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.”)
  • 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.

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:


and Avoca Woollen Mills in County Wicklow3:






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


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



You can see the seashells embedded in the black marble.

Also, I bought this beautiful ring at Connemara Marble:

Day 34

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


And how to feed a lamb:


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:


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


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!):


I also learned about peat bog:


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:



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


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:


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:


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:


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


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


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:


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.


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


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:


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:



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


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!


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:


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:



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:


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:


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.


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



And this neat fact that my mom found:


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:


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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