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The best illustrated histories and coffee table books about Ireland and the Irish.

It’s no secret that Ireland is a photogenic country, so there are many glossy coffee table books published every year showcasing our gilded country houses, unbelievably tall cliffs, crumbling castles, and scenic vistas. Here are a few of the ones you’ll find on my coffee table, and that visitors are always drawn towards.

Vanishing IrelandVanishing Ireland: Friendship and Community by James Fennell & Turtle Bunbury

The Vanishing Ireland series focuses on interviewing the oldest and most-experienced members of the Irish community. The reminiscences they unlock are a fascinating chronicle of how the country has changed multiple times over the last century, and the wonderful photography reminds us that a vital generation with first-hand memories of rebellion, independence, emigration, the arrival of automobiles, phones, televisions, and computers are still alive and well, and are a vibrant part of their communities.  Read the rest of this entry »

An interesting contrast came to light last week when a new survey of Ireland’s favorite brands was announced. In contrast to the top global Irish brands, which are almost all alcohol brands, the favorite brands in Ireland are all food brands, rather than alcohol — so much for the stereotypes that the Irish are only interested in drink.

Although there are some world-famous brands (like Heinz) on the list, most are found only in Ireland!

Here’s a rundown of some of Ireland’s favorite foods — that everyone should try on their trip to Ireland — and a few helpful links to help you find them internationally. (After all, once you’ve tasted heaven, nothing else will do.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Bloomsday is the annual celebration of all things James Joyce, but mostly his love-it or loathe-it masterpiece, Ulysses.

James Joyce Bloomsday 2014

James Joyce, author of Ulysses

When I lived in Dublin many years ago, I noticed an annual upsurge of American grad students hanging out in the pubs around Trinity, boasting unpublished manuscripts analyzing Ulysses, and claiming to be in town for some conference or other and hoping to find a publisher. If half of them really had a book completed, it would have taken half the Amazon rain forest to print them. But, I suppose it was a measure of the cultural impact Joyce’s relatively difficult novel has had across the world.

Apparently, there were super-fans and students of the novel quite early, as Joyce mentioned a group celebrating “Bloom’s Day” in a 1924 letter. The novel had been serialized between 1918 and 1920, and the first complete edition was only published in 1922. It’s all the more remarkable that people were already acting it out because copies had to be smuggled into Ireland. Though never actually banned in Joyce’s homeland, that was only because the novel was initially not offered for sale openly.  Read the rest of this entry »

Just who was Jonathan Swift, political satirist and author of Gulliver’s Travels? A new biography by Leo Damrosch paints a vivid and most compelling picture of a multi-faceted and contradictory individual.

Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.

Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

Leo Damrosch’s new biography of Jonathan Swift, Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, is clearly an attempt to write the definitive work. The previous incumbent weighed in at 3000 pages, so its approach was clearly to overwhelm the reader with detail and sheer volume of material. Damrosch is more selective, and turns the copious material of Swift’s life (letters, diaries, account books, pamphlets — acknowledged and anonymous — books and more) into a vibrant and colorful life.  Read the rest of this entry »

Today (May 1) is Bealtaine; happy first day of summer to you all! But, what exactly is Beltaine?

The Wishing Tree at the Hill of Tara

The May Bush/Wishing Tree(s) on the Hill of Tara.

A short perusal of online resources about Bealtaine quickly conflates every “fire festival” tradition together in an unfortunate mish-mash. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I do like to know the difference between one festival and another and the later Christian traditions that have come to replace them. So, here’s a summary of what Bealtaine is really be about in an Irish context.  Read the rest of this entry »

May is a very good month to visit Ireland. The average temperature is in the low 50s, with occasional highs into the 60s (F). Spring is turning into summer, so the magnificent landscape is dotted with new-born lambs, at least 35 of the 40 recognized shades of green are in evidence, and wildflowers are blooming in abundance. Ah, it’s grand, so ‘tis.

 

Ireland May Festival MapTo launch the summer in the best way possible, the first weekend in May is a bank holiday weekend (meaning most businesses and schools are closed on the Monday) in celebration of May Day or the ancient feast of Bealtaine.

Here are the best of the festivals and major events taking place in Ireland during May 2014. Enjoy!  Read the rest of this entry »

John Boyne is one of Ireland’s most-versatile writers; over the past 14 years he’s written eight novels for adults and four for children. His most-recent book is This House is Haunted, a classic ghost story.

This House is Haunted by John Boyne

This House is Haunted by John Boyne

“I blame Charles Dickens for the death of my father.”

This great opening line sets the scene perfectly for a 19th-century ghost story. Beginning in London in 1867, the story concerns a 21-year-old woman, Eliza Caine, whose father dies suddenly. In her grief she takes a job as a governess at a decaying old manor house, Gaudlin Hall, in rural Norfolk, where mysterious things are afoot.  Read the rest of this entry »

Ireland has an active rail network between major cities, and taking the train can be a very enjoyable and comfortable way to see the country.  However, if you do your homework, you can also take a journey into the past on a vintage stream locomotive, in company of many people who share a passion for Irish history and rail travel.

#171 "Slieve Gullion." This star of the film Michael Collins is currently being restored. (Credit: E Friel/streamtrainsireland.com)

#171 “Slieve Gullion.” This star of the film Michael Collins is currently being restored. (Credit: E Friel/streamtrainsireland.com)

The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland restores and maintains steam-powered locomotives from the golden age of Irish railways. Some are fully operational and used for mainline excursions throughout the year, a couple are used for shunting and short journeys, and many others are actively being repaired and restored to their former glory. Their museum in Whitehead (near Carrickfergus) is an old train depot, where all the engines and vintage rolling stock are stored and restoration work is carried out — open by appointment only apart from “summer steam” open days in the summer months.  Read the rest of this entry »

Brian Boru began life as the son of a minor regional king, but he ended it as the first High King of Ireland from outside the Uí Néill dynasty. 2014 marks the 1000th anniversary of his death, and a great many events and exhibitions are planned to commemorate the battle.

The Battle of Clontarf by Hugh Frazier, an example of the battle as nationalistic propaganda. (source: wikipedia commons)

The Battle of Clontarf by Hugh Frazier, an example of the battle as national propaganda. (Source: wikipedia commons)

 

Fin Dwyer, creator of the excellent Irish History Podcast, calls the Battle of Clontarf “the most-famous and most-misunderstood battle in Irish history.” It’s easy to see why. During the many centuries of rebellion and resentment against the English occupiers, the Battle of Clontarf was held up as a great example of the Irish throwing off their occupiers (in this reading, the sole enemy was the Vikings) — indeed, while I was at national school in the 1980’s it was very much the official line. (Witness High Frazier’s romantic depiction of the struggle above.) Modern historians have largely rejected this simplified interpretation. The Battle of Clontarf was fought to put down a rebellion against Brian’s authority, not expel invaders.  Read the rest of this entry »

Irish names can appear daunting to non-native-speakers at first glance. There appear to be all those extra consonants, oodles of silent letters, and erratic capitalization. Then there’s the matter of the extra words between the surname and first names; what are they about?

Map of Irish names

The Family Names of County Cork. Detail from storymaps.esri.com

Male Surname Prefix

Let’s demystify the meaning of Irish names, starting with the male prefixes, as those are the ones more people are familiar with.

Mac — means “son of” — anglicized as Mc or left as Mac.

Ó — means “grandson of” — anglicized as O’.

I should say that Mac and Ó originally meant son of or grandson of, because today family names are usually settled and don’t change with the generations.  Read the rest of this entry »

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