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Cricket Ireland. Uploaded and modified via a Creative Commons license from headlessness (flickr)

Photo courtesy headlessness. CC licensed.

The country is somewhat “bowled over” by having beaten Pakistan in the Cricket World Cup. Cricket is a seriously minor sport in Ireland: Cork, close to where I live, has just three cricket grounds for a population of ~250,000 people. The Irish Cricket Union has just 1,200 members for the whole island. (Ireland has about 6 million people, north and south).

Contrast this to Pakistan, which has 166 million people. Pakistan didn’t win a single medal in the last Olympic Games and its soccer team has never featured in any World Cup tournament. I’m guessing that cricket is really the only game of significance in the country. According to Wikipedia, they were World Cup winners in 1992 and have a very impressive record in the Australasia Cup.

To a Pakistani, Ireland beating their national team must be a bit like San Marino beating Brazil in soccer. Our national soccer coach was nearly flayed alive (metaphorically) by soccer pundits for nearly drawing against San Marino a few months ago, so I can only imagine what the depth of feeling was in Pakistan when the result came through. That said, our soccer team manager is still alive.. The death of Bob Woolmer in some way underlies the personal emotional turmoil involved when a good team struggles at the top grade.

For Ireland, to have such a success in such an unexpected sport can only be a good thing. It’s quite likely we have a wealth of cricketing talent in the country, as one of our more popular games – hurling – demands very similar skills to cricket. Also, we are beginning to see an easing of the unwritten laws that divided many sports into “Protestant” and “Catholic” games. Such a de-politicisation of sport is very welcome.

Blarney Castle

With St. Patrick’s Day on the way, I took a short spin over to Blarney Castle to take a few pictures.

I’ve never kissed the Blarney Stone – the idea of suspending myself under a damp rampart to press my lips against it in the hopes that I will speak more eloquently seems rather pointless, if not somewhat unhygienic. Anyway, I think I have already have the gift of the gab. You don’t want me to get super-charged on gabbing, believe you me. It’s a magical de-gabbing stone I need.

Stream in BlarneyBlarney Castle up close

Daffodils and Lookout Tower

Click on any photo above for more detail.

The grounds of Blarney Castle are delightful. Along with the impressive ruined castle, there are all sorts of structures to discover including a lookout tower, a lime-kiln and Blarney House itself. Then there is the lake, the cave and the Rock Close: a pleasant walled garden not far from the castle. Spring has come early this year, so all the trees are budding, the daffodils are everywhere and the hazel catkins are in full flower. Not a shamrock in sight.

I’ve just uploaded a selection of my favourite photos from the past few years and I’ve set up a permanent “My Photos” page on the blog for easy access.

Most of the following pictures relate to places I have visited in Ireland. Click on the thumbnails to be brought to a bigger photo. I’ll try to annotate them soon if I get a chance.

It’s just a reminder to me that I live in a beautiful country.


Winter scene in Kerry Evening scene near Kenmare, Co. Kerry Achill Island 2

Connemara 2004

Roundstone, Connemara, Co. Galway Connemara, Co. Galway Road to Clifden, Co. Galway

Achill Island 2005

Achill Island Deserted Village Achill Island 1 Achill Island Grainne Mhaol Tower Achill Island Keel Beach

Wexford 2005

Scene from Churchtown House, Co. Wexford Johnstown Castle, Co. Wexford Johnstown Castle, Co. Wexford

Kerry 2005

The Blasket Islands, Co. Kerry Gap of Dunloe, Co. Kerry Black Valley, Co. Kerry Sunset in Kenmare

Clare 2006

Clare Coastline - Loop Head Poulnabrone Dolmen, The Burren The Burren Co. Clare

Cork 2006

Stones in Ballybrannigan Bird feeding time, Fota Island, Co. Cork Rostellan Wood Evening scene in Midleton, Co. Cork

Map of Ireland

Map of Ireland by Tourizm Maps © 2006

So far, 2007 has been a momentous year in terms of the political situation in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin, (the Irish republican party and erstwhile political wing of the IRA), has agreed to join the policing board, announcing finally that the war is over. On the other side of the political fence, the DUP (the majority Unionist party lead by the firebrand preacher Ian Paisley) has greatly lessened it’s rhetoric and looks set to enter into a power-sharing administration with Sinn Féin some time later this year.

Compared to the situation 15 years ago, the current political situation is an incredible departure from what seemed at one stage like an endless war. Even in the last 5 years, the IRA have decommissioned, abandoned criminality, stopped punishment beatings, disbanded as a military organisation, finally agreed to the rule of law and for all this they must be wholeheartedly commended. The Sinn Féin organisation seems now to have fully committed itself to a democratic political path. The ballot box has, at last, won out over the armalite.

Sinn Féin sees itself as being in government, sometime within the next 10 years, both in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This is not a pipe-dream by any degree of imagination. (Since the 1994 ceasefire it has managed to garner over 10% of the vote in the Republic, making it the 4th biggest political party here). Their stated vision is to finally unify the island, North and South, to end all British influence there.

My question at this stage is – how? Any attempt to transfer power from Britain to the Republic of Ireland will be robustly resisted by Unionists who have not changed their stance (that Northern Ireland remain British) in the last 100 years and, after the low-intensity war of the seventies, eighties and nineties (a.k.a “the Troubles”), are probably more entrenched in their views than ever. How does a party such as Sinn Féin succeed in convincing Unionists that joining an Irish Republic would be in their best interest? The party is avowedly anti-British, working class, socialist, with paramilitary roots and structures that have created a huge degree of distrust within Unionism – an obstacle I can’t see them easily overcoming in the coming decades.

In addition, Sinn Féin have abided by a system of power-sharing in Northern Ireland which gives proportional representation to minority parties based on their share of the vote. Majority rule is clearly a non-runner in Northern Ireland when the political views and loyalties are so far apart. Sinn Féin are a minority party – the second biggest after the DUP – but the percentage differences are relatively small and it is probable that some time in the next 30 or 40 years, they may become the biggest party in Northern Ireland. The problem for them however is that, having resisted majority rule for so long, they can’t just dump power-sharing when they become the majority themselves. Whether they like it or not, they will be joined at the hip to the Unionists in Northern Ireland for the forseeable future.

Neither is it likely that Sinn Féin will ever become the dominant political player in the Republic. Politics in Ireland is based around coalitions with centre-right parties such as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael taking much of the vote. Apart from Sinn Féin, none of these parties have much stomach for a constitutional fight with Britain or with Unionists over how they should be governed. It’s a view which would resonate also among a large proportion of Southern Irish voters who are more interested in economic prosperity than they are in some sort of political reunification of North and South.

Sinn Féin, therefore, are left with an aspiration, in much the same way as the incumbent Irish political parties “aspire” to re-unification on the island. When it becomes likely, as I think it will, that Sinn Féin will not make much headway in achieving re-unification, what happens then? Is there a possibility that the old chestnut of Irish Unity will come back to haunt this island again some time in the future, and that, yet again, war or hostilities will break out as they have done so many times in the past?

Hopefully, the answer is no. In the end, the Troubles were not so much about political re-unification as they were about civil rights and achieving political influence and justice for the Nationalist community. A well-run political system in Northern Ireland with true representation and fairness may do a lot to head off any future problems as will a Northern Irish state that works hand-in-hand both with Britain and the Republic of Ireland.

Only time will tell.

One of the great things about being a parent is that every evening I get a chance to read night-time stories to young children. These books vary greatly in quality. Many children’s books (particularly the ones with toys and teddy-bears on the cover) are insipid, formulaic, manufactured and quite forgettable . Kids get bored by them just as much as we grown ups do. However there are some books that I still love reading to my younger ones whenever I get a chance.

So, in no particular order, here goes:

1) Hairy Mclary from Donaldson’s Dairy (Lynley Dodd)

Hairy McLary from Donaldson’s Dairy

“Out of the gate and off for a walk went Hairy Mclary from Donaldson’s Dairy”

This is a terrific little book about a gang of dogs who get more than they bargained for when they all head off for a walk down town. The drawings are superb, the rhythm in the lines is mesmerising and the “MEEEOOOWFFZZZZ” twist in the end has kids jumping with delight. Very soon, even small kids can recite the lines of the book along with you. Superb. (I am indebted to Teuchter for introducing me to this book..)

2) The Gruffalo (Julia Donaldson)

The Gruffalo

“Silly old snake, doesn’t he know, there’s no such thing as a Gruffal…”

This extremely well-illustrated book recounts the adventures of a clever little mouse, beset on all sides by predators, and how he manages to outwit them all. The book is written in a gentle, rhythmic verse that is a pleasure to read out loud. Three quite similar stories are recounted before the plot twists and the mouse is confronted with the monster of his nightmares. What happens after this is an act of genius on the part of the mouse. I always shout out the Gruffalo’s lines in a very angry gruff voice – my kids love it.

3) Some Dogs Do (Jez Alborough)

Some Dogs Do

“His paws just lifted off the ground”

This is a rhyming story about a small dog named Sid who discovers one day that he can fly. When he tries to tell his friends in school, nobody will believe him. The miserable pup is comforted by his parents, who let him into a secret. I particularly like the drawings of Sid’s face – the faraway stare – when he is confronted by opposition on all sides. It’s a captivating, delightful tale that the kids want me to read again and again.

4) Green Eggs and Ham (Dr. Seuss)

Green Eggs and Ham

“That Sam-I-Am, That Sam-I-Am! I do not like that Sam-I-Am”!

No list of good children’s books would be complete without a title from Dr. Seuss. This story tells the tale of a grown-up creature who is pestered by the much smaller and younger Sam into eating a seemingly disgusting meal of green eggs and ham. Despite his protestations, Sam never gives in and finally the adult takes a bite. The whole tale is a reversal of the usual story where an adult is forcing a child to eat something that the kid doesn’t like the look of. Like many of the tales here, the story is recursive, repetitive, rhythmic and rhyming. Soon the child will be reciting the tale along with you.

5) How to Catch a Star (Oliver Jeffers)

How to catch a star

“Once there was a boy and the boy loved stars very much”

This story concerns a small boy who wants to catch a star from the sky so that they can be friends and have fun together. He tries reaching for it and climbing trees to get it, but to no avail. Eventually he is drawn to the sea-shore where he finds what he is looking for. This is a wonderfully creative tale that talks volumes about the ways small children see the world. The simple cartoons that complement the story genuinely add to the tale. As an adult you can’t but help feeling for the little boy as he tries to understand a mystery of life.

What makes these books special?

All of these stories are quite similar in that they blend poetry, colour, artistic detail and repetition into a coherent whole. All of the storys take about 3 to 5 minutes to recite. Neither are they “fluffy”: They grapple with quite deep topics concerning relations with adults, friendship, fear, disappointment and making sense of the world. If you are a parent of young kids or are wondering what to give your young niece or nephew for their next birthday, I would wholeheartedly recommend all five titles.

Do you know of any other children’s books that you would add to this list?

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March 2007

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