Category Archives: Business & Environment

Catching up with modern Ireland: November

I made my second trip of the year to Ireland in November. As in February, the weather was delightfully mild and mostly dry. As in America, more and more people seemed transfixed by their smart phones. In the West of Ireland, I noticed more wind turbines sprouting from fields and hilltops to supply electrical power to keep those phones charged. At several churches, Mass attendance remained thin, especially at the massive Galway Cathedral. (Below and bottom of the post.)

Here’s the monthly roundup for November:

      • “Successive Irish Governments have abandoned rural Ireland. Their vision is of a prosperous elite, big cities and a trickle down of wealth. A trickle that runs dry before it reaches rural Ireland,” Sinn Féin  President Mary Lou McDonald said. … “Rural Ireland isn’t dying. … The situation is far from perfect, but in contrast to the grim days when rural Ireland raised its sons and daughters for the boat, these days a mix of foreign and indigenous industrial employers has penetrated deep into provincial Ireland with high-quality, interesting and engaging, jobs,” Donal O’Donovan wrote in the Irish Independent.
      • Medical devices now make up almost 10 percent of all Irish exports. The Republic is second only to Germany as the largest European exporter of such equipment, The Irish Times reported. Most of the firms are clustered around Galway.
      • “Lessons from Northern Ireland for Americans who see political opponents as the enemy,op-ed in The Hill.
      • Ireland is moving to reinstate birthright citizenship, bucking the trend in other Western countries to tighten restrictions on immigration, The New York Times reported.
      • Tourism Ireland announced it will increase 2019 spending by €10 million, to €45 million, and will launch its first new global advertising campaign in seven years to help attract more overseas visitors to the island of Ireland. The “Fill your Heart with Ireland” campaign will launch during December in the United States, Britain, France and Germany, then roll out more than 20 other markets in the new year. The promotional boost is driven in part by concerns about Brexit.
      • “Is Ireland Really A Startup Nation?”, column in Forbes.
      • The Irish Aviation Authority is investigating the 9 November spotting by several commercial airline pilots of an unidentified flying object over the Republic. Some have speculated the fast-moving lights were probably meteorites entering Earth at a low angle. 

EU approves Brexit deal, tough UK vote pending

European Union (EU) have approved British Prime Minister Theresa May’s  Brexit package, setting the stage for a divisive and decisive vote by the British parliament on 11 December.

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, quoted by The Irish Times, said the deal allows for an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom (UK), including Northern Ireland, from the EU, scheduled for 29 March 2019.  It “assures us that there’ll be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and that we’ll continue to have tariff-free and quota free trade between Britain and Ireland, which is very important for our economy.”

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose votes are critical to May’s governing coalition, has said it would try to block the Brexit deal because it binds London to many EU rules, and could weaken the province’s ties to Britain. The agreement “is worse than no deal and worse than staying in the EU,” DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds, according to the BBC.

Business and farming groups in the North have urged the DUP to support the deal to provide certainty. Two years ago, Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, but the Leave side prevailed with strong support in England.

For now, both sides have agreed that unless they come up with a better plan in the next four months, the UK would remain locked inside the European customs union, obligated to respect most E.U. regulations on goods that pass between the two sides, including tariffs with the rest of the world.

In addition to the legally-binding Brexit language, the EU approved a non-binding political declaration on the future relationship with the UK. It contains a list of hoped-for outcomes on trade, customs inspections, tariffs, fisheries rights, aviation, and the ability of citizens to visit and live in the other’s territory, according to the Washington Post.

Car rental in Ireland? #BoycottBudget

I just finished my eighth trip to Ireland, which was grand, except for being mugged by Budget.ie. My 32-hour rental cost about $300.

In all my travels, I’ve never been so furious about price and service, whether car rentals (different firms), sleeping accommodations, food and beverage, or other shopping, tours, museums, and entertainment.

As in the past, I rented an automatic vehicle, which always costs more. I knew this. The main reason for my higher-than-normal charges, according to Budget, was due to booking through their Irish web portal, rather than its U.S. site. This locked me into collision damage waiver (CDW) insurance, unless I could provide written proof of coverage from my credit card company. On previous trips, renting from other companies, I waived such coverage because it is covered by my credit card.

Blog posts from the TripAdvisor and Sher She Goes offer more tips on renting a car in Ireland. The Car Rental Council of Ireland, which represents the industry, also has additional information about renting in the Republic and Northern Ireland.

I’m not alone in my negative experience with Budget. “Never use them,” is the simple advise of one of more than two dozen negative reviews on Yelp. I certainly agree. In Galway, I had to walk several blocks to retrieve my vehicle, which was filthy, from a dingy garage. I should have kept my business with Sixt or Dooley, which I’ve used in the past.

Budget is part of Avis Budget Group, which operates in 180 countries. The firm also owns Zipcar, Payless, and other brands. The Group had record $2.8 billion revenues for the third quarter ending 30 September, according to U.S. regulatory filings.

My November gouging by Budget will now contribute to the company’s fourth quarter revenues, but it won’t take bread from my mouth, thanks be to God. And life is too short to spend much more time on this topic.

My last word: #BoycottBudget.

You’d be better off hiking this road in Donegal than driving a rental car. Photo by Rita Wilson/Donegal Film Office.

On returning to Ireland, a look back at previous trips

I’m traveling to Ireland for the Newspaper & Periodical History Forum of Ireland’s 2018 Conference, “The Press & the Vote,” at NUI Galway. Watch for my tweets (@markaholan) and posts over the coming week.

First, here are links to photo features from my last two trips.

February 2018

Douglas Hyde Center in Co. Roscommon.

July 2016

Belfast mural of nationalist hero Bobby Sands, who died on hunger strike in 1981. (July 2016)

Catching up with modern Ireland: October

As of 30 October, traffic on this site surpassed our highest annual total, in 2016. Thanks very much for your readership and support, including several of you who emailed suggestions for this month’s roundup, which starts in arts and ends in crime:

  • Anna Burns became the first Northern Irish author to win the Man Booker prize, for Milkman, a novel about a young woman being sexually harassed by a powerful man during the Troubles. Authors John Banville, Anne Enright, and Roddy Doyle of the Irish Republic won the prize earlier.
  • On Broadway, Jez Butterworth’s “thrilling new play” The Ferryman “mines the folksy clichés of Irish archetypes — as garrulous, drink-loving, pugilistic souls — to find the crueler patterns of a centuries-old cycle of violence and vengeance,” according to this New York Times review.
  • “The extent to which many English people are ignorant about Ireland has become painfully clear. … I’ve noticed a tonal shift in the way I and other Irish people speak about the English. Our anger is more sincere. We are more ready to call them out on all those centuries of excess.” I Didn’t Hate the English — Until Now
  • An Bord Pleanála approved a 25-story residential tower in Cork city. If built, it would become the county’s tallest tower.
  • Ireland ranked 5th on the 2018 CAF World Giving Index, behind the U.S. and ahead of the U.K.
  • The Republic will impose tobacco-style health warning labels on alcohol as part of a sweeping package of restrictions intended to tackle one of the world’s worst rates of binge drinking.
  • “When confronted with a film that identified prime suspects in a massacre of unarmed British citizens [Loughinisland, County Down, in 1994], the authorities made no apparent effort to further question those suspects—and arrested the filmmakers instead.” Why Were a Filmmaker and a Journalist Arrested in Northern Ireland?
  • In a case that reminds me of the “agrarian outrages” of the late 19th century, north Kerry bachelor dairy farmer Michael Ferris, 63, of Rattoo, was found guilty of manslaughter for the 2017 death of John Anthony O’Mahony, an unmarried tillage farmer, 73, of Ardoughter, Ballyduff.  Ferris drove the pallet forks of his teleporter into the car occupied by O’Mahony, apparently enraged by the older man’s use of a crow banger, according to the Irish Examiner.
  • In America, the notorious James “Whitey” Bulger, 89, once head of Boston’s Irish mob, was killed in federal prison. Read my “Southie memories” piece from his 2013 trial.

James “Whitey” Bulger in 1959, early in his criminal career.

Catching up with modern Ireland: September

Before getting to this month’s roundup, I want to thank the Irish Railroad Workers Museum in Baltimore and those who attended my 15 September talk on Ireland’s Famine Children ‘Born at Sea’. Also this month, year-to-date traffic on the blog surpassed last year’s total. Thanks for reading. MH

  • September began with the 99th annual Dublin City Liffey Swim, a 2.2 K (1.3 mile) “towards the sea” race underneath a dozen key bridges.
  • A confluence of events has shunted unification on to the political agenda.” From Talk of a united Ireland is rife. But is it a fantasy?
  • The four-volume Cambridge History of Irelandpublished in April, received its American launch this month with events in Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston.
  • For a few days early in the month it appeared that U.S. President Donald Trump was going visit Ireland as part of trip to Paris to mark the end of World War I. Within two weeks, the Irish leg was cancelled.
  • By almost every measure Ireland today is a more inclusive, progressive and safer place to live than it once was, and the oppressive control exerted by church and State have been dramatically lessened. People live longer, cars are safer, roads are better, homes – if you are lucky enough to have one – are warmer and food is better and cheaper than it was.” From Is Ireland a better place to live now than 20 years ago.
  • The BBC reported on the dwindling number of iconic red telephone boxes in Northern Ireland, though some have been re-purposed as mini libraries, defibrillator kiosks, and information centres.
  • Travel to Ireland increased by nearly 8 percent in the eight-months through August, compared to the same period in 2017, the CSO said.
  • Listowel, in Kerry, the home of the late John B. Keane and the annual “Writer’s Week,” is this year’s All-Ireland Tidy Town, topping 883 entries in the 60th annual competition.

“Tidy Town” winner Listowel, from the Listowel Connection blog.

Swimming across Walden, remembering the shanty Irish

I was swimming west on Walden Pond
towards the ghosts of pre-Famine Irish workers
near Concord village in the sun on the first day of September.

–After Paul Durcan’s “On the First Day of June.”

In late June 1844, New England newspapers reported that service on the Fitchburg Railroad had reached Concord, Massachusetts, birthplace of the American revolution. A new noise replaced “the shot heard round the world.”

The repose of that quite venerable town … was suddenly broken by the shrill note of the engine and a hundred passengers alighted from the train of freight cars laden with materials for the line. The route from Boston to Concord is most picturesque and pleasing, passing [among other locations] the clear waters of Walden Pond. The regular trains will now commence running to Concord, and the track is rapidly progressing towards Vermont, and Canada.

A year later, Henry David Thoreau moved into the cabin he built near the pond’s shoreline. As noted in his book, Walden, he procured the boards for his abode from the “uncommonly fine” shanty of Irish railroad worker James Collins, who was moving up the line with the transportation project.

Irish railroad workers, former slaves, and other outcasts lived in the Walden woods for years before Thoreau. And it wasn’t all bucolic wilderness, either, as many nearby acres had been cut for timber and cleared for farming and the railroad. As Thoreau noted, the Fitchburg Railroad “touches the pond about a hundred rods [a third of a mile] south of where I dwell.” He continued:

The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk over a farmer’s yard, informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town, or adventurous county traders from the other side.

Thoreau’s 1846 survey of Walden Pond. Note the unfinished Fitchburg Railroad line at top right. His cabin was located about where the arrow’s fletching is at the middle right. I swam from A to B, and back.

In another passage, Thoreau mused on the term “sleepers,” the wooden ties that support the railroad tracks, as a metaphor of the workers’ oppression and their potential redemption:

Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them and they are covered with sand, and cars run smooth over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. … And I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again.

Waves of unskilled Irish arrived in America during a “forgotten era” of immigration before the Great Famine of the late 1840s. They were cheap labor for the dirty and dangerous work of building the nation’s canals and railroads. A decade before the Fitchburg line was laid, 57 Irish railroad workers died of cholera–though some were probably murdered–at Duffy’s Cut, near Philadelphia, where they were buried in a notorious mass grave.

Irish people are referenced throughout Walden. Thoreau described the “clumsy Irish laborers” who cut blocks of ice on the pond in winter, and “Poor John Field … born to be poor, with his inherited Irish poverty.” He wrote, “the culture of an Irishman is an enterprise to be undertaken with a sort of moral bog hoe.” Scholars have debated whether Thoreau was prejudice against the Irish. One University of Notre Dame professor blames such interpretations on “hasty reading” of the book.

Swimming Walden

I visited Walden on the first day of September, as near to the autumn equinox as the date of Paul Durcan’s poem is to the summer solstice. With the air and water temperatures each about 80 F. (27 C.), I welcomed the challenge from my wife and some friends to swim the half-mile length of the pond. In the book, Thoreau made several mentions of bathing in the pond during summer, even “swimming across one of its coves for a stint.”

I am a confident, year-round pool swimmer, but I rarely get the chance to stroke through open water. Given Walden’s smooth surface and historical significance, this was an exhilarating opportunity. I entered from the sandy beach at the east end of the 65-acre oval.

Aerial view of Walden, with commuter rail right-of-way at bottom right, which is west. Photo: Walden Pond State Reservation.

For the next 20 minutes, I alternated between freestyle and breast strokes, the former to cover the distance more quickly, the latter to make head up navigational adjustments. There are no lap lanes across Walden Pond.

About three quarters across, during a stretch of breast stroke, I watched a train streak left to right on the horizon ahead of me. It was the commuter line of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority on the former Fitchburg Railroad right-of-way. There was no shrill whistle; no belching smoke from a coal-fired locomotive; only the sound of steel wheels on steel rails, riding over the sleepers kept down and level in their beds by gangs of men. The rapid, unbroken notes drifted over the water:

“kA-thunk-A-thunk. kA-thunk-A-thunk. kA-thunk-A-thunk. … ”

Then silence. Then water rippling around my ears. My breathing. I dropped my head and stretched forward my right arm to begin the final segment of freestyle to the shore. There, I rested a few moments.

I thought about James Collins, John Field, and the other Irish who lived at Walden more than 170 years ago. Perhaps this spot is where Thoreau salvaged “a raft of pitch-pine logs with the bark on, pinned together by the Irish when the railroad was built.”

A raft for fishing? A raft for sledding blocks of pond ice? Or perhaps, looking eastward as I was, a raft for their imaginations to drift across Walden, across the Atlantic, all the way back to Ireland, even as their starving countrymen began sailing westward in the dark holds of equally dubious vessels.

Thoreau wrote “a million Irishmen starting up from all the shanties in the land [exclaimed], ‘What, is not this railroad which we have built a good thing?’ Yes, I answer, comparatively good, that is, you might have done worse; but I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better than digging in this dirt.”

I waded into the shallow and plunged into the pond to begin the half-mile swim back to my wife and friends. Back to the 21st century. I am now another ghost of Walden; one who never built a railroad, a shanty, or even a simple raft. I am digging with my pen, as poet Seamus Heaney wrote; I am building my railroad on sleepers of words.

Along the shores of Walden
once home to shanty Irish workers
on the first day of September in the heart of New England
my ripples disappeared.


“Forgotten era” is the section title for the immigration period 1700 to 1840, in Jay P. Dolan’s The Irish Americans: A History, Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2008. More than one million people left Ireland in the 30 years before the Famine (p. 35), and up to 60 percent were unskilled laborers (p. 37). Irish workers helped to build America’s canal system in the early 19th century, then shifted to railroad work as that mode of transportation became more practical and profitable to commercial interests. In both cases, migrant Irish laborers lived in shanty communities near the project sites (pgs. 42-46).

Catching up with modern Ireland: August

Pope Francis’ visit dominated the news from and about Ireland in August, but there were other developments. Here’s my regular monthly roundup:

  • Northern Ireland set a new world record on 29 August for the longest peacetime period without a government, 590 days and counting, the Associated Press reported. The Catholic-Protestant power-sharing administration at Stormont collapsed in January 2017. People gathered across the North to protest that “Stormont is Dormant.”

  • The number of Irish people returning to live in the Republic of Ireland has overtaken those leaving the country for the first time since 2009. See full details from the Central Statistics Office.
  • The Drinks Industry Group of Ireland reported there are nearly 1,500 fewer pubs in the country than in 2005, a 17.1 percent decrease. Off licenses increased by 11.6 percent, and wine-only establishments increased by 3.1 percent.
  • A statue of former U.S. President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama was unveiled at Barack Obama Plaza, a fast-food and petrol station on the outskirts of Moneygall, County Offaly.
  • Kirsten Mate Maher of Waterford was crowned the 2018 Rose of Tralee. She is the first African-Irish “Rose,” and the third mixed-race woman to win the title, according to The Irish Times.
  • Wild fires revealed a giant EIRE sign carved into the ground at Bray Head, County Wicklow. The World War II relic was created to warn Allied and Axis pilots of Ireland’s neutral status. In July, a previously undiscovered henge, or circular enclosure, close to the neolithic passage tomb Newgrange, emerged as the result of exceptionally dry weather.
  • A major fire gutted the 233-year-old Primark building in Belfast city centre. It was not immediately clear whether the remaining sandstone facade of the historic five-story building could be saved.

Flames billow from the Primark store in the Bank Buildings on Castle Street, in Belfast city centre. Image from BBC.

A modern reference to a 130-year-old Kerry murder

Earlier this year, flying home to Washington, D.C., from Dublin, I opened Fergal Keane’s Wounds: a memoir of war and love, about the struggles of life and death in North Kerry, primarily in the 19th and early 20th century.

Somewhere over the Atlantic, and on page 74 of the book, I was gobsmacked to read a short passage about the summer 1888 murder of John Foran, a Kerry farmer shot in front of his young son and other witnesses on the road near Listowel. It was the first time I had seen a contemporary reference to the 130-year-old murder since I began writing about the case a decade ago.

In addition to period newspaper accounts, Keane references Bertha Beatty’s (nee Creagh) 1930s Kerry Memories, which contains her claim of seeing some “serious”-looking men talking at the crossroads hours before the fatal shots occurred at the site. I was not familiar with this source.

“The investigation followed a familiar pattern,” Keane writes of the Foran case. “There were arrests and court hearings, but nobody was convicted. The witnesses kept the law of silence.”

Keane, Africa editor for BBC News, has family ties to North Kerry through his father. Historian Diarmaid Ferriter reviewed Wounds in The Irish Times shortly after it was published last September.

Here is my work on the Foran murder, archived on this blog under the title Nora’s Sorrow, for the victim’s daughter who later wrote numerous letters to authorities about the case from America:

I am always looking for new information on sources or references to this crime, whether historic or contemporary. I am convinced there is more to learn about the case, including through the still publicly unavailable Irish Land Commission records, which date to 1881. Thanks to Kay Caball of My Kerry Ancestors for her assistance on the Beatty book and other help over the years.

Late 19th century view of countryside near Listowel. Knocanore Hill in the background.

Catching up with modern Ireland: July

I’m publishing this month’s roundup a little early due to travel. Upcoming posts will remain minimal through early September as I work on other projects. Thanks for supporting the blog. MH

  • Northern Ireland would be better off financially as part of a united Ireland, according to the “Northern Ireland’s Income and Expenditure in a Reunification Scenario” report by Gunther Thurmann, who worked on the German desk at the International Monteary Fund during German reunification, and Fianna Fail Senator Mark Daly. The new report includes the December 2016 analysis by the U.S. House of Representatives Congressional Research Office, requested by Congressman Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), in the wake of the Brexit vote.
  • “There’s no such thing as Irish science; there’s only global science.” — Mark Ferguson, director general of Science Foundation Ireland, at a 25 July, Irish Network-DC event at the Embassy of Ireland, Washington, D.C. SFI was created by a 1998 government initiative and has put Ireland at the forefront of scientific research and development. Ferguson said he sees new opportunities for Ireland resulting from Brexit.
  • In a reflection of the diversity of modern Ireland, a new graveyard for all denominations – and for none – opened in Killarney, County Kerry, The Irish Times reported.
  • A previously undiscovered henge, or circular enclosure, close to the neolithic passage tomb Newgrange, was spotted by an historian flying a drone over the Boyne Valley, County Meath. Unusually dry weather caused the outlines of the site to emerge like subterranean shadows.
  • Friday, 27 July, offered a night of stargazing in Ireland, with a total lunar eclipse, a “blood moon,” and rare looks at Mars, Jupiter and the International Space Station.
  • “We used to blame everything on the British. Now we blame the church.” — Archbishop Eamon Martin, leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, in America magazine story, “What is Ireland’s future after repealing its ban on abortion?
  • The touring “Coming Home: Art & The Great Hunger” exhibit from Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., opened this month in Skibbereen, County Cork, where it will remain through 13 October. The exhibit opened in Dublin earlier this year. It will show in Derry, Northern Ireland, the first quarter of 2019.

“Derrynane,” a 1927 oil on canvas by Jack B. Yeats, is part of the “Coming Home” exhibit.