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Wicklow is a great corner of Ireland if what you love is rugged scenery and outdoor pursuits. The mountains are picturesque, windswept, and just crying out to be the backdrop for your own romantic adventure. Helen Fairbairn’s Dublin & Wicklow: A Walking Guide will ensure you don’t get lost on your trek, nor (if you follow her advice) will you find yourself hopelessly out of your depth.

Dublin & Wicklow: A Walking Guide by Helen Fairbairn

Dublin & Wicklow: A Walking Guide by Helen Fairbairn

Beginning in Dublin, the routes Fairbairn details take you more-or-less gradually further and further into Wicklow, which is useful if you intend to follow the Wicklow Way for several days, or string a couple of paths together for a longer hiking experience. (Note on jargon: Americans go hiking, the Irish go walking. I use them interchangeably.) Each walk is graded for difficulty, so you can quickly find hikes appropriate for your party’s fitness level. Read the rest of this entry »

Darragh McKeon’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air is simply one of the best novels I’ve read this year. Using the Chernobyl meltdown as a prism through which to view the collapsing Soviet society of the late 1980s, McKeon weaves an incisive and deeply humane tale of powerless people dealing with corruption and change to the best of their abilities.

Two story lines converge in the shadow of a shattered nuclear plant. Dr. Grigory Brovkin is a rare honorable man amid a society of widespread corruption. He still cares for his ex-wife, Maria, a former-journalist now working a dull job in a factory. Maria wrote some articles in underground newspapers, and although supposedly anonymous, she lost her job and was forced into a divorce in order to protect Grigory’s career. While Grigory is whisked off to Chernobyl to treat the dying, Maria remains in Moscow, dealing with her precarious legal limbo. Read the rest of this entry »

For the last few years, parts of rural Ireland have been convulsed by arguments over fracking, a process of extracting shale gas from bedrock after fracturing that rock by pumping water and chemicals underground, allowing the gas to escape back up the borehole.

Endangered IrelandThe technique has created the appearance of a financial boom in the US, as it taps hard-to-reach gas deposits, but the damage the technique appears to cause is hard to dismiss (although politicians are too quick to do so). I say the “appearance” of a financial boom, because the companies are not responsible for cleanup or pollution as a consequence of fracking, expenses which local communities may have to deal with for decades after the fracking companies have left town. The frequency of earthquakes around fracking sites rises alarmingly, methane and other chemicals can pollute drinking water sources, such as rivers and wells, and there are simply no long-term studies of the environmental effects of the chemicals they use. For a country dependent on agriculture and tourism, fracking represents a major threat to Ireland’s long-term economic future in return for a short-term — and likely largely off-shore — gain, to say nothing of the threat to rural communities which could be left with poisoned streams, decimated bird and fish populations, and contaminated drinking water. Read the rest of this entry »

If you want to go off the beaten path in Ireland and wow your friends with spectacular photographs, you need to find the Dark Hedges.

dark hedges lighterOne of the most-photographed, yet least-visited, places in Ireland is an avenue of beech trees along the Bregagh Road near Ballymoney in Co. Antrim, known fancifully as the Dark Hedges. Planted over 200 years ago, the trees were originally intended to enhance the avenue leading to the Georgian splendor of Gracehill House, owned by the Stuart family. Whoever had the original idea was a true visionary, as the full glory of a beech avenue would not be visible in their lifetime because the trees take so long to grow. Read the rest of this entry »

The most quintessentially Irish experience you can have is not posing with an over-priced pint in Temple Bar, nor wearing an aran jumper in a futile attempt to block out an Atlantic gale, it’s one you can run into any evening of the year just a few miles outside any Irish town or city: getting stuck behind a herd of cows coming in from the fields.

Rush hour, Irish style.

Rush hour, Irish style.

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The Giro d’Italia came to Ireland this summer, and you can still trace its path through various parts of the country by the way everything was painted pink.

McCollam's Restaurant and Pub went completely pink for the Giro d'Italia, and hung a lot of bicycle wheels on the building for good measure.

McCollam’s Restaurant and Pub went completely pink for the Giro d’Italia, and hung a lot of bicycle wheels on the building for good measure.

The village of Cushendall in Co. Antrim, was every excited about the Giro, and appears to have gone out of their way to get in the appropriate spirit. While other communities made do with a few posters and the odd splash of pink, Cushendall went all out, painting buildings, cars, and bicycles, and hanging pink bunting everywhere. Read the rest of this entry »

August kicks off with a (usually) balmy bank holiday weekend, and the events keep coming throughout the month.

FleadhCheoilSligo-Logo2-461x335

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By summer, most fairy trees in Ireland are sagging under the weight of misguided offerings. Many are dying from the accumulated damage. Yesterday, my kids and I joined in an effort to save the rag trees on the Hill of Tara.

Fairy Trees in Ireland

Rag trees on the Hill of Tara after cleaning. (Click the picture to see what they usually look like in summer.)

The Tara & Skryne Preservation Group organized a clean up because the two rag trees on the Hill of Tara (they grow together, so appear to be one) were becoming not just unsightly under the weight of inappropriate offerings, but were actually being damaged by them. After seeing the call-to-arms on Facebook, we joined 30-or-so other old souls who cared enough to spend some time cutting the clutter away. Read the rest of this entry »

Dublin has many famous landmarks, but one that should be more famous is the “Hungry Tree,” which is slowly digesting a park bench.

Hungry Tree 1In the grounds of the King’s Inns, the training ground of centuries of Irish lawyers and barristers, stands a vast London Plane tree of unknown age. Although listed as one of Ireland’s Heritage Trees by the Tree Council of Ireland, but its real claim to fame is the park bench it’s been slowly swallowing up over time.  Read the rest of this entry »

What if alcoholism was a competitive sport? How would the professional drinkers differ from small-town drunks? That’s the provocative premise of Belfast novelist Jason Johnson’s new comic novel Sinker.

Sinker by Jason Johnson (Liberties Press)

Sinker by Jason Johnson (Liberties Press)

Baker Forley is a young man from Derry with an unusual talent, he can drink more than most people and remain upright without puking (instant disqualification during a competition). After failing at conventional life, he attempts to perfect this one skill. To this end, he finds a manager in Ratface, a retired American competitive drinker, or “Sinker” in the slang of the pro-drinking circuit. After initial success as a newcomer, and having gained the nickname “The Reactor” for reasons that only make sense to the inebriated, he is invited to an exclusive event in Mallorca, featuring only the best sinkers in the world, “The Bullfight.” Read the rest of this entry »

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