Same, Same… But Different (Time Zone)

I have been living in Ireland for about two months now and have pretty much gotten the hang of life. I wake up at 8:00 am then get ready and eat. Then once I’m ready I bike to school between 8:50-9:00am. Wait for the 9:20am bell and then the school day starts. Small break is at 11:30 am and the big one is at 12:30 pm. School ends at 3:00pm. I bike my way home with Dad, finish my homework, play with my friends, then eat at 6:00 pm and go to bed at 8:00 pm. Read in bed until 9:00pm (11:00 pm sometimes 😉 ) Sleep. Repeat.

The only variations are when I go to piano or when Lu goes to choir. Or on Tuesdays after school, after Lu’s art class, I pick her up with 10 euro in the bag and we walk home. Also, the weekends, and the unexpected like being sick, and music lessons being moved back, etc., During the weekends we usually make it into Dublin. We also go to the Glenroyal pool to swim. Sometimes mom teaches me calligraphy. Besides that, during the weekends, my sister and I have to find something to entertain ourselves with. We usually find something to do that ranges from a chess match to a hair band launching contest. Our life here is not very different from our one in Colorado, but without 350 days of sunshine, and our friends (here we also have much more freedom but in the blog post I am just writing about the basics). Same. Same…but we are still different. (time zones)

As I am a big-ish D&D fan, I still like to do D&D with my friends in Colorado who have started an awesome D&D club at school. The thing is that 4:00pm (which is when the club starts) is 11:00 pm for us and it tires us all. “Yawn”. We get on with communicating with our friends via facetime and email. Luckily, we are only seven hours apart. In New Zealand, where we will be moving this summer, 4:00 pm in Colorado (Which I tried to spell Colourado after mom told me that it started with color!) will be 9:00 am for us in NZ, so no more D&D. Oh well it was fun. That will be even harder than being seven hours ahead and communicating with our friends. Our life styles are the same but we are in different times, past and futures. The end.



New Friends



On Wednesday I came home and I finished my homework.  I went outside to play with my brother and then I played with two other girls in my estate.  We just skated around the Estate and had so much fun. And I saw one of my classmates then she joined in with a Polish friend. Everybody’s from Poland! When I went inside I had dinner and couldn’t wait for tomorrow. Then I had even more playdates.



LB is back!!!!!!!!!



In which we wander around Belfast, old and new

Belfast is a lovely little city, at the foot of the bay with the River Lagan running through it.

Belfast today, as seen from the banks of the Lagan. Sheep fields in the near distance of this compact city.

 My favorite little encounter there was at the museum shop, where they had papyrus for sale. Actual papyrus! I went up to the shop clerk and asked “Is this real papyrus?” To which he looked at me, raised his eyebrows and quipped, “Well, it’s not imaginary is it?” The museum, by the way, is excellent,  with a nice selection of dioramas, a walkthrough all of Irish history from prehistoric times, and lots of hands on stuff for kids. They had a replica of a penannular shawl pin,  used in the Medeival period,  and we could finally see how to actually put one on! 

My other little story about Belfast is from a coffee shop we went to in the morning. The guy sitting in the chair next to us was speaking loudly with a thick Bronx accent into a flip phone “Did you find the DNA on the body? Because I know who did it! And if you find the DNA it’ll prove it!” We assiduously avoided eye contact while trying to maintain ear contact. The police on the other end were clearly trying to stay professional and saying they couldn’t give him any info. He later came over asking if we could help him text, and at first I and the boy were like “Sure! We can help! We are nerds! We know lots of things!” And then realized that we were going to help someone who clearly a) had mental issues and b) may or not be involved in something unsavory. I looked at the boy, widened my eyes and shook my head slightly and he mumbled some excuse about not knowing how to text on flip phones and the guy walked away.

The day before we took an all day tour of Belfast, focusing on The Troubles. For those who may not be aware, a little background on the history of Northern Ireland. As a child, I remember knowing that you didn’t go to Ireland because of bombs and terrorism, but I can’t say I knew much about it other than that until now, and I suspect that most non-Irish people my age and younger would say the same. Side note: the history of Northern Ireland is as fraught and complicated as that of Israel/Palestine. My goal here is to share what we saw on the trip and talk about the history in very simplified terms to provide background. On both sides were many different official and splinter groups often at odds with one another in their practices, and tensions and emotions are high to this day over who did what and what the proper terminology is. For the purposes of this post, I refer to those who supported British rule as “Loyalists” and those who supported a politically unified Ireland as “Republicans” or the IRA, Irish Republican Army, for short. There is also a religious component in that Loyalists were Protestant and Republicans Catholic, however it is still controversial what degree religion itself played in the struggle.

Ireland was a British Colony until its Independence in 1920-21. At that time, Northern Ireland was partitioned off and remained in the British United Kingdom as a majority of citizens supported continued British rule. From 1920 to the late 1960s there were sporadic events of violence, riots and peaceful marches protesting not only British rule but the curtailing of Catholic (essentially Irish) rights. The violence escalated dramatically in the late 1960s until 1998, and this period is known as the Troubles ending when the Good Friday Agreement created a power sharing government in Northern Ireland.
In one seminal event, riots broke out over a few days in late 1969 across Northern Ireland after a Loyalist parade near a Republican area resulted in fighting and then violent military suppression by Loyalists. A system of forced internment was put into play to stop the violence. Purportedly for agitators from both sides, for the most part only Republicans were interned. A peaceful march against forced interments on January 30, 1972 ended when British soldiers opened fire and killed 14 people, in the event known as “Bloody Sunday.” [Yes, this is what the u2 song refers to.] Both the forced internments and the brutality of Loyalist police and paramilitary to peaceful marchers did much to recruit support for the IRA.
Over the next 26 years, Loyalists and Republicans battled, sometimes in overt firefights, and more often through terrorism including bombings, kidnappings and outright executions. Paul’s tour took us through Belfast to understand what happened during that time and what life was like.

On what is now a bustling main street in Central Belfast was a second-story nightclub, popular with young people and packed to the gills one weekend evening in the early 1970s. Two IRA members had planted a large bomb in the lobby, and were arming it when they were surprised by two off duty British police officers. The IRA members fled, one being shot in the spine and paralyzed from her injuries. The other made it around the corner where he was shot and killed. Accounts vary – the police insist that he was a threat, other eyewitnesses stated that he was already on the ground. The frightened patrons were either led out past the active bomb, not knowing when it would go off, or jumped from second story windows in panic, breaking limbs. One of the aftereffects of bombs such as this was to create an oppressive atmosphere of fear that lingers to this day in its aftershocks. The street now is filled with fast food restaurants and convenience stores, but many of these shut down in the evening and no one is out.

Main street, city center then and now. Barricaded checkpoints at the entry to search for weapons

Due to the constant threat of bombs and weapons, main streets were barricaded with checkpoints. Entry required a full search. The picture above shows what that street would have looked like in the 1970s, complete with metal bars. Paul impressed upon us the mentality of living in a police state, accepting of curbed liberties and always in fear of death from a bomb.
Here used to be an indoor promenade, lined with shops. One day a young woman working in the shops suddenly died when the bomb she had been assembling in the back went off early. Other IRA members had been smuggling in pieces bit by bit through the checkpoints. All of this, again, created an atmosphere of fear.

Then and now, an old shopping arcade where a bomb exploded by mistake, killing the assembler

It often seemed to me that the IRA bombings were indiscriminate in that the people killed could just as likely be Catholic as Protestant. Paul tells us of another story, when a bomb that perhaps was meant for an officer’s bar was hurriedly disposed of in a busy family restaurant shortly before it detonated. This bomb was one that got the British Government to talk to the IRA, so the logic went if one bomb can do that, well, let’s make it bigger to get a bigger government reaction. In addition, the bombings were retaliations for aggressions and killings of Republicans by Loyalist groups.

Belfast now, with lovely art filled spaces tucked into the city

In the afternoon we headed to West Belfast,  while Paul spoke of July 21, 1972 when the IRA set off 22 bombs throughout central Belfast, and the sky was blackened with smoke, people running in panic to try and find somewhere safe, only soon to realize that there was no safe place to go to.

British soldier standing guard over a bombed building in Belfast


I realize that much of what I speak of here is IRA fueled violence, but Loyalist violence was damaging as well. Catholic civilians who may or may not have had any association with militarized groups were killed, disappeared, or thrown into internment camps.
One of the lasting legacies of this time was the construction of “Peace Walls” between working class Catholic (largely Republican) and Protestant (largely Loyalist) neighborhoods, which are still in place today. This blew my mind – in 2017, there still exist cities in which the populations are separated by literal walls. The gates of the walls are closed at 6pm most days and open in the mornings. According to some, the communities still feel safer with the walls in place, uncertain what true unification and open crossings would bring.

The peace wall as it stands today, separating Catholic from Protestant neighborhoods. Cartoonish artwork seems to try to “prettify” the harsh structure.

Today, Belfast is a city which,while rising,  still clearly bears the reminders of the bitter struggle, and in someways is ongoing if not violent. The recent election saw a rise of the Republican Sinn Fein party to near equal numbers in the Parliament, meaning that politically the two sides must come to agreements. If they can’t, there’s a possibility of Britain taking over direct rule of the North. It made me think, too, of the current divided States of America – nearly 20 years after peace in Northern Ireland, it is nowhere near true unity – and I wonder what it will take for the US to achieve that.

In which we spend some time in the North and walk in the footsteps of giants

Last Friday we, along with a bunch of Eric’s college students, boarded a bus to Belfast. Crossing the border into Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom and not politically part of Ireland, is somewhat underwhelming and mostly notable for the road signs changing into miles instead of kilometers. We made a few stops to check out sights along the way.

First stop was the Dark Hedges. Beech trees twist and arc overhead to create two colonnades along a small patch of road, an arboreal tunnel to welcome you to the Stuart estate. Charles Stuart first planted the trees in the 18th century for this reason, simply to impress visitors to his manse. It’s better known now as the escape route Arya Stark takes from King’s Landing on Game of Thrones. When backlit, the trees form an ethereal walkway, and I half expected to see fairies meandering past. 

Next stop was Carrick a Rede rope bridge. A tiny island sits just off the coast of mainland Ireland at the edge of a bay. Shoals of salmon used to swim by, and a small rope bridge allowed fishermen access the island so they could set their nets. Nowadays, salmon populations have plummeted and the bridge is no longer used for fishing, but solely for tourism. Walking across what is now a relatively stable wood slat bridge with secure ropes and netting on either side of you is harrowing enough, especially if you look down to see the surf crashing on the rocks. I can only imagine the fortitude of fisherman of yore, who used to scramble across a swaying bridge which had only one rope handrail, the other side a steep drop to the ocean, guiderope held in one hand and the other clutching their nets and lines. Many tourists have made it across but have found themselves unable to stomach the return journey, needing rescue by dinghy. 

True bravery on display

The little dock to the right is where they would save those who couldn’t cross twice, though it seems even more harrowing to me.

The last tourist stop was the Giant’s Causeway. The tour bus spit us out at the top of a cliff overlooking the beach. We walked a paved pathway that curved downwards, and saw … more cliffs and craggy beach. Pretty, sure, but hardly unique. What was the big deal?

The faces of the unimpressed

Walking further down, though, we soon saw the landscape change into well demarcated hexagonal columns that rose into hills as they came inland and then seemed to disappear into the surf. The kids took off to scamper among the formations, while I cautiously stepped around them because those things were slippery. Now, I could tell you that the geological origin is from ancient volcanic activity that breathed out the basalt columns, but where’s the fun in that? 

Irish legend tells a much different story. Fionn McCumaill (p. Finn McCool) is a mythic giant of the North Coast. Scotland is just across the water here, and the Scottish giant Benandonner threatened to attack Ireland. Fionn swore to protect his land, and threw chunks of the coast into the water to create a road, or causeway, to Scotland where he intended to fight Benandonner and save Ireland. On his way over though, he caught a glimpse of Benandonner, realized he is truly massive and Fionn hightailed it back to his house in Ireland. Benandonner meanwhie is still up for the challenge and followed Fionn back along the new road and headed to his house, asking to see him for the fight. Fionn’s wife, Oonagh, has realized what’s about to happen and cleverly dressed up Fionn as a baby. She greeted Benandonner at the door, and told him Fionn is currently out but would you mind holding his beautiful baby. Benandonner took one look at the “baby,” and thought in fright of how large the father must be to sire a baby of this size, and fled back to Scotland. As he ran back, he destroyed much of the causeway so that Fionn couldn’t chase him home. 

Look between the layers to see coins people have stuck in, left to decay in the saltwater air and melt into the stones themselves.


In which I finally get to tell someone off about my name and commune with prehistoric Ireland

I know I’ve already said this, but it bears repeating: I think the weather is really getting to me.  I remember living in Michigan where Harrison’s Roadhouse had a signboard out front which proclaimed ” XX days without sunshine” and would update the number every day. If I remember correctly, and my Michigander friends can help me here, it once got up to the low 40s before a spot of sun was seen. Then, as now, it’s a depressing world without sunlight.

I also have to admit that I find Ireland to be isolating. I know that’s contrary to every single thing you read about Ireland, where the place is described as merry redheads waiting on street corners to invite you into their house for a drink. Wait, that doesn’t sound quite right, but you know what I’m trying to say. Some of this is just the difficulty in moving to a new place and trying to make friends, which always takes more time as an adult. And I can’t quite figure out the mom culture here. An example: the girl has singing club on Tuesdays, and one of the songs they sing is “When I Grow Up,” from the musical “Matilda.” Whenever she starts singing this in her off-key warble, I dissolve into tears.  Something about that little voice singing about growing up and what that means just destroys me. So when I went to pick her up last week at the end of class, I said to the two other moms there, “It just makes me tear up when they sing ‘When I Grow Up,’ you know? It’s just so cute,” accompanied by a fluttering open palmed hand in front of my chest.  They both stared at me as if I was mentally deficient, and were entirely silent. I tried to recover from feeling entirely foolish by mumbling, “I cry easily,” to which they murmured something and then turned away. Eric assures me that this is atypical Irish behavior. Seriously, I dare anyone who is a parent with a heart to listen to the link above and not get weepy imagining your kid singing the same song.

In more fun news, one of the classes I’m taking on the Archaeology and History of Newgrange took a field trip to Newgrange as well as Knowth and Dowth, two other passage tomb sites nearby. Passage tombs were created in the prehistoric era, around 3000 BC, and so called because a central enclosed tomb area made with stone walls was entered along a stone passageway. The finished tomb area was covered in small stones to create a large mound over the whole thing. After the Bronze Age, in 2200 BC, the sites were no longer developed, perhaps because they had achieved a sacred status. Much later, in 700 AD, Knowth actually became a residential area for kings, eventually following into disuse again. Over the years, the tomb was buried in the rubble and dirt of ages and resembled nothing more than the usual rolling Irish landscape. It was rediscovered in 1699 by a farmer who excavated the area to scavenge stones from what seemed to be a nondescript pile of earth and found the doorway to the tombs. The sites have been under excavation and reconstruction from then until relatively recently.


A word here about archaeology in general. I love the imagination of archaeology, as much as I take it with a grain of salt. No one really knows exactly how the tombs were used nor what they were used for. Newgrange is aligned with the winter solstice, but the other ones really aren’t unless you squint and lean over at certain times of the year. I’m often reminded of the book “The Motel of Mysteries” by David Macauley, which I read as a child. In this, a modern-day motel is dug up by archaeologists in the future, who hilariously imagine our world entirely wrong. See, for example, the sacred ritual headdress they found upon their excavations.


All this to say that I take all archaeology with a grain of salt, and remind myself that despite all the technology at our disposal, much of it is still conjecture.


These three big sites rest along what’s known as Brú na Boínne, or The Bend of the Boyne River. Legend has it that Boann, a goddess, broke a taboo regarding a wellspring. In protest, the spring rose up against her, washing her away through the plains of Ireland until she reached the sea, leaving the river in her wake. The river was critical in terms of moving building supplies to these three sites, as many of the large stones were transported from some distance away. The thinking is that they would be dragged or rolled to the river then transported on rafts to the final construction site. It’s a wonder of engineering, to think to 3200 BC and how they could have transported the ten-ton stone blocks which make the walls to the passageways (called kerb stones). Much like the stone blocks of the Egyptian pyramids or the standing heads of Rapa Nui, it is not entirely certain how these blocks were moved and put into place, only to know that it must have been a vast coordinated effort of many, many people.


The passage way is a narrow, low roofed tunnel through large stone walls hemming you in on either side. No pictures are allowed so any interior pictures are from the web. It ends in a chamber with a high conical roof, made by overlapping large stones filled in with smaller stones which over the years crushed into a sort of cement. Interestingly, drainage paths were built in as well going down the side of the monument, done so well that the interior of the tomb area is entirely dry, no small feat in this rainy country. Several burial areas inside contained cremains that seemed to be grouped by family members, some of which contained jewelry, pottery and weaponry. On the walls is scratched in graffiti from Irish punk kids from the early 1800s, a later addition.


When you stand in the central passageway, the guide turns on a small light to simulate the way that the rising sun creeps directly along the hall on December 21, or the winter solstice. What I’ve learned in my class thus far is that this was either a signal of well-wishing from the gods, or that this is when they would use the light to go in and bury the dead and perform rituals. This seems like a bit of hogwash to me, given that the sun is rarely seen at sunrise and even less so in December, but so it is told. The construction of the passage is at a slight angle up, so that there is the main door along which light enters and goes part of the way up the passage, and then an opening above the door which light can enter straight through and meet the center tomb area, which you can see in the picture above.

Perhaps the most famous aspect of Newgrange is the striking white quartz wall that surrounds its face. Michael O’Kelley, the main archaeologist of Newgrange for many years, insisted that the white quartz found around the site was stacked up in this wall formation. Though his theory was controversial, it sounds like he was enough of a pompous windbag to insist on it and the wall was constructed. Never mind that the qualities of quartz and the landscape make it architecturally impossible that such a wall could have been constructed at that time.


closer picture of the entrance door, the light box entrance over the doorway, and the decorated stone at the front



Getting professed about the carvings on the kerb stones


What passes for a warning here. The small white sign says “no climbing”

Knowth is another passage tomb site, in my mind more interesting than Newgrange because of the many smaller passage tombs that dot around it. It’s also known for its heavily decorated stones that line the tomb, here sadly wrapped in blue plastic until its official spring opening time. There is no agreement about what the pictures mean, only that it’s noted that swirly curvilinear drawings are more common doodles for people who have taken drugs, and hallucinogenic mushrooms grow wild in the fields.  You draw your own conclusions. The chief archaeologist for Knowth also saw quartz stones laying about, surmised they may have formed a carpet and left them alone, not wanting to make the same mistake as O’Kelley and Newgrange with the wall. Knowth is also interesting for the reconstructed timber henge, thought to have been used for public rituals. Passage tombs are too small to accomodate more than 10-15 people, so perhaps these areas were for people to gather in.


Woodhenge down below


House footprint in the foreground

Knowth isn’t built much for sun times, as it’s off the equinox by about six days. Some archaeologists have been able to twist dates around so that they say it matches up with a lunar calendar, but this seems to me the archaeological version of retconning. The surface of Knowth is dotted with flat rectangular areas that are the footprint of old houses for kings in the Bronze Age, as above.


Having deep thoughts about the history of the passage tombs

While we were rummaging about Knowth, one of the American students on the trip, M, said to me “We think you should have a nickname! How about ‘Sid’?” Internally, I felt my hackles rise and thought, “Oh no you didn’t!” in the way that the sterotypical “sassy black girlfriend” does in movies. Also, SID?! (As I type this, I realize he thought my name was “Sidatha” so maybe that makes sense. STILL.) “No.” I replied flatly. He then went on to babble something about getting my name right. For the last time, my name is NOT HARD TO SAY. It is three consonants separated by three vowels. For people that can somehow easily figure out that “Sean” sounds like “Shawn” and when you’re in the land where “Caiomhe” is pronounced “Queeva,” this is especially rich. Of course, he can’t stop and then proceeds to go on about how he was a paramedic and would take care of “urban blacks with weird names” (his words) and then, THEN! Starts talking about the racist urban legends of the names “Orangejello” (or-ANJ-elo) and of course, “Shithead” (p. sha-teed). I look at him and say “Those are urban legends, and not real names.” How dare he compare my perfectly normal and good name to racist mythical names? It largely ended there, until next class. He walks in and says “Sujata! I got your name right!” “You got it!” I reply. Again, he can’t shut up and says “I still prefer Sid, but you say you don’t like it.” To which I say “Or you could just learn to say my name the way it is instead of twisting it around to make it convenient for you, because frankly it’s offensive.” He doesn’t talk to me in class anymore, which is fine by me.

Our last stop was Dowth. By this point, we were a little passage tombed out. Dowth however is cool in that it’s just on a plot of land owned by a farmer, free to walk into as you wish, and largely unexcavated so you can see how these places looked before anyone knew they were there.


The wild and wooly hill at Dowth, which looks like every other Irish hill.

The sun did make an appearance over the land, and after the clouds you got a sense of how the ancients saw the gods bless them when it shines.



In which I show you a bit of Maynooth, and make a small confession

It occurs to me that I haven’t taken you all on a trip around our tidy little town of Maynooth. That’s not just me calling it tidy, I’ll have you know, but all of Ireland, at least for 2016. 

Maynooth is situated on one of the branches of An Sli Mhor (pronounced ‘sleemore’), or “The Great Road,” created some thousands of years ago, and people settled at various points along the ways, one of them being Maynooth in what is now County Kildare.
It also is situated along the Royal Canal from Dublin, another important source of trade for many years from its creation in the 18th century. This now lives as a biking and hiking trail and Eric and I took a little ride last week to get to the Garda station to register with the police, as we were told to do. The canal way is a lovely path along water, with reeds and waterbirds along they way, who seem somewhat annoyed at the human interlopers of their homes.

In the Norman era, late 12th century, County Kildare was given to the FitzGerald family by the ruling Norman Richard “the Strongbow” Clare. The Fitzgeralds built a castle on the great road, strategically located for defense and promptly took up residence and rule of Ireland, largely ignored by their British overlords. They continued to buy up land around Maynooth and further to the south. Maynooth then, could have been considered the capital of Ireland for several centuries. In 1534, however, Thomas FitzGerald, also known as “Silken Thomas” for his lavish clothing, decided he’d had enough of even nominal British rule and rose up against Henry VIII, leading the English to storm and destroy Maynooth castle. For his efforts he was executed, and the Fitzgeralds moved out of Maynooth to a castle down the road and then to Carton House, a Palladian style estate built in the 1700s on the land acquired by the Fitzgeralds during their long rule. 

Castle Ruins, as seen from the main road

The main road in Maynooth is then capped by these structures, the ruined castle on one end and Carton house on the other. The castle is a tourist attraction, open in the spring, and Carton House is a hotel and golf course. 

The boat house on the grounds of Carton House, with a lovely golf course and nary a golf cart in sight

St. Patrick’s College/Maynooth University is a huge part of the town, and when school is in session the population of the town doubles from 15,000 to 30,000. St. Patrick’s College was established just beyond the castle as a Catholic seminary in 1795, so that young priests wouldn’t have to travel to France for an education and thus be swayed by the happenings of the French Revolution and get any pesky ideas about freedom. In the early 1900s, secular education was added. I’ll share more pictures of the campus in a different post, as I’ll be going to the old library next week. 
As for our Maynooth, it’s a modern small town. There’s a main street with restaurants, pubs, a bookshop and the library. There’s one main intersection running through, the north south road takes you out to our house. Here’s a series of photos showing the ride from one end of main street to our house!

And here I am on my bike, graciously loaned to me by our friend Alena. That’s about 20 pounds of groceries I’ve got loaded on, not atypical before we discovered grocery delivery service, thank goodness.

If it seems that I’m dressed for a nuclear winter, I am. The weather here has been cold and misty in a way that seeps into your bones. Rain comes with wind such that umbrellas are useless against the damp, flipping themselves inside out as if to commit seppuku in the face of their futility. Van Morrison sings much of water, whether it be “streets wet with rain,” “misty morning fog,” or “oh, the water” and it makes sense after being here, where so far the sun has been a reluctant friend. [confessional side note – this seems a good a place as any to finally admit that it wasn’t until I met Eric that I learned that Van Morrison was Irish. I had thought he was Dutch, in the vein of “Van Halen” or “Van Helsing.” You may now mock me for this. It is deserved.]

Living in the mist, as it were, I think often of the Ray Bradbury short story “All Summer in a Day.” [Click to read, it’s a short four pager.] I think I first read this in high school, and it’s stuck with me ever since, a haunting read. Set on Venus, where the sun shines for one hour every seven years, it focuses on a classroom of children who cruelly lock a student in the closet during this one hour, depriving her of her moment of sunlight. The children realize their horrific act, but no matter, the time has passed and won’t recur for another seven years. 

I’m told it’s not quite so infrequent here as that, though it feels it, and I await its appearance with bated breath. 

In which I begin my path of Irish Scholarship

I’m going to be honest with you here, and share what may be an unpopular opinion. Upon hearing that we were going to go to Ireland, many people would get slightly misty-eyed and exclaim, “Ah, Ireland! I’ve always wanted to go there!” Or alternatively “Oh I love it there!” reflecting on happy times spent on the Emerald Isle. “Yeah, I can’t wait.” I would lie halfheartedly. So here it is – I was just not that interested in Ireland. 
I mean, I thought of it as a place of grass and sheep and shamrocks and Guinness but still Westernized and English speaking, and as such not nearly as interesting or different as say Japan or Spain or anywhere. I usually am excited to go to new places, so I’m not sure why I wasn’t really thrilled to come here in the first place. 

But I’m here now, and given that I know little about the history or the culture, when the opportunity came up to take classes at the University, I jumped for it. So I’m now taking a full course load on Irish culture and history, of course. Sapana says that this means I’ve failed at my goal of being a lazy, bonbon eating, soap opera watching housewife, but I’m such an overachiever that I think I can be BOTH a lazy housewife and a full time student. Being a student again is SO FUN. Partly because it’s been almost 20 years since I’ve been in a humanities course, and it’s the first time that I’m learning something purely for fun and grades don’t really matter. It’s giving me a new appreciation for the culture and history here too. 

The courses I’m taking are: Intro to Irish Culture, The Irish Manuscript Tradition, Heroic tales (myths/legends) and Archaeology and History of Newgrange, which is an ancient tomb site. I’ve had a few classes so far and am loving it. Where possible, I’m going to try and weave in some of the things I’m learning with the sites we’re seeing around Ireland to give it more background.
We’ve been taking almost weekly trips into Dublin to see the sights there, and it’s a lovely, if not drizzly, city situated on two banks of the Liffey River. 

The name of the Liffey comes from “Liphe,” meaning Life. The buildings along the banks are generally brick and mortar in the older districts, notable for windows that get smaller as they move skyward. One of the main tourist attractions in town is Trinity College, and specifically going there to see the Book of Kells and the Long Room of the Old Library. Trinity was established in 1592 as a Protestant only institution, only allowing in Catholics beginning in 1793, and not women until 1904.

The Book of Kells is what is called an illuminated manuscript. What’s an illuminated manuscript? I wondered. I was hoping for a book drawn with radioactive inks so that it glowed, or perhaps one which changed when light was cast upon it. In this I was slightly disappointed – illuminated is just another word for illustrated, however the illustrations of the ancient book are truly marvelous to behold. 

A book of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, filled with intricate drawings and lettering, believed to have been written around 800 AD, and has somehow survived the years. It really is magnificent, and the exhibition that precedes it does a fantastic job talking about the manuscript tradition in Ireland and the hisotry of writing in general. 

While you can’t take pictures of the Book of Kells while in the exhibit, here’s the entire manuscript online. I recommend. checking out the following folios (folio is the word for page, r means “recto” or right side, v is “verso” or reverse) – for images, 28v,, 29r, and 291v. For a nice example of illustrated lettering, check out 182v.

Whatever else they may have brought, the Christians coming to Ireland brought with them writing, which previously had only existed as rudimentary stone markings known as Ogham. Some of the earliest known writings are from St. Patrick himself, but do not include a recipe for green beer. From around 500 A.D., they established monasteries and scriptoriums, where scribes would copy out various works. These ranged from religious texts, to legal notices, and some myths. For many Irish scholars, the Book of Kells is indeed quite pretty, however the real interest and cultural history lies in the manuscripts that tell olden tales of yore, such as Lebor naHuidre, or “The Book of the Dun Cow.” After all, it’s pretty easy to get your hands on a copy of the gospels to read, but finding ancient texts that describe historical and mythical tales is rare. Many of these manuscripts were not cared for as the Book of Kells, and have been found in various stages of decomposition in the airless bogs of Ireland when peat farmers excavate the land. 
These have lasted partly because of the oxygen deficient environment of the bogs, and also because they are written on vellum, made from prepared calfskin from a calf no older than 3 months. Any older and the skin is too tough to use for bookwork. Here’s me in class holding up a sheet of vellum, it feels almost like a thin, flexible plastic. 

When the professor said she was passing around the vellum, a blond girl behind me started squealing “Awe, calfskin?! That’s so sad! We have to touch it? Ew, I haven’t even had lunch yet!” I couldn’t take it. Turning around, I glared at her, “Do you eat meat? Are you wearing leather, because if so, you’re already touching cow skin.” “Well,” she replied lamely, “I’m, like, half vegetarian…” But at least it got her to shut up about the vellum. It was incredibly cool to get to feel up close this ancient material, imagine the scribes sitting down with a new fresh sheet, ready for inking. 

The ink came from various minerals and natural substances and were quite laborious to prepare. Oak galls for black, colored lead for reds and whites, copper acetate for greens. Quills came from geese or swans and were cut in precise ways for the different letterings. Styli would be used to draw lines on the paper to keep things straight, and they would also use markings as placeholders for larger first letters or large drawings.

A fantastic interactive site about manuscript writing is found here: Making Medieval Manuscripts.  It’s done like a fun little game and worth five minutes of your time to see how they’re made. My favorite little tidbit about these is that the scribes would often write little snarky notes in the margins, such as “Now I’ve written the whole thing: for Christ’s sake give me a drink.” See? Medieval scribes were just like you and me. 

After the Book of Kells viewing, you walk through a narrow passage to enter the Long Room of the Old Library. Friends, this feels magical to walk into, as if you’ve stepped into a past time where bald pated scholars in robes would carefully examine the leather bound tomes held within. Two floors of wall to ceiling books and busts line the central pathway. A security guard gave the boy’s hat ears a friendly flick as we walked by, and we stopped to ask him if the books were still read. Indeed they are, by appointment only. A copy of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish republic resides here as well. 

The Jedi Archives in the Star Wars prequel movies looks almost EXACTLY like the long room, such that the college considered a lawsuit against LucasFilm, but the producers of the movie said that the Long Room wasn’t the inspiration, so the college basically decided to drop it. You be the judge, but I think the college would have had a preeeetttyy strong case here.