Ireland/Britain 1998 day 12: Galway

I slept in really late this morning, no big surprise due to all the door-slamming and copulating going on around me throughout the night (if only the Quay Street Hostel made their guests read this article). As a result I missed the morning ferry to the Aran Islands and was pretty much stuck in Galway for the day. With no major sightseeing destinations in Galway itself, 31 January 1998 became my first vacation from vacation day.

First up, getting my stank clothing cleaned at Pleasant Hill Laundry. Although the window sign said “self-service,” the kindly old woman who worked there insisted on doing all my laundry for me as I watched. I’m sure if it was my maleness or Americanness that made her think I could not launder my own clothing, or if self-service just means something different in Ireland. The best part of the laundry was The Extractor. Between the washer the dryer, she put my clothing in this cylinder-shaped device which forcibly squeezed out all the water.

Next, lunch at AbraKebabra, an Irish fast-food chain that serves disgustingly greasy – and thus delicious – food, with plenty of vegetarian options. Here I learn from the radio that the song I’ve heard repeatedly during my travels is “Dr. Jones” by Aqua and that Larry Gogan is a real person, not just the dog in Roddy Doyle novels. I worked off the fat with a long stroll to Salthill, a scenic seaside suburb of Galway.

Returning to Galway, I popped into Taafe’s pub for an afternoon session of Irish trad. While enjoying the music I chatted with a middle-aged Irish working man. Telling him that I worked in a history museum prompted him to share that he’d been misled by the history he learned in school that wasn’t true, such as that the Irish rebels of the Easter Rising actually won the battle.

Filled with spirits and seeking the Spirit, I attended a Vigil Mass at Galway Cathedral, a lovely structure that is kind of the Camden Yards of Cathedrals because it was built in the 196o’s but given a retro-look the Middle Ages. The Mass was beautiful although I was thrown when all the other congregants recited the Lord’s Prayer in Irish!

That evening, I made a supper of the delicious chips at McDonagh’s (I’m sure the fish is good too, if you like fish). Then I attend my second session of the day in the upper room of a wonderful pub called The Crane. I heard some of the best music yet in my travels, and talked with a nice young woman from Portlaois as well.

Not bad for a day when I didn’t do anything!

River Corrib

The swift flowing River Corrib in Galway.  The dome of Galway Cathedral is in the distance.


Not everyday you see someone carrying a kayak through town.

Painting a Boat

Low tide is a good time to paint your boat.


links of the day for 31 January 2008


  • Must We Fear Adolescent Sexuality? (Feministing, 1/24/08) – “”basically that adolescent sexuality is dramatized in one country (good ol’ U.S. of A.) and normalized in the other. Parents in the Netherlands repeatedly expressed believing that love between teens is very possible, whereas American parents scoffed at it.”
  • One Bush Left Behind (Greg Palast, 1/29/08) – “Of course, there’s an effective alternative to Mr. Bush’s plan – which won’t cost a penny more. Simply turn it upside down. Let’s give each millionaire in America a $20 bill, and every poor child $287,000.”
  • The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Independent (Easily Distracted, 1/29/08) – “I tend to look at politics the same way Jane Jacobs looked at cities, as something that grows organically out of experience and usage. The strong party or movement loyalist looks at politics the way that Le Corbusier looked at cities: as a thing to be built by rigid principles, and damn people if they’re too stupid or recalcitrant to live in the city of tomorrow the way that they’re supposed to.”
  • The Last Article On The Traveler/Tourist Distinction You’ll Ever Read (Brave New Traveler, 1/30/08) – “The whole point of travel is to pursue the meaning behind the milieu: to discover oneself in the mirror of the Other. Travel isn’t dictated by fad or tradition, but by curiosity. It is internally directed. Fixation on the role or material affairs only distracts from issues of real importance. We are all tourists. We learn by doing. Our knowledge comes by the fine art of making our screw-ups something beautiful. And unless you’re willing to go down roads unfamiliar to the cowards and cynics, the art never arrives. It is upon these are the roads where we are made travelers.”


Today is the 50th anniversary of the launch of Explorer 1, the United States’ response to Sputnik, which also carried out important scientific research discovering the van Allen radiation belts:

  • Scientific American podcast Science Talk (1/30/08) – “Carl Raggio, formerly of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, talks about the efforts to launch Explorer 1, the first US satellite, which went into orbit on January 31st, 1958, exactly 50 years ago this week.”
  • 50 years after Explorer 1 (Bad Astronomy, 1/31/08)

Free Stuff:

Isaac Hecker

This Sunday in New York at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, the cause for the canonization of Father Hecker was opened at a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Edward Egan. Hecker is the founder of the Paulists Fathers, an order dedicated to missionary work, reconciliation and ecumenicism in North America. The Paulist Fathers originated in Hecker’s belief that Catholicism and the American democratic ideals were in fact compatible. Like many great American Catholics Hecker converted to the faith. Prior to his conversion he was involved in the great philosophical movements of the day such as Transcendentalism and was friends with people like Henry David Thoreau. All these experiences helped inform a uniquely American approach to Catholicism and a lifelong effort as a spiritual seeker.

I’m very excited and inspired that Hecker’s cause for canonization is begun. I am aquainted with Hecker and the Paulist Fathers through my involvement with the Paulist Center community here in Boston. It also starts off the 150th anniversary celebrations of the Paulist Fathers. I was fortunate to hear Jon Fuller, S.J., M.D. speak on Saturday night as he received the Isaac Hecker Award “for his lifelong devotion and dedication to the service of a marginalized population through his work with HIV/AIDS treatment and research.”

To learn more about Fr. Isaac Hecker and his cause for canonization, visit the official Paulist Fathers website.

For more coverage on Sunday’s event, visit the following links:

Which Church Father Are You?

An odd quiz/meme via Baptized Pagan.

I’m not quite sure what my results mean as I’m rusty on this period in Church history/theology.

You’re Origen!

You do nothing by half-measures. If you’re going to read the Bible, you want to read it in the original languages. If you’re going to teach, you’re going to reach as many souls as possible, through a proliferation of lectures and books. If you’re a guy and you’re going to fight for purity … well, you’d better hide the kitchen shears.

Find out which Church Father you are at The Way of the Fathers!

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 11: Galway

30 January 1998 involved another set of long bus trips from Dingle to Tralee to Limerick and finally to Galway. This was better than the alternative as I was actually due in Williamsburg City General Traffic Court to face a charge of Failure to Yield Right of Way – Accident (to date my only auto accident, and I was responsible dammit!). Arriving in Galway I checked into the Quay Street Hostel, another recommendation of Pa’s but this one didn’t turn out so well. I was placed in a ginormous 18-bed dorm with a spring-loaded door that would slam shut every time one of my drunken bunkmates staggered in and out. All 18 beds were full, and some of them had more than one occupant if you get my drift.

Galway City however is a wonderful place with a great street vibe from the bustle of youthful people and the many buskers performing. I began my first evening in Galway by stuffing my face at Couch Potatas, a brilliant potato-themed restaurant. My evening pub crawl brought me to Monroe’s Tavern where a lively session was in full-swing. My luck was good that night as an attractive young woman named Corrine – from Connecticut of all places – struck up a conversation and I ended up spending part of the evening hanging out with her and her friends all of whom were students at University College Galway. We talked about going out dancing but the clubs were too far away so we finished off the night getting chips & vinegar at a fast food joint instead.

Yahoo for Johan!

The Mets have reached a deal with the Minnesota Twins to trade for Johan Santana!  That’s the Johan Santana who is quite possibly the best active pitcher in baseball and most certainly the first Cy Young Award caliber pitcher in the Mets in his prime since the days of Gooden and Cone.

This is a great way to awake from the slumber of a long, cold off-season and begin to get excited for the 2008 campaign!

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 10: Dingle Peninsula

I’m much more active the next day – 29 January 1998 – beginning with a visit to Foxy John’s, a hardware store/bike shop/pub where I hire a bike for the day. Following a loop route in my Rick Steve’s guidebook, I head out to Slea Head, the westernmost point in Europe. Along the route there’s the dramatic scenery of steep cliffs and ocean views as well as the cultural ruins of antiquity. Some of the latter include the Fahan clocháns, stone huts expertly built without mortar the resemble beehives or igloos. These were once used as habitations and still shelter the sheep that wander freely over the peninsula.

At Slea Head itself, a point marked by a stone crucifix and a statue of the Three Mary’s weeping, I’m amazed that the sheep are standing on the steep cliff itself in a place I didn’t think sheep could even get to much enjoy grazing. The sea is dotted with jagged rocks known as the Blasket Islands, once home to community of rugged islanders. Sadly the Blasket Islands Interpretive Center and the ferry to the islands themselves are closed for the season.

Heading back inland I pass through the village of Ballyferriter where Ireland’s official bilingualism is abandoned and all the signs are solely in the Irish language. The sun is already starting to set so I decide not to stop and cheat myself of a uniqiue cultural experience. The final site on the tour is Gallarus Oratory, a small stone church resembling an overturned boat that may date back as far as 800 AD. I get chills thinking of the small community worshiping here over a thousand years ago.

Back in Dingle, I shower off the offensive smell I’ve gained while peddling around the Slea Head loop. Jessica, Amy, and I head out An Droichead Beag or the Small Bridge Pub, which true to its name is built over a bubbling stream. The music is good (they even sell an excellent recording called A Mighty Session) and the company is even better. Jessica and Amy try to fix me up with the local women (they both have boyfriends at home) with little success and mostly we enjoy conversing. Jessica even offers to let me stay at her flat in Paris. I accept the offer and start thinking of ways to revise my itinerary to piece in a side trip to Paris.

My time in Dingle turns out to be much the opposite of my time in Killarney, quiet, contemplative, and understated. I enjoy it all the same and consider Dingle one of the loveliest places on Earth.

Bicylcing to Slea Head
Pedaling to Slea Head. I was so proud of myself for managing to get this shot with the self-timer.

Slea Head Sheep
Baaa! How did these sheep get out on this cliff?

There’s no subtlety in Irish warning signs.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 9: Dingle

Early in the morning of 28 January 1998, I board a bus in Killarney to Tralee and from there another bus to Dingle the main town on the Dingle Peninsula. The entire journey takes about 6 hours since Dingle is a bit off the tourist path, especially compared to Killarney. This is one of the reasons its worth visiting. Another is that the peninsula falls in a Gaeltacht region, a place where the Irish government supports traditional language and culture. A big draw of course is that the small town of 1,500 is home to over 50 pubs which are renown as some of the best pubs in Ireland for Irish trad. Many of the pubs do double duty including Dick Mack’s which is part pub and part leather-working shop.

On Pa’s recommendation I check into the Grapevine Hostel, a pleasant and cozy place to stay albeit quiet compared to the Súgán. There I meet up with Sonia, a young and attractive German woman I met on my first night in Killarney. She spent last night in Dingle and is heading out again on the next bus. We go shopping together in Dingle, each time we enter a store Sonia bellows out “Hello!” in the European fashion. I end up purchasing a blue woolen sweater, a charcoal gray lambswool scarf, and a little knit cap that rolls up much like the on Pa was wearing (I still wear all three of these articles of clothing). These prove to be practical purchases as the temperatures during my time in Dingle dip down into the 30’s and 40’s, the coldest of my entire six weeks of travel.

Back at the Grapevine I meet up with Jessica again as well as a Canadian woman named Amy. They determine that it is too cold to go out, so I end up going out alone for a lonely pint and somewhat subduded music at a pub called Teach Thomáis. Then I call it a night.

Fisherman working with their nets on the Dingle Harbor.

Sonia and I agreed that port towns like Dingle and Hamburg are the most beautiful places to visit.

A wrecked ship on the Dingle waterfront.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 8: Killarney

I almost didn’t visit Killarney at all. Suffice to say, Killarney is a notorious tourist trap, the base camp for the Ring of Kerry, a loop road traversed by coach buses and rental cars full of foreigners. Experiencing the hospitality of Pa an his family at the Súgán I didn’t regret making a short stop in Killarney and actually extended my stay another night. Tourist or no, I enjoyed the company of the group of international travelers and nights on the town where the locals were mainly entertaining themselves during the off-season. On 27 January 1998 though I did what I actually had planned for my visit to Killarney, visit Killarney National Park which also proved worth the time.

I’d intended on hiking through the park but Pa convinced me to rent one of his bikes which proved wise since I was able to cover more ground and get away from main clusters of tourism. Not that there were many people there to enjoy this sunny day in the low season. The large swathes of asphalt by the entrance were blissfully free of tour coaches. I pedal to several of the main attractions including Muckross Abbey, ruins of 15th-century Franciscan monastery which contain a fantastic yew tree and the 60-foot high Torc Waterfall. Mostly I just pedal around leisurely – I’m not in the best cycling shape – enjoying the sun reflecting of the lakes upon which swans swim and men fish.

I should mention now that I wasn’t traveling entirely alone. I brought with me a small plush otter who I’d often place in front of landmarks and photograph him for a kind of Where’s Waldo effect. The friend who gave me this otter purchased him at museum in Newport News and as the otter was sitting on a rock in Torc Waterfall, I decided that Newport is a good name for a travelling otter since he always in a new port.

Back at the Súgán, a group of us decide to have our photo taken in front of the hostel and I decide that Pa should hold Newport for the photo. Pa is not at all surprised at being asked to hold a plush toy. “20 % of people traveling have something like this.” As we pass off cameras and take turns snapping photos Pa tells a story about a man whose thing was to pose nude in front on world landmarks. “He got arrested in front of the Eiffel Tower and locked up overnight in a Paris jail.”

That night a group of us go out to Yer Man’s pub whose claim to fame is that they are the only pub licensed to serve Guinness in jam jars. I’m not sure why anyone would want to drink Guinness out of a jam jar, but I get one for the novelty. Later, this group joins up with pretty much everyone else at the Killarney Grand for music that unfortunately is mostly Southern rock. But the company is good as is the beer.

Sugan Hostel

In front of the Súgán Hostel. That’s Pa in the middle with the otter. The seated woman is Jessica who will return to this travelogue in later posts.

Torc Waterfall
The waters of Torc Waterfall baptize Newport the Otter with his new name.

Jam Jar
Drinking Guinness from a jam jar at Yer Man’s pub. Did I ever look that young?

Footnote: I’ve never been back to Killarney, but if I ever have the opportunity I’d love to go back and stay at the Súgán, even though my hosteling days are past. Pa still runs the Súgán and has expanded it so that there’s a private room in addition to the dorms.

A few years back while looking for information about my favorite place to stay in Ireland I came upon this article. I know I was just a traveler who spent two nights in this family-run hostel, but I was heartbroken when I read it and offer my sympathy to Pa and his family.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 7: Cork/Killarney

I awake the next morning 26 January 1998 at 10 am, feeling rested and perfectly fine. I don’t question why, I just accept it. On a brighter and warmer day than the one proceeding, I walk to western Cork City to visit Cork City Gaol. Like Kilmainham, this jail museum purports to be a part of the history of Ireland’s struggle for independence. Upon entering I’m issued a ticket which reads:

Inmate No. 51240
Sentenced to serve time and charged
Adult £3.00

And serve time I will. Waxworks are never a good sign when looking for a legitimate history museum. Just beyond the entrance a waxwork of a man in a warden’s uniform – grinning with exaggerated glee – directs visitors into the main exhibition space. Cell after cell contains waxwork dioramas: madmen clinging maniacally to the bars, a bare-breasted woman breastfeeding a crying infant, and a human treadmill where prisoners are forced to grind grain. Sound effect loudspeakers pump in the cries of prisoners, the shuffling of manacled feet, and the drip of leaky roofs. The exhibits are one way only so there’s no way to escape this torture but to go through the entire museum. The piece-de-resistance comes at the end, where I’m ushered into the former recreation area, locked in and forced to watch a multi-media presentation on CRIME, PUNISHMENT, and oh yeah a bit of Irish history, projected on the whitewashed walls.

After my parole from Cork City Gaol, I promise myself not to visit any more jails on my holiday. The time wasted walking to and visiting Cork City Gaol leaves me with little time to take in any other sites in Cork. At this point, though, I am ready to shake the dust of Cork City from my feet. I walk back into the city center, bail my luggage out of storage, and board the next bus to Killarney. On my ride through the beautiful Lee Valley, the sun came out, illuminating the green hills around my bus. I felt brighter days ahead of me.

I select my lodgings in Killarney based on eavesdropping on Australians in the kitchen at Sheila’s in Cork. The Súgán sits modestly amid row houses and shop fronts albeit painted a cheerful green with Celtic swirls and imagery. Bicycles, potted plants, and picnic table merrily clutter the small, paved front yard. The cave like room enter has low ceilings with wood beams, stone walls, and stone floors, but it’s cheerfully warmed by a peat fire. I’m befuddled, because from my limited experience this looks nothing like a hostel.

I find myself greeted by a chorus of women shrieking “It’s a man!” Four attractive young women sitting with one bearded man all look at me expectantly.

“Uh, where is the Reception desk.”

“It’s right here!” says the man cheerfully pulling out a chair. “Have a seat.”

This was my introduction to Pa, the most cheerful proprietor of the most laid-back hostel. After spending an hour or so just chatting with Pa and the young women (who are not surprisingly backpackers from Australia), and hearing Pa play a bawdy song on guitar, he finally checks me in. Pa takes myself and a young woman from Pennsylvania named Jessica on a tour of the hostel. Although the hostel is tiny (only 18 beds) the tour takes another hour, is full of jokes and anecdotes, and in short is the best guided tour I’d have all month. Highlights include the kitchen where the kettle is named Jenny, the toaster is named Annie, and the stove is named Moffat. Out back in a shed separate from the main hostel are the showers which Pa claims are well-heated because he hired three electricians to wire the heater, something he says is necessary in Ireland because if you hire just one electrician he won’t show up and if you hire two, one will show up but he’ll bungle the job.

Upstairs we find beds and Pa tells us the secret of what to do when other people are snoring. “If there’s somebody snoring and you can’t fall asleep. Just whistle. It really works. As soon as you hear someone snoring, if you whistle they will stop. I tell this to all my guests and it hasn’t failed yet. Except for one lad who came to me and said ‘I couldn’t sleep at all last night.’ I says ‘Why, was somebody snoring.’ He says, ‘No, nobody was snoring but everyone was whistling.”

Pa’s family also lives in a room adjacent to the dorms, and I meet his wife Mia and energetic six-year old daughter Jesse. Mia will make dinner and Pa implores us to go out and enjoy Killarney’s nightlife, including a play in which he will be performing.

“So you’ll go out tonight in Killarney for some craic? That’s not crack like you have in America, craic is what the Irish call having a good time at no one’s expense. So if I’m having a good time, she’s having a good time, but were riding him and he’s not having a good time, that’s not craic. But if I’m having a good time and she’s having a good time and he’s having a good time, that’s craic.” Pa’s finger moves from himself to Jessica to me to illustrate the he’s and she’s.

After a delicious vegetarian meal, I head out for a night on the town with all the other guests of the hostel including Jessica, a German named Sonja, and the many Australian women. Much is made of the fact that I’m the only male staying in the hostel. We go to the Killarney Grand where there’s a performance of the short satirical play Pure of Heart by John B. Keane, featuring Pa in a great comic performance. Afterwards Pa and some of his friends play bluesy music and later another band plays Irish folk songs.

Back at the Súgán, we gather around the peat fire, and the glow of the flickering light, Pa tells stories. This time he tells of Irish lads coming to Killarney for stag parties and basically making pests of themselves in the hostel (sometimes when they’re not even lodging there). He concludes, “That’s why you can’t rent a bed to someone from your own country. I think it’s true no matter where you are, but here I can take in people from England, Germany, America, Japan or anywhere else and have no problem. But I can never trust the Irish.”

The warm cozy room with its peat fire and an international crowd telling stories make for a great ending to a wonderful day.

River Lee

Wistfully looking out over the River Lee in Cork City.


Pa at the Killarney Grand playing guitar, one of his many talents.

Book Review: Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat’s short story collection Krik? Krak! (1991) is my Around the World for a Good Book selection for Haiti. Danticat’s stories loosely connected together by the themes of political violence and Haitain ideals, suffering and escape, and the strength of Haitian women.  Storytelling is also an important theme, the title referring to a phrase Haitians use to introduce a story.  With the harsh cruelties of Haitian life so intricately detailed, I cannot say this book is beautiful, but Danticat certainly has a lyrical writing style.

Flight plays an important part literally from the women imprisoned and starved because they’re believed to be witches who can fly, to the father who wishes to escape on a hot air balloon.  Figuratively, flight documents those who flee from the political oppression of Haiti.  The first story is an exchange of letters from a refugee on a leaky boat to one who stayed behind in Haiti suffering abuse and rape from the military police.  Neither of them meet a good end.

The later stories take place in New York among the Haitian immigrant community. In a superficial way they remind me of the stories of Amy Tan in that they show the strains of relationships between mothers and daughters, immigrants and American-born.  Haitian myth and folklore informs all the stories even within the most contemporary settings.

This is an excellent and moving collection of stories which I recommend highly.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 6: Cork/Cobh

I reverted to form on 25 January 1998 and slept in until about 10 am. From hostel high on a hill I spotted the famous Shandon Church Tower. The pink tower stood out well against the battleship gray sky so I used it to navigate my way through the winding streets and alleys on a cold Sunday morning. Along the way I spied grafitti that read “Religion is a fairy tail” (sic). Apparently this represents a popular opinion in this part of Cork because when I reached the Church of St. Anne it was locked and the area desolate even though the sign on the door stated the only Mass of the day started a little less than an hour earlier.

Not wanting to look for another church, I moved on to plan B: a day trip to the port town of Cobh. I took the commuter spur of Iarnród Éireann to Cobh which is pronounced “cove” and was called Cove under English rule and then Queenstown after Victoria landed there for her visit to Ireland. Many of the “coffin ships” carrying emigrants from Ireland departed from Cobh. Annie Moore, the first immigrant processed at Ellis Island in 1892, departed from Cobh and there are statues of her at both locations. It was the last port of call for Titanic before it sailed off to its destiny with the iceberg. Rescuers from Cobh brought back survivors of the Lusitania, and the bodies of those who didn’t survive.

The main attraction for me was The Queenstown Experience a multimedia museum depicting the town’s maritime history. I was lucky in that the museum was actually supposed to be closed for the season but was open for a special group event that day and thus they let me in as well. It is an excellent and well-thought out museum. The town of Cobh was cute too, although a dreary winter’s day is not the best time for strolling along the harbor.

That evening in Cork, I go on a pub crawl in search of stout and Irish trad. Cork is home to it’s own stouts, Murphy’s (a worthy competitor to Guinness) and Beamish (a low-cost but still tasty brand). The music is a little more challenging to find. I visit the following four pubs:

  • An Spailpín Fánac (“The Wandering Potato Picker”) – there was a session here but hidden in a snug and not too audible. This pub rubbed me the wrong way so I moved on.
  • Rosie O’Grady’s – here the music was recorded, but the Beamish stout was good and I try a Caffrey’s Ale for good measure.
  • Donkey’s Ears – this pub specialize in reggae, but once again it was recorded music albeit expertly spun in Dancehall Stylee by the dj. The reggae beat and the swirling lights make for a fun, surreal experience for drinking stout, but I’m in search of Irish music so I move on to
  • The Lobby – this is Irish heaven, the right mix of stout on draft and a session of trad with the musicians playing at a table right in the middle of everything. As an unexpected bonus, I get to chat with Irish people for the first time, mostly a middle-aged woman named Jean. When I tell her I live in Virginia, she asks “Is that where they filmed Little House on the Prairie?” I try to explain that it was set in Minnesota, but probably filmed in California, neither of which is anywhere near Virginia.

Sadly I have to leave early as my American constitution revolts against having too much fine Irish stout. I make it out on the quay where I end up polluting the River Lee with the contents of my stomach. I somehow stagger my way back to the hostel.

Back in the USA, it’s Super Bowl Sunday and the game is about to kickoff. But I will spend most of my night by a cold toilet wondering if I will die first from alcohol poisoning or hypothermia.

Shandon Church Tower

The tower of the Church of St. Ann’s famed for its Shandon Bells.



A tiered hillside of rainbow-colored houses in Cobh.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 5: Cashel

I traveled from Kilkenny to Clonmel to Cahir to Cahel on 24 January 1998. The highlight of the 2.5-hour bus ride was listening to Irish radio which began with cheesy Irish country songs about leprechauns invading from space. Thankfully, news reports frequently interrupted the music and I got to catch up the news from home with an amusing Irish perspective. John Paul II visited with Fidel Castro in Cuba and called for an end to economic sanctions of the country. “That may get some attention in the land of the free and the home of the brave if they can divert their attention from President Bill’s wandering eye,” commented the news woman. This would be the first I’d hear about the Lewinksky Scandal. Later a male reporter summed up a story on Jerry Springer-style talk shows: “Talk shows and talk show hosts, representative of American culture? The mind boggles!”

Of course, I did not travel to Ireland to listen to the radio. My destination for the day was the Rock of Cashel. Not just any rock, but a hill of limestone outcroppings prominent among the surrounding plains. Here fifteen centuries of castles and cathedrals were built. Sadly, today they lay in ruins, but the architecture that survives is remarkable including great arches, high crosses, and carvings. The scenic setting ain’t too shabby either. I certainly overcompensated with my camera in my attempt to capture every view. Down the hill the ruins of Hore Abbey sit on the wind-swept plains. I enjoyed a few moments of majestic solitude here writing in my journal until the ink of my pen froze up in the cold.

I visited the Cashel town center and took in some lunch, a process made difficult by having to navigate with my backpack through the crowded tables of the cafeteria. I decided that none of these people would ever see me again so if they thought I looked liked an oaf, who cares? I caught the next bus to Cork where I checked into Sheila’s Tourist Hostel. One unexpected pleasure of traveling in Ireland is that the woman who checked me in had no problem spelling and pronouncing my name correctly.

Rock of Cashel

The stunning Rock of Cashel.

Carved head

Carved heads lined the inside of an arch leading into a small chapel.  It’s believed that these heads are representations of the stone workers who built the cathedral.

links of the day for 24 January 2008

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 4: Kilkenny

Whether I travel east or west, the effect of jet lag on me is to wake up early rested and refreshed (quite contrary to my day to day behavior). This was true on the morning of 23 January 1998 when I arose ridiculously early to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine on a walk around Kilkenny. Granted none of the sites were open, but I enjoyed circulating around the town and taking in the atmosphere. The locals were up and about at least including some school children some of whom had gathered in the schoolyard to bully a young lad by pulling his blue uniform sweater over his head. “I can’t breathe,” he shouted in vain. The Market Cross Shopping Centre was also open, notable in that it is full-sized modern shopping mall completely hidden behind medieval-style buildings so it is not an eyesore in the city centre. Why American cities can’t preserve historical buildings in the same manner I don’t know.

Having covered the whole of Kilkenny, I went back for a second go-around in hopes of finding things open. First stop, St. Canice’s Cathedral the namesake of the city (Cill Chainnigh means “The Church of St. Canice”). The cathedral was lovely but what I really wanted was to climb the adjacent round tower, but there was no one there to unlock the door. Fortunately, a couple came into the cathedral who were more assertive about finding the custodian. I followed them giggling and huffing up several ladders to the top. The view of Kilkenny and the surrounding countryside was astounding and I was especially amused by the Smithwick’s Brewery where beer kegs are stacked around the shell of a ruined abbey.

I also met the Canadian Katy and American Billy and we agreed to tour the town together. Since I’d already found all the sites I went into my natural tour guide mode. We visited the Catholic St. Mary’s built during the Great Famine and the Black Abbey, which was still closed but Billy liked the name. We stopped at Caislean Ui Cuain pub where Billy quaffed his first ever Guinness. We also tried some of the Budweiser that is brewed at the Smithwick’s Brewery and believe it or not, it is better than the American version. With a bit of a buzz we took a tour of the last big attraction, Kilkenny Castle, led by the pompous eccentric John Burke.

That evening on the recommendation of the Japanese man who ran the hostel I went to a pub called Matt the Miller for Irish trad. I sat with a large crowd of North Americans, mostly college students, but I didn’t mind since it was the first social interaction I had all week. Since I was raised on Irish folk songs, I sang along with everything the band played, much to the surprise of my fellow Americans who didn’t know any of the songs. There was a stag party in the pub making things rowdy, and after the lights went up a crowd of drunk Irish guys descended on our table. One of them asked where I was from and when I told him Virginia he launched into a rendition of John Denver’s “Country Roads.” I decided to sing along instead of correcting him and telling him that was West Virginia.

Back in the hostel I sat in the hallway talking with my fellow travelers about Irish literature, finally turning in around 2 am. I awoke completely refreshed at 5:30.

Guinness is good for you.

Yard sale

Some architectural detritus outside of St. Canice’s Cathedral, that made me think of an ecclesiastical yard sale.

Smithwick’s Brewery

The Smithwick’s Brewery surrounds the ruins of St. Francis Abbey.

links of the day for 23 January 2008

  • Origami spaceplane to launch from space station (Pink Tentacle, 1/16/08) – from the cool but otherwise pointless file.
  • Kaplan’s Korner, or How Yo La Tengo got their name – my favorite band, my favorite team, a tribute to Ralph Kiner, and Ed Kranepool! Who could ask for more?
  • While you can (Hoarded Ordinaries, 1/23/08) – Lorianne gives some love to the big Shell sign on Magazine Street in Cambridge.
  • First black lesbian mayor in Cambridge (Feministing, 1/23/08) – speaking of Cambridge, the city elected the first black lesbian mayor in US history last week, Denis Simmons. I’m only in Cambridge like every day and this is the first I’ve heard the news, which shows you how clueless I am. On the other hand, it’s nice that we’ve reached a point in our culture where this isn’t seen as big news (or worse, a scandal).
  • 25 Yiddish Words You Should Know (List of the Day, 1/23/08) – it’s always good to know a bisel Yiddish.

Around the World for a Good Book

A few years ago, probably not too long after my country began an ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, I decided that I should do something to learn more about people in other countries. Since I’m a compulsive reader the natural solution was to learn about people and culture through their literature. So I started the Around the World for a Good Book challenge to read a book by an author from every country in the world.

I set a few guidelines for the effort:

  1. Due to my monolingualism the book would have to be translated into English (one of the great barriers to finding books from some countries)
  2. The book I read should preferably be fiction – a novel or short stories. Poetry is okay as well and a non-fiction work by a native author as last resort.
  3. Failing to find any book that meets the above two requirements I would read a history or travel book about the country in question.

Trying to read a book from every country in the world raises a lot of questions. How many countries are there in the world anyhow? The US State Department Recognizes 191 independent states, the United Nations has 192 member states, and FIFA ranks 201 football-playing entities. Does the United Kingdom count as one nation or four? Is there such a thing as a native of the Holy See? And what about Catalonians, Palestinians, Tibetans, and other peoples who do not have nation to call their own?

Fortunately, at my pace of reading I have a lot of time to work on these questions. I’ve been neglecting Around the World for a Good Book for a long time, but this year I plan to read one book per month:

January – Haiti: Danticat Krik? Krak!
February – South Africa: Paton Cry, the Beloved Country
March – Palestine: Khoury, Elias Gate of the Sun
April – Germany: Boll Billiards at Half-Past Nine
May – Argentina: Cortazar Hopscotch
June – Australia: Keneally Woman of the Inner Sea
July – Peru: Llosa Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter
August – Czech Republic: Kundera The Joke
September – Somalia: Farah Links
October – Bosnia and Herzegovina: Andric The Bridge on the Drina
November – Uganda: Isegawa Abysinnian Chronicles
December – Zimbabwe: Dangarembga Nervous Conditions

If you have any suggestions for books to read for this project, please let me know!

Here are the books I’ve read so far for Around the World for a Good Book with reviews I wrote at the time:

Brazil: Jorge Amado – Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon

Sadly I lost my review of this book in the Great Deleting Every File in My Documents Error of 2003. I remember liking this book, although the characterization of Gabriela verged on the borderline between empowered woman testing the social norms and sexist pornographic fantasy. I decided that Gabriel personified the quote from many a bumper sticker “Well behaved women rarely make history.” This was a good book about changes coming to a traditional Brazilian community.

Iraq: Betool Khedairi – A Sky So Close

The second book in my “Around the World for a Good Book” series represents contemporary fiction of Iraq. Sadly, it is the most self-important piece of junk I’ve read since Leaving Tabasco. Is there some reason I can’t sympathize with first-person tales of woe by women of different cultures or is it just bad writing? The first half of the book is dedicated to the narrator’s father, and is irritatingly written in a second person voice as if she is writing a letter or praying to her father. There are some nice vignettes that illustrate childhood and living in-between two cultures, but mostly it’s mediocre. Unfortunately, the second half is worse as the narrator switches to dealing with her mother, now writing in first person as the time scale speeds up rapidly. In a few short chapters the author contends with the Iran war, dance lessons, loving an artist / soldier, fleeing to England, and maudlin dealings with her mother’s breast cancer. Somewhere out there, an Iraqi or Iraqi ex-pat has written exemplary contemporary literature. This isn’t it.

Georgia: Valeria Alfeyeva – Pilgrimage to Dzhvari

This books represents Georgia (Republic of) for my Around the World for a Book project. I’m not sure if this is biography or a novel. The author’s note mentions the author has visited monasteries in various parts of the world, but the narrator’s name is different from the authors. The story is about a woman and her teenage son visiting a remote monastery in Georgia and the monks they interact with there. The tension of the story arises from the monks having to deal with the feminist behavior of the woman pilgrim in their midst, while the narrator attempts to understand real devotion to God as opposed to a trendy spiritualism. While the monasteries are Christians there is a certain exotic element to them that I find fascinating. The second part of the book is less even, the narrator on her own now several years later visits a monastery in another part of Georgia (not Dzhvari, even though it takes up nearly half the book) and I’m not really certain where this fits in regardless of whether its biography or fiction.

“How much of the day can you spend with your eyes shut? And if you open them, don’t you get distracted? Learn to pray so that nobody else notices, and you won’t require any special posture. Our great saints achieved a constant, uninterrupted Jesus Prayer. The person of prayer works and prays, eats and prays, talks and is still praying. The prayer has been formed by itself, even in sleep.” (p. 32)

“How greedily I had once tried to absorb the beauty of land and sea, to take it away with me, and yet my eye had never had its fill of seeing, nor my ear of hearing. It seemed to me that these heightened impressions had changed my idea of happiness, and if I were to look long enough something would open beyond the play of shapes, the hues of light, because none of this could be in vain. But that same unsatisfied longing still niggled away. Beauty promised and beckoned, but it still seemed to exist independently of any connection with my life, not taking it into account.

A deserted, perfect, and idle world endlessly poured out its colors and lines, but I was rooted neither in its eternity nor in its perfection.” ( p. 37)

“The only problem, as the abbot said, there’s nothing a person can’t take pride in: If you’re not beautiful you are proud of your intelligence; if you’re not intelligent you take pride in your job and your wealth; if you’re not wealthy you take pride in poverty and you can take pride in joy and even sorrows.” (p. 142)

“There is life without faith, a secular life that drags us in its wake and constantly builds and destroys Towers of Babel, exposing their inability to reach up to heaven. It promises instant happiness. You just stretch out your hand and your past and your present become of no account as you try to achieve this beautiful, imaginary thing. This life seduces, excites, attracts you, swallows your soul and heart but never fulfills them, though it promises endless satisfaction – tomorrow.” (p. 180)

Ireland: Hugh Leonard – The Patrick Pearse Motel

Representing Ireland in my slow-moving project to read a book from every country in the world is dramatist Hugh Leonard. I’d previously read the depressing and close-to-home Da. This play is very different part satire of Irish memory, part satire of nouveaux riche in Ireland, but mostly farce. Almost on the Three’s Company level of people walking in on one another and assuming the worst. Still very funny though, and it hits its point, although the play seems a bit dated.

Holy See: Robert J. Hutchinson – When in Rome

Long overdue in resuming my Around the World for a Book project, I had trouble settling on what to read for the independent nation of the Holy See. Do I read something issued by a pope or bishop from the Vatican? Do I read a fictional work composed by a high-ranking Catholic leader while he was in the Vatican, and if I do does it really represent the culture of Vatican City or is it a product of the homeland that man comes from? Does the Holy See have a literary culture it can call its own at all? Eventually I settled on Hutchinson’s book, a non-fiction work by an American, yes, but it appealed to me because he spent a year living in Rome to learn about the daily life in the Vatican. Thus he writes about the Pope and high-ranking bishops, but also about the Swiss Guards, the Vatican Bank, the library and secret archives, the tailors who make all the holy garb, the only man who speaks Latin, and the sampietrini who clean and maintain St. Peter’s basilica. In amongst the day-in-the-life of the Vatican vignettes are historical bits about papal scandals, relics, Queen Christina of Sweeden, and the bones of St. Peter. Hutchinson encounters a lot of red-tape, scowls, and silence along the way that hamper his admittedly not-so-investigative journalism, but he still manages to write a fun book.

“What non-Catholics sometimes don’t understand is that most ordinary Catholics usually have a kind of familial concern for the pope, as though he were a grandfather. Theology is beside the point. You might disagree with the pope on some issue but still worry about his health, enjoy his company, listen respectfully to what he has to say – as you would to your own grandfather. You might also ignore your grandfather’s advice, of course, but that doesn’t mean you want him to stop giving it. You understand that he’s telling it to you for your own good and that even when you ignore the advice, he’s probably right.” (p. 41)

“The Holy See is merely an outward symbol – a unifying symbol, to be sure, but a symbol nonetheless – for a faith that is somewhat larger that what is found in the 108 acres of the Vatican. Whenever I was put off by some particularly ill-mannered Vatican bureaucrat, I would go visit one the major pilgrim centers, with tour buses parked outside, and be instantly cheered up.” (p 199)

“I’d like to be able to say that my explorations of the Vatican strengthened my faith as a Catholic in the way, say, that touring the United States Capitol makes you proud to be an American. But that’s not a good comparison. The monuments of Washington, D.C. – or even those of London or Paris – convey a grandeur that the Vatican, despite the glories of St. Peter’s, really does not. If anything, spending time in the Vatican is a humbling experience. There is a lot less there than meets the eye.

A religion with a history as checkered as that of Christianity – inextricably tied with Borgia popes, the Inquisition, and the Crusades – must speak its truth quietly. Like the people of Israel in the Old Testament – who continually broke their promises, abandoned or murdered their brothers, and worshiped the golden calf – Christians are, in the end, just as St. Paul said, hypocritical sinners. The Vatican teaches you that.” (p. 285)

Lithuania: Icchokas Meras – Stalemate

My Around the World for a Good Book entry for Lithuania tells the story of life in the ghetto of Nazi-controlled Vilna, Lithuania. Under the rule of the sadistic Commandant Schoger, Vilna’s Jews try to go about with their life, survival, and resistance. The narrative is told from the perspective of Isaac a young chess prodigy challenged to a match against Shoger. The wager: should Shoger win, he will send the children of the ghetto to their deaths; if Isaac wins, the children will be spared, but Isaac will be put to death. In the unlikely event of a stalemate, neither Isaac nor the children will be killed.
Each chapter begins with a move in the chess match and is followed by a vignette from Isaac’s life with his girlfriend Esther and friend Janek alternating with stories from the point of view of Isaac’s brothers and sisters. These chapters give a glimpse into life in the ghetto, both the suffering under tyranny and prejudice, as well as the little joys of everyday life. Back at the chess match, with the whole community watching, Isaac must play for a stalemate, on the premise that Shoger is a man who would honor the terms of the bet. When he realizes that Shoger is not an honorable man, Isaac makes the stunning decision to make a move for a win, when he could have made a move for a stalemate, sealing his own death as well as the childrens’. This is one of the more moving and powerful books I’ve read in a long time.

Iceland: Thorarinn Eldjarn – The Blue Tower

This is my Icelandic entry for Around the World for a Good Book. Set in the 16th century, The Blue Tower tells the life story of Gudmundur Andresson imprisoned in Denmark for crimes under the Great Edict against adultery and fornication (he not only violated the edict but also wrote against its legality!). Andresson narrates his own story from his prison cell, a story that basically says that the bastards will keep you down. Despite being highly intelligent, those of higher birth work to defeat Andresson at every turn. His sarcastic wit rarely wins him any friends either. After falling from the eponymous prison tower, Andresson’s life changes and it is told in a short second part of letters to his friend in Iceland as he begins to have scholarly opportunities in Denmark. Don’t get too happy though, because he dies shortly after in a plague. This was not the easiest book to read, but definitely a change of pace from what I usually choose to read, and educational at that.

“It is often the case with great men, that their descendants prove to be small, and all the smaller the more they try to stretch and crane themselves to the stature of their begetters.” (p. 48)

Belize: Zee Edgell – Beka Lamb

Around the world for a great book pays a visit to Belize. This novel takes place in Belize City when it was still part of one of the last British colonies in the New World mainland. The time is World War II and while some Belizeans are fighting in the British Army, others are agitating for independence. This includes members of young Beka Lamb’s family, especially her grandmother, although her father is more keen to not rock the boat. Despite all the political turmoil around her, Beka’s biggest problem is getting passing grades at school. While she’s a talented essayist she struggles with all her other subjects, and faces expulsion from the elite private school she attends. Worse, her best friend Toycie is pregnant and the father won’t acknowledge. As Belize is hit by a hurricane and Toycie goes mad and then dies, things get rather melodramatic. Beka Lamb is interesting for it’s historical detail, but not a very interesting book.

Kyrgyzstan: Chingiz Aitmatov – The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years

My entry for Around the World for a Good Book for Kyrgyzstan tells the story of Burannyi Yedigei, a man who works the railroads in a remote outpost of the Soviet Union, as he attempts to bring his old friend Kazangap’s body to his peoples’ traditional burial ground. While this main plot serves as a frame for the novel and is presumably set in the 1970’s, much of the story takes place in the early 1950s and while I suspected the flashbacks would offer insight into Kazangap, he plays only a small – yet wise – part in the story. Instead Yedigei befriends an outcast family because the man in the family was captured during World War II. His friend is arrested by the Stalinist authorities and eventually dies in custody, and to add to the tragedy Yedigei falls in love with his widow, who moves away with her children without saying goodbye. This tragic story is interspersed with traditional folk tales that reflect on Yedigei’s life and thoughts. A bizarre but interesting parallel story tells of a joint US-Soviet space station that makes contact with an advanced civilization on another planet. Cold War hysteria overrides this chance for peace and discovery, as the authorities abandon the cosmonauts and surround earth in a web of nuclear weapons. The two stories come together in a sense when Yedigei and his companions discover that their traditional burial ground is within the station where the rocket ships are launched, and after a confrontation with the authorities they are forced to bury Kazangap elsewhere. This book is well-written and interesting if a bit uneven, but artfully captures the desolation of the land and Yedigei’s soul.

Ecuador: Yanez Cossio – Bruna and Her Sisters in the Sleeping City

Around the World for a Good Book returns! This time we go to Ecuador for another Latin American novel written in the magical realist style. While not quite Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it’s much better than the atrocious Leaving Tabasco. Despite the title, there’s not much about Bruna and nothing at all about the sisters. Instead, in a disjointed fashion, it goes through the stories of several generations of Bruna’s eccentric family. Well into the book it feels like I’m reading background information and waiting for the real story to start. There’s the underlying theme well-explored of class and race and attempt to hide the Indian ancestry of the family of family even though it is public knowledge. There’s the uncle who spent his life weaving a carpet for the Pope and they end up carpeting the town after he dies. There’s the devoted aunt who hires an accountant to keep track of the souls she’s freed from purgatory through her indulgences. There’s the aunt who is never allowed to marry and thus dotes on a family of cats (who get bathed weekly in one of the book’s funnier moments). There’s one man who collects frogs and another who fills a floor of the house with matchbooks. Then there’s Bruna oppressed by the weight of her family history who flees at the end of the book. It’s not a great novel, and I have to admit I didn’t understand a lot of it, but it did have a unique voice, style and themes.

Japan: Haruki Murakami – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

[Apparently I was too stunned to write a review of this book at the time. I think I was going to go spend some time in a well to think about. I liked it, but whoa!]

Greece: Nikos Kazantzakis – Zorba the Greek

The latest volume in my slow journey Around the World for a Good Book. It’s hard to figure what country to attribute it to. The author was born in Crete, lived in Greece and then lived numerous other places. The story takes place in Crete but is about a Greek. I think this is a good thing that shows the internationality of the book reading venture.
The story is hard to follow, what there is of it. A nameless narrator appears to be a reformed communist going into a mining venture to become a caring capitalist. After saying farewell to a dear friend leaving for the revolution in Russia, the narrator meets the free spirit Zorba, who agrees to work on the mine project. The novel after this is mostly conversations and philosophical debates: socialism vs. capitalism, Christianity vs. hedonism, book learning vs. the experience of life. There’s also a lot of stuff about a widow killed by villagers, something involving monks, and an old woman Zorba loves that I never really followed too well. All in all it seems secondary to the Boss learning from Zorba to live his life to the full.
“In the corner was an icon representing the Virgin pressing her cheek against her son’s, her big eyes full of tears.
‘Do you know why she’s crying, boss?’
‘Because she can see what’s going on. If I was a painter of icons, I’d draw the Virgin without eyes, ears or nose. Because I’d be sorry for her.’” – p. 201

Library Links of the Day for 22 January 2008

links of the day for 22 January 2008

  • Ramak Fazel: 49 State Capitols An exhibition at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, NYC – one man travels to all but one of the US state capitol buildings and documented the experience in photographs and postcards. Sounds like an exhibit worth seeing if I had a chance to be in New York prior to March 8th.
  • A cool poster of Boston neighborhoods – a definite delight for fans of maps and Boston (via Universal Hub).
  • Their House to Yours, via the Trash by Susan Dominus (New York Times, 1/18/08) – the fascinating story of people who scavenge discarded books and resell them on the streets and at the Strand bookstore. “Is there any other industry in which such high-quality goods regularly make their way to consumers via a trash bin? Stand in the bookselling line at the Strand and the store starts to feel less like a dusty bastion of erudition and more like a messy, mulchy place where old ideas struggle to find new life.” I believe I read a book by Iain Sinclair where he talked about the life of book vendors on the streets in London that sounds like a similar lifestyle to these New Yorkers.
  • As gentrification spreads, rich, poor seek a balance by David Abel (Boston Globe, 1/20/08) – rich newcomers to Boston neighborhoods decide they can’t have longstanding homeless shelters near their homes and businesses. Yuppies make me sick.
  • WBUR’s Here and Now (1/21/08) has an interview with the mayor of a town in Louisiana who had the telephone exchange off 666 changed because of requests from Christian citizens (opens in Real Player). I’m amused by this since my telephone exchange in Somerville (alluded to by Robin Young as a “town near Boston”) was 666 for 9 years. Interestingly enough I’ve been told it originated as the first letters of MONument referring to the Bunker Hill Monument in nearby Charlestown.
  • Today Might Have Been Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 79th Birthday by Anna Clark (Isak, 1/21/08) – in a great article Anna wonders what it would be like if MLK were still alive and offers some profound reflections on his real legacy regarding economic justice and US militarism.
  • What the Birds in the Park Think of Us (Francesco Explains it All, 1/21/08) – this just made me laugh.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 3: Dublin/Kilkenny

22 January 1998, three days into my vacation I was still feeling inexplicably blue and somewhat guilty over the extravagance. According to by journal, “to cheer myself up today I: 1. visited a jail, 2. imbibed a pint of a known depressant, and 3. saw art works on subjects such as violence against woman & disasters.” I never have a good a time as when I’m feeling gloomy.

This day I hiked along the Liffey River to the western part of Dublin, dumped my bags at Heuston Station and took in three tourist attractions. First Kilmainham Gaol, which is kind of a who’s who of Irish history since political prisoners from 1798-1924 were all held there. Next the Guinness Brewery visitor center at the Hop Store where I was thoroughly indoctrinated by the pro-Guinness propaganda and enjoyed a frothy pint straight from the source. Finally, a spur of the moment visit to the Irish Museum of Modern Art. As often happens, the spontaneous ideas turn out to be the highlight of the day. Highlights included an exhibit of Andy Warhol works, many focusing on gruesome disasters, but lighter works included a room covered in ultraviolet cow wallpaper and clouds. Another exhibit called “Once is More than Enough” focused on domestic violence toward women in Ireland.

That evening I rode the train to Kilkenny where I was overwhelmed crossing the bridge into town by the moonlit view of the castle. I checked into the Kilkenny Tourist Hostel, dined at the Italian Connection, and had a pint at the Pumphouse where a lone guitarist played rock and roll. All in all it was a quiet, solitary night.

Guinness Brewery

The famed St. Jame’s Gate Brewery, source of the mother’s milk.

bikes are best

Pro-bike mural in western Dublin.