June 2008

Cork reminds me of Texas in many ways. It is a fiercely independent and proud county, and the locals enjoy walking to the beat of a different drummer. And, like Texas, they have a very distinctive accent. George Bernard Shaw once said, “England and America are two nations separated by a common language.” He could have said the same of County Cork multiplied by ten.

On the website: Vitali’s Ireland I found this tongue-in-cheek view of the Cork accent:

“Corkonians speak ‘gammin’ – their unique language – with inimitable singsong drawl, swallowing vowels (of which there are twenty-six in the Corkonian alphabet) and consonants (of which there are 2), too. A first-time foreign visitor may be led to believe that they all have little church spires inside their mouths which – on inspection – usually proves untrue.”

The first few times Pat and I heard the Cork accent, it took us several seconds to even register that the person was speaking English. “Impenetrable” is one of the most common adjectives used to describe the accent. It is even difficult for people from other parts of Ireland to understand a Cork local. I personally love the way it sounds, but it still takes a lot of work for me to understand Corkonians with heavy accents. The words roll off of their tongues incredibly quickly. Between the fast rate of speech, unusual slang terms (more on this in a later post), and different pronunciations non-locals need to have a very alert ear.

When talking to locals it is apparent that there are many versions of the Cork accent. Someone from Knocknaheeny in the north part of the city sounds very different from a person who grew up in Bishopstown, which is south of the river. And they both sound very different from someone who is from West Cork.

So what does the Cork accent sound like? I can tell you that it is definitely NOT Tom Cruise’s performance in Far and Away. He should be the poster boy for what a bad Irish accent sounds like. And it certainly isn’t Julia Roberts in the film Michael Collins.

Now I am not a linguist, but I can share a few obvious differences in pronunciation (bearing in mind that these sounds may vary from person to person depending on which part of the county you are in).: Firstly, the TH sound does not exist. They say “Tirty Tree” instead of “thirty three”, and “dee” instead of “the”. As a speech therapist, I quite like this speech characteristic. Countless American children have trouble producing the TH sound. The Irish have eliminated this common mispronunciation by eschewing the sound altogether.

Next, the production of consonants are very crisp and parsed. In America we tend to get lazy and drop off some consonant sounds. Americans say: coulda, woulda, shoulda. The Irish say: could have, should have, would have. Vowels, on the other hand, are much softer. I live in “Cahrk”, my lucky number is “fahrty fahr”, I enjoy “Tamahtoes” on my sandwich, and my grandfather is a “coh-bye” (cowboy).

Finally, there is a musical lilt present when the Irish speak. I have read that the patterns of intonation and tone used in Cork are unique even in Ireland. The women, in particular, seem to have a high-pitched tone to their voice.

Tommy Tiernan, an Irish comedian, does a great bit on the Cork accent. Trust me when I tell you that he is speaking English through the entire bit. Listen carefully. This spoof is really not far off the mark, at least to my American ear!


I’m writing this while the events are still fresh in my memory, just about 4 hours old. Fresh, maybe, but perhaps a bit muddled and rambling. I’ve been awake for around 28 hours or so, so my brain isn’t quite functioning properly.

You see, it’s because I had to get up at 1:15 in the morning today, and when I have to get up really early, my brain just won’t quite accept that whatever alarm is set will actually work, so I have a hard time falling asleep, and last night I couldn’t fall asleep at all. Now, I had to get up that early so that I could (and here’s where this gets a little PG-13) participate in a Spencer Tunick photo installation.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the name, you’ve probably seen Tunick on the news at some point. He’s the photographer who gets hundreds and even thousands of people to show up at some location, strip naked, and have a group photo taken. Most of his photos are actually a kind of abstract art, where the people are just props. Today, at one point, we were used to create “cobblestones,” but more on that later.

Tunick is here as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival, and he’ll be doing another shoot in Dublin on Saturday. When I first heard he was coming to Cork, I thought it would be interesting to participate in something like this, but Amy and I were scheduled to be in Barcelona and Carcassonne this week. For reasons far too complicated to recite here, we’ve rescheduled that holiday for later in the year. So, Spencer Tunick, here I come. Amy thought about doing it, but as she put it, she “chickened out.”

Because of not being able to drive (also far too complicated to explain here), I took advantage of the carpool message board for the event, and arranged for a ride with Dave and four other participants to Blarney Castle, the site of the shoot. Dave and I were the oldest, with the others in their mid-twenties, and it was an even split of men and women. On the way, some of the others expressed their slight apprehension or denial that this thing they’d signed up for was really happening.

We pulled in to Blarney Castle around 2:45 AM, and were greeted by three young men dressed as priests and carrying placards protesting the event and calling us hippies. They were in the spirit of Father Ted (a classic Irish comedy show) but Dave later remarked that ten years ago they would have been real priests and there would have been a real protest. We parked and walked on dark paths to a field lit by halogen lights, where a few dozen other people were waiting. Because of the threat of rain, most people sat under the few trees available.

We had been told to arrive at 3, and so we waited. And waited. And waited. Eventually hundreds more people showed up, but nothing was happening. Of course, it was still too dark for the photos, but dawn would soon arrive and we thought Tunick might want to have us set up. Finally, although I hadn’t heard any instructions, everyone rose up from their small groups and moved to the middle of the field and surrounded . . . nothing really. I don’t think there were any instructions to move into the circle, but time and again over the course of the morning everyone would stand up or do something, only to realize that nothing was really happening yet and we’d all just followed what the people next to us were doing – herd mentality. Eventually, a man from the festival got up on a ladder and made some announcements, and then there was another break where nothing more happened before one of Tunick’s assistants got up and said a few words, and again nothing happened. As we sat waiting, our carpool group had adopted a few other strays, so I sometimes talked to Jurgen from Germany, or Karen from Belfast, or one of our original gang, getting colder and achier all the time.

Although we had been instructed to stay clothed until told to undress (a rule which didn’t need much enforcing in the cold night air), one man finally stripped, garnering loud applause and a few whistles. I told one of the women in our group that was how it was done, each person stripped off in front of everyone else. With a mortified look, she asked if that was true, and I had to admit it wasn’t.

Tunick got up to speak, and we thought we must be getting close to starting, but he just introduced a few more people and generally outlined what was going to happen. He said he didn’t know the official count yet, but it looked like there might be 1,200 people there. He explained he still had to get a few more things lined up, so we waited some more.

The wait was long enough that thoughts turned to practical matters. There weren’t enough bathrooms, and a few of those that were available weren’t very close to where we all waited. Several of us pondered whether we had time to make one last run, but we were worried that we’d return to find a field of naked people. Oddly enough, this reversal of the usual nightmare in which a person is naked in front of a room of clothed people was just as scary.

It was 5:15 when an assistant said something that most of us on our side of the field couldn’t hear, but in a kind of ripple effect, the people closest to the announcer began to strip off their clothes, and an ever widening circle of nudity appeared. At that point it was a race, with two of my neighbors commenting that now it would be the last clothed person who would feel awkward, and I felt the same way.

I’m not particularly modest, so it didn’t feel uncomfortable at all, but it was a bit odd to look out at possibly over a thousand nude people. Looking around, you could see a few people get down to their underwear and pause, maybe only for a couple of seconds, but that was the last chance to possibly bow out. Everyone pressed on, though. Once undressed, I was surprised at how it actually felt warmer, at least for a short time, and several of the others agreed.

We jostled our way to the next field, where Tunick had a crane set up for him to take the picture. From the crane, Tunick explained that he gets nervous about the installations, so we should forgive him if he got loud as he tried to get things just right. He had assistants in the field, but they seemed as inept as the rest of us at interpreting Tunick’s instructions, such as, “I need everyone near the tree to step to the left,” or, “People in the middle, spread out.” He wanted us roughly but evenly spaced, and that’s more difficult to achieve than you might think.

Eventually, though, we were where he wanted us, so we all stood facing him, hands at our sides, not smiling, and looking at the crane, not him. Occasionally, I would hear a ripple of laughter rise up as someone made a joke (or when Tunick did, I think unintentionally, every time he told us to freeze. It was probably in the forties (Fahrenheit) which was cold enough even with clothing). After taking several snaps with one camera, he took more with another camera, to be sure the pictures weren’t lost if something happened to the film. We then turned around, and the process was repeated. Finally, and here was the tricky shoot, we turned so we were facing sideways to Tunick and bent over at the waist (this was to create the “cobblestone effect” with our backs). This may not be difficult for most individuals (although with my back and flexibility, it was a challenge) under normal circumstances, but imagine doing this naked, no more than two or three feet from another half-dozen naked people. And that buffer was before bending; it disappeared once we were all in position.

He got the shots and we all walked to a third field, where roses (red for the women, white for the men) were laid out, and we each picked one up. Moving to yet another field, we spent several minutes again getting positioned just right, before finally facing Tunick and raising our roses before our eyes. We then turned to the side, and held the roses aloft (picture 1,200 naked Statues of Liberty holding roses instead of torches, and you’d have the right idea, except we were shorter and turning blue rather than green). Finally, he had us lie down on our backs and hold the roses straight up. Because of a need to make a few changes after a few snaps, he had us sit up and chat with our neighbors for a couple of minutes before having us lay down on our backs again, with the roses once more held above us.

Then we were done, at least for the time being, and we all hurried back to the field to find our clothes (not easily done) and hastily dress. This rush to dress wasn’t from modesty (I don’t think anyone had any after the first few seconds) but for the promise of a bit of warmth. As everyone got dressed, a woman saw Ray D’Arcy, a local radio show host, and shouted, “Ray D’Arcy, I saw your willy!” Then, more quietly to her friends, “I did.”

Any women who wanted to participate in the all-woman shoot now moved out across the river and onto a hillside. I asked one poor woman in her twenties why she didn’t go, and she said her hands had turned blue from cold so she didn’t think she’d better continue. She showed me, and sure enough, they were blue.

The men gathered as close as they could to where the women were preparing to undress for their pictures, about 150 yards away. Three of the women, seeing the crowd, mooned the men and few remaining women, which elicited a laugh and a round of applause. The women posed in several shots, mostly lying in different positions on the grass on the hillside, holding their roses. I commented to one of my carpool-mates that it was weird that this had a certain voyeuristic feel to it, though we had seen all of these women nude just minutes before, and been nude ourselves.

That finished, Tunick had one more set of photos to take of just men. He began selecting a few dozen of the men to stand in the river running through the castle grounds, and Dave, Eoin (pronounced Owen) and I all decided that while we might have been persuaded to do the shoot if it had been the first set of pictures taken, now that we were dressed and warming up, it was time to go. Unfortunately, a member of our carpool was missing, eventually turning up at the car, and the delay in finding her meant that half the group was in the parking area and half back at the river as the shoot of the men began, blocking the only bridge out.

Trust me, the men may have gazed at the women from a distance, mostly in silence, but the women were having none of that respectful crap. They stood only feet away and cheered and whistled as each man undressed and walked to the site of the final pictures.

What did it feel like to pose for Tunick? Again, it wasn’t uncomfortable, and it was surprising how it didn’t even feel like I was nude, really, but rather it felt very normal, very quickly. Everyone was there to have fun and help create a bit of art, and that’s just what we did. If you’d like to see a news report about the event, you can watch this clip from RTE, a national television station here. Oh, and if you find a photo of the shoot and look for me, I’m the pale one.

In our Sunday paper yesterday was a shopping insert for Lidl stores, which is a chain of European supermarkets. The insert was definitely Irish (they referred to their www.lidl.ie website) but the chain is German-based. Maybe that explains the confusing section labeled “USA Week!” inside, with the McEnnedy American Way brand of products. Here’s a bit of their description of American food:

“Enjoy the full flavour of American Dining! Kick back and savour the authentic taste and flavours of . . . genuine hotdogs flavoured with tomato relish, western style pizza, and much more. Why not host a movie night and invite some friends round to feast on the delights of our American special offers! As the movie draws to a close serve up some warm blueberry muffins and irresistible marshmallow figures!”

Ah, that brings back the memories of watching movies while eating blueberry muffins and eating marshmallow figures. Well, really, I was a bit confused until I looked a few pages on and saw that “marshmallow figures” appear to be marshmallows in a “variety of figures and shapes” such as a cow or a snow cone on a stick.

A few other products include the potato crisps in “zesty Texan, beef chilli [sic] or crinkle cut barbecue flavours,” all billed as “quintessential American potato crisps.” Also sold under the McEnnedy American Way brand were cheese and onion baguettes, barbecue ketchup and hot dog ketchup (imagine I never knew there were two kinds!), hot dog sausages in a jar (the only way you can buy them here, and with the explanatory note, “Combine with toasted hot dog bun & extra toppings for a great snack”), that aforementioned Western Style Pizza (which seems to have corn on it), and barbecue marshmallows (which I’m sorry to say don’t appear to be barbecue flavoured at all but seem to be made for toasting).

Again, I don’t know if the misperception of American food is Irish or German in nature, but we have seen some oddities on American-themed restaurant menus here in Ireland. Many places seem to think if you put an American icon’s name on a product (“try the Marilyn Monroe sandwich”) it’s American, no matter if the food is anything ever eaten by an American since the creation of the Republic. Some restaurants get it almost right, and then have small mistakes like serving a burger with both French Fries and onion rings, rather than offering a choice between the two, or offering “tomato relish” rather than ketchup.

Another interesting choice available from one of the shops in the English Market is Vermont curry. I know you Americans are all thinking, “Well, it won’t be authentic Vermont curry.”

Young Fine Gael poster on UCC campus

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

Yesterday, the Irish voted to preserve democracy in Europe for a little longer. By a margin of over 100,000 votes, Irish voters rejected the Lisbon Treaty, which would have significantly altered the structure of the European Union (EU). The three major parties of Ireland all backed the treaty, but voters didn’t care.

There are differences of opinion about just what the treaty would have done, and why voters rejected it, but here’s a quick summary. Backers of the treaty point out that the structure of the European Union hasn’t changed as it should have to stay viable as it continued to grow and add more and more member states from Eastern Europe. Currently, the EU has a bit of a confusing structure, with an executive branch called the European Commission which has a President of the Commission; the European Parliament, which is one half of the legislative branch and has a President of the European Parliament; and the Council of the European Union, which is the other half of the legislative branch and has a President of the Council of the European Union (sometimes just called the EU Presidency) which rotates between member states every six months. The EU Presidency is not really assumed by an individual but by the entire national government which has the presidency for that half-year.

This sometimes weak and convoluted structure was felt by many to be limiting the EU’s ability to deal with economic threats such as an exploding Chinese economy, and unable to effectively deal with issues closer to home such as the war in Bosnia. In light of this, leaders of the member states have been working for years to radically change the structure of the EU.

The Treaty of Nice was negotiated in 2001 and meant to be a European constitution that would replace all other treaties that had been negotiated over the years, but the treaty was never ratified because it was rejected by voters in both France and The Netherlands. So, the Lisbon Treaty was, in effect, a second try but this treaty would simply amend earlier treaties rather than replace them. To get around those pesky voters who might have once again rejected this new treaty, 26 of the 27 member states decided to ratify the treaty through their legislatures rather than with a vote of the people. But the treaty needed ratification by all 27 members, and what would the 27th state, Ireland, do? Ireland sent the voters a referendum, and the voters made it clear yesterday they wanted nothing to do with the treaty.

After the Irish rejected the treaty yesterday, there was outrage among many European leaders who couldn’t believe that the whole thing would be derailed by a vote of a country with less than 2% of the population of Europe. Apparently, for them, the solution would have been not to enlarge the democratic process so more citizens voted, but rather to eliminate the only vote of the people that actually took place. And many of those other European leaders are expressing their hope that somehow the “No” vote can be “made right.” In effect, they’re asking for the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland, Brian Cowan, who vehemently supported the treaty, to find some way to ignore the voters. This is being held up by opponents of the treaty as evidence that Europe never really would listen to smaller countries like Ireland, which is one reason why the Irish voters rejected it in the first place.

So, how exactly would this treaty have rolled back democracy in Europe? The treaty would have limited representation on the European Commission for each member state to 10 of every 15 years, so one-third of the time each country would have no representative on the Commission. Even when a country did have a representative on the Commission, she would not have been elected by the people, or even by the member states’ elected legislatures. Each country could “suggest” who their representative would be, but not actually choose her.

Because the treaty also contained language that would have ensured that the laws of the EU would have superseded those of any national constitution, it really would have created a structure a bit like the federal system of the U.S. but without the representative democracy we expect. Okay, used to expect before the Bush years.

It didn’t help the “Yes” campaign that the Taoiseach and many of his government ministers who were backing the treaty admitted they hadn’t read it. Its language is so confusing that one minister supporting the treaty tried at a press conference to explain to reporters how the treaty would work and gave a small snippet of the treaty language to support his claim. When pressed by reporters, though, he admitted he didn’t understand the language he’d just quoted. The Taoiseach seemed unable to grasp that opponents of the treaty could have an honest difference of opinion on the matter, declaring before the election that those vocally opposing the treaty either didn’t understand it or were misrepresenting it. I, for one, think voters did know just enough to decide they didn’t like it. No one knows for sure what will happen now that Ireland has said “No,” but we’ll keep you informed if there are any developments.

This afternoon, I said “Hello” to Gerry Adams, and he said “Hello” back. I was walking down Oliver Plunkett Street in Cork City Centre when I passed him and a group of his cohorts, one of whom stuck a No on the Lisbon Treaty pamphlet in my hands (for you Americans, we’ll be posting something about the Treaty soon. You’ve probably never heard of it, but it is actually pretty important, I think). So who is Gerry Adams, many of you Americans are asking? Well, if you’ve watched the evening news more than a few times in the last few decades, you’ve probably seen his face (do a google image search for him and you’ll see).

Adams is the President of Sinn Féin (pronounced Shin Fane), a political party in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. To really understand Sinn Féin, you need at least a little understanding of Irish history, so here’s my own “Irish History for Dummies,” or, in this case, for clueless Americans. In as short a space as possible, I’ll give you the highlights of Irish political history from the Norman invasion up to and including the Irish Civil War. In the next few days, I’ll bring the history up to the present day. To any Irish readers, I’m sorry for any errors and for skipping over such interesting characters as Wolfe Tone, and to any English readers, I’m sorry you look like right bastards whenever you’re mentioned in Irish history.

The Normans invaded Ireland from England in 1169 when the deposed King of Leinster (a region of Ireland) asked for help from the Norman English monarch, Henry II, in regaining his throne. To make a very long story very short, the English never left, and centuries of English domination of Ireland followed, with the Irish occasionally rebelling against the foreign occupation. English monarchs encouraged English settlements, but this began before there was such a thing as Protestantism, so at first, at least, the settlements were more of a political tool to control Ireland and less of a religious weapon against Catholicism.

Although there were periodic armed revolts against the British, there were also political movements which achieved various levels of success in gaining the rights of Irish Catholics. Sinn Féin, which means “ourselves” or “ourselves alone,” began as a political party in the early twentieth century (although the term is much older), and while it had nothing to do with the Easter Uprising of 1916, Éamon de Valera (who did participate in the uprising) would subsequently take over the party and lead it to win the majority of Irish seats to the United Kingdom Parliament in a 1918 election. Instead of going to England to sit in Parliament, however, many of the newly elected Irish Ministers of Parliament went to Dublin and formed an Irish Parliament, the Dáil Éireann, which declared Ireland independent.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was the rebel armed force that won the Irish War of Independence in 1921. The British negotiated a treaty that created the Irish Free State, which would remain a part of the Commonwealth. One of the conditions of the treaty, though, was that six counties in the northern part of Ireland, where there was a higher percentage of Protestants, could opt out of joining the Free State and instead remain as part of the United Kingdom, which they did.

Civil war followed as Irish opinion split, some believing that independence for much of the island was worth temporarily giving up the North (which was expected by some, at least, to eventually join the South), while others couldn’t accept a divided Ireland. People on both sides of the conflict continued to call themselves the Irish Republican Army. Eventually, those arguing for accepting the treaty and the division won.

Kinsale Point to Point Horse Race

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

Simply put, Irish sports are brutal and dangerous. American football has many parallels to rugby, but at least American football players have protective padding. The most protection that rugby players are afforded seem to be those puffy women’s shoulder pads from the 80’s.
Pat and I recently went to a hurling match, which is a native Gaelic game. We both found ourselves cringing and wincing as we watched the game. Imagine a game where you give every team member a wooden bat and tell them to try and get a ball the size of a golf ball through a goal post by striking the ball, running with it, and occasionally kicking it – that is hurling. One of my colleagues at work made the comment that you can always spot a hurling player because they are usually missing teeth and fingers.
This weekend Pat and I found ourselves at another dangerous sporting event: a point to point horse race. According to the Kinsale Times, point to point racing is an amateur form of steeplechasing that is regulated by the Jockey Club. The competing horses must have been used to hunt at least seven times in order to qualify. As with the Kinsale event, these races usually take place in some farmer’s mowed field out in the countryside.
The Irish Thoroughbred Marketing website shares that the sport of steeplechasing has its origins in County Cork with the first recorded Steeplechase match having taken place here in 1752. “The riders, Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake raced from the steeple in one church to the steeple in the second church over a course of natural obstacles and 4 ½ miles.”
This sport is chock full of thrills and spills, and we saw plenty of both at the Kinsale Point to Point. It is sort of like watching a train wreck. It is horrible and frightening, but you can’t take your eyes off of it – especially when the action is happening just 20 feet in front of you. We saw a number of falls at the last jump, and because of the especially hard turf on race day there were far more horse injuries that normal. We didn’t stay for the entire day, but sadly in just five races, two horses had to be put down because of severe injuries. Pat and I both found this very heartbreaking. Being a country girl I know that sometimes animals have to be euthanized, but it felt especially demoralizing and sad at this particular event, because the horses were being ridden in less than ideal conditions. I question the wisdom of putting these animals in a situation where injuries were bound to happen due to the hardness of the ground. Fortunately, no jockeys were killed but several were injured.
The scariest moment came during the third race. There was a group of seven smaller sized horses in this heat, but the jockeys were all very competitive. As the group approached the final jump the horses were positioned quite close together. One of the jockeys foolishly started urging his horse towards a very small gap between two horses just as they reached the jump. This resulted in a huge tangled mess of horses and jockeys. One of the horses actually rolled on top of his rider. The jockey was trapped under the horse for 30 or 40 seconds (it felt more like 10 minutes). Amazingly both horse and rider were back on their feet after several minutes, but the horse was favoring one of his legs and the jockey was taken to hospital.
Here is a video of a spill during a point to point race (not the one we witnessed). The horse and rider both come out unscathed, but if you are a bit squeamish about this sort of thing, consider yourself forewarned.

When the horse and jockey do make it over the jumps it is like poetry in motion. Clearly, these horses have to be in top form to leap over the 4 feet 6 inch high jumps at least twelve times in the span of three miles. If you ever have the opportunity to see a steeplechase or a point to point, I would highly recommend it. It is a heart thumping experience.