Week Twenty-One (June 11-June 18):
Some Final Reflections on 'This Amazing Experience'
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
Posted on August 14, 2012
Picking up the last rental car from my airport friends at Dooly was easy but sad. Even the guy who has been waiting on me for months reminded me that I was leaving soon. I dropped some things with one of Emily’s friends, thus completing another end-of-Ireland task, and then returned home. The day was glorious. Our plan was to see Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains. I allowed the GPS to take us down the M50 motorway (incurring a final “invisible” toll in the process) but this was a very good idea. The machine was programmed for speed not scenery, but it was fantastic scenery that we found as we headed up and over the hills south of Dublin.
We stopped frequently to take photos and marvel at countryside that looked exactly like Ireland is supposed to look with sheep, vistas, and waterfalls. I wish I had discovered such scenery months earlier to share with Kim and Emily. Glendalough was beautiful and captivating, leaving little doubt why St. Kevin the hermit monk wasn’t alone for very long in the valley he found centuries earlier. He should have realized that in real estate, location is the thing that matters most. We ate lunch at one of the carts near the entrance to the site and then motored south, stopping at the Dolmen (or passage tomb as it seems to be called) at Carlow, then to Kilkenny to visit the castle and shops there.
We returned to Dublin with just enough time for dinner — we enjoyed a fantastic meal at the Winding Stair — and a dash up the street to join the Dublin Ghost Bus tour. Although Brian and I didn’t have high hopes for the tour, Robin seems to like these things — and in fact it was really quite good. The running narrative on the top floor of a customized double-decker bus was fun even if it wasn’t particularly scary. We stopped outside a number of Dublin landmarks that may or may not be haunted, but the highlights of the tour were visits to an old graveyard (now a park) and the “haunted steps” behind St. Audoen’s Church near the longest remaining stretch of ancient city wall. In both cases, the actor/narrator/ghost expert had keys that gave us afterhour’s access — a nice touch.
Since the Dublin Pass is such a good deal if you use it aggressively, we decided to make Tuesday “Dublin Day.” My original plan was to take Robin and Brian into the city and then have them meet me back at home, but — as always — I was surprised by the discovery of things I hadn’t yet seen, so I stayed for the day.
While they toured the Guinness brewery, I finished reading a book, McCarthy’s Bar, a very entertaining travel narrative about Ireland during the recent boom times. When they walked through Dublinia and Christ Church cathedral, I enjoyed seeing the inside of St. Audoen’s Church, the only medieval parish church with many original features still in use in Dublin. Only part of the ancient church is used for services now. The other section contains a fascinating exhibit about life in the medieval city.
As I walked around outside the church I came upon two guys who had just ended some sort of brawl; one was a bit bloodied. As he stood up he looked at me and said, “Sorry mister you shouldn’t have to see this, I will clean up this mess, don’t worry.” I have come to realize that the Irish are pleasant people, but this was amazing. I couldn’t imagine a guy in a street fight anywhere else in the world — and certainly not in the U.S. — apologizing to a stranger for his behavior.
Without any particular plan, we wandered past the tiny remnant (just the Chapter House) of St. Mary’ Abbey (founded in 1139) now buried below a more recent building down a nondescript alley. Even today, centuries after the abbey disappeared, the nearby street names — Mary Street Little, Meetinghouse Lane, and Mary’s Abbey — still persist. I knew about this place, but it is open so irregularly that I wasn’t sure I would ever get to visit. Ah, the joys of the random discovery!
Knowing that Robin was a fan of the macabre, our next stop was obvious: St. Michan’s Church, originally founded in 1095 with the present church built in 1685. Here for some reason, many of those buried in the crypt are preserved as mummies and, for some other reason, the church authorities seem to think that it is fine to have tourists visit them. In a completely inexplicable turn of events, we were invited to touch one of the mummies. With enough of that poking and prodding, one wonders if “rest in peace” will soon become “rest in pieces.” Robin and Brian ended their touring at the Jameson brewery. Afterwards we found yet another superb restaurant.
On Wednesday, Robin and Brian were off to the west coast for the Cliffs of Mohr, which required an early (but fast) trip to the bus stop. I was back home in plenty of time to walk to campus for my final breakfast there. I visited with Paul, returned my keys, closed the bank account, and said goodbye to few more folks. The day was mostly occupied by packing and cleaning, but since I was determined to see the “Casino,” I made sure that happened. This small but really elegant pleasure house was designed by Sir William Chambers for James Caulfeild, the First Earl of Charlemont. With 16 finely decorated rooms on display, it is one of the finest eighteenth century neo-classical (neo-Palladian) buildings in Europe. This visit was something of a quest because it is not open frequently. The “Casino” was one of the first things I noted on a map of the area when looking for rental property, and it called out to me every time I dropped Emily off at her school, since it can easily been seen from the road. The visit was not disappointing. I learned quite a bit about the history of the area north of Dublin and the excesses of the landed gentry who once controlled Ireland.
I planned a major excursion for Thursday, so we were out the door for a full day’s trip to the Boyne Valley north of Dublin. Fortunately we started at Newgrange because we were on the first tour of the day, presented by a very energetic and knowledgeable guide. Even though I had taken this tour several times since coming to Ireland, this was the best yet. Since the group was small, we were able to spend twice as long inside the tomb chamber, resulting in a much more immersive feeling about the place. Our next planned stop was Loughcrew Cairns, but on the way we stopped in Kells (home of the Books of Kells) to see several high crosses.
Loughcrew, about an hour west of Newgrange, is amazing. There are clusters of Megalithic Cairns dotted around the Slieve na Caillaigh hills, all dating to about 3000 BC. The very windy view from the top of the hill is incredible in itself, and it is possible to go into Cairn T, where the back stone of the chamber is illuminated by a beam of light at sunrise on the spring and autumnal equinoxes. There are other smaller tombs nearby, several of which have lost their capstones and hence their roofs. This isn’t all bad, however, because now it is easy to see the common design of these ancient structures.
Next we made a stop for lunch in Trim with a visit at the 12th century castle there, followed by a rainy visit to Tara. I realized that I’d harbored a big misconception about the Hill of Tara for our entire time in Ireland, thinking that it had something to do with the ancient kings. In a sense that may have been correct, but only because the kings of old wanted themselves associated with an even older set of passage tombs scattered on a hill not too far from Newgrange itself. What a day!
On Friday, very early in morning, I took Robin and Brian into Dublin to meet their bus for the Giant’s Causeway, leaving me to attend to other matters. I met Maurice for lunch at Nancy Hand’s, a very traditional pub not far from Heuston Station. Afterwards we walked a few blocks to the offices of the health service in Dr. Steevens’ Hospital to visit Worth’s Library, a classic literary treasure that few know exist. The book-collection was assembled by Edward Worth (1678-1733), a notable Dublin physician who left his books to the hospital. His taste in books “radiated outwards from his professional concern with medicine,” according to the website, and included medical books, ancient and modern (i.e. 18th century), the study of related sciences, philosophy, classics, and history. The collection also features examples of sixteenth-century typography and early modern book bindings. We had the place to ourselves for more than an hour with the director there to answer all questions.
My visit to this side of town was linked to a final Fulbright affair, a reception for the new Irish Fulbright scholars — and anyone remaining which, as it turns out, included only me and a guy from Georgia on a six-week stay. As I suspected, all of the others in my ‘class’ of Fulbrigthers had departed. The venue at the old Royal Kilmainham Hospital, now the home of the Museum of Contemporary Art, was amazing. It was very nice to share in the excitement of the Irish students and professors going to the U.S. in the near future. The U.S. Ambassador and the Irish Minister of State along with Fulbright staff members made welcoming remarks.
For months I have been intrigued by the realization that I would be in Ireland for a number of “big” days, including St. Bridget’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and Bloomsday — the latter a celebration of something that didn’t even take place, but is so well described by James Joyce in Ulysses that many likely think it did. June 16 (1904) is the day on which Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus wander the city as characters in a literacy masterpiece that few have read but most in Dublin seem to hold near to their hearts. The report of the day starts at one of the Martello Towers at Sandycove in Dalkey, so that seemed a good place to begin my celebration of the non-events that seem so real.
So, off we went to Wicklow, where we met up with Maurice and his friend Fergus (a Wicklow native) for a very nice breakfast and tour of the town. The weather cooperated, and while Robin and Brian enjoyed the seaside view, I toured the tower. Museum Joyce is quite nice, but even more interesting were the constant parade of people dressed in clothing from the early 1900s. Even when we returned to the city, it was clear that many folks were making the most of their vintage clothing collection. It was impossible to find a parking place for any reasonable price, so I dropped Robin at the National Museum and drove far enough north to avoid paying for parking at all — ah, the joys of being enough of a native to know such things. On the way, I stopped at the Joyce Center to see more folks in costume who were touring some of the north Dublin Bloom locations. Even as the day wore on, the Bloom action persisted. We saw Joyceians all over town. We took one more walk to the Natural History Museum and found another nice place for dinner.
Sunday, my last full day in Ireland, was as busy as all the others — and that was probably a good thing. We began the day back at Bram’s café for the “full Irish” breakfast and returned to the house to get Robin and Brian packed up and off to the airport. With my last guests safely on their way, I launched one more small adventure, driving to an industrial part of Dublin, only 20 minutes from the house, to find Broom Bridge. This unassuming stone bridge over the Royal Canal is where, on 16 October 1843, William Rowan Hamilton reported his discovery of quaternion multiplication. I will probably never understand the significance of this discovery, but the idea of a young mathematician being so enthralled by his moment of inspiration that he was compelled to carve it in stone (literally) made this a suitable destination. A plaque now marks the spot with the following:
Here as he walked by on the 16th of October 1843
Sir William Rowan Hamilton in a flash of genius
discovered the fundamental formula for quaternion multiplication
i² = j² = k² = ijk = −1
& cut it on a stone of this bridge.
I made a quick stop outside the gates of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Study at Dunsink Observatory before heading back to Gracepark and Collins to finish packing. The remainder of the day was not memorable, but it was productive. I did the laundry that would stay behind for the next Fulbrighter, made multiple passes through #10 to pack up and discard, defrosted the refrigerator, and wrestled with the reality that I couldn’t possibly get everything into one suitcase (and so paid to take a second one for flight home). Later, I met Des for a late dinner in the city and even later dropped things off with Maurice and enjoyed a final visit.
I have been saying goodbye to folks for days now, so I was mentally prepared for the departure, but it was very strange to walk through the house one more time and say goodbye to it as well. In my various conversations with folks recently, I heard the charming expression, “Safe Home,” more than once. For reasons that probably don’t need explanation, hearing “safe home” from the girl at the post office, our property manager, and colleagues on campus certainly struck a chord. It will take some time to process what the consequences of this experience will be (and should be), but there is little doubt that it will remain one of the peak moments of my life. This amazing experience with Kim and Emily will certainly join my months as a Nottingham student and teacher in Vienna to further define Europe as both an ancestral and intellectual home. Extensive traveling is wonderful, but only by living in a place is it possible to experience the layers of a culture that can transform the curious traveler into someone who can focus long enough to explore, appreciate, criticize, and understand with evidence and even meaning.
June 18: Home.
As the plane takes off, my first thought relates to what I will tell people about the past five months. Perhaps most will be happy to hear that it was “fascinating,” “interesting,” or “fun.” Without having had a similar experience or the context of this one, almost anything that I say would have little impact. The real issue is what I can make of it. I must find the time to reflect on the significance of this experience and be able to respond more fully, if only to myself. So, as I write this, I am sitting on the plane looking at the digital route map that tells me we have now turned south, crossing the Canadian/US border. In a sense I am finally home. Safe home indeed!
In Helsinki, It's Teacher Education.
In Dublin, the Focus Is on Teaching Science.
Week Twenty (June 4-June 10):
The 'Rock Church,'
Seurasaari Folk Park, and a Conference
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
Posted on August 8, 2012
I was greeted by very nice weather on Monday, so my mission was to replace the earlier photographs that would have portrayed Helsinki as a somewhat dismal place with bright and sunny ones. I left the guest house and immediately became concerned. All of the streets were being cleared of cars. Military police had appeared on every corner. As I approached the main square, the number of military personnel and vehicles increased, but when it became apparent that I would not be shot on sight nor was Finland at war, I asked what was going on. Fortunately, it was just the annual military parade that apparently takes place in Helsinki only once each decade, so all was well — except for the parked cars that were being moved against their will out of the way of the parade route.
The day was beautiful. I walked across the city to find the “Rock Church,” which is featured in every tour brochure (always a good clue that something is worth seeing). This mission proved to be an excellent one. The church was partly underground in a cavity blasted out of the granite in central Helsinki. Some of the walls inside the church were “living rock,” while others were built-up out of the boulders from the excavation. The entire church was capped with a shallow dome and seems either to emerge from the rocky outcrop that surrounds it or gently sink into it. There was a pianist playing near the altar, filling the room with restful tones. The “Rock Church” really is an architectural masterpiece.
I returned to the campus for my meeting with Jari Lavronen, the department head in teacher education at the University of Helsinki. He very graciously invited me to lunch at a restaurant in one of the small streets near campus. We spent a good bit of time talking about the Finnish miracle (the top scores in PISA). There were a few surprises, including the fact that it is very difficult to enter the primary teacher education program and reasonably hard to gain admission to the secondary one. Since higher education is free in Finland (and they try not to overproduce teachers), admissions are quite selective. As a result, the teachers are among the most qualified, and teaching is a high status job generally. In addition there is very little exit testing — just an audit of ten percent of students each year by government examiners.
Student teaching is split between time in a laboratory school and a regular school. Teachers have a huge amount of autonomy and are asked to help students reach overarching goals for instruction rather than highly specific content goals as we increasingly have done in the U.S. It is probably fair to say that the high degree of cultural homogeneity plays a role, too. While these elements seem somewhat predictable, it would be very difficult to institute almost any of them in the U.S., particularly when we are pressured to admit as many students as possible to teacher preparation programs.
Late in day I found the correct bus to take me out of town a bit to visit the Seurasaari Folk Park, located on a small island across a foot bridge near the last bus stop. I spent a few hours visiting the buildings that had been relocated to the park from sites elsewhere in Finland. Many of the buildings are staffed by people in costume — a strange notion since I saw most of them again in street clothes riding the bus back to the city a few hours later. Once back in Helsinki, I continued my walkabout and had dinner at Hesburger, a hamburger chain that I also found in Estonia.
Tuesday I flew back to Dublin for the last time, taking Aer Lingus (how appropriate). The route of the flight provided many beautiful views of hundreds of islands and lakes (and lakes on islands) before landing in Ireland. We were so fortunate to have found the house we did. It took just about an hour from landing to living room, and that included picking up the checked luggage, going through customs, getting on the 16 bus, and walking a few blocks to the house. For a few days I would be on my own until Robin and Brian arrived on Sunday.
On Wednesday I enjoyed what would be one of my final breakfasts on campus, and then made a stop at the inquiry summer school offered by CASTeL. Later I took the bus to St. Pats one more time and spent several enjoyable hours with Cliona, one of my science education colleagues there. It will be interesting to see if any of these contacts result in projects — or perhaps an invitation to return to Dublin, a prospect I have been considering lately.
Even though my responsibilities to the NOS/HOS class ended weeks ago, my plan was to stay on in Ireland and participate in the big science education (SMEC) + ESTABLISH conference. I was quite pleased to be asked to give the welcoming keynote address. The weather wasn’t particularly welcoming, but my audience certainly was. Several folks said very nice things about the talk, "Why we teach science and what everyone should know about how it works," which combined elements of science education and what aspects of the NOS we should teach.
I had to miss the opening dinner because I was invited to a reception at Marsh’s Library featuring masterworks in the history of science. How nice to have been part of the Dublin scene long enough to be on at least one VIP list. The event was very nice, and the exhibition was even better. Both the Minister of Culture and the Archbishop of Dublin spoke. Even a group of German high school students from Essen, who reproduced a series of science demonstrations given centuries ago in Dublin, were there to show off their project, which now lives forever on YouTube. Maurice came to the event with me and seemed to know half the people in the room — but, of course, his Dublin roots are a just bit deeper than mine.
On Friday I returned to the conference with back-to-back workshops, each of which was very well attended. It really is nice to be asked to do these things, and every time I give a presentation I learn something. For dinner all two hundred of us were bused to the Arlington Hotel on the north bank of the Liffey for a nice (but noisy) dinner accompanied by Irish music and dancing. I was surprised not to have known about the place and to see how huge it was; a full city block inside.
I conducted a few interviews on Saturday for the inquiry research project and attended a few of the talks but was anxious to return home to get ready for my final visitors. On Sunday sister Robin and brother-in-law Brian arrived right on time at about 6:30 a.m. and met the woman who lives at #10 High Park — unfortunately, my house is #10 The Court. We walked to Bram’s café and arrived even before it opened, but the delay provided a bit more opportunity to chat and talk. Afterwards, we took the bus into Dublin and visited the Beatty Library and Dublin Castle for a great introduction to the history of the city. We found a dinner place frequented by locals where we ended the day.
The Old Observatory, Danse Macabre,
Remnants of the Russian Occupation
Week Nineteen (May 28-June 3):
Spirited Adventures on The Viking Express to Helsinki
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
Posted on July 31, 2012
My first full day in Tallinn was very pleasant. Many of the museums were closed, but the city is very walkable, so after breakfast I wandered about getting a feel for the place. Miia was intent on making my NOS presentation a real seminar, so I prepared for ninety minutes but ended up giving a presentation that lasted almost three hours (with a break and many questions, of course).
A number of folks arrived at Miia’s house for a reception in the evening. It was a very pleasant experience, particularly since it featured a large number of grilled things — my favorite class of food, grilled things! Several of the folks seemed incredulous (or just curious) that I am not a drinker, but I found a nice pear cider that seemed to satisfy their suspicion that I might be a member of the temperance committee. Without a doubt the most unique part of the evening was the sauna, where the men whom I had addressed as audience members just hours before were now as naked as I in a tiny room with temperatures approaching 80 degrees C. On reflection, the naked sauna experience seemed a very good way to drop all academic pretensions and perhaps should be considered as a venue for dissertation defenses.
On Tuesday the weather was not cooperative, but I was undaunted in my mission to see the sights of Tartu, Estonia’s second city to the southeast of Tallinn. There is a new science center with the curious name of AHHAA near the hotel. Architecturally it is a really interesting building, but isn’t particularly noteworthy inside. I suppose my issue with science centers generally is that they are much more similar as a class than other sorts of museums. Beyond the name, this one is almost a clone of other discovery/inquiry sites — although, as the largest such center in the Baltic nations, it does provide educational value.
The Old Observatory of the University of Tartu is fascinating and now restored to its former glory (as this extract from the website attests). The Observatory was built in 1808-1810 to designs by the university's architect, Johann Wilhelm Krause. In 1824, the observatory acquired a Fraunhofer refractor, which at the time was the best and the largest telescope in the world. The building was then given a rotating dome, which proved to be a very successful design. The observatory’s place in the world’s history of science was cemented by its long-time head Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve, who in 1835 was the first to measure the distance of a star from the Earth and who determined the position of thousands of double stars. In 1816-1852, F. G. W. Struve and Carl Friedrich Tenner, a Russian general born in Estonia, led a series of surveys to plot a geodetic arc stretching from North Norway to the coast of the Black Sea. The arc, which became known as Struve Geodetic Arc, played a pivotal role in the development of astronomy, geodesy, and cartography. The Old Observatory is the first point in the Struve Geodetic Arc and was included in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2005, not only for its scientific merit but to acknowledge the fact that 10 nations worked together on the project to measure the size of the Earth.
In the afternoon, I gave a presentation on constructivism for the students in the science teacher education program. These presentations have been wonderful opportunities to compare teacher education across institutional and national contexts. Both at Dublin and at Tartu, science teacher education primarily occurs within the science faculty and, while there are some advantages to this, it is easy to wonder what the students might gain from an increased involvement with those who have more school-based practical experience. Miia, Jack, and I drove out of town to see Lake Pepsi, which forms part of the border with Russia. The weather was breezy and far too cold for late May, whipping up small waves on the huge lake. We returned to Tartu for a very nice meal at a traditional restaurant.
On the somewhat bleak and rainy morning of May 30, my first stop was most appropriate — a nondescript apartment building that once held the offices and jail of the KGB. The small museum in what was once a cell block was revealing but not surprising. The Estonians resisted their Soviet occupation with some measure of success, but many paid the price for their lack of enthusiasm about their eastern guests. Although a sizable Russian minority remains, the Soviets are long gone. However, the landscape of Estonia is littered with many examples of terrible Soviet-era architecture. The repressive nature of the regime in reflected in the utilitarian architectural style, which is a constant reminder of the meaning of blind obedience to a failed cause.
Following this visit I took a quick look at the University Museum, housed in the remains of an old cathedral. Actually, if you couldn’t look out of the windows to see the shell of the cathedral, it would be hard to know that the museum is situated in just half a building. It certainly seems that any great university should have a museum — and also have enough history to justify a museum. This was easy at Tartu since it was founded in 1632. With the rain still coming down, I walked to the very traditional Estonian National Museum nearby (not sure why it is in Tartu and not Tallinn). I was pleased to see that there are plans for modernization because the present museum is little more than an exhibition of the folkways of an Estonia, folkways that I suspect no longer exist in any substantial way now that the folk have entered the twenty-first century. They are the most internet-wired country on the planet according to my guide book.
My last formal contribution to the science education program at the university occurred when I met with one of the graduate students to talk about the assessment instrument they have developed to measure “science literacy.” Under the best of circumstances “science literacy” is a tough concept to define, so it is no surprise that my colleagues in Estonia have a specialized notion for this concept.
Thursday was a big day at the University of Tartu since the faculty was set to elect a new rector (essentially the president). This was an outright vote of the faculty set during an afternoon convocation. Miia was quite energized about the prospects depending on who emerged as the victor. Fortunately her man won, so all was well. In the evening we met her dean to talk about STEM teacher education. They face some of the same issues we do in the U.S., namely where should teacher education be positioned: within the science/math faculty, or within education?
Less than an hour outside of Tartu is the little town of Otepaa (“bear head”) where we were scheduled to make a visit to newly remodeled school. We found the assistant principal, herself a Fulbright teacher who had been posted to Chicago a few years earlier. She led us on a tour of the beautiful facility, which had the unmistakable smell of an IKEA — or at least it had the unmistakable smell of a school outfitted with furniture made of more glue than tree products. The school was holding its year-end assembly, and although I didn’t understand anything being said, the emotion was high as students presented flowers to their favorite teachers and sang clearly patriotic songs. Later we stopped for lunch at a small restaurant overlooking one of the many lakes and visited an interesting castle (more like a baronial manor house) called Sangaste Loss. We enjoyed a final dinner together at Miia and Jack’s house.
On Saturday morning we left Tartu for the 2½ hour drive to Tallinn for another visit to the old city. The weather wasn’t cooperating, but there was quite a bit of energy in the city square — fueled, I have been told, by Finns who make the trip from Helsinki to buy cheap alcohol, but more about this later. We toured the treasures that survived in the old church in the city center after the Soviets bombed the place in 1944. The long cycle painting called Danse Macabre was certainly worth seeing. This graphic wall panel was apparently painted during the Black Death to remind people of the fragility of life, although one would have thought that the Black Death itself would have been enough of a reminder.
Arne joined us for lunch. We found a German beer hall for some traditional Estonian food — or German food made by Estonians (something like that). Our next stop was the beautiful new Art Museum of Estonia in a glorious building near the presidential palace. I had fears of another Guggenheim fiasco — great building, terrible collection — but here the match was much better. Although there wasn’t a single acknowledged masterpiece in the place, the art, its display, and the narrative were a wonderful accompaniment to the building itself. The experience did cause me to wonder how we decide that something is a masterpiece. Many of these pieces, by artists I had never heard of, were as good as famous works in famous museums by famous painters. My hosts dropped me at the ferry terminal for the voyage to Helsinki as we said our very temporary goodbyes. (I will see Miia and Jack at a conference in Ireland next week, thus confirming that the world is really too small.)
So, I joined the other weekend travelers going from Estonia to Helsinki up the modern gangway, through the automatic ticket validation machine, and on to a huge ship, The Viking Express. From that point it was like being on the Love Boat. The ship featured gambling areas, eating areas, drinking areas, and many areas in which one could buy alcohol. In fact, in some ways it seems that these ships are designed to take thirsty Finns from Helsinki to Tallinn and transport sauced Finns and vast quantities of cheap ethanol back to Helsinki. I saw one woman hauling enough distilled and fermented product by herself to open a small liquor store somewhere in Lapland.
I spent the first part of my cruise listening to a Cat Stevens wannabe play the guitar on a small stage. This guy was every bit as good as Cat and didn’t show any signs of wanting to change his name and religion any time soon. He did have a slight pronunciation problem that gave away his origins somewhere in Nordic lands rather than in Nashville or London. In the front row of the small nightclub were four twenty-something girls wearing crew caps and preparing to imbibe a variety of spirituous products. Fortunately, it seems that they are not part of the crew — I hope. I wasn’t sure what to think when I saw a guy walk by dressed as a woman in a full sailor outfit featuring a starched white blouse and well pressed skirt, accompanied by the de rigor sailor’s cap. Speaking of caps, another of my lounge companions was sporting a typical Viking hat with horns. This seemed somewhat in character until I realized that it was entirely knit, right down the tips of the horns. Perhaps this explains the decline of the Viking raiders. Apparently they traded the more fearsome metal-leather-antlers for wool, gradually growing content to make the alcohol run to Tallinn and trading Euros for others forms of conquest. I suspect that his hidden battleaxe was constructed of papier-mâché – wouldn’t want to hurt anyone of course.
The exit from the ship was generally orderly with folks trying hard not to reveal how drunk they were (or how much alcohol they had purchased in Estonia). I bumped into an older woman whose backpack rattled with the gentle tones of dozens of bottles clicking together. Several guys marched down the gangway looking like the living dead, but very polite as all of us were sniffed by dogs from the custom service. I wondered what illicit materials they could possibly be looking for beyond those that could be seen by the border guards themselves without canine assistance. I also wondered how accurate the dogs’ sense of smell could possibly be after checking out the first hundred or so passengers. Perhaps the dogs simply enjoyed the alcoholic haze that moved with those departing the ship and into the terminal building.
I found the Helsinki University guest house with amazing ease — no more than a 20-minute walk from the ferry terminal. No one bothered to give me the code to the gate and door, but another resident of the house was entering at the same time and wasn’t at all bothered by letting me in (and providing the required codes). I walked a bit in the city, had another bad European pizza, then settled down to watch the sunset at 11 p.m. — and tried to sleep.
I approached Sunday with much advance planning, since it was clear that many of the tourist sites would be closed on Monday (and many on Tuesday). I was determined to see as much as possible. (When I become Minister of Tourism somewhere I will order that the closing days be staggered). My first stop was the Natural History Museum which, at 8€ was a bit of a disappointment. The building was glorious and the collection was comprehensive enough, but there was little special of note except for the fact that each eco-zone exhibition was accompanied by herbarium panels that could be pulled out of the wall. Who knows if anyone does this, but it was an interesting touch to showcase part of the story that is often neglected.
The next stop was the National Museum (also 8€). It was quite engaging with all of the usual bits: a fine painted rotunda, extensive archeological and historical collections, costumes from the various regions of the country, and several period rooms. I spent less than an hour in the natural history museum and more than two and half hours in the national museum. I wandered through the shopping district and impressive train station, and found the museum of the University of Helsinki with its very impressive geological, mineralogical and historical displays. I suppose having a collection of this quality is easy with a university that has been in business since 1640.
After finding that the Russian Orthodox church on the hill was closed until Tuesday morning, I walked to the docks and made the impulsive decision to take the ferry out to the islands in the bay. The ride was worthwhile for itself — just the sight of the massive ferry that pulled out of its dock just as we were passing justified my decision. The island, Suomenlinna, is a World Heritage site and for good reason. From the time of Swedish rule the island has been a military site. Every bit of it seems covered with history. I walked for hours, clambering over the various fortifications, inspecting the cannon and a 1930s era submarine now propped up on shore, and generally enjoying the quiet of a place that looks like a huge museum cutting across time and space. I finally returned to the hotel about 10 p.m., again waiting for the sky to darken sufficiently for sleep. But I neglected to consider the fact that the sun would rise again at about 3 a.m.
After Roaming the Isle of Man,
It's Off to Estonia for Further Adventures.
Week Eighteen (May 21-May 27):
A Bog, a Late-Night Stroll in Tartu, and a Museum in Tallinn
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
Posted on July 29, 2012
We returned another rental car and checked in for the flight to IOM (Isle of Man), arriving just 30 minutes later at the oddly-named Ronaldsway Airport. The woman at the information desk didn’t fill us with confidence when she hinted that there wasn’t much to see for two days on IOM, but we quickly found out how wrong she was. We walked the beach near a ruined church and then drove into Castletown for lunch. The decision was whether or not to buy the multiday pass for various IOM visitor sites. It is good that we did because the tourist authority has developed an island-wide set of attractions, all part of what the tourist office has cleverly called The Story of Man, each of which has an admission fee.
We started our exploration with Castle Rushen, a well preserved medieval castle built probably in 1200 for the Kings of Man. The Castle served as the residence of the last Norse King of Man, who died in 1266. Part of the castle was destroyed in a siege by Robert the Bruce in 1313, but was rebuilt by Sir William de Montacute in around 1344. The outer wall is 25 feet high and 7 feet thick with five towers. Of all of the castles that I have seen, this one is among the best to give a sense of what the place really looked like when it was a functioning fort and residence. Each room is furnished nicely, making it possible to understand how the various parts played a role in the life of the castle.
Up the coast from Castletown is Cregneash Village, set up as a living museum in 1938, when Harry Kelly's very traditional cottage was opened to the public to preserve the area as a site of Manx traditions and way of life. The amount of property owned by the Manx trust has grown through the years with additional building added to the visitor site. Farmers still grow oats, rye, barley, and wheat. There are folks still doing traditional weaving. And there’s a solitary (and apparently very old) Manx cat sitting on a chair near a glowing fire. Of course, there are the obligatory thatch-roofed cottages gracing the countryside.
We made a mad dash to the “city” of Douglas for a quick visit to the IOM Museum (very comprehensive), found our hotel (The Adelphi), and had pizza for dinner somewhere among the massive row of hotels on the seaside street that once boasted a vibrant tourist trade. We were told several times that the major tourist days are over with the advent of cheap package tours to much warmer places. Finance and tax havens have replaced the tourists in recent years as a dominant part of the IOM economy. We took a little drive up the coast after dinner and debated the logic of IOM road signs that seemed to lead us astray on several occasions.
On Wednesday we met the owner of the Adelphi during a very nice English (or Manx) breakfast and then headed off to see the Laxley Wheel. In addition to the various trains, this was one sight I knew about from my brief reading about IOM. The giant wheel, called Lady Isabella after former Lieutenant Governor Hope's wife, is also known as the Laxey Wheel. It was built in 1854 by Robert Casement, a Laxey native and engineer, and is the largest working waterwheel in the world. (The wheel has a diameter of 72 feet and a circumference of 227 feet.) It has a very interesting design. Because the wheel is more than 200 yards away from where the mine is located, the energy from the wheel is transferred using a long arm to drive the pump, lifting 250 gallons of water per minute from the old lead, copper, silver, and zinc mines until they closed in 1929.
We next zipped up the east coast and found some fascinating Paleolithic ruins at Cahstal yn Ard with standing stones and the remnants of what was likely a passage tomb — all with a few of the Snaefells in the background. After a brief stop at a huge and disorganized used bookstore at Jurby, we headed next for the town of Peel that promised two interesting sites — a castle and a Celtic visitor center. The House of Mannanan visitor attraction is amazing. It is located in the old train shed for a now-defunct railroad and was designed by some very creative folks, using some interesting museum technology I had not seen previously (including several short films with alternative endings activated by one of three objects that the visitor touches at some point in the film). There is a reproduction of a Celtic roundhouse with stories narrated by Egodonas, a Celtic storyteller, a Viking longhouse, mist-shrouded crosses, and a long ship (Odin’s Raven) like the one that brought sailors back from the Battle of Clontarf. There are reproductions (including sounds and smells) of a 19th century cooper shop, a chandler, and a kipper-maker.
We returned the car and waited patiently for the incoming flight — which was not to come. Apparently, fog on the Isle of Man means no flights from Dublin. No matter. The airline put us up at the only hotel within walking distance with the promise of a flight in the morning.
So, Thursday began on the Isle of Man with a nice breakfast at the hotel and a very quick flight home to Ireland. I enjoyed chatting with one of the Man residents, who gave me some insights into the tax advantages of residency there. (He didn’t seem to have a tail either.)
We had a huge amount of trouble getting the next rental car, but finally we arrived back at “#10 The Court.” About half of my planned itinerary was no longer possible because of the lost time, but I was determined that Joanne and Michel would get to Newgrange. We did well, visiting Dowth, Knowth, and Newgrage before getting a quick dinner and dashing home for my Skype call with the UTeach folks. When I return home I will have to look at the slides from my trip of 30 years ago. I am almost positive that I crawled into the muddy mound of Dowth or Knowth with a flashlight, which is not possible now since the sites are more formally developed — and protected.
Friday promised to be both busy and restful as I spent a few hours on campus, considering the interview questions we were slated to ask the participants coming for the ESTABLISH/SMEC conference in a few weeks. We worked together to tighten the questions, while making sure that the language was as transparent as possible. For some reason, “inquiry-instruction” was seen as a problem, but “inquiry” worked just fine.
Joanne’s sister arrived. Michel and Joanne picked her up at the airport, returning to the house just about the time I did. M, J and R decided to visit Dublin. I arranged to meet them in the city later in the day, keeping in mind my previously arranged meeting with another science education colleague from Mississippi and a gaggle of her students. As planned, Michel had departed and was replaced by Joanne’s sister.
May 26: I am surprised they don’t know me by name at the Dublin airport, having been there several times in the same week, this time on the way to Tallinn, Estonia. The flight was a bit late, but Miia and her friend Arne were there for the pickup. We stopped at the Song Festival site — apparently the Estonians shook off Soviet rule by singing about freedom. A new museum (Lennusadam: Seaplane Harbor) had just opened in an amazing 1919 building that once housed Soviet Seaplanes, and Arne wisely thought that I might enjoy seeing it. The building was composed of three massive domed hangers enclosing a huge space. The space is now the home of Estonia’s maritime and military collections. The modern exhibition technology and the lighting were so impressive that even if the collection itself wasn’t particularly interesting, the museum would still be compelling to most visitors. The exhibition was in three levels with planes hanging overhead, buoys and other channel markers and ships at eye level, and mines and sea floor relics on the bottom. Bridging the gap between the three levels is a pre-WWII submarine open for visitors. Absolutely amazing!
We returned to the airport to pick up Jack, who was coming in from work in Portugal. The four of us went into the old city for some touring and dinner. The evening was glorious with many nice sites, including the ramparts of the ancient walls of this well-preserved Hanseatic medieval town. As Wikipedia reminds us, The Hanseatic League was an economic alliance of trading cities and their merchant guilds that dominated trade along the coast of Northern Europe. It stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea and inland during the Late Middle Ages (13th century) to the early modern period (17th century).
On Sunday, our “team” met for breakfast and afterward revisited the old town, only to find that the one museum I wanted to see was closed because it was a holiday. When I am Minister of Tourism, museums will be open because it is a holiday. No matter, it was a very nice day to walk through the old town. Later we went to Pirata, the site of a ruined monastery just outside of Tallinn. The façade has been standing for centuries and even now is impressive. One can only imagine what people thought centuries ago. Arne made another good choice with his plan to take us hiking at a bog on the north coast. It was a gorgeous day, the joy of which was somewhat muted by the clouds of tiny mosquitoes that greeted us. I found the place fascinating, particularly because it looked exactly like the Irish bogs with their tiny flowers and puffs of fluffy “bog cotton.”
We arrived in Tartu in central Estonia some hours later and made a quick stop at the University. I was on my own at the hotel and enjoyed a long walk through the old town and along the river. I noted immediately that the public art was very well done, each piece accompanied by a sign explaining who did what and thus, why they had been immortalized. The town is immensely walkable. Before I realized it, I had walked for hours along both sides of the river and back to the hotel. One must be careful about the summer nights in Estonia — it doesn’t get dark until almost 11 p.m.!
Pilgrims in Santiago de Compostella
And Ice Age Art in the Caves of Spain
Week Seventeen (May 14-May 20):
Back in Ireland, We Visit Emaın Macha and the Titanic Experience
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
Posted on July 29, 2012
Monday morning found us waking up on a brilliant morning in Bilbao not far from the Guggenheim. For two photographers, it should be no surprise that seeing the building in the sunlight coming from the other side would be important, so we walked back down to the museum to take more pictures of the glorious building — without having to go inside. The next order of business was to decide on our destination, and after some consideration, we chose Santiago de Compostella (St. James of the Field of Stars), said by the guidebook to be one of the most beautiful cities in Spain. Unfortunately, Santiago was on the other side of the country, about five hours away according to the GPS. Fortunately, as we later found out, the GPS didn’t know about all of the new roads, and the actual trip was somewhat shorter!
We enjoyed a day and half in Santiago de Compostela. The guidebook called it one of the most beautiful towns in Spain, and I agree — wonderful winding streets and open air restaurants (the paella is very good). Pilgrims in Europe have been walking to the town for about a thousand years, and they are still coming. Some folks walk all the way from France on the Camino de Compostela. We saw dozens of folks walking toward Santiago for hours as we drove out of town. We finally angled north and way away from the traditional route of the “camino,” staying the night at the San Miguel in Gujon, which was much more than the small seaside town I had expected. In a wonderful coincidence, an indie film about a father taking the walk in honor of his deceased son was just released, called The Way — and I look forward to seeing it.
It seems that each province in Spain wants to market its own Ice Age art caves. Asturias is no exception. We choose to begin the day in Ribadesella, a pretty town on the central coast, home to the Tito Bustillo cave (discovered in 1968). We spent an hour or so in the modernistic visitor center before our cave tour at the entrance site just up the road. One of the most important Palaeolithic sites in Western Europe, the cave was inhabited between 25,000 and 10,000 BC. Although the cave was originally discovered by boys who dropped in from the top through a small opening, modern day tourists pass through a tunnel. The cave contains paintings and engravings of deer, horses, and interesting parts of female figures — not on view but unique just the same. The purple horse was particularly intriguing and the guide, who refused to speak even one word of English, particularly infuriating. The wonderful staff at the visitor center made a reservation for us at a cave much farther away, but we still had plenty of time for a three-course lunch at a price that equaled the cost of a meal at the McDonald’s in Dublin.
We enjoyed a pleasant drive on modern highways and not-so-modern secondary roads along the coast, heading for the El Pindal Cave in Ribadedeva, very close to the border with Cantabria, the next province to the east. Both the ride to the cave and the opening itself are spectacular, with views from the cliffs rising above the Cantabrian Sea. Just as we parked, the guide showed up in her mini and scampered off down the path to the cave itself. With a few minutes to spare before the tour, I walked (ran, actually) to an ancient church now in the ruins farther up the hill. Michel and I had the place to ourselves since we were the only ones on the last tour of the day. The guide spoke English, so we were able to ask questions and move slowly toward the red ochre paintings of female deer (called hinds in British English apparently), a tiny engraved fish, enigmatic dots and strips, and the masterpiece, the mammoth visible to the public in a Spanish cave!
Our next stop was the town of Santillana del Mar, which really isn’t that close to the sea, so the name is a bit of a stretch. The town seems only to exist to service the tourists who come to see the most famous of all Spanish caves, Altamira. Unfortunately, the real cave has been closed to tourists for some time, but they have produced a replica showing the amazing parade of bulls painted on the ceiling, using the natural protrusions of the rock to give the animals a three-dimensional perspective. For some inexplicable reason they prohibit taking photos even in the replica, but it is worth seeing if only for the technology involved — though it’s not the same as being in the presence of the originals. The associated museum is quite good with many artifacts and a good overview of the Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods. The pension in Santillana was very nice, too. We found a small café and enjoyed another paella.
Thursday promised to be as interesting as Wednesday since we had two caves already booked with the promise of another if the timing was right. We arrived even before the guides at Monte Castillo near the town of Puente Viesgo. The guide was very pleasant and spoke Spanish slowly enough that I understood much of what she said. We saw a bison, horse, deer, various symbols, and an extinct relative of the cow called an oro. As in the other caves, the red paint was made from iron oxide about 28,000 years ago and the black from charcoal about 12,000 years ago. The hand shadows were made by blowing red pigment around the artist’s hand, like a stencil. This trip was inspired by a travel brochure that I received months ago, but we accomplished much of the itinerary at a fraction of the cost.
The flight back to Dublin was on time and uneventful with more high marks for Ryan Air (but it is important to understand what the rules are and probably a good idea just to pay in advance for luggage).
On Friday Michel and I walked to campus for breakfast, and then I went to the airport by bus to pick up yet another rental car. This rental, from Budget, was not particularly pleasant. The guy at the counter made a hard sell for the extra damage waiver, and when I finally got the car the tank was less than full (as confirmed by a stop at the local petrol station!). I immediately returned to the desk and had a few words with the folks there. In the afternoon I continued to do some writing and work on cleaning up the grades from class. We drove to Swords for dinner and found a very nice Indian place hidden up the stairs in a building just off the main street.
On Saturday we headed north to Belfast to see the new Titanic Experience that opened a few weeks earlier — just in time for the centenary of the sinking. On the way we stopped at Armagh, home of two St. Patrick’s cathedrals — one Church of Ireland and the other Catholic. I was interested in making the connection with a former Bishop of Armagh, who opined that the earth was created in 4,004 BC, thus establishing the “fact” of a very young planet — a “fact” that haunts teachers even today.
We decided to take a quick look at Navan Fort, known in Old Irish as Emaın Macha. It’s an ancient monument which, according to legend, was a major center of power in pre-Christian Ireland. According to mythology and historical tradition, it was the capital of the Ulaid, the people who gave their name to the province of Ulster, which is now divided between counties in the Republic of Ireland and those in the North. The fort is said to have been founded by the goddess Macha in the 7th or 5th century BC. The site itself is just a grass-covered mound, but the nearby visitor’s center is amazing. There is a film that explains the mythological significance of the place, a museum, and a recreated village with actors, who host visitors in keeping with the traditions of the time. We spent more time there than we expected. Our timed tickets to see the Titanic site resulted in a very quick ride to Belfast.
We were pleasantly surprised by several things at the new Titanic Experience attraction. First, there isn’t one artifact present, but as we were reminded by one of the managers, this is a visitor experience and not a museum. Second, the “experience” is really good and requires several hours to appreciate fully. To quote the web site, “The Titanic Belfast® extends over nine galleries, with multiple dimensions to the exhibition, drawing together special effects, dark rides, full-scale reconstructions, and innovative interactive features to explore the Titanic story in a fresh and insightful way; from her conception in Belfast in the early 1900s, through her construction and launch, to her infamous maiden voyage and catastrophic demise. The journey goes beyond the aftermath of the sinking, to the discovery of the wreck and continues into the present day with a live undersea exploration centre.”
We drove to some of the related Titanic sites, visiting the dry dock where the ship was built and looking over the politically charged paintings on some of the houses in Belfast. We even found the magnificent house of government for the six countries of Northern Ireland. Since it was a beautiful afternoon, we decided to take the long way home, driving the Ards Peninsula before finally crossing the mouth of the Strangford Lough by putting the car on a short ferry ride.
On Sunday, I introduced Michel to the joys of the Irish breakfast at IKEA and was surprised that the somewhat undercooked scrambled eggs had been replaced by individual omelets. While this wouldn’t seem like a noteworthy observation, it related to my increasingly common impression that even in the short time I have been in Ireland, I have watched things change. For the first time since arriving I could sense the passage of time by recognizing that events like concerts and plays were scheduled to occur after June 18th when my experience here would finally be complete.
The evening promised some adventure since we were scheduled to take the Northside Ghost Walk. A professional actor-storyteller accompanied us for three hours as darkness approached. There was nothing particularly scary about the walk, but it was certainly interesting from a historical perspective. We learned that the oldest part of Dublin is the former Viking site of Oxmantown. We stopped at the site of Saint Mary’s Abbey, once one of the most powerful monastic settlements in Ireland in medieval times, and heard the story of Scaldbrother, a medieval thief who terrorized Smithfield. We visited several sites of haunted houses and ended at the Brazen Head pub, said to be the oldest pub in Ireland.
After Farewells and a Contemplative Visit
To Remote Skellig Michael, It's Off to Spain.
Week Sixteen (May 7-May 13):
Immersion and Experience Leads at the End to Reflection.
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
Posted on July 21, 2012
We were up early (at least according to Emily) to catch the 8:15 am ferry. The owner of the B&B was very helpful, even preparing breakfast a bit early for us and taking our bags to the dock. We took ourselves to the ferry on the bikes we rented the day before — I am quite sure that I have never ridden a bicycle to a ferry before. In about 45 minutes we were back on the mainland (if you can call the island of Ireland a mainland) and in the car deciding what to do next.
The weather was quite fickle, so we went to Galway to wander around a bit (and park for free since it was a bank holiday Monday). The main walking street of Galway is very nice — even a few buskers were performing for the morning crowd. We found Lynch’s castle (now a bank) that I remembered from my previous trip to Ireland decades ago. There was too much conversation about what to do next, so the most logical course was to head back to Dublin.
Of course, I did find an interesting diversion about 30 minutes north of the motorway near Ballymahon. Some years ago they discovered an early Iron Age (150 BC) log trackway preserved in the peat. After the long section of logs was stabilized, the logs were returned to their precise position in a museum that is located in the middle of nowhere and very intriguing in its design. We continued to amble across country (while avoiding the tolls), finally ending up back at “Dublin Home” as it’s called on the GPS. I suspect that Kim and I will refer to it that way forever!
Tuesday welcomed us back to the work week and to Michel, who arrived from Taiwan for a few weeks of Ireland (and other) traveling. Kim picked him up at the airport, while I met with the senior folks of CASTeL to plan the research interviews. Our welcome dinner for Michel included our friend Maurice. We gathered at the Ivy House, the almost neighborhood pub that we adopted months earlier.
Wednesday was a time to satisfy many of the little details of farewell, including a nice visit with the principal at Mt. Temple. Even though Emily had said many of her goodbyes earlier, she returned for a final visit to a school that, just a few months earlier, was only a tiny point on an Internet map. (Mt. Temple is also a ubiquitous reference in everything ever written about Bono and U2 because they met while students at Mt. Temple.) In the afternoon, the team at CASTeL arranged for me to give a talk on Enhancing Laboratory Instruction, followed by a pleasant reception with some faculty and a few of the science education students.
Thursday was a bit of a sad day because Kim and Emily were scheduled to fly back to the U.S., ending their part of the Irish sojourn. The entire Ireland Fulbright Adventure has been about planning, immersion, and experiencing — and we have known for months that it would eventually end, leading to a time of reflection. So, for Emily and Kim, that time of reflection would begin on an airborne journey back to Fayetteville. I did sense some excitement from Emily, who was ready to text her friends from her U.S. phone the moment the plane touched down in Atlanta. Kim, on the other hand, was not at all ready to end her once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of cultural immersion with all of the related experiences that no vacation could begin to equal.
Michel and I prepared for a few days on the road and left for the south of Ireland with our goal to visit the Skellig Islands off the Ring of Kerry. The weather was not particularly accommodating, so we made a quick stop at the Rock of Cashel and then visited the Swiss Cottage and Castle in Cahir. The Swiss cottage was something of a fantasy house built for the local landowners, who used it much like Marie Antoinette did with her model village on the grounds of Versailles. The small house is very nicely restored, an architectural wonder with interesting mismatched windows and bold wallpaper in each room.
Later, we stopped at Cahir Castle, one of the most complete castles I have seen in Ireland. All of the ruined versions I have toured made much more sense after seeing a castle in a less decayed state. As we continued the drive south, the weather improved dramatically. By the time we reach Killarny, the sun was shining nicely and stayed with us all the way to the B&B in Port Magee. We took a chilly walk down to the local pub to complete the day.
Friday morning was beautiful, and that was very good, not only for the aesthetic appeal, but also because the boats to the ancient monastic community on Skellig Michael only run in good conditions. We found our boat and joined a few other souls ready to brave the rolling waves of the Atlantic. We headed out of the protection of the port into the ocean, watching intently as the two Skellig Islands came into view. One set of rocks is home to the ruins of a monastery and the other home to thousands and thousands of gannets.
We disembarked at the tiny dock and started the hike up the tiny path to the settlement. Along the way it was impossible not to take far too many photos of the rugged landscape, sea cliffs, and roiling ocean — and puffins! The ruins are in surprisingly good shape, and we had about an hour to roam around the beehive huts and ancient ecclesiastical remains before taking a very wet ride back to Port Magee. With the vastness of the ocean all around and the wind blowing across the tops of the tiny huts, it was worth a few moments to contemplate why, for generations, people have braved the elements purposely to set themselves aside from the rest of humanity. I don’t have an answer, but having visited such remote places across the globe, I surmise there must be some deep-seated human desire to do just that, setting one's self aside from the throng in a way that transcends time and culture.
Since we were at the end of the Ring of Kerry, it seemed only logical to complete the drive on the other side. This was a very good idea. The weather was amazing with some glorious views. We stopped at an Iron Age fort and toured the ruined abbey near Muckross House, and then drove to Artane, often called one of the most charming villages in Ireland, for the evening.
On Saturday morning, since we were already on the west coast, I decided to make one more try to visit the reproduction Iron Age village of Cragganowen near Ennis. I first read about the village in the tour guide on my first trip to Ireland decades ago and have been intrigued since. We stopped first at the stores near Bunratty Castle — and the most amazing thing happened. An Irish guy who lives near Limerick walked up to me and introduced himself as one of my fellow travelers on the Mid-Atlantic trip. I can’t imagine what the chances are that I would run into someone from that trip on another island in the Atlantic.
Michel and I found a few distractions on the way to the village, such as the ruins of an abbey, but we eventually located Cragganowen. There is a bit of an anachronism at the entrance — the site is dominated by a Norman castle, destroyed in part by Oliver Cromwell in the 1600s, but the rest of the site is in keeping with the prehistoric and Iron Age theme. There is a lake village, a reproduction of a dolmen, cooking sites, and a huge fort, along with a pen containing a large number of forest hogs. We arrived back in Dublin in the middle of the afternoon with just enough R&R to get ready for our next adventure — Spain.
Sunday was Ryanair day. Yes, we decided to brave the dozens of pages of disclaimers on the website to fly with one of Europe’s most loved and hated low-cost airlines. Within a few hours we were in Santander, Spain, and then quickly on our way to Bilbao with no Ryanair issues at all — although it took some time to get the rental car. We stopped for an hour or so in Castro, a resort city on the ocean, and then took the highway farther on to Bilbao for the night. Even after some trouble due to road construction, we found our pension buried inside a nondescript apartment building. The room was fine but the location was fantastic — on a hill across the river, almost in sight of the magnificent Guggenheim Bilbao designed by Frank Gehry, whose work includes the Getty Museum.
Since the museum was open until 8 pm, we walked down the hill and across the river, passing the giant floral dog guarding the main entrance. The building itself is worth seeing — there seems not to be a single right angle in the place — but the collection is worthless. I worked very hard to find some works of “art” to redeem my view of the nature of the collection, but it was disappointing at every turn. The audio commentary provided by the museum only added to my negative judgment.
In one room a string of large light bulbs hanging from the ceiling was accompanied by a narration stating that the artist didn’t want to impose his vision on collectors, and that those who purchase his string of lights can arrange them in any way that holds personal relevance. The commentary added that the artist had sold a number of such strings that were very similar until arranged by the collectors. So, the collectors pay top prices and then do the work that ought to be performed by the artist. It’s all nonsense, but one has to congratulate the artist, who seems to have successfully fooled so many collectors and museums.
We wandered around the city a bit before heading back to the pension.
Sessions about Teaching Methodology
Punctuate a Week of Irish Exploration.
Week Fifteen (April 30-May 6):
Bicycling the Back Country of Inishmore on the Aran Islands
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
Posted on July 21, 2012
Monday was a busy day. They seem to like us at St. Pats College, so I did my turn giving a presentation for the faculty. I updated and revised some thoughts on constructivist teaching in science (and “maths”) and shared them with an interested group. These folks work really hard as they prepare primary teachers and have very little extra time in the day, yet manage to have a symposium in the odd hour that is free. There were some great questions and comments, so it was a very pleasant experience. I quickly moved from SPD to DCU to meet the folks going out to Firhouse Community College, a bit SW of Dublin, for the first of a two-part inquiry workshop presented by CASTeL with funding from Amgen. (Firhouse is actually a secondary school but is called a college for reasons that I haven’t really determined.)
The 20 teachers who came for almost three hours were very interested in the topic, and the modeling of the various levels of inquiry teaching was effective. It was fun to see my Irish colleagues doing many of the same things that I have tried with my own students in terms of giving folks first-hand experiences in engaging in inquiry instructional methods. The talk with colleagues was very revealing — much about science education, along with the inevitable distress about the current financial woes that plague Ireland.
Tuesday was a somewhat gloomy day, so Kim and I did something quite appropriate and took a tour of Kilmanham Gaol (actually pronounced “Jail”), a large historic prison in downtown Dublin. The tour is like a lesson in Irish history of the past several hundred years. The revolutionaries from the 1916 Easter rising were held here. Most were also executed here. If only the British had known that the uprising itself was not particularly popular and that jailing the leaders might have been acceptable to the population. However, their execution made martyrs of the revolutionaries, leading to the establishment of the Irish state — but only after a terrible civil war. To lift the mood a bit, we looked forward to dinner in the suburb of Dalkey with another Fulbright family.
One of the highlights of the history of science in Ireland was the construction of the “great telescope” at Birr Castel in the 1840s by the third Earl of Rosse (of the Parsons family). For more than 70 years this was the largest telescope in the world and was used to discover the Whirlpool Nebula. The telescope was restored recently, but it now functions as a display piece on the lawn near Birr Castle, home of the Parsons family since the 1620s. In addition to some pleasant lakes, paths, and gardens, the estate also features a science center in the restored stables. The galleries do not contain a cross section of the sciences but feature those elements of science and technology of interest to the family: photography, astronomy, and the steam turbine invented by Sir Charles Parsons, son of the third Earl.
On the way home from Birr we stopped at the monastic site of Clonmacnoise in the midlands, a site founded in 548 by St. Ciaran. I found the place most interesting for its geographic position. The site is located on the Shannon River (which runs NS) and a major ancient road that ran EW along a ridge of gravel deposited by the last glacier to pass across Ireland. The gravel ridges or eskers were used commonly as roads because they were raised above the surrounding bogs and marshes.
I worked to complete the grading all morning on Thursday, then joined Thomas McCloughin at St Pats for lunch and to sit in on his class, a science education approach to teaching natural history. After dinner I met with a local teacher who is interested in earning her PhD – perhaps at the University of Arkansas. We also talked about a few other issues such as the difference between the vision and the reality for “Coursework B.” With the junior certificate in science, students perform a number of mandatory activities and experiments. In the spring these students are tested on their ability to perform their own hands-on work through an assessment called “Coursework B.” So far this is impressive. Unfortunately, apparently many teachers give the students so much help that all of the results for a particular class are basically the same. Not only would this seem to defeat the purpose of having students design their own activities, but since the student booklets are then evaluated by the examination board, a huge amount of money must be wasted in reviewing student work that is essentially a clone of projects done by others in the class (and the teacher). This is all too bad for the obvious reasons, but also because this state of affairs would work against students having authentic scientific inquiry experiences.
On Friday Kim and I (along with Morris) met almost all of the students in the module for a small party at the NuPub on campus. It was a very nice affair; the students seemed genuinely pleased with the experience we had together. They made me an honorary SE4 with the gift of a black hooded sweatshirt. The day ended gloriously with dinner in Skerries with Tom and Sinead (and their two very energetic and charming little daughters). The conversation afterward at their house was as pleasant as the dinner itself.
Our last weekend trip together in Ireland started with a Saturday ride across the country to the Cliffs of Mohr (amazing views) and on to Galway and a very nice B&B and a great conversation with the other tourists. The full Irish breakfast on Sunday (particularly nice if prepared by someone else) is a fine thing and today was no exception. In fact, it was a great way to start the day on the way to Inishmore on the Aran Islands. We easily found the ferry terminal, not too far down the south Connemara coast, and settled in for the 45-minute ride out, making the decision to rent bikes for a day of exploration. The rental place was set up very nicely to exchange 10 € for a relatively new multi-geared silver bicycle. It seems that almost everyone who departed the ferry had this plan in mind, and it didn’t take long to exchange all those euros into bikes. We checked in briefly at the B&B and then took the coast road toward abandoned churches, bee hive huts, and other antiquarian remnants. The day was beautiful and sunny but chilly — thus our sun-enhanced faces came of something of a surprise later.
The first highlight of the ride (beyond Emily’s enthusiasm for it) was the visit to the ancient fort of Dun Aonghasa, built about 1200 BC. The structure is like the Acropolis in Athens or at Mycenae. There were several walls surrounding the central core. From the land these walls provided powerful protection, while the other side was more than protected by the sheer cliff. Even now, an invasion from the sea to Dun Aonghasa would be impossible.
We took the high road back to town because I wanted to see another stone fort farther on next to the abandoned light house station. Kim and Emily were not impressed by this prospect and returned to the B&B but I pressed on, finally pushing the bike up to the highest point on the island. I was amply rewarded with amazing views, a solitary dolmen, and the fort itself. I finally returned to the B&B, where the three of us enjoyed dinner at one of the few restaurants in the tiny village. It seems that the vast majority of visitors to Inishmore stay just for the day and quickly disappear in time to catch the five o’clock ferry. By six in the evening we had the place to ourselves and enjoyed the quiet.
Bloody Sunday, Glasnevin, More Joyce
And a Dash to the Southwest Coast
Week Fourteen (April 23-April 29):
Mount Temple School Celebrates Its First Prom.
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
posted on July 9, 2012
The big event on Monday was Kim’s presentation at St. Pats College. She did a great job talking with faculty members there about gifted education and cognitively guided instruction (wow — that sounds like a great topic for a dissertation). Then, I returned to the task of grading students’ final history of science projects.
The Fulbright event on Tuesday was billed as something of a “goodbye” since folks are scheduled to be departing Ireland regularly now. Since the first meeting was at Croke Park and the day was beautiful, Kim and I walked from the house. Although there was no straightforward way, given the maze of streets, culs de sac, and tall stone walls, we enjoyed the 45-minute walk. Walking here does provide some interesting perspectives, both visually and temporally. Usually the traffic moves slowly enough that distances by car seem magnified. I suspect that walking takes only a bit longer than driving — and parking is much easier.
We had a glorious full Irish breakfast and talked with the Fulbright staff about our experience. The stadium representative gave us a very informative tour for the next 45 minutes and recounted the history of the Park and the GAA (Gallic Athletic Association), billed as the largest amateur association in the world with chapters across Ireland and beyond. The only events played at the Park are heritage games such as hurling and Gallic football (and the occasional rock concert).
Another major “event” at Croke Park had little to do with sport and much to do with the politics of repression and retaliation. This occurred on Bloody Sunday when British troops fired into the stands and onto the field during a match on November 21, 1920. Thirteen people were killed, six were wounded, and Irish resolve for full independence was strengthened immeasurably.
From the Park we were shuttled to Galsnevin Cemetery which, in the hands of a good tour guide (and ours was excellent), is like a history book of modern Ireland — the most important folks are buried here. Next stop was the Winding Stair (bookstore on the quayside and restaurant upstairs) for a great lunch of goat cheese salad and lamb burger. Downstairs is perhaps the only bookstore in Dublin I haven’t been in yet, so I will have to visit soon. The day ended with a group reading of several chapters from Dubliners at Sweny’s Pharmacy not far from Trinity College. Fun but, of course, the link from Joyce to Sweny’s (pronounced swen-ees) is through the lemon-scented soap that Leopold Bloom bought in Ulysses.
Since the day was so nice, Kim and I walked a bit, ending up at Connelly Station with a plan to take the bus home. However, as we walked from one stop to another along the route, we soon discovered that we might just walk all the way home, which we did in less than an hour from the Station. We found little streets, quaint neighborhoods, and little shopping enclaves with two or three stores that we would never have seen otherwise. The walk was just the thing to eliminate some of the damage we did with a lunch of goat cheese and lamb burger.
Wednesday was taken up with preparations for the final day of teaching along with grading student history of science projects, but Thursday was a big day for all of us. Emily had the prom (the first ever at Mount Temple School) and Kim and I joined Morris and his friend for a very nice night at the monthly dinner of the Food and Wine Club at Ely’s wine bar. The meal ranged from gazpacho to scallops, black pudding and pig’s tail (never knew there was meat there), joined by the fish John Dory, duck, lamb with chard, goat cheese with fig, honey and oats, and a dessert of pineapple and grapefruit follow by apricot soaked in earl grey tea. Of course, all of this was accompanied by parings of wine and spirits. Some were tasty but the true allure (and value) of an 80€ bottle of wine is still lost on me.
Kim and I returned to the house to find Emily luxuriating in the afterglow of a very successful prom, during which she was named prom queen. She and her mates at Mount Temple planned it all and raised about 825€ for charity, not to mention the prospect that from this year forward they will very likely have a prom at Mount Temple.
Just a few hours later, Friday appeared as a bittersweet note since it was to be the last class of the spring term. For many students this was also the last class they would have together after four years as a group. After photos and hugs, many of us ended up at the campus pub for lunch.
After a week like this, it was hard to imagine that we had any energy remaining, but on Saturday Kim and I left Dublin again for another attack on our sightseeing agenda. Although the day didn’t hold too much promise in terms of weather, the south called. We took our usual route out of town, bound for Cork and the southwest coast. Cork was nice enough, although in fairness we didn’t spend much time there, but the coast beyond was beautiful.
We admired the harbor in Kinsale, then on to the village of Clonakilty for the night. The village is home of the Clonakilty black pudding. This was a particularly good choice since we had a great bed and breakfast, a wonderful dinner at a local restaurant on the main street, and an evening of traditional music at An Teach Beag (The Old House). We arrived at The Old House behind a hotel on the main street just as the musicians (mandolin, guitar, and penny whistle) started. They played a number of songs and then were joined by a young guy with an accordion. It was clear that they hadn’t met him before but that didn’t matter — the music was as good as if they had played together for months, helped only by a Bulmer’s cider.
Sunday morning was glorious as the sun darted in and out from behind the clouds. We drove down the coast toward the Mizzen Head (the most southwesterly point in Ireland). On the way we visited a mini Stonehenge (called Drombeg Circle) with glorious views to the sea. We continued on to the headlands (the site of an old wireless station) connected to the mainland by a high suspension bridge over the Atlantic abyss. We drove back to Dublin through Bantry, stopped briefly to see University College Cork, and had dinner in Cahir up the street from the castle and across the street from a building that once housed a ticket agency that sold passage to several of the doomed passengers on the Titanic.
Science Education Takes the Forefront
At a Contest and a Conference in Dublin.
Week Thirteen (April 16-April 22):
Judging SciFest at the Boys School and Meeting Teachers at ISTA
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
Filed May 5 and posted on July 6, 2012
Monday and Tuesday were somewhat normal days — if living in a foreign land can ever be normal. It was very nice knowing that I could spend this week and the next few without having to get on a plane (and without having to teach on Friday since Maurice agreed to teach on the history of mathematics). So, I enjoyed Monday immensely, knowing that the class this week was in good hands. I did manage to find the time for a haircut (on campus) and a productive meeting with Sarah, who runs much of the back office stuff related to the work of the Center for the Advancement of Science Teaching and Learning (CASTeL).
On Wednesday I did some work at Dublin City University, then met with Alison Graham for lunch. Alison is a former biology teacher from Sandford Park School. She recently retired and now works for CASTeL doing educational outreach and curriculum development. I learned more in several hours with her than I had been able to put together on my own with respect to science education in Ireland. What I found most interesting is that I have met a high energy science teacher like Alison everywhere I have been. As it turns out she is a well-connected force in the Irish Science Teachers Association, a fact that would become quite clear later in the week.
Thursday was quite interesting because I was invited to judge the SciFest projects at Sandford Park, just south of the city center in what some call the “posh” area. The institution is a classic old school, all boys, somewhat exclusive, with all the students dressed in ties and blazers — except for the two boys who rushed in to visit with me, apologizing profusely for their lack of green jackets. Even though this is clearly a private school, they do get funding for a certain number of teachers paid for by the State (based on a per capita ratio), an issue of much conversation in the present economic situation.
I was able to press Kim into service, and that turned out to be very nice since there were many projects that we needed to evaluate. For much of the day the boys, usually in three-person teams, shuttled in and out of the conference room while we examined their projects and gave some congratulations and advice, all the while making some judgment about which projects were the better ones and destined to go on to the formal competition.
Kim had to leave just before lunch to see Joyced, a one-woman show at Bewleys Cafe. I continued my SciFest duty with some help from one of the senior boys. It was very nice talking with the other teachers and the vice principal about education in Ireland. I particularly enjoyed walking out of the school — with three wonderful “old school” ties in hand as a thank-you gift — into the wonderful sunny light of Dublin, watching boys throwing a ball around on the playing field, but still wearing their class ties.
Class on Friday was very pleasant (but the absence problem is severe), particularly since I could be a student learning something for myself about the history of math. As usual, Kim, Maurice and I enjoyed lunch at the club and had a quick visit with the DCU president. In the afternoon I took Emily to a friend’s house, a slow trip that took almost an hour instead of the expected fifteen minutes. Kim and I were then in a bit of a rush to get to the opening reception of the Irish Science Teachers’ Association (ISTA) at the Science Gallery on the Trinity campus. This was a decidedly “old” school affair with many retired and senior folks, who were very happy to reflect on science teaching in Ireland. The talk on nanotechnology was enlightening — it seems that labs the world over are moving to the very small in an attempt to cash in very big. This was also the night of the Trinity Ball, a very exclusive initiation-only event that seems to require large tents, top hats, and formal gowns. Needless to say, we weren’t invited.
I was very pleased on Saturday to attend the full-day ISTA meeting in one of the science buildings on campus, even as the remains of the Trinity Ball were being cleaned up on the rest of campus. What struck me most was the degree to which this conference looked almost exactly like the countless U.S. science teachers’ conferences I have attended. They did a nice job providing sessions for those interested in chemistry, physics, and biology — alas, geology in Ireland is not really a science, but a sub-discipline that lives in geography.
The big sessions primarily focused on science rather than science teaching, which reflects my constant complaint about such conferences, but it was informative and well run. By the time I found out about the conference, there was no opportunity to be on the program, although they did invite me to be the external judge on a competition that recognized the best science departments in the country. The three schools presenting demonstrated innovation and enthusiasm. One of them was half way through a 10-year, teacher-led project to transform a non-science school into one that engaged students with science wherever possible. Someone should study how a small group of teachers was able to accomplish such a task. I have never seen anything like it.
On Saturday evening we all enjoyed a very nice dinner at the home of one of Emily’s friends (the Duffy-Levy family). This was our second visit with them, and it was very useful to get the Irish perspective directly from Irish folks — quite revealing.
I wasn't sure how we could pack more into our week, but Kim had a plan for Sunday that tested the limits of common sense (well, I like a good plan). We left on Sunday morning for a day-long adventure to continue our goal of seeing all of Ireland, or as much as is humanly possible. Our quest was a drive to the south of Dublin. We visited a huge dolmen sitting proudly (or defiantly) in a field of brilliant yellow rapeseed (Brassica napus) flowers1 near Carlow, visited a castle turned into a manor home at Kilkenny, and found the Nicholas Mosse pottery factory in the country nearby, where we also found some lovely scones and clotted cream for lunch.
Next, we drove through some lovely towns situated in the river valleys nearby, losing a hubcap on the way, but no matter — one of the locals flagged us down to tell us where the hubcap had fallen off. We had a quick visit (but the sun was out) of the medieval Jerpoint Abbey, then on to Waterford, where we hoped to take the factory tour at the Waterford Crystal factory. We just missed the tour but met a very pleasant salesman who formally worked in the factory. He very kindly told us about the process. We also learned that the entire factory is really a shadow of what it used to be before the company declared bankruptcy and the brand name was purchased by some venture capitalists. Now most of the glass is made elsewhere and the visitor’s center is a “scheme” (got to love that word) of the city of Waterford.
After dinner at a pub in a town somewhere between there and here — it was a long day — we arrived back in Dublin about 9:30 pm. It was a great day, too.
1We talked to a local man who knew all about rapeseed and told us that as a child the stuff was known only as weed called pushick (or something like that) only it was much smaller. Although the oil from the rapeseed has been used for several centuries, in recent years it has been grown in a much larger cultivar for the production of oil.
Splitting the Atom, Embracing the Greek,
Repeating the Milliken Oil Drop Experiment
Week Twelve (April 9-April 15):
From Haithabu Viking Settlement to Joyce's Martello Tower
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
Posted on July 6, 2012
We easily got back to the airport from the nearby hotel and returned the rental car right on time (always good when plans work). Emily and Kim were set to fly back to Dublin and I was headed to Hamburg for a meeting of folks interested in using the history of science in science instruction. Much of the adventure of traveling is in the journey, but in this case it was almost too easy: fly to Hamburg, train into the main station, buy tickets to Flensburg (on the border with Denmark), enjoy riding for several hours (and working on lesson plans, of course) — and then suddenly I’m there in Flensburg, Germany, which had been Flensborg, Denmark. It was early evening and I was on time.
A generally perfect travel day was potentially interrupted when I realized that I neglected to note the address of the hotel, Xenia. Travel sense kicked in at the train station. I took the first available bus to the city center where a telephone book revealed that I was a three-minute walk away from a charming guest house. Xenia is managed by a family of very friendly and embracing Greek-Germans — very embracing. When I thanked them in Greek — one of my few words in that language — I got several hugs from the matriarch, or perhaps she was just another hotel guest. Anyway, who doesn’t like hugs?
With some translation issues she told me I had to take a cab to meet-up with the others who had come for the meeting at a local restaurant. I could have walked there if only they had found a way to provide directions. Dinner was wonderful (a local lamb specialty made for Easter) with some good conversation. Douglas and I walked back to the hotel by way of the oldest pub — or is it a bar when not in the UK or Ireland? — and enjoyed a local beverage.
Tuesday started brilliantly, although not in a climatic sense, with a really nice breakfast at the hotel. In fact that day was a bit drab, but the events of the day were not. Peter arranged for one of his graduate students to pick us up and show us around, and that was a very nice experience. Much of time we spent talking about the interesting research model that Peter and his colleagues use. They recreate an exact replica of some historic experiment then use this device to reenact the experiment while comparing the results with those reported. This particular student has become an expert on the Millikan oil drop experiment and has even determined that the apparatus in the Museum of Science and Industry is the “original,” although it differs somewhat from the version at Cal Tech, where Milliken moved after Chicago. It was a fascinating conversation with a really enthusiastic and knowledgeable guy.
The day was very nice from a tourist perspective, too. We made what I thought would be a quick stop at Haithabu, a Viking settlement now preserved as the Wikinger Museum Haithabu. What we found there was a reconstructed Viking village and an amazing museum that helps to make sense of several centuries of habitation and trade. The original town occupied a position on a long fjord of sorts that cuts into the Jutland peninsula. Instead of sailing around the peninsula with the hazardous waters and lurking pirates of the straits, the Vikings figured out that they could eliminate the trip by water, replacing it with a 15km portage. Archaeological museums can be a bit dry, but this one used every technological trick possible to bring the past to light. We also stopped briefly at a castle, but we skipped the tour in favor of tea and cakes. Then it was back to Flensburg for dinner at a flammkukken place, which served large pizzas of various sorts on a very thin cracker-like base.
On Wednesday we took a tour of the lab where the historical instruments are kept, enjoyed a nice lunch on campus, and then settled down for a series of speeches delivered to an appreciative group from Germany and Denmark. I had to eat a quick dinner back at the Hotel (can’t pass up Greek food) then dash to the train station for the rush back to Hamburg. Since I stayed at the airport the night before, it was very easy just to walk to the terminal on Thursday for a quick flight to Dublin and the usual day-long experience of preparing lessons for Friday.
Friday morning's class was excellent as we brought the history of science to the 20th century. Afterwards I enjoyed lunch with Kim and Maurice at the “1838” faculty center. Maurice told me about an intriguing physics event to be held later that day to celebrate the 80th anniversary of “splitting the atom.” I am very pleased that I attended. The conveners did a very nice job blending art (readings and the songs of Tom Lehrer) with the science involved (Ernest Walton and John Cockcroft’s artificial disintegration of the nucleus of the atom). Brian Cathcart, who wrote the book Fly in the Cathedral, gave a presentation on how the news of the 14th of April 1932 was managed (or not so well managed) by Ernest Rutherford, who was the director of the Cavendish Labs at Cambridge. Professor Philip Walton, the son of Irish physicist Ernest Walton, told a wonderful story about how the boys at his school were given the day off when his father won the Nobel Prize by recounting that “somebody split something” and that’s why there was a free day from school.
Saturday was very pleasant, so Kim and I parked near the National Botanical Garden next to the Glasnevin Cemetery and enjoyed roaming through what passes for spring in Dublin. Also, it was “bee celebration day,” and it was hard not to be charmed by the gathering parade of kids, one of whom was dressed like a bee in the company of his slightly older brother dressed as Spiderman (I sense a theme). Later we took Emily into the city so that she could meet-up with friends, and then we stopped for dinner at the Ivy House (yet again). It has been fun to see how grown up Emily has become, going into the “big” city and home again all on her own. We might have been much more reluctant for her to do so if our city was London or Paris, but Dublin is just so accessible and quite safe.
On Sunday I prepared my version of the full Irish breakfast — rather, a very poor simulation of same — and Kim and I went into the city for another lecture on Joyce at the National Museum of Art, part of “one city one book.” After the talk we just kept driving south to Dun Laogharie and found Joyce’s Martello Tower in Sandycove north of Dalkey on the other side of Dublin Bay from where we live. This tower wasn’t open for tours and wasn’t terribly exciting, either. It was built by the British to look out for a potential Napoleonic invasion, which never came. Its real claim to fame was established when it played a starring role in the opening scene of Joyce’s Ulysses.
Easter Week Begins in Diverse Munich,
Ends with Surprise Snowfall over Salzburg.
Week Eleven (April 2-April 8):
Of Cathedrals, Palaces, Castles, Museums, and The Sound of Music
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
Filed May 3 and posted on June 15, 2012
The week started out in a rush since I was pushed to get caught up with lesson planning. Kim (along with Maurice from St. Pats) took a bus trip to Galway for a day-long mathematics education program put on by the students at NUI. The good news is that in early hours of the morning it is possible to drive into Dublin and back to the house in about 20 minutes (try that in London). But had her bus left even an hour later, the same trip could have taken considerably longer! I spent the rest of the day writing and reading, with Emily upstairs doing her school work — we hope.
The big event on Tuesday was a two-hour flight on Air Lingus to Munich. We dropped the rental car at its “home” and they took us to the airport (thus saving on parking). We passed through security so quickly that we had a good bit of time to roam the airport, but no matter. We arrived in Munich on time and easily found the train to the city. Within an hour we were standing at the Haupbanhof and found the Dolomite Hotel, where I had stayed at exactly the same date just a few years earlier.
We walked across town to the Marianplatz. The square was still filled with activity, but there would be much more the next day when the life-sized figures in the town hall tower performed their twice daily routine for the tourists. We finally had dinner at an interesting Uyghur restaurant not too far from the hotel. This restaurant would have seemed somewhat out of place in many cities, but Munich must be one of the most diverse places in Europe.
Wednesday was a very sunny day. We wandered down the main walking street, stopping in a huge toy store — much to Emily’s delight as she eyed the teddy bears in all shapes, sizes, and prices. We paused for the clock tower performance and found lunch at the open air market just beyond. It was fun to be in a city that I had visited by myself several times before.
We didn’t have a solid plan for the day but found the Residence of the Wittelsbach family, who were the long-time rules of Bavaria and beyond. After some debate we decided to take a tour. I am somewhat of the opinion that all castles, manor homes, and other stately mansions are much the same, but the Wittelsbach Residence was in a class by itself. We discovered room after room filled with paintings, furniture, and history, along with a grotto (I must look into building one of those) and a massive ballroom unlike any I had ever seen. Many of the rooms were bombed during WWII but have been painstakingly restored, even though the pre-war photographs told the tale of how much was lost. The church was only reopened in the past few years, but its rehabilitation was designed to show it as a casualty. There was no attempt to match the mosaics and grandeur of its former self, leaving just a brick shell.
Kim and Emily walked back to the train station for a cup of tea, while I found the small paleontological museum just north of the station. Its claim to fame is another archaeopteryx fossil — one of just 12 in the world — not quite as complete as the beautiful specimen in Berlin. When we were reunited we walked around town a bit more, then it was off to dinner at the Augustiner Keller, where we had a somewhat chilly outside meal in the beer garden. I did learn somewhere along the line that “keller” really just refers to the place where the beer is stored but not necessarily where it is consumed. Given all of the time I have spent in “keller-country” I would have thought I might have learned this earlier.
Grey skies greeted us on Thursday and never really disappeared for the rest of our visit, but no matter. We took the tram to the palace at Nymphenburg (commissioned in 1664 by Elector Ferdinand Maria, to celebrate the birth of his son, Maximilian Emanuel) but weren’t temped to take the tour, thinking that this surely would be additional royal excess. We did find a wonderful natural history museum in one of the side buildings and enjoyed that immensely, particularly the exhibit on birds of paradise from New Guinea.
The highlight of the day for me (but probably not for Kim and Emily) was the visit to the Deutches Museum on an island in the Isar River. Words can’t do this justice, nor did the three hours we spent there. It is huge, exhaustively complete (did we really need an exhibit on welding?), expansive, tiring, and utterly amazing. At one point we ended up in the subbasement among the mining exhibits, only to find ourselves in a coal mine, a salt mine, and an iron mine, all complete with equipment, manikins, and a boastful implication that if it is underground the Germans could get it out. Of course the same could be said for astronomy, physics, all sorts of agriculture and manufacturing, and aviation (although much of that collection has moved elsewhere since I was last in the museum). The day ended with dinner at the Hofbrau House, sharing a table with a mother and son team from Mexico and a pretzel the size of one’s head. I am looking forward to comparing the photo of me in my backpacking days with the one I took of Emily.
Good Friday wasn’t so good from a weather perspective but that couldn’t stop us. We easily found the car rental desk at the train station, took delivery of a brand new car (really, just about 17kms on it), and asked the GPS to take us to Dachau north of the city. Ordinarily it is good just to walk around and absorb places such as that, but we were encouraged to take a two-hour tour. The guide was both knowledgeable and amazingly forthcoming about the changing German attitude toward the war and the role the camps played in it. The rather drab and drizzly day reminded me of the last time I was there when I walked through the camp with a guy from the youth hostel whose grandfather had been in the camp — and survived.
Our next destination was the castle of Neuschwanstein built by King Ludwig (as he was bankrupting the country but just before he was found dead in a lake). Kim and Emily took the tour but I didn’t need to (and one side of the castle is shrouded in scaffolding because of some repairs). I took in the sights from the courtyard of the smaller Howenshwangau castle (where Ludwig’s mother lived) just across the valley and waited for Kim and Emily to return, which took much longer than I had planned because they missed the last bus down from the castle itself. Within minutes of leaving the castle site we were in Austria on the way to the charming town of Rutte with a quick view of the snow covered Alps in the distance. We had dinner at the Goldener Hirsch (Golden Deer) and ended our Good Friday in Bavaria.
After a nice breakfast and a quick walk around town, we drove through the mist and some snow back into Germany, cutting across close to Munich and returning to Salzburg where a Sound of Music tour awaited the next day, Easter Sunday. I made the quick decision to buy a Salzburg card and went into town almost immediately to see the Haus der Natur, a huge natural history museum and science center. In fact, in the two-and-a-half hours before it closed I only managed to see the museum part with just a peek into the science center. Their claim to be Austria’s largest such site would be hard to dispute. We had dinner at a very nice place with a most improbable name, the Happy Monkey.
We were all surprised on Easter to find that not only had spring failed to arrive but winter had returned; there were six inches of snow on the ground. Emily and Kim had a date with the von Trappe legacy, and I was off to make sure that I could justify having purchased my Salzburg card. I was a bit concerned that things might not be open on Easter but most certainly tourism trumped piety. It seemed that everything was open.
I enjoyed the Salzburg museum with a very well-organized exhibit on the myth and reality of the city and a fantastic display of religious art organized around themes such as Christ, Mary, etc. From the museum there was an underground link to the Panorama Museum nearby. Even the underground link itself was used for the display of Roman artifacts found there. The Panorama was built to house a circular painting of the city from the 1700s by J.M. Sattler (now lovingly restored), but the real highlight was an auxiliary display of materials relating to the von Trappe family and the various incarnations of The Sound of Music.
Next I wandered over to the main cathedral where the Easter mass was in full swing playing to a packed house. After a few minutes enveloped in the sounds of the mass, I walked across the square to the funicular and rode to the top of the hill and into the fortress that has guarded the city for centuries. The views of the snow-covered city was impressive, but so was the fortress itself. Many of the rooms were restored to a time hundreds of years ago with wood paneling, massive beams, and a real feeling of something ancient. Every window reveals a different view of the city.
At the bottom of the hill I bought a small watercolor of the city to add to my collection of similar images (it all started with a small oil painting of Venice in 1970). Next I was off to explore the “catacombs” associated with a nearby church and cemetery. Since the admission fee was included on the Salzburg card, I wasn't too disappointed, but it would be hard to call the few rooms caved into the hillside “catacombs.” I decided to revisit Mozart’s birth (1/27/1756) house (I was first there as a backpacker decades ago). The museum there runs from room to room and was surprisingly informative. I met Kim and Emily at the Sacher Hotel and found them dining on sacher torte (what else?) in the café. We headed back to Munich and found a place for dinner and arrived at our hotel located just a few minutes from the airport.
A Challenging Trip Back to Dublin
Leads All the Way to Finnegan's Wake.
Week Ten (March 26-April 1):
Peter Sheridan, Oscar Wilde, and this Amazing Irish Experience
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
Filed April 2 and posted on June 15, 2012
The NARST conference at Philadelphia was fine, although being back in the U.S. even briefly did break the spell a bit. Our presentations were very well received, and I was quite proud of the performance of current and former graduate students. It was very nice visiting with Michel, Joanne, and the University of Arkansas gang (I hosted 10 at dinner on Tuesday night), but I was very pleased to be headed back to Ireland on Wednesday night. The flight was uneventful but the connections in Philadelphia and London Heathrow were stressful. In both cases it seems that the arrival and departure gates were about as far apart as possible. This problem was compounded in London, where I had to go through passport control twice and security at least once more (although I was tired enough that it could have been twice)
I finished my grading and lesson planning late into the night on Thursday but was ready (and generally awake) for class on Friday morning. Unfortunately, the absence problem continues. I do wonder if the fact that students can pass having earned a 40 per cent and can get “high marks” with only an 85 is part of the problem. I do like the combination of philosophy and history of science, and I am very pleased to be working with these students, along with a chance to reconsider the nature of a course designed for an audience of science teachers.
March 26 notes from Kim:
The weekend was exquisite — sunny and 60 degrees! I met Enya's mom yesterday when she came to pick her up and she invited me to go walking in Phoenix Park Sunday morning while Emily joins Enya at the nearby riding stables. (Emily got to ride for free in replacement of some times when Enya couldn't go, even though Emily expected to pay 20 euro for the lesson/ride.) Enya goes there every Sunday morning to help out and really loves to ride. So I met up with Enya's parents and her brother. We started our walk at the Papal Cross, which when the Pope visited in 1979 more than one million people attended. Since then the church membership has plummeted, I'm told, especially due to the feeling of betrayal when the news of child abuse and cover-ups came out around 1990. We walked around an old British fort, then past some soccer games. Before the games started, we saw probably two dozen deer, even with antlers, on the soccer field.
You could tell that the town was almost giddy with the nice weather. Lots of people were out, even in our little High Park neighborhood. We had our windows open. Anyway, after we picked the girls up from riding, we went over to Enya's house for homemade onion soup. We sat outside on their deck and drank tea. It was so nice, and they are interesting to talk to, talking about Irish issues, comparing to U.S. etc. The dad (Justin) is English, a chemical engineer, who grew up in Cambridge and got his degree at Nottingham (I think he said in 1987). He now commutes to Manchester, staying in an apartment during the week and flying Ryan Air back on weekends. Susan, the mom, also has an engineering background, but now works as an independent tour guide, called on weekends to give tours to places like New Grange to German tourists (she speaks several languages). It was so nice to be in somebody's home today, and it was extra nice because of the exquisite weather. I hear that tomorrow should be the same. But they told me not to expect that this is the norm, and that the weather just keeps getting warmer! They said it will cool down again and that April is often rainy.
On Friday night we had tickets from Des to see a one-man show called 47 Roses at his country club in Howth. We had a quick meal of fish and chips and arrived at the club on time (where we may have reduced the average age just a bit). The author Peter Sheridan gave a wonderful performance as pointed out by the description and review that I lifted from a website:
Peter Sheridan conjures up the voices, sights and songs of his 1960s childhood in Dublin, in a powerful coming-of-age story, peopled with deliciously eccentric characters and wonderfully bizarre incidents. By turns, brilliantly funny and intensely moving, this remarkable performance packs a considerable punch — a cultural gem.
'Peter Sheridan has remade the lost world of sixties Dublin in this knock-out memoir, a gently powerful act of memory and love.’ — Sebastian Barry
'. . . part memoir, part bildungsroman (OK I had to look this up – it means a coming of age story), part detective story.' — Peter Crawley, The Irish Times
'Sheridan tells the story of an inner-city Dublin life in the Fifties and Sixties with objectivity, humour, human insight . . . and a mastery of language' — Emer O'Kelly, Sunday Independent
Saturday, Kim and I when out to an unassuming little restaurant in Clontarf (Bram’s Restaurant) and had the most amazing Irish breakfast yet. Everything was cooked perfectly and, even better, Emily received the certificate as part of her work on the play at Mt. Temple. We walked a bit through the park and later drove out to Trim to see the huge Anglo-Norman castle there. The tour was a bit rushed but it was interesting to see one of the best preserved castle’s in the country from that period.
We continued our literary pursuits by going to another play, this one at a tiny theatre upstairs from a pub. Two actors shared details of the life and accomplishments of Oscar Wilde, who when asked at U.S. immigration if he had anything to declare, confidently stated “nothing but my talent.” We were joined by Enya’s parents and aunt whom we followed back to their house to share impressions of each other’s country.
Emily and I started the day at IKEA, and although the breakfast didn’t compare with the one at Bram’s, it was quite good. In the afternoon Kim and I drove into Dublin and found a parking place right across from Number Twenty-Nine, a fully restored Georgian House near Merrion Square which we had heard about only the night before. It is surprising that there is anything left to see in the city but it continues to surprise.
The real purpose of our trip was to attend the first lecture in support of “One City One Book,” which features Dubliners by James Joyce. The lecturer was not particularly dynamic and a single image graced the screen for almost an hour, but it was useful to hear an overview of each of the books that have made Joyce an international sensation. In order of appearance and increasing incoherence are Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegan’s Wake. The presenter, a major Joyce expert, didn’t give us much hope that we would ever understand the Wake. I found myself questioning if, in the final analysis, the book should be considered a work of genius or madness. We ate at Beshoff’s (this time on O’Connor Street) and found ourselves talking about how little time remains of this amazing Irish experience.
In Berlin with the Other Fulbrighters,
East Meets West in the Realm of Memory.
Week Nine (March 19-March 25):
Of Dinosaurs, Ancient Greece, and the Ever-Present Wall
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
Filed April 1 and posted on May 30, 2012
First thing Monday morning after a huge breakfast we were bussed over to the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (the old Congress Hall) in West Berlin — OK, now it is the western side of the city — for the opening ceremony to the Fulbright events. There were several musical performances and much speechmaking (a feature of the week) in a highly significant venue both architecturally and politically. The hall was originally built at its high ground location so that it could be seen from East Berlin, not far away but on the other side of the Wall.
After the opening, and because there was no way I needed to consume what promised to be another hefty meal, I walked through the park where the Hall is located, passed through the Brandenburg Gate, and stepped onto Unter den Linden, the former Paris-like boulevard. During the Communist era the shops on Unter den Linden offered little to buy. Even as I walked across the black stone border on the pavement (all that remains of the Wall) I was struck by how much things have changed since I was last there in 1977. Then, on either side of the Wall, it was impossible to get close to the Gate and impossible to pass through it.
I roamed through the campus of Humboldt University and on to the museum island, site of several amazing museums. My goal was the Pergamon Museum, which has not only a world class collection of objects from Asia Minor and the Middle East, but also whole buildings restored within the museum itself. The namesake of the museum is one entire face and stairway of the main temple from the ancient Greek city of Pergamon, now Bergamo in W. Turkey. I remember seeing this museum years ago but had an even more recent encounter during the summer of 2011 when Michel and I drove from Istanbul as far as Bergamo and actually walked through the extensive ruins of Pergamon (minus the temple, of course). The large model on display in the museum in Germany helped me to make sense of the ruins. At some point I will have to add photos of the model to the picture from the previous summer. The other two treasures in the Pergamon are the main procession way and huge gates from Babylon and the entire face of a building from Miletus (also in Asia Minor). Both sites are now on my “to visit” list.
After several hours at the museum I returned to the hotel to attend a panel discussion on the role of Fulbright Fellows in their host institutions. The variety of experiences was interesting but a bit hard to generalize or apply. The evening event was fascinating because of its location in the Foreign Ministry and the attendant security, the variety of high powered speakers (many challenging my very limited grasp of German), and the amazing reception that followed.
On Tuesday I left the hotel early to visit the Natural History Museum to see its two treasures, the world’s largest mounted dinosaur and the best preserved specimen of a feathered dinosaur. Both were amazing but even more incredible was the new storage area for thousands of jars of preserved specimens. This huge collection is now housed in a massive glass-walled cube within an even larger darkened room inside the museum. It was very impressive from a display perspective and, I would hope, from a scientific perspective as well.
Later, I was off to the greeting for the entire Fulbright group at the Red Town Hall — they reminded us several times that the name was linked to its color, not its formal function in the communist regime — in its formal reception room. We had a great talk from a young politician who is the chief of staff for one of the major players in the federal government. He addressed a number of issues about Germany and then fielded questions from the group. I suspect that we will hear more from him in the future. I enjoyed a nice lunch with a chemistry professor from Missouri, then I was off to wander the city a bit more to see one of the many art museums.
I attended morning sessions on Wednesday for discussions about student projects. Later, with another Fulbrighter from Ireland, I toured the underground bunkers. We were disappointed to miss the tour in English but were rewarded with a fantastic stretch of the Wall, preserved and interpreted in a very interesting and compelling fashion. There was even a section restored to its former in-glorious state. Across the street stood a museum in a tower, allowing visitors to look down upon and over the Wall. They put sand in the area between the inner and outer walls to show footprints, which represented someone who tried to escape when the Wall was a real barrier between East and West, not just the memorial it has now become. Later in the afternoon, I visited the Bode Museum and then returned to the hotel for another amazing dinner before retiring to my room to continue work on the lecture I would be delivering on Friday.
Much of Thursday was consumed with the flight from Berlin to Dublin, but I arrived on time and met up with Kim, Emily, and Will for a wonderful dinner at the Sea Bank Bistro restaurant in Malahide. I was sorry to miss much of Will’s visit, but he seemed to have a good time. Friday, Kim dropped Will at the airport and delivered me at Dublin City University in time for breakfast at the nursing school. I worked through the afternoon and was caught-up enough to have a very nice visit and dinner at the Ivy House with Jacob and Michelle Hayward, who were traveling for a week in Ireland on their spring vacation. Saturday morning came early, and I was back to the airport for the flight to Philadelphia — great visit with Dad who came to airport to meet me — and on to Indianapolis for the annual conference of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching.
Since the family was divided geographically for much of this week, here are some notes from Kim, who remained in Dublin with Will:
We just got back from "town," having been in search of a restaurant that serves corned beef and 'traditional' Irish food. We went to Gallagher's Boxty Restaurant for their early bird specials. Will liked the corned beef but said it was a little gristly. I read that in the past corned beef was eaten more by the wealthy British-Irish who had cattle, not the poorer folks who had pigs. As we had noticed before, the traditional Irish meal is more 'bacon' and cabbage. So now Will has tried both. We went in late in the afternoon after Emily was done with school and had just enough time to see the bog bodies at the National Museum and walk around there a bit. Will found them pretty interesting and read the panels.
Yesterday, I drove Will to Trim Castle. It's a very pretty setting by the River Boyne, and the tour is very interesting. Then over to New Grange, but I got messed up a bit with the diverted road, and then realized the GPS was taking me to the actual site, not the visitors center where one needed to enter. I asked the guy at the site if we could just join the tour since we had the Heritage passes and he said no, and that it was the last tour of the day. Will got to see it at least, and thought it was pretty cool to all of a sudden see that as we were driving by. For him, I know it was enough just to see it.
Last night, Emily walked Will up to our local "Shay's Costcutter" to get some cream for the mustard sauce and I made the loin of bacon. That is really delicious and everyone liked it. Emily bought Will a Lion Bar to try!
Tomorrow, I plan to take Will to the Kilmainham Gaol and then on to Guinness Storehouse (will drive during midday hours).
E D I T O R ' S N O T E :
Look for Bill's next dispatch soon. We've got several more to go before we sleep. If you'd like to receive e-mail notices of each new Letter from Ireland, just drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll add you to our update list. We promise not to share your e-mail address with anyone.
The Organized Chaos of St. Pat's Day
Gives Way to Somber Moments in Berlin.
Week Eight (March 12-March 18):
"Improbably Frequency" and a Message about Being Irish
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
Filed on March 22 and posted on May 30, 2012
With several trips coming up (Berlin and Indianapolis), much of the time this week was devoted to getting ready for papers to give and several classes to teach. Kurt and company returned from their whirlwind tour of the entire country of Ireland (in five days) and met us for dinner at the Ivy House on Monday. We had a great visit, but I returned home a bit early to do what I did for much of the week – alternated between writing papers, editing others for the NARST conference, and constructing lessons on the history of science.
Nephew Matt stayed with us for another day, and it was clear that he and Emily had a very nice time together with a tour into the city for just the two of them. The only real break during the week was an afternoon trip into Dublin on Wednesday with Kim for dinner (O’Neills Pub) and to see an interesting musical farce featuring Irish politics and the time warping possibilities of Edwin Schrodinger, who was resident in Ireland during WWII. Fortunately, by this point Kim and I have learned enough about the recent history of Ireland to find “Improbably Frequency” quite funny (but we’re sure that we missed much, too). One message that came through quite clearly is that the Irish aren’t British and don’t want to be confused in that fashion. Given the longer term history of the place, who can blame them?
Friday morning and my three-hour class came on schedule. I was ready to launch into some new territory: a formal overview of the history of science. My plans to address the roots of science through the classical period were doomed by some good class discussion and my fascination with all things historical. So, it seems that the classical period will have to wait a week.
The weekend was filled with comings and goings. Will arrived on March 17, just in time to go with us into the organized chaos of St. Patrick’s Day. A reported half-a-million folks clogged the streets of Dublin wearing all manner of odd hats, glasses, and myriad combinations of face paints in the colors of the Irish flag. Will was exhausted after his Atlantic odyssey, so he and I returned home while Emily met friends, and Kim was off to discover some Irish folk dancing. By the evening Will had rallied a bit, and the four of us found a pub (Cat???) with an open table, not a possibility at Ivy House, where folks had already settled-in to watch some televised sporting match while preparing to celebrate their way to Sunday. I had to be on a flight to Berlin for the Fulbright meeting at 5:45 a.m., so getting some rest (even a little) became a high priority.
As Kim and I made our way through the pre-pre dawn to the airport, we were both surprised by the incredible number of vehicles (all taxis, it seemed) darting here and there. Foolishly I thought that maybe folks were just getting an early start, but in retrospect it was far more likely that they were just returning home from whatever reverie St. Pat’s Day requires. The plane to Frankfurt was packed with folks — many heading back to the U.S. — showing unmistakable signs of having fully committed themselves to honoring St. Pat’s for the entire previous night.
I arrived in Berlin without a problem and enjoyed the ride from Teagel airport in the NW corner of the city to the Park Hotel at Alexander Platz in former East Berlin. On the way we passed bits of the wall lined up in a storage lot and drove past the Brandenburg Gate, something that was not possible on my last trip to the city in 1977. The hotel room featured a great view looking toward the eastern part of the city. I could see the wide boulevards that the DDR needed for its military parades and the Soviet-style architecture, drab but presumably utilitarian.
The Fulbright package included a two-hour tour of the Cold War elements of the city, including a visit to a long stretch of the Wall still standing by the River Spree and now used as an art gallery of sorts with a variety of anti-fascist paintings. The highlight of the tour was a visit to the Check Point Charlie gatehouse (still sitting the middle of the road) where I crossed between West and East decades ago. Of course the Wall is gone, but there is still a difference in appearance between what was West and what was East. As I walked the same path I took over 30 years past, a twinge of memory stirred, especially when I stepped across the marker indicating where the wall once stood. My first view of East Berlin in ’77 showed cracked streets and broken buildings still not repaired from WWII. Looking left after crossing this time, I noticed a building under construction or repair, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was that same building I saw all those years ago.
I left the bus tour at its end and walked up to the Topography of Terror outdoor museum, which features a section of the Wall and a center documenting the actions of the National Socialists (never called the Nazis it seems) in a building that once stood on the site (along with Hitler’s Bunker I suspect but that was not mentioned). We had a wonderful dinner at the Hotel (one of many) with opportunities to meet many of the almost 500 people who had come to Berlin for the celebration of “60 Years of German-American Exchange and Dialogue” with Fulbright.
Between Classes We Find Time
To Explore the North and Wild Ruins.
Week Seven (March 5-March 11):
Foggy Cliffs, a Rope Bridge, and Remote Burial Mounds
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
Filed March 13 and posted on May 18, 2012
Let’s start with a few observations about life in Ireland.
For weeks I have noted that new drivers must emblazon their car with a huge letter “L” pasted on the windshield (or windscreen if you prefer). Yet, someone can get off a plane not having slept for hours, rent a car, and drive on the unfamiliar side of the road, shifting with the wrong hand. One wonders if it wouldn’t make some sense to require us to acknowledge our status so that the locals would know to get off the road as we approach.
One pattern I have noticed from my coming and going at Dublin City University is that the largest aggregation of smokers is found just outside the nursing building. For all sorts of reasons this seems strange. Are these nursing students who haven’t yet taken the course on lung cancer, or are these folks encouraged to smoke there as future patients for those inside learning to be nurses? I will probably never know.
Today was day #3 of the Dublin Pass, and we were determined to get the most out of it. Actually, by the time Sunday was over, we had already paid for it. No matter, Kim and I boldly set out for the Monument of the Uprising across the street from the Dublin Writer’s Museum at Parnell Square (wow these folks have produced some amazing authors; given the number of bookstores, Dublin has also produced a legion of readers!) A game I like to play at some museums is to see which new and interesting factoid I can learn. In the case of the writer’s museum we learned that Joyce set Ulysses on the day in June when he left Ireland never to return. This must have been a powerful moment in time for Joyce since the entire book takes place on just that single day.
We quickly toured the Dublin City Hall Museum and the Post Office Museum. The General Post Office is where the revolution began that eventually freed Ireland from British rule in the 1920s. Of course we stopped into a few bookstores, enjoyed another free coffee at Bewley’s (it’s on the pass), and arrived at home having gotten as much value from the Dublin pass as was humanly possible.
Tuesday I was back on campus to use the library and prepare for my class — if the students only knew just how much it takes to give an engaging three-hour lecture, they might reconsider their career choice. I tried the breakfast at the nursing school for the first time. Of course this meant maneuvering through the haze emanating from the smokers corner outside. Not too much of a sacrifice for the joys of large Irish sausages and some very nice tea. I ran into a colleague who asked if I might teach her masters class in science education later in the week (actually the next day). I was happy to oblige. Today is Dad’s 90th birthday, and while I was sorry not to be there with him, we had a nice Skype conversation, with both of us frequently commenting that the technology is both amazing and mysterious.
On Wednesday Kim and I met with Francesca at a wonderful little lunch place hidden in a residential neighborhood that she recommended. In fact, tucked inside a narrow one-way street were the restaurant, salon, hardware store, and perhaps another merchant or two. This is one of the most pleasant elements of life in Dublin; it is quite possible to live rich and full lives without owning a car — as long as one’s legs hold out. Later in the afternoon I met the students (all three of them) who are in the master’s degree program in science education. Even as I pondered how it is possible to run a degree program for three individuals, I must confess I enjoyed the opportunity to talk through the nature of science in a relaxed fashion in a 2+ hour block of time. This experience is not as profitable to the students as a full semester course in NOS (Nature of Science), but I did come away from the class thinking that this was far better than doing nothing (which is often the case).
On Thursday Kurt and family arrived for a very quick visit. Kim was the tour guide in Dublin while I did some writing. After another energetic three-hour class on Friday, Emily, Kim and I drove to Northern Ireland to meet up with Kurt et al. The border is quite close to Dublin. In fact, we were across the border without even knowing it since there is no sign, only a note that “all distances and speeds are measured in miles.” We fought some traffic in Belfast and then motored to the coast, which was just breathtaking. Huge waves, purple skies, puffy clouds, and sheep in all colors and sizes. We met up with Kurt and gang for dinner, then found our B&B.
Kurt and clan headed off for their own wild ride through Ireland, but for us Saturday morning started with a trip to the Carrick-a-Rede (rock in the road) rope bridge. This is now a National Trust property featuring a rope bridge that fishermen used to reach the tiny island. Emily was quite the drama queen as we crossed the bridge, but the sheer drop to the sea below was inspiring. Next we visited the Giant’s Causeway, an amazing geological phenomenon with hundreds of six-sided columns of basalt, most exposed at the top. The sun flirted with us, but with some careful picture-taking, it looked like a glorious day.
We moved on to the small town of Derry (Londonderry), the scene of some horrible fighting during the “troubles” in the 1970s. This attractive town is one of the only fully walled cities in Europe and seems to have recovered from its sad place in history. The day ended with a visit to Inch Island and an Iron Age fort on a hill overlooking the valley. We found a place to stay back in the Republic in Ballybofey, at Jackson’s Hotel. Nice place; even though we weren’t invited to the wedding reception there, we certainly heard some of the commotion for much of the night.
Sunday morning featured a great breakfast at the hotel and a nice ride toward the sea and the highest cliffs in Europe (according to some reports). We wouldn’t know because it was quite foggy, but Kim found a great sweater jacket at a store on the way. The road toward our home in Dublin led past Donegal with a great detour to see the Stone Age tombs at Carrowmoor. While there we chatted with some folks who knew the area and they recommended that we stop at another even more remote site near Boyle called Carrowkeel. The place was amazing; just the road up the side of the mountain would have been memorable enough, but the sight of the burial mounds dotting the top of the hill was beyond belief. The three of us were completely alone with the magnificent views to the valley below attended only the spirits of those who built and later occupied the now-vacant passage tombs.
We stopped for dinner at a small town between Sligo and Dublin and arrived home by nine in the evening. Every time we discover some interesting new corner of Ireland we realize how much more there is to see — but we do have two months left.
State, Religion, and School Cross Paths
On the Road to 'High Stakes' Testing.
Week Six (February 27-March 4):
The Quest to "Do" Dublin Moves Ahead Briskly
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
Filed March 6 and posted on March 29, 2012
The school scene here in Ireland is interesting since there are some significant differences to report. One of the major distinctions is state support of parochial schools. There are private schools, too, but the vast majority of kids seem to go either to a public religious school or a public non-religious school. In the morning when we take Emily to Mount Temple the distinction and the ratio are clear (in a highly unscientific measure). The streets are filled with school-age kids moving in every direction toward their respective academies. It seems quite clear that the students wearing uniforms are in the majority. Apparently, school uniforms are a sure sign of parochial school attendance, so we might infer that a higher percentage of students (at least in our neighborhood) attend such schools.
When we applied for Emily to go to Mt Temple, we were required to fill out an application which included our religious affiliation (or at least our religious leaning). Apparently that factored into the admission decision. So, Emily goes to a state-supported, non-religious-orientated secondary school that, for some reason, preferentially enrolls Protestants. To her great disappointment, she doesn’t have to wear a uniform, thus making her morning wardrobe decision more difficult than it might be otherwise!
Even at this point I don’t have the clearest vision of schooling in Ireland, but it seems that there is much in common between the U.S. and here until the secondary school. The “leaving” tests are a big deal. Students prepare for them by taking a Junior Cert Exam as they exit the junior high (14-15 age groups). The first year of high school is called the transition year, a decidedly low pressure experience designed to get students ready for their final two years and the very high stakes Leaving Certification program and associated test to come. The maximum value that students earn on the “Leaving Certification Exam” is 600 points. Many professional post-secondary programs require scores quite close to this level.
So, for instance, if a student wants to become a doctor, their fate is somewhat sealed if they fail to earn those precious 600 points. A colleague told us of an interesting bit of reverse pressure that may occur if a student with an interest in the arts, for example, scores near the top. Some might advise the student to pursue a career like medicine so that they don’t “waste” their high score. Fascinating. . . . One would think that education officials might have studied this situation. We also learned that students who don’t do well on their “Leaving Cert” can attend a continuation college following secondary school to try again. Apparently, students can’t just take the test again as our students do with the SAT and ACT. So, the leaving certification really does define a “high stakes” test environment.
As with most work weeks, much of my time was spent preparing for my three-hour class each Friday (inevitably over-preparing) and attending to countless emails related to affairs back at the U of Arkansas. (I find this point somewhat intriguing because, of course, there is no way that most folks with whom I interact would have any reason to know that I am many time zones away). Perhaps I should open a call center for prospective UA graduate students here in Ireland. Many days that is what I feel I am doing.
Today I enjoyed an interesting cultural experience by getting my hair cut by “Pat” of “Pat’s Barber Shop” on the High Street, a two-minute walk from the house. Not only did Pat share with me his view of America and his position on whether or not we should pay the new household rubbish tax (he says no) but I also learned that our tiny neighborhood is called Whitehall.
The course I am developing here at Dublin City University focuses on a number of topics related to the history of science, nature of science, and the associated science, technology and society issues. Even repackaging the nature of science material has been an interesting exercise, but I am really earning my keep by developing the content for the remainder of the class. Having the time to read and consider what that content should be has been a wonderful privilege, and reading about a dozen books on the history of science in the past few weeks has been a joy, but how all of this material gets packaged into the three-week “history module” will be a distinct challenge.
So, the week disappeared with a meeting to plan my work with the CASTeL team, particularly the big science teacher meeting to take place in June, along with a day trip with Kim (on Feb 29) to walk through the former Guinness estate of Farmleigh near Phoenix Park, and a very pleasant afternoon visiting the National Museum of Decorative Arts & History in the old British army barracks on the west side of Dublin. Lunch on Thursday with Paul, a physicist turned science educator, was very pleasant. He and I explored a number of projects that might be worth pursuing and discussed several of the observations I have made regarding science teacher education at DCU.
The weekend was set aside to “do” Dublin with Kim and Emily. The individual sites can be quite expensive, ranging around 7 euro each. Kim purchased three-day Dublin passes for us (about 55 euro each) and, with a degree of planning approaching military precision, we started Saturday by visiting a recreation of the Jeannie Johnston, one of the many “famine” ships that took countless Irish peasants to the U.S. and Canada starting in 1846. We then took a quick look at the wax museum (with a curious science center on the top floor) before relaxing at Bewley’s Coffee Shop on Grafton Street, also on the Dublin Pass.
The next stop was Dublinia, a nicely done series of recreations — Viking Dublin on the ground floor, Medieval Dublin next up, followed by an exhibit on how archaeology works. Dublinia is inside an old church with access to the tower for some nice views of the city. Through a connecting arch that looks a bit like the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, we traveled across the street to Christ Church, the most complete medieval church in Dublin — formally inside the old city walls — and final resting place of the Viking ruler Strongbow. [That night when we arrived at home we heard news that someone earlier in the day had stolen a reliquary containing the heart of a saint]. Organ practice added a very pleasurable element of ambiance to the visit. Just down the street is St. Patrick’s Cathedral, also on the Dublin pass, so we ventured outside the long-gone old city walls to see the church, once the ecclesiastical home of Jonathan Swift. His memorial there is joined by one to the scientist Robert Boyle.
It has long been known that there is a direct correlation between churches and pubs in most cities, and Dublin is no exception, so we felt compelled to visit the other side of this equation with a tour of the Jameson Distillery. The distillery is now just a visitor site with actual production having moved out of town years ago. We learned that whiskey had its origins in Ireland millennia ago and that triple distilling is better than single, a bit of knowledge that made no difference to me — whiskey has a horrible taste, and I can’t imagine why anyone would waste time and money on it. For the price necessary to acquire even a low-end bottle of the stuff I could buy a book!
Kim and I exhausted Emily, so she took the bus home. We, on the other hand, were off for the Literary Pub Crawl. First stop was the Duke Pub. Two highly spirited actors told stories about famous writers, gave readings from the works and letters of Joyce, Shaw, Yates, Synge, Goldsmith (who actually wrote two of the Mother Goose tales, Jack and Jill), and Oscar Wilde, who is reputed to have said, when asked by a U.S. customs official if he had anything to declare, simply replied, “Nothing but my genius!” We finally arrived home late, having gotten good value from the first day of the three-day Dublin Pass.
Sunday morning, Day No. 2 of the Dublin Pass, found us at the zoo on a chilly but very sunny morning. The zoo is one of the oldest in Europe. Even though it has recently been expanded with a wonderful African Plains exhibit, the zoo has saved and reused many of their historic buildings. The animal collection is fairly large and diverse but, with the exception of a few species that are part of the international species survival plan, there are no particularly unusual creatures. One of the keepers told us, however, that a new pride of lions is due to arrive at the end of the month. (That should be a sight to see, particularly if the lions arrive unescorted.)
Glasnevin, the huge Dublin cemetery, is close to the zoo, so we stopped in for a quick visit (always a good policy with a cemetery) to see the memorial to Daniel O’Connell and pay our respects to the one million other folks buried there. We also visited the new and somewhat odd museum that takes visitors “underground” for a look at the cemetery from that angle. I am not sure I needed to know that the cemetery formally had a problem with grave robbers or poor drainage. The theater was perhaps the most unusual aspect with the back of its tiered seats formed from the sides of coffins. I wonder how that would go over at the local multiplex for zombie films? The final stop of the day was at the Guinness brewery for an exhaustive tour of the manufacturing process and an amazing panoramic view of the city from the Gravity Bar that protrudes several stories above the old brew house. Unlike the whiskey, a Guinness Stout is quite drinkable, but I still find myself asking why?
Our day ended with dinner at the “Church.” This restaurant is very much in keeping with our theme of religion and alcohol, since this eatery is built inside a several-hundred-year-old church, thus serving a dose of religion in surroundings tempered by an occasional drink from the massive bar that now runs down what was the central aisle of the church.
A Season of Intellectual Freedom Opens
Fresh Insights into the Nature of Science.
Week Five (February 20-26):
Planting Flowers and Clover to Welcome the Irish Spring
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
Filed February 28 and posted on March 29, 2012
Emily finally returned to school at Mount Temple. After three weeks on her own (with us) I am sure she was pleased to be doing something with friends again. Although we haven’t heard much from her about the on-line classes she is taking to maintain her AP standing at home, we are very proud that she seems to be handling both the Irish and American (at a distance) education systems well. Kim has decided to sit in on Maurice’s history of math class at St. Patrick’s College, and that worked out well since I was invited to chat with the folks there about their various science education projects.
I met again with Clonia Murphy and several of her colleagues for tea and a conversation about how their trans-European project to engage teachers in inquiry teaching has worked out over the past few years. St. Pats is a primary teacher education site allied with Dublin City University (DCU). They are engaged in the process of changing from a three-year to four-year undergraduate teacher education program. This change is due in part to the fact that the education ministry wants better educated teachers and in part because there is such a glut of teachers in Ireland. Perhaps making it a bit more difficult to earn a teaching credential might calm things down somewhat in terms of supply and demand.
The number of faculty with interests in science education on the DCU and St. Pats campuses is impressive. Collectively this could be one of the major sites for science education in Europe. Unfortunately, interest and expertise is scattered over two campuses and several departments, so this potential will be hard to realize, although the umbrella organization of CASTel (Center for the Advancement of Science Teaching and Learning) does what it can.
On Tuesday I gave a speech to one of the science classes at St. Pats on Darwin and Evolution (no surprise there) in honor of Darwin Day. My speech was quickly followed by more planning for the guest lecture I was invited to give on the DCU campus in a class on “knowledge production in science.” The lecture is for a graduate — or post-graduate as they say here — seminar on the philosophy of education. Another route to earn a teaching credential is the evening program offered to more experienced students, some of whom are teaching while they work on the credential, and some of whom are interested in changing careers. What is interesting but not surprising are several very useful elements in the undergraduate program and other useful bits in the graduate program. Neither program, however, seems to inform the other.
Francesca recommended a film to me that was premiering as part of the Dublin International Film festival, so Kim and I went into the city on Thursday afternoon to see it. Of course, we packed in a good bit more, including a tour of Dublin Castle — or the grand building that stands on what was the site of the original castle — and a visit to Marsh’s Library, founded in the 1600s by one of the Bishops of Dublin. The director (called the keeper of the library) allowed me to take some photos and took the time to tell us about the nature of the collection. I was briefly disappointed to find that they don’t have any Darwin in the collection (the library is much older than that) but they do have some treasures in the history of medicine and early science, including several copies of Principia not on display.
The film, Wonderhouse, was a quasi-documentary in that the director used narrative from various scientists to provide some context for the interesting visual narrative in which a young girl walks from room to room and experiences various aspects of science (and science teaching). In parts it was a bit too experimental, but the quotes from the scientists and the overall cinematography were very effective. The director/writer was there along with some of the actors in a packed house of film buffs, so it was an interesting evening. We finally found dinner in a fish and chips place that was moments from closing —which, it turns out, it a great time to get huge portions.
On Friday, I met with my students in Week No. 3 of the history and philosophy of science tapestry that I am weaving weekly. The students are as good as I have had. Many seem quite interested in the topic and the fact that I could actually make three hours disappear each Friday morning. Having the time to do the background reading and thinking to reconceptualize the topic of the nature of science while adding it to the history part has been exhilarating. I am still immensely surprised to find that there are still nuances to the nature of science worth exploring. Many days I read, write, and plan the curriculum at the house, then walk to the university to use the library. It is very likely I won’t have this much intellectual freedom any time soon. On Friday evening Emily went to a friend’s house for her first Irish sleepover — probably much like a U.S. sleepover since teenage girls are involved.
In keeping with our master plan to see all of Ireland, Kim and I drove south of Dublin on Saturday to visit the extraordinarily quaint town of Ennikerry in the Wicklow Mountains (or nice hills at least). We stopped at the Powerscourt Estate and the Powerscourt waterfall before enjoying a nice lunch outside near the historic site of Glendalough. Glendalough (glen-da-lock) is one of the top tourist sites in Ireland. It's easy to see why. The ancient monastery rests in a beautiful area near two lakes. It was founded in the 800s by Kevin, who apparently wanted to be alone to meditate. As luck would have it, he picked such a gorgeous area that others soon arrived and a small community sprang up there. No word on whether Kevin was able to capitalize on any of this by opening a B&B or whether he just moved farther up the valley. On the way back home — yes, it feels like home — we stopped at the Ivy House Pub and Restaurant in Dublin. Several of the other Fulbright folks have adopted the Ivy House as their own, but we didn’t see them. We did see a nice salmon and salad that quickly disappeared.
After our usual Sunday breakfast at IKEA — eating there is getting a bit old but the price is still fantastic — we drove through Phoenix Park, apparently the largest enclosed city park in Europe, which is now celebrating its 350th anniversary. From there we made our way into Dublin City to see if we could find a free parking place. We were successful, so Chapters Bookstore, featuring a great combination of new and used books, got the money we might have spent on the bus. OK, it wouldn’t have mattered about the bus. I would have bought books anyway.
Life here has become (perhaps) somewhat too pleasant. Last week Emily bought a kit to grow clover — it seems there is not enough of it already in Ireland — and that seemed like it could be fun for her. However, at Powerscourt Kim purchased half a dozen flowers to plant in our tiny front garden in spite of my reminder that we don’t really live here — we’re just visiting for a long time. I lost the argument. The flowers look good as winter, or what seemed to be winter, changes daily into an Irish spring.
Following Country Backroads
Into the Heart of Ireland
A Reverence for Books also Inspires a Visit to the Book of Kells
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
Filed February 19 and posted on February 29, 2012
Our evolving plan is to take several 2-3 day trips out of town to see Ireland in bits and pieces. Since Emily still had a week of vacation, we left Dublin and drove down the motorway and through the countryside to the Rock of Cashel. Even with a somewhat grey sky, the castle that became a cathedral perched on a rock in the middle of the town of Cashel was impressive. The ancient abbey below provided a very nice backdrop for our first real road trip.
The next stop was the Dingle Peninsula about 3 hours farther away. We arrived at sunset at a gorgeous B&B (a boutique hotel, really) called the Greenmount at the edge of town. The owner recommended the Half Door restaurant a short walk into town. Even the “set” menu was expensive, but well worth it (somehow spending euro on a debit card is not like spending real money). Emily had the salmon, Kim the cod, while I enjoyed a wonderful lamb shank (inevitable I suppose; the hankering for lamb strengthened as we drove for miles down the peninsula past fields of sheep).
Monday morning began with a full Irish breakfast (which we now know comes not with baked beans but with black and white pudding – don’t ask) and a beautiful sun reflecting off the green hills and the bay. The sun didn’t last, but the leaden sky, mist, and sea created some nice photo opportunities as we visited an ancient beehive hut and a ruined church near where the land and ocean meet. After dropping Emily at the hotel so that she could work on her assignments, Kim and I wandered around town (I was on the quest for cold pills). For dinner we found the John Benny’s Pub to be a nice place for a meal and some local color. It was interesting to note that even in the middle of the low season there were a fair number of intrepid tourists (some who purposely decided to travel at this time of year).
On Tuesday we drove the peninsula road again in somewhat better weather and found even more interesting sites than the previous day, including the site of a small monastic community from the 800s down a narrow country lane. On the way out of town I stopped in the hometown (and site of the retirement) of Tom Crean, veteran of three trips to Antarctica and hero of the Shackleton expedition. When Crean finally was ready to hang up his snow shoes, he opened a pub called the South Pole Inn that is still in business.
With a few hours of daylight remaining, we went south to Killarney and toured Muckross House at edge of Killarney National Park. The house and park have a very interesting history, well told by an enthusiastic guide. We had dinner (pizza and chicken) at a little place on the main street of Mallow and then a somewhat harrowing drive on tiny dark roads to reach the motorway and back to Dublin. Later when I looked at the map I realized that I must have been in the train station in Mellow many years ago on my only previous trip to Ireland — it’s a major junction for several train lines – my main mode of transportation in the those wonderful backpacking days.
The next few days Emily was busy with her long distance school work. I continued with a bunch of UA issues (I’ll bet that most folks don’t even realize that I am not even in the U.S. and responding to their emails at 1 a.m. as the UA server labels them). On Friday I taught Class #2 of my history of science, nature of science, science issues class — it is a daunting prospect to put all of those topics together, but I am very much enjoying the planning and reading that goes with the task of creating a new course. After a one hour lunch break with Kim and Maurice, a math educator from St. Pats who has decided to sit in on the class, I was back in action giving a lecture to the physics department summarizing what science professors need to know (at least in my opinion) about the nature of science. I had a surprisingly good crowd for a Friday afternoon, probably because Kim made cookies!
Saturday February 18th was an action packed day in the city. It still seems a bit distant only because it requires a bus trip — on a double decker — that separates our little part of the city from the much more impressive bits on either side of the river Liffey. I went into the city a few hours before Kim and Emily and wandered around the St. Patrick’s Cathedral district, visited the church housing the shrine of St. Valentine (no wonder Valentine’s Day seemed to be a much more major event there than in the U.S.), and enjoyed a bookstore scene. I have never been in the place that seemed to have such reverence for books both old and new. I think I may have found a new home away from home!
Kim and Emily found me at the Book of Kells in the Old Trinity Library. We waited a bit in the misty rain to enter the exhibit, which I found crowded, poorly arranged, and not particularly welcoming. The actual Book of Kells viewing is limited to whatever page is open that day, but there are exhibits about medieval manuscripts that are worth seeing. Beyond the Book itself, the other major draw is the walk through the massive hall of the old library (built sometime in the mid-1700s) with its Romanesque ceiling and staggeringly high bookshelves. The center of the hall featured an exhibit of French books from the time of Louis IVX. For some reason no photos are permitted — a double curse for the bibliophile-photographer such as myself. Given the high cost of entering and the unfriendly atmosphere, I would not recommend this particular tourist site, clearly a contrary view given the number of people there and the prominence that the Old Library gets in the guidebooks. Marsh’s Library and the Beatty Library are much better in many ways.
After touring the exhibit, the three of us moved quickly to the Gaiety Theatre where we saw a production of An Inspector Calls, a very well acted morality play with a great set and a nice surprise ending. I wanted Emily to see the Natural History Museum, so we made a quick stop there just before closing, and then we found a wonderful Moroccan restaurant (El Bahia) off of on the walking streets in the center of town. There is no doubt that Dublin is growing on my heart. It is big enough to be interesting, old enough to be fascinating, funky enough to be fun, and small enough not to be overwhelming.
N O T E : Since the weekends tend to be events in themselves, I will update future journals to begin on Monday and end on Sunday and so will start this by including our Sunday (February 19th) adventures here.
Emily likes to sleep in, so Kim and I had breakfast at our favorite Swedish department store and, since the weather was very nice, we drove up to our local castle at Malahide in a huge park near the sea. The grounds are beautiful but since the castle is undergoing restoration (wouldn’t all castles be undergoing restoration all the time?) we took the coast road out to Kowth (hoow-th), a kind of bulbous peninsula north of Dublin. We were in luck again with the weather, so we explored the seafront stores, took too many photos of the colorful boats docked at the piers, and watched folks feed two fat seals (next to the prominent sign warning visitors not to feed the seals). Next we drove up to the highest spot on Kowth (near Kowth castle owned by the same family for 500 years) for a short hike to a dolman, stones marking a Bronze age burial site (occupied by its deceased-resident for much longer than 500 years).
Science and Maths Education
At Dublin City University
Reinventing a Class on the Social Studies of Science
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
Filed February 12 and posted on February 29, 2012
With help from many quarters we are now settled in Dublin with internet access, a fully stocked kitchen, an Irish bank account (with the magic chip embedded card), proper immigration status, a digital subscription to The New York Times (delivered each day on my Nook), and a car that we rented from the only place that wanted to trust us with a vehicle at a reasonable price for 100 days!
The week started with a very nice visit to one of the Dublin City University (DCU) associated universities — St. Patrick’s College. Apparently some years ago a number of smaller post-secondary institutions were fused with bigger universities so that students would actually graduate from the larger school but attend classes with a particular focus. In the case of St. Pat’s (as it is called) the focus is on the preparation of elementary teachers. It has a small but impressive campus about a 20-minute walk (there is a lot of walking here) from DCU toward the Dublin city center.
The folks interested in science and math education are top notch and somewhat connected to the work on the DCU campus itself through CASTeL, which is located in the DCU physics department where I am based. Kim and I attended a seminar and heard a report from Clonia Murphy about an interesting international project. It is much easier to engage in international research in Europe because the EEC is a grant-making body that brings folks from across Europe together to do interesting things. In the case of the Fibonacci Project the basic idea was to encourage inquiry teaching using any foundation possible. What the team here did was to use the Nature of Science as a way to foster inquiry. By all accounts the project has been a success but, as with any external project, the money is now exhausted and the directors here are wondering whether their intervention will last.
We ended our visit by meeting with Maurice O’Reily, a mathematician interested in maths (short for mathematics) education and in the history of mathematics. The faculty seemed nicely tight knit given their shared focus in the education of future primary school teachers, but I couldn’t help but note that there are strengths on each of the two campuses that are not necessarily shared. This is a difficult proposition on a campus like the U of Arkansas where we work in buildings in sight of each other and an even more difficult task when there is an actual physical separation. CASTeL is a useful model to study to see if having a strong organizational unit can help bridge the inevitable divides.
The remainder of the week was occupied by meetings with interesting folks such as Francesa from the Faculty of Education, who has invited me to give a talk to her Philosophy of Education students on knowledge creation in science. Having guest speakers is a wonderful way to knit things together with those who have varying types of interests and expertise and is a very useful way for me to see how my interests extend beyond science education.
Now that I feel a bit more like a local, I seem to be developing an interesting lens though which to consider life in Ireland. It is clear that the economic boom that ended a few years ago (effectively removing the claws from the Celtic Tiger) has left people a bit insecure and shattered. However, the boom times allowed a massive amount of building (there are quite a few beautiful shopping centers scattered about) and general modernization. Of course, having been here last more than 30 years ago really doesn’t permit any accurate “before and after” view of the place.
One element of life here that is striking is that even in an age of large stores and department centers, many services are still clustered about on the “high” streets (the local main street) ready to serve folks who clearly aren’t driving as much as Americans do. Within a few short walks from our house there are two food stores, a hair cutting place, several “take away” shops, and other such services (we are hoping not to need the nearby funeral home). Walking to and from campus is nicely punctuated by a quick stop into the Spar Market to buy a loaf of bread and some milk. On our trips into the city by bus it is clear that our neighborhood is not at all unique. All over the city and the country there must be thousands of relatively small but well stocked markets accompanied by other stores and services. The big mall and giant food stores are close by too, but there is some comfort in the smaller alternatives. It is quite possible to live a complete life here by taking public transportation and shopping by walking.
Emily enjoyed her week doing her job placement (a regular part of the transition year for Irish kids her age) as a veterinary assistant at small but busy vet practice near the botanic garden, about a 25-minute walk from the house. Each day she trotted off to another round of tales from the animal world and each evening we got to hear another interesting story or two about what happened in the clinic. I suppose it does make sense to give high school kids some formal work experience, and apparently this happens all over the country for 15-16 year olds. We were very proud of the way that Emily embraced the experience, even though hers was for one week rather than two. It will be interesting to see what sort of experiences her Irish friends report when she is back in school.
The highlight of the week was my first class meeting with 29 maths and science teacher education students (in their last semester before going into the real world). I could tell that they were a bit apprehensive about a three-hour block of class (they usually have 2hr + 1hr or some other combination) but I would say that it went quite well. The class is a new experience for me because it is designed as a kind of terminal mopping up experience on the social studies of science (a bit of philosophy, history and some science/technology and society).
I was told repeatedly that I should reinvent the class in any way I wanted, so I took them at their word. I met with the previous instructor, who was very generous in sharing his notes and impressions (he did mostly history of science) but I have divided the class into 1/2 philosophy of science, 1/3 history of maths and science wrapping up with a bit of S/T/S. Except for the fact that seven students didn’t make it to the first class, the three hours was very successful and flew by. Later, I heard that the level of conversation and laughter from the students was a bit disconcerting to those in offices close by who apparently don’t get that sort of response.
On Saturday, Kim and I made another expedition into the city (we actually live in Dublin but downtown is 20 minutes away) and had a nice time at the National Art Gallery (for a wonderful lunch), the Natural History Museum (I suspect I will go there frequently), several shops and bookstores, an interesting science gallery that combines art and science, and a walk through the campus of Trinity College. The highlight might have been the Euro Store where we were able to purchase forks (no plastic for us anymore) and new ice trays. We ended the day at the Cobblestone Pub, where we ran into another Fulbrighter who plays mandolin there, and ate at a fish and chips place (smoked cod is wonderful) before taking the #16 bus home.
On the Survival of the Irish Language
A Wonderful Sound in the Heart of the Connemara Gaeltacht
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
Filed on February 4 and posted on February 16, 2012
Our second week flew by primarily because we busy with more details (finding a long term rental car was a particular struggle, but I am now on a first name basis with the president of Eurocar in Ireland). Emily had no school (her classmates were in their first week of their employment internships and she will do a one week internship next week). We also made something of a transition from tourist to quasi-resident as we proceeded to “find our feet” (an expression we heard frequently our first few days, which even now on hearing it causes me to look down to make sure that I can, in fact, find my feet).
Having found the deal of the century in the full Irish breakfast at IKEA, Kim and I returned to do that again on Sunday (hey, it’s expensive here so any way to save money makes some sense). We did a few more errands (we now own a toaster) and bought more food just to make our tiny house a bit more livable. On Monday we all worked at home (since DCU is on a break between their fall and spring semesters) and then walked up to campus late in the day to see the filming of an episode of the Irish version of Family Feud (which they call Family Fortune, presumably because the grant prize of 2000 euro really is a fortune in this depressed economy). By the way, we have learned that those in the know do not refer to multiples of the local currency as “euros” — just euro.
Tuesday was our chance to become legal (albeit temporary) citizens of the Republic of Ireland by presenting ourselves at the immigration office in Dublin. So, we loaded up our bus travel cards with more euro and went into the city. We easily found the immigration office and just as easily found the long line of folks from all over the world who had also chosen this particular day to update their status. We watched as the queue moved haltingly from #60 to #93 (our magic number) and in about two hours we were “official.” I will have to stay out of trouble here because I most certainly don’t want the picture they took of me to be featured in the media — Kim and Emily looked good, so seeing their photos on TV will be OK. We celebrated our “resident alien status” at Burger King and then realized that the meals we bought were about half the size and twice as expensive as in the U.S. so we will save BK only for really important occasions.
I stayed in the city and found Dubin’s oldest book store — actually mentioned by name in Ulysses — but then again just about everything regarding Dublin was mentioned in Ulysses. The highlight of the day was the Victorian-style natural history museum, which hasn’t changed since the 1850s. It is a “museum of a museum” or “frozen zoo,” as it is called locally, with staggering large numbers of specimens crowded into hundreds of cases or hanging from the walls. I also spent a hour or so in the Museum of Archaeology where the star attractions were the tanned and twisted remains of Bronze Age men thrown into bogs for some unknown reasons millennia ago. The day ended with a quick dash to the airport to return our first rental car.
Wednesday started early as Kim, Emily and I slogged through the dark suburb at 7 am toward the bus that was designed to take us to a train station that Kim plotted out as the best way to meet up with the folks at the Fulbright office for the trip to Galway. It all worked well (and the sun finally rose on a beautiful day). This was the first time that we met many of the other Fulbrighers from around the county with others waiting for us there on the west coast. The ride to Galway was easy with our first stop at the Chamber of Commerce for lunch with the mayor “Her Worship” Hildegarde Nauton and an introduction to the region. Galway is just on the edge of one of the last remaining Irish speaking areas of the country (called the Gaeltacht (Gale-took)).
During the next few days at meetings at the National University of Ireland, Galway and at the language school of NUI at An Cheathru Rua (in the heart of the Irish speaking region) we heard from historians, policy folks, the language commissioner and others all with a focus on the history of Ireland, generally with a specific focus on the current status and fate of the Irish language, one of six related languages in two groups: Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx on the one hand, with Breton, Cornish and Welsh (these three are more distantly related) on the other.
Each talk was about an hour long with more than enough left unsaid I am sure to occupy an entire semester. As one of the historians pointed out, the real problem with Irish history is that there is so much of it, but he did make an interesting summary by saying that much of that history is dominated by emigration (the Irish Diaspora) and the colonial and post-colonial experience.
We stayed at the Connemara Coast Hotel. On Thursday (Feb 2) we met with the language commissioner and had a very pleasant afternoon of traditional music (with traditional music legend Charlie Lennon and his daughter) followed by dinner and another round of music in the bar at the hotel. It has been very nice getting to know some of the other Fulbright folks who are here for this semester (it seems that the expectations that each institution has for us is highly divergent). I am looking forward to teaching my class (or module) but many of my colleagues have no such teaching expectation.
On Friday we drove to the heart of the Connemara Gaeltacht for language lessons. Not that I needed to be reminded of my general lack of facility with language, but this session certainly provided such a reminder. Irish is not in any language group that sounded familiar to my ear with a number of back-of-the-throat sounds that would be difficult for any native English speakers. Of course, spoken by a native speaker it is wonderful and when used in song, even better.
The overall conclusion that I reached after considering the fate of Irish is that it will likely not survive, even though it is a mandatory school subject and is supported by about one billion euro from the Irish State for its preservation (most of that for mandatory Irish education in schools). There are no mono-lingual speakers of Irish anymore and about 70K who speak it regularly in widely scattered places with at least three main dialects. As one of our speakers said, if Irish as an endangered language can’t survive given the degree of support from the government, no endangered languages are likely to last.
Saturday was spent getting caught up on U of Arkansas issues by email and planning for the first class next Friday with Irish teacher education students.
Learning the Lay of the Land in Dublin
On Becoming an Alien
By Bill McComas
Special to Planet Gnosis
Filed January 24 and posted on February 16, 2012
There is something comforting and fear inducing when an event looms both large but far away on the horizon. Such was the case with our Fulbright experience to Ireland. Months passed between the application and the letter of acceptance and many more ticked by waiting to begin this adventure.
Although we talked about Ireland frequently, none it seemed real until departure day arrived and Peggy moved in to take care of the house and cat. Suddenly the distance between the abstract and concrete shrank to nothing. Even our plans to find a place to live in Dublin were dashed several times by owners who held out for tenets who would commit for a year. As we left Arkansas all we really knew was that we had a Bed and Breakfast for our first night and a rental car for the first few days.
We arrived very early on January 19 with dawn’s early light delayed until almost 8:30 am by the extreme northern latitude of Dublin. We found our car (quickly upgraded to a larger model to accommodate our massive amount of luggage) and were off to the B&B (Aishling’s on St. Lawrence Road near what was to be our new neighborhood). Negotiating rush hour was an interesting experience since we were a bit sleep deprived and were driving on the wrong side of the road and shifting the manual transmission with an unaccustomed hand. The owners let us make some phone calls and it seemed that our house deal was secure. We arranged to meet Des (the “estate” agent) in the afternoon. My first trip was to the bank. Some other Fulbrighters had some problems setting up an account and I wanted to work on this quickly. No need to worry. Not only did they exchange more dollars for euros than they typically do, they told me everything I needed to do to get an account.
Des Gilroy, the property manager, appeared at the house we agreed to rent and we found him to be a very friendly guy who seems to know everyone we needed to contact (car dealer, cable, gas and electricity). The house will be just fine, but is tiny to say the least. The location is good though, about a 20+ minute walk to Dublin City University in one direction and Emily’s school in the other. I am sure there are more square feet above our garage in Fayetteville but this has a living room/dining room combination and a small kitchen on the ground floor with two bedrooms and a microscopic bathroom on the second (all for $1,380 a month). One wonders what that would buy in Arkansas. Des brought us a tea kettle, a set of dishes and a microwave, leaving us to buy only a few more things like sheets and towels to make the place livable. We had a very late lunch at the Beaumont Inn up the street from the house with the day finally ending back at the B&B with three tired Americans successfully relocated to the Emerald Isle.
Friday (1/20) was a busy day. It started off nicely with a full Irish breakfast (exactly like an English breakfast with eggs, beans, tea, thick bacon and fantastic sausages). Next stop was Emily’s school, the fabled Mt. Temple Comprehensive School (where the band members from U2 first met). They were very pleasant and helpful and seemed to understand that Emily would be in school mostly for social and cultural reasons but would be doing four online classes (two from the Arkansas virtual high school, one from U Missouri and one from Brigham Young U). As it turns out, the school is almost at the end of the fall term and Emily would have only one week of class before a two-week work experience and a week vacation. We did some shopping at a huge mall outside of Dubin and later found IKEA (perhaps our new home away from home). Fortunately, the GPS seems to know Dublin as well as it knows the U.S. The three of us stopped by the University to say hello to Eilish (the director of the science education program). I already have an office, a key and an ID card. We also started the process of opening an account at the Allied Irish Bank (AIB), conveniently located at one end of campus. We even figured out the cell phone situation and we each have one now. Our first night in our new home was cozy but comfortable.
The weekend was spent with more house chores (and multiple trips to IKEA — particularly for the 2Euro breakfast (›$3) and making those interesting initial impressions. What we have found already is that the weather has been surprisingly mild with a bit or rain each day (no surprise there). Costs here seem quite high (in part because of the exchange rate and in part because there are very many taxes hidden with the product cost — there is no separate sales tax — it's simply hidden within the cost). I would say that most products cost about 30% more than in the U.S. — with the exception of gas, which is about $7.50/gallon (but the eggs are really inexpensive). We have yet to determine the cost of a Guinness but look forward to exploring that on our next trip into the city of Dublin. The other thing that we have already noticed is how modern and common the big shopping centers are. Several folks have explained that a few years ago when the economy was booming (Ireland once was the 15th strongest economy in the world per capita for a few years) there was a building frenzy based on a prediction that the economic miracle would last forever — it didn’t.
On Sunday we took a few hours to drive through the countryside up to the Boyne Valley north of Dublin (almost on the border with Northern Ireland). I had been there 30 years ago and was anxious to see Newgrange again. This is a massive prehistoric tomb and solar observatory, built 1000 years before Stonehenge. It was an amazing site on a chilly but very sunny day. On the way home we stopped at the site of an ancient monastery with a number of Celtic crosses and one of the tall towers the monks built for protection from the Vikings.
This week (1/23) was almost normal. We took Emily to school (she is in what is called the transition year) and did a bit of negotiating so that she could skip some classes (Japanese and Irish for instance) to work in the library on her on-line classes. Part of the school experience in Emily's year is for all students to have a work experience and we were able to find a veterinarian who was willing to have a random American (that would be Emily) shadow him for a week, so I am sure that she will find that experience interesting. She has a week of school, then two weeks of work experience (only one week really because she will go with us to Galway on the Fulbright orientation program this week).
Kim and I have met several of the DCU science education faculty and it is quite interesting how they interact with respect to science education. Some bits of science education are in the “faculty” of education and some bits are in the “faculty” of science. It seems clear that there could be more interaction between the groups, but the physics folks are firmly in command of the program and the external funds that science education generates (mostly from the European Union). Even my brief experience here with this model leads me to believe that science education should be in a hybrid department which draws on the strengths of both science and education. Clearly when one group is too strongly in control the discipline itself suffers.
The first week moved by very quickly as we learned how to find our way around, cooked some meals at home, walked the 20 minutes to and from the campus, and shuttled Emily to school each morning. Kim and I had lunch with some new colleagues (physicists mostly) several days and on Friday we attended a physics lecture, very well done I am sure, but I understood only the first of many PowerPoint images. The three of us ended the day working on the DCU library.
On our second Saturday in Ireland Emily stayed at home while Kim and I went into the city for the first time by bus. It turns out that we live only 15 minutes or so from the city center, but taking the bus from the urban fringe to the core was great fun. The streets were full of people. Buskers (sidewalk musicians) made their contributions from every corner – right out of the movie “Once.” Our first Dublin bookstore experience was fantastic with a floor of new and an entire floor of used books (I made a trade instantly). The accent here is very gentle on the ear but occasionally does cause a tiny problem (or at least ours does for them). In the bookstore Kim asked for the “toilet” and was promptly shown the collection of “Twilight” volumes. If you say toilet with a US accent it does sound a bit like the way the Irish pronounce twilight. At least the saleswoman didn’t point out books on potty training.
Late in the day we found the Charles Betty Library and were amazed by the quality of the collection — particularly with respect to religious manuscripts, including several pages of the Bible written in 200 AD. Betty was an American mining engineer of Irish descent who amassed a fortune which he spent on books. ultimately giving it to the Irish nation. We finally wandered into a small bakery/sandwich shop and enjoyed our first meal in Dublin. Emily — we trust — was at home dutifully working productively online.
There have been countless details to attend to but we seem to be mastering them — some time this next week we have to register as resident aliens and I am excited about that prospect — having never been an alien before (as far as I know).
E D I T O R ' S N O T E :
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