Thursday, May 20, 2010

Lords, Ladies and Cliffs – Day Twelve in Ireland

The Cliffs of Moher were carved by ice age glaciers over millions of years. These monstrous rock faces rise out of the Atlantic Ocean like colossal guards. Next year the iconic area could be chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature in an international poll.

I can definitely stand here (or in this case - write) before you and state that it is truly one of the greatest wonders ever birthed by Mother Earth. It deserves to win a spot as one of the seven wonders without a doubt. I have seen the Rocky Mountains and Niagara Falls - and although both are impressive and wild - this trumps them both.

The Cliffs of Moher possess a prehistoric quality. The cliffs are lined with seabirds that swoop in and out of the ocean breeze like tiny Pterodactyls. I found myself picturing massive sea beasts plowing through the waves along the base of the cliffs. It’s a pity that Nessie didn’t take up residence here instead of Scotland.

We walked past a sign that bluntly stated: Please do not go beyond this point. It was written in several languages and was covered in graffiti and stickers. It was evident that nearly all visitors ignored this message in order to experience the cliff’s view up close and personal.

A group of us sat on the edge of the cliff to attempt to grasp the power, and occasional vertigo, of the view. We often took the advice of our tour guide Joe by crawling to the cliff’s edge on our stomach’s to avoid chancing a spell of poor balance.

The second event of the day tried to induce wobbly knees and stumbling legs through a different method - mead and wine. We attended a medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle. The stout structure was built in 1425 in Bunratty village not far from Limerick.

The banquet began with drinks in an upper chamber of the castle. We listened to a harpist and violinist play arrangements from Handle and Schiller. The staff was dressed in period costumes and addressed patrons as lords and ladies.

The meal was served as four dishes. First, we were served a piping-hot, thick soup with brown bread. Next, we were brought spare ribs before the main course of chicken and vegetables. Finally, desert was presented, which consisted of a flan-like substance garnished in berries and mint.

The staff performed several songs including classics such as “The Wild Rover” and other Irish traditional pieces. These were great, however, this paled in comparison to Joe’s performance on the bus ride home. Joe’s rendition of the aforementioned song as well as “Molly Malone” had the entire bus chanting his name. It was a heartfelt send off from our personal leprechaun.

Thanks for the memories, Ireland. See you soon!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

An American Cowboy in Killarney – Day Eleven in Ireland

The Irish Cob is a massive horse that holds its own against the Clydesdale, a Scottish breed that is the largest of all horses, in plowing competitions and working on the farm. Their nimble-footed nature allows them to make tighter turns than their bigger brethren while still providing the power needed to complete just about any tough farming job.

Today I didn’t just see one of these mammoths – I rode one. We decided to go horseback riding in Muckross, a small area in the forests near Killarney. We arrived via taxi and noticed that we weren’t at a commercial ranch. We were at someone’s country home, complete with sheep in the yard.

A relative of the rancher came out to tell us that he’d be running late. She said she tried to ring his mobile phone, but he doesn’t hear so well. When he finally pulled up in a red Renault car – he asked us to wait a minute while he had some tea. We said it wasn’t a problem. I didn’t mind sitting back for a bit and taking a break from the go-go-go pace of city living.

We were led to the stables and mounted the hulking beasts. I was given a Godzilla-sized horse named Bill. He was the largest of the herd, and had a slick black and white coat. I took a few minutes to pat him on the neck and assure him that I wasn’t going to bring him any harm. It’s important to try to bond with a horse even if only briefly.

The ride was the perfect length and took about an hour. We caught up-close glimpses of the countryside including the mountains of the Ring of Kerry area. The forest was interesting because it transitioned between parts that looked like the woods of Pennsylvania and the plains of Colorado. A mix of moss, pines and a jagged yellow bush created the backdrop for the ride.

Meanwhile back at the ranch (sorry - I just had to use this), other students were preparing for a meeting with Declan Malone, group editor of The Kerryman. The meeting was in the snooker room (pool room) of the International Hotel in Killarney. His newspaper is the top regional paper of County Kerry. It carries a Pittsburgh-related trait in that sports are a huge part of the paper.

The Kerryman is a publication of the Independent Media Company – the same corporation that owns The Irish Independent, The Belfast Telegraph and many other news media ventures.

Malone was the model of a salty, old-school journalist. He was rough around the edges, which he showed by dropping a variety of swearwords into the conversation, however, he was very knowledgeable about the field and spoke with honesty. He said his newspaper has been affected by the recession, but continues solider on due to strong provincial backing from Kerry sports fans and local families.

The Kerryman has not made much of a transition to the Web either. There is a digital edition, but consumers have to pay for it. This is not unlike the other newspapers of Ireland.

“Newspapers [in Ireland] are underdeveloped on the Web because no one has figured out how to make money from it,” said Malone.

He also spoke about the strict libel laws of Ireland. He gave an example of a case that involved a mother putting a memoriam poem in the newspaper about her dead son. The young man had died to diabetes while his girlfriend was in the apartment. The poem alluded to the fact that she didn’t help him while he died from hypoglycemia. The upset girlfriend sued the newspaper and they had to settle with her for 100,000 euro.

The lawsuit happy public isn’t the only problems that Malone cited either. Politicians are a major thorn in his side because they try to take credit and attach their name to any positive event in the community, even if they had nothing to do with it.

“You meet some really unforgiving b_______ in it,” said Malone, in regard to working in the newspaper industry.

Despite these problems, Malone did end the session on a positive note. He said that journalism keeps the mind active and that its practitioners, in accordance with Neil Young's "My, My, Hey Hey", are more likely to burn out than fade away.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

It’s Raining Sheep – Day Ten in Ireland

Sheepherding is akin to calling out intricate military tactics to a platoon of unwilling troops without the aid of technology. Lucky for shepherds - this is where man's best friend steps in.

Border Collies are trained to listen for precise sounds, which prompt the dogs to steer the frightened sheep back and forth at the shepherd’s will. The catch is that all of this is accomplished by using a simple whistle.

Today we attended a sheep dog demonstration in the Ring of Kerry - a mountainous coastal region in southwestern Ireland. The dogs were unbelievably well-behaved. They followed the shepherd’s directions like new Army recruits following the commands of a drill sergeant.

The quick-footed pooches were able to sprint up and down the jagged terrain with unparalleled speed. The sheep could do little to escape the dogs as the stalked behind the woolly creatures as the bleated.

The drive through the Ring of Kerry was intense. Tyg, our bus driver, impressed us his skillful driving by navigating us through the narrow valleys and ravens unscathed. Unfortunately for us the weather finally broke. It rained all day, but our journalistic inclinations remained strong during several trips off the bus and into the elements to take photographs of the stunning landscapes around us.

We arrived for dinner at an Irish restaurant called The Danny Mann, which is known for the traditional live music played there. The band playing tonight was a two-piece group called The Irish Weavers. One of the Cork-based musicians played the acoustic guitar while the other played an electronic accordion and ran the soundboard. Both accomplished these tasks will singing and prompting the audience to participate in the revelry.

The men covered Irish songs such as “The Wild Rover,” “Finnegan’s Wake,” and the ever popular “Molly Malone.” The crowd cheered and clapped along through the entire playlist. The band ended the lengthy set with the Irish national anthem.

Afterward we rolled ourselves home with stuffed bellies and tired hands – two signs of another great evening in Ireland.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Smooching Rocks and Rocking Stones - Day Nine in Ireland

Irish radio doesn’t further the unrealistic and unfair stereotype of their people as drunks. In fact, on-air presenters cannot endorse drinking in a glamorous way.

Many DJs aren’t even permitted to tell jokes about a boozy night out. The reason for this is that radio stations are given licenses that assign a specific demographic.

Today we visited Red FM in Cork, which serves fresh hits to the youth of Ireland’s southern port cities. The station’s target audience is from fifteen to thirty-four.

Colm O’Sullivan, the program director for Red, met with us and explained that broadcast regulations regarding the mention of alcohol is quite strict. He said that talking about drinking while on the air is worse than swearing.

This is far different from the U.S. market. I used to listen to a syndicated show called “Rover’s Morning Glory” while I was living outside of Cleveland. I can remember the hosts talking about drinking on a nearly daily basis and even subjecting interns to random fraternity-like drinking games. This would have lost the station its license in the Republic.

O’Sullivan explained that this makes promotions difficult since the location must be considered a venue (e.g. music, theater, etc) first and a place to drink second. He said that advertisers like Heineken having gotten smarter and are hosting their own concert series that allow stations to hold promos from clubs that would have otherwise been forbidden.

Discussing of drinking isn’t the only aspect under heavy regulation either. Stations are required to carry certain about of Irish language programming each hour. This task falls to Ellish Barry, a presenter who studied in Irish during her childhood.

Barry said that many youth have a negative attitude toward Irish because it was forced on them in school. She is trying to change this embittered stance and informed us that learning Irish at a young age has its benefits. Barry said that statistics show that children having an easier time learning to French and Spanish if they are taught to speak Irish in school.

We were given a chance to enhance our speaking abilities by traveling from Cork to Blarney Castle in order kiss the coldest set of lips in Ireland – the Blarney Stone. The stone is said to give the gift of eloquence to those who kiss it.

The gift of gab doesn’t come easily though – you have to literally bend over backwards to kiss the stone. Once you climb the tiny winding stairwell (a feat for a giant like me), you are instructed to lie on your back while a man (who must have one of the most repetitive jobs in the world) holds your sides. You then reach out a grab two steel poles and lower your torso down to plant a smooch at the bottom of the stone.

The magic of Blarney must have worked because we were rounded up for a group discussion of the week’s events in our hotel lobby. No one had any trouble speaking their mind today!

Side note: We (Aaron, David, Jeremy, and I) are listening to a compilation of contemporary Irish indie rock music (given to me by Colm O’Sullivan of Red FM) while we blog. I’ll try to make a mention some of our favorites in tomorrow’s post.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Yanks Cruise Down South to Glendalough and Cobh – Day Eight in Ireland

An American Confederate flag is displayed for passersby to see inside a pub in the seaport town of Cobh. Interestingly, Cobh is not found south of the Mason-Dixon Line - instead it's located in County Cork, Ireland.

The area does share a history of rebellion and civil unrest similar to that of the American South. Cork is also nicknamed "The Rebel County," which could probably be found tattooed on at least a few Lynyrd Skynyrd fans. The name stemmed from Cork's support of Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the English throne in 1491.

Cobh is also known for being the final launching point of the RMS Titanic as well as the current home of the Irish Navy. We took a guided walking tour of the harbor and learned about the town’s history as a shipping port.

The most intriguing part of the stroll was learning about how a crew member of the Titanic helped to save children with an ingenious idea. Fleeing passengers had to jump over a gap to enter the lifeboats that hung over the sides of the sinking ship. The problem was that squirming children had to be passed over the railing, which meant that they risked plummeting into the icy sea.

The crafty sailor made his way back into the bottom of the ship to find mail sacks and other cloth bags. Infants and children were placed into the sacks to make it easier to transport them safely into the boats. They also provided another layer of protection against the cold.

One of these children was Millvina Dean - the youngest Titanic survivor. Dean was only nine weeks-old when the world’s largest passenger steamship slammed into an iceberg, killing over 1,500 people.

After checking out the Titanic memorial, we walked up a steep hill toward Cobh Cathedral, which dominates the skyline. The neo-Gothic steeple juts up toward the heavens in an imposing manner that demands attention from secular and ethereal beings alike.

Earlier in the day we visited another impressive religious site – St. Kevin’s monastery in Glendalough. This monastic settlement was established in the sixth century and contains a mix of buildings including the Cathedral and the imposing Round Tower, which was used as a bell tower and a fortress for protection during raids.

It’s mind-blowing to see buildings that were around 1,000 years ago – there’s simply nothing like this in the U.S. This is ancient until you compare it to the duration of time that people have been walking around this little green and blue sphere. Modern humans originated nearly 200,000 years ago. This makes these ruins only one two-hundredth as old as the first humans.

Suddenly we aren’t so disconnected from the past. We’re right around the corner from the days of St. Kevin when the dates are laid out against the time frame of human history.

Breaking News: American heavy metal singer Ronnie James Dio died today at the age of 67 after a bout with cancer. He was the singer for Black Sabbath after Ozzy’s departure. He also sang for the band Rainbow and under his own surname with the band Dio. Please throw up a metal hand in his honor. He’s in a better place now – a land of dragons, shredding guitars and wind-blown hair. Check out this BBC article for more details:

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Meeting a Real Life Pirate and Dublin from the Bay - Day Seven in Ireland

Alice Cooper would be proud because school's out from summer! That is if by summer, I meant today only. Saturday was a free day in which no lectures or tours were planned. Despite the temptations of Dublin, I decided to put on my journalist hat and do some work.

I used today's free time to interview Steve Conway, an author and local DJ, about a book he had recently published titled "Shiprocked: Life on the Waves with Radio Caroline." In the 1980s, Conway had been a DJ and news presenter for Radio Caroline - a station on the last English pirate radio ship - the Ross Revenge.

I met Conway in the lobby/bar of the Clarion hotel located in the Docklands area (near Dublin's harbor). Nicole DeSantis, a talented undergraduate photography major, accompanied me and snapped some outstanding pictures. I talked with Steve for well-over an hour before heading down North Wall Quay (street near the river) for a tour of the Phantom 102.5 studio.

But, before I continue - let me clarify something.

Dear blog readers, you're going to be disappointed. I'm not going to be writing about the interview today because I'm saving the juicy details for use in an article that I hope to submit for publication within the next week (Prof. Fallon - hint, hint - any interest in copy editing?). I'll keep you folks in cyber-land posted.

After we left the studio, Steve was kind enough to drive us down to the bay to check out Dublin from the water. I had wanted to tour the Guinness Storehouse today, but we weren't going to have time. That was fine by me because this experience was so much more organic, so much more real.

How many tourists get to interview an author, see his radio station's studio and get a ride to the beach from him? That's a rhetorical question, Farley.

Let's move on from that terrible movie reference (Mr. Woodcock starring Billy Bob Thorton - really Andy's brain?).

The coastline around the city was wonderful. The rocks were covered in a thick blackish-green seaweed, but the water was clear and had a green hue to it. The harbor was busy with ships including a massive cruise liner that was anchored in the middle of the port. A statue of the Virgin Mary (quite popular around here) stood at the end of a man-made peninsula of rocks, concrete and grass. It wasn't the prettiest of beaches, but it was ours - and it was glorious.

Tonight we'll go howling into the streets on last time - Werewolves of Dublin! Sorry London, it's all about the ROI for the night.

Note: Photograph by the wonderful Nicole DeSantis. Many thanks for tagging along with me on this story.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Belfast: A Mash-Up of Irish and UK Culture - Day Six in Ireland

Take one part United Kingdom and one part Ireland - mix them together for a couple hundred years and sprinkle in some poverty, political tension and religious differences: That's Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Belfast was surreal - it's the only way I can describe it. We took a high-speed train to Belfast, which, like Ireland's broadband service, was rather slow. They may need to take a few lessons from the Japanese of how to rocket crowded cars of people through space and time at frighteningly dangerous speeds.

We hoped on a tour bus at the train station. The guide was a local named Michael who was unfathomably knowledgeable about the city and a peculiar obsession with using the colloquial word "OK" at least twice in every sentence. We were able to see the Titanic shipyard, Belfast Castle and St. Patrick's Church (not to be mistaken with Dublin's St. Patrick's Cathedral).

These sites were swell, however, the real mind-blowing attractions were off the beaten path. Michael took us into lower-class Catholic and Protestant neighbors that had militant murals covering the walls. These paintings stem from the Troubles - a period in Northern Irish history when many nationalists (pro-Ireland) went to blows with the unionists (pro-UK).

The two most well-known groups (and well-feared) were the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the UVF (Ulster Volunteers Force - also affiliated with the Ulster Freedom Fighters). UVF murals with masked men brandishing machine guns were everywhere.

One particular mural that we saw was later brought up in conversation with Gerry Patterson, the Director of Digital Publishing, at the Belfast Telegraph (Northern Ireland’s biggest newspaper). He recalled a painting that said "Ready for peace/Prepared for War" in giant bold letters. He said we were not the only ones to feel an eerie chill - it happens to him each time he drives by it.

Patterson explained his country has come a long way from the violence in the 1970s through the 1990s. A country that had 80 percent unemployment rates in some Catholic neighborhoods in the 1980s now has 100 percent broadband coverage for the entire country (Ireland is not to that level) - talk about a change.

His paper has taken this rise in technology and mounted an effort to build a stronger Web presence even though the physical papers are still selling.

Patterson said that the costs and revenue of the Web site break even - which is enough to appease the editors in power. He also explained that the Telegraph is still keenly focused on print.

"Protecting the print pounds [sterling] from becoming online pennies," said Patterson, in reference the view of the old guard.

Patterson encouraged the group to embrace technology and reminded us that journalism in any form is a labor of love.