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Lake Constance lies at the far southern tip of Germany. It is one of Europe’s “great lakes”, a major stopping point for the Rhine river as it meanders its way from the Alpine peaks to the North Sea. We started our trip today in Lindau, a pretty island town on the north-eastern shore of the lake. From there it was a short boat journey to the city of Bregenz in Austria. We took a cable car to Pfander – a mountain that provided some wonderful views of the entire lake.

Short video below:

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Hochgrat is a mountain in Bavaria, 1800 metres high. A cable car takes you to a restaurant close to the summit. The summit itself is a short scramble away. As well as the cable car, the mountain is accessible via a number of well defined walking routes. It was my first encounter with the Alpine Chough, a bird related to our own red-beaked sea crow.

Yesterday I visited Ulm Cathedral in Germany. At 568 ft high, its steeple is the tallest in the world. The sense of space inside the building is quite breathtaking, and the view from the top is, well, you’ll have to judge for yourself how well I coped with it..

I think I was around fifteen years old. The elderly Christian Brother teaching us Religious Studies brought us all downstairs to the video room. The lesson for the day would be a documentary on Our Lady of Garabandal, a supposed “apparition” of Mary somewhere in Spain. The key message from the programme was the Blessed Virgin’s unhappiness with the world. Unless we started saying the Rosary pretty darn quick, terrible unspecified things would happen. No discussion, no criticism. We were expected to accept all of the programme’s premises at face value.

This was a major downside of an Irish Catholic education in the 1980’s. Alongside fairly solid subjects such as maths, science and the foreign languages, we were schooled in rank superstition. This was not educational, it was anti-educational. We left school in possession of a rather toxic mindset: that if a person was wearing the right clothes or had the right prefix before his name, or the right suffix after his name, then you were expected to accept that he was telling the truth, no matter what rubbish he was uttering from his mouth.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when friends of mine were discussing alternative medicine cures for various ailments. There was no analysis, no criticism. The proof was in the anecdote and the anecdote was the gold-standard.

Then there was the hubbub at Knock a few months ago, attracting thousands to witness Joe Coleman muttering nonsense into the middle distance. Many of us might laugh, but it served as a reminder that the Ireland of the moving statues hadn’t gone away, you know.

Pick up any local paper and you will find ads for peddlers of the most outrageous woo, from Chinese medicine to homeopathic treatments to new age crystal remedies. And how could we forget the pyramid schemes and the property bubbles that hit the country over the past few years? It all points a vulnerability common to us all. You might not beat the Irish, but fool us you can, and fool us you do. Every single day.

It’s all quite depressing stuff. If you want to make make a fast buck using nothing but smoke and mirrors, Ireland is as good a place as any to try your hand.

Now, I know that belief in the miraculous, the supernatural and the magical is a worldwide phenomenon. Most societies are steeped in it and it will be with us as long as our species breathe on this planet. Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be good for all of us if our kids were better prepared to accept things more on evidence than on hearsay? Wouldn’t it be better if we were taught how our brains can play tricks on us and how to avoid the more common mistakes? Wouldn’t it benefit us to quickly recognise manipulation by others? Our education system somehow avoided this aspect of our schooling and the results are everywhere to be seen.

The Irish education system, or should I say, the Catholic education system of Ireland (sadly these expressions are synonymous), didn’t dwell too much on such questions, lest we peered too closely at the shaky foundations of Catholicism’s own dogmas and diktats. We were, of course, taught to think critically, but critical thinking had its limits.

I would love to say that the system has improved greatly since I left school and that we are turning out school-leavers who have a much better handle on reality, but I fear that change has been glacially slow. I stand to be corrected in this regard.

It’s another reason why a Catholic education is not necessarily the best education for our schoolchildren. We deserve better. It’s time we got better.

Fortunately, no humans were splattered on in the course of making this photo, but it’s the intention that I have a problem with.

We’re just back from a journey to the Saltee Islands in Co. Wexford. The islands are home to some of Ireland’s largest sea-bird colonies. Many of the birds on the island are relatively rare on the mainland.

After a mad morning dash through south Wexford, we took the boat from Kilmore Quay at 11.00. A small group of day trippers accompanied us on our journey. We travelled there on a powerful motor boat, transferring to a dingy in order to reach the shore.

There are some very bizarre statues and monuments on the main island, built by “Prince Michael the First”, the first owner of the place. There is even a stone ceremonial throne behind the family home. The Saltee Islands have their own flag and coat of arms, but perhaps rumours of a secession from the Irish Republic are premature.

The Great Saltee is home to large colonies of gannets, razorbills, guillemots and kittiwakes. Puffins, coromorants, shags, fulmars, choughs, herring gulls and black-backed gulls were also commonplace around the island. The largest colony of gannets is at the far western end of the island and, incredibly, you can walk right up beside these large birds. They appear unperturbed by humans, despite the fact that they are all looking after chicks of various different ages and sizes. Not so the black backed gulls. Come close to a nest and you will be swooped on by an anxious parent until you leave the immediate area.

The seas were dotted with seabirds of all shapes and sizes and every now and again large seals could be seen diving in the numerous inlets. Why the seals appear here in such numbers, I have no idea.

We spent a lot of time walking along the southern coastline, taking in the sights and sounds. July is a great time to go as most birds are still nesting and chicks are in their abundance.

Our trip lasted from 11.00 am until 4.00 pm. The five hours go by very quickly. For birders and non-birders alike it’s a great place to go for a day trip.

Photos by Claudia Wagner

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