Christmas 2006 in Galway, - A Walk through the city centre

Eyre Square, Christmas 2006
What looks like snow around the base of the 'Galway Hooker' fountain sculpture is actually the result of someone putting washing up liquid into the water! Sadly, we had no snow this December or any December for the last few years, one more obvious sign of the warming up of the world's climate.

Treasure Chest, Williamsgate Street
One of the more attractive shop fronts that actually took time and effort to decorate for Christmas.
The Treasure Chest is an up-market gift shop owned by Mary Bennett who pioneered in Galway city the development of a retail outlet orientated towards the tourism market.
Gone though is the nearby Taafes family boutique whose owner, Una Taafe, died earlier this year. The shop is now boarded up and was recently bought by business man Gerry Barrett who seems to buying up half of the city's retail and hotel trade (He also bought the landmark 'Bow Street Magistrate's Court' in London during earlier this year). Una was certainly a strange and intriguing character. She seemed to possess some of the elements of the old lady in 'Great Expectations' about her. Once a society dame she lived in a premises that boosted a fine tennis court and a ballroom that once attracted the 'hoi-polloi'. Yet, for years, she would appear outside the shop dressed in hideous decrepit cloths and garish make-up, sit on a stool and sell the many puppies that inhabited her premises. Though she appeared as poor as a church mouse, Una had 8million euro in her bank accounts when she died.
The boutique itself boasted some of the finest traditional Irish-woven woolen clothing. But the place reeked of dog's urine. Though avoided by Galwegians, the shop proved highly popular with tourists!

Busking on Shop Street
A popular sight outside Easons store is this busker with his musical puppet machine.
Though not Irish, he tends to play Celtic tunes. Though I don't know his name, he is always smiling and courteous to the passing pedestrians. For the festive season, he set up a life sixe Santa and donned a red hat!
Buskers ahve been a familiar sight on Shop Street since the late nineteenth seventies. Though not welcomed initally by the shop-owners, busking is now part of the street's fabric.
Of course, it has to be said that the quality of the performers varies enormously!

Charlie Byrne's Bookshop, Middle Street

Charlie's bookshop was packed with local and tourist customers over the Christmas period.
At this stage, it is a Galway institution and is probably the most famous secondhand bookshop in Ireland with rooms of wall-to-wall shelves crammed with every topic under the sun.
Many of us spend hours browsing through its vast but well-labelled collection.
Charlie himself can be seen on the right of the photograph. He is very likeable fellow of a quiet disposition. An old friend of mine, Charlie and myself shared a house together when we were students at NUI Galway that was well known for its all-night parties and shenanigans! 'Nuff said!

Taafe's Bar, Shop Street
Taafe's Bar was pleasantly decked out.
Notice the cordoned off seating area to the left- this is one of the pleasant side effects of the government's 'smoking ban' introduced into bars, hotels and restaurants a few years ago.
The 'Irish Pub' was typically an 'inside' venue. Now most bards have introduced beer gardens and outdoor seating areas giving Irish streets a 'continental' flavour.

St. Patrick's Brass Band, outside 'Brown Thomas' storeFund-raising for one of the most popular bands in Galway on Christmas Eve.
Brass bands were once a common sight in Irish towns and cities. Traditionally associated with trade unions and factories from the 19th century onwards, there are now sadly few of these musical outfits left. But I have a soft spot for the sound of a trumpet.

Williamgate & Shop Streets on Christmas EveThe large modern shopping centres in the suburbs may have captured a large segment of the city's shoppers. But Galway's city centre with its narrow streets and innumerable little boutiques, music stores , restaurants and bars has lost none of its traditional sparkle.

I Say 'Slán' (Good Bye) to two dear Iraqi friends

Photo shows Huda and Adil Jafar with their 2 children, Lina and Mohammed with my goodself (extreme fight) at an Outreach event in DERI at Galway University, July 2006.
Two dear friends of mine Huda Jafer and Adil Jaber, who escaped in 2005 from the cauldron of death that is post Sadaam Baghdad, departed Galway this week to start a new life in Dublin. Though I wish them well, they will be sadly missed by so many of us.
Their presence in our city lasted a year. But like a brilliant comet, they lighted up the lives of everyone that worked with them during their brief sojourn.
Adil Jaber & Huda Jafer arrived in Ireland with their 2 young children from Iraq seeking sanctuary. They never expected or wanted to leave the county of their birth. But as a mixed (Sunni/Shia) marriage couple people working within the medical profession in Baghdad, their lives became increasingly at risk as the security situation dramatically deteriorated from early 2004. Forced to leave behind friends, extended family members, their home and their livelihood, they ended up as asylum seekers in an alien land (Ireland) with a limited knowledge of its language and culture. Their presence in Ireland is a terrible indictment of the failure of America's policies in Iraq and in the world generally.
Yet in spite of all their sufferings, Adil and Huda enthusiastically and unselfishly got involved in improving the lives of their fellow residents staying at the Eglinton Hotel Asylum Seekers Centre. They helped me in setting up and maintain the structure of an innovative in-house ‘Web Café’ for residents and acted as coordinator for many of the extra-curricular tours and social, recreational and educational programmes that started to be organised.
They also got involved in community events outside the Centre as exemplified by the photo on the left that shows them planting native Irish Yew trees at a community Spring planting in Galway city.
Thanks to their dedication and sheer hard work, they have helped empower so many Galway-based asylum seekers and encouraged them to use their individual talents and skills to overcome or at least lessen the pain and anguish that they have encountered.
The couple are living embodiments of the goodness that can exist in humanity. They have touched the lives of those around them; have put smiles back on the faces of those who have suffered so much personal trauma and have inspired so many of us who work on humanitarian and community issues to strife even harder.
The asylum seeker support staff and volunteers such as myself got together a few days before Christmas and invited them out to lunch where we presented them with a small token of our appreciation.
I never met angels until I met Adil and Huda. Slán agus Beannacht, mo chairde.

Famous Irish Quotations & Sayings- Part 3

"There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about."
-Oscar Wilde

Why is the United States of America Hated So Much?

Anti-War Protest, Galway 2006
The nation that has defined so much of the world for the last 100 years has never been so despised.
Why is that so many of us that have fond memories of working in the United States, that use American products daily, are life-long fans of the country's technological achievements, listen avidly to American-inspired pop music, have an insatiable appetite for American television programmes & Hollywood movies, pander without any hesitation to U.S. fashion, espouse its inherent political ideology of "life, liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness", yet still possess a deep and growing hatred of its political presence on the world stage?

The answer is simple- The policies of the United States, particularly its environmental and foreign activities, are arrogant, selfish, hypocritical, militaristic and smack of a new type of imperialism that is dramatically escalating under the present regime of George Bush and is leading the world on a path of global self-destruction.
The White House now views the planet as something to be used and abused to serve the the greed and selfish interests of Corporate America. In doing so, it has given the green light to the Russian, Chinese, Israeli, Indian and a host of other governments to follow suit and abuse human rights, implement state terrorism and rape the environment.

Famous Irish Quotations & Sayings - Part 2

"May the roof above us never fall in, and may the friends gathered below it never fall out"
-Traditional Irish Toast, anon

Galway City does not yet deserve IBAL's 'Litter Free' Status

I must be living on a different planet to the people in 'Irish Business Against Litter' (IBAL)!
Their recent national survey released yesterday states that Galway City has achieved 'litter free status'.
While respecting IBAL's excellent work in improving litter awareness amongst both the public and local authoritites as well as knowing at first hand the concerted efforts of Galway City Council in cleaning our streets, nevertheless this statement is a total distortion of the facts and creates a false persception of the true situation which can only damage the enviromental campaigning. For how true are IBAL's results in other jurisdictions if the facts in Galway do not match their assertions?
So what areas did they actually visit within the city boundaries?
Yes, there have been improvements in litter over the last year particularly along the major roads and within the city centre. But a litter-free status? Get real!!

Yesterday, I walked around a number of suburban parks and roadways across Galway city. Sadly, I saw a huge amount of bottles, cans and general waste scattered far and wide which has changed little from my own personal survey of a few months ago. See what I found on the website-
So over the Christmas holiday period, I am going to re-visit these same areas that I encountered on my last survey and undertake a direct comparision to see exactly what has and has not changed. I sincerely hope that there has been a significient change...but...

Anyway, below is a letter that I had published in the Galway Advertiser two months ago on this very issue. Hopefully, it gives readers a truer picture of the litter status in the city as well as providing some practical suggestions and policies for rectifying the situation.

"Bush Drinking' & the Destruction of Galway's Green Spaces
"Our green spaces, waterways, seashores, public parks and woods are being destroyed by the debris and vandalism caused by an epidemic of bush drinking that is sweeping across Galway City as it is across the whole country. Over the last 10 years, many local communities campaigned successfully for the preservation and development of green spaces that it was envisaged would be transformed into wildlife habitats and outdoor recreational zones for all ages. But these hard fought victories are now being strangled to death by a layer of bottles and cans, accompanied in many cases by campfires fuelled by branches ripped from surrounding trees, that are appearing in green areas stretching from Barna to Oranmore and in every suburb in between. No area of the city is immune to this anti-social activity. I spent three days in August undertaking a photographic survey of Galway’s parks, forests and waterways and was shocked at the desecration caused. Some of the resultant photos can be seen at . For someone who is actively involved in encouraging our local authority to provide green zones, this is heart breaking. Ten years ago, resident groups persuaded Galway City Council to put in place plans for a public park and woodland along the banks of the Terryland River. Last May, the council adopted a motion to preserve and manage 58 important natural habitats that had being sponsored by the Galway City Development Board, environmental agencies, community organisations, tourism interests and the government’s Parks & Wildlife Service. In the intervening years, thousands of citizens of all ages have planted tens of thousands of trees and plants which also have the added bonus of helping to combat rising global temperatures that are more acute in urban areas due to their higher concentration of greenhouse gas emissions. Wildlife such as hare, rabbit and pheasant are returning to lands not far distant from the city centre. The benefits can be seen too in the increase in passive recreational zones for walking, for school nature field trips as well as in the overall improvement of the city’s aesthetic look particularly in our sprawling concrete suburbia. Nothing less than the very survival of the human race depends in protecting biodiversity that comes with the increased provision of forests and wetlands and the cleaning up of our waterways. But we cannot blind ourselves to the wanton destruction that is taking place every evening in Galway’s green lands. The availability of very cheap alcohol from ever-increasing numbers of retail outlets and the phenomena of warmer temperatures is contributing to an epidemic of bush drinking. The consequences for wildlife are disastrous: cans, bottles, clothes, plastic food wrappings and barbeque debris cover riverbeds and forest floors. Circumstantial evidence exists that leads one to believe that animals, birds and fish are being trapped on-site and eaten. It is not just in public lands that this is occurring; I have seen vast quantities of litter in the grounds of some of our educational institutions. There is now an urgent need for all local stakeholders to work together and play their part in solving this crisis. For instance, the City Council should install anti-vermin (lids) litter bins in our parks, create a new department of Parks Rangers, involve residents/schools more in parks programmes and finally get their act together by actually starting to build suburban multi-activity community centres- it is criminal that thousands of our city teenagers have so few facilities to enjoy at night-times and at weekends. The Garda Siochana should end their softly softly approach to outdoor drinking and put the new reserve force into community policing. The Courts should have those convicted of anti-social behaviour undertake public works within the communities that they have vandalised. Parents and residents should take a more pro-active role in their green neighbourhood. But the Government has a pivotal role to play by ending the embargo on full-time local authority recruitment. Furthermore, the state should follow the example of some other countries by imposing a substantial refundable charge on all drink cans and bottles. This worked well in Ireland in previous decades; I remember as a kid collecting bottles weekly in order to get money to buy comics. The more recent highly successful plastic bay levy was a good example of money talking and improving the environment. Furthermore, is it not time now to consider dramatically reducing the number of retail outlets selling alcohol? In the last few years, every shop and garage seems to have a large off-licence section: some prominent supermarkets seem to consist of little else. The friendly local pub as a social venue is being replaced by the uncontrolled and often unseen open-air gatherings that leave behind such a trail of destruction. Let us not though follow the example of one wild animal, namely the ostrich, by burying our heads in the litter-strewn sand and pretending not to notice anything amiss. Brendan Smith

Famous Irish Quotations & Sayings - Part 1

"A Tavern is a place where they sell madness by the bottle"
- Jonathan Swift, author of 'Gullivers Travels'.

'Death of a Gentleman Politician'- the Honourable Michael Leahy

The recently deceased Councillor Michael Leahy with Catherine Njemanze, at last December's Awards event in NUI Galway for Asylum Seekers who had completed the DERI Internet Awareness Course .
A former Mayor of Galway City and a current Fianna Fáil councillor, Michael Leahy was buried this week. He was without a doubt a true gentleman of Irish politics .
Though I would have had many political clashes and disagreements with him over the years on such issues from the the Ronald Reagan Presidential visit in 1984 right through to the controversy on the municipal incinerator, nevertheless there was never any personal animosity between us. He was a very honourable and humble man that never held a grudge.
We worked together for four years (2000-2004) as members of the inaugural Galway City Development Board. (CDB). This group was a ground breaking partnership movement set up under the state reform of local government structures. I believe that these CDBs have had little positive impact on planning and development nationwide. Except in Galway where we secured such revolutionary goals as making the city 'pedestrian-friendly, cycle-friendly, disability-friendly and child-friendly' and the creation of 'wildlife/ecological corridors' as part of the CDB Strategy 2002-2012.
The adoption of these and many other innovative objectives had much to do with the fair-mindedness and diplomatic machinations of the CDB chairperson, Michael Leahy.
He also attended many of my Outreach functions at the university and turned up as a participant at one of my blogging workshops earlier this year. Always willing to be supportive was our Michael.
He once said to me last year, "...When I first met you in person, I thought of you as one of those feckin' leftie troublemakers as your reputation proceeded you. But when I actually listened to what you said, I thought well maybe there is some sense in some of the things he says after all..."!
In the last few years, I would have considered Michael a friend.
He was also highly admired by constituents for his unselfish, tireless and untrumpeted work on their behalf. The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern publicly stated this week that he was a true 'republican and socialist'. This though came as a complete surprise to me, so it shows you how much I know! But I never met Michael at any of the many republican and socialist meetings that I attended. Still, that said, maybe the two of us had more in common politically than I thought!
May you Rest in Peace, Michael.

Bridging society's 'Technology Divide'

Photograph shows a group of parents from the Mercy College in Galway City who completed one of my DERI Internet courses that included an introduction to online social networks such as Bebo & MySpace.
The fast pace of technology change in the last few decades has led to individuals and even whole sections of society being alienated and feeling disenfranchised.
It happened on a continental scale with the collapse of the communist system in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during the early 1990s. Older men in these countries, who previously had jobs for life in the huge heavy industrial complexes such as shipbuilding, suddenly found their places of work closed down as the economies went into meltdown. Their skills were no longer needed and they did not possess the knowledge, the opportunities and sometimes the inclination to learn the modern high tech skills required in the post-communist era. Interestingly women tended to be more flexible and anyway were often more in demand for the low-paying jobs in the production assembly factories that were then opening across Eastern Europe.
However Western Europe countries also experienced a technological divide as an older generation of people were oftentimes out-of touch with the latest Internet-based communcation gadgets and systems that were quickly became so much part of the everydaay lives of teenagers and children.
So part of my remit as Outreach Officer at the Digital Enterprise Research Insitute (DERI) based at Galway University is to organise community Internet programmes aimed at bridging this technology divide. DERI now has a wide range of courses aimed at different audiences including active retirement groups, residents associations, disability organisations, neighbourhoods and parents. These are often groups whose members can feel swamped and threatened by the pace of change. My job is to help give them a working 'hands-on' awareness of the latest technological devices and encourage them to grasp the opportunities presented by the new tools and services available.
DERI is the Worlds largest institute involved in developing the next stage of the World Wide Web known as the Semantic Web. We have researchers from 15 different countries. And it is based in Galway, a city that has rich industrial, educational, social, political and cultural vibrancy.
But in spite of its high-level research 'raison d'etre', it is mandated as a recipient of government funding to have a community and educational outreach programme aimed at the general public in its locality. This is my very rewarding job to manage and to tutor, a duty that I enjoy immensely!

In the Company of a True Hero- Commander Bill King

(Official War Portrait of Commander William AE King RN by William Dring)Last Wednesday, I was privileged and humbled to be able to act as chauffeur and minder to one of the last surviving British heroes of World War Two. For I had to collect and drive the much decorated Commander William (Bill) King RN to and from the official opening of the new Marine Science school Lab at Ireland's National Aquarium (Atlantaquaria) in Salthill where he was special guest of honour.
At the ripe old age of 96 Bill is extremely gregarious, energetic, full of wit and charm, enjoys the odd tipple(!) and can keep you spellbound with his daring and oftentimes witty tales of exploits from war-time. His stories seem to be taken straight of a British public boys' school novel of the late 1940s.
Bill was one of the very few British submarine commanders that started the war in 1939 who was still alive in August 1945. The death rate in the Royal Navy submarine fleet was proportionally as high as that of the more well-known Kreigsmarine. His exploits are legendary:
  • shelling a Japanese gun-ship and troop transport ship which he was later reprimanded for by the British Admiralty ("... I was told that I should have used torpedoes!...")
  • leaving Singapore just prior to its capitulation when his crew survived for circa 40 days at sea on a few boxes of Australian lozenges that they hurriedly scavenged from the city's dockside ("...everyone remarked how thin we were...")
  • arriving at Ceylon where they soon found themselves attacked by dive-bombers from the Japanese fleet ("...I could plainly see the whites of the pilots' eyes as they wheezed past...")
  • managing to extricate his submarine from being grounded on the coast of Nazi-occupied Holland ("...I got the helmsman to turn the wheel strongly to starboard every time a wave came inshore...")
  • surfacing to replenish his air tanks off occupied Norway ("...I would surface right up against the base of the cliffs so as to avoid the view of any watching sentries...")
  • the madness that engulfed the Asian port where he was docked the night the war ended ("...60 people died on shore that night as people got extremely drunk, lost their heads with some settling years of pent-up frustrations and old feuds with guns...")
  • the egalitarian world of the submarine ("...I was born into the British upper class, but one positive thing that serving on a submarine did for me, was it eliminated any inherent snobbishness that I we all lived together in cramped quarters sharing everything!...").
  • decorated by Winston Churchill ("...Winston kept offering me a shot of his fine house brandy which I kept declining...").
(Bill's first submarine posting was on the HMS Orpheus in 1931. Picture shows the submarine in Hong Kong Harbour)
Bill is connected by marriage to one of the great Anglo-Irish aristocratic families. His wife Anne's ancestral home is Castle Leslie in Monaghan where ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and Heather Mills got married. Anita (or Anne) was first cousin to Winston Churchill ("...our families shared the same baptismal clothes..."). According to Bill, his father Lt. Col William Albert de Courcy was the first man to fly an airplane in Europe at the site of what is now the world-renowned Farnborough airshow). His grandfather William was first Professor of Geology at Queens' College Galway (now NUI Galway) and is famous for coining the term ’Neanderthal man’ in 1865 after deducing that the fossil remains found at the River Neander in Germany belonged to a non-human species whom he called Homo neanderthalensis.But Bill also has good Irish nationalist credentials!-Anita's godfather was Eamon De Valera with her father being a good friend of the Irish rebel leader Michael Collins. She in fact served as an ambulance driver with the French Army in WW2 and was awarded the coveted 'Croix de Guerre' by Charles de Gaulle ("...she was very courageous and joined the French rather than the British ambulance service because the French went closer to the front-line...!").

After the war, Bill moved to Ireland and purchased Oranmore castle located on the shores of Galway Bay for £200. It was then in an advanced state of disrepair. But within a short time frame, this fine medieval building once more echoed to the sounds of human habitation.
But his love of adventure at sea never left him. In 1969 he took part in the first 'round-the-world' yacht race on his boat 'The Galway Blazer'.
Last month, he was decorated with the newly created 'Arctic Emblem' by the British Ministry of Defence, given to those military personnel who had served in the Arctic regions during WW2.

Two years ago, I helped the pupils from a nearby primary school (Kiltartan) film a fascinating interview with Commander King as part of the 'Fionn' Galway Primary School Science project. This can be viewed at . Well worth a view!

"...What shall we do with the Singing Sailor....!"
Finally, as a footnote....
As I said , I acted as chaperon to Bill when he was special guest at the Atlantaquaria reception. While there, he enjoyed two glasses of white wine which seemed to make him a little merry. For on the one hour's journey back to his castle home, he gave a non-stop rendition of ditty little sexy rhymes and songs of WW2 vintage along the lines of "...There was a lusty young maid from Algiers who....". All very enjoyable and funny, except for the fact that my 6 year old son was also in the car! I kept gracefully reminding the commander that the young lad was present but to no avail! Thankfully Dáire didn't understand most of the more inappropriate words that he was reciting (or at least I don't think that he did!!!).

Lord Ashtown's son replies to my article on Woodlawn House

This letter was sent to my previous article on 'Woodlawn House' from Roderick Trench, son of Lord Ashtown whose ancestors built this fine building :

"Just came across your story on Woodlawn House. Of great interest to me as it belonged to my family. The owner was in fact Lord Ashtown not Ashford. My father is the present Lord Ashtown. He turned 90 two weeks ago and lives in London. I had the mausoleum restored in 2001 and usually come over to Galway a couple of times a year. I am not so sure about Woodlawn being haunted. I always heard that Leap Castle in Offaly held that honour. My grandmother's family came from there."

Yes, I made a typing error in the title of Lord 'Ashtown'. Sorry!
But it is good to know that the present Lord Ashtown is alive and 'all of 90 years young'.

Sadly, Roderick did not leave me his contact details.
But if he is still viewing my blog, I would like to get his postal address so that I could send him the film on Woodlawn House produced by the children of Woodlawn school as well as the piece from the 'Sunday Times' regarding the building being the most haunted in Ireland.
I would also like to point out that, unlike many of the landlords from the British colonial era, the Trench family left behind a rich heritage for future generations of Irish people to finally enjoy in the form of the assortment of fine buildings that they had commissioned which still dominate the local landscape including:
the Church of Ireland, the railway station, the former tenants' houses, the ice house...

Unfortunately the interior of Woodlawn House itself was largely destroyed years ago in a fire.
But the demesne remains intact with its plethora of outhouses, wrought-iron railings/gates, games-keeper lodge, stables and huge glasshouse.
Hopefully, it will continue to retain much of its rural idyll character for ordinary Irish people to admire and in the years to come.

Below is a photo of some of the pupils of the local school as they endeavour to re-create the dress of a 19th century Lord Ashtown and his family.
The pupils and staff of Woodlawn Primary School who produced the award-winning film on 'Woodlawn House.

An ornate Gate on the Woodlawn demesne