Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Mrs Todd's Shortcut

Hell, it ain't one of ours, but this photo just fits the story!

So, my office has finally moved now - from Clonskeagh in Southern Dublin, to the green fields of Leixlip in Western Dublin. We're now on a "campus" - perhaps a term loosely used in this case. This "campus" of large grey lego block buildings, ring roads and munching rabbits on the lawns is slightly reminiscent of the Epcot Centre at Walt Disney World in the early 90's - all slightly dated, massive cafeteria with double sided till stations, built ahead of it's time but facing an uncertain future in Ireland as the Celtic Tiger recedes from growling to miaowing. A super long corridor (over 1km) connects the buildings and allows you to peer through windows onto factory floors with robot arms filling ink cartridges, whilst browsing art & memorabilia along the walls. Elderly gents from the executive board smile down at you from large pics in the lobby. I expected Walt Disney to be there alongside them!
Leixlip is a tough place to get to from Annagassan. The main reason for this is the access from the god-awful M50 Motorway (if you can call it a motorway), the fabulous Dublin ringroad. The road authorities in Ireland have the gall to put a 2 Euro charge on this road, even though it resembles a car park most of the time, or a total construction site, or both. The M50 is a dismal, crappy and soul destroying road with only 1 guarantee - daily gridlock... easily the equivalent of the worst road in whichever city YOU live in... So from Annagassan, I'd normally take the M1 (toll), to the M50 (toll), to the N4... and into the campus. However, I've quickly discovered backroads... country roads... the little roads that represent the old Dublin, the old Ireland, when few cars took to the roads and the concepts of commuting to business parks and satellite towns were completely foreign. So thanks to Google Maps and my trusty Garmin Lady, I fly down the M1, off at Drogheda, onto the Duleek Road, past the huge concrete plant, across the N2 for a couple of kms, through the village of Ratoath, past Fairyhouse Racecourse, onto the old N3, take a right turn at Clonee, along the backlanes to the back of Leixlip, through the village, over the N4, into the campus past the munching rabbits... I'm sure this set of shortcuts could even be perfected further. My new route reduces my toll payments... you keep moving (more or less)... you see people & places... you take some corners at high speeds, go past about 3 Lidl Supermarkets and too many pubs to count.
Stephen King published a short story many years back called "Mrs Todd's Shortcut"... the fictional tale of Mrs Todd, who's obsessed with finding shortcuts. At one point, right after Mrs Todd has made an impossibly short trip down to Castle Rock, the narrator finds some things stuck to the sides and front of her car that aren't of this world. Dangerous things. Things with teeth. The routes Mrs. Todd is driving aren't for the faint of heart. Enough said.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Comparing London Airports...

We have 5 blog entries about London:
1. Comparing London Airports... August 08
2. Grey old Janury... January 08
3. East End August 07
4. London Calling! March 07
5. London and ipods... October 06

Well, we've sure racked up some air miles in Europe now, particularly through the UK, where Clare & I have now frequented the departure lounges of these airports between us: Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, Southampton, East Midlands, Leeds/Bradford & Edinburgh... (not sure if Belfast City & Belfast International count too!) So Clare happened to be writing an email to a colleague (and some of our friends) about London Airports, with a little comparison guide. Here it is:
1) Heathrow (24kms west of London): Coming from Australia – you’ll probably come here, probably to T3 or T4 (in fact, you’ll have no choice but to come here!) AVOID T5 (mainly British Airways flights) like the plague if you want to keep your bags. We try and do everything to avoid this one. Every time something goes wrong at Heathrow - snow/strikes/breakdowns/fog, one minor slip up and the whole thing grinds to a halt, literally. And then it takes days to recover. It is just like what you see on television. The levels of security just keep changing here. I think they are taking pictures of you now like the US does. The US does eye checks, finger prints and a series of questions that they match to previous entries. Note that if you have 2 passports they are matching your answers to your passport number not name. Joe got caught on that one. Lots of long haul international flights, at often competitive prices (if you get the right deals, but UK domestic and European flights from here are generally quite expensive. The Underground (Tube) into Central London is a lot cheaper than the Heathrow Express to Paddington, but you have to carry your luggage down there, which can be a real hassle – and it takes ages into Central London.
2) Gatwick (46km south of London): This is actually our favourite London airport. This is very easy to get to via the underground/train lines from Victoria Station in Central London (around 30 mins from Gatwick to Victoria). When we go to London for a daytrip, this is where we try and fly to if possible (the 10 Euro fares!) Both Ryanair & Aer Lingus fly here from Dublin so we get a lot of choice. The pain here is not the actual security but the ‘kids’ before the security section who make you have one bag and not extra bits ie. one handbag and absolutely nothing else, not a laptop bag, shopping bag or a packet of sandwiches. Which is ridiculous since the airlines and security let you have a handbag and a laptop bag. So other than the kids in yellow shirts, there never seem to be too many queues there (when we’ve been there!), and far less of the general stress of Heathrow or Dublin.
3) Luton (48km north of London): Not really London, but the main London airport for EasyJet, a few Ryanair flights and other boozed up charter airlines like Monarch & Thomas Cook. Staffed by kids - yes really - who barely know what a non EU passport is. Security used to be a piece of cake there and for a while they were trialling a weird machine (like a cat scan) that apparently can see thru your clothes. Still, gets you thru quite fast. This is the airport that was used by the ‘Airline’ reality TV show (EasyJet), ie. lots of people who only take a package trip to Spain once a year and have no idea - they turn up without their passports, etc, etc. My husband loves them (airport TV shows) so we know them all. And his aunt lives close by (Luton) so we have used this a fair bit. Trains to Kings Cross, London Bridge (more expensive than the Gatwick trains), and various coaches to Victoria Station, etc.
4) Stansted (48km north-east of London): Quite a well organised airport out in the countryside, but again with a lot of throughput (this is the main Ryanair Airport for London). Good shopping and food options compared with all other London airports. You often have to come here for connections to other parts of Europe - like Norway, etc, and Ryanair fly to different destinations from here (than Dublin). Bit of a distance from London – they have trains to East London (which we haven’t used before), and coaches to Victoria Station, etc. We tend to get car rental from here. Gatwick is way more convenient though. Security here always wants you to take your shoes off and belts, etc. I rarely have to take my shoes off at any airport except this one.

None of these airports have dogs to do anything. Everything would move faster if they did. They also don’t do ‘residue’ tests like they have had in Oz for years now.
Now, the airlines:
The low fares might initially look attractive, and they are if you follow all the rules and keep the cost of ‘extras’ down – but coming from OZ, be aware of the following:
1) You can’t do online check-in unless you have an EU Passport, so you must choose the airport check-in option (which costs extra) if you’re Aussie.
2) If you pay for a baggage check-in, you’ll get a 15kg allowance, not 20kg, definitely not compatible with coming off Qantas or Singapore Airlines, etc.
3) They WILL charge you for every extra kilo over 15 kilos. The Ryanair check-in staff at all their airports are outsourced contractors, and they get commission on every extra that gets billed. There is absolutely no negotiation with Ryanair staff over luggage.
4) No seating allocation = the running of the bulls. If you’re at a European Airport late at night waiting for a Ryanair flight, expect a stampede as the flight lands and prepares for take-off again.
5) If you do get left high and dry by Ryanair (and honestly, it hasn’t happened to us yet), and you’re in a hurry to get home, then you’ll have to get your credit card out and start paying your way back on normal airlines. That’s the price you pay for the cheap Ryanair fares.
For all that, I will say however, that every Ryanair flight has got us there, consistently, and pretty much on time. Don't be scared off - they are damn cheap if you're hunting for a bargain.
Don’t have too much to say on them, did a return trip from London to Athens in 2005. Their reputation is certainly less cheesy than Ryanair. Their initial fares might look more than Ryanair but are worth considering, and they go to some different places. No seating allocation. From what I remember, their crews are a bit more professional than Ryanair.
Worth comparing with Aer Lingus on the Heathrow-Dublin sectors, as they don’t charge extra for baggage, etc. Seating allocation is done.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Annagassan Viking Festival 2008

flickr photo link: <Annagassan Viking Festival 2008>
Well, the festival is over. Everything went incredibly well, and as Ireland currently gurgles under the deluge of the century, someone upstairs was definitely shining down on Annagassan in good favour. Apart from a few short showers, we escaped completely unscathed. We think possibly 2000 people came through the village over the 2 days, and the highlight at the end of the festival was the burning of the monastery on the beach next to the harbour. There were moments of genuine theatre as the vikings fired their flaming arrows trying to set the thing alight. Then alight it was... once the fire got going it was fierce! This was framed by the most incredible rainbow across Dundalk Bay. The vikings, of course, were brilliant. Jesper even took an injury in the final battle on Sunday afternoon. The viking village was brilliant too. They made it their own for the 2 days. Conor and the volunteers did a great job, from set up to fund raising, conducting history tours and doing their best to control the car parking! There are too many people to mention. And the website ( got a good mention by the politican who opened the festival.
There were great (long) nights in the pub, where sadly we had to leave around midnight Sunday as the village took turns singing songs with Cathal, Patricia & the other musicians. Simply great community & great craic - Ireland at it's best & most awe-inspiring. Unfortunately we don't have many photos of our own as Clare & I were literally run off our feet from Friday evening to Sunday evening, but there is another site with photos - Derek Tuite Photography, Saturday & Sunday, and we did manage to get some photos of the burning of the monastery on Sunday evening. Perhaps Clare will write some words too...

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A Tale of 2 Two Towns

31st Annual Ballyshannon
Folk & Traditional Music Festival

YouTube Clip (1): The Homes of Donegal - Paul Brady 1985, written by Seán MacBride
YouTube Clip (2): Ballyshannon Folk Festival

The Homes of Donegal (Seán MacBride).

"I've just stepped in to see you all
I'll only stay a while
I want to see how you're gettin' on
I want to see you smile.
I'm happy to be back again
I greet you big and small
For there's no place else on Earth just like
The Homes of Donegal."

This weekend at Ballyshannon, we were treated to 2 brilliant and emotional renditions of this classic Irish ballad. The first, on Saturday night, by political songstress Eleanor McEvoy (and very nicely done), and the second, on Sunday night, by the incredibly talented Jim McKee, with a literally breathtaking finale by PJ McDonald on the whistle. It drew gasps and cheers from the packed audience – vocals, guitar, cello & whistle soaring to heights of musical complexity & harmony. Beyond amazing really, especially for those of us that don’t play a note. It’s quite difficult to put the musical artists we saw this weekend in any sort of order. Suffice to say they were the absolute best of trad music that Ireland has to offer, no doubt. So we’ll write about them all, and we’ll put a few YouTube clips up, which might just offer a taste of our experiences, albeit in poor quality. More on all the music a little later…
Ballyshannon, in the southern most part of Donegal, is the birthplace of the poet, William Allingham and is one of Ireland's oldest towns. It’s pretty small - 2 main streets and loads of pubs, including Dicey Reilly’s & Finn McCool’s. This was so interesting because we haven’t actually seen these names in Ireland before although they’ve got huge international appeal as Irish theme pubs (Brisbane is saturated by them!) The publican of Dicey Reilly’s here in town is… you guessed it, Mr Dicey Reilly. He has brothers all over the world. Finn McCool’s would have to be one of the smallest pubs I’ve seen in Ireland - I guess his relatives went overseas too? So, plenty of creamy guinness, brilliant music, but a dearth of any decent food in the whole town unless you like average Chinese or bad takeaways. Sorry to be critical, but some of these Irish towns could do better. Anyway, we loved it.
We stayed in a Bundoran, a few kilometres down the road, with a spectacular mountainous backdrop. But if ever there was a tale of 2 towns, it would be right here. Contrary to the slick advertising from the local tourist authorities, Bundoran was tacky and somewhat rundown. I guess we should have taken note of the Lonely Planet. Full of B&B’s, demountable holiday homes and trinket shops. Yes, it has surf beaches & golf courses, but the culinary highlight seemed like KFC on the main road, and the area around the funfair was rundown and boarded up. A white limo from the Circus Chicago did circuits of the town, blaring their pitch through loud speakers adding to the atmosphere of the whole place.
I suppose everything in life is relative. The kids in Australia might get to Coffs Harbour or Surfers for holiday, while the kids here get Bundoran or maybe Wexford, unless Mum & Dad can afford a trip to Spain. But if you grew up in Belfast or Derry, then Bundoran on a nice day would seem pretty good. I grew up in an English seaside town – Southsea. Amusement pier, funfair, pebble beaches, rock candy. The shutters come down in winter and the carnies leave town. But in Bundoran, it seemed like the shutters had already come down a long, long time ago and left the town to the Circus Chicago and the horrible themed pubs. Not good.
Our B&B – Marlboro House (Food, Rhythm & Booze), €70/nt, tried hard. The bed was ok, the service was ok, but the breakfast menu options were non-existent (contrary to their website) and the whole placed constantly reeked of deep frying (Michael, you really need some air extractors in the kitchen). On the Sunday night, a live band below our room continued until after 2am. The Polish blokes shouting & pissing in the carpark outside our window didn’t help either. Ok – that’s their business, and we didn’t mind too much. We were dog tired from being out all day and our trad music concert each night. But if either of our parents had been staying there, they would have been out of there like a shot. There’s no doubt that investment has been made in this property, and again, people might think we’re being critical, but little things like offering a breakfast choice for people who don’t want the “fry” – bacon, egg, sausage, etc. should be considered. For an establishment that’s setting out to prove their culinary excellence, perhaps they should offer some fruit or yoghurt, or just something else. It’s the simple things that might make all the difference and bring people back to Bundoran.
We did a little day tripping between music sessions, particularly to nearby Rossnowlagh with its wide sandy beach and excellent surfing conditions. A far, far better place for an Irish beach holiday than Bundoran! Hey, you can even drive your car onto the beach and set up your windbreak, but look out for those tides… We had lunch at the Smugglers Creek Inn, dating back to 1845, with an excellent bar menu (all seafood) - best meal of the weekend.
So, on with the music...
1. Mórga (majestic) - Headed up by Barry Brady on the accordion, this young 4 piece group created some truly amazing and sophisticated trad music, different from trad sounds we'd heard before... fantastic harmonies & almost hypnotic in some ways (some of their sets were up to 10 minutes long). With the accordian, banjo, fiddle & bodhran, I think it might have been one of their first 'big' gigs, and they turned up at Ballyshannon with no CD, which was a pity as we would have bought one or two! In a way, they set the high standard for the festival, as they were the first of 9 acts across 3 nights at the Abbey Theatre. Luckily Mórga had 2 further sessions down at the Bridgend Pub, as they were well worth a second listen.
2. Eleanor Shanley - When confronted by the prospect of a "female singer of Irish ballads", Clare and I wondered if we could possibly bolt for the door to sit this one out, but we decided that might look a bit bad. Our feelings were confirmed when Eleanor took to the stage and started belting out her tunes (and stories) of how she 'd been "done wrong", in genuine Dolly Parton style. Much too close to country & western for our liking and it went on for too long. Sorry Eleanor, you're just not our cup of tea. This was our only real disappointment at the festival.
3. Dervish - Dervish took to the stage with deserved acclaim & applause. They've been around since 1989, and their trad sounds have a rich sophistication yet being competely exclusive, much due to the amazing vocals of Cathy Jordan.
"Dervish concert performances are a myriad of tones and moods ranging from high energy tunes, played with fluidity and intuitiveness, to beautifully measured songs, from charming lyrics of life and love, to inspiring melodies that lift audiences from their seats. All the elements are drawn together by Cathy Jordan's masterful stage presence. Her stories to the songs and her interaction with the audience draws people into the music in a way very few performers can achieve."
Well known in Ireland & internationally, Dervish were the only group at the festival we'd really heard of before (and in fact, we had one of their CD's), so the sound was familar yet inspiring all the same. The tracks from their new album (Travelling Show) were great and prompted us to buy a signed copy after the show. This brilliant and polished show rounded off night one at Ballyshannon, and we could already see how (and hear) how this festival was held in reverence by the artists who played here.
4. Téada - kicking off night 2 in style, Téada had a great trad sound. Much like Mórga & Dervish, their harmonies of instruments (fiddle, button accordion, flute, guitar/bouzouki & bodhrán) produced a seamless & pure Celtic sound. Definitely a step well above the average pub trad session sound. Looking at their group website, they're very well travelled and probably have more exposure overseas than in Ireland, where they remain relatively unknown (we certainly couldn't find any of their CD's in music shops when we went looking recently).