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

Welcome to Ireland

Ireland is known for their open and welcoming communities. Throughout my journey here in Ireland, I observed different styles of living. We stayed at Cloughjordan, Achill, Spiddal and other rural areas. Observations I made focused on the people here and their interaction with one another. Similarly, I examined the communities we stayed in and see how the villagers interacted with outsiders, such as us 16 college students.

Irish people smile a lot. That is one of the first Irish customs you will notice when getting off the plane. Their smile is inviting allowing you to feel comfortable starting a conversation with them. The people of Ireland uphold a conversation and are not afraid to ask you questions such as “What do you think of your current president?”. They tend to over apologize especially if they feel like they offended you. We went to the Parsons Mansion in Birr and our tour guide was very apologetic for simply losing her train of thought. The tour guide told our group “Things in Ireland work and then they don’t and then we don’t fix them” she followed her statement with “sorry this is a typically Irish thing” .  Overall, the individuals I have encountered go out of their way to make the visitors feel welcome in their communities and country.

Our first couple nights stay was the Eco-village in Cloughjordan. This is a very small tight-knit community where there are only 90 people in Eco-village and under 200 people in the whole community. This was a village where everyone knew everyone and everything. They all encouraged each other and would lend a hand if anyone needed help. The community prides themselves on both being environmentally conscious and community focused. A survey was conducted and 33% of the people said they chose the Eco-village for their environment choices and everyone else said because of the community. The community itself farms together and all put in hard work to improve their lands. While I stayed in the Eco-village, it seemed to me the community was more a family rather than townspeople. Westport and Achill are focused on their community but are not as closely as Cloughjordan.

The communities and the villagers are some of the most welcoming individuals I ever met. They truly care about who you are and want to know more about you. Not only do they care about the travelers, they care about one another and their village. The people also focus and have pride for their country and the history behind who they are. In the States, as they call it here, people are nowhere near as welcoming. It was a nice change in life.


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


Animals Everywhere

The whole country of Ireland has fewer people than the number of people in New York City. The whole country of Ireland can fit into the state of Maine. “There are 11 million chickens in Ireland, more pigs than people living in Dublin, and more cows and sheep than people in the whole country” explained our bird watching tour guide, John.  These statistics clearly explain the habitat of Ireland. Animals are a major aspect of Ireland’s habitat and make up a large part of the country’s GDP which people rely heavily on in rural Ireland. 

While driving through the west coast of Ireland, as far as the eye could see, the land is all shades of green. On this land live sheep, cows, horses, other animals and people. In Ireland, animals are given acres of land to roam and live on. These animals provide their owner’s income. Agriculture makes up €666 million of Ireland’s overall GDP. Ireland is the 6th largest exporter of meat in the world. It makes sense why there are animals everywhere you turn in rural Ireland, many people rely on these animals as their main source of income. 

        The importance of animals was evident when we went to visit the sheep farm and the mussel farm. Farmer Tom has 200 sheep that roam over hundreds of acres of land. He relies on these sheep to give birth to lambs once a year. Tom relies on the sheep farming to support him and his family. Likewise, aquatic animals are relied on for income. For example, the mussel farmer harvests many mussels every year. These mussels are used to feed his own family, sell at the farm, and sell to local restaurants. In Ireland, farmers are reliant on both land animals and sea animals to make a living. These are just two examples that show the importance of animals to Ireland’s habitat. 

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 

An Imported Water Supply

How many times a day do you use water? See water? It’s probably more than you think. As my professor, Dr. O’Connell said, “You can’t survive without water.” This statement is true. It is crucial to all communities to have a supply of water for drinking, the sink, the shower, and the toilet. Most people do not think twice about their water usage and I was one of them. However, since my trip to Ireland, it is clear that water consciousness and water conservation is very important.

Water conservation in Ireland became evident in our first hostel in the Eco Village in Cloughjordan. Both the sinks and the showers had a push button system for the water. For the sink, I would push the button and water would come out and if my hands weren’t completely rinsed by the time the water ran out I would push it again. The showers also worked on the same push-button system. But, when the button was pressed, the water ran for about 30 seconds. To complete my shower, I had to press the button an uncountable amount of times. This made me pay attention to the amount of water I use when I shower and use the sink.

The other place I visited that stood out in my mind about water consciousness was the hostel, Bru Rhadarch na Mara, we stayed in Inisheer. Inisheer is the smallest of three islands off the coast of mainland Ireland. Since the island is so small, they do not have a freshwater supply. They can no longer use rain water because they have acid rain caused by emissions. Additionally, their aquifers have not been replenished due to dry and hot summers as a result of climate change. In order to get water, they import water from Galway which comes by ship 2-3 times a day.  Last year, there were even water restrictions enforced on the island. Since water is limited, there were signs all around our hostel about conserving water. These signs promote short showers and only flushing when necessary. Although these are only two examples of places trying to conserve water, due to climate change, many other places risk drying up their water supply in the future. Therefore, being conscious of water use is important for all communities. 

Homegrown Tastes Better

The first stop of the trip was made in Cloughjordan and our hostel was located in the Eco-Village. I had never experienced anything like it but it was an amazing learning opportunity. It resulted in an eye-opening experience for me on the topic of food. Being eco-friendly, the village strives to keep and maintain a vast array of locally grown food (Cloughjordan Community Farm).
The farm, spread across 40 acres, was established in 2008. When Pa (owner of hostel) took myself and eight others on a tour of the eco-village, he described the style of farming was based on CSA (community supported agriculture.)A few of the items that grow on the farm are potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, broccoli, beets, kale, turnips, parsnips, pumpkins, tomatoes, grapes, berries, melons and so much more. I came to realize since eating all of the naturally grown foods at the eco-village, that the sweetness and fresh taste is like none other. The farm is 100% organic which simply refers to no artificial fertilizers or pesticides as opposed to a lot of American grown foods on farms which have additives to make them last longer or grow quicker. Bruce whom is the lead gardner was asked with the question of what the main purpose of establishing such a large eco-friendly farm was and he responded with “we want to provide our community and those around the best produce, grown in the healthiest, most nutrient rich soil.”
Ireland as a whole relating to naturally grown food, is much healthier and fresher. Shopping for food and groceries, I immediately realized the fruits, and vegetables just looked so much more aesthetically pleasing than in the states. That assumption was confirmed when I was able to try them. I also realized there is not as nearly as much farmland in America as there is in Ireland. I noticed that supermarkets in Ireland seem to run out of produce much quicker than American supermarkets. America buys produce in bulk because they can. Ireland supermarkets depends on local farms (such as the Eco Village) to supply, and they do, until they run out. It is important to keep in mind that this observation is the result of 16 college students cleaning out a small local supermarket which usually does not happen every day.

The snack aisle in a market

“Preserve and Conserve the Water!”

Traveling around Ireland and experiencing the “water” situation for myself such as showers, I came to the realization that we as Americans are incredibly fortunate in the aspect of water. Considering water is so easily accessible in the United States, a majority of people take it for granted. I know in my personal life, after a long, stressful day at work or school I go home and take a long HOT shower. I do not generally think twice about the conservation of it or how much time I tend to use up before while the water is running. A good example of that would be when I brush my teeth and wash my face, I tend to keep the shower running because it is “warming up.” At the very beginning of our 2 week haul, we stayed at a community called the Ecovillage. I knew nothing about this place but obviously understood the main focus was on conserving energy, waste, and food. The first time I tried to use the shower, it took me a while to understand how it worked. The shower had one single button in the middle of it, which required you to press it numerous times if the shower was to continuously stay on. Pressing the button once resulted in around a 20 second burst of water from the shower. Having to go through this during every attempt at a shower truthfully got frustrating, but also made me fully understand the luxury of water I have back home. I realized back in the states, my concern was not how much water I was using or the amount of time I was in the shower, but rather when I felt comfortable to get out which most of the time is far greater than necessary. Ireland made me see things from another view and got me used to the idea of having to take shorter showers and keep the idea of water consumption in the back of my mind.