The Truth about Ireland

I know that I'm going to get flak over this, but it has to done!!! I've had it up to here <points at region just below chin> with mushy mushy Irish sites. So here it is, the "truth" about Ireland, as I see it! (Truth, like beauty, exists only in the eye of the beholder). The opinions expressed here are my own and are based on personal observation (in other words they have not been stolen from books or other websites). These thoughts will be added to as time and motivation permits.

Name
and Description

A small island, measuring approximately 300 miles from top to bottom and 150 miles across. In English it is known as "Ireland" or in the native language "Éire".
It has had many names in the past including Scotia (which included modern Scotland also) and Hibernia. Poets have called it Erin, The Emerald Isle, Roisín Dubh and other other less complimentary terms.

Location

Some (obviously non-natives) state that it is in the centre of the world (indeed the universe). In reality, it is situated in the northeast Atlantic Ocean, on the western fringe of Europe. Some folks say that it's off the east coat of the U.S.A. More properly, if you want to subscribe to that notion, it is actually off the east coat of Canada - but it's a LONG way off. In technical terms the island is bounded by the latitudes 51 - 56 degrees North and the longitudes 5 and 11 degrees west. This means that it is as far north as the southern parts of Alaska and Moscow. We share (plus or minus an hour or so) time zones with Portugal, Casablanca and most of West Africa. In summary, we are in the middle of nowhere.

Population

The population of Ireland is about 100 million (300 million in and around March 17). Of this number about 4 million actually live on the island. The rest are on leave of absence - long may it last. Of those resident, approximately 51% are female, 48% male with the balance missing in action.

Climate

Click for Dublin, Ireland Forecast Officially the climate is "temperate". This is because the island is bathed by the warm Gulf Stream. However, this description does not do justice the the real life experience of Irish weather. Average temperatures range from 0 - 10 degrees C (32 - 50 F) in winter and 12 - 20 degrees C (55 - 68 F) in summer. Of course the extreme lows and highs can be breached and I have personally experienced -10C up to 30C - but not often. But that still doesn't tell the whole story. Ireland has a "soft" climate. That is to say, that even though the amount of rainfall is lower than many warmer climes, it manages to spread itself out to cover the maximum possible number of days each year. It's also windy. So when asked "what clothes should I bring to wear in Ireland in December / March / July / October", my reply is always "all of them".

Geography

Ireland is often childishly described as being like a saucer or soup bowl - flat in the middle and raised at the edges. This is not quite true. There is a central plain, much of which is occupied by the Bog of Allen. There are mountains around much of the coast, but these are not "mountains" as most people would expect them. The tallest is a mere 1000 meters (3300 feet). There are also plenty of inland mountains. The major river is the Shannon which rises in Leitrim, drains most of the midlands and exits into the Atlantic through the Shannon Estuary between counties Limerick and Clare. The Shannon is the longest river in Ireland or Britain. The river nowadays is mainly used for leisure purposes, but it has quite a history. Following the defeat of the Jacobites by the Williamites at the battle of the Boyne in 1691, James's army regrouped at Athlone on the west bank of the Shannon and a pitched battled ensued across the river. Again the Williamites won and following further battles at Aughrim and Limerick (also on the banks of the Shannon) the Jabobites were finally subdued. Two major canals (the Royal and the Grand) were built between Dublin and the Shannon, or one if its tributaries and in former centuries these represented the main form of transportation between the capital and the midlands. The first trans-Atlantic air flights employed huge sea-planes which landed and took off from Foynes in the Shannon estuary. The power of the river has also been harnessed by a hydro-electric plant at Ardnacrusha. Sadly many parts of the river and its lakes are polluted today, mainly by run off from farm land. High levels of nitrogen promote algal bloom.

Religion

According to statistics, 95% of the population of Ireland (that's the Republic part - more of this anon.) is Catholic. (On a side note, if there are "lies, damn lies and statistics" isn't it also true therefore that there area "lairs, damn liars and statisticians"?? It was, in fact, a statistician who brought this to my attention). The truth is that even in my lifetime, churches that used to struggle to cram in the multitudes every Sunday, now sit half empty on the Sabbath. The Church in Ireland, in common with the government and just about every other sector of Irish life) has been riddled with scandal and controversy, ranging from paedophile priests, bishops and priests with children, child and adult abuse in church institutions and so on. The net result is a severe lack of faith among the faithful. Ask an Irishman today what his religion is and he'll most likely tell you "I'm an agnostic, thank God".

Saint
Patrick

 

I'll tell you what, I don't have any more of an inside track on our patron saint than anyone else, but I know a line of rubbish when I see it. For example, from "authoritative" sources I have it that he was born in Scotland / Wales / England / Cornwall / France. Most agree that he was the son of a wealthy Roman official, but others claim his daddy was a Briton and a churchman and his grand-daddy a priest (now there's an auspicious beginning to the church in Ireland). Almost all sources suggest that he was captured during a raid by Irish pirates / brigands / robbers / ne'er-do-wells who sold him into slavery in Antrim. But Irish folklore as recorded by the Annalists (who were invariably priests) attribute his capture to Niall Mór (Niall of the Nine Hostages) who was a a bit of a step above pirate, being High King of Ireland. And, as his name suggests, Niall had a tendency toward taking hostages rather than slaves, so Patrick's Daddy either wasn't as rich as is claimed, or didn't give a toss about his son, as he apparently didn't or couldn't fork over the ransom. It is generally agreed that Patrick was sixteen when captured and remained in Ireland for six years, after which time he escaped. But his six years in Ireland had apparently imbued him with the, now legendary, Irish homing instinct. Rather than taking the short trip from Scotland / Wales / England / Cornwall / France, he decided on the scenic route (another Irish trait) and came back via Rome, becoming a priest en route. On fire with the Christian spirit, he returned to Ireland to convert the pagan natives, which task he achieved singlehandedly, using various forms of trickery including snake banishing, bonfire lighting and slight of hand with shamrocks. By the time of his death, the whole island was converted and the Irish went on to further convert the rest of the world! Sorry, but this simply doesn't wash. Though Ireland is not big, there is no way that one man could walk it in a lifetime, taking sufficient time to convert everyone he met along the way. My gut feeling on Patrick is that he was probably a good story teller. The native Irish liked nothing more than a good story - in fact the same holds true today. The story of Christianity, even if you are not Christian, is a good one. I can picture in my mind's eye Patrick sitting around the fire in the evening relating the stories of the bible to the locals of the day and their being fascinated by them. The Irish never had much of a written tradition and employed bards to pass down their folklore. After hundreds of years of spinning the same yarns, these guys must have beeen thrilled to have a new story to tell. I have to believe that this is how Patrick managed to spread his message. As it spread, it became intermingled with the local lore, so Yule became Christmas, the goddess of Spring was replaced by Mary (later repersonified as Saint Brigid), etc. I'd need Donna here to give me the entire list of "pagan" festivals that have been christianised. Side note: the Roman Church was very much male oriented, but the Celtic Irish viewed men and women as equal, which view persisted in Brehon Law up until the arrival of the Normans in the 12th century. I am convinced that it was the Irish missionaries who later spread out all over Europe, that elevated the position of women within the church and elevated Mary and the female saints to recognised positions.
So, my take on St. Patrick is that there probably was such a person but that the man honoured today and about whom all the various stories are told is probably a amalgam of many people.
Some observations about Saint Patrick's Day - March 17th
1. It is basically an American Holiday. Americans who come to Ireland for the day must be really dissappointed. The last time I actually watched a parade (in Dublin) I really felt sorry for the poor majorettes, with their short skirts and bare legs being blasted by icy snow showers.
2. Stop calling it St. Patty's Day!!!! Patty is not an acceptable abbreviation of Patrick (though it may be an abbreviation of Patricia). Besides, a patty is akin to a burger and this is German! Not even the wildest stories have Saint Patrick being German. Acceptable abbreviations are St. Paddy (unless you are English) and St. Pat.
3. The legend that "real" shamrock only grows on Irish soil is nonsense. All species of Trifolium and Medicago (the botanical species worn as shamrock) will grow practically anywhere. It's almost impossible to find growing wild in Ireland before March 17th, but from March 18th onwards it spreads like wildfire - especially in my lawn and flower beds.
4. The best way to spend St. Patrick's Day is in front of a nice fire, outside of a nice hot whiskey!
5. In Ireland, corned beef, cabbage and potatoes is NOT the traditional St. Patrick's Day meal. In fact, corned beef is almost impossible to find outside Dublin. Bacon and cabbage is probably much more traditional, but there is no traditional St. Patrick's Day meal.
6. Green beer is an American invention. The only time I ever saw green beer in Ireland is when I once left an undrunk pint sit undisturbed for a month.
7. The coming of St. Patrick's Day is like a starter pistol to Irish politicians in their lemming-like rush to evacuate the country.
8. St. Patrick's Day is, to the Irish tourism industry, a bit like Groundhog Day to Americans. They look outside and if they don't see the shadows of tourists, they go back to sleep for another six weeks.
9. Patrick is no longer the most popular personal name for boys in Ireland - it is Connor. Don't get me started on Saint Connor!!!

Currency

The official unit of currency in Ireland is now the Euro which has replaced the Irish Pound (in the Irish language Punt - pronounced "poont"). However, the REAL until of currency in Ireland is the "brown envelope". This requires some explaining. Ireland has more bureaucracy per head of population than most countries (this is opinion and not backed up by lies, damn lies or statistics). Because of the multi-layered nature of this bureaucratic system, most issues that require handling become caught up ever increasing circles of shuffling and buck passing. This includes issues such as, but not limited to, planning permission, issuing of permits for various purposes and a whole series of other activities which I may not mention for fear on ending up in court. It seems that the only way to extract oneself from the infinite vortex is by waving a brown envelop (filled with cash) at an appropriate section of the bureaucracy Strangely, everybody in Ireland has known about this for many years - nay decades, hence my surprise at the national shock when it was revealed that a form Taoiseach (that's Prime Minister in English) received 8.5 million in hard currency (brown envelopes) over twenty years.

Politics

There are two political parties in Ireland - the ones that are in and the ones that aren't. Every few years we have an election and even though people may vote for change, the ones that are in go on doing the same as the last ones that were in, even if the ones that are in now are the ones that were out before, even though they promised that that wouldn't. In other words, we are no different than any other country in the world. The ones that are in claim the credit for everything that is going well as do the ones that are not in (on the basis that is is all because of what they did when they were in). The ones that are not in blame the ones that are in for everything that is not quite right, while the ones that are in say it is all because of the mess they inherited from the one that were in but are now not in any more. In truth, very few of them could organise a good dog fight, let alone run a country (albeit a small one). Here's an interesting statistic - if the USA had as many Congressmen per head of population as we have TDs (Teachta Dala - Members of Parliament), there would be about 10,000 of them! But back to explaining politics. Ireland (the bit that's not part of the UK - I will get to that part - I promise), has a President that is elected every seven years (unless the President manages to bag a nice job with the United Nations in the meantime). A President can serve up to two terms then retire on a big pension. The President has no power and is essentially a guardian of the Constitution. Mostly the President goes around opening festivals and the like. An exception the this general rule was former President, Mary Robinson, who went around the world visiting poor countries and being high-profile in a most unprecedented manner. She landed a big job with the U.N. There are two houses of the Oireachteas (irr-ock-tass) - the Seanad (pronounced shannadd meaning Senate) and the Dail (pronounced Dawl meaning lower house). The Senate is just plain weird. Very few people get to vote for senators - I do, because I am a University graduate, but most people don't. It's quite an exclusive club and apart from being a University graduate, I'm not sure what else you can do to get a vote. The vote doesn't mean much anyway, because the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) gets to nominate fifteen (I think) senators, which ensures that whoever is in, is also "in" in the Senate. It's not quite democracy, but it sure keeps the brown envelopes on one side of the house. The Dail or Lower House is where real democracy can be seen. The various political parties nominate candidates at election time (this nomination process itself it a real eye opener - party branches elect their nominees and if headquarters doesn't like the result, they "impose" their own candidates). Then the general public get to pick from the list that is presented to them. Of course, if you are not a member of any particular party (and that's most of us) then you have no input into the candidate selection process. Therefore, you only get to vote for who "they" think you should be allowed to vote for. Ireland uses a voting system known as "proportional representation" which involves "multiple seat constituencies" and "transferrable votes". Not only that, but the number of seats (jobs) available in each constituency varies from three to five. So, instead of voting "X" for the guy you like, you get to vote "1", "2", "3" .... for the guy you like best, second best and so on. The nice thing about this is that you can really insult a candidate you don't like by giving him your "27". So, you might have 20 candidates fighting for 3, 4 or five seats. They don't knock at your door looking for your vote, but rather for your "number one" (or your "number two" if they think you're joined at the hip to another candidate. When the votes are counted, candidates need to reach a "quota" number to get elected. This "quota" is determined by a complex formula which is essentially based on the number of valid votes divided by the number of candidates (plus one to the power of the number of brown envelopes in the voting box). When all the "number ones" are counted, any candidate that has more than the quota is elected - but that's not the end of it! The votes he has over and above the quota are called his surplus and these are up for grabs by the other candidates. They take the surplus, and look at the "number twos" - giving them to the other candidates as dictated by the voting pattern. When they run out of surpluses, they start eliminating the candidates with the lowest number of "number ones" and redistribute their votes in accordance with the "number twos". This whole process is repeated with number "threes", "fours" and so on until the required number of candidates have been elected. If you have actually read this far, I have no doubt that you are asking "why have they got this daft system". Well, the official answer is that it ensures that smaller parties and independents have a better chance of being elected with this type of system than with a straight vote set up. The real reason is that the system is so complicated, that it requires a huge amount of bodies to administer, count and supervise. This means more jobs for Irish people and wider distribution of the tax take - in other words, it's another way to waste tax payers' money. The nice thing about it is that even Microsoft, with all its resources, couldn't possibly write a computer program that could count the votes.
I haven't really mentioned the political parties up to now - mainly because party affiliation is largely irrelevant - as I hope you will understand from all the foregoing - if not please reread.
The biggest party is Fianna Fail (pronounced fee-anna-fawl meaning soldiers of destiny). The party owes its origin to Eamonn DeValera (an American whose ancestry is still a matter of some dispute). FF is one half of a split that occurred in Sinn Fein (pronounced Shinn Fayne meaning ourselves) which was the "Irish" party in the late 19th and early 20th century that campaigned for independence from Britain. The "original" Sinn Fein should not be confused with the Sinn Fein of today, which despite protestation to the contrary is a quite distinct organisation.
Next we have Fine Gael (Finneh Gale meaning the clan of the Gaels). This is the other half of the former Sinn Fein. The cause of the split was the treaty between Ireland and Britain which partitioned Ireland into 26 counties that were to become self governing and 6 that remained part of Britain. Fianna Fail, in essence, represent the group that opposed this treaty (in favour of a 32 county Ireland) while Fine Gael descends from the group that supported it (on the basis that "we take what we can and fight on for the rest"). Fine Gael would see their founding hero as Michael Collins.
(For an insight into the politics of the time I recommend the movie "Michael Collins" - available on video.)
Next in line comes the Labour Party - rapidly growing in popularity. Like most socialist parties in Europe, Labour has moved significantly to the right in recent years. This resulted in the emergence of a new socialist party - Democratic left - dedicated to what Americans might call "pinko" politics. But this party has now been absorbed into mainstream Labour.
To the right (or at least that's what they would like you to think) we have the Progressive Democrats. This is actually a splinter group of Fianna Fail, which disassociated itself with its parent because of perceived corruption within the latter (brown envelope syndrome). In an attempt to differentiated themselves, they grabbed the right flank of Irish politics and might perhaps be equated with the Republican Party in the USA of the Tories in Britain. Most people, including myself, believe that the PDs will either disappear altogether or be reabsorbed into FF.
Sinn Fein is the only all-Ireland Party, though it enjoys significantly less popularity south of the border than it does in the north. Despite attempts to project a contrary image, this is effectively they political wing of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) - a terrorist organisation. Don't get me started!

Independents can play a a more significant part in politics in Ireland than is most other countries. In recent years it has occurred more than once that non-party candidates have held the balance of power. The Dublin TD Tony Gregory, held out for a major inner city development plan before he agreed to support the government of the day. Not only did he hold out, but he won and the results can be seen in Dublin city today. In my own current constituency, a Mr. Foxe (sorry, but I forget his forename) campaigned on the single issue of an upgrade of Roscommon Hospital and won. The government was forced to accede to his wishes in return for his support.

Pure
Celt

The Irish race is pure Celtic. Ahem!!! In fact, prior to the arrival of the Celts, sometime around 500BC, Ireland was populated by somewhere between five and seven other racial groups (some that I can remember are the Parthelonians, Nemedians, Fomorians, Fir Bolg and Tuatha de Dannan). I find it unlikely that successive settlers obliterated the pre-existing population, so racial intermixing must have occurred. Since then, we have seen the coming of the Vikings, Normans, English and Scots as well as less extensive "invasions" by Spanish, French, Huguenots, Germans, Hungarians, Italians, Chinese, Africans, and so on. If anyone wants to argue this point with me, they will first have to convince me that Phil Lynott wasn't Irish.

Celtic
Designs

This is a personal rant - just ignore it if you wish. I am SICK of websites that promote Celtic designs such as (and I quote from one such site without wishing to single it out from the many similarly misguided)
"Geometric motifs have always prominent in Celtic artwork Some of the motifs or symbols date back to 3000 BC and can still be seen today on stone carvings. Newgrange in Ireland, is one of the oldest burial mounds in Europe and is highly decorated with stone carvings depicting spirals, lozenges, chevrons and key patterns."
Now, Newgrange date from 3200 BC - the Celts came to Ireland about 500 BC - with possibly a few earlier incursions. The symbolism that can still be seen in Newgrange today (and it is well worth a visit) is PRE-CELTIC. The Iron Age people who carved these designs are known in Irish mythology as the Tuatha De Danann. These designs may be Irish, but they are NOT Celtic! The Newgrange site was revered by the Celts, probably because the were in awe of the Tuatha De Danann, who were regarded as having magical abilities. Today superstitions still survive that this early race concealed themselves in the fairy mounds and fairy forts that dot the landscape and these same superstitions give rise to the legendary leprechauns.

Irish
Jokes

If Ireland itself is not one big joke, then it certainly has generated plenty of the same. One thing, however, that you must understand, is that the only people permitted to tell Irish jokes are the Irish. So if you are American, British, French, Polish, Russian, etc., bugger off and tell jokes about your own country. And ... if you choose to ignore this warning, at least tell them properly, for example, the correct joke is ...

Q. How do you confuse an Irishman?
A. Place two shovels against a wall and tell him to take his pick.

 and Not

A. Place two shovels against a wall and tell him to pick one.

My personal favorite relates to the bodhran (a hand held drum held in one hand and beaten with a stick or "tipper" held in the other). It must be understood that there is a large number of really rotten bodhran players in Ireland.

Q. What's the difference between a bodhran player and reflexology.
A. Reflexology bucks up the feet ...

This one comes from my brother Barry and I take no blame for it. By way of background, the uileann pipes look a bit like Scottish bagpipes or warpipes except that they have more bits sticking out and have a bellows that is operated by arm movement rather than a mouthpiece. So ...

A guy walks into a bar with an octopus under his arm and bets the drinkers that the octopus can play any musical instrument they can produce. To make a long story short, the octopus rattles off Chopin on a piano, Vivaldi on a violin and so on. There's a session going on in the corner and someone suggest that the octopus try out the uileann pipes. Well, for fifteen minutes the octupus wrestles with the contraption and nary a sound. His owner whispers to it "don't tell me you can't play it!", to which the octopus replies, "play it? I can't even get the knickers off it!"

An American was passing down Moore Street, a famous open air fruit and vegetable market in Dublin city centre. He felt a little peckish, so he asked one lady for a dozen tomatoes, which she gladly dispensed. Checking the bag, he noticed that there were only eleven so he remarked, "Geez Ma'am, I in the States a dozen is twelve, is it not the same here?". To which she replied, "Son, it's the same here, but one of them lousy tomatoes was rotten, so I trun it away for yeh".

This story is true.
In my youth I remember well a TV show called "The School Around the Corner". The host was Paddy Crosbie and the idea behind the show was to gather a bunch of kids from a school and interview them individually. Now the bold Paddy was a real Dubliner and sometimes the country kids confused him. One such was a young lad who when asked for a "funny incident" described how his father, a farmer, had a horse who got sick and had to be put down. Apparently, the farmer first dug the horse's grave then shoved the poor animal in and shot it. Paddy Crosbie was aghast at this story and asked "you mean he shot the poor horse in the hole?". "No Sir", replied the child, unabashed, "he shot it in the head".

And finally (with thanks to Perry Garrett for reminding me)

Q: Why did God invent alcohol?
A: To keep the Irish from taking over the world.

Sláinte!

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