Wednesday, September 21, 2011

In Honour of Arthur

If you really want a legacy that lasts…put your name on a bottle and sell it to about 10 million people a day.

Tomorrow (Thursday, September 22) at exactly 8:59pm EST (where I live) Guinness fans from around the world are going to raise a glass of Guinness (in unison, mind you) to toast Mr. Arthur Guinness…...founder of the aforementioned brew.

Arthur Guinness
 As if Guinness fans needed a reason to tip a pint.

I’ve no idea how many Guinness fans will be participating in this event, but if cyber chatter is any indication, you may feel the world beneath your feet shift just a tad as all the glasses are lifted at once.

I thought, in honor of this auspicious and world-tipping occasion, I would talk a bit about Guinness.

*Disclaimer: I am not a beer drinker.
*Follow up Disclaimer: However, I love Guinness. Odd, I know. I've been told a million times.

My current love affair with Guinness (the drink, not Arthur or any of his kin) started with my recent trip to Ireland. Everyone kept saying that Guinness tastes different in Ireland (where it originated) so of course I set myself on a path of discovery. I started drinking Guinness at our local pub…at first with my fingers pinching my nose, then graduating to making “eeewww” faces…and finally drinking so easily I forgot to hesitate the glass at my mouth.

So does Guinness taste different in Ireland? I’ll talk about that in a minute. In the meantime, I went on a quest for useless facts about Guinness in honor of Arthur’s day tomorrow. So here is everything and more than you ever wanted to know about Guinness:
  • Arthur Guinness was born over in Celbridge, County Kildare,Ireland in 1725.
  • Look closely. Guinness beer is not actually black but rather dark ruby red because of the way the ingredients are prepared. Some malted barley is roasted, in a similar way to coffee beans, which is what gives Guinness its distinctive color.
  • In the pub or bar the perfect pint of Guinness Draught is served using their famous 'two-part' pour. First, start with a clean, dry glass. Pour the GUINNESS® Draught into a glass tilted at 45 degrees, until it is three-quarters full. Allow the surge to settle before filling the glass completely to the top. Your perfect pint, complete with its creamy white head, is then ready to drink. 
*Note – they are seriously serious about this pouring system. Pouring contests are held all over the world…and competitors practice year round to get the nod of approval from the Guinness folks. Our local pub owner, Dale competes each year. He does pretty well...he says the secret is to drink about 8 pints prior to the competition.

  • Water used in the brewing process comes from the Wicklow mountains, a little way to the south of Dublin, where the Guinness factory stands. (not in the river Liffy as most people tend to think) And speaking of that factory….
  • In 1759 Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000-year lease on an unused brewery at St. James’s Gate, Dublin. It costs him an initial £100 (about $147 US dollars) with an annual rent of £45 (about $66 US dollars) - this includes crucial water rights. The brewery covers four acres and consists of a copper, a kieve, a mill, two malthouses, stabling for 12 horses and a loft to hold 200 tons of hay. 

St. James Gate Brewery, Dublin

The famous 9,000 year least on the Brewery

  • In 1775 a Dublin Corporation committee & sheriff were sent to cut off and fill in the channel from which the Brewery draws its water. Arthur Guinness is forced to brandish a pickaxe to protect his supply. The dispute is finally settled in 1784 when water rights are granted for 8,975 years.

The pick axe Mr. Guinness used MAY have looked like this one
  •  Over 10 million glasses of Guinness stout are enjoyed every single day around the world, and 1,883,200,000 pints are sold every year - that's 1.8 billion, to put it another way. (kudos here to Jerry and Andrew for making this possible)
  • In 1840 Guinness finally made it to the United States by way of NY. Just in time for the 2 million thirsty Irish emigrants that would follow a few years later
  • By 1870 10% of Guinness sales are overseas…yes, now I see a connection to the last point.
  • Skipping ahead a few years, in 1939 Guinness sent all British troops in the British Expeditionary Force in France a bottle of GUINNESS “ stout, beer, or draught to enjoy with their Christmas dinner.”
  • Skip ahead again to 1954….The first "Bottle Drop" promotion. 50,000 numbered and sealed bottles are dropped overboard from ships in various oceans of the world. Finders send the enclosed slip back to Guinness Exports to receive a reply and a memento. Bottles are returned from locations across the world, including Liverpool Docks, the Bahamas, Tahiti, the Azores and Mexico.

Tomorrow night’s event is going to be a moment to remember. Like a New Year's celebration except in a pub with strangers and no Dick Clark. But we will have a countdown. 

If you aren’t able to roll on down to your local pub, no worries. Facebook actually has a page that will take you to a LIVE video stream in Dublin. So you’ve no excuse.

Whether you are Irish or just Irish at heart, or just a lush looking for any excuse to drink, we hope you will all join in the revelry. As we say in Ireland, Cead Mile Failte - or 100,000 welcomes.

Oh..and in case you were curious, I must say that to my unseasoned palatte that yes, Guinness did taste better in Ireland. Creamier. 



Friday, September 9, 2011

Kickin' up your heels at a Ceili

If you had trouble with the word "ceili" in the title of this blog entry, then odds are you've never been to one. You have no idea what you've missed.

A Ceili, (prounounced cay-lee) or cĂ©ilidh (Scottish Gaelic) or ceilidh (Irish Gaelic) is a traditional Gaelic social gathering which usually involves playing Gaelic music and dancing. According to wikipedia, Ceili's originated in Ireland but they are now common across the UK, and I would venture to communities across the US of A.

As best I can tell, the origination of the traditional Ceili's in Ireland served many purposes.
Typically they were held in a home as a social gathering. Leaving the isolation of their farms, Irish farmers and their broods would trek for miles for the chance to socialize. And of course the inevitable happened. Young Irish men and young Irish women would find romance under the spell of music, whiskey and the pull of the Irish moon. Ceili's soon became the event where girls were courted and marriage prospects considered. Who can resist a man in a kilt with a bodhran and a dirk? I know that's a tough one for me.

If you have no idea what I just said...stick with me. I'll explain.

I was pleasantly surprised to find during my trip to Ireland that Ceili's do in fact still exist in the old country.

To some extent, with the growth and inevitable migration to urban areas and the pubs that they bring...ceili's have become more rare. After all, why have a party in your house when you can just skip down to the local public house? In most pubs in Ireland I found traditional Irish music with dancing and boys and girls scoping each other out ...a ceili by any definition.

If you weren't sure what a ceili was, then you most certainly won't recognize the names of the traditional irish musical instruments that will be included at a ceili. The fiddle you will know. Also the flute. But the tin whistle (small flute) and bodhran (celtic drum) may make you scratch your head. Trust me when I say that all of these instruments, when combined, make a cheerful, lively tune - they don't even have to be played well...just loudly. Somehow it all works. Helped along by a good pint of course.

Speaking of not having to play well....some ceili's may include instruction on any of the above instruments. Recently I attended a ceili at Mac and Faye Perry's house in St. Petersburg Florida. Faye and Mac are legends in the Celtic community and know how to do it right. An invitation to the Perry Ceili is coveted and so when I received my Facebook invite from Mac I was thrilled. Both Faye and Mac are skilled musicians but it was Mac who offered bodhran lessons. And so I carted my newly-purchased bodhran from Ireland to Mac's to learn the basics of how to play this unique instrument.

Mac was sitting in front of a group of about 25 people who held either their own drum or a man-made board meant to replicate a bodhran. I had planned to quietly take my place amongst them, as the lesson had already begun. Mac wasn't having any of that..."oh hello Joyce'...(of course he was on a microphone so the entire group turned heads in unison to look at me)..."I see you have a bodhran. lovely....can someone get Joyce an instruction sheet? And we'll go back and start at the beginning for her."

Oh great. I was late AND I was causing the entire class to backtrack. Not a good way to endear yourself. 

As the lesson progressed, I found myself having a good time in my own little drum world. Looking around at the others, smiling, thinking "Hey, I'm pretty good at this." Then I hear Mac stop the lesson. "Joyce, WHAT are you doing?"....

I thought I was playing the bodhran. Apparently not.

After a few attempts to give me individual instruction in front of the entire class, he finally shook his head and said "I'll help you later."  Oh well. Everyone has their talents and apparently the bohdran is not mine. Still, the ceili was a blast and I can't remember a time when I had more fun.

In addition to music, a ceili can almost always include story telling. The Irish are well known for their spinning of yarns - so this is inevitable. It's true what they say about the Irish...they do have the gift of blarney and gab. It's charming. 

If you feel you've missed out by never having attended a ceili...the easiest way to rectify that is to find your way to a good Irish pub and belly up to the bar. I will tapping your feet in no time...and you will make a few new pals. And if you are looking for romance and the moon is full, well who knows what can happen?  

Oh....and I haven't given up on my bodhran. It hangs in a place of honor on my porch wall, patiently waiting for the next chance to humiliate myself in front of a group.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Celtic Cross - sacred symbol whose designs are a mystery

I have seen many crosses in my life, but it was during my journey to Ireland that I first saw and touched a celtic cross. And from the 10th century no less.

It didn't hit me right away. As I walked through the ancient cemetery on the grounds of an old church in Gowran I was more amazed at first by the crumbling remains of the church and surrounding countryside than anything I was standing next to.  I walked slowly through the cemetery, hands resting lightly on the old crosses - without even thinking about what I was touching. What is it they say...You can't see the forest for the trees?

It was as I stood back to take this photo that I realized just what I had been carelessly touching and standing next to. 

I stepped back quickly - lest I desecrate a grave (as I've been raised not to step on graves in respect of the perpetual inhabitants) - and just stood there staring as it hit me. Holy cow. (Or in this case Holy Cross). How many people in the 900 plus years had stood and looked at this cross?

I found myself taking care around the crosses after I realized what I was seeing....and for the rest of my journey I found my eyes scouring the Irish countryside for signs of more Celtic crosses. I was captivated. And I started noticing things that I had never noticed before....

- More than the less ornate crosses of modern times, the Celtic crosses I saw in Ireland - ancient or not- were intricately carved with celtic knots and flowing designs. I could almost feel the reverence that the stone mason must have used in the carving.
- Never once did I see two crosses with the same celtic design. I knew I had to explore that further.
- Look closely at a Celtic cross. What do you notice besides the design? I almost missed this one....but the arms of the cross are shorter than our modern crosses. Why?
- Every Celtic Cross has a distinctive circle in the center. What does this mean?

The design origins of the Celtic cross are up for interpretation. LLike so many other symbols associated with ancient Ireland, whatever meaning spirals had for the Druids (ancient priests) remains an elusive mystery to us. 

We know very little about the meaning of Celtic symbols. Since the ancient Celts didn't keep written records, it's difficult to know for sure what the symbols meant to them. Most of what we believe any particular Celtic symbol means is just pure speculation, based upon what scholars know of their culture. 

So let's speculate.

Some feel that the four arms of the cross are interpreted as the four elements (earth, air, fire, water), the four directions of the compass (north, south, east, west) or the four parts of man (mind, soul, heart, body), in various cultures and traditions. These elements may explain some of the designs on the cross.

One source said the celtic designs are derived from the Chi Rho symbol, as popularised by the Roman emperor, Constantine. "Chi" and "Rho" are the first letters of the word "Christ" in the Greek alphabet, and when these letters are interlinked, they appear similar to the cross at the centre of a Celtic cross.

But where does the cross's distinctive circle come from? The truth is, no one knows for sure, but in ancient times, circles were used to represent the moon. If the circle was in a cross, this symbolized the sun.

Originally, from what we know, crosses were carved into horizontal slabs. Eventually the surrounding stone was cut away and elaborate, free-standing vertical crosses were made, and one standing cross was often composed of several pieces of stone. A large cross could have been made up of up to four pieces of stone; the base, the shaft, the head and the upper cross arm. These were held together by mortise and tenon joints carved into the stone.
 Actually this makes sense, because the Celtic crosses I saw that had fair wear-and-tear usually had clear breaks - meaning it must have been assembled.
I couldn't leave Ireland without purchasing a beautiful silver Celtic cross necklace. I'm also considering a small tattoo but as of yet have not taken that plunge. As a Christian with strong Irish roots I feel a real kinship toward this lovely symbol. It's probably fair to say I'm somewhat enchanted.

I leave you with an unexpected surprise that I experienced just a few days ago. I started this blog entry a few weeks ago, not realizing that the Celtic Cross that would touch my heart the most would not be found on ancient ground thousands of miles away, but right here on American soil. Which means it's not as old as the others -but it is not any less significant.

It's the cross that is found on the sacred and solumn ground at Gettysburg. The cross is a monument to the Irish Brigade out of New York. At the foot of the cross lies a beautiful carving of an Irish wolfhound. The monument overlooks the rolling hills of Gettysburg where over 4,000 Irishmen gave their life for the Union during the Civil war. 

So I leave you with this, the most beautiful of Celtic crosses - and encourage you to read up on the Irish brigade - they actually came from several states across the Union. I'll be posting on them soon. Truly, my Celtic Journey is like an onion...layers upon layers upon layers. Slainte.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Ireland in retrospect...

I  had planned for this post-trip blog to be a final one. After all, my journey is it not?
Then, I had a revelation over a cup of coffee in the wee hours of the morning. It started with a quote from the famous Irish author, James Joyce:

"My heart is quite calm now. I will go back."

My heart is calm. And quite content. But I'm not satisfied. Not nearly.

My destination may be behind me, but my journey has only just begun. 

I'm inspired beyond anything I ever anticipated so I'm going to ride that inspiration into horizons of new discovery. I couldn't stop now if my life depended on it. For as much as I've seen and experienced, I am hungry for more. Who knew that 10 days could have such an impact on a life already well-lived?

Thank you for joining me on the journey to Ireland. I hope it was worth your time. I hope it made you think, laugh or learn. I hope it inspired you for something. Maybe to start your own blog? Or search your own family roots?

I leave you with some of the questions and answers that I've been asked since my return, as well as some pictures I haven't yet shared:

"Did you find what you were looking for?"
I found something I didn't even know that I was looking for - Inspiration. Otherwise, I wasn't really looking for anything in particular...what is anyone who packs a suitcase looking for?....

"What is your biggest take away?"
That' I'm free to pretty much do anything or go anywhere I want. The boundaries that I've had in my mind just melted away.

That and the small pub in Cobh, "Connie Doolan's"...where I met the lobster fisherman and Monica the barmaid. Patrick Liam, Noel, John...what a fabulous cast of characters. It was the hour that I will remember most in the journey.

"What is your best memory?"
Aside from what I just mentioned above, the music in the pubs. Or maybe just the overall pub experience. Quite literally, there was music in every pub I walked into - and most of it traditional celtic music with the guitars, penny-whistles, bodhran's, etc. Toe-tapping, sing-along music that just made you smile and bonded you instantly with the strangers sitting around you. Every interesting person I met - I met in a pub. (and on the train ride to Dublin) Who needs Facebook when you can have the real thing?

"What was the most beautiful place?"Hhmmm....the one place that I can honestly say where I just stood there saying "holy cow" was on the port in Cobh. I kept thinking about the millions of immigrants who left Ireland in the 1800's and realizing that they left from this spot - and that their last view of their homeland and everything familiar was right where I was standing. It wasn't so much beautiful aesthetically, but beautiful in emotion and what it represented. 

Looking forward to what is ahead in the journey....

Dinner out with Nancy, Finbarr and Tadhg

At Powerscourt

Monk's tower - the window you see was the lowest entrance - be be let in the Monks had to lower a ladder

Susan and Dan - the engaged couple

here a baa, there a baa, everywhere a baa baa

My favorite moment in Ireland in Connie Doolan's pub in Cobh

Peat / bog

Nancy and Finbarr with the groom at the wedding. He was feeling NO pain
Slainte and blessings to all,

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Harry and me

Note to self: when coming back into the hotel room, DO NOT put your hotel room key away - you will need it to turn the lights on. Insert key into the small slot on the wall so that all electrical items function. Brilliant but annoying.

Also note to self: Before you spend 10 minutes searching for your Oakleys check the top of your head.

So today I went out on a boat.  But before I get to the boat, let me tell you how I GOT TO the boat.

I went to a beautiful place in the mountains called the Gap of Dunloe. It is just what it sounds like - a gap in the mountains just near Killarney. The boat I needed to get to was on the OTHER side of the gap, which is a 10 kilometer winding path through the mountains. I had three choices - I could ride in a pony cart, walk... OR I could ride a horse.   No brainer.  I used to ride horses fairly regularly as a kid, so what the heck. 
So meet Harry. Harry carried me for 10 k's through the Dunloe gap. It was an interesting ride that included our tourguide Michael (who led the ponycart) - and the Swiss tourists that rode behind me in the pony cart - the ride was the absolutely unbelievably wonderful. (yes, Harry and I were leading...scary, huh?) I was in the fresh, cool mountain air on a horse and truly can't remember when I've felt so content. It was great.  Course, halfway up I was ready for it to end for reasons of comfort..but toward the end I didn't want it to end. (Just like a woman, I know)

This was at the end of the ride...didn't want it to end. 

Michael our guide. Nice Irish guy with a VERY thick accent - spoke gaelic to the horses, it was very cool.
The first half of the trip was uphill...too bad for Harry. We were sandwiched on either side by beautiful rocky mountains that were dotted here and there with an unexpected sheep or bunch of purple heather. At the very top Michael said we were at 3,000 ft elevation. Throughout the journey we had to squeeze by other carts and cars that were also making the single-lane trek. Temp somewhere in the mid 60's I would say overcast and breezy - perfect weather to be in the mountains. Harry and I were together in the gap for two hours. Scenery was amazing. Quiet except for the mumble of the swiss and an occasional sheep calling. I reluctantly said goodbye to Harry at Lord Brandon's cottage and settled down with a hot coffee to wait for the next part of my journey. 

Have no idea what this flower is???

The boat that took us through the chain of 14 lakes back to Killarney was a small wooden boat - not totally uncomfortable except for the fact that I had just ridden a horse for 2 hours. 

The water appeared almost black - that may have been due to the cloud coverage. It didn't rain, but the wind was brisk enough that I put my hood up. It was probably around 50 degrees with the wind chill factor - and to this Florida girl that felt freezing.

It was relatively quiet but for the soft hum of the boats motor. Once in a while our boat captain would stop and point out a ruin or talk about the lake. Loch Lein was the largest lake we went through, and at one point he said it was 450 ft. deep, which may have accounted for the color of the water.  There are eagles that nest along the cliffs of the river but we were not lucky enough to see them. 

Our boat guide..he was funnier than he looks in this picture

At one point he stopped the boat and pointed out the thick rhododendron that hugs the bank of the river - he said that these plants are choking out the oak trees. To which one Irish passenger said "they were brought over by the Americans, weren't they?".."yes" said the guide "and they are killing the trees"...there was a moment of silence in the boat when everyone looked at me (the only American) I smiled and said "well... I apologize" was pretty funny. But I did learn yesterday on the Ring of Kerry that in recent years there was a forest fire that could have been much worse but for the rhodedendrum that stopped the fire. So take that.
Ross Castle

We landed on shore at Ross Castle - a 15th century castle from the O'Donahue family. 

I'll miss Killarney tomorrow when I leave. This is a wonderful town. Today I met an artist, Deborah O'Keefe, who actually gave me one of her small greeting cards as  gift, because I admired her pastel of sheep. She was charming. 

I will be on a train to Dublin early tomorrow so I leave you with the signs of Killarney...
Slainte! Off to find some good craic.