Friday, 31 October 2014

The Anglo-Irish Experience

The Burren limestone pavement in Co. Clare

Our family holiday over the summer took us to the Emerald Isle.  Thanks to joint international careers in the airline industry we are very well travelled and I am a strong proponent of the idea that travel broadens the mind, having undertaken a US exchange year whilst at University.  With access to an unrivalled international flight network we do try to explore during our vacations, often visiting less obvious locations.  So no sea, sand and bucket and spade for us this summer, the notoriously cloudy and wet western extreme geography of the British Isles was chosen by our eldest son Joel, who was keen to experience first hand the land of our ancestors.  He was excited when I mentioned our royal connections and that he is a sixteenth Irish, as my great grandfather came from Ennis, Co. Clare in the west of Ireland.

Marketing inversion ?

Given our access to air travel and ancestral connection it was really quite surprising that this was our first trip to Ireland (I don't count a half day visit to a graduate careers fair I did way back when).  O'Brien is a very Irish name, meaning of the Raven clan, and 2014 saw a significant 1,000 year celebration of Brian Boru's armies success in ousting the Vikings and unifying Irish power into a single kingdom.  I am still not quite sure how and when 'of Brian' became O'Brien, the most common spelling and there remain a number of similar spelling variants e.g. Irish comedian Dara O'Briain, and also O'Brine, O'Brion, O'Bryan, McBrien, McBrine, Briand, Briant, Brin, Brinnes and Brien.  Near 100% literacy is a relatively recent phenomenon and we need to remember that for most of our recorded history only a minority of the powerful/religious have been able to read and write.  

Arrrgh !  Viking amphibious duck tour

In Dublin our visit to the wax works and on the amphibious Viking Splash ! tour afforded the family a number of opportunities to learn more (something ?) about Irish history, including the 1922 hard fought for independence, driven by resentment towards English landlords whose evictions during the three 1840's potato famines would surely be described as a major genocide this century.  Nearly a million died and two million were displaced, Ireland's population has never recovered.  We weren't taught this in school, in fact, in retrospect I suspect there was quite a lot of anti-Irish discrimination, with migrant workers (who helped fuel the Ryanair low cost airline business that heralded cheaper short haul flying) in UK often forced into taking low paid manual work in industries such as building.  Indeed, musician and Band Aid humanitarian Sir Bob Geldof famously worked on one of the first sections of London's orbital M25 in the 1970's.  

An American ex-colleague from Chicago (where the city's river is dyed green during the major St Patricks day celebrations) asked me a few years back why Paddy's day was so low key in London.  I asked if she had heard of the IRA, whilst delicately suggesting the troubles in Northern Ireland had rather inhibited open arms celebration of Irish culture in UK.  I still remember talking to people who had heard the bomb that sought to kill then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during the Tory party conference at the Grand Hotel on Brighton's seafront. A period of relative peace, the Celtic Tiger economic boom (and bust), the craic permeated by Irish pub chain culture, political correctness and further European Union integration have seen many of the negative stereo types banished, replaced by a very positive coolness.

Although geographically close and separated politically less than 100 years, I found during our short visit a number of interesting cultural differences, with some of the more memorable and striking listed below:

Familiar - but not red ?

  • Notably, post boxes with GR (George Rex ?) are painted green rather than UK's red, a source of mirth for my in-laws when they visited. Odd that they remain but the Eire Post Office use progressive sticky backed blank stamps that are printed to order.  An example of nimble and lean approaches that a smaller (or just plain broke ?) nation state can implement.  Physical stamps days are very numbered, I feel.  

  • Much more comprehensive dual language place names - stronger even than Wales, which has put great efforts into regenerating the Welsh language and culture in recent years as it has benefitted from devolved powers and funding from UK. 

  • Road signs were strangely familiar (motorway signs were blue). Cars drive on the left, but following a democratic consultation, distances are in kilometres and my rental Nissan Qashqai 's (built in Englands North East, Sunderland) speedo showed Km/h.  New signs in UK still don't use metric - surely a pragmatic incremental approach to European standardisation ?

  • Material investment in tourism attractions, particularly in the more remote west coast.  I'd hoped to experience natural beauty in an un-developed and low intensity manner.  I was found to be expressing my disappointment in the over commercialisation at the better known locations, that seemed to be far too busy.  Tourism is a significant part of the economy (4%, still low compared with UK 10%), alongside agriculture. Low corporation tax incentivised tech companies like Dell, Yahoo and Facebook bring needed jobs to the Dublin area.  The green screen (Free !) ePostcard facility at the Cliffs of Moher (see image below) did excite me.  Good to see that our EU contributions are being used innovatively.  Clever social media too, with a 10 second video of us waving !  

    Self Service Green Screen technology puts us on the Cliffs of Moher, and makes the sun shine too !

  • One cabbie referred to "Angela's roads", referring to German Euro funded EU infrastructure development that sees widespread and immaculate road surfaces and an excellent Dublin centric radial motorway system, although tolls nearly caught us out requiring Euro coinage we had to scrabble around to find.  Two hard winters and a period of austerity sees roads I use in the south east in a very poor state of repair.

In honour of the US Presidents ancestors:  A petrol station !

  • Barrack Obama plaza, a large scale motorways service station halfway across the country boasting a food court and its own local radio advertising campaign.  I am not sure that having a motorway service station, with impressive food court, is necessarily impressive - however pragmatically practical the investment might have been.  I've certainly never seen this before.  With ex Presidents Clinton and Kennedy and now O'Bama (?) the Irish can claim an impressive range of powerful ancestral connections.  Muhammad Ali, boxing legend who danced like a butterfly, but stung like a bee, visited Co. Clare's Ennis like us, the town where his great grandfather Abe Grady hailed from.  

  • We enjoyed unpicking the rules of Gaelic Hurling, a cross between hockey, rugby and physical intimidation as two local teams competed in a tense semi final.  The scoring took some explaining as a stick smash of the ball into the football goal counted for three points, whilst a rugby style shot through the posts was just a point.  The supporters passion and intensity was familiar, if the teams and sport weren't.  

O'Brien drinking Guinness

  • At the Guinness Storehouse tourist attraction ( suggests Dublin's No. 1) you circle around a symbolic beer glass (the largest in the world our host informed us) passing numerous cafe/pub consumption opportunities before concluding the visit in the extensive merchandising store, having sampled a pint of J. Arthur's best with an impressive view from the top.  Family entrance defaulted to include four child vouchers, suitable only for soft drinks, of course, but highlighting the (unsustainable) conservative Catholic position on contraception and the very young population.  I've begun to question the appropriateness of the 2+2 family discount tickets we often benefit from in the cinema.  

The dead end

  • Local Co. Clare radio had a section on bereavements, publicising times when mourners could visit the family in state and pay their respects.  Some of the more earthy language used in public would not pass muster on the BBC, and we aren't talking clever use of Irish language disguise as the Pogues do. Again on the radio, an animal welfare official who wasn't going to share the details of mistreatment to a dog, lest he upset listeners, but then did, at some length.  

Loved Ireland.  A great experience.  Dublin is a craic-ing Regency town.  Keen to re-visit, gateway Belfast with Game of Thrones location tour and Giants Causeway very much on the to do agenda.