bi-lingual handout of Irish aphorisms. Here are some Irish-isms you all might enjoy spouting off tomorrow. Let me know if you have an opportunity to use any of them and extra points if you say it in Gaelic!

Nior bhris focal maith fiacail riamh. A good word never broke a tooth.

Ni deanfaidh smaoineamh an treabhadh duit. Thinking will not do the ploughing for you.

Is maith an taniann an tocras. Hunger is a good sauce.

Is fearr rith maith na drohsheasamh. A good run is better than a bad stand.

Giorraionn beirt bothar. Two people shorten the road.

Irish Sport

There are few civic and cultural institutions that bring Americans of different stripes together anymore. Places of worship, schools and neighborhoods are largely divided along lines of race and class and there are, unfortunately, very few public spaces where Americans gather to share a collective experience that isn’t inscribed by partisan politics, narrowly-defined notions of culture and sectarian belief.

If there are any such places left in America where people of different backgrounds, cultures and beliefs come together to share common experiences, it’s on the playing fields. Swivel your head at any professional sporting event and you’ll see a wide range of races, ethnicities, classes and political persuasions. In fact, American sporting arenas are the few public spaces left where a supporter of #45 and might sit shoulder to shoulder with, well, someone like me.

As a lucrative business, American sport is, of course, deeply influenced by politics and economics–think of the millions of taxpayer dollars the U.S. military pays the NFL, NASCAR and the NBA to put on the surprise homecomings and the military tributes at the beginning of any given professional sporting event. You didn’t really think those military homecomings and tributes were free public service subsidized by the professional teams, did you?

Given its 800-year conflict with the British Empire, Ireland is infused with political and cultural tensions on a level that most Americans (Native Americans and blacks, aside) simply can’t understand. An example: last week in my American literature class, I was writing the names of some of the students on the board. There’s a young man in the class whose name is Eoin, a common Irish name that’s pronounced, to an American ear, “Owen.” I have spent enough time in this country that I should have known this, but I started writing “Owen” on the board and before I had gotten to the N, Eoin sang out, “Oh, that’s not my name. You spell it E-O-I-N. You’re spelling it like the English made us spell it after they came over here and screwed everything up.”

Fair enough.

That brings me the topic of this post, namely, politics, identity and Irish sport. In the United States, sport is mostly connected to memory and place; that is, the professional athletic team you follow and whose jerseys you purchase is probably a team that you loved when you were a kid or your local team. For instance, I followed the Philadelphia 76ers when I was a kid because I grew up outside of Philly but now, I follow the Denver Nuggets because I live in Denver. Additionally, American professional sports leagues, especially the NFL, have undergone successful long-term marketing campaigns that have cast pro sports as family-oriented, family-friendly activities. That’s to say that if you go to a professional sports match you are very likely to see entire families sitting together or sitting in the “Family Night” discounted seats. You are also likely to see just about as many women as men in attendance.

This wouldn’t be the case in Ireland where attending sporting events and talking about and playing sports are (for the most part) dominated by men. One of the best ways to strike up a conversation with someone at an Irish pub is to nod up to the television screen and ask the bloke you’re sitting next to how the hurling (or soccer, rugby or Gaelic football) lads are doing. You wouldn’t ask that of an Irish woman for two reasons: one, it would be rather uncommon for an Irishwoman to sidle up to the bar in any given pub and two, Irish women, for the most part, are not interested in sport.

There’s also a political complexity to Irish sport and it has everything to do with Britain’s colonization of this island. In other words, sport in Ireland falls out according to the political fault lines of the nation and since the end of the nineteenth century, sport in Ireland has been attached to and used as a way to emphasize national identity.

Hurling, a sport played on a pitch with wooden sticks, is probably the Irish sport that is mostly closely connected to Irish national identity. To the uninitiated, hurling looks like a mash up of field hockey, lacrosse and golf.

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Watching the Dublin v Mayo hurling Match in Croke Park, the major GAA field in Ireland.

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The Irish claim that they invented hurling, but I think the historical record on that question is unresolved. Nevertheless, the Irish claim as the progenitors of hurling is sound: in the Ulster Cycle stories the great warrior of ancient Irish mythology Cu Cuhulainn is known for his proficiency on the hurling fields and even uses his hurly in one of the stories to kill a fierce dog who attempts to bite his head off. As the dog approaches, Cu Cuhalainn, tosses the hurly ball in the air and bashes the ball right down the gullet of the animal, killing it instantly. Cu Cuhulainn is only seven years old when he accomplishes this feat and when the high king discovers what Cu Cuhulainn has done, he immediately brings the young boy into his service.

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Mosaic of Cu Cuhlainn inside Croke Park, Dublin. 

We know that hurling was played in some form or another throughout Ireland for centuries. But following the Tudor conquest of the seventeenth century, the English embarked on a process of systematically dismantling just about every bit of ancient Irish culture, including Irish sport. By the middle of the nineteenth century, then, hurling was a dying sport that was enthusiastically played in Wexford and Cork but not many other counties on the island.

It makes sense then that Irish sport, especially hurling, is closely associated with national identity. This is evident in The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), an Irish film about the Irish War for Independence (1919-20) and the consequent Irish Civil War (1922-23). The film begins with a local hurling match in County Cork just before the Irish Civil War. After the match, British Black and Tan troops descend into the community and execute one of the players who refuses to comply. In the violence that leads up the execution, one of the British soldiers is seen pummeling one of the local players with a hurly and the message and iconography here is unmistakable: the hurlers, many of whom will end up joining the IRA in the film, are associated with Ireland and Irish national identity and the British soldiers’ brutality against the hurlers is there to remind us of the colonial efforts to eradicate Irish culture.

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The hurling scene at the opening of The Wind that Shakes the Barley

It was at the end of the nineteenth century, though, that Irish sport became highly politicized. In 1884, a gentleman by the name of Michael Cusak formed the Gaelic Athletic Association or, the GAA. For readers of Joyce’s, Cusak is The Citizen from the Cyclopes episode of Ulysses. The GAA is still very much alive in modern Ireland–just about every town and village in the Republic (and many in Northern Ireland, too) has a GAA club that teaches Irish sport to young people and organizes Irish sport leagues for all ages. If you go into the local sport stores you will find county-specific GAA gear. For instance, we live in Kildare County so Everly’s, the local sports store, carries all kinds of Kildare GAA hoodies, sweatpants, beanies and t shirts.

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At the Michael Cusak statue, Croke Park.
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The GAA Club in Maynooth

At the end of the nineteenth century, though, The GAA pretty much single-handedly saved hurling from evaporating into the historical ether and it was also responsible for creating a nearly new sport, Gaelic football.

I think Gaelic football is one of the most exciting sports I’ve ever seen. To me, it looks like a cross between soccer, basketball and rugby. It’s a super fast game–the players, dribble, run with, kick and pass the ball and they fly up and down the pitch like sprinters. There is some contact, but it’s not nearly as violent as American football or even rugby. I was chatting with a guy in a pub a few weeks ago and he noted that the Gaelic games (hurling and Gaelic football) are by and large aerial games, meaning that they are focused on the ball being kicked, tossed or thrown through the air and the play is primarily focused on moving the ball through the air as opposed to pushing it down the field on the ground.

That’s not to imply that the GAA is a pure and entirely wholesome idea. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (a precursor to the IRA) infiltrated the GAA and began using it as a way to connect sport to its nationalist goals. This blending of sport and politics had some very nasty consequences. The Brits, understanding that the IRB was using sport to recruit members to forward its mission of an Ireland liberated from British rule, targeted the GAA and even mounted a violent attack at a Gaelic football match in Croke Park on 21 November 1920.

So what you have here in Ireland is an athletic culture that is divided according to “native” and “foreign” sports. Soccer and rugby, sports imported from Britain are played here in Ireland but they are, generally speaking, still associated with Ireland’s colonial past. In fact, there was a time when the GAA banned its members from playing ‘foreign’ sports (read: rugby and soccer) and it wasn’t until 2000 that members of the British security forces were allowed to join GAA clubs.

That’s not to say the Irish don’t love their rugby and soccer. The Six Nations Rugby tournament has been going on for the past month and on any given rugby Saturday, the pubs are full of lads (and some lassies) cheering on the Irish national team. This would be true in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland as the Ireland Rugby team is and All-Ireland team, meaning the club is made up of players from the North and from the South so on rugby match days, you’ll find people in Belfast, Derry, Dublin and Galway packed in pubs and cheering on the Ireland team.

From Guinness to Yeats and Joyce and to the Book of Kells and even St. Patrick’s Day, the Irish have given us so much, but I think it is a great shame and loss that hurling and Gaelic football, two excellent and incredibly skill-based and interesting games, have never made it across the pond.

I love going to the pub or propping my feet in front of our television on a weekend afternoon and watching a hurling or Gaelic football match.

 

 

Belfast

If you came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, like I did, Belfast is one of those cities that probably raises images of people running down burned-out city streets, chased by British security forces. Or maybe you remember Belfast as the site of the 1980 hunger strikes that took the lives of Bobby Sands and nine other Irish republicans. Either way, Belfast, when I was growing up, wasn’t a place that your folks took you on their European vacation nor even a place you dreamed of visiting one day.

That’s because from 1969 to 1989 Belfast was the epicenter of a period of Irish history that’s known as the Troubles. In 1920, the British government agreed to partition the island and twenty-six of the counties were allowed to break from the British empire and govern themselves. The remaining six counties remained with Britain and became the state of Northern Ireland. For its first 50 years, Northern Ireland was a simmering cauldron of political and religious discontent and then in 1969, after Catholics (and some Protestants, too) started a civil rights movement that was based on the American Civil Rights movement, Ulster loyalists grew restive and violent against people participating in the civil rights marches and then, ultimately, against ordinary Catholics. The minority Catholic communities in cities like Belfast and Derry became targets, and in this charged and violent atmosphere the IRA emerged (to some extent) as the perceived defenders of the Catholics against the vigilante violence of forces like the Ulster Volunteer Force. Both sides committed atrocities and horrors, and by the time the Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed in April of 1998, over 3,000 people had been killed.

Throughout the twentieth century, while much of the rest of Europe was shucking off centuries of religious thought and practice, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland remained mired in religious narratives and fueled by ancient religious prejudices. It makes sad sense, then, that the Irish would find a religiously-inflected name for this dark period of their history: to be troubled is to be overcome with fear and dread and to go through trials and tribulations like Christ did in the lead up to his death. Placid waters are troubled by dark forces and the act of being troubled means there’s no quick solution and there’s no easy way out.

I visited Belfast for the first time in 2000, just two years after the historic Good Friday Peace Agreement. I was living in Dublin at the time, and while the Good Friday Agreement was still very much in the news, you couldn’t really feel the effects of the 30 years of communal violence that had just (mostly) ended. Aside from being quite a bit wealthier, Dubliners in 2000 went about their lives pretty much like they had throughout most of the twentieth century, and the Troubles felt like a distant and fading echo.

This was decidedly not the case when I took the train north and visited Belfast one late winter weekend in 2000. The place felt like a boxer who had been knocked down, bloodied and battered, and was wondering if it might be a better idea to just stay down and take the count. I stayed in a dingy hostel near the Europa–a hotel in the city centre with the infamous distinction of being bombed out more than any other European hotel (29 times over the course of the Troubles).  The manager at the hostel recommended I take a black cab tour, so I booked a cab and spent the better part of Saturday riding through the burnt-out streets, looking in awe at the ‘peace lines’ that divided Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, the murals telling stories of the ancient hurts that each community had suffered at the hands of the other and flags, emblems and painted kerbs, all marking loyalties and flashing warnings. I can’t quite remember, but I’m sure that I ate alone and drank more than I should have that evening.

Seventeen years later, I returned a changed man to a changed city. In 2000, I was, as they say, alone as a stone, and troubled by what seemed a certain fate. Then, Belfast city felt like an eerie reflection of my own life, present and future, and when Sunday finally rolled around, I couldn’t wait to board the train and beat it back to Dublin.

In 2017, I arrived in Belfast with Sujata, my children, my dear friend Andy Auge and 12 bright and curious students from Regis University. Like me, the city had changed for the better. Belfast seemed to have risen up through its rubble. We found an Indian restaurant that served some of the most delicious chana masala I’ve ever had. We drank cappuccinos and espressos in an cozy Italian cafe. We rubbed shoulders with locals in Belfast’s oldest pub, The Crowne, and we walked up and down streets with passersby from all over Europe and the world.

Here are some photographs of our weekend in Belfast.

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Look up young man! (Giant’s Causeway)
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With Andy Uncle on Giant’s Causeway
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Smiling through the wind and cold
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Paul Donnelly took us on a day-long walking tour of sites associated with the Troubles
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My favorite Belfast mural: The Irish Congress of Trade Unions mural in Cathedral Quarter
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Me and Seamus Heaney
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A post box on the Falls Road. Most post boxes are painted red, but on the Falls Road, a predominantly Catholic, nationalist neighborhood, they sometimes get a green coat
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A memorial garden for those who died during the Troubles, presided over by armalites.
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One of the many memorials to Bobby Sands
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The ‘peace wall’ that separates the Falls Road and Shankhill Road communities
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On the Shankhill Road side. Site of some of the 12 July bonfires commemorating William of Orange’s victory over James II in 1690
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The Regis crew
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Andy and I made a pilgrimage to Van Morrison’s childhood home on Hyndford Street
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“Down on Cyprus Avenue/With a childlike vision leaping into view”

 

 

Irish Music

We’re nearly two months into our stay in Ireland and I still haven’t heard any traditional Irish music.

Thank god.

I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I just don’t like traditional Irish music. I can listen to it for about ten minutes in a pub (or through half a pint of Guinness) before my head feels like a tin can being smacked with a spoon and I have to walk outside and listen to the tire wheels passing by on the surface streets to get that sound out of my head. My friend, Andy Auge, reminded me a few weeks ago, that last time we were both over here together, we were standing in a pub somewhere in Dublin and I (allegedly) turned to him and said, “I need to hear some bass,” and promptly left the pub. I gravitate toward music that blows your hair back and that you can feel from the inside out, so, it makes sense that I’m not, for the most part, taken with treble-governed traditional Irish music

There are, of course, many varieties of traditional Irish music and song. I don’t mind the ballads and the laments so much; in fact, I love “Raglan Road,” a Patrick Kavanagh poem that’s been put to music. It’s a haunting poem set to a simple and beautiful four-chord melody and when you hear it, it kind of pulls at you in the way an old photograph from the time when you were a child might do. “She Moved Through the Fair” is another good one, as is “My Lagan Love.”

As you’d expect much of traditional Irish music includes strong political themes. The republican/nationalists historically have had the corner on this market and since about the time of Wolfe Tone’s rebellion of 1798 they’ve been writing and singing nationalist/anti-British occupation songs in the pubs and at public meetings. My favorite of this genre of Irish music are the anti-war or protest songs. In one of my favorites, “Arthur McBride,” the narrator and his cousin, Arthur McBride, are walking “down by the seaside” on Christmas morning when they are approached by a sergeant for the British army who tries to trick them into joining up with the King’s army. The sergeant offers them 10 guineas apiece and paints a picture for them of a fine and comfortable life should they sign up. Arthur basically tells the sergeant to fuck off and then he and the narrator whack the sergeant over the head and throw his sword in the ocean. Fair enough.

On the other hand, I absolutely cannot stand the rebel songs. There’s a long tradition of rebel songs in Ireland and their function has been generally to inspire the populace to support armed resistance against the British occupation of the island. I’m no fan of occupation, but I’m less of a fan of political and communal violence which has, for the most part, resulted in little more than sorrow and heartache on this island.

This, too, is kind of an unpopular opinion, although, I have to say that yesterday in my American literature class, I made an offhand and subtly critical comment about the 1916 Easter Rising and one of the students raised his hand and sang out, “Oh, well, just so you know, most of us here thing that Padric Pearse was a total gobshite.” Pearse was the ‘mastermind’ of Easter Rising and he couched much of his rationale for armed resistance in images of blood sacrifice. I’m not sure why my student took a dim view of Pearse, but I suspect it had something to do with that.

And, after 30 years of communal violence (the period known as the Troubles, 1968-1998) waged by the IRA, the island is still partitioned between the Republic and Northern Ireland. So, what did those 3,000-odd people die for?

I don’t like the Irish rebel songs because I’m basically opposed to any kind of music that attempts to raise nationalist goosebumps on my neck. So, in regards to classical music that leaves out Wagner, some Mozart and, sometimes, Copland. Nationalism in popular music is more problematic, though, than it is in classical music because whenever you put nationalistic or pro violence lyrics up against three chords and a guitar, bass and drum, watch your back. Before you know it, there are fists pumping in the air and half-crazed people yelling about making American great again. No thanks.

When it comes to Irish music, then, I prefer the Pogues and Bob Geldof. Geldof has been a hero of mine since I was in grade school. I loved his first band, The Boomtown Rats, and then, of course Geldof was the mastermind of the 1985 Live Aid concert to benefit people starving in Africa (“Feed the World”). He’s spent the better part of the past 30 years speaking out against genocide and encouraging western governments to provide aid to developing countries. Beyond that, Geldof (Bono followed him in this regard) had no truck with the IRA and the senseless political violence that was happening here during the Troubles and, more recently, he has spoken up of England staying in the EU. Good on you, Bob Geldof.

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Bob Geldof (photo taken from Pinterest)

The Pogues are basically two bands: there’s a rock and roll outfit made up of electric and bass guitars and a drum kit and then there’s a traditional Irish ensemble that plays instruments associated with traditional Irish music: acoustic guitars, tin whistles, accordions and banjos. The rock and roll side of the Pogues is decidedly punk–that’s the part of the band that makes you want to pogo stick across the living room. The traditional Irish side of the band sounds like a ceili band and that’s the part of the band that makes you want to tap your toes, lift a pint of Guinness to your lips and feel a bit of sentiment. So, bringing those two (quite contradictory) musical traditions together on one stage was, well, exciting.

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And early iteration of The Pogues (Pinterest)

The Pogues enjoyed their heyday in the late 80s/early 90s and even if you think you’ve never heard of them, you have. Their Christmas song, “Christmas in New York,” is played incessantly over the loudspeakers in any given mall across the world from early November to Christmas Day. Around the holidays, you can’t get away from that song anymore than you can hide from “Hotel California” if you listen still listen to FM radio.

Beyond the music, the Pogues, especially their troubled and brilliant lead singer and songwriter, Shane McGown, were fucking crazy and it was that part of the band (the excessive use of alcohol and drugs) that truncated their career. That said, I like the Pogues and I think they are still relevant because of the way they embraced and sloughed off parts of their Irishness (and it needs to be said: not all of the members were Irish, but McGowan is and he was basically the heart/heat center of the group). While McGowan has always taken pro-republican stances his songs never tip over into a kind of hard-headed, hot-blooded, pro-nationalist cauldron.

In fact, perhaps the Pogues’ most political song “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six” sounds more like a cry for justice and a critique of the British legal system than it does a call to arms. It’s a brilliant song about a terrible event. In November of 1974, the Provisional IRA set off a bomb in a pub in Birmingham, England that left 21 people dead and over 180 injured. The British police went looking for the culprits and when they couldn’t find them, they did what they were wont to do: they rounded up six Irishmen, accused them of the crime and threw them in jail where all six of them sat until March of 1991 when they were released because they hadn’t actually committed the crime. The Pogues song “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six” is about the six men who were falsely accused of the pub bombing and appears on their 1988 album If I Should Fall from the Grace of God. The same year the album was released, the Pogues performed the song on BBC Chanel 4 and halfway through the song, someone behind the controls shut off the audio and sent the show to commercial. Shortly after that, the song was banned in Britain because of it’s criticism of the British justice system. Three years later, the Birmingham Six were released from prison.  Here’s the song.

Give it a listen.

Cycling in Maynooth

I haven’t written a blog post in some time because I’ve been spending much of my free time calling my senators and encouraging them to vote against the extreme policies and executive orders of the new regime. I hope you are doing the same.

That said, today marks exactly one month into our six-month stay in Ireland and, so far, it’s been wonderful. The children are nearly fully assimilated into Irish life: they are learning Irish (it’s hard!) and immersing themselves in Irish history and mythology. It’s not unusual for them to argue over the pronunciation of an Irish word or to tell us about an Irish mythological hero they read about in school. Atticus is learning to play Gaelic football and he’s also playing on the Maynooth community basketball team. He is as inept at Gaelic football as his Irish friends are at basketball. Eleanor is singing in a local choir. Both have made a handful of friends. Honestly, I’m not sure how we’ll ever get them off this island. Sujata, too, is taking up Irish ways. She’s taking a class on Irish mythology and haunting the pubs although she has yet to acquire a taste for the black stuff. All of us, especially the children, are developing a soft lilt in our voices.

There are so many things happening on so many levels, but in this post, I’m going to focus on cycling in Maynooth. Here in Ireland, we don’t have a car. Our house is a little under a mile from the center of the town and while that’s not too far to walk occasionally, walking back and forth two or three times and day (sometimes with full grocery bags) is a bit much. So I bought a bike. In the four weeks I’ve had the bike I’ve probably logged 70 miles and saved myself hours of walking back and forth from our house to the town and the University so I’d say it’s already been a good investment.

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Back in Denver I ride my bike as often as possible. I ride to work, to the grocery store, to the fitness center and swimming pool and sometimes I just get on my bike and cycle around the city for fun. The rest of my family enjoys riding as well. Sujata was reluctant at first but she has, over the years, become an enthusiastic rider. I taught the children to ride when they were very young and now they can tear around Colorado’s single tracks with the best of them.

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Every Easter weekend, we load up the car and drive to western Colorado where we camp and ride single tracks with our dear friends, the Shea-Davis family. (How I am going to miss that trip this year!) And some of my best friendships in Colorado have been forged over long rides in the mountains. I’ve spent many an early summer morning riding the Boulder trails with my pal, Tim Trenary, and I have fond memories of sitting around the campfire after a long day of riding with Matt Shea. Here are some photos of Tim and me on one of our Boulder rides:

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Tim single trackin’ in Boulder

Traveling hasn’t diminished our time on cycles. In fact, some of our best traveling days have been on bikes. On the north island of New Zealand we spent a day riding through redwood forests. We cycled through the countryside in Cambodia and Vietnam, around Naoshima Island in Japan and through the cobble-stoned streets of Milan.

Riding in Milan (left) and Siem Reap (right)

Cycling in Ireland, at least in Maynooth, is very different from cycling in Denver, or probably most other American cities, and much of that is simply a function of history. Denver was founded in 1858, so the city is laid out on a twentieth-century grid plan. Maynooth, on the other hand is, at a minimum, 600 years older than Denver. There’s a castle in the middle of the town that was built in the twelfth century–quite a long time before Denver got its (white American) name. Over the years, Maynooth has acquired a high street, cow and foot paths have been straightened out and widened and there are new estates popping up on the outskirts (we live in one of them) with modern roads that provide access to the town centre. But, Maynooth is still connected to Dublin only by a two-lane road, and when you walk or ride the streets and look out across the fields on the outskirts of town you can get a strong sense that the very roads you are following have been tracked by others for a very, very long time.

Denver’s grid (left) and map of Maynooth (right)

That said, compared to riding in the States, cycling in Maynooth is a bit tricky. Until I got here and started riding around I don’t think I ever really though much about cycling etiquette and safety:  calling out my position when I’m passing pedestrians, coming to a full stop at lights, and using hand signals is just something I (and most Coloradoans) do as a habit. For instance, in the States (or at least in Colorado) it’s protocol to call out your position if you are passing a pedestrian or another cyclist. So, if I’m riding down the Cherry Creek path in Denver and I’m getting ready to pass a pedestrian, it’s expected from both parties that I (the cyclist) will call out “On your left” before I pass. This, I have to say, is a very sensible practice and I’m sure that it’s saved me from at least a couple of accidents. In Ireland, though, this practice of calling out your position is absolutely unheard of. The first few weeks I was here, out of habit, I’d call out my position when I was passing a pedestrian and people would just wheel around in fright, wondering why some crazy American was yelling at them. Now, I just slow down and go way around the pedestrians.

Maynooth’s bike lanes are narrow and treacherous and they provide almost no separation from automobile traffic. Oddly, the city planners decided to place drainage gates straight in the middle of the bike lane and the gates are not flush with the road so you either have to scoot around them (thereby increasing the possibility or colliding with traffic) or get up off your seat and pop over the gate (also not very safe).  I ride up on the sidewalks as much as I can.  There are bike lanes on the high street, although they are up on the sidewalk and pedestrians, for the most part, don’t pay much attention to lanes, so the whole thing is really kind of hurly burly.

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“Bike lane” with drainage gate

 

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An intrepid rider heading north on Moyglare Road

Oh and when you finally get to your destination, good luck finding a place to lock up your bike. There are several bike racks on the high street and a few around the shopping mall just north of the centre but there aren’t enough racks or they are in inconvenient locations, so cyclists end up chaining their bikes to trees and lampposts. The university campus has a surprising dearth of bike racks and today when I was looking for a place to lock up my bike before class, I had to ride around the perimeter of two separate buildings before I found a place and even then, I had to settle for a fence post.

The Royal Canal runs right through the center of Maynooth and you can catch the canal path and ride it all the way into Dublin. I’m going to try to do that one weekend when the weather is a little warmer.

Cycling, running, walking to school

Back home in Denver, my kids went to a neighborhood school about five blocks from our house. They could have walked to school on their own, but I enjoyed walking with them so, barring an early morning meeting at the University, I’d usually walk them to their school and then hop on my bike and then ride in to work. In the afternoon, I’d hop back on my bike at 3:15 and arrive just as the school bell rang.

Things are a bit different in Ireland, though. The Girl gets picked up by a bus every morning because her school is on the other side of town and with the Irish weather, walking that far everyday could result in a soaking wet child before the school day begins.

The first few days, Sujata walked to the bus stop with her but today she walked out on her own proclaiming, “I have to get used to doing this myself.” It doesn’t matter to her that we just stick our heads out the door and watch until the bus picks her up.

The Boy’s school is well within walking distance, so I walk with him in the morning and pick him up in the afternoon. We started a little practice that I hope continues for the rest of our time here: He walks out of the school at the end of the day, gives me a hug and says, “Let’s go get a cup of tea and talk about our day.”  There’s nothing one could say to that except, “Okay! Let’s go!”

Today was a kind of special day because I got a new bike with a rack over the back wheel so rather than walking home, he hopped on the back of the bike and we rode all the way home.

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We got home around 5 pm. He trundled into the kitchen where he spilled the contents of his backpack all over the floor and the table and started a spirited conversation with Lu and Sujata about his school day.

I had one of those typical “settling in” days that was mostly comprised of standing in lines, buying stuff for the house, opening a bank account and trying to figure out how to order a garbage bin for the house. Fun stuff. Oh, and of course, at the bank, during my greatest point of frustration, they’re playing The Eagles’ “Greatest Hits” over the loudspeakers. Thank god I got out of there before “Hotel California” came on. Who knows what I would have done, although it did make me think that the line from the song, “We are all just prisoners here/Of our own device,” stupid as it is, would basically sum up how I’d feel about being in the States right now, if I were there. And, as bad as The Eagles are, they are at least good Lefties so I won’t be able to make fun of them about playing at #45’s inauguration.

By the time I got home I was frustrated and anxious so I laced up my running shoes, popped my earbuds in and went for a run. The Irish call apartment complexes ‘estates’ and in the middle of the estate where we live is a very large Gaelic football and hurling pitch with a gravel running track around the perimeter of the pitch. It takes me about 5:40 to do one loop so I suspect that track is something like three quarters of a mile.  It was cold and sunny in Maynooth today and by the time I got to the track, there was a brisk wind kicking up.

After spending most of the day under fluorescent lights and breathing recycled air, it felt good, to be out in the elements and to feel the hard ground underfoot  and the cold wind in my face. As I turned east on my second lap, I looked up to the sky and there was a full moon hanging over the pitch.  I wondered what the moon looked like over the Irish Sea, just 15 miles from where I was. I looked down and the reflection of the moon illuminated the gravel path. Nick Cave was singing something about a lime tree arbor and there was a moment where everything just felt right.

Ireland will do that to you if you let it.