Three Hidden Dublin Oddities

Standard

This week, I thought I’d share with you three little-known bubbles in the pint that is my home city of Dublin. They are not the type of thing that you’d find on a postcard (such as an address or a stamp …) but they are places that, for me, enrich the city. Two will amuse – one in a creepy way, admittedly – and the final one will break your heart. Unless you’re a heartless jellyfish. In which case it will break your Stomach Pouch.

Stop One: Dublin Zoo

We’re all familiar with the images of pirates, clowns and monkeys that are rendered headless and displayed for children – not in a gruesome way, mind you – but in a manner that invites children to substitute their head in its place to have a photo taken and to teach them the valuable life lesson that impersonation is, somehow, a life skill so important that we introduce them to it during their formative years.

Dublin Zoo has a couple of these. There is a – literally – faceless Orang-Utan cutout that is fairly typical of your average zoo. No surprises there. It is two dimensional, cartoonish in appearance, and appears to be more of a draw than the actual Orang-Utan sitting not twenty feet from it.

The Orang-Utan is what you’d expect. What you’d not expect, however, is the faceless cut out at the penguin enclosure…

First of all, the penguin is not a simple cut out. It is a properly carved three-dimensional figure from which the face has been carved out. It therefore resembles a living penguin who has received a shotgun blast that has removed his face entirely from his skull and gives the appearance that his body is standing for a few post-blast seconds before it crumples to the ground – yet another victim of a senseless avian gangland hit.

Image

… but it gets worse. When I bent down to get a picture from a different angle, two horrid cyborgian eyes appeared – poorly placed bolts on a nearby fence. This is the Alexander Murphy of the penguin world ….

Image

Stop Two: The Ass Tree

A burl is a term that I’ve only recently discovered. It refers to those dreadful growths on trees that look like overswelled woody elbow skin pustules that we’ve all seen. They, apparently, the result of virus attacks on trees and can grow to enormous sizes.

Some directions: Beginning at the Wellington Monument in the Phoenix Park, walk out in a South-West direction – down the little slope and into the trees.

There, you will find one of Dublin’s least known – but most intriguing sights: The Ass Tree.

Image

Touching the Ass Tree: Check Out The Burl On Me!

Some (i.e., me) say that touching it can cure a whole manner of posterior problems, including Macaque Bottom Syndrome(also known as Anus Horribilis) , Excessive Barnacles and Recto Large-o – although this last one is cured mainly because finding the Ass Tree involves walking …

Stop Three: The World’s Loneliest Zebra

Dublin has a rather wonderful Natural History museum. It is rather wonderful because it is, essentially, a museum of a museum. It not only feels like a lost piece of Victoriana – many of its exhibits date from that very time. Some of the exhibits – such as the Tasmanian Tiger – have even become extinct during the lifespan of the museum.

Sitting in the back left corner of the first floor, however, is one of the saddest things you will ever see. The museum appears to be a trophy room for a particularly overzealous safari in the 1800s. Nothing points to this zealousness more than the exhibit in this old victorian case. The animal – so old that its once black fur is beginning to fade to a browny red – is a zebra. A tiny little baby zebra. Sitting. All alone. In the corner of the display case. A full thirty feet from another case that displays what was presumably his mother.

Heart Breaker ...

Heart Breaker …

Hope I didn’t break your heart too much with that one …

Podcast Demons

Standard

So – for those of you following the American Road Podcast …

This is a photograph of a bottle that once contained juice:

Juice Bottle

Juice Bottle

And this is a photograph of the laptop that I use to edit my podcast:

My Podcastin' laptop

My Podcastin’ laptop

Now time for a mathematical theorem. Juice bottle + unattended laptop + 3 year old son = no more laptop.

This is a picture of a very bold boy:

A Very Bold Boy

A Very Bold Boy

And so, folks – the podcast will be on hiatus for a few weeks until we can figure this whole thing out!

Take Care!

Ireland: My Garth Brooks Hell

Standard

When people think of Ireland, they tend to think of Killarney. Magnificent Lough Leane sits beringed by mountains, including Ireland’s tallest peak, Carrauntoohil, meaning, if my dodgy Irish is correct, the Sickle of the Countryside, and the Purple Mountain, meaning, if my English is to be trusted, a mountain that is purple. The landscape around here is ten times greener than itself. In fact, this is the heart of the green myth in Ireland. As I drive towards Killarney, I see the circle of green unfolding all around me. Rain falls, green grass grows. Grass goes into sheep at one end, grass exits sheep in blacker state at the other end. Soil becomes richer, greener grass grows, sheep eat grass. This never-ending cycle of green is a prime example of nature at work. Sheep are, essentially, production lines of green.

The Macgiollacuddyreeks - taken while lying on my hotel bed looking out of the window

The Macgiollacuddyreeks – taken while lying on my hotel bed looking out of the window

I always like coming to Killarney. It gives me a different sense of what is fashionable in being Irish. What is happening in Killarney tends to be a good listening post for what is going on in the national culture.

It takes me a long time to get out of Dublin. The drive becomes more of a migration, turning into an epic five hour car trail on one. By the time I reach my hotel, I am exhausted. It takes me a while to find the hotel – Killarney has a multitude of them. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the collective noun for hotels is a ‘Killarney’.

I walk in to the hotel, dragging my suitcase wearily behind me. A man with a belly walks past me wearing a red flannel shirt and a stetson. Strange. As I try to find my way to the lobby, I hear something. Music. But not just any music. Bad music. Garth Brooks covers if I’m not mistaken. I take a peek inside a ballroom. Sure enough, on stage is another stetson-bedecked bellyman bending words into meaningless twangs and telling me about his friends in low places. The low places, I assume, is the dancefloor. Not only is it lower than the stage – it has people line-dancing on it. People with mustaches (men and women). People with cowskull neckties. People who seem to think that the only difference between normal weekday attire and good ‘going out’ clothes is the addition of a cowboy hat. Still though – I don’t think anything of it. It keeps them off the streets I suppose.

I reach the lobby only to be told that I am, in fact, in the wrong hotel. I am staying in the sister hotel across the carpark. Flagging and dejected from the travelling, I smile and try to negotiate my way back out of the hotel. A quick walk across the carpark though has me at the right hotel. As I walk in, a door flies open. There is a wedding on here tonight. There is a band on stage. I peer in as I walk past. But what I saw on the stage makes me stop and look again. “What the …?”

There, on stage, is a man wearing a flannel shirt and a stetson singing ‘Friends in Low Places’ by Garth Brooks. What’s more, when he finishes singing, he begins to talk – and he has a huge feckin’ Kerry accent about a million miles removed from the salty Wyoming twang that his singing voice appeared to be infected with. The people on the dancefloor are loving it, though. Their fancy wedding attire – despite being tight and inefficient for dancing, does not stop the dance line from forming.

I check in and decide to head to the bar for a quick drink – say hello to a few of the conference delegates that have arrived – before heading to bed for a much coveted sleep. However, as I walk in to the bar, my ears prick up, instantly recognising the song on the sound system. It is Garth Brooks himself and, as if underlining my nightmare I hear the words “ …And the thunder rolls …”

I buy a drink and engage in some polite chit chat – but in my brain, panic has stricken. Something I had seen before and had only barely lived through seemed to be happening again …

It was 1997. I was about to finish school and move on to university. The summer would have been decent enough but for one looming, dark Garth Brooks shaped cloud floating out over the sea from the US towards Ireland. That summer, Ireland went Garth Brooks mad. Zombie-like, the Irish public bought a million (yes – a million) tickets to see his shows at Croke Park. And there are only four million of us. This year, 2014, Brooks announced that he would have a come-back tour starting in – yes – you guessed it – Ireland. And the zombies were beginning to re-emerge. He has already sold over 400,000 tickets for his July shows. I will be re-living my summer of darkness all over again …

I had been aware that he was coming back – but seeing how Garth-Mania had started to grip the bell-weather town of Killarney has now sent me into full panic mode.

The next morning, I awoke only to realise that my clothes – neatly folded for inclusion in my suitcase – were still neatly folded – but not in my suitcase. They were back in Dublin. Dammit …

I make my way into town to buy some new clothes. I walk into the first shop having seen what I am looking for through the window. But I am not prepared for the horror that awaits me inside the shop …

There is a man – an employee – walking up and down the aisle with an armful of plaid shirts. He is wearing cowboy boots along with his normal workwear. A woman behind the till stands around with nothing to do. Nothing, that is, except listen to the radio. And listen she does – humming along, tapping her feet. And the song … the song … the beats of that hideous song …

Ireland I am coming home

I can see your rolling fields of green
And fences made of stone
I am reaching out won’t you take my hand
I’m coming home Ireland

Nooooo! Garth Brooks brain spiders have taken over not just the Killarney nights – but the Killarney days too! I grab what non-cowboy apparel I can find, pay, and make a quick exit.

When I sit back into my car, I realise that I am surrounded. That old woman pulling the shopping trolly – no doubt it’s filled with chaps that she’s bought for her eight cattle-rancher boys. That man with the carryall bag – there’s most likely an accordion in there. Ahead of me I can see two men wearing the hats – but Kerry is filled with sheep farms. All hat and no cattle … but it doesn’t matter … they’ve been Brooked.

I get through the rest of the day. The conference is being held in a concert venue that has been transformed into a conference centre for the day. No doubt at nighttime it turns back into a Garth Brooks tribute act centre of some description.

In the lobby, I see posters for coming musical acts. All – and I mean ALL – of the posters for the  male acts wear stetson hats. And the stage names … I swear one of them was called TR Dallas – not a very common Killarney name I would have thought …

The Gulf Stream is a flow of warm water that keeps Ireland ice-free in the winter. It starts out in the Gulf of Mexico before kissing off America’s Deep South coast. The next time it meets land is here – County Kerry. The Brooks winds are a blowin and have infected everyone in this town. The concerts are to take place in July. Killarney is about 60 Kilometers from the coast. That means that the mania is travelling at about a speed of 10km a week. By my calculations, it will hit Lucan some time in mid June.

Luckily, there is a post-conference dinner planned for later that night – something to take my mind off the panic…

Or so I thought …

I walk in and take my seat. I engage in conversation … but my ears notice something else … The background music … consists of instrumental versions … of Garth Brooks music.

There is no escape.

The next morning, as I drive back out of Killarney, I no longer see the scenery as a Dubliner. No longer do I see the majestic peaks of the Macgillycuddyreeks, fields filled with gamboling livestock or the ethereal waters of Lough Leane. Instead, just like a local, I see the mountain peaks in a row ready to line dance, fields of sheep skulls designed to inspire neckties and the lake itself – the worlds biggest upturned Stetson filled with the tears of those of us who live in dread of July …

Hemorrhoids, Seamus Heaney and Generic Writing

Standard

So you’ve got a problem. You’re irritable. You’re sitting on a rubber ring. And your body has decided to turn your posterior into a vineyard of sorts. Yes, you are suffering from the scourge of the 21st century: hemorrhoids.

But how do you treat them? You have a number of options. Many will, of course, reach for “Preparation H” – imbued, is its name suggests, with the careful consideration of a skilled chemist, preparing his preparations. Or, indeed, you may simply not care about the chemist and want something that promises exactly what you want. In this case, the brand “Hemorrhoidal Ointment” will be your choice – a brand that dispenses with the frills and gets you to your destination like a Ryanair plane. But what if you don’t have the patience to let an ointment do its thing? What if you need relief now. What if today is the day the grapes have ripened and become wrathful? Well then – you need “Hemorid” – a brand name that, it seems, will ‘rid’ you of your problem.

The thing is – all of these products contain the same medication – phenylephrine – yet the three of them try to tell different stories to appeal to different people.

Sometimes people will get used to a brand name for a drug and, when a cheaper, generic version comes on the market, they may not buy it – even though it does exactly the same thing. In many cases, the only difference is the colour of the box.

Have you ever heard of sildenafil? It is the actual name of the active medicine in Viagra. Clearly, the marketing people over at Pfizer came up with a brand name to tell a story by mashing words like Vitality, Angry, Virile … and so on. The other drug that uses sildenafil as its active ingredient is Revatio – which, despite doing the same thing, is trying to appeal to those who have more of a paternal relationship with, well, themselves.

And so it dawned on me: is there a space for this generic alternative within the world of writing?

The idea is simple – take a known piece of writing that conveys something definite – and then try to use vaguely similar words and concepts to change the story a little – but still sell the basic underlying ‘active’.

For no other reason than I happen to like the poem, I have decided to look at Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’ to see if there is a generic alternative that one could use to deliver the same message – without, of course, the essence of Heaney himself.

For the uninitiated, here is the first few lines of the Heaney Poem:

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pin rest; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:water

My father, digging.

What is the essence of this poem? To me, the message is about someone pondering their place in the world – recognising that there is a talent or an interest that is perhaps not in keeping with what tradition might have expected – but one that the writer clearly wants to identify with. When trying to think of a vehicle for this – I thought about ‘vehicles’ themselves. There is nothing more masculine than washing a car – and so – that will be the theme for my generic Heaney poem.

Heaney uses ‘digging’ as a device of both tradition and masculinity. Thus, we need to find the same.

We will also need to find a title. Some recommend, when naming a generic drug, that virile letters such as ‘B’, ‘X’ or ‘Z’ are used. It is also a good idea to find a word associated with the message – perhaps a Latin word that already suggests what we are looking for.

The Latin for ‘washing’ is ‘ablutio’ – a robust-sounding word that we can almost certainly incorporate into our title. The Roman’s weren’t too big on cars – but they did have chariots. Currus is a triumphal chariot – which is particularly apt given that triumphs were all about symbols of masculinity – including – literally – large fake penises on display beneath the chariot. Seems pretty apt for what we want.

My generic poem is a far cry from something Heaney would have penned. The final piece is to come up with a pen name for the type of person who might have written such a poem. There are a lot of ‘name generators’ going around – find out your ‘superhero’ name, or your ‘vampire’ name, etc. I tried to come up with something similar and, after a few false starts (name of your first pet + favourite soup ended up being Friskey Tomato, for example), I’ve decided on the perfect author name generator: First name of the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for your birthyear + the first word in your favourite dessert.

And so – I reveal to you my first attempt at Generic Writing:

Curblutio

by Isaac Sweetpotato

…And there on my lap

My tablet – resting – cast as a resting rifle.

Outside my window, a swashy bubbling

As the sponge sinks slowly into the soapy water:

My father – washing the car.

On Golden Ponderings

Standard

According to Wikipedia, I have, at 35, reached something of a milestone. I am about to pass average life expectancy. Granted, the life expectancy to which Wikipedia referred was that of the Medieval Islamic Caliphate – but still. The hill has been crested and momentum is downward.

Naturally enough, like most other 35 year olds, thoughts have turned to retirement planning. Recently, I was asked if I would retire here in Ireland, in the land of my fore-fathers, or in America, the land of my wife’s one-father. It’s not something I had ever really thought about much. Where would I retire? By what criteria would I make my choice? I thought that I’d jot a few down a few ideas to assist me were I to opt to break up with Caitlín Ní Uallacháin and retire to the room over Uncle Sam’s garage.

The Criteria:

First things first. The most important consideration for any Irishman – or, indeed, anyone at all, is fairly straight forward and obvious. Automatically eliminate the States with bears.

This map shows the North American distribution of the black bear (in red). For those of you who think it something of an over-reaction to choose based on bears – allow me to explain … The average bear has to spend a lot of time eating meat to insure it consumes enough protein and fat to be in peak hibernating condition. It also has to eat a lot of berries and fruits to ensure that the body works properly and, well, regularly. If bears realised the benefits of an all-geriatric diet, filled as they are with prunes and Ensure, there would be trouble indeed. I would especially be in trouble given how my family tastes to bears (I’m basing this assumption on the levels of gorging undertaken by Wisconsin bears on my son’s soiled Pampers last summer). If a Carabini can taste that good at three years of age, how much better would one taste at ninety-three? Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, California – you’re all out.

The next criterion suggests itself: avoid states with high populations of ticks. The map below shows the national distribution of the Blacklegged Tick:

I’ve spent many an hour over many a summer in the American Midwest trying to tell if I’m looking at a tick or at a particularly hairy freckle. Now imagine trying to do that with failing eyesight and additional crevices. That rules out the entire East Coast and much much of the Deep South.

The first two criteria have really begun to help me to focus in on potential locations. The next thing to consider is temperature. Not too cold in the winter (I’m looking at you, Minnesota) or too hot in the summer.

This map shows temperature averages in the USA. You will see that the hottest places are marked in deep orange. I think this is the cartographer trying to tell me “Orange you glad you don’t live here?” Instantly, all of the US/Mexican border states are discounted. New Mexico is discounted a second time for having a high temperature score of ‘ridiculous’. An average in the 90s? Are you trying to kill me, New Mexico?

The final criteria I need to consider concerns the average cost of living. Where can I make my pension dollar stretch furthest and be able to afford that second angry stick to shake at things?

I had, up to now, been pretty much reduced to Arizona and a small corner of Nebraska. The application of the Cost of Living statistics, however, changes this. Arizona is knocked out of the running as it is, apparently, more expensive than a French Kiss from a hooker with gold teeth.

I return my attention to that one small corner of Nebraska – and a place called Scott’s Bluff County. It’s not excessively hot in the summer. It’s not ridiculously cold in the winter. It’s below the national average for cost of living. It’s the sort of place where a freckle is always a freckle and a mole a mole. And, best of all, there are no marauding gangs of black bears feasting on the sick and infirm.

I google pictures of my future homeland. It returns image after image of geriatric-hungry tornadoes …

Looks like I called your bluff, Scott. Back to the ol’ drawing board… 32 years and counting …

The Duel Life of St. Andrew

Standard

Today, I decided to revisit a carpark that I had visited as a child. Carparks can be surprisingly interesting places. They are, for example, a good place to start looking if you’ve lost an English monarch. They work equally well, as Richard Nixon discovered, as a place to pass on information to bring down a US President.

Unbeknownst to most of the Western world, but long understood in Ireland, however, is the fact that carparks are, apparently, also good places to take children on school trips. While children in more salubrious educational establishments were being taken to zoos with living examples of animals long extinct, kids in my income bracket were being taken to visit government department buildings and their associated grey carparks.

One occasion in particular comes to mind. It was 1985. I was seven years old – but I remember the year vividly. Barry McGuigan and Ronald Reagan had shared the Oscar for best supporting actress in the movie Amadaeus, Bob Geldof discovered the missing wreck of the Titanic, and acid rain had fallen on Gorbachev, permanently ensplotchifying a piece of his forehead.

That September, our school tour was to involve a childhood highlight: a tour of Dublin’s pollution landmarks. And so, following a presentation at a government department concerning acid rain and that showed lots of pictures of industrial chimneys and dying frogs, we were taken on a walk around Dublin to see its effects. We saw a little stone erosion here, the occasional melting pensioner there – all evidence of the acidic plague. But the Pièce de résistance was a visit to the carpark behind St. Andrew’s Church on Suffolk Street to see a statue of St. Andrew himself that had been so harshly flogged and walloped by this pickled precipitation that it had reduced the once proud apostolic figure to little more than the form of a common blancmange.

Image

St. Andrew. I was going to wittily suggest him as a candidate for the Patron Saint of Carparks. Apparently, however, St. Otto already holds this inexplicable title …

Had he been human and not a statue, or, indeed, had we have cared, it would have been quite a harrowing experience. Poor St. Andrew had lost most of his facial features. His beard seemed improbably weather-beaten. His robes had been divested of definition. It was, in a word, sad.

Image

Face-Off

It had always bothered me, though. Yes – Dublin was particularly pollution-ridden at the time and my memories of it from the 1980’s are soot-covered. But nothing else had been as badly damaged as the St. Andrew statue. So what was it about this exact spot that had so angered Taranis? What, exactly, had St. Andrew done? And why did no other statue in Dublin look like it was made from particularly-lumpy porridge?

Years later, my interest in the statue was revived when I worked for a season on Dublin’s red-top tour busses. Every day, I would pass St. Andrew four times a day and look at his fading features forlornly focusing on the floor. Acid rain just didn’t seem to explain it.

I did a little research on the church – now converted to Dublin’s tourist centre – but still with the forgotten Andrew in the depths of depression in the carpark out back.This is the third St. Andrew’s church. The statue was carved in 1803 and placed above the church entrance, where it stood until 1860 before a fire gutted the building. When it was re-built, they simply placed the statue in the corner of the yard.

Ok so – fire was involved. Surely the heat would have played a part?

Further research told me that the church was frequented by members of parliament, the upper classes and members of Daly’s clubhouse. This last was of particular interest to me. Daly’s was a gentlemen’s club with a particular reputation for outrageousness. Basically a sanctum of illicit pleasure for the rich and powerful, it was famed for gambling stories that ended with sentences such as “… and they threw him out of the top window.” Also of note is the fact that Daly’s stood (and still stands) just a short distance away on Dame Street.

Daly’s was also famous – or infamous – for duels breaking out. In Ireland, duels were serious business. In fact, it was the Irish duelling rules that more or less governed the practice across the English-speaking world. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/duel/sfeature/rulesofdueling.html)

In other parts of the Empire, the duel was not particularly fatal. It served as more of a mechanism to ‘vent’ than to kill. In London, about one in fourteen duels were fatal. In Ireland, however, it was closer to one in four …

So why was duelling in Ireland much more dangerous than duelling in London?

Simple. In London, practicing was frowned upon. Yet, it seems, the Irish took a different view of it. Gambling in Daly’s was a significant contributor to the duelling statistics. But where are you going to practice for a duel in a city centre?

If only there was a life-size statue standing in a backyard somewhere …

Image

Bullet Holes in St. Andrew