Global Fellowship


I took a detour along a scenic route between the Mullet peninsula and Ballycastle in County Mayo.  There was quite a bit of rain, and suddenly I came upon what I thought were road workers.  A truck was backing into a work site.  Some other people dressed in street clothes began to run for the open gate, and what I realized were Gardai (police officers) were grabbing them and holding them back.  The Gardi formed a line to prevent the people from passing.  One person was taking photographs.  After ten minutes of sitting on the road, waiting to pass, they finally cleared the people and I was able to get around.  I passed a caravan (camper) with the words “Stop Shell” written across it.  There were far more Gardi than I realized, at least fifty of them.  As I was leaving, they were spaced along the road, one every few hundred meters, each with a radio.  When I reached the end of the road I stopped and rolled down my window to ask the final Garda what was going on.  He said that Shell was putting in some kind of pipeline to a refinery, and that students were protesting it.  It had been going on for years.

squint and you'll see the Garda

A few days later, I caught a new program on television about the process of fracking, which has been going on in the US for awhile.  Essentially it involves extracting natural gas by using pressure from water, sand, and chemicals.  The chemicals are the primary concern of protesters and activists.  It has potentially serious environmental consequences, and is largely unregulated in the US.

rural Mayo

This is peat.  Essentially it is plant matter than has been compressed and preserved in a bog over thousands of years.  It doesn’t rot because of the high water content of the soil.

Farmers cut the peat from a bog like this one.

They lay it in the sun to dry, then bag it up or transport it in a truck.

Many Irish burn peat to heat their homes.  In the grocery store I saw some compressed peat, which seemed to be a bit like one of those duraflame logs, not quite wood but something like it.

As I headed further north, there were many more sheep on the road, as some areas don’t have fences.  Supposedly at night there are a lot of accidents because they sleep on the road.  The asphalt retains heat from the sun and the sheep like to curl up on it.

Where’s the pot of gold?

in the news

I’ve been listening to the radio a lot while driving, and watching the news on occasion in the evenings.  It is clear that the Irish economy is in big trouble.  A man I met in a pub told me that Ireland today is where America was in 2008, in regards to unemployment and the mortgage crisis.  There is a lot of talk about negative equity, and how to fix the situation.  The government says they are not considering mass debt forgiveness.

One pressing concern is the beginning of the new school year.  The government offers support to families who cannot afford back-to-school books and uniforms, things that American families are not required to purchase.  (Yes, we need to buy pencils and binders, but they need to get textbooks, workbooks, and clothing specified by the school.)  There is a 2-week backlog in processing the applications of needy families across the country.  The government fears that parents will keep their children home until the money comes through, to prevent their children from being punished by administration or humiliated by their classmates.  They were urging families not to use payday loans to get their children school supplies, either.

The Rose of Tralee, an Irish beauty contest, is big news, and all of the Irish bookmakers were offering odds on who the winner would be.  (Tara Talbot of Queensland won.)  It’s not like Miss America, in which each state has a representative.  It seems that women can enter from anywhere in the world, as long as she has an Irish connection.  There are roses from America, Australia, and Canada, as well as all of the Irish counties.  This video has gone viral.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone hip-hop dance in an evening dress before.

This one’s pretty funny, too.

bed & breakfast brown bread (love that alliteration)

Only one factor determines if a bed and breakfast is exceptional: the quality of its brown bread.

One should not be able to lift a slice of brown bread in its entirety; it should crumble.  One should have to break off one bite at a time.  It should have a soft, wheaty texture, and should never be eaten with jam, only Irish butter.

Many b&bs use store-bought bread, which is gummy and sometimes stale.  If the proprietor will take the time to bake his/her own bread, said proprietor will not cut corners elsewhere, regardless of the price of the b&b.  If the bread is good, the rooms will be clean and orderly.  There will be soap in the bathroom and a hairdryer hidden in a drawer.  There will not be dust on the bedside lamp or misty strands clinging to the corners of the room.

I am utterly converted.  Brown bread is the breakfast of kings.

through the looking glass

Driving on the wrong side of the road while sitting on the wrong side of the car has been an adventure.

my car in Connemara

Apparently automatic transmissions are rare in Europe.  Budget did not have one available in the category that I chose, so I was bumped up 3 levels on the luxury scale and got a much better car than I paid for.  It’s a diesel, and I absolutely love it.  I drove for over a week and only used 2/3 of a tank.  My dad had a diesel once, and I’m completely sold on it.  I filled the tank for the first time today.  53 euro.  That’s about $75.  Ouch.

I decided to spring for the GPS rental.  I got a good deal, as they cut the normal price in half because it was such a long rental period.  It was definitely the right decision.  The first day or two I was nervous driving, and the GPS allowed me to focus on the road and not on navigation.  I could do without it now, as I am much more familiar with the geography and traffic signs, but I am glad that I have it.

nonexistent shoulder

Driving on the left feels natural now.  The only real issue is the narrow roads.  The lanes are a bit smaller than those in the US, and there is no shoulder at all.  So you can be driving along with a stone wall on your left and a tour bus buzzing by on the right and it feels like you’re about to become a bumper car.  The speed limit on many roads is 100km per hour, but I generally stick to around 60 and pull over to let people pass me.

I am starting to get a little sick of driving, though.  Tonight I am in Westport, County Mayo, and am considering staying here for two nights to avoid driving for an entire day.  It’s a big enough town to keep me occupied, and I’ll have plenty to read (and write!).

i heart guidebooks

I have a serious book problem.  They seem to breed in the isolated corners of my house.  My kindle has helped the accumulation considerably, until Ireland.  I have visited at least 4 bookshops since arriving, and have purchased 6 titles: 3 guidebooks, and 3 fiction books.

The Fiction books: New Irish Short Stories Ed. Joseph O’Connor (I actually saw this one several times before caving), The Visitor by Maeve Brennan, and Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan.  I found all three in the Irish section of a little bookstore in Clifden this afternoon.  (As a side note, I took a free one-hour walking tour of the city and I was the only attendee, so Brennan, an older gentleman with a full, white beard, took me around the city and told me about its history.)

The three guidebooks I purchased while in Ireland.  I bought Irish Language and Culture in Clifden, and the others (Drive Around Ireland and Burren Archaeology by Hugh Carthy) in Ennis a few days ago.  Burren Archaeology was very enlightening as Jared and I stopped at a few places discussed in the book, and I read about them while we were there.  I am currently following one of the drives in Drive Around Ireland.

These are the books I brought with me from the US.  The Lonely Planet guide has been extremely useful – the best by far.  I haven’t used the others at all, though I do love the excellent pictures in the Eyewitness Travel guide.

These are the free regional guides that I picked up along the way at various tourist information offices.  These will not be coming home with me.  I’ll leave them in the last B&B where I stay for the next person to use.  Each one has a good map in the back, though I’m not interested in hitting any more of the tourist destinations listed within – I got that out of my system in the first week.

Perils of the Emerald Isle

Part I

The plane landed in Dublin before six o’clock and, though I paid extra for an early check-in at nine am, we still had time to kill before we could nap.  Jared wanted coffee, so we set off on an early morning quest for a cup of joe.  We walked for an hour and returned to the B&B around seven.  At seven-thirty we had breakfast and settled into the lounge to wait for our room to be available.  Every half-hour we checked in with them.  By ten, we were more than exhausted and angry, to boot.  So we took another walk.  We finally got into the room at eleven and slept for three hours.  We made it out again around three o’clock.  After taking the bus into Dublin center and getting a bit to eat, it was five and all of the sights were closed.  So we walked.

Temple Bar, Trinity College, the Ha’penny Bridge.  All of that walking had a terrible consequence.

Combined blister count: 2.

Part II

Many have died falling from the Cliffs of Moher because of the unstable rock ledge and perilous, winding paths.

Beyond the crowded tourist center and dreaded rows of busses is a large sign warning people not to go further because of the danger.

But the designated viewing spots—far from the edge with a four-foot wall in front—didn’t quite offer the expected experience.  So, along with about thirty percent of the other tourists, we ignored this warning and followed a winding path that, at times, ran just along the edge.  Being terrified of heights, I was skeptical of this plan, but was convinced to move forward.  The scariest part was the bounding tourists, rushing to return to their busses before the designated ninety minutes was up.  I feared one would shove me to my death while galloping down the path.  It was not this that did me in, however, but a 2-foot high rock wall that needed scaling.  I should have lifted my right leg a half-inch higher.  My sneaker caught on the lip of the rock and I tumbled to the ground.  Luckily, away from the cliff*.  Though my leg is nicely bruised where it slammed into a well-placed rock and my biceps feel like I just finished a full workout because I expended so much energy bracing myself.

Combined blister count: 4

Part III

Ah, Inisheer.  Pretty, quaint, boring.  I should have listened to the Irishman who, in a pub the night before, warned me that it was nothing more than “a lot a rocks”.  Instead, I heeded the advice of the ferryboat salesgirl and chose Inisheer over Inishmor, as the latter was labeled too touristy.  After braving the crowds at the cliffs, I was looking for a more authentic experience.  The views were outstanding.

The beach was gorgeous.

But beyond that, there wasn’t much to do.  With our blistered feet, a long walk was not appealing.  So we took a tractor ride to the other side of the island, ate lunch, leapt around on the craik (aka big, flat rocks), then proceeded to wait in line on the pier hoping to get an earlier passage back to Doolin than we had originally purchased.  The sun was unrelenting, so we took a short walk to an ice cream stand, bought two cones, and stood in the shadow of the truck.  There are no trees on the island.  No shade.  Thankfully, there was space on the fourth ferry, and we didn’t have to wait another two hours to leave.  While seated on the boat, I noticed that Jared’s face was flushed.  Upon closer inspection, I realized that his forearms, ears, cheeks and forehead were actually bright red.  (I was a little toasted as well, but have SPF30 moisturizer so I was okay.)  Who the hell manages to get sunburned in Ireland?

Combined blister count: 5

*I was not actually in any danger and was nowhere near the edge when I tripped.  Don’t worry, Linda.

three days in haiku

ben brun’s pub was grand
good food and company, too
i stepped in dog crap

awful, rip off lunch
mitigated by castle
backed by pink roses

unexpected find
at my namesake, mullin’s mill
summer festival

surrounded by sheep
kells priory ruin squats
waiting for the monks

injured sheep limps by
hoof curled unnaturally
bleats and eats and bleats

lovely inistigue
the circle of friends café
anglers cast their lures

high above cashel
surrounded by scaffolding
tourists march like ants

narrow spiral stairs
portcullis, cannons, moat
slippery stacked stones

off to Ireland

In just a few days I will be leaving for Ireland.  I was awarded a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship to travel and write for three weeks.  I will update this blog with my adventures during this trip, and possibly continue to write about various topics upon my return.  If you are interested in reading about the other fellows, please visit the website.

I have booked my first and last nights in hotels near Dublin airport and rented a car, but the rest of the trip is wide open.  I plan to drive around the country, searching out interesting small towns and staying in bed and breakfasts.  I’m sure I’ll hit a few tourist traps along the way, but for the most part I want to avoid those.  (I mean, who could resist the Cliffs of Moher, despite the tour buses?)  My aim is to learn about Irish life, hopefully inspiring a few stories and gathering material for one I already have in mind.  The husband will be coming along for the first week, then I’ll be on my own.  He has no preferences regarding where we go, as long as he gets to see a castle and sit in the pubs.

I have been to Europe only once before, on a class trip when I was sixteen.  I and a group of about 30 other high school students went with the art history teacher to visit London and Paris.  We hopped tour buses to see sights like the Bayeux Tapestry, Mont St. Michael, and Stonehenge.  I’ve been to Jamaica for my honeymoon, though we stayed on the resort the entire time, and to Cancun about 5 years ago, but I’ve never been in a foreign country without a structured itinerary before.  It’s a little scary but very exciting.  The one rule I’m going to try to stick to is to find accommodations before dark, then stay in that town until the next morning.  I don’t want to end up driving off a cliff or stuck in some godforsaken rural field sleeping in my rental car!  Though that might make for some interesting blog fodder.