Lending a Helping ARM to the Forest Park

 Congrats to the staff of the world renowned technology company ARM who today celebrated 1 year volunteering in Terryland Forest Park as a Champion of the Galway National Park City initiative.

I was so happy to speak at their celebratory event today which also represented 10 years since they started in Galway city.

Over the last twelve months, their staff on a weekly basis have undertaking a range of meaningful projects in the park including monthly surveying of the water quality (solids, temperature, pH levels etc) at different sites along the Terryland River, planting trees, litter picking, bio-blitzing and cleaning heritage signage. we thank them so much for their wondering meaningful volunteering - ARM is making a valuable contribution to the natural environment of Galway city.

Creating a Temperate Rainforest in the Heart of the City

 
May I use the opportunity of #WorldEnvironmentDay to thank the thousands upon thousands of volunteers of all ages who have since March 2000 planted multiple tens of thousands of native trees and flowers in Terryland Forest Park. All of these wonderful people have helped create a Temperate Rainforest in the heart of an Irish city and have left a unique legacy for future generations to benefit from. Their battle to tackle the Climate and Biodiversity Crises has been going on for a quarter of a century!

Next year we will be celebrating 25 years of Ireland's first urban community native woodland with its myriad of habitats providing home to an amazing array of flora, fungi and fauna.
In the lead up to this very important birthday, lots of great additions and improvements will be put in place to greatly enhance what has been referred to since its inception as the Green Lungs of the City.

 

Foraging: Discovering the Culinary & Medicinal Plants og Terryland Forest Park


Biodiversity Week in Galway city opened with a fully booked-out guided tour of Terryland Forest Park by medical herbalist and master tea-blender Jorg Muller.
This man is an unbelievable fount of knowledge on the food and medicinal value of plantlife. With each step he took along the guided walk through the forest, Jorg showed participants the value of so many common Irish plants that we see everyday during the summer months. All of us were amazed and delighted at the enormous benefits revealed to us of ribwort plantain, herb robert, hawthorn, cleavers, horsetail and so much more.
The walk was an eyeopener, truly a wonderful voyage of discovery.
But we recognised too that nature's food larder is not just for humankind, but also to be shared with the rest of Nature. 
 
Finally thanks to Paula Kearney, the brilliant hardworking Biodiversity Officer of Galway City Council, who organised the visit of Jorg Muller to Terryland Forest Park.
 

A 113 year history of School Cycling in Galway along a combined Greenway and Blueway!

At the request of my good friend Reg Turner, on Monday I acted as tour guide for a National Bike Week looped heritage cycle by the Transition Year students and teachers of Coláiste Iognáid (the Jes) that started at Woodquay, went through Terryland, onto Coolough and to Menlo Castle before returning to the centre of Galway city.

In spite of the heavy rainfall I really enjoyed it and from the feedback I got thankfully so did the students and teachers.
I gave the participants details on the fascinating history of the area with rock and flora features dating back millions of years before the arrival of the Dinosaurs; its archeological finds from the Iron Age; its buildings from the Norman, Jacobean, Cromwellian, Williamite and Victorian periods; its abandoned pre-Famine village and roads; its wonderful 19th century engineering works; its stories of Anglo Irish gentry shenanigans, native Irish resistance, and clerical power; its living farming traditions, Gaelic culture and Burrenesque landscapes; and on the environmental importance of Terryland Forest Park with the potential of the locality becoming the green and blue hub of international importance.

But the school has a proud tradition of cycling excursions to this locality going back 113 years.
Photo on the left was taken of the Jes students, teachers and myself on Monday with Menlo Castle in the background.
Photo on the right was taken in 1911 of Jes students on a school cycle excursion with the Menlo Castle once again in the background! It was originally a faded black and white image. Inspired by my renowned University of Galway colleague and friend John Breslin, I am presently colourising this and many other photos for my Irish BEO work project at the Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics. Once I started to colourise it, I noticed that there were four boys at the back holding oars and standing in boats. So I feel that this group of Jes students cycled up to Dangan (on the site of the former Galway city to Clifden railway line and the future Connemara Greenwway) before rowing across the River Corrib in boats to the grounds of Menlo Castle to continue their bike journey back to the Jes College on Sea Road in Galway city!
So these students were laying the groundwork for a combined Greenway and a Blueway over 100 years ago!!

If you want to experience the delights of this locality and beyond, why not join my 7 Galway Castles Heritage Cycle Tour taking place this Sunday. Register at Eventbrite https://www.eventbrite.com/e/sli-na-gcaislean-aka-the-seven-galway-castles-heritage-cycle-trail-tickets-880079550627?aff=oddtdtcreator

From Romance & Sisterhood to War & Rebellion– An somewhat History of the Bike

 

On Tuesday May 14th, I will give what I hope is an interesting and somewhat eclectic overview of the history of a mode of transport invented in the latter half of the 19th century.

So why not come along to find out about the role the bicycle played in female emancipation, in providing the first cheap form of transport for the masses, in how its health benefits were recognised from its earliest days by allowing people to escape overcrowded grimy industrialised cities to enjoy leisure time in clean nature-rich countryside, its use by guerrilla combatants in warfare and its associations with romance and youth.
There are also details to on the darker side of its history, in how the production of the bicycle began the large scale destruction of tropical forests.
For the promotional poster I used a photo (below) of my mom when she was 21 years old and living above the family shop in Drumcondra Dublin city. The bike she is holding in the photo was given as a 21st birthday by her parents which she celebrated by bringing it with her on a bus to Carrickmacross where she spent two happy weeks cycling around the farms of her uncles. I will mention more of my mom Brigid Agnew and her bike in my presentation

A Pheasant in Hare's Corner: A Good Omen for our Nature Restoration Plans!

 

As members of the Tuatha volunteers of Terryland Forest Park entered on Saturday a field designated for an exciting and ambitious rewilding project, I was somewhat taken aback when a startled cock pheasant rose up from the long grass at my feet and took flight into the sky.

Everyone of us present though considered it a good omen for plans towards a field recently purchased by City Council, after years of community lobbying, that has been absorbed into Terryland Forest Park.
Thanks to the collaborative approach and vision of City Council’s Biodiversity Officer Paula Kearney, City Parks’ Foreman Kevin Nally, Parks’ groundsman Edward Skehill and Deputy Parks’ Superintendent Lisa Smyth, a partnership with the Tuatha will transform the field into a large multi-layer pond and surrounding marsh with a viewing platform, a wet woodland, a native orchard, and an extensive hedgerow. The installation of a wooden bridge over the adjacent Terryland River will connect this site onto the Ogham Heritage Trail on the western side whilst the neighbouring fields to the north that also lie within Terryland Forest Park will become a major wildlife sanctuary (no human footfall).
An first step in making this ambitious plan become a reality was for members of our Tuatha of Terryland Forest Park volunteer group to meet onsite with the wonderful Rob Gandola, one of Ireland’s leading Pond Development Officers, to discuss our submission to Burren Beo under the Hare’s Corner initiative. Rob was so excited about our pond/wetlands proposal and feels that if successful it could become a gold standard and a case study for all Local Authorities. So fingers crossed that our Hare’s Corner submission will prove successful and will start the process in transforming a grassland into a significant nature restoration volunteer project.

Hard work pays off! The Before & After Look

 The hard consistent work of our Tuatha volunteers is paying off.

The riverbanks and lands around the Sandy Bridge are now almost completely devoid of the alien species known as Chinese Bramble/Rubus Tricolor.
I actually felt sorry in some ways for removing this pretty invasive plant, admiring it for how its roots and stems held on tenaciously for dear life in the gaps between the blocks of limestone of the bridge and river bank walls as we fought to pull it out.
However the battle to protect our native flora and fauna will be lost if the very invasive species that we are removing are openly and legally for sale in garden centres. There needs to be better joined-up thinking between government and other stakeholders.

The Bogs of Ireland, Past & Future exhibition

Last Saturday a wonderful Citizen Science initiative, coordinated by my great friend and colleague Niall Ó Brolchain, took place at my workplace of the Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics located in the Data Science Institute at the University of Galway.
Entitled Mapathon2024, it involved volunteers from many countries using open data to map the locations and policies of the peatlands across Europe. There were team entries from Estonia, Netherlands, France, urban and rural Ireland.
To support this event, I organised an exhibition on the Bogs of Galway based on photos from Insight’s BEO project, which represents an online digital local heritage archive comprising images, videos and audios telling the story of Ireland in times past. Supported by the Galway County Council's Heritage Office and the Galway Education Centre, this material has been collected over the years in collaboration with schools and community groups. Also on display were old sods of turf from our own family bog (sold many years ago to the Irish government for conservation purposes), an enamel (metal) mug used for the much needed cup of tea during breaktime on the bog, and the Slane (Irish = Sléan), the traditional implement used in Ireland for the cutting of the peat.
Hopefully these photos and items will bring back many happy childhood memories to people of my vintage of long hot summer days working in the bog with family cousins and neighbours!
The exhibition also highlighted the new role of peatlands in the 21st century in tackling the interconnected global climate and biodiversity crises and the importance in restorating them to serve as the largest of land-based natural carbon sinks.
Most of the photos in this montage are decades old and were originally black and white before I colourised them.

 

American Universities are becoming once again the conscience of their nation


I am so proud of the students of the prestigious University of Columbia, especially its many Jewish students such as Jared Kannel (see video above), demanding an end to the occupation, colonization and genocide of the Palestinian people made possible by the provision of American-made planes, bombs, tanks, ships and missiles from successive US governments.

Facing arrest and imprisonment, these courageous New York-based students are putting their own careers and futures on the line to stand with the people of Gaza and the West Bank who are being slaughtered daily by a brutal army of occupation assisted by armed racist colonial settlers.
But they have succeeded in lighting a spark of resistance which has inspired university students all across the United States to follow their lead.
When I was student myself, I spent a fantastic summer living on the campus of the University of Columbia and was fully aware of the history of progressive protest on its campus.
Columbia and other American campuses during the 1960s and 1970s were the epicentre and key spark for the anti-Vietnam war movement in the United States. They initially faced huge political and public hostility. But they kept going and helped change public opinion towards a war in South Asia where huge numbers of the indigenous population were been bombed incessantly from the air, land and sea by American military.
American students are once again becoming the conscience of the nation.

Super Mario takes part in a St. Patrick's Day Parade in Connemara!

 
All along the route of the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Moycullen, the Connemara Greenway Alliance group of walkers(including one man and his dog!) cyclists (& a unicyclist - Gabe!) and in buggies were clapped and cheered on by the watching crowds.

This was a manifestation of the huge support that this proposed walking and cycling green infrastructure has amongst the people of Connemara.
The Connemara Greenway is long overdue! In our seven years in existence, the Alliance has seen greenways across Ireland open up. So in the public consultation that happens this week in the University of Galway (Wednesday), Moycullen (Thursday) and Oughterard (Friday), we ask supporters of the Connemara Greenway to attend and make their feelings known.
And by the way, I really enjoyed dressing up as Super Mario for the parade once again! It is always nice to bring a bit of humour to a serious community campaign.
But on a political note, I made sure that Super Mario wore a Palestinian scarf. We must continue to keep pushing for a ceasefire in Gaza at all opportunities.

Remembering Mom & Dad on Mother’s Day.

Last Sunday was my dad’s anniversary, today is Mother’s Day. So it is a good time for me to remember and to say a prayer in thanks and appreciation to both my dearly departed and much missed parents. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha.


When my dad Paddy Smith and my mom Bridget Agnew got engaged, they had this photo taken as a memento to a very special time in their lives. Dad was 21 years old, Mom was 19 years old,
Mom was born in Monaghan, my Dad in Offaly. They both met in Dublin at a dance club on Parnell Square not far from Drumcondra where my mom’s family had a grocery shop beside Croke Park. My dad was a bus conductor with Córas Iompair Éireann (CIÉ).

Throughout their lives, they like so many of their era strived to be good people with good values, taught their children to respect others, to love God, to practice a strong Christian (though not servile) faith and to work hard in order to earn an honest wage but to always realise that money was not everything and there were more important things in life.
Dad exemplified these values. Likewise with Mom who was for much of her early adult life one of a rare breed, a business woman in an overwhelmingly male-dominated retail sector.
But the Ireland they were born into and grew up in was a different country than today. It was poor, patriarchal, socially repressive in many ways, its economy rural centric characterised by small subsistence family farming with our biggest export being our young people. Both my parents endured difficult teenage years and came from families that suffered for awhile as a consequence of years of revolutionary struggle and being on the losing side at the end of the Irish Civil War.
But it was not all doom and gloom in this Irish society. For it possessed a strong local community ethos; crime was almost non-existent; most products could be recycled, repaired and reused; raw materials were sourced locally; children immersed themselves in Nature almost daily; and young people regularly went to sports matches, played music, danced, fell in love and got married; and many families took annual holidays or enjoyed weekend excursions to seaside resorts.

I consider myself so fortunate as a child to have had wonderful family summer holidays enjoying the amusements, beaches and candy floss of the seaside tourist towns of Bundoran, Bangor and Tramore; experiencing exciting working holidays with the 'country' cousins in Carrickmacross and Cloghan amongst the pastures, hayfields and bogs; picnics in the countryside; helping on my dad's garden allotment and working daily behind the counter in the family shop. My parents always allowed me to earn my own pocket money and to spend it on DC, Marvel and Thunderbirds/Stingray comics (I was always a big science fiction fan!), Action Men and Airfix aeroplane models.
Whilst physical (corporeal) punishment was all too commonly practiced by adults against children in families and in schools in those days, I cannot ever remember being slapped or beaten by Mom or Dad for misbehaving even though I was a strong-willed often argumentative child not afraid to express opinions that were contrary to those of my parents.

On Mother’s Day, I pay homage to my mom for being a feisty inspirational woman who overcame the most severe difficulties as a young teenage girl to successfully run a small business and raise a family; to my maternal grandmother Mary Ward who as the only daughter in her family spent much of early adult years feeding, clothing and supporting her 7 brothers many of whom were often ‘on the run’ as IRA volunteers during the War of Independence and the Civil War; and to my maternal great-grandmother Eliza Eccles who spent over 2 years in Armagh Prison for resisting Anglo-Irish landlord oppression during the Land Wars.
I am proud that these women in my family’s lineage kept alive the feminist ideals of a Celtic Pagan and early Christian Ireland where women often held prominent leadership roles exemplified by the fact that our country is the only country in the world (the island of St. Lucia does not count as it was named by invaders not the indigenous peoples!) called after a female.
Beir bua!

A beautiful 19th century Drystone Wall restored

A team of Tuatha volunteers were involved last weekend on restoring a traditional stone wall made from local limestone that served as a rural field boundary when much of the high lands of Terryland Forest Park were primarily pasture.

Research is presently going on to find out its origins. But it is felt that it was constructed as early as the late 19th century if not before.

The Tuatha volunteers are presently actively working with the parks department of Galway City Council in developing and implementing what they feel is an exciting innovative programme of initiatives that will bring a whole new array of features to Terryland Forest Park over the next year which will enhance its importance as an example of the temperate rainforests that once covered Ireland before the colonial period, as a native wildlife sanctuary, an outdoor classroom, a repository of rural heritage, a major force within the city in tackling the Climate Crisis, and in the provision of artistic walking trails and cycling routes.

Next year we want to be fully prepared in helping the people of Galway celebrate the twenty fifth anniversary of a park that was born out of a wonderfully proactive collaboration between Galway Corporation (now Galway City Council) and the wider community. When  it came into existence it was Ireland’s largest urban native woodland and was officially known as the ‘Lungs of the City’. Its founders drawn from the local government, community, state, educational, scientific and artistic sectors were in reality visionary pioneering advocates in developing within an urban environment a response to what they recognised as a looming climate and biodiversity crises. It is only now in the last few years that the public are realising the huge significance of what was happening in Galway city in the year 2000.

Early Virtual Reality - the 1-Racer Nascar from 1999.

'Virtual Reality' is defined as an immersive environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using electronic equipment such as a helmet with a built-in screen or gloves fitted with sensors.
One of the earliest and most realistic of Virtual Reality game environments came out in 1999. It was the 1-Racer Nascar from the American company Radica. Featuring a game modelled on a race from the Nascar (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, LLC) franchise it had a head-mounted display with integrated headphones, a handheld controller and a feedback mechanism.
To the modern user, its liquid-crystal display (LCD) technology may feel very primitive. But it worked, it was affordable and it was immersive.
Photo shows Jack Keaney using this pioneering headset.
Jack is a Transition Year (TY) student from Coláiste Iognáid who spent last week on a placement at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics University of Galway which included testing out both state-of-the-art and vintage AI and 3D immersive technologies. Thanks Jack for all your wonderful work!

Well done Helen Caird for a wonderfully inspiring "Nature in Art" exhibition

Everyone involved in the Tuatha volunteers of Terryland Forest Park wishes the very best to our very own Helen Caird, our artist in residence, for her exhibition entitled "Roots, Vessels and Gold" which was launched last Friday in the Oughterard Courthouse and will be open to the public until next Sunday. Well worth a visit!

Photo shows Helen with her lovely partner Ronald van Dijk beside one of the images on exhibit.
Helen's vibrant drawings and paintings adorn our volunteers' HQ- An Nead (Irish = The Nest)- and the highly informative large educational boards that are dotted across Terryland Forest Park.
Her vibrant images have formed the basis for a network of exciting park’s trails, each with their own story, which has ensured that field trips for young people in particular are not only scientific but also artistic.
Thank you Helen Caird for inviting me to be the guest speaker at the launch of the exhibition last Friday. It was the very least that I could do in recognition of the fact that your images have brought a new dimension to Terryland Forest Park and are loved by visitors of all ages.
I have been your number one fan for over 12 years!!

Citizens of the World Unite & Celebrate the Beauty of "Difference".

 


In an era of increasingly brutal wars in the Middle East, Europe, Asia and the Americas characterised by mass murder, land grabs, ethnic cleansing, racism, authoritarianism, imperialism, sexual abuse, misogyny and religious intolerance as well as a global man-made Climate and Biodiversity Crises that is putting the very survival of our species at risk, it is more important that ever before to promote tolerance, respect, commonality and diversity amongst all races nations, creeds, sexes and cultures.
Life on planet Earth would be so boring if we all looked the same, had the same faith, wore the same clothes, had only one language, ate the same food, listened and played the same music....
Variety is the Spice of Life.
My many years of travelling all over the world to provide technology education, my work in direct provision centres and refugee camps, my previous career in the hospitality trade involving promoting traditional Irish and World Music, my volunteerism in local community and environmental projects, has impressed on me the critical need for us all to recognise the value and the beauty of cultural differences. We should happily promote Diversity and Respect for All not fear or subjugate it.
So every year for at least 12 years I help coordinate, with my colleagues at my multinational university workplace, a Celebration of Cultures that brings together people, often from countries that are not always the best of political friends, to joyously highlight their ethnic cuisine, landscapes, dress and music.
Have a look at this video from last month's Christmastime Celebration of Multiple Cultures at our workplace of the Data Science Institute in the University of Galway.
It is a small in-house event but nevertheless it is so important to help counteract a rise in hate, sexism and bigotry.

Helen Caird – An Inspirational Artistic Champion of the Natural World


 
I am deeply honoured that my good friend and wildlife artist extraordinaire Helen Caird has asked me to be the guest speaker at the launch of her wonderfully inspiring exhibition that will take place at 7pm this Friday at the Oughterard Courthouse.
 
Based on the interconnecting themes of 'Roots, Vessels and Gold', Helen’s new solo show gives true artistic expression to the deep love and inherent respect that she feels towards the rest of Nature.
For ten years, her drawings of birds, insects, fish, trees, mammals, flowers and fungi have enriched the Terryland Forest Park experience for the schools, colleges and the general public visiting this community-driven urban natural heritage sanctuary. Her images have formed the basis for a network of exciting park’s trails, each with their own story, which has ensured that field trips for young people in particular are not only scientific but also artistic. 
 
The very first time I saw one of her illustrations in 2010 commissioned for the forest park, I was spellbound, totally transfixed. It took my breath away and I have remained in awe of her works ever since. For Helen gives a spiritual essence, an individual personality and deep beauty to each of her wildlife subjects in a way that seems to magically transform these paper drawings and canvas paintings into living pulsating beings right before your eyes.
 
As a person immersed in science and technology, I can honestly say that no photograph can capture the inner essence of a creature of the wild like a drawing done by the hand of Helen Caird.
 
Artists have a special creative insight ( a third ‘eye’) that gives an extra benign dimension to our lives.
In a world where biodiversity is suffering like never before in human history, we need champions like Helen to reveal why we all need to be ‘defenders of the wild’.
 
Helen is a champion of the Galway National Park City initiative and has been proudly proclaimed by her fellow Tuatha volunteers of Terryland Forest Park the artist-in-residence of Ireland’s largest urban native woodland.

Connecting a 21st century urban forest to the primeval forests of ancient Ireland.

 

A few weeks ago as part of the wonderful pioneering European-wide More Trees Now initiative, the Tuatha volunteers planted in Terryland Forest Park oak tree saplings that came from Coolattin Woods nursery and were donated by the inspirational educationalist Denise Garvey.

This is the second such gift from Denise who gave us similar oak saplings last year that became the foundation for a Ukrainian woods in Terryland.
Coolattin Woods in Wicklow is one of the final remnants of the great primeval forests that covered Ireland until the great clearances of the plantation period from the early 17th century onwards.
But much of the last trees left in Coolattin were only cleared during the 1970s and 1980s and exported as high quality veneer. It took the first large scale eco campaign in Ireland of the modern era lasting nearly 20 years to save the last of its ancient trees in the locality of Tomnafinnogue following the direct intervention by the then Taoiseach Charles Haughey
UK businessman and Wicklow resident Brian Kingham took over Coollattin in 2016 and has undertaken an ambitious reforestation of the estate.
So we are so proud that the community-council driven Terryland native forest now has a direct connection the birth of the Irish environmental movement and the great forests of ancient Ireland.
May we in the Tuatha wish everyone a joyful New Year and amy we all contribute in our own way towards making 2024 a year of progress in tackling the Climate and Biodiversity Crises.

2004-2023: My son Dáire's 19 year journey in Education.

 

In September 2004, a happy and excited four old boy started his first day in primary school (photo on left).

Dáire's eight years at Scoil San Phroinsias (Tirellan) was followed by six years at Coláiste Iognáid (the Jes), four years at the NUIG/University of Galway and finally one year at the University of Barcelona where he completed this summer an MSc in Medical Science.
All of these educational institutions served him well and he learned a lot from some fine motivational teachers and lecturers.
His life-long love of wildlife especially marine life, inspired by his fascination with and volunteering at Galway Atlantaquaria with its great staff and management (thanks Liam Twoney, Noirin, Neil, Pete, Colette & Kevin), meant I thought for a long time that he would pursue a career in marine biology or veterinary science.
But that was not to be and his journey in education will mean he will be helping in some form to save the lives of people rather than animals. 
So well done Dáire! In an era of destructive wars and a climate crisis, it is so important that our youth take the decision to help their fellow humans and the rest of nature, both professionally and as volunteers.
The photo on the left shows Dáire on his first day to school accompanied by his older brother Shane (who started secondary school in St. Mary's College on the same day!) and his mom Cepta (p.s. I was there too- I was the photographer!). The image on the right shows Dáire in his graduation robes with Cepta this summer in Barcelona, standing in front of the one of the great man-made wonders of the world, namely the Basílica de la Sagrada Família ('Holy Family').
It is appropriate that both photos show Dáire with his mom. For Cepta has been his (& indeed that of our other son Shane) rock throughout his life, always there to help and guide him from birth to adulthood. So I extend a big 'bualadh bos' to my lovely wife Cepta!
Hopefully too the designer of the awesome Sagrada Família, the renowned Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, will also serve as a positive influence for Dáire into the future. For his passions were so benign and are now needed more than ever in today's troubled world, namely a deep love of Nature, a need to 'green' the built environment, a practitioner of innovation, a Christian humanitarian and a proponent of indigenous culture (in his case the language, art, and history of Catalonia).

Christmas in Terryland Forest Park- the Agony and the Ecstasy


After spending an early St. Stephen's Day morning gathering up rubbish left behind in Terryland Forest Park by selfish uncaring anti-social elements, one could be forgiven for questioning (even for one brief moment) why so many of us give so much of our lives cleaning up the detritus of others that don't seem to care one iota as well as constantly fighting against a political system that time and time again puts obstacles in the way of protecting and enhancing the natural environment.
Then in answer to that eternal question, I had a Eureka moment. Looking onto the river, I saw two beautiful swans appear out of the mist. The whole magical scene of mist-covered waters, slowly swaying rushes, tall trees and majestic fowl reminded me of why we do what we do.
So a happy festive season to every environmental and community campaigner and volunteer across the world. Keep up the great work- you are making a difference.

Christmas with the Smiths.

It was great to have Christmas Day at home with Cepta, Shane, Dáire and sister-in-law Áine.
As with so many others, our festive season is all about family. Very ordinary but all the more extraordinaire and special because of that very simple thing.
Nollaig Shona agus Athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh.

Songs & Poems for Peace at Vigil for Palestine, Galway


 
I was glad to have joined great people last night at the Vigil for Palestine on the Salmon Weir pedestrian bridge with the Galway Cathedral serving as an appropriate religious backdrop.

In spite of the heavy rain and strong winds, the poems read and Christmas hymns sung were clearly heard. Their message was peace, freedom and justice for Palestine and its peoples.
At the vigil, the traditional Nativity scene was given a December 2023 Gaza setting with the crib buried under the rubble of a collapsed building as happens daily due to the non-stop barbaric Israeli air and land bombing.
After the vigil the Nativity scene was transferred to the Cathedral where candles can be lit and prayers said for Palestine.
Well done to the Galway Palestine Solidarity Campaign for their great work in keeping the public aware of what is happening in Gaza and West Bank. They deserve our gratitude.
At the vigil it was great to meet up with Cha Taylor and Sean Regan, two good friends from UCG days.
Finally well done to the Christian community of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, for cancelling the Christmas festivities in solidarity with the people of Gaza.

The BEO project - Connecting Rural Communities to their past.

I recently enjoyed the warm friendly atmosphere of an old style local rural community night in Coldwood National School near Craugwell county Galway.

There was lots of home-baked scones, cakes and teas served by volunteers as grandparents and parents of the present generation of pupils came back to the school of their childhood days to reminisce and tell stories of life long ago recorded on the night by children for a series of podcasts for the 150 year celebrations of this fine educational institution.
As part of Insight's BEO online local heritage project, I was there to help in the collection of photographs from times past brought in by the older attendees and the identification of those in these images.
To support this process I enlarged and colourised in advance a lot of old images associated with Coldwood as well as bringing along multiple familiar artifacts from Ireland in days gone by such as a wooden school desk complete with inkwell, blotting paper, erasure and 1960s/1970s school books; a milk churn; a transistor radio, a Sony Walkman cassette player, photo slides and vinyl record albums.
The effort was worth it as the photos on display helped reconnect families across the decades. Paddy Cahill(on the top left in photo montage), standing beside his son, points to his dad in a 1910 photo that he had never seen before, whilst Paddy Rooney (on the top right) points to himself in a 1950 photo.
By the end of the night, most of the people in the sample photographs on display were identified as great grandparents, grandparents, parents and themselves by the attendees present.
The interesting and often unique materials collected over the last few years under the BEO online digital local heritage project, supported throughout by the Galway County Heritage Office, will be unveiled at a big celebratory launch next March in the Galway Education Centre
Details to follow at the end of January.

Upstairs, Downstairs – the Inside Story of an Irish ‘Big House’


One of the most enjoyable nights that I have experienced for manys the long year took place recently when it seemed the whole community of Fohenagh and environs, complimented by heritage enthusiasts, politicians and dignitaries, came together to celebrate and to give due recognition to my good friend Frank Gavin for the launch of his excellent book entitled “The Dillons of Clonbrock, a History”.
The venue was Gullane’s Hotel in Ballinasloe and the large attendance and its makeup was a reflection of the high esteem and respect that Frank is held in across east Galway and beyond. Amongst the participants were Senator Aisling Dolan; Galway County Cathaoirleach Liam Carroll; Martin Mac Oirealla, a highly enthusiastic ‘heritage in schools’ educator; Joe Mannion, another local historian par excellence; and the 87 year old Michéal Keaney, owner of the historical Castle Ellen (birthplace of the mother of Edward Carson, the founder of Northern Ireland) and the finest engineer that Galway City Council ever has had.
Master of ceremonies for the event was the brilliant Christy Cunniffe, one of Ireland’s best known community archaeologists. Special guest speakers were Marie Mannion, the country’s hardest working and much admired local authority heritage officer; and Professor Terence Dooley the distinguished historical writer and Director of the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates at the National University of Ireland Maynooth.
I myself was honoured to be asked by Frank to also be a guest speak at the launch, to write the foreword for the publication and to enhance and colourise an old black and white photo taken of Clonbrock House circa 1904 that formed the cover of the book.
I was especially and personally honoured as both sides of my family fought on the republican side during the Irish Civil War, whose forces were sadly responsible for the burning down of many of the gentry mansions across the country, seeing them as symbols of centuries of colonial oppression.
I have known and admired Frank since 2008 when we first collaborated in helping the children of Fohenagh National School, under the guidance of the much loved principal at the time, Anne Burke, to undertake research studies and field trips on the history of the Clonbrock estate. The extraordinary series of podcasts and videos made with the school and the local community during 2008 and 2009 will be relaunched on March 6th 2024 at a special event in the Galway Education Centre to commemorate the BEO online heritage archives project and the Fionn Primary School Science 2002-2005 initiative.
The best tribute that I can give Frank here on the importance of his work is to repeat the foreword that I wrote in the book:
“There have been multiple books written about the Anglo-Irish gentry and their great estates which dominated and shaped the Irish countryside for centuries. Many more will follow in the years ahead. But this book is different. For the author is able to give a personal perspective from within the walls of the demesne as he himself was part of this ‘Upstairs and Downstairs’ world in its twilight years.
Frank Gavin worked as a gardener in the Clonbrock estate when Ethel Louisa Dillon, daughter of the fourth Baron Clonbrock who was one of the largest landowners in Ireland, was still alive. She was a debutante in Victorian London society at a time when it was said that the sun never set on a British Empire that covered almost a quarter of the world’s landmass. Frank provides some fascinating information on the Clonbrock estate during its heyday in the 19th century when the third and fourth barons, along with the latter’s extraordinary wife Lady Augusta Caroline Dillon, were exceptional in this era for being highly progressive pioneering residential Anglo-Irish landlords who practiced mixed farming; planted woods; constructed heated glasshouses (growing exotic fruits such as grapes and peaches), a forge, a sawmill, a butchery, a photographic house and a sophisticated piped water system for the estate; set up a poultry co-operative and established four schools in the locality for the children of their tenant farmers.
But Frank is at his best when he provides the names, photographs and the stories of the people who worked alongside him in Clonbrock and whose families had often done so for many generations before. He moves the spotlight along from the imperial landed class towards the farmhands and house servants that were the essence of these estates and whose descendants still live locally.
This is local history at its most authentic, when it is done by someone who has lived and experienced the subject matter at first hand.”

Helping parents to become aware of Cyberbullying and what to include in Internet Safety guidelines for themselves and their children.

In my role as Education and Public Engagement Manager at the Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics, I am spending up to three nights a week since last month talking to parents in schools on Internet Safety and what needs to be done to increase their children's awareness and their protection against the dangers of cyberbullying, racism, misogyny, fake news, and related issues.

On Monday I was with the parents of Gort Community College (photo), last night it was at Scoil Shéamais Naofa, Bunscoil Bhearna, and tonight it is in Galway Educate Together Secondary School.
During the daytimes I am working with the children of these same schools.
With both groups I always start with highlighting the benefits of web technologies, provide a factual but quirky insight into the history of communications technologies since the early 1900s, and the inspiring prominent role of young people in their development before going into the 'dark side'.
It is most rewarding work and something that I have been doing since 2005.

Celtic Origins of Halloween



Halloween's Pagan Celtic Roots
Today Halloween is joyously celebrated by children across the world.
There is a popular misconception though that Halloween is a modern American invention. Not so. Though our American cousins have to be congratulated for making this very special festival a fantastic children-centric occasion nevertheless, as with so many other things that have brought great happiness and joy to humanity for millennia, its roots lay firmly in the culture of the Irish Celts!
(Photo shows my son Dáire & 'friend' that was taken many years ago)

Yet in the modern repackaging of this ancient pagan festival, many of the fine traditions that were once such an integral part of the festivities have disappeared. For instance our Celtic custom of placing human skulls with candles at entrances to domestic dwellings in order to ward off evil spirits has been replaced by lights in hollowed-out pumpkins! Likewise the visits of children dressed up in ghoulish and macabre fancy dress going door-to-door looking for gifts of sweets and fruits is a poor substitute for the former visits of the ghosts of our ancestors who used to drop in once a year on October 31st for a nice meal with their living relatives (we would prepare a place for them at the dinner table).
It was said too that live captives were placed in wicker cages above huge bonfires and burnt alive (as portrayed in the classic British 1970s cult film “The Wicker Man”). But such horror stories were originally spun by those nasty Romans when they were at war with the Celts. So it was probably nothing more than malicious enemy propaganda. After all, what do you take us Celts for? Barbarians?!!

As with so many other annual family festivals, Halloween has become so commercialised by 'Americanised' popular culture that its true origins and religious aspects have long since being forgotten.
So here is the true story of 'Féile na Marbh' (Festival of the Dead'):

Christianisation of 'Samhain'
Yet modern-day Americans were not the first people to re-brand the festival. In the middle ages the Catholic Church created the Christian festival of 'All Hallows Eve' or 'All Souls Day' when people were asked to remember and pray for their dead family members.
This event was superimposed onto the ancient pagan Celtic festival of 'Samhain' which marked the end of the summer season characterised by heat & light and the coming of the dark cold barren winter months.

Celtic Festivals
Typical of many agricultural societies, the Celts had four major annual festivals based on the cyclical differences experienced in the changing seasons of nature and their corresponding weather patterns. The other three were 'Imbolc' (spring) 'Bealtane' (summer), 'Lugnasa' (autumn). The latter was associated with harvest time.

Bon(e)Fires
Samhain was a time when food was hoarded as people prepared for the cold season when no plants grew. While many domestic animals such as cattle were brought indoors for the winter, others were slaughtered and most of their meat salted for storage whilst the remainder was cooked for the big feast. As with all Irish festivals, communal bonfires were lit as people gathered together at warm fires to socialise and to give thanks to the deities. Bones of the slaughtered animals were thrown into the fire as symbolic gifts to the gods, an action which give rise to the term ' bone fires' or 'bonfires'. Embers from this sacred fire were taken by local people to their households to light their own domestic fires.

Antecedents to the Pumpkin & 'Trick or Treat'
But Samhain was also a time when creatures from the supernatural world could enter into the world of mortals. 'Fairies' (Irish='Sidhe' as in ‘Banshee’/‘female fairy’) and the spirits of the dead would walk the earth. Many of these beings were benevolent and the spirits of dead ancestors; so families laid out extra food and set aside a table space for their ghostly visitors. This metaphorised into the custom of today's children dressing up as demons and witches & calling to the neighbours' houses to receive presents.
But there were spirits that came on the night of Samhain that were malevolent. Candles were placed in skulls at the entrance to dwellings as light was feared by these dark foreboding creatures. This protection against evil became transformed in modern times into the positioning of hollowed-out turnips and later pumpkins with carved out faces and internal candles at windows and doorways.
Centuries-old party games of trying to eat an apple lying in a basin of water ('bobbing') or dangling on a string tied to a ceiling ('snapping') are still popular festive past-times with Irish children.

The apple is probably the most common edible fruit in Ireland. It was also strongly associated with the spirit world and the fairies (sidhe). In the Arthurian legends, the mystical island of Avalon is where Arthur (of the Celtic Britons) obtains his magical sword Excalibur and where he is taken at the end of his life by the Lady of the Lake and her female fairy companions (banshee). Avalon comes from the Welsh word afal or Irish aball.

Fortune Telling at Halloween
Central to the Irish Halloween is the eating of a fruit bread known as 'Barmbrack' from the Gaelic term 'Báirín Breac' (speckled or spotted top). It is still a popular festive food today.
Various symbolic pieces were placed in the dough before it was baked such as a ring, a pea and a stick. When an item was found in the slice when it was being eaten, it told of the future that awaited the recipient. For instance, the 'ring' signified marriage within a year; a 'stick' represented a bad or violent marriage; the 'coin', wealth and a 'pea', a long wait before marriage.

Irish Export Halloween to North America
The Irish emigrants of the nineteenth century introduced Halloween and its rituals to America. Within a few decades, the festival was transformed into the fun and games event of today.

Significant Irish Contributions to World Culture:
No. 7642- 'Dracula'

Considering our national passion of asking the dead to resurrect themselves & drop into the house for a late night meal & party, it should come as no surprise that the world's most well known vampire Count Dracula was the creation of an Irishman, the novelist Bram Stoker in 1887.
His inspiration though was Carmilla, a book about a lesbian vampire created naturally enough(!) by another well known Irish writer, Sheridan Le Fanu.

(Photos from Macnas Halloween youth parade in Ballinfoile, Galway City)