Brexit: A cautionary tale

Editor’s note: This is cross-posted to my Emergent Journalism blog because of its commentary on the state of news reporting around the issue.

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On Friday I thought more about Ireland, the UK, and my friends there than on any other day since I returned from my semester in Galway seven weeks ago. The reason, of course, was all the news on the UK referendum vote to leave the European Union.

The immediate impact of the vote was turmoil in world financial markets because of the likely political and economic impacts of a British departure from the EU. The longer term impact is uncertain, but unlikely to be positive.

One interesting angle on the whole affair is a parallel between the Brexit vote and the rise and popularity of Donald Trump as a U.S. presidential candidate.  I’ve seen a number of stories about this; The Guardian did a good job of summarizing the connections as follows:

There are, admittedly, similarities between the populist and anti-immigration attitudes that motivated many to vote for Trump in the Republican primary and many to push the UK towards the door marked “Brexit”. Brexit voters were also whiter, older, less well educated and from areas that had not participated in the recent economic recovery. They were motivated by resentment towards immigrants and refugees and disdain for metropolitan elites.

(It’s worth noting that the general theme of the article is that the Brexit vote is not necessarily a bellwether for a Trump win in November because of substantial differences in the electorates of the U.S. and UK. A New York Times article this morning made a similar point for similar reasons.)

On the other hand, Amy Webb  in a column for Inc. magazine said the UK referendum outcome leaves her “gravely concerned,” and added:

I think about the Brexit vote within the context of our US election, where we see similarly misguided anger and resentment toward immigrant communities, not to mention a complete misunderstanding of how the economy actually works. It reminds me that our current media distribution channels–social and traditional–have shackled most of us within echo chambers that grow louder and more impassioned with every new political event. Those who were shocked to learn that the #Leave vote succeeded didn’t give credence to the very large, mobilized and powerful group of people who took advantage of such an ecosystem.

Either way, there is no escaping the parallels, on a few different levels including the role of the media in each and the way way both campaigns progressed (and Trump’s is still progressing) with utter disregard for the facts. Since this is an angle that I thought of, but others have stated better, I’m going to liberally use their thoughts here with credit. (As an aside, The Guardian has decided to go a level beyond fact checking to publishing articles that highlight Trump’s flat-out lies. They say it will be a regular feature. I predict they will have no shortage of material to work with.)

But with regard to Brexit, this comment from the Financial Times that I saw posted and re-posted a couple of times Friday on Twitter pointedly cast the outcome as people voting based on demagoguery with factual appeals absent or irrelevant.  comments3a

Although written about Brexit, it’s an apt description for Trump’s popularity as well. A similar comment, also found on Twitter but whose source I can’t ascertain because it was a retweet of a retweet, makes the point more sharply, across a broader context that explicitly includes the U.S. election. It also resonates with Webb’s observations:

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Then, of course, there was The Donald himself, crowing about how positive the vote was. One problem, though, was that he made the comments while he was in Scotland for the re-opening of a golf course he owns there. And of all areas of the UK, Scotland voted most strongly to remain, by a 62-38 margin. That led to some choice reaction on Twitter.1

Speaking of a campaign based on something other than facts ….

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1 I don’t endorse and generally dislike ad hominem insults in online discourse, but since Trump loves to insult those who disagree with him with names like “liar,” “loser,” and “moron,” turnabout seemed fair play in citing some people calling him similar names.

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A brilliant 4 months ends

When I learned last year that I would be spending a semester in Galway, the reaction from American friends who had been to Ireland was almost universal. “Galway was my favorite place in all of Ireland,” they would typically say.

After living here for four months, I understand why. The city’s vibrancy, openness and compact size give it a liveliness that may be unparalleled in Ireland, or anywhere. Yet at heart, it is a small town with a decency and friendliness that also make it a special place. (Of course, substitute “country” for “town” in that sentence, and you have a pretty good description of Ireland as a whole.)

There’s a definite difference to living someplace vs. visiting it, and I feel privileged to have spent enough time here to incorporate the town into the fabric of my life.  The following are some observations about living in Galway specifically and Ireland in general, in no particular order.

Music

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My son Sean, with fiddle in center, plays in a session at the Crane

For more than 30 years, I have enjoyed listening to Irish traditional music. I doubt that any other place offers more opportunities for this than Galway. From buskers in the streets to open sessions (still my favorite) to top-shelf performing groups, it is always possible to find music here. And I have spent many a night doing just that.

I should mention I don’t play, just listen. But because he grew up listening to this music, my son — a music teacher by profession — does play traditional fiddle. When he was here on a weeklong visit it was especially fun to attend sessions where he was playing.

Politics

I am a bit of a “politics geek,” so seeing the Irish election up close was another fascinating thing about living in Ireland for the past few months.

When Tim Madigan, right, and I visited the election counting at NUIG, we managed to meet one of the candidates, Hildegard Naughton.

The parliamentary system in Ireland is vastly different from the US government. There, the executive branch (the president and his cabinet) is completely separate from the legislature. This is unlike Ireland where the taoiseach, who is head of government, and the ministers who run the various areas of government (health services, justice, etc.) also serve in the legislature.

In the US system this division of responsibilities means government is in place as soon as the election is finished; there is no need to get majority agreement within the legislature on a program for government, which has been long and contentious here. Just three weeks elapsed from the time the general election was called to the time it took place back in February. But it has been 10 weeks since the voting concluded, and the parties that were elected have been unable to agree on a governing coalition. (As of this writing, they are getting close.) Following the news coverage about that process has given me a much better understanding of the parliamentary system.

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Noel Grealish is hoisted onto the shoulders of his supporters when his election victory is announced during Galway West district tallies at NUIG.

But an even bigger difference, and a more fascinating one, was the election itself, with its multi-candidate constituencies and proportional representation enacted through vote transfers. Attending the vote counting for Galway West district at NUI Galway on the last weekend in February to see the sorting-and-transfer process in action stands out as one of my favorite experiences here.

And then of course there is that other election. Only a tiny fraction of Americans could tell you anything about Irish politics or government; few would even know that the process of forming a government has dragged on for more than two months. But it seems as if everyone in Ireland is paying attention to, and has an opinion about, the US presidential race.

The nearly universal opinion seems to be utter shock that Donald Trump has lasted so long as the Republican front runner. Many Irish people have asked me “What are all of those people in America who support him thinking?” Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer. People who ask that question often follow it by saying that they believe a Trump presidency would be disastrous for US standing in the world. If I had €10 for every conversation I have had since January that included these elements, it would pay for my trip home.

History

Like many Americans with an interest in Ireland, I had a passing familiarity with important people and events in the island’s history. But it has been a real privilege living here through the 1916 centenary celebration, and witnessing all of the commemorations surrounding it. This has been through the media mostly, though I also attended several excellent lectures sponsored by the NUI Galway Centre for Irish Studies about aspects of 1916.

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This street behind the General Post Office on O’Connell Street in Dublin was the rebels’ escape route when they had to leave the burning post office building.

I had heard of the Easter Monday rebellion, of course. But “heard of” just about describes the extent of my knowledge until now. Four months ago names like Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, Thomas Clarke, Sean MacDiarmada, Joseph Plunkett, Eamon Ceannt and the other martyrs of The Rising had no meaning to me. Now, of course, that has changed. I leave Ireland with a much deeper appreciation for the significance of 1916 and the impact it had on Ireland becoming the modern nation that it is today.

Many meetings

I have met a literally uncountable number of people during four months in Ireland, ranging from chance encounters in a pub or at an event, to more deliberate meetings that I have sought out as professional contacts, to ongoing professional relationships I’ve developed with people at the university.

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Two students from the Netherands, center, whom I met at a pub session in Cork.

This includes people from around the globe, such as the Dutch students I met during a session in Cork, the Australian-German couple on a holiday in Galway, and the French couple thinking of relocating here after several years in China. It includes Americans working here in Ireland, such as the product manager at Google who invited me to tour the company’s Dublin office. It includes Irish people who have traveled and sometimes lived in distant locations. I am nowhere nearly as well-traveled as so many of the people I have met, which inspires me to literally expand my horizons and travel more.

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Padraic O Raighne explains some of the operation of TG4, the national Irish language television network, to students during a tour of the operation in Connemara. Students are sitting on a set for a sports-talk program a few hours before filming was scheduled.

One thing I wanted to accomplish during the semester was to meet as many people from Irish media as possible to expand my professional network. I have managed to do that successfully, having met with more than a dozen people from local and national newspapers, local radio, and national TV (RTE both in Galway and Dublin), as well as TG4 and Raidio na Gaeltachta, the national Irish language TV network and radio station, respectively. In line with my interest in politics, I even managed to secure a meeting with a member of the Dáil, who was kind enough to invite me to lunch at Leinster House.

All of the people described here have been incredibly friendly and generous of their time. The adage that “strangers are just friends whom we have not met yet” seems especially true of people in Ireland.

The rest of the country, and beyond

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Noel, a former Loyalist militia member in Belfast who now works for a reconciliation organization there, explains the importance of one of the Belfast murals to the students.

As wonderful as Galway is, using it as a springboard to see other parts of Ireland and beyond has been another real advantage to living here. As part of the program we have taken students on weekend excursions around Ireland, which has helped me to see Dublin, Cork, Kerry/Dingle and Northern Ireland. I have been to Dublin a few other times on my own as well. I also was able to attend annual journalism conferences in Dublin and in London that I have always wanted to attend but could not because of the distance. Being in Ireland provided opportunities for that.

Conclusion

My four months in Ireland have been, to use a favorite Irish expression that has become a part of my own vocabulary, absolutely BRILLIANT.  I doubt I will have another opportunity to spend four months here. But I certainly hope to return sometime when an opportunity presents itself.

And that’s (almost) a wrap

I have written some bits and pieces1 about class activities along the way this semester, but not really written about the class as a class. With class sessions ending this week, and a couple of really interesting recent experiences to relate, it seems like a good time to do that.

Blog collage2The topic has been Media in Ireland, and we have taken a comparative study look at the Irish media system especially its unique features and contrasts with the US system. We started with a unit on media theory (especially comparative studies) and followed that with a unit on Irish media history. These set the background for  the third unit, on contemporary Irish media.

I decided early on that rather than have this unit built entirely of lectures and readings about media, I wanted to have the students experience the topic by having them meet as many people as I could arrange who work in the media. From almost the first day I was in Ireland I reached out to local and national journalists seeking first to meet them for myself, but also to see about arranging for them to also meet the class.

I’ve met well over a dozen people from all walks of media life: newspaper, online, radio, TV, marketing, digital media. Because of tight schedules and other factors it wasn’t possible to have the students meet all of them. But we did have three guest speakers — radio and TV presenter Laura Fox, newspaper reporter Rebecca Maher, and freelancer/online producer Jo Lavelle.

All three were excellent speakers who brought a lot of interesting insights to the class. But as engaging as all of them were, the highlights had to be two field trips we managed also to fit in.

One was to the headquarters of TG4, the national Irish language television network. Although Irish — what Americans usually refer to as Gaelic — is spoken fluently by only a fraction of Irish citizens, it is the nation’s official first language (English is the secondary official language). Respect for the Irish language is central to issues of national identity that the students have learned about in my course and others they have taken through NUI Galway, so a visit to one of the two national media outlets that work in the language2 seemed like a “must.” We weren’t disappointed.

The station produces a significant number of Irish language programs especially dramas, documentaries, public affairs, arts and music, and sports. Marketing manager Padraic Ó Raighne led us on a tour of the facility in Connemara where Irish language news and talk shows are produced and spent a hour explaining all aspects of the operation. Most of the students had never been inside of a TV studio or had a close look at how broadcast programming is produced and found that part especially interesting.

A few days later we were able to visit the western regional office of RTÉ, the national radio/television public service broadcaster, which is in downtown Galway. There, we met for more than an hour with production coordinators Orla Nix and Rosalyn Martin, reporter Teresa Mannion, and production technician John (whose last name I did not get, unfortunately).

Galway is one of several RTÉ regional bureaus and John gave a fascinating explanation of how all of them can share audio and video off central servers and work in recorded or live modes with RTÉ’s headquarters in Dublin to get material on the air. He even gave a brief demo of some audio and video editing capabilities.  Orla, Rosalyn and Teresa discussed news gathering, and as good journalists always do, asked a lot of questions of the students about their studies, what they thought of Galway, and the like. All in all, it was a brilliant session and a great way to wrap up the semester.

We’re not quite done; we do have one final class session later this week, and the students have to finish writing final essays for most of their classes — including mine. But the field trips to TG4 and RTÉ Galway were a great punctuation point on what has been a good semester in and out of the classroom.

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1 This is a favorite expression of a number of people I have met here, meaning pretty much what it does in the US, i.e. an assortment of items.

2 The other broadcaster is Raidió na Gaeltachta, an Irish language radio station whose office and main broadcast center is not far from TG4 in Connemara, one of the country’s main Irish-speaking regions. But there wasn’t time to visit both on the trip.

Dublin, revisited

Dublin is Ireland’s political, economic, and media center, with nearly half the country’s population in its environs. That makes it a bit like New York (commerce and finance), Washington (politics) and Los Angeles (media/entertainment) rolled into one. As an aside, London — where I have spent some time — is a similar multiplex for the UK.

On my first trip to Dublin with a student excursion back in January, honestly I wasn’t too impressed. The things we did with the students were interesting enough but the city in general seemed just too busy and sort of sterile. It reminded me of London, but with less charm.

But I have spent a couple of more days there recently and had a better time of things, largely because of the people I have met and the places I have been able to see. (This post actually got started in a neat little old-fashioned pub where I stopped to pass the time waiting for my bus back to Galway.)

Monday in Dublin

My two days in Dublin started on a Monday when I traveled there for a tour of Google’s main European office. This came about through a connection I had made on the plane flight over here in January. On that flight, I was seated next to a young American woman who is among the 4,000-strong workforce for Google here in Ireland. During our conversation she offered to have me visit the offices. It took more than two months for our schedules to sync up but I finally was able to travel there for a tour, which was very interesting.

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RTE newsroom, above, and a back-lot set for its popular nighttime soap opera Fair City, below

RTE back lotAfter that, I visited the main offices for RTE, the national broadcaster. My tour guide was the organization’s head of innovation, who showed me some of the back lots and TV and radio studios there. Interestingly, we had met virtually, via social media, through a mutual acquaintance but met in person for the first time when I made this visit.

With my developing interest in Irish media, it was fantastic getting the inside view of RTE’s operation. The one disappointment is that we could not see the nightly news studio because even though it was not the time for a regular broadcast, it was in use for something.

Tuesday in Waterford

My Dublin visit was two days spread over three days, taking place on a Monday and a Wednesday while on the Tuesday in between I went to Waterford for a visit with some friends who work at Waterford Institute of Technology.

One extremely interesting part of the WIT visit was seeing part of the campus that consists of buildings from the early 1900s originally built as a Magdalene laundry. It operated as such until the 1970s, according to my friend and tour guide Walter. The Magdalene institutions are an unsavory, but undeniable, part of Ireland’s past because of how misogynist and exploitative they were. It was easy to sense the ghosts of the women and children affected by what that took place there.

I also had lunch with the editor of the Waterford-based Munster Express, Kieran Walsh, and met some of the reporters from the paper. In the evening I attended an entertaining theater production with my friend Jean, also a WIT professor. The trip from Dublin to Waterford and back was by train, which was a very nice way to travel.

And back to Dublin

When I returned to Dublin on Wednesday it was a for a meeting with a member of the Dail (national legislature) who wanted to get together because he has a connection to Rochester recently brought to his attention by my friend and colleague Tim Madigan. (Not going into that in detail here because it is covered in a blog post of its own.) After that, I met with Joe Humphreys, another friend of Tim’s, who works at the Irish Times. This gave me an opportunity to see the paper’s newsroom and talk about his perspectives on the changing Irish media.

Since the train on Wednesday got me to Dublin well before the meetings, I was able to do some sightseeing of places related to the 1916 Easter Rising, just days before the formal commemoration of it, and also to exhibits at the National Library about the Rising and about Ireland’s role in World War I.

Overall, it was a brilliant trip, full of interesting conversations with people whom I really enjoyed meeting for the first time or getting reacquainted with, plus some sightseeing and discovery of a cool little pub. I thought after my January visit that I was done with Dublin, but perhaps not.

Lunch at Leinster House

If you were to ask Americans to make a list of the most important leaders in US history, many names would appear repeatedly: George Washington. Thomas Jefferson. Abraham Lincoln.

Make a similar list for Ireland, and one name on every list would be Éamon de Valera. He fought in the 1916 Easter Rising, an event being commemorated here next week, and went on to be taoiseach (prime minister) of the first Dail that declared itself as the legitimate government of Ireland in the wake of the Rising. This was even before the British had relinquished control and signed the treaty that established the Irish Free State.

After the Free State came into being, De Valera founded and led the Fianna Fail political party, which has controlled the Irish government for well over half of the nation’s 100 year history. De Valera was the party’s leading figure from the 1920s, when the state was formed, through the 1960s when he retired. He was taoiseach for much of that time, and was Ireland’s president when the Rising’s 50th anniversary was marked in 1966.

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With Éamon Ó Cuív at Leinster House.

I recently had the extreme privilege of meeting de Valera’s grandson Éamon Ó Cuív, a current member of the Dail from Galway. Needless to say, he represents Fianna Fail, the party his grandfather founded.

The meeting came about through a process started when my friend and colleague Tim Madigan was visiting a few weeks ago. We decided we should try and meet Deputy Ó Cuív because of a Rochester connection: de Valera’s mother (Ó Cuív’s great-grandmother) is buried in Rochester’s Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. Tim’s idea was to invite Éamon to visit Rochester some day because of that.

Leinster House
Leinster House, which is the Irish equivalent of the US Capitol.

We were not able to meet Éamon on that visit to his Galway office. But an aide there gave us his email address, and Tim went to work. In the process of several messages between Éamon and Tim about a potential visit to Rochester, Éamon expressed an interest in meeting with me also, given that I am here in Galway.

Éamon gave Tim his mobile phone number so I could call and arrange an appointment. I did, and it turned into an invitation to lunch in the members’ dining room at Leinster House in Dublin, the seat of the Irish government. This would be the equivalent of being invited by a US member of Congress to a private lunch in the members’ dining room at The Capitol.

It was a brilliant time. We mostly talked about history, and his grandfather’s role in so much of Ireland’s early development. It was fascinating getting such a personal perspective on things I have only read about in history texts. Not surprisingly, Éamon respects and reveres his grandfather, especially for his abilities as a master politician who could read and lead public opinion in ways that were crucial to the Irish state’s development. As a math professor as well as a politician, de Valera had a real knack for details, which his grandson said was crucial to governing the fledgling state and matters such as enacting the nation’s constitution in 1937.

I already have a  pile of memories from this trip to Ireland, but meeting Éamon Ó Cuív over lunch at the center of the Irish government will stand out as something really special.

A visit to Northern Ireland

My direct memory of The Troubles, the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland of the 1970s and ’80, is that of a vague recollection of US news coverage at the time, some of it from when I was just a teenager in the early years of the conflict. I have learned more since, of course, through reading about it.

But when we made the last — and in my view the most educational — of our class excursions to Northern Ireland the weekend of March 4 to 6 it was one of the most powerful experiences I have had.

The focus of the trip was primarily Belfast and Derry. Along the way we also made brief stops at the Battle of the Boyne visitor center, the Giant’s Causeway, and the National Museum of Country Life. But the tours we had of Northern Ireland’s two major cities were the clear highlights, and truly eye opening.

In Belfast we took a tour of the areas along Falls Road, Shankill Road and other areas where the conflict had been at its worst. What was so unsual, and powerful, was the tour guides.

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High walls with fine-mesh fences reaching even higher separate Belfast neighborhoods along sectarian lines.

For the first part we toured the Catholic/Republican areas with a former IRA operative named Peadar, who was arrested for some of the actions he had committed and spent 16 years in jail. He avoided too many specifics, but did describe life in The Maze/Long Kesh prison, including his participation in the so-called blanket protest or dirty protest. This was when the IRA prisoners, who considered themselves political prisoners or POWs rather than common criminals, refused to wear prison uniforms and stayed in their cells naked, or wrapped just in blankets.

Some of the prisoners as part of the protest went on hunger strikes; 10 of them ultimately starved themselves to death, notably Bobby Sands, the first to die.

This mural memorializes Bobby Sands, an IRA prisoner who died in a hunger strike

Mostly we stayed on the bus with Peadar narrating as we passed various memorials to Republicans who had died serving the cause. Many of these take the form of large, colorful murals painted on buildings and the concrete walls that still divide the city, including several depicting Sands and the other dead hunger strikers.

After an hour, Peadar left us and we we joined by Noel, who was part of a Loyalist militia and also spent more than a decade in jail. He originally faced multiple life sentences, but they were commuted and he was released as part of the Good Friday accords.

Former Loyalist militia member Noel tells students about a mural (background) depicting an Army officer killed in the conflict.

The tour conducted by Noel was similar to the one with Peadar, mostly on the bus but with walking around a few areas, especially to see murals memorializing Loyalists who were killed in the fight. At one point when we were in a memorial garden, Noel matter-of-factly pointed out a pub right across the road that was the target of an IRA car bomb, and pointed up the street to a market that also had been bombed.

As if those tours and the stories the men had to tell wasn’t enough, the final part of the experience was spending an hour in conversation with Noel and Peadar together, with them elaborating on some of their stories and experiences, and more importantly answering questions about it all. This was also the opportunity and setting for discussion of the changes Belfast has seen since the peace agreement and the process of reconciliation, which is under way but far from complete.

Because of the Good Friday accords, which have been in place for more than 15 years now, Belfast is a better, safer and more peaceful place than it was a generation ago. But it still has looks and feels like a place under siege. High walls, topped by even higher fences (made of a fine mesh to deter climbing) are everywhere, still separating Catholic and Protestant areas. This just added to the power and the realism of what Peadar and Noel had to say.

It occurred to me after the fact that one of the most positive signs for reconciliation is not just the fact that people like Peadar and Noel are committed to it, but also the fact that people LIKE Peadar and Noel are committed to it. In other words, these guys were deeply, deeply committed to their causes back in the day. If they and others like them bring the same zeal and commitment to building the peace as they did to waging the war, that is a truly hopeful sign.

Editor’s note: This post was updated at 8 p.m. Saturday March 19 (about 6 hours after its original posting) to add that final paragraph.

St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland

A few of my Irish-American friends have spent St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, and I think it’s safe to say most (if not all) of the rest would love to do so if given the opportunity. Since I have been privileged enough to have that opportunity this year, a blog post to  offer some observations seems in order.

My St. Patrick’s Day 2016 actually started, oddly enough, in London, where I had traveled for a journalism conference.

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Many revelers’ costumes were pretty outrageous; these are some of the tamer ones.

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday nights in London for the all-day conference on Wednesday, then caught a flight back as early as I could on Thursday (March 17), reaching Dublin about 8 a.m

Galway, like nearly every community in Ireland, had a big parade. I saw little of it because the bus returning me from London/Dublin arrived while the parade already was under way. Part of my way home from the bus station was along the parade route, and the

Trad group
These young women were doing a nice job with some traditional tunes.
On a cool but bright day, the plaza near the Spanish Arch was filled with St. Patrick’s Day partying.

sidewalks were so thronged it was hard to get by. So, although I saw little of the parade I can say it was really popular.

The streets remained packed through the afternoon, and one of the best parts of the day for me was just the people-watching. There were some truly incredible get-ups, and the whole downtown area of the city was pretty much one big street party. If Galway has an open container law, the Garda (police) definitely weren’t trying to enforce it.

Street performers were everywhere. Galway always has a few buskers along its main pedestrian mall, but the quality and quantity were stepped up yesterday.

I had a late-afternoon pint with my friend and neighbor Scott, an American professor in Ireland who runs a program very similar to mine. It was a little cool but bright and sunny so we sat outside at a pub on the main drag to talk and watch the crowd go by.

When Scott and I were done, I returned home to make some dinner. On the RTE nightly news, literally every story was about a St. Patrick’s Day parade, from around Ireland and around the world. The network’s US correspondent, Caitrona Perry, even gave a report from the parade in NYC. About half of the news reporting was in Irish language, which is unusual for this newscast. I think it had something to do with the day, and pride in Irish heritage.

After dinner I ventured out again for a bit, back uptown to check out the scene. I had been warned by a couple of local people that things got extremely rowdy as the night went on; one went so far as to call it “unsafe.” I could see why she said that in the way people were behaving, even at 7:30 p.m. Every pub had a security man in front, and where I was again having an outdoor pint and people-watching I saw several people turned away because they were obviously so intoxicated that they should not be served more. The Garda were out in force, patrolling the streets in pairs and dressed in day-glo yellow vests so they would stand out.

So the next time someone asks about whether the Irish are as hard-partying as Americans on St. Patrick’s Day, or makes the observation that they aren’t, my experiences in Galway provide a lot of evidence to the contrary.

I actually made an early night of it, returning home a little before 10 p.m., partly because I was very tired from the London trip and partly because I was beginning to think what I had been told about the extreme rowdiness was true. I didn’t see any examples of real hooliganism, but it didn’t take much imagination to realize the conditions were right for that to happen.

But overall, it was a great experience, if only for the reason that it may be unique in my lifetime: getting to spend St. Patrick’s Day here in Ireland.

Election update: An even deeper inside look

A lot has happened since my last post,  a month ago almost to the day (Feb. 12 to March 13). The main reason for the long delay was some health issues that made it incredibly difficult to post; rather than go off on a tangent now I will leave that for an editor’s note near the end.

One of the more interesting experiences of the past month was getting an inside look at the Irish election, which took place on Feb. 26. An earlier post described how much I was enjoying seeing the election playing out in a system so different from the US.

National broadcaster RTE was set up for coverage of the Galway West count at NUI Galway.
National broadcaster RTE was set up for coverage of the Galway West count

Because one of the local vote-counting centers was at NUI Galway, I had the privilege of observing some of the election tallying, which is very different from the US system.

Ballots were sorted into cubbyholes for each of the candidates as the transfer votes were allocated.
Ballots were sorted into cubbyholes for each candidate as transfer votes were allocated.

Some background to start: Ireland’s legislature, or Dail, consists of 158 seats spread among 40 regional constituencies, with between three and five representatives from each. Depending on the number of seats available, a dozen or more candidates will run, from a mixture of major parties, minor parties and non-party independents. In Galway West, which includes the city and some surrounding areas, 20 candidates were vying for five seats.

Preferential voting

Where it gets interesting is that voters don’t just cast a ballot for a single candidate, as in the US system. Rather, they rank-order the candidates by preference. The vote tallying then proceeds through several rounds as various candidates are eliminated because they don’t have enough first-preference votes. When a candidate is eliminated, his or her votes are reallocated based on the second or later preferences listed on the ballots that had him/her listed first. An announcement of the new vote totals, which may change the rankings, followed by elimination of another candidate and further reallocation take place for each round.

Independent candidate Noel Grealish, the second of five to be declared a winner, is hoisted aloft by his supporters.
Noel Grealish, the second of five to be declared a winner, is hoisted aloft by his supporters.

In Galway West, this process played out over two days (Saturday Feb. 27 and Sunday Feb. 28) and more than 24 hours of total time to complete 14 rounds of eliminating candidates and redistributing the votes. (I  spent a couple of hours each day.)

Naughton
My colleague Tim Madigan, right, and I got to meet Fine Gael candidate Hildegarde Naughton, who was elected to the fifth and final spot on the 14th round of counting.

As it went on, candidates were there with family, friends and supporters, awaiting their fate. Tally takers for the
candidates and parties watched as each ballot box was opened and kept their own unofficial tallies.

Those near the bottom of the pack on the first count, which ranked everyone by first preferences, probably knew it was just a matter of time before they were eliminated and their votes were redistributed. But they were interested in seeing where their reallocated votes went, which is important political intelligence for their parties and also for themselves if they were to run again.

Jostling for position

Those in the top five, of course, wanted to see if they could stay there and strengthen their positions on each subsequent count as votes were reallocated to them. Those in the middle of the back, say spots 6 to 9, were hoping as each round progressed that they would pick up enough transfers to climb into the top 5.

Local journalists, some of whom I’ve come to know and spent time talking with, offered predictions about who might benefit or lose out on each reallocation. It was sort of like watching sports teams scramble for the last couple of playoff spots as the season winds down. Overall, it was fascinating to watch.

In the end, Galway West had three incumbents who retained their seats as expected and a couple of incumbents from the current governing coalition who lost, which also wasn’t surprising given how their parties fared at the national level. This meant a couple of new faces from the district going to the Dail. Similar processes played out in 39 other districts across Ireland, leading to a new set of legislators who met for the first time earlier this week (on March 10).

The end result nationally was a very fractured array of parties and interests in the Dail, leading to the current political question on everyone’s mind of how — and even whether — a new governing coalition can be assembled. So the election keeps making news, and remains fascinating to observe.

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  Editor’s note on post lag: About a month ago I developed a really bad case of sciatica (nerve-related pain in the leg related to issues in the lower back). The worst implication was that for several weeks I literally could not sit down, even for a few minutes, without severe pain and great difficulty. When I needed to type anything I had do so either standing up  or lying down. I had to really apply triage to computer usage, and the blog didn’t get high priority. The condition has not gone away completely, but has gone from major pain to just minor discomfort and things are mostly back to normal.

Visit to Cork and Cobh

Better late than never, here are a few observations about our excursion last weekend (Feb. 5 – 8) to Limerick, Cork and Cobh.

Cork is Ireland’s “second city,” second largest to Dublin in terms of population and commercial activity. Although even at that, the metro area is only about half the size of Rochester’s metro area (maybe 375,000 in Cork, 200,000 or so in the city and the rest in its surroundings, to about 750,000 in Monroe County).

On Friday enroute to Cork, we stopped briefly in Limerick  to visit a museum with some interesting Irish antiquities, then had lunch and a poetry reading in Cork itself.

On Saturday we visited Cobh, a seaport down down the river from Cork that is best known as the departure port for vast numbers of Irish emigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries (when it was known as Queenstown). We toured an interesting visitors’ center there about the emigrant experience.

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The home of the White Star Line — through which passengers boarded the Titanic — is still standing in Cobh, now a restaurant. The spire of St. Colman’s is visible in the background.

It is said that the spire of St. Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh, which would be visible from a ship a few miles offshore, is the last thing many emigrants ever saw of Ireland. Queenstown/Cobh — the name was changed after the founding of the Free State because the name came from British Queen Victoria — is also famous as the final port of call for the Titanic.

We took long walking tours around both Cobh and Cork led by Ted O’Sullivan, a local professor and history buff. Cork also was the site of some excellent music sessions, which I attended both nights I was there, as this video will illustrate.

On the way back Sunday we stopped at the Cliffs of Moher, which was literally a washout. It was so cold, wet, windy and foggy that we could not even see the cliffs from the most prominent observation area near the visitors’ center.

Photo gallery with a few images from the trip is in the rail to the right

Irish election coverage seen from the inside

The election is big news here in Ireland.

No, not that election.1 The Irish election, in which a new leader could be selected later this month. As a longtime student of politics and media, it’s been fascinating to watch another country’s electoral process from the inside perspective.

Different process

For starters, it’s a parliamentary system here, which is still representative democracy but organized very differently from our U.S. model. Ireland does have a president and a bicameral legislature, but the similarities to the US system end there. The powers of the president and the upper house (called the Seanad) are extremely limited, to the point of being almost ceremonial.2

All of the power rests in the lower house, or Dail,3 and the leader of the country is the leader of the top party in that chamber. It’s sort of like if the U.S. speaker of the house was head of government instead of the president. The current leader, or taoiseach (TEE-shock), is Enda Kenny, leader of the Fine Gael party. (The post is called prime minister in Canada, the UK and most other places with parliamentary governments, but the Irish use an Irish language term for it.)

In Ireland, the two main parties are Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, which can actually trace their historical roots to the two sides of the civil war that was fought here in the 1920s. But there are other parties, notably Labour and Sinn Fein.

One of the features of a parliamentary system is that it’s pretty rare for one party, even one of the two majors, to control enough seats in the Dail to rule it outright; parties must partner in a coalition to actually form a government by controlling a majority of the seats. Right now the partnership is Fine Gael with Labour, and the leader of Labour is the deputy prime minister (in Irish, the tanaiste, pronounced TAN-ish-ta).

Different reporting

The nature of a parliamentary system makes election-watching and the political analysis that happens in the media very different and interesting from what we typically see in the U.S. For instance:

  • The election date was decided just a few days ago, and the election will take place Feb. 26. Yep, the campaign lasts just three weeks. The fact that the election would take place on Feb. 26 was the worst-kept secret in Ireland for about two weeks before that; from the time it became known an election would take place everyone assumed voting would be Feb. 26. But under law, until the date was formally announced by Taoiseach Kenny, no election activity could begin.
  • All of the electioneering is for spots in the Dail, which has 158 members representing regional constituencies (again, like the U.S. House of Representatives). The party leaders such as Taoiseach Kenny and Tanaiste Joan Burton (head of Labour) campaign at a national level but have to worry about their home constituency, too. If they aren’t re-elected, they obviously can’t remain as national leaders.
  • election_signs
    Election signs dot the land; I passed these three on my way to work.

    But because Ireland is a small country, each of these districts has only about 25,000 people, compared to maybe 750,000 in a typical U.S. congressional district. That means the elections are conducted more like those for town board or city council, with a lot of leafleting, door-to-door visits and posters. Election posters are everywhere in this country right now.

  • In another major difference from the US — which offers a one-district, one representative model — the various geographic constituencies have multiple representatives. With 40 such districts and a 158-member body, people don’t vote for a single representative. Instead, they make a ranked preference of all the candidates, and there may be 20 of them running on assorted parties for 3 or 4 seats in a given area. Some sort of weighted system is used to turn these ranking ballots into the winners for a given district.

Although the nightly news and all of the newspapers, from the nationals to the regional weeklies, are chock full of election stories, the lack of a single candidate for whom everyone can vote, keeps the whole “horse race” aspect of election coverage down a bit. To the degree that such stories are published, they tend to be more about which parties are likely to win or lose seats and what their final seat tallies may look like, which will affect how things coalesce to form a government after the election.

It’s the economy … again

The economy is the big issue here, because Ireland suffered severe economic problems  about five years ago. (The U.S. economy did, too, with the Great Recession of 2009-10, but Ireland fared far worse because of even worse banking failures than the U.S. had; Ireland’s economic recovery also has been slower.)

Fianna Fail was in power at the time of the crash, and was punished by being tossed from power in a 2011 election. Most of the commentary says that voters aren’t ready to put them back in power now, but Fine Gael and Labour aren’t too popular, either. Sinn Fein may pick up a number of seats, but its historical association with the Irish Republican Army makes it controversial. Some of the analysis I’ve read suggests a number of minor parties and independent candidates may end up with a lot of the seats in the Dail, which would make the prospects of forming a governing coalition really challenging.

Overall, it’s fascinating, and a privilege, to be able to watch this up close  — and to watch the US election from afar. But that’s a topic for another post another day.

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1 Although, the US election has received a good amount of coverage in Irish media. RTE has a Washington correspondent, Caitriona Perry, whose reports I have seen from the U.S. primaries. And it’s in the papers, also. Irish people I speak with don’t know what to make of Donald Trump and why he has such strong support. As I told an acquaintance over tea recently, neither do we.

2 The Seanad is not even directly elected by the people, and that election will take place later.

3 Note: Dail is not pronounced “Dale.” I have heard it pronounced as both “Dahl” and “Doyle,” the difference probably depending largely on the TV presenter’s regional accent.