Giraffes, Rhinos, & Penguins, Oh My!

We visited Fota Wildlife Park in County Cork on Friday and it…was…amazing!  Our cousin Gearoid helped arrange the tour for us and it was truly a once in a lifetime experience.

Fota is a wildlife conservation park that collaborates with other parks in Europe and beyond to help conserve, protect, and advocate for wildlife. The ultimate goal at Fota is to help increase animal populations and then reintroduce them back into the wild. So for instance we learned that Fota has the “stud book” for the world’s cheetahs…cheetahs from around the world are tracked, monitored, and strategically placed in wildlife parks to help support breeding efforts. …We had a wonderful tour guide, Willie, who explained it to us and while I didn’t catch all of it (it was new to me), it was informing to learn that such efforts are afoot to help grow animal populations that might otherwise be at risk. And that there is global coordination among zoological/animal experts.

Another interesting thing: the rhinoceros house was like Fort Knox; because the rhino horns are worth so much on the black market, the European Union mandated security included dozens of CCTV cameras and censored entrance/exit tech.

All that being said …. From a purely selfish, “omigod I can’t believe we are here and get to do this” point of view: it was like being a kid again to experience Fota via private tour. Never in a million years did any of us imagine we’d have our first (and possibly only) experience feeding giraffes, rhinoceroses, penguins, and monkeys … all in one spot in Ireland. It was fantastic.

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The giraffes were my favorite part of the visit. We were able to go inside the visitor Pen and feed them from a bucket. They are majestic animals, so tall and lean, and the way they swoop their heads up and down to get a bit of food was unlike anything I had ever experienced. They are just massive creatures. They didn’t seem to mind us visitors, so as the pictures show they shoved their giant heads into the feed buckets, gently pushing us out of the way as they did so. They were adorable and intimidating at the same time….it was a wonderful mix of emotions all at once and we were all a bit bowled over…we left the giraffe pen like a group of school kids, absolutely astonished at what had just happened!

Our tour guide Willie was absolutely wonderful and all the kids had a fantastic time as the pictures show. Indira and Arjun had a great time too 😁

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Blarney Castle: Get there early!

“Get there early.”

This was the advice of Dermott, our wonderful tour guide, about Blarney Castle, where visitors can kiss the Blarney Stone and receive “the gift of the gab.” Dermott was a not a fan of Blarney Castle; he viewed it I suppose the way many New Yorkers view the Statue of Liberty or Empire State Building: a tourist trap that costs a lot of money, requires excessive waiting in line given large crowds, and entails a big buildup with questionable reward when it’s all said and done. Familiarity and proximity breed contempt, I suppose.

We were grateful we had Dermott to give us the inside scoop: absent his advice we likely would have landed at Blarney mid-day not knowing any better, and feeling stuck in the long lines, and subsequently guilt ridden at not being able to give the kids their promised chance to kiss the famous Blarney Stone. I had fond memories of the Stone; I enjoyed the experience when I was here in 1984 and I further enjoyed the fun of returning to the States saying I’d kissed it.

As we planned for the trip a couple of days prior, there was a fair amount of hand-wringing among some of us Leddy’s about whether or not we’d all wake up early enough; with fourteen of us in tow there was a high margin of error that we’d somehow not get our act together. But Dermott really drilled it into us that arriving at 9am SHARP was essential to avoiding DisneyWorld-like lines. As we mulled over the logistics, Bernard jokingly suggested that our contingency plan, should we arrive late, could be to tell the kids that one of the stones on the ground level perimeter was “the Blarney Stone” … we had a good laugh about that over dinner.

In the end, we heeded Dermott’s advice, coordinated ourselves, woke up on time, and arrived early. The park opened promptly at 9am, we were the FIRST tourists through the entrance gates, and by 9:10am we had stormed the castle walls; we made a wrong turn at one point on the first floor landing and dead-ended into an ancient bedroom, but soon corrected our route, turned around, and found the narrow stairwell to the top of the castle where the Blarney Stone awaited.

The experience does give one the authentic feeling of going back in time; the stairwell was tight (claustrophobic, if I’m being honest), with a modern metal railing to hold onto, but otherwise (I can only assume) as it had been in the 1400s: narrow and cramped, such that at times we had to hug our shoulders in, and underfoot were pie-shaped jagged stone steps, one after the other in a vertical corkscrew path. It quite honestly is a testament to 1400s stonework that we were even able to attempt the journey; I’m not sure how many of our staircases or stairwells will be accessible or even in existence in 600 years. As we hiked upward we passed small cavernous rooms at various landings. Within 5 minutes we had made it to the top, a perimeter walkway that lined the castle walls. The middle of the castle had been hollowed out with time, the wooden floors and support beams for the roof long gone.

Like any respectable tourist operation, the Castle staff had us quickly lined up and prepped to kiss the stone;
step 1: lie on our backs,
step 2: grip the metal bars behind us,
step 3: shimmy backwards on our bums to get into the proper position,
step 4: arch backwards and down to peck the stone, and
step 5: get up quickly to give the next person in line their chance.

It was my 2nd time kissing the Blarney Stone; Indira and Dev also kissed it (their first time) but Arjun didn’t as he was a bit too small for his own comfort. No bother though; Arjun was born chewing on a bit of Blarney so he’s all good.

We enjoyed the view and the scenery of the Castle itself; it is a beautiful sight to behold. In the U.S. we are not used to seeing many structures dating older than 200 years so there is a sense of wonderment just standing in the shadow of such an old and majestic structure.

All in all a great visit and worth the diligent planning and punctuality!

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Morse Code’s Tragic Roots

Did you know…Morse Code has its roots in a tragic story of heartache?

I learned this story while we were visiting Cobh, The Queenstown Story at Cobh Heritage Centre.  Cobh is located in Cork County, a southern port in Ireland. Mom’s parents both emigrated from the port of Cobh – our grandmother Mary in 1928 and our grandfather John in 1929. The center is a wonderful exhibit, focusing mostly on emigrants from Ireland but also on two notable mariner events: the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915.

Visitors are given the name of a historical avatar when they enter the exhibit, a person who emigrated from Ireland or was a passenger onboard the Titanic or Lusitania. While walking through the exhibit you can read about your historic avatar and learn of his or her fate; a bit of interactive learning that the kids in particular really enjoyed.

Over 3 million emigrants departed Ireland from Cobh, which was known as Queenstown from 1847 until 1920. Cobh was also the final port of call for the Titanic before it famously sunk a few days later in April 1912. It was also off the shores of Cobh that the British passenger ship RMS Lusitania sank after being hit with a German U-Boat torpedo. So there are many interesting stories and individuals who bring the backdrop of history alive.

But one story in particular took me by surprise; it was a small story ancillary to the Titanic exhibit: that of Samuel Morse.

I snapped a picture of the storyboard and am sharing it below. I was struck by how such an important invention- so logical, clinical, rote, and transformational to world history – was rooted in one man’s heartache.

Learning about the Great Famine (an Gorta Mór) at Skibbereen Heritage Centre

Learning more about Ireland’s mid-19th century Great Famine at the Skibbereen Heritage Centre was one of the most impactful experiences on our recent trip to Ireland.vJ0KSVT8RpuXHfEy7HWozA  It was historically fascinating and emotionally wrenching. Before we left for Ireland, I knew I wanted to learn more about the Famine; it is a history I felt I didn’t know enough about.

So in late June, before we departed on our vacation, I took the kids on a day of NYC touring about their Irish heritage. I took them to the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan, which gives context about the “Why” of migration from Ireland in the mid-19th century:

Later that day we visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, joining a neighborhood walking tour then visiting a tenement “frozen in time” to illustrate life for “Irish Outsiders” Joseph and Bridget Moore:

A week later, we were in Ireland. On Day 4 of our family tour we visited the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, which is close to Milleennahorna, where Mom is from.

As we drove to the Centre, our tour guide Dermott recounted basic statistics about the Famine which are jarring in scope:

  • Over 1 million Irish died between 1845 and 1852.
  • Over 1.25 million Irish fled Ireland to Europe, America, and other locations during this timeframe.
  • All told, Ireland saw a 45% reduction in population from the 1840s to the 1890s.

Skibbereen, termed “ground zero,” was particularly devastated by the Famine.  The Skibbereen Heritage Centre recounted this history, chock-full of information, exhibits, and context. Team members were on hand to give context to the exhibits, explaining the power structure between tenant and landlord in early 19th century Ireland, land use policies, policies around potato cultivation, and the subsequent horrors that unfolded when the potato crop failed so completely. There was so much to unpack from what we learned, but I was struck in particular by these observations:

  • The Famine was a “before and after” event in Irish history, re-shaping Irish culture, including the role of women and that of the Catholic Church in the 1850s and beyond.
  • The Famine was followed by a “great, eerie silence”, what the Centre guide described as akin to “cultural PTSD” that would ensue for over 150 years.
  • The Famine as a subject has been resurrected within Ireland only in the past 25 years, catalyzed in part by 150th anniversary commemorations in the mid 1990s.

The Centre did an excellent job of laying out the cultural, political, and economic context that led to the Famine…and then the aftermath, including personal accounts from that time period: witness accounts of men, women, and children dead in the streets, of systemic evictions of the poor, of failed bureaucratic programs that killed the vulnerable. I was taken aback both at how little I’d known and how much I now wanted to learn.

These are pictures of placards on display at the Skibbereen Heritage Centre:

As I spent time reading and listening at the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, I felt a deep desire to learn as much as possible about the Famine, in part because it is our heritage history, but also because past can so often be prologue, and migration due to famine, climate change, and other factors continues in 2018, albeit in different areas of the world, with different effects.

I purchased “Skibbereen: The Famine Story” which is an excellent, highly accessible and relatively short read about the famine’s local impact.  Then when I got home to Jersey City, I purchased the much larger “Atlas of the Great Irish Famine” which I’m reading now.

All told, the Skibbereen Heritage Centre is well worth a visit and I hope one day to return.

I wanted to share in case anyone else was interested:

Atlas of the Great Irish Famine“, by John Crowley, et al. New York University Press, 2012.
Skibbereen: The Famine Story“, by Terri Kearney and Philip O’Rgan. Macalla Publishing, 2015.

 

Sheepherding in Glenbeigh, Ireland

On this trip we are visiting my grandfather’s family who mostly live in Counties Cork and Waterford. But his wife – my grandmother – was named Mary Foley and she also emigrated from Ireland, from a town called Glenbeigh in County Kerry. We aren’t in touch with her family to the extent that we’re in touch with my grandfather’s family, but we did make a point to drive through Glenbeigh so that we could see where she came from, which for me was very meaningful.

I never met my grandmother, who was called Nanny, as she died a few years before I was born. But the way she’s talked about by those who knew her – from my older sister, my parents, my cousins in Ireland – is that she was full of life, laughed often, and was a consummate hostess. By many accounts, she and my grandfather were an immigrant success story; they moved to Ireland (separately) in the late 1920s, met and got married in America, and by the mid 1940s they owned their own home in Woodside and a dry cleaning business in Elmhurst. I wish I could have known her, though I’m grateful to at least visit where she came from.

Nanny emigrated to America in 1928, one year before Grandpa. She came from a sheep herding family in Glenbeigh.  Our tour guide, Dermott, knew this and made arrangements for us to make a stop with a sheep herder in Glenbeigh who has created a side tourist business for himself, explaining to his visitors how he uses sheep dogs to herd his flock of sheep. His name was Brendan Ferris and he was wonderful. Brendan invited us visitors to glimpse into his daily routine of herding the sheep via sheep dogs.  These canines are all work and no play (though it looks like they truly enjoy the work)!

It was fascinating to learn how Brendan directs two dogs at the same time.  He uses a basic set of commands, like “Go”, “Stop”, “Right”, “Left”, and so on.  And each dog is taught its own language for these commands; in effect, a different set of words for each dog. This is to ensure each dog understands only that set of commands that Brendan intends them to follow. Brendan helped us understood what he meant by highlighting the fact that we, the visitors watching him, were bifurcated into English and German speakers (there was a German-speaking tour group watching this along with us). Brendan would explain himself, then pause, and wait for the German translator to explain what he had just said. Brendan highlighted to us taht those of us who understood English made sense of what Brendan was saying, but those of us who didn’t know German (myself included) tuned out the German translation and only focused on the English. And vice versa, the German speakers likely made no sense of what Brendan said, but they could understand their translator.  The dogs act similarly: they listen for and obey only the signals they’ve been trained to understand.

Brendan explained it takes about 6 months to train the dogs, and they don’t start training until after a few months of age.

It was so enjoyable to get a glimpse into the daily life of a shepherd and his dogs…a recommended stop if you are ever traveling through or near Glenbeigh.  You can learn more about Brendan here.

First Glimpses of Ireland

Our flight from Newark was about a half hour delayed, but no matter. We flew the five hours and change eastward towards Shannon Airport, the kids sleeping most of the way.

It was an easy flight, with Indira, Arjun, and Devanjn on one side of the plane, and I across the aisle in the same row. As we began our descent into Shannon, I clicked this photo of Indira looking out the window.  And I was struck by a single thought, grateful and humbled by how meaningful the moment was: “in 1929 her great-grandfather emigrated to the USA on a steamship. Today, she’s flying back, about to land in Ireland and visit his country, hometown, and relatives.”

Would he ever have imagined this?

My Marathon Thank You

By any serious runner’s forecast, I was not supposed to finish the Marathon on November 3rd.  I joined my charity team late, which forced me to play-catch-up to the 18-week training plan. My two kids – aged 2 and 3 – still wake up most nights which left me exhausted for the Saturday morning “long runs” up and down the Hudson waterfront.  By late October, my longest training run had been only 13 miles.

But sometimes we are called to see the glass half-full.

Team “Gerry O” in Brooklyn before the Marathon started.

I was running with family, including my cousins, Orla, Gearoid, and Eoghan, and their friends, many of whom traveled from Ireland for the Marathon.  None of us had run a Marathon before, which gave us all a shared sense of impending doom about the 26.2 mile trek through NYC.  But we had a purpose: we were running in memory of Gerry O’Sullivan – father to my cousins and founder of Cork Cancer Research Centre – and raising money for Breakthrough Cancer Research, the fundraising body for CCRC.  Plus, all of us had raised thousands of dollars for Breakthrough Cancer Research; family and friends had parted with hard-earned money and lent us warm words of support.  How could we not at least try?

On the day of the Marathon I decided, as many runners do, to write my name on the front of my shirt in big, bold letters so the crowds could cheer me on as I ran.  Using fabric-grade velcro, I affixed a strip of white fabric with “BRIGID” written across it.  Running from the foot of the Verrazano Bridge into the tree-lined streets of Brooklyn, listening to ground-thumping dance music from speakers stationed in driveways and smelling barbecued chicken and burgers wafting through the air, I felt like a star.  It was thrilling to hear, in every accent imaginable, “Go Brigid!” and “You can do it!”

But at Mile 3, I got down to business.

Me at mile 3 in Brooklyn, just after switching the name on my shirt to “CLAUDIA”

As I was heading into Bay Ridge, I slowed down and pulled the white fabric labeled “BRIGID” off my chest and replaced it with a new strip labeled “CLAUDIA.”  For the next six miles – through Bay Ridge, Sunset Park, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Boerum Hill and Clinton Hill – I was running for Claudia Commo, a nurse I worked with in 1998-99 while serving as a Jesuit Volunteer at Omega House in Houston, Texas.

Brooklynites cheering for “CLAUDIA!!!”

Claudia was a pioneer in AIDS hospice work in Houston in the 1990s; she was kind and soft-spoken, with a self-deprecating sense of humor but a steely resolve that shone through when she had to intake residents who were still detoxing from crack or heroin.  I had not seen Claudia in over ten years, but I felt her loss when I learned this past July that she had died after a long battle of cancer.  Claudia was 100% southern – with a thick Texan accent – so I thought it would be cool to run her name through the heart of Brooklyn, past cheering crowds, block parties, and stoops packed with young urbanites holding home-made signs to cheer us all on.  It was awesome to hear “Go Claudia!” and “Vamos, Clow-dia!” the entire way.

I ran with “AUNT B” through Queens, where my Aunt Barbara was born and raised.

In Williamsburg I replaced my strip of fabric and ran miles 10 through 16 with “AUNT B” across my chest.  Aunt Barbara was my father’s sister and one of my favorite adults as a kid; she stuffed M&Ms and cans of Coke into small paper bags when we left her house for the long car ride home, and she made outings to the video rental store feel like a trip to Disney World.  She died on October 20, 2011 after a long battle with cancer.  I miss her terribly and wish my kids could have known her, which is why each cheer of her name through Brooklyn and Queens felt like a prayer to the Heavens.

Gerry O’Sullivan, founder of Cork Cancer Research Centre and my mom’s cousin.

While stretching my calves against the concrete divider on the 59th Street Bridge, I did a final swap of white fabric, peeling the velcro back to replace “AUNT B” with “GERRY O”. Gerry was my mother’s first cousin and “the outstanding Irish surgeon of his generation” according to The Irish Times.  His children, Orla and Eoghan, are now instrumental in leading “Breakthrough Cancer Research,” a fundraising organization in Cork that grew out of CCRC and seeks to transform laboratory breakthroughs into clinical treatments for cancer patients.  I wrote a separate blog post on Gerry here; he was the reason “Team Gerry” ran 26.2 miles on a cold November day in NYC, and that his children now carry on his legacy to fight cancer is the ultimate testament to him.

I was still smiling at Mile 24 as I entered Central Park. Tired, but smiling.

In the end, out of 50,304 finishers, I placed 47,493.  I ran consistently for six hours, 2 minutes, and 37 seconds, stopping only a few times for potty breaks and to stretch my legs.  My overall pace was 13:51 per mile; I was not fast, but I was a Finisher.  And more importantly, I helped raise over $3,600 for Breakthrough Cancer Research with the help of friends and family from all over the world, including Ireland, New York, Philadelphia, Houston, Chicago, Dubai, Minnesota, Nepal, Boston, Madagascar, New Jersey, New York, California, and India.  That support – from family and friends – is what propelled me through the pain, and gave me hope and inspiration despite my lackluster training.

So, to all who donated to my run, I have just a few final parting words:  I did not run the Marathon…WE ran the Marathon.  I did not raise over $3,600 money for Breakthrough Cancer Research…WE raised those funds.  And finally, I did not give meaning to Breakthrough’s vision “There is hope and that hope is in research”…WE gave meaning to that vision together.  And for that, I am forever grateful.

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A very special thank you to EVERYONE who donated to Breakthrough Cancer Research to support my 2013 NYC Marathon run.  And…if you did not yet donate, you still can – please visit my JustGiving page here.  THERE IS HOPE…AND THAT HOPE IS IN RESEARCH.