Not To Be Trusted With Knives

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The saga of my Irish marble ring

When I was in Ireland, I bought myself a Connemara marble ring, which I love and wear most days. One day back in August1, I looked down at my ring and noticed that a chunk of the marble was missing:

My marble ring, with a missing chunk

I knew I’d bought it at the Connemara Marble store that we’d stopped at on our bus tour, so I Googled “Connemara Marble” and sent an email to the email address I’d found on connemaramarble.com. And then I received a terse email saying that it wasn’t one of their rings and I should contact the store where I bought the ring. Which confused me, because I was *sure* I’d bought the ring at a store called “Connemara Marble” and so I was trying to email the store where I’d bought it! Turns out that connemaramarble.com is actually a website for a company that’s not called Connemara Marble at all (but they sell some stuff made with Connemara marble).

After some detective work, including searching through the photos we’d all taken, my Mom was able to find the place I bought it, which is called the “Connemara Marble Visitor Centre” and has the URL http://connemaramarble.ie/. So I emailed those guys and they were super friendly and said “Mail it to us and we’ll fix it for free and send it right back to you!”  And they did:

My Irish marble ringThanks Connemara Marble Visitor Centre!

  1. Holy cow, I can’t believe that was all the way back in August! []

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Things I Learned in Ireland

This is a *really* long posting about stuff I learned on my vacation. Like, really freaking long. You should probably take a vacation day or seven to read it.

Given that my holiday was meant to be a break from work and school, it was somewhat surprising that I chose a holiday that included an 11-day tour of Ireland, during which I had to get up early every morning1 and we spent all day learning things. Our tour guide, Martin, often gave us fascinating lessons on Irish history as we drove through the country2, but we also visited a number of places like factories where they taught you all about how they make their wares.

First of all, before this trip the political set up of Ireland was always a bit fuzzy to me. I knew it was an island where the north was part of the United Kingdom but the rest was its own country, but it wasn’t exactly clear. So here’s the 411 on that:

  • About 5/6th of the island is a sovereign state, known as the Republic of Ireland, while about 1/6th of the island is Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK.
  • Ireland is made up of 32 counties – 26 in the Republic of Ireland and 6 in Northern Ireland. People often refer to towns and cities by also saying the country they are in (Like, “I was in Killarney, County Kerry.”)

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counties_of_Ireland

  • You also hear about the 4 provinces of Ireland:  Leinster, Ulster, Munster and Connacht – but these are not actual political entities, but rather are based on historical kingdoms.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ireland_location_provinces.svg

Another thing I learned about Ireland is that the population is about 6 million people, but about 70 million people worldwide have Irish ancestry. As we learned when we got to Ireland, they have a big tourism push for 2013 called “The Gathering“, which is meant to encourage those 70 million people to go to Ireland to find their roots… as well as for anyone else who loves anything Irish to go to Ireland to check out the country… and for those in Ireland to join in on the celebrations of all things Irish too! I think it’s kind of cool that my mom, my aunts, and I decided to go there to explore our roots this year without even knowing that was a thing!

Now that we have the basics out of the way, let’s look at all the things I learned as I traveled around this beautiful country!

I learned how to weave, at Foxford Woollen Mills in County Mayo:

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and Avoca Woollen Mills in County Wicklow3:

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I learned how to thatch a roof at Parkes’ Castle:

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I learned how marble is processed at Connemara Marble in County Galway:

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You can see the seashells embedded in the black marble.

Also, I bought this beautiful ring at Connemara Marble:

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At Rathbaun Farm in Ardrahan, County Galway, I learned how to shear a sheep:

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And how to feed a lamb:

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And I also learned how to make the most delicious scones, though me and both my aunts appear not to have taken any photos of said scones4

I learned how to make crystal at the Waterford Crystal Factory:

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And, of course, how to make – and drink – Irish whiskey at the Old Jameson Distillery:

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I learned about hurling – the national sport of Ireland, which seems like a combo of rugby, lacrosse, and Quidditch – from Conner (son of Tina the harpist!):

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I also learned about peat bog:

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Peat is used as a fuel source – and I have to say that we went to a few places that had peat fires and they smell amazing! The problem with peat though, is that it takes a looong time to form – digging down one foot into the peat represents 1,000 years of formation. So once you harvest it, it takes a long time to come back (certainly not for many generations to come!)). Peat bogs are also an ecosystem, so harvesting the peat can result in destroying habitats for various plants and animals. Because of this, there’s an EU ban on harvesting peat bog, but it’s being resisted by people who see harvesting peat as part of their traditional way of life and whose families have been harvesting peat for generations.

Here’s some peat we saw drying out in a field:

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Also, of note, apparently they occasionally find preserved bodies in the bogs, though sadly we didn’t see any of them:

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The one thing I didn’t know when we were learning about peat – and specifically about the ban on harvesting peat – but I learned later at the Old Jameson Distillery is that scotch gets its peaty flavour from the fact that the malted barley is dried by a peat fire. So, if they stop harvesting peat bog… is that the end of scotch making?

Another thing I learned in Ireland is that every year in September, there is a matchmaker festival in Lisdoonvarna, Country Clare:

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You know, in case you are looking for a nice Irish husband5. Mind you, my Aunt Eileen didn’t need a matchmaker, as Billy the jaunting car driver6 in Killarney proposed to her within about a minute of us getting into our jaunting car in Killarney:

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I learned about all kinds of roses at a rose garden that we went to, the name of which I don’t think I ever found out! I think these ones might have been my favourite:

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Or this one – it’s called the Tequila Sunrise rose:

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At the rose garden, I also learned what was inside this thing7:

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Another thing I learned about was the Celtic Tiger. I knew that Ireland was in recession – and had been for quite some time – but, like much about Irish history, I didn’t know much about it. In Ireland these days, they often talk about the “Celtic Tiger” or “Tiger times”, which refers to the late 1990s during which Ireland’s economy was growing rapidly. Fuelled by foreign investment and cheap money, the whole country went crazy with building stuff, but after things like a banking scandal and the real estate bubble bursting8, the country went into a deep and lasting recession. Throughout Ireland we saw lots of homes and commercial buildings that had been built in Tiger times but then were never used, because the recession hit9 and no one could afford them. Here’s one example – a shopping mall that was built and has never been used:

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I learned about the Potato Famine – which, in the 1840s, killed a million people and resulted in another million people being forced to emigrate lest they also die of starvation. Remember how I said that the population of Ireland is about 6 million? In the 1840s, it was 8 million – it dropped significantly due to the famine and then kept dropping as people continued to emigrate, dipping to about 4 million around the turn of the century, and then starting to rise to where it is today.

There were a few places where we learned about the effects of the Great Famine. One was the Dunbrody Famine Ship (in New Ross, County Wexford), a replica of a ship that was used to take Irish emigrants to the US and Canada.

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Those who were well off could afford a “first class” ticket, but most traveled in steerage:

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Steerage meant that you and your entire family (and possibly another family, if your family was small), plus all of your luggage, would be crammed into a bunk like this one:

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And you would have to stay there for 23.5 hours per day, as you only got 1/2 hour per day up on the ship’s deck, to empty the bucket that was your family’s toilet and to cook your meagre food on the fire. And this trip lasted for months. Well, it lasted for months if you were lucky and actually survived, as the survival rate was only 50%. Could you imagine spending probably every penny you have10 to leave the only place you’ve ever known because you are on the brink of starving to death, with barely any belongings because you can only take what fits on your bed with you and your whole family, where you sit for months and months, and you only have a 50% chance of surviving?

In Dublin we saw the Irish Famine Memorial, which was a stark portrayal of those forced to emigrate due to starvation:

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And in County Mayo we walked along the road where many died in the Doolough Valley:

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Another place where I I learned a great deal about Irish history was at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. This is going to sound odd, but Glasnevin Cemetery was one of my favourite places I visited in Ireland and I wished I could have spent more time there!

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Under the penal laws, Catholics were not allowed to practice their religion, which meant that they could not have Catholic cemeteries and so, at that time they would bury their dead in Protestant cemeteries with limited funerals, as the performance of Catholic ceremonies, including funerals, in public was against the law. Daniel O’Connell – a man known as the “Catholic Emancipator” for the work he did to gain rights for Catholics – pushed for the creation of a cemetery where people of all religions or no religion could be buried with dignity. Glasnevin Cemetery, which opened in 1832, was the cemetery that was created for that purpose. Among the 1.5 million people11 buried at Glasnevin are many famous Irish people, including Michael Collins, Irish revolutionary and the first head of the provisional government of Ireland (who was assassinated); Maud Gonne, Irish revolutionary (though she was born in England) and the muse of W.B. Yeats and mother of Nobel Prize winner Sean MacBride12; many other Irish revolutionaries, many of whom were executed, and Daniel O’Connell ((Fun fact: Daniel O’Connell’s non-violence resistance was an inspiration for Gandhi!)) himself.

O’Connell is buried in a crypt in a round tower at Glasnevin. On our tour, we were able to go into the crypt where his coffin is sitting inside a sarcophagus:

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As you can see in the photo above, there are holes in the sarcophagus that allow access to the wooden coffin, so that visitors can touch O’Connell’s coffin. Which I did13.

O’Connell died in Genoa, on a pilgrimage to Rome. Before he died, he said “My body to Ireland, my heart to Rome, my soul to heaven”, which you can see written here on the walls of his crypt:

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This statement was taken literally, so when he was embalmed they took out his heart and sent it to Rome. There it was placed in a silver casket which was put in a vault in a church in Rome, then later placed in the wall of the church behind a tablet… and then disappeared! In 1927, when they went to move the church to a new location, they took the tablet off the wall and O’Connell’s heart was gone! To this day, no one knows where it is!

In rooms adjacent to O’Connell’s coffin are coffins containing other members of his family:

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And outside of his round tower are a bunch of other crypts14, where people who were willing to pay a lot of money to be buried near Daniel O’Connell are buried:

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Also, in Glasnevin Cemetery, we saw Michael Collins‘ grave15 He was a leader of Irish revolution, the Director of Intelligence of the Irish Republican Army, part of the group that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty (which created the “Irish Free State” – i.e., the Republic of Ireland as a sovereign nation), and the first head of the provisional government of Ireland that was formed after the Treaty. He was assassinated in 1922 at the age of 31.

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In the museum part of the cemetery, there were exhibits with information cemetery-related things, like body snatching:

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And this neat fact that my mom found:

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My father was cremated and his urn rests in a niche in a columbarium at the cemetery in my home town. Given that my dad was a pigeon racer16, we like the connection of his final resting place to doves and pigeons.

In non-cemetery-related learnings, I learned the story behind this awesome Children of Lir that we saw at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin:

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The statue is based on an old Irish legend about 4 daughters who were much beloved by their father Lir, which made their new stepmother jealous, so she turned them into swans. In the legend, hundreds of years later they are turned back into women. The statue was created using the idea that the four swans represent the four provinces of Ireland – Leinster, Ulster, Munster and Connacht – which were, like the swans, not free for so many years while England ruled over Ireland. The reason there are only 3 women in the statue is because, after the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which created a sovereign Irish state of three of the provinces, one province – Ulster (a.k.a., Northern Ireland) remains in chains.

In conclusion, Ireland is awesome. It’s culture and history are fascinating, its scones are delicious, and I learned a crazy amount of stuff for someone who was on vacation and trying to forget that I was a student.

  1. Breakfast at 7:30, on the bus by 8:30! []
  2. And now I totally want to read more about Irish history! []
  3. Some of the looms they use at Avoca Mills are more than 100 years old! []
  4. Probably because we were too excited to eat them! []
  5. Or wife. []
  6. On our way to the jaunting cars, our tour bus driver, Martin, told us that Billy was looking for a wife. Upon meeting Billy, he elaborated: “I’m looking for a wife. Any man’s wife will do. If they are small, I’ll take two!” []
  7. Which, not surprisingly, was nothing. Mostly I just thought that was a funny picture. []
  8. Sounds familiar, eh? []
  9. Interestingly, it was announced on one of our last days in Ireland that the country was coming out of recession. I don’t think this was just coincidental to the fact that my shopaholic mother and aunts were in the country at the time! []
  10. Some people’s landlords would pay for their ticket just to get them off the land, since the land was producing nothing useful due to the potato blight. And some people would receive money from relatives who had emigrated and found a way to make a living in the new world. []
  11. Which is more than the 1.2 million people *living* in Dublin! []
  12. Interesting story – Yeats proposed to Gonne four different times and she always refused him; he later proposed to her daughter, Iseult, but she also turned him down. []
  13. Come on, you had to know that I would! []
  14. 42, to be specific. Which makes my Douglas Adams’ loving-self smile. []
  15. And now I really want to watch the movie Michael Collins, starting Liam Neeson. []
  16. To clarify, he own pigeons that raced against other pigeons. He did not race against the pigeons himself. Because I have been asked that! []

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Irish Music

One thing that every person I’ve ever talked to that has ever been to Ireland raves about is the music. There is music everywhere you go, from live bands in every pub (often accompanied by Irish dancing and *always* accompanied by lots of the audience singing along) to the buskers you’ll see both in the cities and way out in the countryside (at places that tourists like to stop, like Ladies’ View or the Cliffs of Moher). And honestly, the buskers are so amazing – I didn’t see a single one that wasn’t exceptionally talented.

One such exceptionally talented musician was Tina (who I mentioned in a previous posting plays at the Cliffs of Moher). Tina came to play a private show for us at the Connemara Coast Hotel:

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Tina has an incredibly singing voice and plays the harp beautifully. At one point, she told us that female harp player is called a “harpist”, whereas a male harp player is called a “harper”. Being that my entire tour group was Canadian, we were quick to tell her what we think of the word “Harper”.

The next day, we saw Tina playing again – this time at the Cliffs of Moher.

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There was one thing about Tina that kept bugging me though – everyone just called her “Tina”. Even the CDs she was selling just said “Tina” on them. Did this woman not have a last name? Anyway, I did some digging and discovered… her last name is Mulrooney! Given our reaction to the word “Harper”, I could see why she might not have wanted to tell us her last name1!

Here’s another busker we saw – this was a guy who was playing on the street in Killarney. I believe his name may have been Scotty.

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We told him we were Canadians and he said, “I’ll sing you a famous Canadian song!” and proceeded to sing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Well, the first  couple of verses of it anyway – turns out , he didn’t know the rest of the words!

Here are some more musicians in Killarney – specifically, a band that was playing outdoors at Buckley’s Traditional Pub:

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And here is Declan. Isn’t he adorable?

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Declan was playing the uilleann pipes at Ladies’ View in Killarney. Uilleann pipes are Irish bagpipes that you inflate by pumping a bellows with your arm, instead of by blowing into them2. We were chatting with him about the pipes and about County Kerry when one of the people in my tour group said, “Hey, were you at Buckley’s Pub last night. You walked in and handed someone a bag?” It turned out that this musician, who we just randomly ran into at Ladies View in the middle of the Ring of Kerry was, in fact, at the same pub as our group the night before. And the guy on my tour who recognized him? A retired cop3.

Another place we heard some good Irish music was at the Marine Bar in Dungarvon in County Waterford:

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The place where we enjoyed our pints of Murphy’s:

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We also enjoyed the music of Christie O’Neill, the pub owner and musician:

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We also saw a few performances of Irish dancing, like this one at the Arlington Hotel in Dublin:

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And then we saw more music and dancing at the Abbey Tavern in Howth in County Dublin:

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And we even got to get in on the dancing!

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When talking about the music on my trip to Ireland, I would be remiss if I did not tell you about what turned into the theme song of our tour. It’s actually not a Irish song, but rather a song that hails from the Irish capital of Canada: Newfoundland. One of our tour mates, Ed, sang us a song called Diddle Dee and Duddle Dum. And then we demanded he sing it over and over and over again at every opportunity. Because it was awesome! Here’s Ed singing it to us at the Marine Bar:

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It doesn’t appear that Ed has his version up on YouTube, but I did find someone else singing it:

Now, I mentioned earlier that there was lots of audience singing along in the pubs. I think this is facilitated by the fact that (a) beer and (b) everyone sings the same six songs, at every pub, every single night. I went to Ireland not knowing the words to any Irish songs4, but before the trip was done, I was sing all the “No Nay Never No more” and “Cockles and Mussels Alive, Alive, Oh!” like a true Irish lass!

And now, some classic Irish songs for you!

Molly Malone5:

Wild Rover:

Danny Boy:

Red is the Rose:

If You’re Irish (Come Into the Parlour):

All of Gods’ Creatures Have a Place in the Choir:

  1. For my non-Canadian readers, check out #18 and #22 on this list to get a hint about what I’m talking about []
  2. I couldn’t find any Youtube videos of Declan – possibly because I never did find out his last name – but here’s a video of some other random playing the uileann pipes. []
  3. In case you are curious, it turned out that the bag contained CDs. Because, of course, we asked! []
  4. I was surprised when we first got to Ireland and my mom and my aunts were singing along with all the songs right away. Turns out, their dad used to play Irish music all the time when they were little and they still remember all the words! []
  5. This song is so famous there is actually a statue of Molly in Dublin! []

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Bus Tours Are Like Cruises, But With Less Water

I should probably preface this posting by saying that I’ve never actually been on a cruise. But from my limited understanding of cruises, I believe that cruises involve a bunch of people all traveling on a big vehicle, going from place to place, where at  the places they let you off said vehicle to go look at stuff and do things. So that’s pretty much like a bus tour. Except the water part. And the living on the vehicle part. But other than that, totally like cruises.

The tour company we went with was called Royal Irish Tours – a company that my aunt found through her travel agent – and who market just to Canadians, so all of our tour mates were also Canadian. In fact, other than myself and a couple from Gander, Newfoundland, everyone else was from Ontario1.

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The deal with the bus tour is that they arrange the whole trip for you – from your accommodations in various castles and other fancy hotels to your trips to different tourist-y sites to entertainers2 to cool places to take photos along the way. Plus breakfasts and dinners were included3, as well as a few places where we got other goodies included, like tea and scones and pints of Murphy’s and Irish coffee while we shopped. Truth be told, I would have preferred fewer hotel dinners and more of the dinners at pubs or takeaway fish’n’chips4. Don’t get me wrong, the food was delicious, but appies, big meals, and desserts every single night got to be *a lot* of food!

Essentially the way it worked was that we would stay in a hotel for one or two nights and then move onto the next hotel. On the day that we changed hotels, we had to have our bags packed and sitting outside our hotel room door by 7:30 am – then you’d just go down to breakfast and the bell hop would pick up your luggage and bring it to the bus. I was kinda confused the first time the driver said this was how it worked. “You mean we just leave our luggage unattended in the hallway and no one is going to steal it?” I swear you would never do that in North America, but, true to their word, the nothing ever got stolen and it really was nice not to have to carry our bags down. On several of the days we go to stay in the same hotel two nights in a row – as we’d just drive around that area for the day and return to the same hotel – and those days were pretty sweet because packing is for suckers.

One of the best things about the bus tour, of course, is that someone else does all the driving, so you don’t have to worry yourself about such things as how to get where you are going5 or how the hell to drive on roads that are too narrow to actually accommodate two vehicles driving past each other.

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As well, we have a fantastic driver and tour guide6 who not only got us where we needed to go right at the time we needed to be there, but also gave us super interesting Irish history lessons as he drove and told us jokes and played awesome CDs of Irish music for us and even read us poetry!

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Martin really went above and beyond to make sure everyone was having a good time. We were very lucky to have him as our driver and tour guide.

And now, some fun moments from the bus tour:

One of our tour mates, Ed,  decides he’s going to be the driver today!

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Irish coffee on the bus? Why not!

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When we stayed in Killarney, we actually got off the bus early and got into jaunting cars (a.k.a., horse and carriage) and took a jaunting car ride through Killarney Park before being dropped off at our hotel. Here we are on the jaunting car:

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You’ll notice that my Aunt Eileen isn’t in the picture. That’s because Billy the jaunting car driver fancied her, so he insisted that she sit up front with him!

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Another fun surprise on the tour was when we stopped into a gas station that had Tim Horton’s:

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Apparently this stop was only recently added to the tour. Since the tour groups are almost always Canadians, apparently every time they drove past this gas station people saw the Tim Horton’s sign and freaked out, so they decided to make it an official stop so all the Canadians could get their fix!

Oh yeah, and speaking of cruises, we actually did one – on a boat called the “Rose of Innisfree”. Here’s Martin serving some tea on the boat:

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Did I mention how much I love scones?

When you are on a bus tour, with all the getting on and getting off of the bus, the driver has to count heads at every stop to make sure everyone is on the bus. As well, most people were traveling in pairs, so if someone’s partner was missing, they’d be sure to tell the bus driver “hey, my wife’s not back yet!”7 Most people on the tour were traveling in couples, but I was partnered up with my mom, there was another mother-daughter pair, and my two aunts were together, though they didn’t sit together because the bus wasn’t full, so they each took a window seat for themselves. The system worked very well for the most part, except one time, there was a miscount and we left someone behind – one of my aunts! It happened at Moriarty’s, where we’d stopped to shop:

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On this particular day, we had a “relief” driver, as Irish law does not allow anyone to work 11 days in a row with no breaks8, so while Martin was on the bus with us, he wasn’t driving. When we finished shopping, my aunt thought my aunt was right behind her getting on the bus, but she wasn’t. Somehow the driver miscounted, thought everyone was on the bus, and departed. We were probably 5 minutes down the road when someone said, “Hey, where’s Lynn?” And right then Martin’s phone rang – it was another driver from another bus who was stopped at Moriarty’s, telling us we’d left a passenger behind.

We turned around and headed back to get her and I was totally thinking that if that were me, I’d be freaking out, but was we drove up, there was my Aunt Lynn, cool as a cucumber, sitting next to the cute young bus driver from the other bus. I’m pretty sure she didn’t actually want us to come back and get her! Thankfully, my aunt has a good sense of humour9 and we all got a good laugh out of the whole thing!

When we signed up to do a bus tour, I figured that I’d really enjoy the not having to make any decisions part of it, as well as the not having to drive (because I’d inevitably get lost!). But I had no idea that I’d get such rich lessons in history – as well as lessons in contemporary Irish politics and culture – and I was also really pleased with what a fun group people were on our tour. Everyone was friendly and in good spirits – we really did have a blast!

Group photo:

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So, in conclusion: A++. Would bus tour again.

  1. Of course, having a Vancouverite and two Newfies meant we could legitimately say we represented Canada from “coast to coast”! []
  2. On our trip we had an Irish storyteller come and tell us tall tales after dinner one day, a harpist come and perform for us after dinner another day,  a stop at an bar with live music, a night out to another pub with Irish music and dancing, and another performance of music and dancing at yet another tavern on our final night. []
  3. Usually at the hotel. []
  4. We went to Leo Burrdock’s fish’n’chips and it was delish! []
  5. Especially given my sense of direction! []
  6. Apparently there is a new law coming into effect next year that will mean that drivers will no longer be able to also do the talking, but at this point, Martin still had to both drive the bus and provide the commentary. []
  7. There was one guy traveling alone, but everyone was looking out for him because they knew he didn’t have a travel buddy to pay attention to his whereabouts. []
  8. Our tour was 11 days long. []
  9. I must take after her, because she said, “That is probably the best story we have from the whole trip!”, which is generally how I react when things go sideways – just think of the story! []

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Waterford Crystal

For as far back as I can remember, my mom has been a fan of Waterford crystal, so we were pretty excited that our tour of Ireland included a trip to the Waterford Crystal Factory.

Fun fact: Look at the Waterford Crystal logo (below) – you’ll notice that the seahorse’s tail1 is backwards to what a seahorse tail usually looks like. This was done so that the curl of the tail could form a shamrock!

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The tour of the factory was very interesting. Prior to this, all I really knew about crystal was that it contained lead and tends to be sparkly. I had no idea the level of skill that was required to make a piece of fine crystal!

To become a master at any of the skills required to make Waterford crystal requires 8 years of apprenticing. Eight! Another interesting fact: All of the crystal makers at Waterford Crystal are males. We asked the tour guide about this – as everyone we saw on the shop floor was male, and he confirmed that there are currently no females, though one woman who had worked there for decades had recently retired and that there were some females who had applied recently to apprentice, so it was likely there would be some female crystal makers there in the near future.

The first step to making crystal involves glass-blowing. Wooden moulds in the shape of the object you want to make are used to blow the glass into.

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I’m not sure if this was for a crystal that was made *for* Justin Timberlake or *of* Justin Timberlake2, but this is the mould for the base of it:

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And here is a master glassblower blowing what I believe is a vase:

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It’s that orange-y colour because it’s extremely hot – once it cools down, it turns clear:

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Throughout the factory, they have signs on the wall with little facts about making crystal. I nearly died laughing when I saw this one:

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 “Do you know what a glory hole is?”3

So I guess I can say that I learned on my holiday that there is a much more innocuous use of the phrase “glory hole” than I was previously aware of. Now that I have used the phrase “glory hole” on my blog three times, let me apologize to anyone who came here via Googling “glory hole”, because I’m pretty sure this posting is *not* what you expected.  I did, however, take a photo of this glory hole:

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Moving on.

Once the object is blown, cooled, inspected for imperfections4, the next stage is the cutting, which is done almost completely by hand5. First they draw a grid onto the object with a pen:

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And then they use a diamond cutter to cut the pattern into the crystal, by hand. Waterford has a manydifferent patterns that they use and the master cutter has to know them all and be able to cut them into the glass perfectly. You can really start to see why it takes so long to become a master at this stuff!

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In addition to patterns cut into crystal, they also make sculptures and have masters that do the sculpting.

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They make all sorts of figures and trophies – they even made the giant ball that you see in Times Square on New Year’s Eve!

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This sculpture was made as a tribute to the firefighters who died on 9/11:

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It took about 200 hours – of the craftsmens’ own personal time – to create and is estimated to be worth $75,000. The original is in a firehall in New York and there is also the replica, made afterwards, at the Waterford Crystal Factory.

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After seeing the amount of time, effort, and skill that goes into making a piece of Waterford crystal, I have to say that I appreciate its beauty that much more. And so I couldn’t help but by myself a little souvenir at the factory store6 – this lovely vase7:

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Now I just need someone to buy me a flower!

  1. A seahorse was chosen for the logo as the city of Waterford’s crest contains a seahorse. []
  2. I’m sure that there’s got to be a rich person out there who wants a Justin Timberlake head made of crystal, right? []
  3. In case you do not know, Google it. But not at work. I will not be held responsible if you do not heed my advice on this. []
  4. There are several stages where they inspect the crystal for quality control and anything that isn’t perfect is melted back down and re-made. []
  5. There was a machine that did a bit of automatic cutting for simple patterns, but the vast majority is done by hand. []
  6. Which I then had to lug with me all the way to Nice, then back to London, and then home to Vancouver. In my carry-on luggage because I didn’t want it to get broken. Did I mention that Waterford crystal has more lead it in than other crystals? Meaning it’s really freaking heavy for its size. Also, lead crystal shows up on X-ray as a solid block, which made for lots of fun every time I had to put my carry-on bag through the x-ray at each airport! []
  7. Though the picture really doesn’t do it justice! []

By

Blarney!

What trip to Ireland would be complete with kissing the Blarney Stone?

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Yes, I know that it’s a very tourist-y thing to do. But seeing as I was a tourist and all, I didn’t have a problem with that1.

The story goes that if you kiss the Blarney Stone, you receive the “gift of the gab”. I always thought that meant that you’d talk a lot – and anyone who has met me for more than 5 seconds knows that I don’t need any help in the regard. But the “gift of the gab” is actually about eloquence – the ability to flatter in a very convincing way. Which seems like a valuable skill to have, no?

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I only just now am realizing that I forgot to include Blarney Castle in my blog posting about castles. Castle FAIL!

Blarney Castle:

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And lest you think that Blarney is just about the stone, may I present to you this garden with giant eyeballs in it, which we saw on our way through the grounds to get to Blarney Castle?

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I’m not sure why, but I kind of love those eyeballs.

We’d been warned by our tour guide that the line up to kiss the stone gets long fast and so we went right to the castle to get in line2.

Even still, we ended up in quite a long line. And the line up for the stone, which is up on the top of the castle, runs through the narrow passageways and staircases of the castle. And it moves very, very slowly. I think you’d be in trouble if you were even a little bit claustrophobic and you were stuck in that lineup.
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Notice the counterclockwise spiral staircase:

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My mom and aunts at the top of the castle – waiting for our chance at the stone:

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And me:

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Part of what makes kissing the Blarney Stone a big deal is that you have to hang backwards over a ledge to get to it and it’s pretty high up. I took this photo to show you how high up, but it doesn’t look as high up in the photo as it felt in person! Photo fail!

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Line up of people at the Blarney Stone:

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And before we knew it, it was our turn to kiss the stone! Because the line gets so long, the guy who holds onto you so you don’t fall to your death3 really rushes people through. You have to lie on your back, grab the rails, and bend backwards to kiss the stone on the opposite wall.

Of our group, I was up first and no one even got a photo of me! Fortunately, Blarney Castle, like any good tourist trap, is ready for such an eventuality and takes a photo of you kissing the stone and then will sell it to you. Isn’t that nice of them? Here’s mine:

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Despite warnings from my epidemiologist friends, I did not sanitize the stone before kissing it!

Once I had gone, I was quick on the draw and managed to snap photos of my mom:

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Who kind of freaked out at the height, but managed to kiss the stone nonetheless!

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My Aunt Eileen:

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And my Aunt Lynn:

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Here’s a view from the ground:

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So you can see that the safety bars mean that even if you lost your grip on the handrails, and the guy lost his grip on you, and you were far enough over the edge to fall, you’d just land on the bars. No big deal.

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After kissing the stone, we decided to check out the Poison Garden, which is, as you might expect, a garden full of plants that are poisonous:

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Like the sign at the Cliffs of Moher, this was not a sign I was going to disobey!

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One of the plants in the garden that was a surprise to me was rhubarb. Apparently while you can eat its root, eating the leaves will kill you!

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Common laburnum:

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We also checked out the Badgers Cave:

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Here’s a picture of me in the Badgers Cave…

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…shortly before my aunt informed me that there was a giant eight-legged monster in said cave, and I got the hell out of there!

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Both my aunts escaped from the cave unharmed as well!

And the last notable thing from Blarney was that I got a painting! I’d seen it in the window of “Blarney Arts & Crafts” on our way to Blarney Castle, but I hadn’t stopped because we were so focused on getting to the stone so as to beat the lineup. But even though I’d only just looked at it briefly, I really liked it, and so on our way back to the tour bus I suggested we stop by the store so I could check it out in more detail. And then I decided I really did love it and after hemming and hawing about how I was going to get it back to Vancouver, my mom said, “Oh, just get it and we’ll figure it out later!” And so I did! (Or should I so, so my Aunt Eileen did, because she insisted on buying it for me. I’m very spoiled!).

Here’s a photo of me and the artist – although I didn’t catch his name and discovered when I got home that there’s no signature on the painting, so I have no idea who he is! [Update: I followed the Blarney Arts & Crafts Facebook page and, lo and behold, I saw an announcement there that they’d updated their webpage… and when I checked it out, the artist’s name was there where it wasn’t there before – Arthur Cansdale!]

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As it turned out, this painting was just a wee bit too big to fit in my suitcase and I contemplated taking it as carry-on on the plane, but in the end my mom convinced me that I should just but a new suitcase, since mine was 1,000 years old and had a big rip in it anyway. So now I have an awesome new painting AND an awesome purple suitcase. Win-win!

  1. See also: this photo. []
  2. We actually talked to someone who had been there the previous day, but the line up was so long they couldn’t get to the stone, so they came back on this day first thing in the morning to make sure they got their chance. []
  3. In truth you can’t fall to your death because they have installed safety bars beneath where you hang over the edge. Probably because so many people fell to their deaths. []

By

Irish Coffee is a Gateway Drug to Whiskey Drinking

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe I’m of Irish descent because, in addition to not being a fan of Guinness, I’m also not much of a whiskey drinker1. I did, however, develop a taste for Irish coffees while on my holidays.

Irish coffee, for the uninitiated, is coffee with Irish whiskey in it, and cream on top:

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And really, how can you go wrong with coffee and cream on top?

By the time the last day of our tour of Ireland came around, I’d had my fair share of Irish coffees. Which was a good thing, because on that day we visited the Old Jameson Distillery and I somehow ended up being one of the whiskey tasters in our group!

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Aunt Eileen sitting in front of a big whiskey still outside the distillery:

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Chandelier made of Jameson bottles:

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There are still some foundational stones from the original distillery, which dates back to 1780, and which you can see through this glass floor in the current building:

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The don’t actually make the whiskey in Dublin anymore – it’s made at their distillery in Cork – but the Dublin site is set up as a tour with replicas of the different steps to making an Irish whiskey.

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Jameson is made with a mix of malted and unmalted barley, which is grown in the local area around Cork. They cook it using natural gas fire (as opposed to Scotch whiskey which is cooked with peat fire, which gives Scotch its peaty (and in my opinion, horrible) flavour).

The mix it up with water and heat it up in this contraption, known as a “mash tun”:

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And it gets distilled in, not surprisingly, a still:

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Importantly, it gets distilled three times (as opposed to Scotch whiskey, which is twice distilled, and American whiskey, which is distilled once), making it very smooth, and also highly concentrated, so water has to be added to bring it back to an alcohol concentration that won’t kill you.

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It’s then put into seasoned white oak barrels, where “seasoned” means that the barrel has previously been used to make other alcohols: port, sherry, or bourbon. By law in Ireland, whiskey must be aged for at least three years, but it is usually aged longer than that.

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While the it ages, some of the sherry, port, or bourbon flavour from the barrel gets into the whiskey. Also while it ages, some of the whiskey evaporates – the whiskey lost due to evaporation is known as the “angels’ share.” The longer the whiskey ages, the bigger the angels’ share, which you can see in these barrels of whiskeys of different ages:

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A 25 year whiskey will lose about 30% to the angels’ share, which is why a 25 year whiskey is so expensive – not only did they have to hang onto that barrel for 25 years2, but also there’s only 70% of the whiskey that you started with!

One the aging process is done, the whiskeys from the different types of barrels are mixed together (or “married”) and viola! – you have Jameson Irish Whiskey.

Now, while we were taking the tour, the tour guide informed us that he needed 8 volunteers to be whiskey tasters – 4 ladies and 4 gents. My Aunt Eileen was the first to volunteer and I told her that I’d take pictures of her while she did the tasting. To which the tour guide replied, “How are you going to take pictures when you are drinking whiskey?” And thus I was forced – forced, I say! – to be a whiskey taster.

The whiskey tasting involved comparing an American whiskey (Jack Daniels), a Scotch whiskey (Johnny Walker), and an Irish whiskey (Jameson, obviously).

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Now, I have to say that despite whiskey not being my favourite beverage, I’m really glad I got a chance to do the tasting. There’s nothing quite like a side-by-side comparison to really appreciate the differences. The Johnny Walker was peaty for sure, and the Jameson really was smooth. And the JD – that stuff was harsh! We also got to have a glass of either straight whiskey or whiskey in ginger ale – I chose the latter and I have to say it was freaking delicious.

Here we are doing the tasting:

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After completing our tasting, we each got a certificate of our qualification as whiskey tasters!

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I’m going to frame mine and put it up next to my PhD:

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Also, did I mention that all of this took place before 10 am? Hooray for Ireland!

  1. I *want* to like scotch. Because it seems so sophisticated. But that peaty flavour – gah! []
  2. And I know from my MBA supply chain classes that an inventory turnover time of 25 year is killer! []

By

The Thing About Beer In Ireland

The thing about beer in Ireland is that if you don’t drink stout, you are SOL. Wherever you go, you are guaranteed to find Guinness on tap, but if you don’t want to drink Guinness, your options are basically shitty American beers1 or Heineken.

In the southern part of the Republic of Ireland2, you can reliably find Murphy’s on tap – but it is also an Irish stout.

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Heineken bought Murphy’s in the 1980s and tried to compete with Guinness, but couldn’t really make a dent, so you can only find Murphy’s in Ireland in the south, near Cork where it is made.

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What’s funny to me about that is that you can get Murphy’s at the Irish Times pub in Victoria, BC, but you can’t get it in, say, Dublin.

Despite not being a big fan of stouts, I did have to try a pint while I was in Ireland – specifically while at the Marine Bar in Dungarvan, County Waterford:

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And I have to say that it was pretty good – much creamier and smoother than when I’ve had it in Victoria. Also, I had to drink a second pint, because my mom got one but she doesn’t like beer, so I had to finish it for her. Because I’m just that generous of a daughter.

Plus, they put a shamrock in the head!

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Also, I did have some Guinness while in Ireland, because I’m pretty sure it is against the law not to3:

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And it was, as I had been told, much better in Ireland. Smoother and creamier and less bitter than when you get it here in Canada. So at least there was that.

So, while I was disappointed on the beer front while on the Emerald Isle, fear not my booze-loving friends, for Ireland is also the home of a little thing called “Irish Coffee”.

  1. i.e., Bud or Coors Light []
  2. The “Republic of Ireland” being the sovereign state – i.e., the part that is not Northern Ireland. []
  3. We were going to do the Guinness Brewery tour, in Dublin, but then we heard it cost €16.50 and the tour is self-guided. And none of us like stouts, so the “free” pint of Guinness at the end was not really a draw for us. Instead, I just ordered a half pint at a pub. []

By

The Cliffs of Moher

One of my favourite things of all the things we did in Ireland was visiting the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. The photos just cannot do justice to the spectacular views of the 700 ft shear drop into the Atlantic Ocean. You really just have to go there to see if for yourself.

My mom and at at the Cliffs of Moher:

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We were *very* glad we had jackets and scarfs – it was cold and windy!

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Several people die every year by falling off the cliffs – some intentionally, and some because people ignore the signs that tell them of the extreme danger of hopping the fence to get right to the edge of the cliff. I’m generally one who likes to disobey what signs say (and take a picture of myself disobeying said sign), but in this case I decided that I didn’t really want to fall 700 ft to my death, so stayed safely on the right side of the fence.

This is Tina. She’s a harpist who had come to our hotel to perform for us the night before we went to the Cliffs, and then we saw her playing her harp and singing at the cliffs. She has an absolutely beautiful voice (here’s a YouTube video of her):

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And the cliffs:

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To give you a sense of scale, remember that the castle atop the cliff is a two-storey castle:

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Like I said, the photos really do not do it justice. You should go there to see it for yourself. If you do, say “hi” to Tina for me!

By

Living in a Castle, Just Like My Frogs

My frogs, as you know, have a castle in their tank. But I had never had the opportunity to stay in a castle until I got to Ireland, where I stayed in no fewer than three of them. I guess they had a lot of castles in Ireland and since they are no longer needed to defend one’s family from one’s enemies, they turned a bunch of them into hotels.

There first one we stayed in was Dunboyne Castle in Meath:

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To be honest, it didn’t look all that castle-y to me, but it was very nicely decorated inside.

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And had remnants of the old castle on the grounds:

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Next we stayed at Kilronan Castle in Roscommon, which seemed more castle-like to me:

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And the final castle we stayed in was Clontarf Castle in Dublin:

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In addition to the ones we stayed in, we also visited a bunch more castles – or ruins of castles, at least.

Here’s Trim Castle in Trim, County Meath:

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They filmed Braveheart here1.

At Trim Castle, we learned that most castles were built with counterclockwise spiral staircases, because when you were under siege, with attackers coming up the stairs after you, counterclockwise stairs gave advantage to a right handed swordsman, who could reach around with his sword as he stabbed down at the attackers, and disadvantage to a right handed attacker, who would have to expose a good deal of his torso as he tried to stab upwards. As well, the stairs – known as “tumble stairs” – were designed to be at slightly different angles and of slightly different widths so that an attacker, who would be unfamiliar with the stairs would be more likely to fall if they tried to run up the stairs. So, needless to say, it was fun navigating those staircases.

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Here’s Kylemore Abbey in Connemara, County Galway, which was original a castle home, but later was sold to Benedictine nuns and became a monastery and boarding school:

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Here’s Parkes’ Castle in  County Leitrim, which was built on the site of a previous castle, O’Rourke’s Castle (O’Rourke having been executed for treason for having harboured a captain from the Spanish armada who has washed up on shore nearby):

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Two things of note at Parkes’ Castle: #1 – A Pigeon coop from the 1700s!

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This was in a tower that was built to house pigeons that were kept for sending messages to other castles. And, honestly, other than it being built out of stone, it looks pretty similar to my dad’s pigeon coop!

#2 – A (reproduction of) a clockwise spiral staircase. Parkes had it built this way because he was left handed, so a clockwise staircase gave him an advantage if he were standing upstairs from an attacker:

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Here’s Ross Castle in Killarney:

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I think the most exciting thing about this castle was that we took a jaunting car ride to get there.

And then there was this castle at the top of the Cliffs of Moher:

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Which was exciting because, well, it was at the top of the Cliffs of Moher.

The last castle we visited was Dublin Castle in, not surprisingly, Dublin:

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It used to be where the British government sat in Ireland, but was handed over in 1921 to the new provisional Irish government and currently is an Irish government building.

  1. Even though Braveheart was suppose to be in Scotland, a lot of it was actually filmed in Ireland. []