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.

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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.


  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.