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If anyone had asked me up to today what the Irish mainland’s most southern headland was, I would have immediately answered “Mizen Head”. I would have been wrong.

That honour goes to the much lesser known Brow Head, a few kilometres to the east of Mizen*.

Brow Head can only be visited on foot. There is a small car park near the ithmus between Crookhaven and Barley Cove. A 2km walk westwards up the Mallavogue laneway and through some fields, leads you directly to the headland. On the way, you will see the remains of some old mines, constructed in the 19th Century. There is also a signal tower on the headland, dating back to the Napoleonic times. Guglielmo Marconi built one of the first transatlantic telecommunications towers on the headland.

The headland itself is precarious. There are high cliffs on both sides, with sheer, vertical drops in all cases. Brow Head is undergoing active erosion and entire bedding planes are exposed in some places. The wave action is intense, to say the least. We were fortunate to come there during a large swell. The huge volumes of water crashing into and pouring off the rocks were nothing short of breathtaking.

Here’s a short video to give a flavour of the place. It’s a real gem. Hidden Ireland at its best.

 

* Mizen Head is actually the third most southerly point on the Irish mainland. That’s a good pub quiz question for you, right there).

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I saw a Twitter message today that got me thinking. The tweet went along the lines of that if your kid wanted to be a politician you must do everything in your power to dissuade them. You should bribe them out of it if necessary. I can understand where the writer is coming from. Politics is a rough world. It’s a place where lofty ideals often tarnish and shatter in the rough and tumble of power games, bargaining and compromise. The bruising experience of politics leaves many people disillusioned and cynical. It shouldn’t be like this, but it is.

Nevertheless we must pause to consider where we are. We have schools. We have hospitals. We have fire stations and a police force. We eat food and drink water that, most of the time, won’t make us sick. We have rights. We can go to court to protect those rights. We have the right of assembly, press freedom and an electoral system where the powerful have to submit themselves to the wrath of the people who put them there every few years.

We have abolished slavery. We no longer have capital punishment or corporal punishment. Torture, child labour and animal abuse are proscribed.  The voices of women, children, homosexuals, immigrants, atheists, the poor and other marginalised people can no longer be ignored. The society we have today is in many, many respects better than the world our grandparents and their grandparents were born into.

And who, in the end, made it happen? Politicians.

It was politicians who gave people their rights to be heard. It was politicians who argued for child welfare and against slavery. It was politicians who faced tyrannies down and protected our democratic freedoms. It was politicians who wrote the reforms, signed the laws and brought and end to wars. Our society is what it is today because of the work of politicians from our past.

Not all politicians are perfect. Some, indeed, have set back the march of progress and greater freedoms. Many others have little to show for their years of service other than a fat bank account. Yet, some politicians have made a positive difference and those differences have created the society that we have today. The story presented is not an altogether gloomy one.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Society is far from perfect. We still have crime, war, bad health, unnecessary suffering, discrimination, hatred, environmental damage and unconscionable injustice. We have problems in our country that are crying out to be solved. These problems require people of vision. They require people who can look beyond the grubby compromises and roadblocks. They require people who are willing to dedicate their lives to an ideal, mindful that failure awaits at every turn.

In politics, it is not years that make the difference, but decades. We need a cadre of people who are willing to dedicate their lives for a vision. Despite our concerns and our cynicism, we should encourage the most motivated of the upcoming generation to become politicians.

Apologies to regular readers. If you are not interested in local politics click the back button now. Quick! Hurry! I’ll give three whistles when it’s safe to look here again.

For a while now I have restrained myself from talking about politics on this blog, but since the 2011 General Election is drawing near and I feel very strongly about exercising my right to vote, I have decided to get my thoughts together on our prospective candidates, and what I can find out about them via their online presence.

I work away from home between the hours of 8am to 7pm each weekday so I am unlikely to be canvassed at all during this election. I read a lot of blogs however and I’m a Twitter addict, so I just wanted to see how these candidates have done in reaching out to the likes of me. What I have found is rather uninspiring.

Using TheJournal.ie’s excellent roundup of the candidates, here are some of my impressions.

  • Fianna Fáil (Michael Ahern and Kevin O’Keeffe) don’t have much of a social media policy at all. No Twitter, no videos, no blogs, just static web-pages and a Facebook account for O’Keeffe. Their candidate web-pages are devoid of anything that might persuade me to change my mind.
  • Fine Gael is more interesting. All of the candidates have a live video. (Pa O’Driscoll had one but for some reason it has been taken down). David Stanton’s video does not inspire a huge amount of confidence. It could have been a lot better in my opinion. I felt as if I was reading his CV and I didn’t get any feeling for what drives him and his passion for change. This is a potential government minister, so I would have expected a bit more drive. Tom Barry’s video is better, hitting the point on the main points of his candidacy. All three candidates have Twitter streams with Pa O’Driscoll leading by miles in terms of engagement and David Stanton saying aloof from any interaction with the great unwashed. Tom Barry shouldn’t have bothered with Twitter, given tweets such as the following: “Thanks to the canvass crews out over the weekend! Ye are pure marters for the cause out in that rain!” David StantonPa O’Driscoll and Tom Barry all have passable blogs.
  • Now we get to Labour. Sean Sherlock is engaging with people on Twitter but he has no video that I could find. His website is also, how do I put it, parochial. Here is a guy who could possibly find himself in the cabinet and yet he is campaigning on the subject of local roads and rezoning. Honestly, I’d prefer if these guys started thinking about Ireland and less about the parish pump. John Mulvihill has another parochial website, a Twitter stream (not engaging), and no video to give us an impression of what he is like. I am leaning towards Labour in this election but neither of the candidates inspire me with much confidence.

From here on in we are dealing with smaller parties and independent candidates. None of them have ever served as a TD and they have fairly low profiles. So you would expect them to be using every media outlet, including social media, to sell their message. Right?

  • Sandra McLellan, Sinn Féin’s candidate has no website or video or Twitter account, so apart from their policies which I think are woefully ignorant of basic economics and belong to the 19th Century, I know very little else about her.
  • Malchy Harty of the Green Party is a photographer, but he fails to put up a video of himself to tell us why we should vote for him. No blog (just a static web-page) and no Twitter. I will grant that he has a somewhat less parochial vision, but that’s about it. Very little to go on here.
  • Paul O’Neill has a website and a video. You actually get to see what this guy is thinking and what he is interested in doing. No Twitter though, no blogging and nothing in his Facebook page that I can see.
  • Paul Burke also has a static website and a video (I had to do a bit of rummaging to find it) which is quite good except for the fact that “Independent” is spelt incorrectly in the title. I find the policies here a bit wishy washy. He wants change but I don’t get a strong sense of vision around it.
  • Claire Cullinane has a static website and audio stream to help her outline her policies and a Facebook page where we find that she has been educated in the University of Life (hmm). No Twitter and no blogging – just a static web-page. Again, the policies seem quite vague. I’m not sure what I would be voting for.
  • Patrick Bullman has just a static web-page where he outlines his political philosophy. Not much else to go on.

So, what do I know? Fine Gael have definitely tried the hardest to engage with social media, Fianna Fail are a write-off, Labour are somewhat disappointing, and only a handful of independents or smaller party candidates have done very much at all to raise their profiles. While this is not the only information I will take into account when making my vote, it is interesting nonetheless.

Update: In an earlier version of this posting I wrote that Tom Barry didn’t have a blog and that based on his Twitter comments he shouldn’t have bothered to write one either. I subsequently found his blog and I need to, how do you say – eat my words. You live and learn I guess.

The day turned out to be wet and misty, so instead of our planned hillwalk we ended up walking the Glenshelane Forest Trail near Cappoquin, Co. Waterford. “Glenshelane” translates into “Valley of the Fairies” and with its meandering streams and moss covered trees there is something magical about the place (or at least the parts that have not been the subject of recent tree-felling).

By accident, we ended up at a place called Melleray Grotto. It’s a strange place. Nestled beside a bridge across the Monavugga river, the grotto has a large shelter and car-park in addition to the usual statues of Mary and St. Theresa. According to the signs and leaflets there, three children saw multiple apparitions of the Virgin Mary there in 1985, the same year as the moving statues phenomenon in Ireland.

The children reported seeing Noah, Jesus and the Devil among other biblical characters. According to them, Mary spoke to them on a number of occasions. The free leaflet provides us with a transcript of what she said: pronouncements like “I Want Prayer” and “The World Must Improve” – not exactly the most inspirational of stuff. She even went on to predict a great cataclysm in 1995. Unless I am much mistaken, this did not happen in 1995, or am I wrong? (Ah, but of course, there was that matter of a divorce referendum…).

I was left with the distinct impression that the whole thing was a hoax or a prank that went somewhat out of control, or perhaps the exploitation of people who might have been in need of professional medical help. Over the period of the “visions”, thousands of people descended on the place, just as they were doing in similar places around the country.

On the seats nearby was a Catholic newspaper that seemed gave the distinct impression of a religion on the ropes; as if they had rounded up the wagon train and all you could see, looking from the outside, were guns pointing at you. Everyone becomes their target – atheists, secularists, liberal Christians, Muslims, anyone who does not sign up to their strict interpretation of Christianity. This is fine, I guess, for preserving intact the worldview of the faithful, but useless as a vehicle for attracting new recruits. The paper is full of anger, bitterness and despair for the future.

It’s a ramshackle place where one’s common understanding of the world takes a somersault, to be replaced by arcane stories and apparent miracles. A place where normal critical thinking takes a vacation. Not so different, I would think, to Hindu shrines half a continent away, with their votive candles, petitions and magical holy water. The pleas and prayers are sodden with desperation and agony. Rather than making people more comfortable about their troubles, I wonder if it only makes things worse by assigning an agent, a conscious cause, to their suffering. If their problems – serious illness or  a bereavement  say – were caused by a conscious agent, then you will never stop asking why and no answers will ever come. That’s not comfort in my book.

The Grottos is an odd, fascinating and somewhat sad place: a distinct throwback to the Middle Ages and an insight into the power and irrationality of human belief.

via NASA Earth Observatory

One of the things about living in Ireland is that we rarely get that much snow. In most areas it usually arrives in the depths of winter – January or February maybe – stays for about a day and then disappears again. Apart from one day last year, my kids have never woken up to snow outside their home. It’s curious because Ireland has a very high latitude on this planet. We share the same distance from the equator as Moscow, Edmonton, Gander and other bitterly cold and ice-bound places on the planet. The reason, of course, is the North Atlantic Drift: a current of warm oceanic water originating off the coast of Florida. The warm waters off our coast and prevailing northwesterly winds normally keep temperatures well above zero for most of the year.

Not so this year. A high pressure area over the North Atlantic has served us with frosty Arctic air for the best part of two weeks now. Snow, almost unheard of in November, covered most of the island with the east of the country getting a particularly thorough battering. My mother in Kilkenny is housebound and my sister in Wales was unable to come home for a wedding this weekend because of near blizzard conditions in Waterford.

Much to the disappointment of my children, Cork was spared from the snow. Snow was threatened yesterday morning but instead we got drenched by icy rain. It froze instantly to the roads, briefly turning the whole city into a massive skating rink.

NASA’s Aqua satellite took this wonderful photo of Ireland on Thursday. You can clearly see the snow clouds pasting the east coast of Ireland before venturing out into the Celtic Sea. The mid-West of Ireland, from Clare to Cork, remained relatively unscathed, while seven-foot deep snow was reported in the Wicklow mountains.

A winter to remember, for sure.

A stray tweet in TAM London a few weeks ago has lead to my setting up, with three other comrades in arms, Cork’s first Skeptics group in the city.

We are busy working on the agenda and details for our first meeting, which will take place in Blackrock Castle on Thursday next, November 25th at 8pm. We have a Twitter account and a Facebook page already, some posters on the way and a website in the works too, where we can post all sorts of stuff and nonsense.

The group is part of the global Skeptics in the Pub movement, where people come together to share stories and to discuss a wide range of topics, from pseudoscience to proper science, medicine to alternative medicine, parapsychology to psychology, and goodness knows what else.

I just want to say that I’m really appreciative of the work everyone is putting in. We have Dylan Evans from UCC lined up to do a speech on Alternative Medicine on Thursday and I’m hoping I can get a few more people to talk to us over the coming months. We hope to meet every month in Blackrock Castle. The Castle has a great café with a full drinks license. We couldn’t have asked for a better location and meeting room.

If you have any ideas or suggestions on what else we can do to get the group off the ground, I’m all ears.

Today, I brought my kids along to the Discovery 2010 exhibition in Cork’s City Hall. The show is the centrepiece of Science Week in Cork and it features exhibitions from CIT, UCC, Blackrock Castle Observatory, the Tyndall Institute, Lifetime Labs and many more.

There were tons of interactive displays. The Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre were showing the kids petri dishes full of bacteria and luminescent microbes from the deep sea. There were Venus flytraps and molecular construction kits in the UCC stall, as well as a strange game that allowed two contestants to challenge each other using mind waves alone. The Tyndall display had a lot of of weird electronics on show, from photoelectronics to nanotechnology to wireless sensors. Pharmachemical Ireland were showing lot of hand-on demonstrations including a great explanation of keyhole surgery. Across the way, the Cork Electronics Industry Association were displaying magnetic levitation (MAGLEV) technologies using flying saucers and rotating spheres.

The Defense Forces and Gardai were there too. The Defense Forces had a highly informative display on land-mines and bomb-disposal. They even a heavy kevlar bomb-protection suit for people to try on for size. The Gardai were handing out high-visibility vests and armbands to all the kids.

Blackrock Castle Observatory were there with the StarDome – a mobile planetarium used as part of their astronomy outreach program. I managed to squeeze myself and the kids in for the last showing of the day. Inside was an informative surround-movie depicting a solar eclipse from the perspective of a base on the Moon. My kids gave it the thumbs up as their favorite exhibit of the show.

I was also highly impressed by some of the demonstrations by the Lifetime Labs people, showing how to make simple batteries out of lemons. They tell me that you would need 500 lemons to light up a small incandescent bulb, so if I notice my kids storing lemons everywhere, I’ll figure out quickly what is going on.

Scattered throughout the show area are many interactive displays. What particularly caught my kids’ attention was a revolving planet model that went beautifully turbulent if you suddenly stopped its motion.

Not only were the displays impressive, some of the people at the show had interesting and inspirational stories to tell. I spoke briefly to Ms Xiao Fang Zhang, who won the European Laurate of Innovation Award for the invention of an air-bubble extractor – extremely important for intravenous infusions of any sort. She is a student of Mechanical Engineering in CIT and is currently studying for her PhD.

The show is well worth bringing the children to. The exhibits are hands-on and geared to what kids are interested in. There is a sense of energy and fun amongst the exhibitors. In brief, the organisers have done a great job and the kids will love it.

A few years ago, the Irish National Archives digitised  the census documents of 1911 and put them all on the Internet for us to see. Long-forgotten grandparents and great-grandparents were suddenly transformed into young fathers and mothers, small children and teenagers. New names were introduced to us. We were given a feeling for their occupations, their family circumstances and their positions in society. Limited though the census documents were, these people who lived a hundred years ago came to life in front of our eyes. This was the Internet at its best, providing us with a window into history.

I’m reminded of this because Google Inc. recently opened Street View to the country of Ireland. Almost every road and boreen has been mapped and it all now comes to us in full 360 degree panoramas, each image no more than 10 metres apart, covering 80,000 kilometres of roadway; terabytes upon terabytes of information freezing the Ireland of 2009 and 2010 in perpetuity.

What a treasure trove of information for the future historian. It is now possible for our children’s children to see Ireland exactly as it was during this time. They will see our dress, our cars, our gardens, our farms and our workplaces. They will witness history in the making as the Irish boom economy shuddered to a dramatic halt: the newly constructed motorways and bridges alongside the empty buildings and ghost estates; the Polish and Lithuanian shops that signified a new era of multiculturalism and the wind turbines making their appearance over the landscape as we began the painful process of weaning ourselves off the seductions of fossil fuel.

Presumably these Street View images will be updated regularly, so not only will it be possible to see Ireland as it once was, but also how our country changes gradually throughout the century. I’m assuming, of course, that all these records will not be erased; a reasonable assumption should Moore’s Law continue to hold sway over the coming years.

If there is a snag, it is that all this data is the property of a successful private company whose primary interests do not necessarily coincide with those of the citizens of a sovereign state. Although there is no sign that Google are carrying out this mapping effort with anything other than the best of motives, whether they will continue to act benevolently and responsibility with such information is a difficult question to answer. A hundred years is a long time – long enough for industries to grow and disappear and for companies to change utterly from what they once were, if they exist at all. Public information – photos of many the roadways throughout the world – has been privatised. Governments should now be thinking about how that information should be placed, eventually, back into public hands.

With Street View, Google have created a resource of unimaginable value for future historians. Here’s hoping it’s there for all to see in the years to come.

Conor Lenihan, junior minister for Education and Science in the Irish government, must be reeling from the storm he found himself in yesterday. After accepting an invitation to launch a book debunking Evolutionary Theory, he was lampooned and ridiculed with a ferocity I have rarely seen on the Internet. Here are a selection of the comments on Twitter.

“Maybe the author told Conor that it was a book about Job Creationism.”

GSheehy

“Ye Minifter for ye Sciencef of ye Kingdom of Prefter John sendf salutationf&wishef of good health to ye Minifter for Alchemy, Mr Lennyhan.”

– janeruffino

“Conor Lenihan may be late for Wednesday’s book launch as he’ll be trying to rake the moon out of the pond with a hoe.”

Charlieconnelly

And these are just the nice ones.

Lenihan says that he is a friend of the author, that he was attending the book launch in a personal capacity and that doing this for constituents is something public representatives often do. (The author’s website advertised his presence as Junior Minister of Education – this was later changed).

Late last night, the author withdrew his invitation, but you would wonder how the minister is feeling today. If he is feeling wronged, that he was subjected to an attack by the media and the intelligensia, he is missing the point. The reason he got such a strong reaction is because of his cluenessness on this issue. He can no more claim “personal capacity” than if he was attending a UKIP friend’s campaign launch at the launch of the Lisbon referendum. On one hand, we have a government that supports the advancement of science, but on the other hand we have a minister tacitly supporting a book which, no matter which way you cut it, is vehemently anti-science right from page 1. The optics here are terrible. Evolution is one of the strongest theories in science, backed up by over a century of solid evidence, and fundamental to diverse studies such as biology, medicine, genetics and geology. Even someone with a rudimentary understanding of science would understand this. Giving a platform to a man whose only argument is “I am too ignorant to understand it, therefore it cannot be true” is just mind-blowing. Whether he realises it or not, it is very embarrassing for our country’s image abroad, not to mention to him personally.

Maybe, Minister, it’s time you stepped down from your position, took some time to read a few books and not just those with big coloured pictures on them.

The World cruise ship came to Cobh yesterday. It will be berthed in Cork Harbour for the next two days. It’s an interesting concept: the passengers own their cabins and many of them are long-term residents. It’s like a floating apartment block where the view outside the front window is constantly changing. A way of living that chases the summer around the globe, if you like.

Here are some pics from yesterday evening.

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