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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 »

Fore Abbey is one of the lesser-known monastic ruins in Ireland, which is a shame, as it’s a great place for a family day out, offering places to climb, a stream to play in, a rag tree to decorate, and hills to explore. 

Fore Abbey Rag Tree

The Rag Tree with Fore Abbey in the background.

Founded about 630 by St. Fechin, Fore Abbey lies near Lough Lene in Co. Westmeath. The original monastic community was largely rebuilt by the Benedictines in the 13th and 15th centuries, and these comprise most of the ruins you can visit today.

In its heyday, there were seven “Wonders of Fore,” but not all are verifiable anymore. These were:

  1. The monastery in a bog
  2. The mill without a stream
  3. Water that flows uphill
  4. The tree that won’t burn
  5. Water that won’t boil
  6. The anchorite in a cell
  7. The lintel-stone raised by St. Fechin’s prayers

Read the rest of this entry »

Some people say that Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Chocolate tastes different on opposite sides of the border between Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland. So, we happily put that claim to the test.

Cadbury's Dairy Milk as purchased in the Republic of Ireland (L) and Northern Ireland (R)

Cadbury’s Dairy Milk as purchased in the Republic of Ireland (L) and Northern Ireland (R)

My family are big chocolate fans. When we return from a trip to Ireland, we bring quite a lot of chocolate back with us (Roses and various Cadbury bars are the favorites). So, when a friend mentioned stocking up on Dairy Milk in Northern Ireland because it tasted better, I had to test it out. On a trip to the Giant’s Causeway we purchased a “Northern” Dairy Milk, and later bought a “Southern” one at a Dunnes Stores in Co. Meath. Then, we attempted a quasi-scientific (aka, totally unscientific) test to establish if they taste the same or not. Read the rest of this entry »

One shouldn’t look to fiction for lessons from history, but reading the collected stories of one author across his whole career inevitably exposes the reader to the changing tides of the culture he writes about. Bernard MacLaverty’s Collected Stories displays both his genius with words, and the complexity of life in Belfast. 

Collected Stories by Bernard MacLaverty (Jonathan Cape)

Collected Stories by Bernard MacLaverty (Jonathan Cape)

MacLaverty is a meticulous craftsman, but not a showy writer. He avoids elaborate phrases that draw attention to themselves, and instead displays a sharp ear for natural dialogue. I sometimes feel schitzophrenic that I can thrill to the jagged offbeat stories of Colin Barrett one day, and be held in thrall by MacLaverty’s restrained elegance the next. Surely they’re worlds apart in focus and execution? But, while I enjoy a young whipper-snapper like Kevin Barry pushing the dialogue in his stories to heightened extremes, I know that — although I might wish they would — few people really talk like that. Barry entertains by stretching Ireland’s musical and inventive language to its limits, but reading MacLaverty, we recognize the truth of his dialogue; he catches the regional inflections, the distinctive vocal tics, and unconscious phrases that fill the Belfast air, filling his characters with immediacy and life. Read the rest of this entry »

On an unassuming road between Ballymoney and Ballycastle in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, you’ll come upon the tiny community of Armoy, which contains a slightly unusual round tower.

Armoy Round Tower. (L) the step below the door. (R) view from the inside looking out. (Photos: atriptoIreland.com)

Armoy Round Tower. (L) the step below the door. (R) view from the inside looking out. (Photos: atriptoIreland.com)

At first glance, the only unusual thing about the meticulously kept graveyard of St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland in Armoy is the fish decorating its weather vane, but as you come around the bend in the road that wraps around the church you’ll see the tiny round tower that stands beside the church’s more-modern (1869) bell tower. Read the rest of this entry »

Historian Andrew Hughes turns to fiction to tell the fascinating tale of an ordinary man in the the pay of Dublin Castle spymasters in 1841.

The Convictions of John Delahunt by Andrew Hughes (Transworld Ireland)

The Convictions of John Delahunt by Andrew Hughes (Transworld Ireland)

Judicial records note the fate of a man named John Delahunt, convicted of murder in 1841. But the historical record was silent on the reasons why this man spied on his fellow Dubliners. After further research, Hughes turned to fiction in order to fill in the gaps and bring the tale he uncovered to life. The result is his impressive debut novel, The Convictions of John Delahunt: A Story of MurderRead the rest of this entry »

Nobel Prize-winning poet W.B.Yeats is County Sligo’s most-famous son. When you visit the town you can’t miss this visually striking statue of the poet.

The statue of W.B. Yeats in from of the Ulster Bank building, in Sligo town.

The statue of W.B. Yeats in front of the Ulster Bank building in Sligo town.

Created in 1989 by sculptor Ronan Gillespie, this statue was erected outside the Ulster Bank at the corner of Stephen Street and Markievicz Road (across the Garavogue River from the equally striking Glasshouse Hotel) on the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death. Among other reasons for this location was Yeats’ remark on receiving his Noble Prize that the Royal Palace in Stockholm resembled the Ulster Bank in Sligo. The statue also looks across the river at the Yeats Memorial Building, home to The Yeats Society and exhibitions about the poet.  Read the rest of this entry »

Schools are out, the sun is shining, and July is — among other things — the season for arts festivals!

 

CastlebarCastlebar International Walking Festival

Castlebar, Co. Mayo – July 3-6, 2014

The oldest walking festival in Ireland, the Castlebar International Four Days’ Walking Festival bills itself as “the ideal opportunity to walk and talk, to discover and share the bogs, rivers, mountains and unspoiled beauty of the West of Ireland with kindred spirits.”

 

Swift FestivalSwift Satire Festival

Trim, Co. Meath – 4-7 July, 2014

The Swift Satire Festival’s organizers describe their festival in simple terms: “We try to emulate Swift’s achievements by giving satirists a platform to hold a mirror up to society.” It’s really quite a unique date in the summer festival calendar, bringing together historians, comedians, astute observers of contemporary politics, and award-winning writers, for a thought-provoking and hilarious few days in beautiful small town.  Read the rest of this entry »

As we enter the “decade of centenaries” that marks 100 years since many of the founding events of the Irish Republic, a whole slew of books focusing on the revolution and subsequent civil war are being published.

Fergal Tobin’s The Irish Revolution: An Illustrated History 1912-1925 is an excellent one-volume introduction to this contentious corner of Irish history. The great strength of the book is, perhaps surprisingly, not the pictures and maps — although they are extensive and very well integrated into the text — but the clear way the author sets out the shifting political world views of Irish people at the time. One of the remarkable things about this time is that the population moved from a point where the partition of Ireland was not even conceivable in 1912, to becoming the only possible solution a decade later.  Read the rest of this entry »

Emma Donoghue follows her breakout international bestseller Room with a return to her favorite terrain, the historical novel.

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue (US cover)

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue (US cover)

Frog Music is set in San Francisco in 1876. The city is wealthy after the gold rush, rebuilt after the great fire, and a melting pot with people of every nation coming to seek their fortune, but it’s also a powder keg, with ethnic tensions running high due to an influx of Chinese laborers willing to work very cheap, a long drought, and an ongoing smallpox epidemic combining to keep everyone on edge.  Read the rest of this entry »

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