History, Family, and Music

Music, history, and family seem to be the three things that hold the tight knit communities of rural Ireland together. Everyone we meet seems to passionately know the history of not only Ireland but of where they live specifically, and everywhere you go there is music, especially in local pubs at night. It seems to bring the community together and create a friendly and outgoing atmosphere. During our visit to Cnoc Suain Dearbhaill told us how the traditional music of Ireland passed on from family as a way of storytelling was fading away and an effort was made to bring it back to children that has been extremely successful. The next night in the Spiddal hotel during our music workshop the couple who was playing for us said a something similar about people forming groups to get more people into playing traditional Irish instruments. It shows how important music is to the Irish culture, especially among families and from generation to generation. Luckily these efforts have been successful and I have not gone into a pub in Ireland yet that didn’t have some sort of live music, usually played by a small group, just for fun.

Penny Whistle at Cnoc Suain

Cnoc Suain is a cultural center in Conamara focusing on history, culture, nature, and music that Dearbhaill described to us as “an inspiration for the future”. Families in Ireland seem to be very close and the family in general very important. At Cnoc Suain we learned of how many daughters would emigrate to the United States in order to support their family and while 95% did not return they would continue to send their family money and supplies, demonstrating how strong family bonds are in this country. 

Everyone in Ireland seems to care about the history of Ireland and wants to share it with others. “What you have to remember is that this country was occupied for 800 years” said Des, a national tour guide. Many other people have emphasized this same point about how the country has not always been free and independent and this seems to have had a large impact on the people and their communities and ways of life. History is very important to Irish people and how it has been traditionally passed down through music and stories is just as important and keeps communities and families tightly knit in the rural areas. 

Mussels, Sheep, and Peat Oh My !

Ireland is a country of many different landscapes and resources that its people rely on to survive. One of the best demonstrations of this is at the Killary Fjord where a sheep farm sits next to a mussel farm on a beautiful yet harsh landscape. A large part of Ireland is dominated by large turf bogs, a landscape that not all animals can survive in, you won’t find many horses or cattle there because they cannot get the nutrients that they need from this land. Sheep however seem to thrive here, getting all the nutrients they need eating the moss and grassy tops of the bog lands. The Killary Sheep Farm is a working farm that has over 500 sheep on its land grazing the mountain side.Not far down the road is The Killary Mussel Farm, another working farm that grows and harvest mussels that are sold locally in town. This beautiful landscape is perfect for the sheep and mussels who need specific environments to thrive, also providing farmers with the fuel to heat their homes, cheap and easily accessible.

The sheep graze freely over the mountainside and are checked on daily by the farmers and the sheepdogs who herd them where they need to go with skill. Tom, the farmer, calls out to his dog Silvia  “AWAY” and Silvia goes right, corralling the sheep to one side and herding them with precision and patience. The sheep are sheared in the summer when their wool becomes long and thick, this keeps them healthy and happy, Tom says never uses an electric shaver but instead goes for the harder but safer sheers that don’t cut as close to the sheep’s skin. Tom, uses turf like many others in rural Ireland to heat his home. There is a turf bog right on the property that he has been cutting for 13 years.

Tom Shearing One of his Sheep

Down the road on the water is the Killary Mussel Farm, yet another environment providing food for the local people. The environment to grow mussels must be very specific, they need the brackish water found in the fjord to be able to grow so many. This place is perfect for the mussels as it is for the sheep and easily accessible to the mussel farmers. Mussels on barrels in the water spawn and attach to ropes that are pulled from the water harvested and cleaned. Mussels are sold to only local markets and restaurants for around three euros a kilo,  much more than if sold to plants. When asked about toxins in the water like red algae, also known as red tide, the farmers said they ensure that the quality of the mussels is good by sampling water every Monday and sending it to a Marine Institute to check for toxins. Over all, Killary Fjord is an important environment for many of the local people providing both food, fuel and a source of income for local farmers.

Ropes of Mussels growing at Killary Mussel Farm

What’s Turf?

“My charger won’t work!” says someone on the trip panicked at least once a day. Inevitably almost every time they’ve just forgotten to switch on the outlet, something we’re not used to doing in America. Ireland seems to take energy seriously, all of its outlets turn off and on saving electricity, the last hotel we stayed at even had you put your room key into a socket to enable lights to turn on so that you couldn’t forget to turn them off when you leave. Small things like this can make a large impact when implemented over an entire country and are a good step towards sustainability and conserving energy.

Another unfamiliar sight to many on the trip are the abundance of wind turbines throughout the countryside, doing cartwheels above the trees. Producing energy in a way that’s better for the environment. Ireland as of 2017 had over 2,000 megawatts of wind power with wind turbines providing 23% of the country’s electric power.

Wind Turbines

It’s not all perfect however, all over Ireland many people, especially in rural areas, are burning turf as a source of heat for their homes. With little tree cover in the country many say turf is the only material easily accessible to them to  heat their homes with. Turf or peat is built up over thousands of years by wet moss compacting over time. Much of Ireland is covered by these turf bogs, easily accessed on family’s land dug up by farmers as a cheap source of fuel. It is dug out of the ground and left to dry out, shriveling up into small, course, black bricks that can be burnt. The problem with this is that turf is a “carbon sink” holding in a large amount of co2, 30% of carbon in the world is stored in peat according to one of tour guides Anthony.  When burned the carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. The government has made moves to try and get people to stop this practice but for many it’s their best access to fuel and they are unwilling or unable to stop the practice. Stopping would mean importing oil or gas because there are no natural gas sources or pipelines in these areas, and this would be costly and also unsustainable.

Dried Turf

Many Irish people are aware and conscientious of the effects of turf burning and care a lot about the environment. They say that on such a small scale, as is the case in many rural areas, only taking what they need does not release enough co2 to make a large impact. People have many different views on the subject, all aware of the consequences and with different view points depending on their lives but make a general consensus. “It’s done here on such a small scale that it’s okay, it’s large scale industrial businesses that would be the problem” is the quote I heard, with little variation, from multiple different farmers who use turf. 

A Turf Bog

Every Drop Counts

I go to take my first shower in the Eco-Village in the small village of Cloughjordan, my first experience with water in Ireland. There is a shower head but not the typical nozzle or handle to turn on to get water pressure and no indication whatsoever of any control of temperature. There is only a button to press on the wall, and when you press it the water turns on for about 15-20 seconds and then turns off and you have to hit it again. Showering like this gave me a new appreciation for how much you water I normally use and how much I actually need. As someone who tends to take longer showers, often just standing there contemplating life, being somewhere that conserves as much water as possible really made me think about and realize that I don’t need all the water I have been using and how important it is to conserve what I can. 

Another way that the eco-village in Cloughjordan saves water is by conserving water coming from sinks. When I went to wash my dishes after my first meal I found the sink full of water and immediately went to drain it before washing my dishes. I was quickly stopped by Pa, a resident of the eco-village and owner of the hostel we were staying at, who instructed me to use the water in the sink to wash instead of running the water the entire time while 20 people wash their dishes. While this was something to get used to it did conserve a lot of water and made me appreciate all of the other times i’m using water unnecessarily. The eco-village, while focusing the most on it, was not the only place in Ireland that is conserving water.

On the island of Inis Oirr water must be conserved especially carefully during the summer months, when there can be water shortages. In early June when we were there, water was being ferried to the island from the mainland up to three times a day. This meant that water was a large focus for the community at that time and the hostel we stayed at encouraged us to save as much water as possible. The owner of the hostel explained this on our first day and asked us to take short showers and “only flush when necessary”. In other places in Ireland that didn’t have a water shortage they still focus on conserving water and there were signs in both of the hotels that I stayed in asking people to be conscientious of the water that is used washing towels and bed linens. It was impressive to see how many people and establishments cared about conserving water and how many small changes to daily life can have a large impact.

A Sign About Conserving Water in a Hotel in Spiddal


Food for Thought

It was clear to me from the beginning of my time in Ireland that the Irish have a different relationship with food than Americans. The food isn’t much different on the surface, chicken wings, seafood, red meat and similar snacks. While we may share many of the same things there are a lot of small differences that make a large impact on the culture around food.

People here seem to value fresh and clean food more than America does. The majority of food in markets and grocery stores that I have been to are fresh. One store even had only fresh bread crumbs, after searching the entire store for pre-packaged recognizable bread crumbs we asked an employee who directed us to the fresh ones in just a plastic bag with no label or brand name, which is why we missed it. We are used to packaged foods with recognizable brand names that have traveled far to reach our grocery store shelves, and the difference in the taste and quality of the food is obvious. It is a regulation in the EU that the food be labeled with what is in it and allergens printed in bold so that you don’t have to go searching for it, so it’s easier to know exactly what you’re eating. Overall there is a general feeling of respect and attention to the quality of food throughout rural Ireland.

I gained an appreciation for where food comes from when I had the opportunity to see food being grown at the eco-village in Cloughjordan, where one resident in particular, Bruce, grows vegetables and puts them out for other members of the community to take. He told us that he saw a ‘knowledge gap’ in people knowing how to grow their own food and is doing research to try and fill some of that gap. He grows vegetables in multiple plots of land on the eco-village, experimenting with different foods and growing styles, and publishes his work on a youtube channel called Red Gardens.

In places outside of the eco-village, general eating habits have slight differences from what I am used to in America, and these are evident in stores. When in search of breakfast foods and snacks I became excited because I saw many familiar brands, logos, and foods, even finding my favorite cereal, Frosted Flakes, although called Frostys here in Ireland. But when it came to snacks, I found it was difficult to find those brands I love to eat back home, and in general found that there are much less snack selections here. It is overall a cultural difference between what people prefer and are used to eating, and things seem healthier here in Ireland with fresher food, clearer ingredients and more of an appreciation for what is being consumed. 

A Small Snack Aisle in a Grocery Store 

Dear Erica…

The following is a work of fiction based on recent events and experiences in Ireland.

Dear Erica,

Today’s the day! Votes have been counted and the results are in on our abortion referendum! Yesterday during our lunch break Sarah, Pat and I went to the primary school in the village to cast our votes. I felt powerful getting to finally vote on this, having wanted change for so long. It’s all we talked about all day, and after work we went to a pub so we could watch the news even though we knew that there wouldn’t be any results in yet. The first thing I did in the morning was turn the radio on to the news station to here updates on the vote. Since it was five in the morning there was not much of an update other than that the votes were being counted and it was too soon to tell.

I hurriedly went about my morning routine and went to pick up Sarah and Pat, of course once again putting the radio to the news to see if there were any updates. To my surprise they were talking about the weather not the vote. Pat and Sarah informed me that the radio hosts said that there looked to be a major turnout of voters and that the coverage of the vote would be back at half seven when the weather and other news is done, but that they weren’t expecting results until 10 pm. We were sad to have to go out to harvest mussels when we got to the farm because we had no way of hearing about the voting. We harvested and cleaned the mussels out on the boat as fast as we could and headed in.

Sarah and Pat invited me to get dinner later at a local pub with them and Sarah’s sister who flew back from London to vote. Our co-worker Thomas said he wouldn’t make plans before the results came in because he was afraid to jinx the vote. We turned on the radio in the workroom while we cleaned the rest of the mussels and half listened while working, only paying attention when we heard something about the vote. Sarah kept complaining that she wished she could go into the city when the results were announced. That would be too much for me, I feel just as empowered learning about this monumental change in my own community surrounded by those I’m closest with. We finally heard the results while on our lunch break at a cafe in the village. 

The cafe had turned a radio on at someone’s request and it was such an amazing and relieving feeling to hear that something I have personally wanted for so long finally happened with such a large majority. I was overcome with emotions and couldn’t stop smiling. Sarah, Pat, Thomas and I finished our work for the rest of the day happily discussing the positive impact this will have and the future legislation, Thomas finally agreeing to come out with us to dinner to celebrate.

Can’t wait to visit soon!







About Erica

I have always been a very indecisive person, maybe because I love to try new things and explore and therefore have so many different interests and things that I want to do. Growing up I always loved everything about the outdoors, nature, and animals. I was very active and always wanting to try things like hiking, rock climbing, and anything that seems fun really. I remember in second grade I had a rock climbing birthday party. I’m pretty sure that I’m the only one who had any fun because no one that I invited liked rock climbing at all, but that didn’t occur to me until we were there. I am very close to my friends and family from home, they are everything to me. It is my family who inspired my love of being outside and active as we always did new and exciting things growing up and my parents would take me and my sister to try whatever we wanted. I have been fishing and skiing for as long as I can remember, two things my dad loved growing up and taught me and my sister from a very young age. I immediately loved these things too, and have always been eager to try new exciting things, like kayaking, zip lines, alpine slides, you name it. My parents would talk about things that they did or places that they went when they were younger and it would make me want to try them, like going white water rafting or to Acadia National Park.

From a young age I also had a love of the environment and animals, watching every animal planet or discovery channel show about animals that I could. Unfortunately I am allergic to most types of animals and many things in nature and this sometimes limits me in what I can do but luckily I have many other interests as well. I have also danced for as long as I can remember and it has been one of the biggest parts of my life. I am not the type to let things that I love go so I have continued to dance as much as I can at Roger Williams even though it is not part of my degree or career path. I am greatly influenced by my family as I hold them with such high regard and am very close to them. I love to try everything, explore, and don’t like to sit still. I have so many things that interest me and when I find something I love I stick with it.