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.

 

 

How to Explain the Prince of Humbug to Europeans

Most of the Europeans that I’ve talked politics with over the course of the past five months want to know how I feel about the Trump ascendency. The Romanians typically took a kind of schadenfreude position–slightly gleeful in the face of Americans’ political anxiety which they (rightly) perceived as just a fraction of the kind of suffering they lived under for most of the twentieth century. The Irish are a bit more cautious–they will suss you out before they make any proclamations, and they seem genuinely worried and concerned about the current state of the American republic.

The logic and the rhetoric of Trump’s world view, though, has been a long time coming and is deeply engrained in American thought. America is, as Ralph Ellison wrote, a “land of maskers and jokers” and in this regard, the 45th president is just one of a long line of Americans who have set out to bilk the public.

In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe published a short piece in the New York Sun that described a singularly odd occurrence. Poe reported that the famous European balloon artist, Thomas Monck Mason, boarded a gas balloon and floated across the Atlantic Ocean in the space of three days. The descriptive details of the piece as well as the fact that Mason was indeed a famous European balloonist led most readers to take Poe’s account as genuine.  It wasn’t, of course, and in a short period of time, Poe was found out and his story became known as “The Great Balloon Hoax.”

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Poe went on to carve a name for himself in the halls of American letters, spinning weird, gothic tales that still scare the bejesus out of unsuspecting school children today. But many other Americans made a professional career of conning the American public and in that regard, P.T. Barnum was the nineteenth century’s prince of hoaxes.

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P.T. Barnum

Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Barnum stage-managed hoax after hoax on the American people. He sewed the torso of a monkey to the hind end of a fish and called it the Fiji Mermaid. Barnum wrote marketing material alleging the article was genuine, displayed it in his museum and enjoyed handsome profits from the display.

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Later in his career, Barnum bought a slave (yep) by the name of Joice Heth and passed her off to the public as George Washington’s nursemaid. This assertion would have made Heth over 160 years old, but that didn’t stop people from paying money to hear stories of how she would sing and take care of Washington when he was a wee baby. When Heth died, an autopsy revealed that she was no more than 80 years old. Barnum, in turn, professed that he was duped by Heth.

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Handbill advertising Joice Heth

Most of Barnum’s hoaxes traded on ideas of race, ethnicity and difference to confirm to white Americans that they were separate from, and better than, the black and brown and foreign bodies that he displayed on public stages.  In his American Museum in New York City, Barnum displayed a group of native Americans billed as “The Living Aztecs.” He exhibited a black woman with albino children. He displayed a mentally handicapped black man and called the exhibit “What is it?” inviting patrons to guess the race and origins of the man. In Barnum’s exhibition halls, blacks acted out aboriginal roles, often being represented as ‘missing links’; Native Americans hooted and hollered and performed rituals and dances that confirmed to white America their primordial type and Roma and Bohemians (usually women) were represented as lusty, exotic creatures. If they were deformed, exotic, disproportioned in any way, or simply inclined to be transformed into one of Barnum’s ‘freaks,” Barnum found a way to make money off of them and to remind Americans of an unofficial caste system that separated them from each other.

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Barnum’s “Fiji Cannibals” and “What is it?

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Hoaxes of this nature were common currency in nineteenth-century America. It seemed that anywhere you turned, a gullible public was being duped by some confidence man in one way or another. And before you condescend to the naiveté of nineteenth-century Americans who fell for the balloon hoax, turn on Fox News.

But, hoaxes are generally based in some kind of reality. The nineteenth-century culture of hoaxes was the by-product of real economic and social forces sweeping through American society; it wasn’t just a case that Americans were stupid and would believe anything. In particular, a burgeoning capitalist economy made nineteenth-century America an upside-down and confusing world: people and goods moved much more freely and much more quickly than humans were used to, and while that brought some excitement and possibility to American life, it also destabilized social relations and opened up opportunities for confidence men (and some women) to play tricks on unsuspecting minds. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the characters of the King and the Duke, for instance, are classic confidence men who play on anonymity and public trust to dupe small-town Arkansans. (They eventually get their comeuppance, though.)

The hoax that is currently being played on Americans is also rooted in real economic forces and it makes sense, to a degree, that the slice of the electorate who have been negatively affected by globalism voted in large numbers for the current president.

The new American hoax is not entirely dissimilar from Barnum’s public exhibitions of black and brown people. Barnum’s patrons were led to believe that non-whites were strange and abnormal and set apart from ‘normal’ Americans. Under the current regime, Americans are being led to believe that brown and black people are violent threats to the republic and are thereby different from white, hetero-normal, law-abiding Americans. Of course, demonizing blacks for their lawlessness, yanking Muslim Americans off of airplanes, denying brown American citizens re-entry to their country and failing to express national remorse and outrage over brown and black people summarily shot or beaten up because of their race is different from exhibiting non-white ‘freaks’ on a public stage. Barnum confined his racism to the exhibition halls. Now, we are watching the apparatus of the State enforce and delineate racial, ethnic and religious lines.

Hoaxes are so deeply engrained in the American mind, that, sometimes, we incorrectly anticipate them. Shortly after the election, I heard some progressives remarking that Trump didn’t actually want to be president and that he’d resign from the post before or shortly after the inauguration. He was just playing a trick on us, in other words. One fine day, he’d appear before us, explain the ruse, doff his cap and then sally off to Mar-a-Largo or the set of The Apprentice.  This kind of wishful thinking is, of course, the product of a mind that is used to and even expectant of the public hoax and it’s just as naive as the idea that a balloonist crossed the Atlantic in three days in the middle of the nineteenth century.

A hoax is funny up to a point and as long as no one gets hurt or excluded. In this regard, Poe’s Balloon Hoax was harmless, Barnum’s hoaxes were nasty and #45s hoax is beyond egregious.

I don’t know what’s better (or worse): understanding that Americans have a large and historical capacity for hoodwinking each other or seeing the current regime as an isolated incident that will magically disappear in four years.

Either way, I hope that you, like me, are doing all you can to reveal the twenty-first century’s Prince of Humbugs for what he really is and for what he really stands for.

 

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”

 

 

Living in Other People’s Homes

It has occurred to me a number of times over the course of the past few weeks that for the past six months we have been living in other people’s homes. Because we’ve been renting on the short-term rental market (Airbnb, Homestay, VRBO) we’ve stayed in hotels maybe 10 nights out of the 180-odd nights that have passed since we left Denver. By the same token, for that same period of time, other people have been living in our home in Denver. We get updates every so often from our property managers, but for the most part, we don’t hear anything, so I can only assume that things are just fine.

Living like this prompts you to think about the nature our lives together and the domestic spaces we inhabit. Sipping coffee from other people’s mugs, eating dinner from other people’s plates, relaxing on other people’s sofas and sleeping in other people’s beds for a considerable period of time makes you wonder about things: Where is our home? How do the things we surround ourselves with hold our memories?  What holds us together? What pulls us apart?

A house is brick and mortar. It’s something you buy and sell and occupy or allow someone else to occupy for you. A house is defined by legal documents like the deed or mortgage that sits in a box in your basement, and it’s defined through space–there’s a foundation, walls and a roof and there’s a fence that separates your property from your neighbors’.

A home, on the other hand, gathers up the emotional current of family life; it holds our memories, conversations, arguments, joys and failures. A home is the box of Christmas ornaments in your storage closet, the creaky step on the stairs that you just can’t fix and aren’t really sure that you wish to. A home is the way your front door key slides into the lock and the window in your bedroom that you gaze from in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep.

A hotel room is an instrument–you use it for a night or two, maybe three, and it’s primarily a place to drop your bags and return to after a day of sightseeing. There’s a bed and a bathroom and there are some mass-produced cups and glasses and towels, but a hotel room isn’t populated with material objects that hold memories, that carry on traditions and that shine a light onto the interiors of our lives. A hotel room doesn’t leave anything behind. Once you leave, the cleaning crew comes through as sweeps, dusts and wipes away what you left behind.

I often wonder how living in other people’s homes has changed our experiences on the road, and while I’m sure staying in hotels would have been just fine, I also think that we would have missed some of the things we’ve gained. Beyond the costs and the inconvenience of staying in hotels, living in Airbnbs gives you access to a different kind of travel. It’s a travel of existence, as opposed to a travel of instrumentality.

Because you communicate directly with the Airbnb hosts, you learn things about their lives just through exchanging information and sorting out arrival and departure plans. My favorite Airbnb homes are the ones that are occupied by the owners. This situation was actually quite common among the places we stayed and it’s especially the case when you rent outside tourist regions and when you get off that tourist grid. In these homes, you can, in some ways, literally see and feel the imprint of other lives in the houses you are visiting. Generally, these properties are the primary residence of the owners, who clear out when renters arrive. I like these kinds of arrangements because you are actually living in someone’s house and you are sharing in a part of their lives. It’s a home that is populated with material items that have personal and family history.

The owner of the shotgun row home we rented in Sydney, Australia collected Asian art and had children’s drawings (his nephews and nieces, I presumed) taped to the refrigerator. The flat we rented in Phnom Penh, Cambodia was owned by a British national whose bookshelves were stuffed with French literature and Cambodian history and whose walls were lined with  portraits of family members. With their fine English suits and dresses and their knowing, confident gazes, they looked like they came from a long line of diplomats. The frayed edges of the blanket on the sofa of the young woman’s flat in Tokyo, the chips and stains in the tea cups of the Chinese couple’s hi-rise in Auckland, the weathered picnic table in the backyard of the farm house in Rotorua, New Zealand–all these things, all this stuff, makes up the history of other people’s lives that we, in some small way, participated and shared in. It causes me to wonder: what will our home in Denver feel like when return?  Will it feel, for a time, just like another short-term rental which we are passing through? Or will we immediately reconnect with the material world that we’d left behind?

Five years ago, the short-term rental market barely existed so we would have spent the better part of the last six months in hotels. There are some real benefits in renting off the short-term rental market. From a purely economic perspective, you save a lot of money. A three-star hotel room in any given European city would be a minimum of 150 euros a night, about twice what we generally spend on an Airbnb. So, thinking like an economist, this is great for everyone: we have more money in our pockets to spend in restaurants and shops and the local economy, in turn, the community benefits from our extra Euros floating around. By the same token, our house in Denver is nearly fully occupied, so are we bringing in revenue to pay off the mortgage and there are people in the house, making it less likely to be broken into or flooded from a broken pipe.

The short-term rental market also offers you a wider range of geographical places to stay in most cities. Most hotels, that is, are located in central tourist areas (city centers) or commercial areas (like near airports) so you can get caught in tourist traps and geographical spaces that are dominated by multinational commercial interests. The short-term rental market, though, is made up of properties in all kinds of neighborhoods throughout most major cities.  When we were in Sydney, for instance, we stayed in Surrey Hills, a neighborhood about three light rail stops from the main business district. We ate in locally owned restaurants, shopped in small markets and just sort of mixed in with the other residents of Surrey Hills. This was the case, as well, in our stays in Phnom Penh, Tokyo, Budapest, Rome and Seville.

But lest this starts to sound like free advertising for the short-term rental market, let me say that there’s also a dark side to this whole thing because while it’s easy for me to hail the cost and convenience of Airbnb rentals, the reality is that Airbnb rentals can do real damage in many places. Think about it: you own a two bedroom flat in downtown Barcelona and you start to realize that you can make more money renting your place through Airbnb. What are you going to do? Or, worse: you are an estate agent/real estate developer and you start buying up whole apartment complexes in downtown Barcelona, turning a majority of the units over to Airbnb rentals. That’s great for the developer and the landlord and for people like me, but if you live in one of these areas, how would you feel if swaths of the real estate market in your neighborhood started getting turned over to short-term rentals?

It took me way too long to come around to this understanding. In fact, I remember almost the exact moment that I snapped out of this optimistic haze and started thinking about the deeper and darker implications of short-term rental market: Sujata and I were out for a stroll in Barcelona on Christmas Eve. It was such a beautiful evening. There were loads of people out on the streets, there was music in the cafes and bars, folks were walking around with bags of groceries to make their Christmas meals and bags of presents to give to their loved ones. Everyone seemed happy and I just kept looking around in wonderment that I was here, in the middle of Barcelona, one of the world’s most beautiful cities, during the holiday season. Sujata broke my naive reverie by declaring, “You know, this is great and all, but what is this city going to look like in five years when this whole neighborhood is turned over to Airbnb rentals.”

Thud.

Most of us enjoy living where we live because we know and trust our neighbors. Strong communities and strong neighborhoods are made up of families and individuals who have a stake in the communities they live in and who watch out for each other. Back home in Denver, there have been countless times when I’m making something in the kitchen and realize that I’m short one ingredient so I just send the kids over to our neighbors to make up the difference. They go over to Wayne and Darlene’s for an egg or an onion or down to Matt and Malia’s for a fist full of basil (or more likely, two fingers of whiskey). And what we take is always paid back: homemade cookies for the eggs, a bowl of fresh pesto for the basil and, a beer or two for the whiskey. And it’s not just about borrowing household items. It’s quid pro quo; you take a little and you give a little and in the exchange you develop relationships with your neighbors. Sure, you get people watching your back, but you also get the richness of knowing the people who live on your block.

You can’t operate that way, though, in a community that’s dominated by short-term rentals. It’s not so much that people don’t trust each other; they just don’t know each other and ultimately not knowing breeds mistrust.

So, I get it that great cities like London, Barcelona and New York are wary of short-term rentals eating into their communities. This dynamic is a testament to the complexity of living in the globalized world we live in. The benefits abound, and an argument can be made that those benefits are shared, to some extent, across a diverse and wide range of participants. The deleterious aspects are there as well, although they are a bit more difficult to see (or easier to ignore). This, I suspect, is the nature of the economic world we live in.  Multinational corporations like Apple and Airbnb (I think it will be offered as an IPO this year) provide us with reasonably inexpensive goods and services that make our lives easier on many levels. So easy, in fact, that it benefits us to ignore what lies underneath. That said, I don’t expect that we will stop renting Airbnbs because of ethical considerations. But it does, I think, point to the fact that we need strong and ethically-minded public officials who know how to establish fair and thoughtful legislation that allows for the kind of freedom and adventure that a traveler experiences through Airbnb and, at the same time, protects and nourishes the integrity of community life.

 

 

 

 

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.

We attend an Inauguration protest in Dublin

I collected the kids at school today and we walked to the Maynooth train station where we hopped on a train to Dublin. We met up with my dear friend, Andy Auge, and his student Alex and headed over to an Inauguration Day protest that was being held in city centre.

The kids have been talking about and looking forward to this this all week. They are unnerved and anxious by the ascendency of #45 and sorrowful to see Obama exit the public stage. Atticus was up until nearly midnight earlier this week, composing a thank you letter that, among other things, informed President Obama that everyone Atticus has talked to in his travels over the past six months has supported Obama and that he shouldn’t worry about the people who don’t like him in the States. Attending the protest was a way for the kids to see that there are other people who are worried and angry about what’s ahead for our country and for the world. They were uplifted and excited by the collective action and I think, all in all, it was good for them. They held up signs, talked with other protesters, listened attentively to the speakers and even got an Irish Times reporter to interview them.

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Their first, and hopefully last, encounter with the media

I, on the other hand, have been dreading this moment all week. As I stood there listening to the speakers I just kept looking at the kids and thinking about the dangerous and uncertain world they were inheriting. I was angry to be standing out there in the cold, listening to people shout over loudspeakers, and I was distressed that my country was at that moment being turned over to a band of thieves and charlatans. Money changers in the temple of democracy.  I didn’t feel joyful or hopeful standing about with the 300 or so other folks gathered in the plaza. I didn’t feel connected to something larger than myself, and I didn’t feel at all that things were going to be okay.  As all this was running through my mind, I looked at my phone and read a  New York Times feed: the new regime had taken down all government websites related to climate change and LGBTQ issues.

I remembered a photo of  Obama and Andy’s son, Thomas, taken sometime in 2008. They live in Iowa and on one of Obama’s visits to their town Thomas had a chance to ask Obama a question at a town hall meeting. The shot was taken over Obama’s right shoulder so he’s in the foreground and he takes up nearly half of the frame. You can’t see his face, but you know it’s him because he has probably the most famous ears in the world. And given the aperture setting, what you see of Obama–the back of him from the waist up–is blurred. This in and of itself is unusual–usually the boken (the blurred or out-of-focus part of a photo) is in the background. To see the out-of-focus subject in the foreground and taking up a full half of the frame is part of the drama of the photo.  Thomas occupies the other half of the frame. The camera is trained on him so you see a smiling, clear-eyed and delighted boy  wearing an oversized Packers t-shirt and regarding Obama with a sense of wonder. Thomas’ right hand is in the air with his palm facing Obama and it looks like he’s taking an oath until you notice that Obama, too, has his left hand in the air, palm facing Thomas. They are just about to hi-five.

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Hi-Five.                                                                               (Thanks, Thomas, for permission to use this photo.)

I love that photo because it captures the idealism and the hope that many of us felt in 2008 and because it captures Thomas in what I suspect he’d refer to as a political coming-of-age moment.  I am pleased that Thomas and his generation had a chance to come of age under a strong and compassionate leader who carried our country forward, and I hope that his influence will inspire many of them to become public servants and defenders of democracy. God knows we’ll need them after today.

And I’m also furious that my children and their generation will come of age under an arrogant, bullying and hateful regime that is, as I write, trampling on the things we hold dear.