In which I share some thoughts on leaving Ireland, and the children assure me they’re not sociopaths

It’s nine o clock on a Monday night, our last in Ireland. Even though we’ve got a few stops before getting back to Denver, this day feels like the end of the year we had planned. Ireland is giving us a proper Irish goodbye, with gray rainy weather and low cloudy skies. You’d think that packing up a life of six months with all of its attendant detritus would be overwhelming, but not really. Over the last few weeks, we’ve packed 4 duffle bags, one large, one medium, and one small, and one extra small rather like the bears of fairy tale, or perhaps like luggage matroyshka dolls, and have sent them across the ocean with those who have come to visit. What was left was clothing, some shoes, a few souvenirs, and lots of mugs, which we couldn’t really send home early as we needed them for our daily morning tea. At this point, we’ve managed to pack everything we are taking with us into our original travel backpacks, plus one additional small backpack for each of us and one extra medium sized duffle bag. 
Today was spent packing for a few hours, after which our friend Alena came by to cart away things which were staying behind, including those which she had kindly lent to us, like her bicycle and a corkscrew. We also packed grocery bags full with food that wouldn’t get eaten, though as for that we did pretty well and didn’t have mass quantities of food to give away. After she left, there wasn’t much to do until the last load of laundry finished drying so we piled into our rental car and Eric and the kids went swimming while I went to a coffeeshop to finish up the last blog post. Pizza for lunch, then a matinee showing of “Wonder Woman” (mostly liked, can’t say I loved) and then back home.
The kids took off on their bike (singular, yes, as the boy rides the bike and the girl rides standing on pegs that stick out from the back wheels) over to their friend V’s house a few blocks away, their last hour of being able to take off and simply yell “we’re going out!” that they’ll have for a while. They said goodbye and then left the bike there for V before walking over to their friend S’s house, who ended up trotting home with them. They all played a card game called Exploding Kittens, but not before first creating a Minecraft world in which one could actually make a kitten explode so that when a poor feline was decimated in the card game, they could recreate this in the pixellated world. I expressed my concerns about animal cruelty and it’s future bearing on sociopathy, however they seemed unfazed, and reassured me that no actual kittens were being harmed.  

I have trouble characterizing my feelings today, as it comes at the end of what feels like a fairly epic journey. Wistful, perhaps, comes closest, but not quite. I relate it to the feeling of having completed some big event in your life, and once it’s over, feeling a sort of empty space inside where you previously held the emotion you used in planning the event and then experiencing it. Even though I know the adventure isn’t entirely over, for in less than two months we’ll be moving to New Zealand, it’ll be different in that instead of bouncing around from place to place in a peripatetic existence, we’ll be more rooted in one place and well, I’ll be back at work. Something about the thought of that fills me with profound sadness. There are those who never like to really go anywhere, to remain settled and find comfort in that. I’ve always been the opposite, mostly happy when I’m moving hither and to.

In two months I’ll be back in a hospital seeing patients again. I wish I could say that I really, really missed working, that a year away has made me realize how aimless my life is without my vocation, and that I’m itching to get back to use my skills again. I would, however, be lying. I’ve quite enjoyed being away from the high-stress world of medicine and the headaches of hospital administration. This isn’t to say that I think I’ll be unhappy once working again, but just to say that life without it hasn’t been the doldrum plodding I’d feared.

Mostly I think I’m feeling the inexorable passing of time, in that I cannot believe all that has passed since we left home. Looking back, there are perhaps a few things I’d do differently, but sitting here it’s hard to say exactly what those would be. Friends, it’s been a full year, and I hope I can say the same after the next. 
-s

In which we have a few visitors from across the pond

The Era of the Visitors descended upon us. Because Irish weather can be utterly miserable before May, and because most of our friends are tethered to the school calendar in some way, everyone who wants to visit us is doing it now.
This is fantastic, though when we spend time with people on sunny days here I feel as if it’s a little unfair, as if they aren’t really understanding the doldrums of gloom that the weather can bring.
The first of the crew was Eric’s parents. The kids were so excited to see their grandparents!

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The first few days we took Cheryl and Dave into the city, where they saw the Book of Kells and then we went to visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which I hadn’t been in before. A Protestant Cathedral, it houses an altar, seats, a museum exhibition of the history of the cathedral, and a gift shop all within the main space. The overall effect is one of an overstuffed attic.
I was most impressed with the detailed needlepoint cushions that hang on the back of every chair, hand embroidered by people from all over the country.


We took a side trip to Cork, the second largest Irish town, and other than a stop at a pub that was putting on a traditional Cinco de Mayo burlesque show, we didn’t spend much time there. We drove down to Kinsale, which is really very pretty. A hike along the coast, a stop for lunch and then to the Charles Fort, a preserved stellate fort from the 1700s, and still used as an army garrison until 1922. Legend has it of a groom who, on his wedding day, was shot by his new father-in-law due to a bit of confused identities. The bride flung herself over the ramparts and is said to haunt the grounds still.

 

Cheryl and Dave went further west and north the next day, while we returned to Maynooth. Our friend Wren popped over from Chicago the next day, and as she is a huge Harry Potter fan as well, the kids very sweetly spent time preparing her room, complete with a breakfast menu titled “Espresso Patronum,” and hid a speaker in her closet to play the theme music as she entered. Wren and I and Eric wandered about Dublin while the kids were in school (yes, they’re still in school despite evidence to the contrary), and over the course of a few days going into Temple Bar, Christchurch, and Trinity University among others.

 

 
The weekend was for a quick getaway to Galway, but not before we welcomed our friends Tim and Amy to Dublin! They arrived exhausted as expected off the plane, but gamely met up with all of us for lunch and a pre-train beverage.

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First pint of Irish Guinness is always an occasion to be documented

Galway is a cute little town on the western coast of Ireland, known for the university, traditional music, and apparently quite a party town and home to many stag and hen parties (bachelor and bachelorette for those of ye from the states). The central part of Galway is little more than three or four cobblestoned streets, lined with shops, pubs and restaurants, and seems to be lively at any time of the day.


We happened upon a delicious tiny pie shop straight out of a movie set for a fantasy film, where perhaps cloaked characters might stop in for an ale and a meat pie before heading off on their journey. In the afternoon we made our way to a microbrewery in Salt Hill, and then to a Gaelic Football match. I personally find the most entertaining part of these matches to be how the audience screams at the players, the coach screams at the players, and the players scream at each other, all laden with expletives and a lot of passion.

 

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Back in Maynooth the next day, Tim and Amy joined us again and we had two rousing evenings of Dungeons and Dragons hosted by the boy, where much merriment was had though perhaps little progress in an actual game. A walk around the Maynooth campus and a stop in at the Russell Library, the old library housing the ancient manuscripts of the University. Tim took his time reading mathematics texts. I’m always enthralled by these old books, that each piece of them from the papers to the inks and quills and of course to the writing itself all had to be created by hand. The immense effort it took to produce one book rendered them precious objects, so different from the mass production of paper and words today, or even “ink” on a screen where words are cheap.

 

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Our last set of visitors before we leave this little country were our dear friends Rudy and Liza and their boys. We’ve all known each other for almost 8 years now, ever since our kids became friends at preschool and it turned out we lived up the street from one another, but what really seals the deal is Rudy’s ability to take anything innocuous and make it seem vulgar. Here in Ireland, this talent blossomed as he found himself free to create limericks, an art form that lends itself to crassness. As this is a family blog, I will not detail these limericks further, but buy me a pint at home and perhaps I’ll share. We also got to spend a night with David Hicks, who was in Ireland for a writer’s retreat and found the time to come out to Maynooth to see us for an evening after a long day of travel from the West of Ireland and before heading back to the states the next day.
Our two families went to Glendalough for a few days, a lake nestled in between two mountains and home to an ancient monastic site complete with a well preserved round tower.

 

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While they arrived on a sunny day, these were the visitors who finally got a glimpse of the Irish gloom. Readers, they could only tolerate it for 2 days before complaining of the desperation one feels being deprived of the sun. We fortified ourselves with pints of Guinness and a peat fire, spending the evenings catching up at the Air BnB. I got to spend so much time with Liza, and as it always is with the good friends in life, we fell into step with each other with little pause.
Side note : this Air BnB is apparently rented out as a yoga retreat, complete with a studio and outdoor meditation hut. It also had a copy of something called “The Transformation Game,” which you play to change your life. With instructions such as “pick three angel cards while you hold your spirit intention in your heart” and “if you have not been born naturally after your third die roll, you will have a spiritual caesarian and may enter your life loops at the top space,” this game was not for sarcastic heathens such as ourselves who left our healing crystals at home and instead mercilessly mocked it.

We’re off in a few days, our time spent saying our goodbyes and figuring out exactly how much we can pack into our bags. Most of our visiting friends have also been turned into luggage mules for us, hauling back duffle bags of various sizes with clothes, yarn, books and snow globes, leaving us with a much simpler job of getting our belongings out of the country.
More importantly, I’m just overwhelmed with the love that people have to come out and visit us when we’re abroad. It’s such an incredible feeling to know that there are people who care for you enough that they will board a plane and cross an ocean to spend time together, and I feel grateful to have all of them in my life.

-s

In which I tempt a curse and thus far succeed

In the knitting universe, there is a phenomenon known as “The Sweater Curse,” whereby if you knit a sweater for your significant other, the relationship will end during the knitting of or sometime in the near future. There is some truth to the curse and it’s widely believed by many knitters. Sweaters are long projects to make, especially if you’re knitting one for a moderate to large person.  They are tricky things to fit and there’s accounting for personal taste as well. You may love to knit a large oversized heavily cabled and decorated sweater, and the recipient may feel that this makes him look like a tea cosy, and thus never wear it. You see the sweater as a physical embodiment of love, and yet it sits shapeless on a shelf. The presence of the unworn sweater will be a constant reminder of love rejected, a catalyst for arguments and eventually, the demise of the relationship.

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Things I’ve knitted along the way on this trip

Thus, while Eric has long asked for a knitted sweater, I felt that our relationship should be in a stable place before undertaking such a task. It’s taken almost 13 years of marriage, but I thought we could handle it at this point. I hope I’m not proven wrong.

At home I have an entire arsenal of needles at my disposal, as one may need different sizes and lengths for various projects. I brought along with me a roll of mostly bamboo needles as I was worried that if I brought my sets of metal needles they might be taken away by airport authorities. I don’t quite understand why it is that you can’t bring a pair of nail clippers on a flight, but I can bring long wooden sticks on board no problem as long as they’re attached to some yarn. Not that I’m complaining, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had some heroic fantasies of saving the plane from evil doers with a sharp set of circular needles. I’ve never had any issues with the needles on any flights, and if I were to do this again, I’d bring my metal Addi interchangeable set and just check that bag and take on board the one set I was using at the time.

Throughout the trip I’ve picked up yarn at various places, as it’s fun to visit the shops, chat with the owners and then make a souvenir out of them. In New Zealand, this is a possum blend yarn that became a pair of socks. In Budapest, I bought yarn that became a baby blanket for my new nephew and another pair of socks. Japan provided bulky green yarn for a hat and a feathery looking cowl. In Ireland, I’ve picked up yarn at local woolen mills as mentioned in the last post.

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Sock yarn from Austria and Budapest on the left, Black yarn from japan tucked behind. White and purple yarn from Studio Donegal in Ireland, Gray/brown from Kerry woolen mills. Green Wollewein from Vienna, and white yarn on the right from Lisbon.

For Eric’s sweater, he really wanted wool from Irish sheep. Personally, I find this wool to have the softness of a kitchen scrubber, but it is sturdy and he’s not sensitive to the roughness. We went to the shop together where he picked out the color, a lovely tweedy green. I knew I’d want to knit a Brooklyn Tweed design for the sweater – they’re all classic, well designed patterns and make modern gorgeous garments, nary a tea cosy in sight.

 

Note: The next few paragraphs are going to be knitting detail. Feel free to skip.

Eric gave me a favorite sweater of his to copy for sizing, and while the width was around the medium size,the length was longer than the largest size listed. Additionally I was using a DK and the pattern called for worsted. I also decided to add shaping so it wouldn’t be such a large rectangle and would be more flattering, as it’s knit with a fair amount of positive ease as is. I knitted a gauge swatch and got 19 stitches/4 inches, so did quite a bit of math and cast on 190 for the ribbing, planning on increasing by 4 stitches every 3″ up to the armpit for a total of 209, which would bring me back to the pattern and I would then follow.

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Planning notes, and math, lots of math. I totally messed up the stitch counts the first time and had to rip out four inches and redo it.  Ouch.

I was nervous about the sleeve lengths in particular – the largest size the pattern calls for is 17″, but Eric measures a 18.5″ sleeve – so I cast on with a provisional cast on and knitted them up in stockinette then knit down in ribbing which made the addition of thumb holes very easy and would also make it easy to add or subtract length. For the thumb holes, I simply knit back and forth for several rows before joining the sleeve back up, then when weaving in the ends I looped around the edges of the hole to strengthen it.

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Several times during the knitting, Eric would look at my progress and say “That looks a little narrow, doesn’t it?” Instead of stabbing him with one of the sharp pointy ends, I’d spread the stitches out on several circulars and have him try it on. The pattern does call for short rows in the back, and this is the only thing I wish I’d done a little differently – the sweater does bulge out a bit where the shoulders meet the arms, and I don’t think it needs all the short rows the pattern calls for. The other change was that instead of twisting the yarn for the button loops, which I thought looked janky, I crocheted a single chain and attached that to the sweater instead.

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It’s pretty near perfect as far as I can tell and looks gorgeous, if I do say so myself. He says he’s going to wear it every day. He’d better.

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-S

In which I feel a bit homesick, and later am told that we’re a pagan family

A few weeks ago I took a short trip back to America, to visit my sister and my brand new nephew!

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Look at this adorable family!

I thought he was pretty cute. Here he is in some of the handknits I’ve made for him, and there will be more.

Being with a newborn again makes me reflect on parenting in general, especially as my children start to begin the process of pulling away even more. Your baby is wholly dependent on you for care and often for food, and you are quite literally their whole world. You’re physically in contact with your baby for most of your waking hours, and often much of your sleeping hours as well.

 

Over the years that changes, to where the kids separate more, to feeding and toileting themselves, dressing themselves, and to now where there are large swaths of time where I have absolutely no clue exactly where they are or what they’re doing. At night, we still have snuggle time where I crawl into bed with the kids and we chat for a bit before I kiss them goodnight and they go to sleep. I sense, however, my time doing this is coming to a close especially for my older one. At some point it’ll feel weird and I don’t picture myself getting into my 16 year old’s bed to snuggle anymore, just maybe a kiss on the forehead if that. It’s bittersweet, to be sure, in that I’m happy for this independence and I certainly wouldn’t want it differently, but the difference is stark and made me nostalgic for those heady early days, where despite the sleep deprivation and difficulties, you had a tiny little being that only wanted to cuddle in your arms all day long.

 

Being back in the States was fantastic. It can get wearisome to always feel like a stranger, so to be in New York where I just understand how things WORK was such a relief. I was also lucky enough to have friends  who could travel to see me and got to spend time with them, and marvel on what good friends I have. This was soul-reviving, to be with people who I could just relax with instead of having to feel like I was “on,” and I’ll admit that I was feeling quite homesick after the journey.

 

Back in Ireland, I returned to spring break and a trip out west. First stop was to get the rental car from the airport. Eric had made the reservations and so went to pick up the car, but when he arrived, it turned out that his US Driver’s license had expired! Of all the details to overlook. So out I went to fetch the car, and did all the driving along the way. We did upgrade to an automatic transmission, which I was glad of after I nearly got into an accident on the way home in one of the roundabouts. Tricky things, those are.

 

As I sat down to write this blog post out, I looked through the pictures I took of the trip. For once, there just weren’t all that many. I wish I could tell you that this was due to some nobler purpose of being so involved in the moment that I couldn’t pull out my camera, but I feel the truth is simpler – I was feeling a bit travel weary on this trip. It’s a complicated moment in our time away, where I’m simultaneously itching to move again, bored with being in one place, and yet tired of feeling like we’re on a trip. That’s not to say that we didn’t enjoy this leg to see more of Ireland, but we couldn’t help but feel that we would have enjoyed it more from a warm beach, with an umbrella-garnished cocktail in one hand.

 

We started in Dingle, a peninsula on the southwest coast. We checked in to our hotel and started chatting with the proprietor about living in Maynooth and the kids being in Catholic schools, given that it was Easter weekend. She asked, “If you don’t mind, what religion do ye follow?” I didn’t mind at all, shrugged my shoulders and replied, “We’re really not religious, don’t follow anything in particular.” At which point the girl piped up and said loudly, “We’re Pagan!” as the boy nodded vigorously beside her. The hotel owner looked simultaneously shocked and entertained, I tried to correct the kids but they kept insisting that they were indeed pagan as they believed in the Norse gods, and Greek gods, and Hindu gods, and what have you. I suppose this summer we’ll be dancing around the Beltane fires at this rate.

A stop on the Slea Head drive around the coast

A favorite stop was the Dingle Brewery where we had a glass of Crean lager and chatted with Paudie, whom the girl informed “had a name that sounds like ‘bathroom’ in America.” Awesome. She’s making friends all over this island. Tom Crean is a local hero in Kerry, and rightfully a proper badass.  Known as a famous Arctic explorer, he took three separate trips to the South Pole in the early 1900s, was turned around each time, dealt with frostbite, starvation, team members dying, and at one point walked solo across the ice for 35 miles to save a colleague. After the last trip he returned to Kerry, settled down to raise three children and opened a pub. I’m happy to report that the lager brewed in his name is quite delicious, made from spring water near the brewery itself. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a glass of fresher tasting beer, and it made me appreciate lagers again after years of being an almost exclusive IPA drinker.

Enjoying a pint in a recreation of the arctic sailing vessels

Next was a drive northward to Westport, where we stopped in at the stunning Cliffs of Moher along the way. Also known as the Cliffs of Insanity from the Princess Bride, or the Horcrux cave site from Harry Potter, a sheer 600 foot drop from the edge to the ocean is carved out of rock. A signboard tells you of the types of birds that nest on the cliffs, and upon seeing this I yelped “PUFFINS!” so loudly that Eric jumped. Like daughter like mother, I suppose. Thankfully, we were well inland when this happened, else he might have had a long journey down. I was so excited to possibly see a puffin (puffins!) but alas, they had gone sea fishing in the afternoon and I was disappointed. You know you’re not in America when there’s nothing to block you from a cliff edge other than a few signs that warn “danger” in a half-hearted way.

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The next day the girl woke with a fever. Because I’m a medical parent, and I have little sympathy unless you have an obviously broken bone or an active hemorrhage, we popped a few ibuprofen into her, proceeded to rent bikes and took off on the Great Western Greenway. This is a 27 mile long trail from Westport to Achill island, with exit points along the way. We decided to go for the 19 mile section and take a shuttle back. It’s almost all entirely car-free, which is a rarity for cycling here and was utterly gorgeous. The mountain Croagh Patrick is in the distance, and all about you are peaceful rolling hills and grazing sheep, goats, and some curious cows. Around mile 15 of 19, the trail became almost entirely uphill, and the girl may have wept a bit at this point. We may have said things like “Come on, we just have to keep pedaling!” and she may have wailed back “Fine! Fine! Just leave me behind!! You don’t even care about me, DO YOU?!?!”  After about a mile of this, however, the trail again turned downhill, she hopped on and returned to her usual sanguine self.  I swear, I don’t know many adults who would have been able to do what she did, she is so, so tough.

 

Our last stop was to Donegal on the Northwest coast. Along the way, we stopped in at the Country Life Museum. I’ll be honest, I was expecting a dark room with a butter churn and walls covered in text, as I’ve seen in some other museums. This is however an incredible place. Displays about Irish rural life from prefamine to the 1960s bring to life what was clearly a very difficult existence. I felt like I was walking in a real life “These are the people in your neighborhood” song from Sesame Street.

Listening to school lessons, trying his hand at the butter churn (yes,there was one after all), and hand woven straw baskets


 We tried to hike up Slieve League the next day, but were stymied by fog. Another high cliff like those of Moher, there’s supposedly a gorgeous view up there but it was not to be for us. I looked for signs of puffins as well, and again they were not to be.

 
The Donegal Yarns workshop was a delight. Rooms filled with beautiful yarns and handwoven and handknitted scarves, sweaters and hats. Fun fact: most wool in Irish products does not come from sheep living here, and is imported from England, New Zealand and Australia. One Irish season is enough to turn the softest sheep’s wool into Brillo pads, and as such the wool is exported for upholstery. Most of the adorable lambs you see tottering about on the side of the road are fated to end up on your dinner plate in the next few weeks.

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Upstairs is the weaving room, where fabrics are created as they always were, on long hand looms with foot pedals, by one person at a time.  Behind that is the spinning room, where the dyed fleece comes in and is mixed into skeins for the weaving, and then the sewing room where the fabrics are made into their final product.
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Here he is in action, the rhythmic click clack of the loom with each shuttle pass taps out a cadence for him to follow. Unfortunately, the sound didn’t record so you’ll have to use your imagination.

On the way back home we visited the Corlea Trackway Museum, where an ancient 2000 year old wooden bog trackway has been preserved. No one knows what this road was for – there are many such roads along the spongy bogs, which were heavily trafficked as ways to cross over without sinking into the sludge, but this one remains pristine. It was a long road, and took months and many people to construct, and as such is a mystery as to why, after all that work, it remains unused.

 

We’re back in Maynooth now, and glad to be here. We pulled up in the rental car, I dropped Eric and the kids off to go and return it, and when I got back the kids were nowhere to be seen, having run off to join their friends somewhere in the green of the estate. I think I’ll have a glass of the Crean’s lager we brought back with us.

 

 

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.

-HF

 

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!!!!!!!!!

-LB

 

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.
–s