Yesterday, U2 unexpectedly dropped a new album, Songs of Innocence, on the world, and released it for free to anyone with an iTunes account.  But, is it any good?

U2's surprise album, Songs of Innocence. Free on iTunes until mid-October!

U2’s surprise album, Songs of Innocence. Free on iTunes until mid-October!

I say they released the album unexpectedly because although there has been chatter about a new album for years, we’ve grown accustomed to U2 taking a long time in the studio. They certainly don’t need the money, so they go to great lengths to get the songs right before releasing anything.  At the same time, there’s been a general sense over the last couple of albums of a band growing middle-aged and questioning whether they still have what it takes to create new music. Everyone changes, but U2 have clearly been asking themselves “Why are we doing this? Do we what to keep making music?” At a time when younger bands are coining it in on the nostalgia circuit and making no attempt to record new material, surely the temptation must be to take the easier road of touring a greatest hits show and reveling in past glory?

Songs of Innocence shows that any thoughts the band might have been entertaining about taking that road have been banished unceremoniously! Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

September is chock-full of festivals and events as Ireland strives to enjoy the last of the pleasant summer weather.

 

lisdoonvarna logoLisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival

Lisdoonvarna, Co. Clare – August 29 – October 5, 2014

Despite the TV-movie cliches, Ireland’s premier matchmaking festival has long moved with the times. The modern matchmaking festival features six weeks of music, entertainment, and opportunities for those seeking romance to mix and mingle in the heart of Co. Clare. From country music, to techno, to nostalgia acts from the 1960s, there’s something for every age group — and yes, there’s even gay weekend to help same-sex singles meet their mate.

Sky Road TV+Film Festival

Clifden, Co. Galway – September 5-7, 2014

A new festival pledging to bring the best new Irish film and television to a wider audience. 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 »

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