Kyle O'Brien

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Last Night in Ireland...

So I know the last couple days have been slacking in the blog, but I've been really taking up my last few days in Ireland. It's about 11:30 PM here local time and we need to leave the apartment by 5:30 AM tomorrow to catch our flight out of Dublin International Airport.

I did want to give you a taste of what we did on our last day. It consisted of lunch at Frenchie's restaurant in Clough, a day at the horseraces and a farewell reception by the Friends of St. Patrick - Downpatrick. It was a great day and they'll be more details to are some pictures!

My losing horse...Secret Police.

Mame, Dr. Campbell, myself and Allie at the races!

Bridget, Kate and Bobby...the gamblers of the group!

The 2009 Young Ambassadors on their last night.
Bobby (Milwaukee), Bridget (Milwaukee), Kate (Indiana), Mame (Washington, D.C.), Me, Marren (Minnesota), Jim (Chicago), Meghan (Minnesota)
and Allie (Minnesota)
Adam and myself...looking forward to Adam's visit to Milwaukee this summer!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Ireland: Day 11

Day 11 was a day complete dedicated to Dublin, Republic Culture and the Ireland government processes. Kate had offered the previous night to make breakfast for everybody this morning. Sure enough...Kate had scrambled eggs with freshly shredded cheese ( I don't really know what kind it was...but it was awesome...I'm a cheddar guy so I don't know much else ;-) ), toast, juice, milk, and cereal. She came to get the boys and of course we're all scrambling to get ready, like always, and I then walk into the girls apartment with a set table and hot food. It was great!

Then we all loaded up again in a shuttle van around 8:45 AM to begin our journey to the Republic's capital city. Our first adventure was getting to the Leinster House...the home of the Irish parliament. The house was originally built by the Duke of Leinster in 1748 and is now the home of the 166 TD's in the Dáil Éireann (Gaelic for House of Representatives of Ireland) as well as the 60 Senators in the Seanad Éireann (Gaelic for, you guessed it, Senate of Ireland). It's evident in the nomenclature of the houses alone that the United States government had a very significant impact on how the legislative bodies were created. Although the 166 member "House" has significantly less members than the US house, it has much the same power as most amendments made to legislation are observed and acted upon in the lower house (aka Dail Eireann).

We arrived at the building and first went to the House chamber to see business in session. They were debating and discussing the child abuse report that was released by Ireland's Commission to Inquire About Child Abuse. Many Americans probably remember this being released, as it made headlines on that side of the Atlantic as well. Here is a link to a news story on the topic from Yahoo News:

As we were leaving the chamber, some of the other Young Ambassadors in the group said that they witnessed visitors crying in the gallery. As we entered the estate, we saw protestors outside with signs regarding abuse from religious child services. Earlier in the week, protestors marched a silent march throughout the city of Dublin to show their dissatisfaction with the institutional abuse experienced by children throughout the 1900's.

We then went on a tour with our tour guide Pat and saw the rest of the house including the Senate chambers, famous paintings within the house, the flag of the 69th Irish Brigade (regiment of the Union during the American Civil War 1200 men fought of which only 200 survived) given to the People of Ireland by John F. Kennedy and the reception room of many famous dignitaries including Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

After our tour, we went to lunch at an Irish pub where the popular lunch seemed to be another course of Fish & Chips. I'm trully getting spoiled here as it seems like "Friday Fish Fry" is everyday with Fish & Chips. Some of the group enjoyed a cold Guinness brewed only miles away.

We then went on to meet up with Dr. Campbell, Mr. Jack Ferris and the other two Ambassadors that spent the morning with the Ulster Scotts Agency. We met them in the main square at Trinity College and then headed up to meet with the Taioseach and Minister Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Talking with these two very distinguished and prominent politicians in Ireland was a great experience. Not too many times can a visitor to Ireland get to meet the leader of the country! The Taioseach is basically the Prime Minister of Ireland, appointed by the President and required to maintain confidence by a majority in the lower house. The current Taioseach, Brian Cowan, talked at length with us about his views on Ireland's role in a global economy as well as the role that the country of Ireland plays to help America. He told us that the Irish want to be able to help America and the US shoudn't always be expected to cater to everyone else...other countries need to cater to Americans as guests of foreign countries as well.

We then headed downtown to visit some of the stores in Dublin and then drove back to Dundrum. Waiting for us at the apartmentn was Maynard and Mark from the Ulster Scotts Agency and Jack who is a professional conflict mediator. We received a little lesson from Mark on the Fiffe and the Lambeg Drum; both traditional Ulster Scotts Instruments that Mark uses for the work he does with reconciliation within the schools in Northern Ireland. Maynard provide us with tremendous insight into his experiences and observations of the processes that have taken place here during and after the Troubles. Lastly, Jack helped us understand his work mediating conflict that arose with the Troubles especially for youth and their parents. As you can see...on the way back some of us were just a wee bit tired! Jim gave me permission to put these on...I wouldn't be that mean to do it without him knowing ;-)

After these presentations Jack and Maynard stuck around until almost midnight and talked with us about Northern Ireland, Ireland and American politics. We had a very interesting discussion on foreign affairs with Maynard to see how someone in a foreign country views the American culture and political world.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Thinking today...

I saw Elton John perform this song when I was in 3rd grade. My parents took me to see him at the Bradley Center for his Made in England tour in 1995. I always enjoyed this I feel I understand it.

These are the scenes we saw during our tour of West Belfast. The Struggles are still very evident as you'll be able to see in some of these pictures. This is the Sinn Fein headquarters...the IRA was the militant wing of Sinn Fein and the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) was the militant wing for the Democratic Unionist Party. To see the combativeness that still exists in extremist political groups on the island please see this BBC Article: Continuity IRA Shot Dead Officer. Political leaders, even Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, have taken abuse from extremist Nationalist groups who believe that they need to make the entire island one republic.

All West Belfast, one will see murals on buildings represent Loyalist and Nationlist viewpoints. Some of these are extremely moving and depict scenes from the Struggles that one could never imagine.

This is a picture of the peacewall that separates the Loyalist and the Nationalist peoples in West Belfast. The picture was taken outside a memorial built by nationalists to recognize the loss of IRA soldiers and civillians during "The War". This memorial is built a cornenr of Bombay Street...which was one of the most brutally hit civillian areas. To this day, one can see that family's fence off their back yards to keep intruders and potentially explosives away from the foundation of their homes. In the picture, you can see parts of the wall where paint is burnt off. These are areas where bombs were intended to be thrown over the wall but fell back down and exploded. It is extremely sobering...

The last picture is a picture of the barbed wire that encompasses areas of the city. The first picture was taken from the bus of someone's back yard and the second picture is of a community center called the 174 Trust. Notice the barbed fencing that surrounds the Pre-School and daycare beside the church.

Deep inside my soul fights a war
I can't explain, I can't cross over any more
All I see are dirty faces
Rain and wire, and common sense in pieces
But I try to see through Irish eyes

Look outside, summer's lost and gone
It's a long walk on a street of right and wrong
In every inch of sadness
Rocks and tanks go hand in hand with madness
But I never saw a braver place

And it's sad when they sing, and hollow ears listen
Of smoking black roses, on the streets of Belfast
And so say your lovers from under the flowers
Every foot of this world needs an inch of


Who's to say on whom heaven smiles
Our different ways we try hard to recognise
No more enchanted evenings
The pubs are closed and all the ghosts are leaving
But you'll never let them shut you down

The enemy is not at home
A jealous green streaks down this faulty diamond
No bloody boots or crucifix
Can ever hope to split this emerald island
But I never saw a braver place

Ireland: Day 10

Day 10 consisted of another trip to Belfast, for Bobby and myself to get a more up close and personal look at the inner workings of Stormont and the Northern Ireland Assembly. As always, we caught the bus to Downpatrick at 8:00 AM.

We then headed to the Oakley Fayre, the official favorite breakfast joint among Young Ambassadors in Downpatrick. The classic toasted bagel with scrambled egg and bacon was the bird in the hand selection for me this morning...guaranteed declisiousness!

Bobby and I went to Margaret Ritchie's office to hitch a ride with Maria to Stormont again. We arrived around 9:00 AM and then hopped in Maria's car to head up to Belfast. We had the chance to meet Katherine, Margaret Ritchie's niece who majored in Political Science and Accountancy.

I told the ladies the story of me almost missing the bus this morning. So I was just hanging out near the apartment wating for Bobby to come downstairs. Jim had left with his laundry basket and I just assumed he was coming back to the I left the door wide open so Jim wouldn't get locked out. As Bobby and I left, we walked by the laundry room to see if Jim was there, but the door was closed. So we continued on, figuring he just went back to the apartment. Anyways, Bobby and I finally get to the bus and as we walk up Bobby goes, "Hey Kyle...isn't that Jim in the front of the line."

I did a double take and realized that our door was wide open with no one to close it for 10 hours. I had to sprint back through the town of Dundrum in a blue shirt and tie in order to shut the door of our apartment. Remember how I had mentioned that school kids just litter the bus lines in the morning for their ride to school...yeah well that was embarassing sprinting in dress clothes through a bunch of kids dressed like Harry Potter. (In Northern Ireland...all school children where uniform suits to school). Thankfully the bus driver stuck around for me...I think mainly because he felt so bad for me!

Nevertheless, I really didn't need much for coffee because my heart was beating pretty good after the all out sprint.

So Maria, Bobby and I headed on the Ireland back roads to Storemont. We had a great conversation with Maria on the way up. We talked about lots of different things including my story telling ability...which apparently is pretty poor ;-)...we also talked about the phrase "We gotta book it out of here..." We told her that it's normally a phrase that is used when you're in trouble and need to run I doubt Maria will need to use it anytime soon ;-)

We showed up to Stormont and went through the security checkpoint once again...I think the security guys are starting to get to know us! Next, we went into the SDLP party office and met Ashley who is the party treasurer that arranged our day. Maria then left us like a mom at a grown up day-care and for Bobby and I it was like an entire day of recess!

Starting our day was a visit to the Committee of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. We had the chance to meet with Jim and Soey, and ironically Soey is a graduate of UW-Milwaukee and calls Milwaukee home. These two are committee staffpersons who work with MLA's to make the committees as efficient as possible. Jim and Soey do research on policy as well as work with Assemblypersons that want to develop legislation within the committee.

Jim gave us an overview of the committee including the agencies, boards and comissions that the committee works with. Some of these different government groups include Invest NI, Energy Regulators, Toruism Ireland, Consumer Council and Northern Ireland Tourist Board. We also had a great lesson on committee structures as well as where committees derive their power.

One of the things that I wondered about throughout my time here in Northern Ireland was how the country utilized currency within the United Kingdom. Many of the banks offer bank notes through their own bank (Ulster Bank, Bank of Ireland, etc.) Essentially, as Jim said, the currency created by these banks are not even legal tender. They are essentially backed by their own bank but not accepted in England, as the Bank of England provides the only legal tender in the United Kingdom.

Lunch followed the tour and Minister Ritchie bought lunch for Bobby, Ashley and myself. After all of the controversy over expense accounts Bobby and I joked about being subpoened to testify after accepting a meal from politicans. See this website to understand a little bit about the MP Expense Account controversy...

After lunch, we went to see Stephen from the communications department of the SDLP. Stephen is in charge of press releases within the party and talked with us a little bit about working with the press in Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain. He said that according to the Northern Ireland Act of 1998, all political parties must be equally represented within the media.

He also talked about the importance of developing and maintaining solid relationships with journalists throughout the country. He said that the newspapers, whom have a unionist or nationlist bias similar to conservative or liberal slants in American media, heavily control what type of coverage is given to the politicians. Also, politicians are only allowed a certain amount of space per year within the newspapers so Stephen's job is to utilize that space as effective as possible. He said that he also must conduct some damage control when something bad comes out about the members of their party.

The SDLP, like all the other parties in Northern Ireland, actually have a party office right inside Stormont. I asked the staff about campaigning materials being stored in the office and basically they said it wasn't legal but it wasn't many offices utilize their state office space for campaign purposes. I wonder if people are upset about the tremendous amount of overhead that the government has in the Parliament Buildings.

The next area that we went was the ground floor where the Library is held. The Library is utilized as a member resource and has a staff of 14 individuals that mostly work on collecting information for members of the Assembly to make an informed decision on legislation. They produce about 12 reports each month on legislative issues. Ingrid, one of the Senior Librarians at the Assembly Library, showed us the members room as well as the records of chamber meetings since 1921 when the Assembly met in Belfast's City Hall.

The next place we went we met Maureen and Shareene who work for the Business Committee. The Business Committee is in charge of the Order Paper (Agenda) for the Assembly and decides what types of legislation the chamber will take up. The staff members from the business committee serve as assistants to the Speaker's office with parliamentary procedure and the Standing Orders of the Assembly (governing rules of the body).

Lastly, we walked down the hall to the Speaker's Office, an elected member of the Assembly that is only given a vote in the event of a tie among the 108 members of the Assembly. All the ministers (9) and the first and deputy first ministers are elected members of the Assembly and are then placed in their post as executives. We were given lapels with the symbol of the Northern Ireland Assembly by the Chief of Staff in the Speaker's office. We were then given a tour of the office as well as a litle background on the furnishings of the office including paintings, sceptors and a dispatch box that was saved from the fire in the House of Commons in January of 1995.

Some interesting random history on the building - in WWII the British Government had the building painted black with a tar and cow manure mixture to hide the building from invading Axis forces. Belfast was the 3rd hardest hit city throughout the war and as our tour guide kindly mentioned to us, the Northern Irish obviously didn't predict Stormont to ever be hit as they designed a large white building on a hill with roadways in the shape of an arrow pointing at the building...a fairly easy target for any invading enemies.

The tar/manure mixture took workers seven and a half years to remove and return to it's "original" state as a white building...they used only wire brushes and elbow grease. Many have commented that you can still see remnants of the mixture on the building and it could never be refurbished to it's original state.

Our final destination was the Bill Office where Ellis, one of the senior drafters works with legislators, staff and committees to develop bills and help them propose amendments. She gave us a very detailed understanding of what takes place when a bill is written as well as the politics behind bill writing before, during and after introduction in the chamber or committee.

We ended up back in the SDLP office to meet Maria for our ride home. We had a great ride home with her and talked about my fear of rollercoasters (which I proudly overcame as a sophomore in college ;-)), Wisconsin Dells as the waterpark capitol of the world and Maria's trip to Greece this summer. She mentioned that she might be overdoing her holiday visits...with 5 vacations this year alone ;-). If anyone deserves it, it surely is Maria. I was talking to Ashley and Katherine at the SDLP office in Stormont and they mentioned how dedicated Maria is to her work and how she has a great work ethic. I'm so extremely appreciative of the opportunity I've had this trip to work with her.

Maria dropped us off at the bus station where Bobby and I caught the bus home with the rest of the Young Ambassador gang. Jimmy Mac had mentioned how this was the first time that everyone placed in Downpatrick rode the bus home together...very ironic that it was one of our last days together. Our group has certainly come a long way in a week and a half!

Our night ended with a visit from Dr. Campbell in Dundrum, a couple of us napping and some laundry.

As all of us sit here we're contemplating recent news around Wisconsin and the rest of the States. We just read about the two police men shot in Milwaukee as well as the security guard killed at the US Holocaust museum. We take our home protection for granted and being here in Northern Ireland I spend a lot of time talking to people who have lived through a time period that they weren't safe in their home. Today our tour guide commented that, "When you've grown up with tanks on your roadways and military checkpoints on your way to don't know anything else." Our civil servants, police officers, security officers, firefighters and medical staff keep us safe each and everyday...yet we take their services for granted.

One of the girls from the group, Meghan, was in the Holocaust Museum almost three times a week last summer as she studied Holocaust Studies. She commented how, "She probably walked past that guy everyday..." I think it hit some of us how we think more about these individuals as enforcement officers instead of peace officers. We complain about speeding tickets, airline checkpoints and smoke alarms...yet we take our homeland security for granted and don't realize that the purpose of these agencies is to protect our society.

The people of Northern Ireland have had to readjust their lives because of their inability to be secure in their own homes. This isn't distant just ended in 1998. This can happen anytime and anywhere. We don't think about those that protect us in our own for all the times I've never said it...thank you.

Til tomorrow,

- Kyle

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Ireland: Day 9

Day 9 was quite an adventure for us Young Ambassadors over here in the Emerald Isle. It started with a trip to Stormont that national capitol of Northern Ireland in Belfast, continued with a tour of West Belfast and the struggles between Unionists and Nationalists throughout the late 20th century and ended with some laugh won't want to miss this one!

The Young Ambassadors had the great privilege of presenting Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness with a Wisconsin Blue Book, the reference book for Wisconsin government.

We then found our way into the building and took a tour of the old Senate chambers, the Great Hall and the Assembly chambers. The Assembly was actually sitting in session so we had the opportunity to go in the "Strangers Gallery" to watch. Unfortunately, we couldn't take any pictures but we did get to hear the MLA's debate "college discounts for older people"...such politically correct terminology!

As we were leaving, MLA Basil McCrea form the Ulster Unionnist Party happened to come across us just as we were leaving. He ended up taking us on a behind the scenes tour of Stormont to see the media room, members lounge, members dining room, front balcony, BBC Office and radio & print offices. Lastly, we ate with him at the cafeteria in the basement.

We then continued on a trip with our tour guide Phillip to see the remnants of the conflicts between Catholics/Nationalists and Protestants/Loyalsts, as well as the efforts for peace that have made international headlines in recent decades.

We then spent about an hour in Belfast getting dinner, shopping and checking out the city. Bobby and I will be heading back up to Stormont tomorrow to work with some of the MLA staff in the capitol.

After leaving Belfast, the group took a bus to visit ole' Stanley's house. At Dr. Stan's house we were introduced to laughter therapy and a bongo drum certainly was an experience. We drove out into the middle of an old RAF field and we're lost (hence the picture below)...thankfully Dr. Campbell came by with Gail, Graham and Kate to rescue us and find Stan's home. We learned about the "craic" from Stanley and watched Jim do some classy moves with the laugh therapy. We also played a session of bongo drums with Dr. Campbell leading us on the large free standing bongos.

Hope you had a great day and a better tomorrow,

- Kyle

Monday, June 08, 2009

Ireland: Day 8

Today was a placement day, where we all were to work by 9:00 AM. Again, I hopped on the 8:00 AM bus to Downpatrick. About 7:54 AM I heard the doorbell ring and someone knock at the door...I knew it was the girls of the group all ready to go, waiting on the untimely gentlemen of the group. None of the guys came down to open the door because we were all hurryingn to get our acts together so we didn't miss the bus. Go figure, the women are prepared and the men scurry at the last minute to get ready...replicate real life at all???

Regardless, we caught up with the young ladies at the bus stop and rode our daily bus to Downpatrick. Those of us that didn't need to get to a placement right away had breakfast at the Oakley Fayre...a small bakery downtown. One will notice that this is one of the few places that is open before 9:00 AM downtown. The windows on all the shops are protected by large metal garage doors that are raised and lowered accordingly when the shop opens and closes.

Around 9:00, I headed over to Margaret Ritchie's office where I met up with Maria..the only staffer working today. Maria talked with me a "wee" bit about how the weekend was and what we had planned for the rest of the week...and then the phones began to ring. Maria said, "Well Kyle, do you feel comfortable answering the phones for me?"...and I said, "Yeah that shouldn't be a problem"...even though I had absolutely no clue on what I was doing!

Answering the phones made for some very interesting conversations and experiences. I must say that I was very nervous about looking like an idiot when talking on the phone with these people, but I should've learned already that those that are afraid of failure become complacent and rarely rise to greater heights. I ended up truly enjoying the experience and the time flew by! Here is a picture of my desk...a little smaller than the one in Madison, but it'll do for another week.

The most memorable phone call was a woman who had a question regarding her inspection from the housing executive. Because many of the individuals that the office works with use government run and subsidized housing, the individuals renting from the government need to get approval before any repairs are made to the property. Also, the government will provide repair and "redecoration" grants to these rentors in order to make the changes themselves.

Ms. Fitzgerald was such a pleasant woman. She could tell that I was struggling a bit with spelling her street name as well as getting the correct number of numerals in her home phone number. As she begins to tell me the city she says, "You know...why don't I just spell it...that accent seems to tell me that you're not too familiar" I said, "Yes mam, I'm sorry I do have a little bit of a hard time," "Oh no problem at'tall," commented Ms. Fitzgerald, "Are you from Boston? Because..." and the conversation just sprouted from there. As I would have a hard time identifying the difference between Northern and Republic Irish did Ms. Fitzgerald judging a Boston and Midwestern American accent. She was such a pleasant woman.

Then Patsy, a local Councillor from the Down District Council stopped in to see Margaret. We got a chance to talk a little about America and his experiences. It seems every Irishman knows Chicago or more commonly around here, " mean the Windy City"...and so did Patsy.

After Patsy came in I had the chance to go to lunch with Councillor Chairman Colin McGrath. Chairman McGrath works full time for the Patrician Youth Centre as a full time youth worker in educational, sporting and fine arts programming. Colin took us to Denvirs Restaurant just a short walk from the SDLP office. We had some great discussions revolving around local politics, education and career paths. Joining us were Meghan, Jim and Bobby. We had some great conversationsn about journalism and the political scene...who truly holds ther power...just ponder it ;-)

We left the restaurant around 2:30 PM and I returned to the office as Maria was meeting with a constituent and pulling double duty answering the phones. Sometimes, I don't know how those ladies can work so hard. It's an intense job and they are working with so many lives in the community.

For instance, we had a young girl come into the office who was looking for housing because her mother kicked her out of the house. Remember how I talked about the housing system and how one accesses government housing. They need to accumulate points to put themselves higher on the list to acquire government housing. Apparently, someone in the department had made a mistake and hadn't given this young girl her points for being homeless. This consists of 70 of the 100 points that one would need to get this was a fairly significant mistake.

Some of the other things that Maria deals with are what the Irish call DLA appeals or Disability Living Allowances. These allowances are determined by the courts and are intended to only sustain living while someone is under disability. Basically, Maria represents her constituent in a court like setting that represents the appeals board for the DLA process. She develops a case with the constituent and then presents the case to the board. I was truly amazed on how much responsbility is put on her shoulders...but she certainly can handle it. I think if you met this young woman you would say the exact same thing!

Maria started to tell me some of the stories though about individuals trying to cheat the system. She said that for the housing allowancnes, individuals don't need to prove that they spent the money, therefore at times people were taking advantage of the system and using the money for other purposes.

One of Maria's most memorable moments was when someone was living on government housing and called looking for her repair grant through the state to fix something in the house. The women called Maria complaining that her grant check had not come in the mail yet, and her comment was, "I'm going on holiday (vacation) and that money would be very useful"...Maria couldn't help but think how someone could be living in government housing while heading off to vacation using the money intended to remodel the home.

I felt bad for Maria because I kept asking her questions regarding the political process, political culture and her career path that I don't think she had the opportuninty to get much work done. Sorry Maria, but I truly ennjoyed the great conversation!

As I left work around 4:30 PM I stopped at the post office to pick up an international calling card and some postage stamps. Left the bus depot around 5:00 PM and got home around 5:20 PM. After getting home it was work time needed cleaninng, clothes needed a wash and I was hoping to get the chance to write out some postcards for family.

One load of laundry made it into the wash before we were all summoned by Dr. Campbell to talk a walk around Dundrum Bay. Adam, our good friend from Downpatrick joined us and continually humored us throughout the walk.

As we were walking along a Nantional Trust nature trail we came up to a cattle yard. The trail ran right through a pasture in which we walked right past grazing cattle. The trail took us all the way out to the beach on the coast. It was just like the golf course at Whistling Straits...tall grass lining a gorgeous coast.

It was a fairly low tide still so we were able to actually walk on out onto the beach. As we walked, Kate noticed a sign posted on the said, "Caution: Britsh Army Firing Range...Leave Premises when Warning Flags Appear". We were in the middle of a firing range on the beach! That was quite random, but I think they had the day off because we had no warning flags go up. We walked along the beach and then went back to the apartments.

After our walk, Dr. Campbell left and we went to the Mourne Seafood Bar in Dundrum. I had Seafood Chowder; Trout with Advocado and White Beans and a Coke. It was a fantastic dinner and was made from local cost about 25 pounds ($40), but it was a great treat for all of us to experience some of the local seafood on the coast.

Another sidenote...Coca Cola in Northern Ireland is bottled with real sugar, America uses High Fructose Corn Syrup. Apparently, there are large tariffs on sugar in America so it is more expensive to bottle with sugar instead of the corn syrup. Random fact of the day!

After leaving the Mourne Seafood Bar, some of us headed home to catch up on work and sleep while others headed to the pub for a couple drinks. I got the chance to talk with mom and dad as well as some other friends from home last night. The first time I've been able to talk to themn in over a was great to hear their voices...yes, even you Ms. Laura Barquest! Ireland has been beautiful, but I'm not going to lie I miss long, straight roadways and six cylindner vehicles!

It was again another great day and I'm looking forward to our trip to Belfast and Stormont tomorrow...apparently some laughter therapy is on the agenda as well for tomorrow evening...I don't known how that's going to go but you'll be sure to hear more in tomorrow's post.

Thanks and have a great evening America!

- Kyle

P.S. So you remember that golfer we saw in the middle of the bay a couple days ago during low tide, so Bridget today said "Guys there's a tractor in the middle of the bay". Sure as all heck, some tractor was tooling along in nthe middle of the bay. Again, I had to get a picture of this because it was unbelieveable...

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Ireland: Day 7

So today we all were going to take a relaxing day and have a traditional Irish meal with an Irish family. I went with Mr. Jack Ferris to his home just north of Downpatrick. Mrs. Ferris had made a fantastic lunch and dinner for us. Jack picked Allie, Bobby and myself up around 11:30 AM and took us out to the ranch.

In order to get to the house Jack took us on the ferry that went from Castleward to Portferry. The ferry operated every ten minutes and saves cars an hour long drive around the peninsula. Because, as mentioned before, the Stranford Lough has such strong tidal currents boats must time their journeys in and out of the Lough to coincide with the tides. Even engine powered boats have difficulties going against the tide. When we returned home, the ferry coming to pick us up was being pushed sideways by the tremendous current.

Around 2:00, we all went out to Mount Stewart which is a beautiful home owned by many political dignatries in Britain for over two centuries. The house is located across the Strangford Lough from Castleward.

The house, now owned by the people of Northern Ireland through the National Trust is the home of beautiful gardens, the Temple of the Winds, the famous George Stubbs painting "Hambletonian", and now the resting place of the 22 chairs used in the Congress of Vienna which recreated European's culture after the fall of Napoleon. Also, the gardens were named European's Inspirational Garden in 2003.

Jack took us on the tour of the house and it was really neat to see the architecture and archaeic nature of all the accessories within the house. Also, the tour guide talked about how members of the trust worked to conserve different parts of the house as best as possible. They are so strict with the house that they don't even allow photography in the house.

Gardens wrap around the entire house, ending with the beautiful Temple of the Winds. In one end of the gardens, Jack told us about the legend of the Red Hand of Ulster. The Red Hand of Ulster is the centerpiece to the Flag of Ulster. The legend says that Heremon, Heber and Ir who were the sons of King Milesius of Spain were sent by their father to inhabit the lands in Ireland in 504 BC. Apparently, one of the boys had cut off his hand and threw it onto the shore to be the first to claim the land in Ireland. The garden reflects this by growing red flowers in the shape of a hand. Unfortunately, when we were there this was under construction but it added a neat twist to the tour.

We ended the night with a fantastic dinner of beef, champ, carrots, peas and raspberry desert with fresh raspberries...and of course a glass a wine and Guiness. We were so appreciative of the Ferris family for inviting us into their home and teaching us all the tips and tricks of English Cricket.

Jack then took us home around 9:30 PM and the group hung out and talked until the wee hours of the morning. It was a very relaxing day for us and we're all looking forward to a big week of work, visiting Stormont in Belfast and a day in Dublin.

Ireland: Day 6

So I told you all how I haven't experienced rain at all yet in Ireland...obviously I spoke too soon. Waking up this morning to light showers was a little disappointing as I quickly forgot how lucky we were to have five beautiful days of clear skies. Anyways, it didn't lower our morale because today we all were going to Belfast and finnally end up seeing Giant's Causeway. We were excited to get on our way.

Our group really has been coming together strongly. It's really neat to see how we look out for each other and we can assume each day how we can help each other. As I'm writing this we're all sitting around each other on a couch watching the E-trade Baby commercials...when your Ambassador comes back ask them to sing you Jim, Bob and Kyle's rendition of "Take These Broken Wings"...

So this morning we hopped on a shuttle to get to Belfast. We arrived there about 10:00 AM and boarded a coach tour set up by Dr. Campbell. The tour was going to take us to the Carrickfergus Castle, Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge, Dunluce Castle, Bushmill's Distillery and Giant's Causeway on the Antrim Coast.

As we began the tour we ran along the northeastern coastal road. It was quite a windy road, but there were certainly some beautiful sights along the way. The waters in the coast were crashing against the rocks and made for a fantastic sight. We saw the port in Belfast, small fishing communities and salmon farms. Our bus driver made the drive quite interesting as well by making comments on random animals throughout the trip. He had a microphone on the entire trip and fully utilized it!

Some of the groups favorite comments had to be "Nice horses...looks like those ones are playing with themselves" and "Poor pigeon...looks like he didn't make it". I know it's probably an inside joke to the group but I hope you can appreciate the randomness of these comments throughout our eight hour tour.

So the first stop that we made was to Carrickfergus Castle, built right on the Belfast Lough in the late 1100's and early 1200's by John de Courcy. It was a miliatry stronghold as well as an indicator of military strength for over 800 years.

Our next stop was about a two hour drive down the coast to the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. The bus driver reassured us not to worry...only a dog has died crossing the bridge...we all looked at each other like what are we getting ourselves into!

Before the bridge, we stopped at a medium sized restaurant right outside of the park entrance. It provided for a beautiful view of the agriculultural, religious and coastal attributes of the area. Also, it showed some cultural traditions as seen in the picture below.

Next we finally headed up to the bridge. This area is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Northern Ireland and provides a breathtaking view of the Irish coast. The area surrounded by the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge is also of special interest to biologists and geologists across the world. To cross the bridge it costs four pounds ($6.40), but if you just want to walk up to the bridge you can see the park for free. The first section of the park before the bridge consists of a 3/4 mile walk along steep cliffs.

So now came the hard part, crossing the rope bridge! So you may be asking...Kyle I've heard enough about this rope bridge; what in the world is it. So I'm going to tell you ;-)! The rope bridge was a bridge that linked Carruck-a-rede (coastal road meaning rock in the road which Scottish fisherman used to travel down during salmon season) to the Carrick Island. It has existed for 350 years because of the tremendous accesbility to a plethra of migrating Atlantic salmon that the island offers. The bridge is about 30m above the sea and is literally two ropes strung across a set of rocks. Take a look at Meghan climbing down the stairs to get to the bridge...the stairs were the first challenge...

And then there was the bridge...

I was a little nervous to take the first steps on the bridge, but after a few steps I started to build up some confidence. And then of course, needed to pretend I was really cool and that I wasn't nervous at I decided to turn mid bridge and take a picture. I got the picture but got much shakier after having to turn only 90 degrees to my left...then realized that was an extremely dumb move. But a got a good picture out of it...

Finally we all crossed and Dr. Campbell was there to meet us and take our picture as we crossed. It was much easier on the way back!<

The island provided us a great opportunity to get to see the coast. It was quite windy and the grass was really slippy...apparently Doc Martins don't have very good grip on Irish grass ;-) Here is the sign that welcomed us onto the island...makes you feel really safe doesn't it???

We were able to get some really good pictures of the group on Carrick Island. Pictured below is Maren, Mame, Megan, Bobby, Bridget, Jim, Graham (Dr. Campbell's son), myself and Allie.

On our walk back we were able to get some really good looks at the southern part of the coast.

Next we ventured along the coastal road to Dunluce Castle, believed to have been built in the 14th century. It's easy to see how beautiful the coastline is here in the picture here right alongside the castle. The bus stopped along the road and we were able to snap a quick picture of this beach just north of the Dunluce Castle.

The next stop was Bushmills distillery. In 1608 the British granted a royal license to the district of Bushmills provided them the opportunity to distil whiskey or as appropriate named in the Gaelic language, 'usice breatha'...the water of life. The Bushmills distillery is the oldest one in the world. At any one moment in time 190,000 barrels of whiskey sit on the premises in one of the northernmost cities on the island.

As explained to us on the tour, the difference between Irish "whiskey" and Scottish "whisky" is a.) the Scottish drop the "e" b.) more importantly, the Irish always distill their whiskey three times where Scottish whiskey only needs to be distilled twice. This provides for a smoother taste and better whiskey. Some of the fellas tried out a shot of whiskey while some of the ladies decided it would be a better idea to grab some Whiskey Cheesecake and Irish the puckered look on some of the guys' faces it looked like the girls may have enjoyed their purchase much more ;-)

The last stop that we made on the tour before heading home was to Giant's Causeway. The causeway is an immense display of the forces of nature on itself. It consists of over 6 km of cliffs that are nearly 90 meters tall . The national trust in Northern Ireland built an 8 km road along the coast to provide sightseers to see the most famous natural sight in Northern Ireland. As youc an see it's a spectacular display of God's creation!

The causeway consists of basalt columns that line the coast. The columns look like stepping stones and the legend of the causeway is that the giant Finn MacCool used this as a roadway to cross over to Scotland via the island of Staffa in the Hebrides.

Then we left the causeway and headed back to Belfast. As the bus driver gave us his final talk on the microphone he had thanked us about forty times for being a great tour. He said that he was going not going to be talking for the rest of the ride to provide us with a little rest and relaxation. So we thought we were going to finally get that...but then he comes on the air and says, "And does anyone enjoy Lionel Richie?"...we all just started busting out was a classic moment. So we had the opportunity to Mr. Ritchie for about 2 hours. I can't say that I remember much of it because I slept for just about the entire time. I'm sure those that were coherent were very appreciate of Lionel's greatest hits!!!

So we arrived in Belfast, and God bless him, our bus driver thought it would be a great idea to drop us all off individually. He was being a very kind soul but we had been on a bus for almost 9 hours and we were ready just to get off. Not to mention, that we had a mini bus that had been waiting for us for almost 40 minutes. And it's not like you can just call any old cab for 12 people.

Anyways, Dr. Campbell goes to tell the bus driver that we were going to be late for our cab if we didn't get dropped off soon. Remember how I said that the bus driver really enjoyed talking on his microphone, well it didn't stop after the Lionel Richie or pigeon killing incident...he began to think aloud to the whole bus on how he was going to get us where we needed to be. Also, he was trying to rationalize why he got us there so late while combininng some Lionel Ritchie songs hummed aloud...quite the experience. I know it may not be that great of a story, but if you were there you would've realize why I had to write something about it.

Finally, we got off the bus and started walking to where we were supposed to meet up with our cab. We finally get to the spot and realize that the cab has left. So Dr. Campbell looks up the number for the cab company and asks us if he can use one of our cell phones to call. He basically looked into the blank eyes of nine Americans who have been cell phone deprived for almost a week in the United was almost as if we didn't even know what he was talking about.

Finally, we found the cab down a side street and he had actually been lost as well. Worked out for everyone I guess. So we started the journey home.

As we are on our way home, we dropped off Andrew (the education coordinator for the St. Patrick's Centre) and headed back to Dundrum. The van driver told us that he didn't know if he'd be able to make it to Dundrum because he had a fuel leak and used up 3/4 of a tank of diesel to get from Belfast to Downpatrick (about a 45 min. drive). I seriously couldn't think that our transportation situation could've got more interesting until that moment. Anyways, the driver gets us back to Dundrum just fine and we all went home for a well deserved rest.

Jim and I picked up some chicken breasts from the local grocery store, thinking that everything would be closed by 9:00 PM. We started the chicken on the grill, which here consisted of a disposable aluminum tray filled with coals and wax paper...interesting I know. 10:24 PM rolled around and we finally were able to eat.

It was undoubtedly a stressful end of the day...but I completely forgot about it after going over the pictures from the day (like the one's below of Jim...doesn't he make a great little mermaid!). The experiences we had and the places we went were breathtaking. Ireland, again, exceeded any expecation I could imagine.


Hope you had a great Saturday and we'll see you tomorrow!

- Kyle

Final note: So I've been seeing these around Northern Ireland everywhere I go and had to get a picture before I didn't see one again. This is looking through the front of the bus at a construction traffic light. Instead of having signal men out on the road, the Northern Ireland government has utilized a stop light that is connected at both ends of the construction. Looks like a potential option of saving $44 an hour for two guys to stand and flip a sign around. Maybe a new development in Wisconsin government...we'll see I guess!!!