The Universal Brown Bread

A side of brown bread, with butter packets

Brown bread is an important element of the meals in Ireland. A slice of brown bread will be served with nearly every meal, particularly lunch and dinner. We visited several towns and ate at several different restaurants or hostels, and each location incorporated brown bread into the meal. At the Valley House in Achill, slices of brown bread were served as an appetizer before the meal. The bread was put out in bowls along the table, alongside salads, and butter was placed beside them. We also ate lunch at several places where a slice of brown bread would be served alongside a bowl of soup. A vegetable soup could be purchased at the hotel restaurant on Inis Oirr, and this included brown bread and butter. Brown bread would also be used for sandwiches, as O’Brien’s shop in Ennis used brown bread for their turkey sandwiches.

Sandwich with brown bread, purchased in Ennis

When we visited Cnoc Suain, our host Dearbhail demonstrated how brown bread is made. It is different from regular white bread because it is not made with yeast. The ingredients include whole wheat and white flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk. The baking soda mixing with the buttermilk is what causes the dough to rise. Dearbhail explained the baking technique which causes the bread to be so fluffy and light: you must lift up the flour while it’s the bowl. You mix together the flours, soda, and salt, then create a well to pour in the buttermilk. Dearbhail recommended using your hands to mix the dough together in order to use less dishes, but you have to be sure not to knead or handle the dough too much. You then shape the dough into a circular form and cut a cross into it so the bread bakes all the way through. Other ingredients can also be added to the dough before it is mixed together. For example, Dearbhail explained that pieces of seaweed can be added to the bread in order to increase its nutritious value.

This type of bread is relatively simple to make, and judging by its frequent appearance at multiple pubs and restaurants, brown bread is a very versatile food.

Fish Out of Water

A sign posted on the toilet at Rowan Hostel in Ennis.

Travelling to an unknown country can be a nerve-wracking experience for anyone. You often have to handle a new language, different cultural expectations, and much, much more. However, one might assume things would be relatively easy to understand in the bathroom.

My first indication that the plumbing systems in Ireland differed from the States was in the bathroom at the Park Inn right across the street from Shannon Airport. There were two buttons above the toilet to flush, and it was unclear whether you were supposed to push the smaller button to flush less amounts of human waste, the bigger button being for larger amounts. This aspect of the bathrooms would help to save water by using less amounts of water to flush, unless a larger amount is required. Although this system of two buttons is eco-friendly, it was unclear what the difference between the two buttons was.

The Larger or Smaller Button?

Even when I asked people who lived in Ireland, no one could give me a clear answer of the difference between the two buttons. Most assumed the larger button was for a larger flush, but a few suggested that the larger button was easier to press and therefore was for smaller, more frequent flushes. Because of the user’s confusion, particularly for someone who is from outside the country, he or she may end up pressing the bigger button even though it is not necessary.

 Another element of the bathrooms which differed from those in the US also concerned flushing. The toilets at the Ecovillage in Cloughjordan had a flush handle that appeared similar to ones in the US, but we discovered that this handle had to be pumped a couple times before the toilet would flush completely. You could also hold the handle down for longer if you required more water to flush the toilet. Again, this system conserves water by giving the user a certain amount of control over how much water is used to flush, but it also does not make this clear to the user. At first, a couple people at the Ecovillage thought the toilets were broken because they would not flush completely on the first pump. 

These differences in the plumbing systems of Ireland allow for the user to conserve water. Although it may not be clear at first to new users, the additional measures conserve small amounts of water which will aid a greater effort to help the environment.

An Irish Community, Through Thick and Thin

Irish Flag, swinging from a boat passing the Cliffs of Moher

A woman on the radio explains, with a choked voice, an abortion she underwent at a young age. Her story was told in the growing aftermath of the vote which took place May 25, and the initial polls revealed that it would be a yes to repealing the 8th amendment, a law which banned abortion in Ireland. The woman on the radio admitted she was afraid most people would vote no, to keep the amendment in place. Upon hearing this was not the case, the woman stated, “It’s incredible. I should have had more faith in the Irish people.”

In the two weeks I travelled in Ireland, I frequently felt an overwhelming sense of community among the Irish. I stayed in several towns that were located in more rural areas, and it seemed that most people living there appeared to be extremely friendly with each other. The first example of this I experienced was at Ryan’s Corner House, a pub in Cloughjordan. A group of us went to this pub to buy a drink, and it immediately became clear that the Irish living there were relatively close with one another. Nearly every time someone entered the pub, a group of people already seated would greet that person by name. This was a complete change from the bars in the United States, where most are only familiar with the people they came with. While not every town in Ireland may have that same familiarity as Cloughjordan, I experienced similar instances in other places around the country. In Ennis, there was a pub called Yolo with an outside seating area. There was a group of older Irish men smoking, and I saw them offer lights and cigarettes to other people around them, some of whom were complete strangers. There was a band performing at that same pub, and they played one traditional Irish song that I did not recognize. The other people at the pub, clearly Irish, all began singing along to this song together.

The Irish people at that pub in Ennis, like many other pubs I visited along the way, all seemed to share something interpersonal that I, an outsider of the country, could not relate to. It was refreshing to see people with such a strong sense of community. Even more refreshing was to see that this sense of community did not seem to fall apart during instances of tension, like the woman on the radio explained. To me, the vote revealed the strength of the Irish community.

Fueling Fire: The Burning of Peat for Energy

Turf at the Killary Sheep Farm

A common, yet controversial source of energy in Ireland is peat, or “turf”, a sort of soil made up of decaying matter. As discussed by our bus driver and tour guide Joe, most people burn peat to heat their homes, particularly during the winter months. The popularity of this energy method was made clear by the number of peat bricks lying in fields as we drove by. There would be rows of what looked like dirt blocks ordered side by side or piled together. At Craggaunowen, our guide Stiofàn explained that the people who lived there hundreds of years ago would also burn peat to cook meals, so the turf was used as a source of energy.

So what exactly is peat?

This source of energy is not available everywhere. Peat is collected from bogland. To cut turf, a person would first remove the surface layer of grass from the ground with a shovel. A rectangular shaped tool called a slain is then pushed into the soft ground, and when it is pulled out, a brick of peat is extracted. These bricks of peat are then laid out in the field, either stacked together in a “teepee” form or flattened rows. The sun will dry the peat, causing each brick to shrink, and the timeline of this process depends on the weather – for example, if it is a rainier season the peat will take longer to dry.

Peat drying in “teepee” form, at the Killary Sheep Farm

There have been critiques of burning peat for energy because of its negative impact on the environment; burning peat releases CO2 into the atmosphere, which destroys the ozone layer and contributes to climate change. A single brick of peat will only burn for 15 minutes or so, which means that vast amounts of peat must be dried in order to last one home an entire winter.

Despite the controversy surrounding the use of peat, it still appears to be widely used by many Irish people. The tour guide at Céide Fields even discussed this issue because some of the peat there was being cut and used for energy. He admitted that peat contributes to climate change, but said that “it’s really the large scale peat burning that causes the problem”, so essentially he argued that the peat burning there was not an issue.

A Traditional Way of Living

Cnoc Suain

Our host Dearbhail welcomed us to her home in Cnoc Suain, and she was gracious enough to explain the history of the house and its culture. This location clearly has a very traditional way of life, based upon the ways of living from a couple hundred years ago. The cottage was built in 1845 in the design of one main, central room with four bedrooms. Two of these bedrooms had entrances much higher up than the ground floor, so the children would get up to their rooms by leaning a ladder against the wall and climbing up. The average family had about eight to twenty children, so the bedrooms would often be crowded. There was no electricity or running water until about 1980, and the cottage is three and a half miles from any shops, doctors, or banks. The flooring of the cottage would be dirt, so the family would often put rush – a reed-like plant which grows in water – down on the dirt inside. This would keep people’s feet cleaner because they didn’t wear shoes inside, and scented herbs would also be placed on the reeds to be crushed underfoot.

Meals in this home would be cooked over a fire created by burning peat. There was a crane which would hold pots over the fire, and as a sort of “oven”, a pot would be placed on coals and more coals would be placed on top of it. The peat itself, small brick-shaped slabs of dried organic matter, is collected from the fields outside the cottage. Our second host, Charlie, explained that they would use a tool called a slain to harvest peat from the ground, after removing the top layer of grass. These bricks of peat would be laid out in the sun to dry, causing them to shrink and eventually be used for fuel. One of these peat bricks would only burn for fifteen minutes, so large amounts of peat would need to be collected for the family to survive the winter. These peat fires would need to burn constantly at all times of the day, as it both heated the home and cooked the food.

The culture of this sort of home, particularly in the past, was very community-oriented. It was considered a “rambling house” because people from around town would gather at the fire to share stories and music during the winter. This was important for the Gaelic culture because the children would be absorbing the music and stories even after they went to bed.

Dearbhail and Charlie work hard to preserve and educate about this traditional way of life.

Dear Marissa…

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

Dear Marissa,

You won’t believe what’s happening here in Ireland. There’s a huge vote this Friday to determine if the 8th Amendment will be repealed. I know you don’t pay much attention to politics, so essentially this means people will either be voting yes abortion should be legal, or no abortion should remain illegal. I’ve been wearing my button all week. You remember my fella Niall? We’ve been arguing for a couple months now about this. Niall’s lovely, really, but he can be thick at times.

Just yesterday morning we were picking lettuce in the Ecovillage community gardens – early, as we put out vegetables for the others around eleven – and he brings up the vote again. I almost pushed him into the compost. He was going on about how his Mum thinks abortion is sin and so he’s worried to vote the opposite way as her. I told him she won’t see what he’s put on the ballot, but that didn’t stop him from complaining.

I was so worked up I went for a walk in Knocknacree until I left for my shift at noon, just to clear my head. After all, I’m tired of talking about it and seeing the signs on every lightpost I walk past. I don’t care which way Niall’s going to vote, just as long as he doesn’t keep griping about it.

The dull day only made my mood worse, and of course Sheelagh na Gig was slow as ever. You’ve visited Cloughjordan before, so you know how few people are around when Pa’s hostel is empty.

I made myself a latté just to pass the time. When that didn’t help I snuck across the street and bought a 99 from the shop. So that helped a bit. Still, I wasn’t looking forward to playing at the pub with Niall later. We have a set every Friday and Saturday. The rest of the time we put on a good show, and I normally love playing the fiddle, but yesterday I was so frustrated I almost called it off.

You know I don’t like to quit easily. I went back to the village to shower after closing the café around six, then grabbed my fiddle and headed to the pub. Usually Niall runs late after working in the FabLab, but what do you know, he’s in the corner with his penny whistle when I get there. He’d already bought me a pint of Guinness, which I can drink between songs. Naturally that put me in a much better mood. We played some great jigs, like the “Flying Wheelchair” and “Floating Crowbar.”

Later that night Niall promised he wouldn’t discuss the vote anymore. I’m grateful because I know what I believe in, and he doesn’t have to believe the same things I do. We’ll see what happens this Friday, anyhow. A woman on the radio said “I have a lot of faith in the Irish people.” I do, too.

Talk to you soon.


About Marissa

I am the type of person who strives for a life rich with opportunities for personal growth. Ever since I was little, I have struggled with being shy and a crippling inability to be confident. Middle school brought out the worst of this, where I receded into myself so far I didn’t remember how to come back out. It took a lot of work, with slow progress, to manage this self-consciousness and learn how to be myself again.

Coming to college was the turning point I finally needed. I forced myself to meet new people by attending a school none of my friends from home had even heard of before. I joined Colleges Against Cancer to meet more people. I left my door propped open in my dorm hallway. I applied for an internship in the Creative Writing department. I took as many courses as my schedule allowed – and sometimes squeezed in one more. These steps enabled me to branch out, make friends, and grow as a person. The experiences I have had since my freshman year have only furthered this progress, and I now feel significantly more confident in myself and my abilities. I am now the secretary of Colleges Against Cancer, am close friends with several people I met freshman year, and the campus internship has improved my professional skills immensely. Every summer I take on a new job, from working in customer service as a cook to assisting at a preschool center.

While I am so grateful to be in a different place than I was in middle school, I also appreciate the struggle I went through to get to where I am now. With each of these experiences, I learn more about the world around me and get closer to discovering my place in it.