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November 1, 2002

With the Irish 02


 


The following is a report to friends from a lecture tour to Ireland, to Carrick-on-Shannon to be specific.


Carrick-on-Shannon may be a regional center, but it's still a village. We took advantage of the sunshine and blue skies to stroll through town. Probably took us 15-20 minutes to walk from one end to the other. Stopped in a "News Agent" and bought an Ordnance Survey (topographic) map of the Arigna area where our friend Michael's family lives. No map of Carrick. Oh well, it wouldn't take us long to figure out where everything is.

At the end of town is St. Patrick's hospital, the "work house" built in 1841 at the peak of the famine, and the "famine graveyard". Actually the graveyard must have been a mass grave. There were no individual stones, just a few memorial markers. The scale of the tragedy is immense. Arigna, where our friend is from, had 7-8,000 residents before the famine, most working in the coal mines. Today, only 1,500 live there. Part of the depopulation is due to out migration when the mines closed, but the bulk is due to the famine when starvation, disease, and an exodus in the infamous "coffin" ships decimated villages.

On the way back across town, Nancy's keen eye caught a handwritten sign in a shop window announcing St. Mary's craft fair. Naturally, we had to check it out. I expected the worst kind of ticky-tacky stuff, but some of vendors were real craftsmen and we picked up a few souvenirs (yes, even I).

Strolled past clipped hedges stuffed with every sort of consumer discards: beer cans and bottles, plastic coke bottles, crisp (chips) bags, candy wrappers. Like the train station, the commons area of sidewalks, even private lawns along the sidewalk are littered with the detritus of a throw-away society. But the sky was blue and the air crisp. The bright red leaves of the beach trees and sumacs were rustling in the wind; a real sense of fall for us Californios.

Counted ten bars and two churches on the main street. One church Catholic, one Church of Ireland (Episcopal). Stopped in the Catholic church and went all out and lit two votive candles for my mommy (yes, I paid for them too).

While crossing a street (look right, not left) a car pulled up to the stop and the well-dressed driver leaned over and rolled down his window. "Is this the way to Boyle?" We kind of looked at him until the message sunk in and replied, "No, we're not from around here." He grinned, "you're damn right you're not from around here." We all laughed and he drove off.

Couldn't reach Michael by phone, so I sent a message to his pager via my email account in Bakersfield. A half hour later he showed up in the lobby and we headed off to explore--wind farms of course. Later after a wild ride through narrow lanes we found ourselves on top of Corry Mountain and later Kilronan Mountain. Yee ha, the light was still good though it was becoming cloudier by the minute. Cold and of course windier than hell. I should know by now but it's always a shock when you first get out of the car. The wind farms are built on blanket bogs and scattered around the bog were plastic bags that looked like so much more litter I was coming to expect everywhere. These bags were actually filled with peat cut from the bog. And, yep, they still burn peat in their fireplaces as we found out later when warmed ourselves by a peat fire in a local pub.

The second wind farm was the first built here. It was atop an old open cast mine once owned by Michael's family. There are miles of underground workings beneath the wind farm too. Unfortunately, the wind farm didn't take the opportunity to clean up the old workings and instead simply mounted their turbines amid the rubble and the to horror of Michael they cut through the bog to the underlying sandstone when making their road from turbine to turbine. Worse 'they just piled the removed peat on top of the downhill side, the "spoil slope" as its called in mining. This not only drains the bog, killing it, but also makes the downhill slope unstable. Sure enough a few years ago there was a "turf flow" that began moving down the mountain, a black avalanche of broken peat and rock and it was directly due to the wind turbine road. But the turbines were all running, and the broken machinery, abandoned cars, and other detritus were from 120 years of mining and not the wind farm. I told Micheal it looked a wet, windy, peat covered version of southern Indiana among the abandoned mines around Dugger.

Michael took us down to his village of Arigna where the mine headquarters were located, and where the old tipple (processing plant) has been converted into a briqueting plant using the mountains of coal waste piled nearby. His home is the old mine office, now the local store, post office, and everything else. He heated up a pot of tea and we sat in front of a coal briquet fire in his once-formal living room. There we were huddled in front of the fire in this huge, empty, and very cold house talking about everything under the sun. We declined the whiskey and stuck with the hot tea and warm conversation.

Later we headed down the mountain and had dinner in a pub. When "supper was served" the bar maid showed us into a dining room that was surprisingly well lit, warm, and well-decorated. We had an excellent meal, with lots of potatoes, au gratin and fried. I was in hog heaven once again. Talked through the entire meal, phew.

Today, we may go down into the workings of one of the abandoned mines and take a hill walk around their "Energy Valley" visitor centre that's under construction.


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