Published: May 19th 2006April 21st 2006
Last blog’s contest was a tie between Rock N Roll Rich (my brother) and Tamara (a good friend from the Gold Coast in Australia whom we met in Guatemala). The answer to the question of which building is the largest in the world (by square footage or floor area) was - I was led to believe - the Pentagon in Washington, District of Columbia (actually situated across the Potomac River in Virginia). According to the sage wisdom of Wikipedia (Here’s the link to that article
), however, this superlative actually lies with the Aalsmeer Flower Auction House in the Netherlands (990,000 square meters) and the Pentagon comes in third (610,000 square meters). If you actually read this selection from my favorite online encyclopedia, you will see that the water gets a little muddy as to what gets counted, but I digress. In honor of the noble efforts of our faithful readers, I must allocate a few promised lines to the winners.
If you ever happen to be in the Portland, Oregon area (a beautiful city, by the way) you should “pass a good time” by attending one of the many shows put on by the inimitable power rock band,
Stereo Vega, which is fronted by the coolest older brother in the world. I promise that you won’t be disappointed by the performance and you’ll witness a true rock band without any extraneous garbage. They have plenty of merch and music to download at their cyber address www.stereovega.com
. Notice that all the knobs go to “11”.
Unfortunately for Tamara she is not in a band, so I cannot do her equal justice, but she is a very lovely girl with whom we had many a great conversation and fantastic times hanging out with. Especially remembered was the fun night at Mono Loco - “Crazy monkey” - in Antigua where no one questioned (or possibly just didn’t care) why only the ladies were purchasing the 25 cent drinks on “ladies night” even though the place was crawling with guys.
Cheers to both of them.
April 12, 2006 (Ballinalee, Ireland) Seán:
Notice the accent mark - called a “fada” - above the ‘a’ in my name. For a proper Irish lad this would be the correct spelling and, truth be told, now that I know that I’m entitled to an accent, I feel as though I’ve
Even the local cows were interested in us: the whole herd would stop whatever they were doing and just stare every time we walked by. I always felt like we were interrupting something.
been denied my birthright of having an ethnic name. Although Irish ancestry doesn’t have much ethnic “street cred” in the States, it should as it seems that everyone we’ve met has a sister, brother, daughter, son, or some other close relative living there. Everybody has some connection, and they are also keen to tell you about their own adventures in my vast homeland. This should strike me as no surprise as my great-grandparents emigrated from here in the early twenties laying the groundwork for my eventual trip to County Longford in the middle of the Emerald Isle. And what a trip it’s been so far.
We weren’t sure what to expect when we landed in Dublin, as I’d never met my cousin (second cousin, once removed, to be precise), Nuala before. She’s visited us a few times, but we’d only ever seen each other when I was barely out of diapers and I didn’t have the foresight to really get a good look at her. As we left passport control, I was cursing myself for not asking my Ma to send me a picture, but Nuala instantly recognized me as being family and from that moment on her hospitality
Traditional Irish Breakfast
Bacon, black and white puddings (sausages), hash brown triangle, fried egg, potato pancake, breakfast sausage and tomato. Not very healthy, but the Irish sure know how to cook pork products.
was second to none. The three of us driving back to her house chatted lively as Shannon and I peppered her with questions concerning my lineage and how we all fit together. She was never stumped and she explained my entire family tree. Shannon:
Nuala and her husband Mattie made us feel at home from the first moment. After Nuala spent two hours driving each way to pick us up - casually brushing it off as “being nothing at all” - Mattie then treated us to a lovely meal before they both made sure we had every comfort available to us for the evening. I must say - it was one of the most restful nights I’ve had in a long time.
April 13, 2006 (Ballinalee, Ireland) Shannon:
After a wonderful slumber, we woke early yesterday for a trip back to Dublin. Mary, Barry, Charlie and Grace were arriving on their flight from Spokane, so we accompanied Nuala and Mattie into the big city to meet them. But as Sean and I had another mission to accomplish, we only stayed around long enough to spread greetings and hugs, and then headed off by ourselves into Dublin
Gracie, Barry, Charlie and Ma
It's a good looking family...and not bad travel partners.
Before we get going, here’s a quick rundown of the motley crew that we’ve assembled for this Irish pilgrimage:
Ma (Mary): My mother, the woman who selflessly gave all just for us kids.
Barry: My step-father and a great guy.
Charlie: My brother and a fantastic drummer.
Gracie: My sister. Smart as a whip and recounts her own adventures here
Brie: My sister. Second to none and loves to spread the lie that I bashed her over the head when she was an infant.
Matt: Brie’s husband and will be running the country's health care system very soon.
Heather: My cousin. She lives in a fabulous neighborhood in Brooklyn and teaches in the New York Public School System - bless her.) Seán:
Another Embassy…another disappointing result. Yesterday we went into Dublin - and to our fourth extension of the Russian government abroad - seeking visas. This time, while they didn’t deny us, we were told that I - being an American male - would have to submit to an interview and then wait for the results of this interview to be relayed to Moscow and then back to Dublin. The process would take no less than
Green Hills of Ireland
Just like I pictured it.
three weeks. So said the very nice embassy workers (that’s actually the most galling thing - the officers were so personable that it was difficult being cross with them). We won’t be in Ireland for three weeks, so this was yet another bust.
On the train journey back to my cousin’s house, your weary protagonists were feeling a bit bedraggled and frustrated, but we still have to decide exactly what we were going to do about this Russian visa. Because we have to pay for our hotly sought after trans-Mongolian train tickets very soon (no small chunk of change) yet are still in limbo with regards to the visa, we are thinking that the entire country is going to be given the “fly over”. We hate to do this as Saint Petersburg, Moscow and the long train journey are decidedly some of the most interesting items to see in a lifetime, but we’re definitely not going to fork over the dinero before we even have visas. Maybe these difficulties are a sign that we should skip this vast space on the map and seek alternate pastures…More thoughts on this later.
April 14, 2006 (Ballinalee, Ireland) Shannon:
Our home away from home
The house is filling up. Sean and I have settled in here at Casa Fox (as we’ve named Nuala and Mattie’s spread in the countryside), as have Mary, Barry, Charlie and Grace. Heather arrived today and Brie and Matt will be following tomorrow. It’s amazing that Nuala and Mattie have found a way to fit us all into their house, and incredibly generous as well. Even their cat has accommodated us - leaving its usual warm perch next to the Aga stove for quieter corners elsewhere. It’s a beautiful house, remodeled a few years ago, and extremely comfortable - even with a large horde of Americans camped within. And I must admit that their peat-burning fireplace is quite a hit with those of us inexperienced with that particular fuel. As someone who has only seen people cutting it on TV, I was fascinated with Nuala’s descriptions of peat-harvesting and drying techniques. She assured us that we would get to see some peat bogs later in the week…
Nuala and Mattie live just outside a small town called Ballinalee, which is about 20km from the larger town of Longford, and about mid-way between the Atlantic Ocean and the Irish Sea,
smack dab in the middle of the country. The land in this area is mostly rolling green hills with sheep-filled pastures and pretty lakes. It’s exactly what I thought Ireland would look like, and ironically enough, quite similar to Washington State (we’ve all commented on this). Ballinalee itself is a gem - three pubs, a handful of stores, one post office and a few churches. It takes less than 10 minutes to walk from end-to-end, even if you stop to admire the sights, but the people are very friendly and welcoming. Mention that you’re staying with Nuala and Mattie Fox, and they universally seem to proclaim “ahh, you’re the Americans.” It’s the sort of place where everyone seems to know everyone else - in a good way. Mattie gave us the scoop on the local pubs - apparently one pulls a better pint of Guinness than the others - so in the interest of reporting a well-rounded travel experience, we’re looking forward to checking that out later in the week as well.
Today we took a field trip of sorts: Nuala works as one of the two teachers at a local school and she gave us on a tour
St. Columbus National School
Nuala teaches the older kids in the room on the left. There are about 40 total students. Amazing, considering that at my three year high school I was one of 2,500 students.
of it. My father, who grew up in rural Wisconsin, attended class in a one-room schoolhouse, but although I’ve heard it described, I’ve never actually been in one. St. Columbus National School, where Nuala is also the principal, is actually a two-room
schoolhouse, but still much smaller than any of the schools I attended in Washington. It was very interesting to see, and when you think of how much work any teacher normally goes through to put together a curriculum, it makes you appreciate how much effort she must put into her teaching.
Just after the tour of her school, Nuala took us to the local cemetery nearby. Here we carefully picked a path among the many tombstones as we searched for the Kiernan (Sean’s great-grandmother’s family name) ancestors. The astounding thing, for me anyway, was how many Kiernan names we saw - in one section, it seemed as though that’s all there were. Coming from our background on the west coast of America, where hardly anyone’s family has lived for more than a century, it’s hard to imagine many multiple generations of the same family being buried in the same cemetery.
Other than these jaunts to local
places, we’ve mostly been hanging around the house, chatting and catching up. After being “on the road” again since Christmas, this is exactly what the doctor ordered: time spent with family - reconnecting with some and meeting others. And it’s been a great way of getting to know Ireland - from people who have lived here all their lives. Before Mattie mentioned it, I didn’t know that the taste of a pint of Guinness could depend on how the bartender pulls it. I had no idea. Or that the Irish have their own version of football (forgive me, Mattie), similar to soccer, but where they can use their hands. Again, I just didn’t know. But it’s wonderful to be able to have a local explain these things.
April 15, 2006 (Ballinalee, Ireland) Seán:
Nuala still lives in the area where my great-grandparents hailed from and she has kept in touch quite well with all of these relatives. This was plainly evident as today they all showed up at a village pub to greet us. It was truly an amazing experience. People we’d never met came from all over to spend an afternoon catching up. Nuala had put
Front row: Grace, Breffni, Heather and Virginia. Back row: Nuala, Matt, Mary, Brie, Shannon, Sean, Charlie
out the word that we were going to be in town and the response was staggering. We took over one of the village drinking establishments as about 60 people communed, chatted, drank heartily and told us stories about our family. The entire time we were stunned at the turn-out and warm embraces from all involved. Even now, I’m not too sure how exactly to convey the feelings as we were made to feel welcomed, accepted and instantly a part of their lives.
When Shannon and I started planning this round-the-world trip we looked at ways we could include our families, and meeting my Ma’s side in Ireland seemed like the best option. The only one who didn’t make it was my brother Rich who couldn’t get the time off from work (Matt and I hoisted a couple rounds of Guinness in his honor letting him know that we were thinking of him, though). And while I was able to convince Heather to attend, my powers of persuasion didn’t extend to Pip (her husband), but Matt and I didn’t forget him either as there were many more pints of Guinness than absent people to toast. Many more pints. Shannon:
This is the house my great-grandmother was born in. From left are Eileen, Noel, Mairead and Deaglan.
It’s hard to do justice and explain what a warm feeling it was that so many people came out to meet us. Many people live in the area, while others came from as far away as Cork and Wales. And though I personally don’t have any first hand knowledge of many of the people that I heard stories about (except Sean’s grandmother, Yia Yia), it was great to hear them anyway. It’s a special thing to learn more about your family and where they came from.
Along with everything else that she did for us, many thanks to Nuala (and Breffni and Virginia as well) for putting this event together for our benefit. It was incredible.
April 16, 2006 (Ballinalee, Ireland) Seán:
The house my great-grandmother was born in is not only still standing, but relatives are living there and they kindly opened their doors for the Yanks to share a cup of tea and some cookies. We had met Noel, his wife Eileen, and their daughter Mairead yesterday at the family reunion, but today we went to their house and were told many more stories (Noel is the family historian, to our good fortune). My
Tasty Bits of Bready Goodness
This was the magical plate of scones. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't make them all disappear.
great-grandmother (Lily) was one of twelve siblings, of which two others besides herself settled in the States: Aunt Katty and Uncle Jim (these are the names that I knew them by). I have quite a few memories of Aunt Katty (a proper woman with a heavy brogue) and her apartment in New York. But while Uncle Jim’s face escapes me, I have faint memories of him and his great apartment in the same building as Aunt Katty. Alas, being so young, there are many things that I don’t remember about those two, but Noel filled in many of the gaps and told us more about their lives both before and after leaving home. Shannon:
Noel was a fountain of information regarding the family; he shared many stories going back to Bernard and Mary Kiernan’s days (those would be Sean’s grandmother’s grandparents) and even a bit beyond that. To hear those kinds of stories is amazing when you think of the generations of time that have passed since. It was also very interesting to see the land and home that the family hails from. And as today is Easter Sunday, it was especially kind of them to host us with
Us and the Fitzpatrick Gang
From left: Heather, Matt, Nuala, Bernard, Brie, Hilda, Coleen, Brendan, Gracie, Charlie, Ma (Mary), Shannon, Barry and Sean.
After a very nice visit, we journeyed back to Nuala and Mattie’s home for a wonderful Easter dinner. Talk about food! In their typical modest fashion, Nuala and Mattie made it seem as though it was no trouble at all, but it was truly a superb meal. Mattie even finished it off by making us all real Irish coffee - a perfect ending.
April 17, 2006 (Ballinalee, Ireland) Seán:
My great-grandfather’s home was today’s highlight. While only in use today as a garage, it’s still owned by relatives who live next door, using the surrounding land for dairy cows. We were again plied with copious amounts of excellent tea, amazing scones and salacious stories connecting my great-grandfather (Tom Fitzpatrick - husband to Lily) to Michael Collins and the early Irish independence movement. No one’s quite sure why he headed to America, but the romantic view would have him fleeing his homeland because of his staunchly pro-IRA leanings. It sounds more interesting than merely seeing if the streets really were paved with gold - or at least promised decent employment. Shannon:
Have you ever heard of bog butter? Or bog bodies for that matter?
Fitzpatrick Family Home
This is the house my great-grandfather was born in.
Neither had I. And when Matt first described this particular phenomenon to me, it sounded plausible, but a little out there… Turns out, it’s absolutely true (never doubted you Matt). Today we learned more about this as we journeyed out to the Corlea Trackway Visitors Center, the site of an ancient wooden roadway that was once built over a peat bog but then promptly sank into oblivion, only to be discovered more than 2,100 years later. There are quite a few theories about why this happened - perhaps the ancient builders just didn’t realize how heavy the wooden planks of the roadway would be and so they didn’t foresee that they would eventually sink. Others think that maybe they knew
it would sink and that the roadway amounts to some sort of ritual sacrifice. We’re not sure, but this much is certain: people have been finding weird things in bogs for a long, long time. In the case of bog butter, it seems that people may have once used the peat bogs as low-tech refrigerators, burying food such as butter as a means of preserving it. Some of it was apparently lost or forgotten because it turns up with a
The Celtic Road
A diorama of the road they built over the bog. Bog bodies not included.
startling frequency. And while this seems fairly amusing, bog bodies are an even more interesting matter. Bogs, as I have since learned, have a unique ability to preserve human tissue and skin (thought to be due to the slightly acidic nature of the water or possibly the deprivation of essential elements needed for destructive bacteria to grow). Bodies have been recovered complete with skin, hair and internal organs intact. How they got there varies: some seem to have been buried (they were found wrapped in cloth and laid out horizontally), others were perhaps sacrificed and thrown in, while still others bear marks of violent deaths. One body found in May 2003 was actually tortured, stabbed, beheaded and dismembered - and due to the nicely preserved corpse, now famous as the “Old Croghan Man” (oddly named, though, as scientists think he was in his early 20’s). Quite fascinating stuff. If you are interested in learning more, the University of Texas (of all places) has an interesting website (Click here
) or do a search on the web for “bog bodies” and you’ll surely turn up some pictures. Seán:
After another great day meeting family and communing, it was time to
Rich was Missed
From left: Sean, Matt, Gracie, Charlie, Heather, Mattie, Nuala and Brie.
pop on down to the pub and do as the locals do: drink some Guinness. Already Matt and I have done our share to fit in regarding this particular tradition, but we had not yet done it in the pubs of Ballinalee. And so we headed "downtown", where we both got to bond better with Mattie, who in his professional life manages musicians. He’s traveled all over the world taking local acts far and wide and talking music with him was fantastic as his knowledge and range of tastes span just about every genre and decade. All of my mother’s children appreciate music tremendously, so hearing someone in the business explain a lot of the inner workings (while throwing in a few exciting stories) was fascinating to us.
It’s times like these where the trip to Ireland will be most fondly remembered; chatting and connecting with family was what it was supposed to be about, and my expectations have been exceeded.
April 19, 2006 (Oughterard, Ireland) Seán:
We left little Ballinalee and the hinterland of the Emerald Isle for the west coast and Galway a couple of days ago. Nuala enjoys visiting Galway quite a bit
and she ferrets herself out here as often as possible - for obvious reasons. It’s a small city with plenty of nifty shops and an enjoyable pedestrian quarter, where buskers and outdoor cafes clog the walks forcing people to stop and listen or step in for a pint. The weather has mostly consisted of beautiful spring days and so we’ve gotten to see it at its best. People are everywhere and the pubs are doing a booming business while locals (and tourists) are seated outside “seeing and being seen”. Shannon:
While in Galway, Nuala pointed us in the right direction to get some authentic fish and chips - pieces of cod, lightly battered, with a little salt and vinegar - mmmm…these couldn’t be beat. They were so good we ate there twice in two days.
We are staying in a tiny village a few minutes up the road called Oughterard, another small town with a wonderful atmosphere. It’s a bit bigger than Ballinalee (4 pubs?) but still entirely walkable (give yourself a good 15 minutes end-to-end). It’s proximity to Galway obviously makes it more touristy as well. Nuala has a condo here, so some of the group is
staying with her while the rest of us are at a nearby bed and breakfast. It’s been nice to see a bit of Galway and also to get out and see more of the surrounding countryside.
This afternoon we journeyed to Connemara to see Kylemore Castle, a mammoth building built by a man named Mitchell Henry as a private residence for his family. It sits sandwiched between a mountain range and a large lake - which makes for a very dramatic setting. The drive out to Kylemore itself was very beautiful and along the way we got to see hundreds of lambs in the fields and peat logs drying in the bogs. And since the fields around Galway are often surrounded by low stone fences, it all seems very stereotypically Irish.
After the drive to Connemara, we ventured into Galway again to do a bit more shopping and with the intent that we would stop by one of the pubs that would be playing traditional Irish music. The band was great, but unfortunately they were somewhat eclipsed by the beautiful spring day (we chose seats outside) and the great company of our companions. What we may have missed,
Stopping in for a wee bit of rest and music
Us enjoying the afternoon and listening to Irish music.
though, was more than made up for by our impromptu decision this evening to catch a local band at one of the bars in Oughterard: we weren’t expecting much, and just wandered into the pub on a lark right before the music started. But the band was much better than expected; to our delight we even got to see a charming little girl get up in front of the crowd and start dancing. Priceless. You can see a snippet of her dancing here at our video blog site
April 20, 2006 (Oughterard, Ireland) Seán:
Since arriving in Oughterard a few days ago we’ve dropped into Galway often to hang out around the squares and chat endlessly. Today though, we spent the day just relaxing in this little hamlet as we all had some alternate schedules to keep. Nuala and Ma agreed to take Heather to the airport to catch her flight back home, while the rest of us wound up at the only internet accessible place in town: a pizza shop. They had wi-fi and a couple computers so we set up shop for the day, commandeering a small corner; all of us popping in and
Not to Worry Ladies, He Doesn't Swing That Way
Oscar Wilde, Brie, Gracie, Matt, Nuala, Ma, Sean and Eduard Wilde. Eduard Wilde was an Estonian author, and this statue was a gift of that country to Ireland in 2004.
out periodically while Shannon performed the needed research that makes this trip the success it is. It was actually a fun and relaxing day (not that any of the other days were taxing at all) but it was a another chance to connect with Barry, Charlie, Gracie, Brie and Matt in a setting alternate to Ma and Barry’s house in Spokane at Christmas - which is pretty much the only venue where we are all together.
April 21, 2006 (London, England) Seán:
We arrived late into London after flying from Shannon this afternoon. We said goodbye to everyone in Galway and easily caught the express bus which got us to the sleepy little airport in plenty of time. In the last week and a half we had an exceptionally good time. We met unknown relatives (and were welcomed unconditionally), we spent time with immediate family that we don’t normally get to see all that often, and (I can’t express emphatically enough how special it was) got to acquaint ourselves with Nuala and Mattie. Staying with them will be one of the highlights of the trip partly because of their hospitality and generosity but mainly because they are
two of the sweetest and most interesting people. Shannon:
To add to the love fest regarding Nuala and Mattie: We can’t extend enough warm thank-yous to them for letting us stay with them - opening their home for 9 people is amazing in itself, but to do it with the hospitality they showed was certainly above and beyond anything we could have expected.
There are more photos below