Ireland, Part 4 (On the Water)

On July 27, 2014 · 0 Comments

I enjoy boat rides. Ireland is surrounded by water. Is it surprising that I found myself cruising over the waves? No of course not, although I didn’t expect it to happen four times during my trip even if a couple of those were fleeting encounters.

Skellig Michael

12MC’s brief video from the Skellig Islands

Skellig Michael ranked high on my list of priorities as I planned the trip. A skellig is rock, in this instance the Rock of Michael, mirroring the Irish language Sceilig Mhichíl. Skellig Michael and its sister Little Skellig jutted sharply from the Atlantic Ocean a dozen kilometres from the Iveragh Peninsula (map). While just a stone’s throw from the famous Ring of Kerry and its tourist busloads, Skellig Michael stood a world apart in approachability and was equally difficult to conquer.

Irish authorities severely limited access to this fragile UNESCO World Heritage Site. Only small boats could dock at Skellig Michael and only a handful of licenses were awarded each year to charter operators working primarily from Portmagee. This limited visitors to about 150 people per day give-or-take, and only in the summer months when ocean swells calmed sufficiently. Even that could be a crapshoot. We had to reschedule our original reservation after all five sailing days leading up to it were canceled due to high waves. The island caretakers wouldn’t let boats land there in perceptively dangerous conditions.

So why would anyone want to go to Skellig Michael? Lousy weather, seasickness, expense and inconvenience were all possibilities. These were all offset by the actual experience. The difficulty of the journey only enhanced the rewards.

The two Skelligs, out by themselves and surrounded by water, attracted huge colonies of birds. These included about ten thousand Atlantic Puffins on Skellig Michael, and I think many people would agree that puffins are about the cutest birds that exist. They’re like the pandas of the avian world. They also seemed to lack all fear of human visitors. We got as close to puffins on Skellig Michael as we would to pigeons in a park, and they were everywhere. Our kids loved them. I wouldn’t have ridden an hour on a cabin cruiser through an intermittent drizzle to a rocky shard simply for a few birds, though. They were a bonus.

The main attraction was the ancient monastery built high atop Skellig Michael around the 6th Century. The monks who settled here were sometimes called "white martyrs" because of their lives of suffering, deprivation and absolute devotion to their Christian faith, albeit without bloodshed. This must have felt like the most isolated place on earth 1,500 years ago.

We climbed the steep unprotected steps carved into the mountainside centuries ago, several hundred feet up to the monastery, as the horizon disappeared into clouds. It seemed otherworldly as we explored in a thick fog through beehive huts constructed by those early monks as crude shelter. I thought to myself as we walked along, that it seemed like a setting out of Dungeons and Dragons or Lord of the Rings. I’ve since learned that this will likely be a filming location for Star Wars: Episode VII. It’s a good thing we visited Skellig Michael when we did. Reservations will become a lot more difficult once the secret gets out and Star Wars fans put it on the pilgrimage list.

Kenmare Bay

The Seafari cruise out of Kenmare became our consolation prize on the day we planned to visit Skellig Michael originally and had to postpone it due to the weather. The waves were much calmer in protected Kenmare Bay (map) than the open Atlantic so we diverted to Kenmare that morning to see the Harbor Seals instead of Portmagee to see the puffins. It’s good to be flexible.

The ship’s captain explained that a gloomy day actually worked to our advantage. Sudden movements spooked seals, and sunny days created shadows they detected as motions. More seals should be sitting out on the rocks when cloudy. I wasn’t sure if that was something like rain supposedly being "good luck" on a wedding day — designed to make someone feel better — or whether there was truth behind his statement. Either way, we saw plenty of seals including a few tiny pups that resided with their parents only for a brief period each Summer before striking out on their own.


We kept returning to a recurring theme during our journey: how to separate ourselves from larger crowds in popular tourist destinations. Case in point, several sites in Killarney National Park just outside of the town of Killarney all drew healthy gatherings. However, Innisfallen Island (map) in the middle of the park’s Lough Leane, did not. That required a boat and most people did not want to go through the effort.

I think large excursion boats went to Innisfallen at certain times of the day although none were there when we visited. Instead, we hired a boatsman to ferry us from the concession stand at nearby Ross Castle to the middle of the lake. There we climbed through the ruins of Innisfallen Abbey, founded originally in 640 and lasting through 1594. There were only two other people on the island during our brief layover, and then we got a guided tour around the lake afterwards to boot.

Valentia Island Ferry

Our fourth journey across water involved the Valentia Island Ferry (map). I’ll talk more about that in an upcoming article so I’ll just mention it for now.

Completely Unrelated

Comment spam seems to have returned to the Twelve Mile Circle. It took a nosedive a few months ago after Google started penalizing link-back schemes in its page-rank algorithms. The spammers have responded by linking back to YouTube and Yahoo Answers pages instead, and I’ve noticed a steady upswing in those tactics. Of course, I moderate every comment on 12MC and I delete spam before readers ever see it. It’s interesting to watch the cat-and-mouse games from my little corner of the world.

The Ireland articles:

Sensing Senses

On May 8, 2014 · 4 Comments

Five senses came to mind; sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. They were very traditional human-centric senses I conceded, given various other senses in existence like echolocation, magnetoception and others. I ignored those. I also ignored the so-called sixth sense, extrasensory perception, ESP. You already knew that, though (kidding!). Could I find five traditional senses in placenames? Well no, not really although a few instances emerged. Some came with stories while others remained shrouded in mystery.


Sight Point, Western Australia

I could have selected any of several places featuring sight. I settled on Sight Point in Western Australia on the edge of Prince Regent National Park. I don’t know why. It didn’t seem any more significant than the others. Maybe it was because the park sounded interesting:

Prince Regent National Park is one of Australia’s most remote and beautiful places… The park contains more than half the mammals and bird species found in the whole Kimberley region, and more than 500 species of plants. Saltwater crocodiles are huge and abundant… There is no road access to the park, which is only accessible by boat.

I’d like to encounter every bit of that park except for any of the huge, abundant saltwater crocodiles.


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Noisy-le-Grand: Les Arènes de Picasso by harry_nl, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

I never thought that the French commune Noisy-le-Grand in the Île-de-France region would translate into English as "Great Noise," although that truly would have been, um, grand. It has been postulated that Noisy derived from the Latin nucetum for walnut grove. The town’s coat-of-arms included three walnuts in recognition of its likely etymology. The le-Grand part did indeed mean "great" and probably arose as a way to distinguish Noisy-le-Grand from several other French places with the Noisy prefix: e.g, Noisy-le-Sec; Noisy-sur-Oise; Noisy-le-Roi. Did Noisy-le-Roi mean Walnut King?!? That would be funny. It probably meant something less amusing like the Royal Walnut Grove or words to that effect.


Queens Taste Mine, New Mexico, USA

I found Queens Taste Mine in Hidalgo Co., New Mexico. I couldn’t discover anything else about it. However I did find Queens Taste in Queens, New York. It was a restaurant and food festival sponsored by the Queens Economic Development Corporation, billed as "the borough’s premiere networking and culinary event" and "feature everything from sweet to savory, Asian to Italian, and crunchy to creamy."

I doubted that Queens Taste in far southwestern New Mexico, set no more than ten miles from the Mexican border, had any relationship whatsoever with the Queens Taste in Queens, New York. Someone please prove me wrong because that would be awesome.


Smell-No-Taste, Liberia

Liberia faced severe financial problems in the 1920′s. Backed into a corner, the nation made a hard bargain with the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. Their agreement allowed the corporation to amass the largest contiguous rubber plantation in the world under its Firestone Natural Rubber Company subsidiary. Firestone negotiated brutal terms, a 99-year lease on a million acres at 6 cents per acre. That’s an area about the same size as the U.S. state of Rhode Island by comparison. The company also got to choose the location, anywhere in Liberia it desired. Oh, and Firestone controlled all of Liberia’s finances for a couple of decades until various loans it offered were paid off. The plantation remains in Liberia today amidst various allegations of questionable practices including child labor exploitation.

The Firestone Plantation served as a beachhead for other foreign investments along with the infrastructure necessary to serve them. Hemmed-in between the Firestone Plantation and Roberts International Airport (informally called Robertsfield), a town arose with the curious name of Smell-No-Taste. Many sources recounted the story. One version came from the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University:

Near Robertsfield International Airport in Liberia, there is a town named “Smell-no-Taste.” The town acquired its name in the period after World War II, when foreign contractors arrived in the country, tasked with building the airport. The massive construction project attracted a stream of Liberians hoping to find employment. Eager to be selected as a temporary worker, those migrants set up camps near the residences of the foreigners who were supervising the project. Every night, the contractors would cook dinner inside their compounds, the smell of the food drifting its way into the camps where the hungry migrants waited for the opportunity to work. Thus, the town became known to locals as “Smell-no-Taste.”

Apparently it was officially named Unification Town although that’s not what took hold as the popular name. Smell-No-Taste also became a bit of a euphemism for everything wrong with foreign investment in Liberia.

On a tangent, take a look to the south — A town named Snafu! The family-friendly version of this acronym is "Situation Normal All Fouled Up." Use your imagination or consult the Urban Dictionary for the more commonly referenced profane definition. Liberia hosted a US Military presence during the Second World War. I had to wonder if the name derived from a bit of military slang or whether it was completely coincidental and meant something different and innocuous in an indigenous language.


Touchit Cove, Alaska, USA

I didn’t have nearly as many options for touch nor any interesting stories for the location I selected either, Touchit Cove. The United States Geological Survey GNIS simply said it "extends E near mouth of Shoe Inlet, on NW coast of Long I., Alex. Arch." I liked the name. Nothing more.

Catbird Seat

On March 18, 2014 · 0 Comments

"In the catbird seat" is an idiomatic expression in the United States although I don’t know if that holds true elsewhere, and means "a position of great prominence or advantage" (Merriam-Webster). This had to be one of the more unusual expressions, and it’s puzzled me over the years although never enough to examine its etymology until I noticed Catbird, Ohio.

Catbird, Adams County, Ohio, USA

Pardon my ignorance. My initial issue was that I didn’t even know whether a "catbird" was a cat parading as a bird for some maniacal reason or a bird masquerading as a cat. Why would the names of two perfectly acceptable yet totally contradictory animals need to be mashed together like that? There was at least one other feline-fauna combination, catfish, so I realized it wasn’t completely unprecedented. Maybe it wasn’t the weirdest possible combination imaginable like maybe catcow (apparently a yoga pose), although catbird still sounded strange to me.

Dumetella Carolinensis

Birders in the 12MC audience already knew the answer and probably smiled at my pitifully uninformed viewpoint. Catbird was indeed a bird masquerading as a cat.

Catbird Bath by Barbara Friedman on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license

Several years ago I took a trip through the Finger Lakes region of New York, using Ithaca as staging point. It was there that I learned of Cornell University’s prominent position in the birder universe, supported by its renowned Lab of Ornithology. Naturally I’ve turned to them as a source of definitive information on rare occasions when 12MC discussed birds, a topic I knew next to nothing about ordinarily. From its Gray Catbird page:

If you’re convinced you’ll never be able to learn bird calls, start with the Gray Catbird. Once you’ve heard its catty mew you won’t forget it. Follow the sound into thickets and vine tangles and you’ll be rewarded by a somber gray bird with a black cap and bright rusty feathers under the tail. Gray Catbirds are relatives of mockingbirds and thrashers, and they share that group’s vocal abilities, copying the sounds of other species and stringing them together to make their own song.

Gray Catbirds range from Central America, up along the eastern coast of Mexico, across most of the United States except the southwest, and then the complete southern rim of Canada (where something like 75% of Canadians live lives). The International Union for Conservation of Nature defined Gray Catbird — Dumetella carolinensis — as a species of "least concern." Gray Catbirds exhibited a stable population and an extremely large range. Chances were good that anyone in the 12MC audience from North America lived amongst catbirds, although like myself, never really thought about it before.

There were several other distantly related and unrelated groups of birds worldwide also called catbirds because of their catty calls, primarily living in Australia plus one in Central America and another in Ethiopia. I focused on the Gray Catbird because the expression "in the catbird seat" likely originated within the United States.

The Thurber Connection

"The Catbird Seat" was a short story written in 1942 by James Thurber and published in The New Yorker magazine.

It was Joey Hart, one of Mr. Martin’s two assistants, who had explained what the gibberish meant. "She must be a Dodger fan," he had said. "Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions–picked ‘em up down South." Joey had gone on to explain one or two… "sitting in the catbird seat" means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.

I won’t give away the ending except to note that the catbird expression figured prominently in the climax. You should read it yourself — it won’t take more than about ten minutes — and come back when your done.

The Barber Connection

(Historic Location) Ebbets Field, Home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York, USA

Walter Lanier ("Red") Barber "was one of the first two broadcasters honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame." He was born in Mississippi in 1908, became a pioneering sports broadcaster and was considered by many as "the first reporter to broadcast baseball" rather than simply announce the games. He served as the "voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers" from 1939 to 1953. Barber carried along folksy colloquialisms he’d acquired during his travels and used them as he called games, most famously "in the catbird seat." He even titled his 1968 autobiography Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat.

Barber and Thurber popularized the expression. The history of catbird seat prior to their usage was murky at best (e.g., Phrase Finder and Etymology Online). Barber claimed he’d first heard it spoken in Cincinnati years earlier from the boastful winner of a hand of poker that Barber had just lost. Lots of different birds perched in treetops so the question remained, why the catbird? Nobody knows.

Catbird as a Placename

Cincinnati to Catbird, Ohio, USA

Catbird, Ohio was the only populated place in the United States with that name, applying to a settlement and the former site of a collocated school. There were also two inconsequential streams, one in Maryland and one in Tennessee.

Interestingly, the Catbird settlement was maybe 75 miles (120 km) upstream on the Ohio River from Cincinnati, the city where Red Barber claimed he’d first heard the expression. I found no further information about the town other than a soil survey taken by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture in the 1930′s: "A colluvial phase of Huntington silt loam occurs along Ohio Brush Creek along Moore Run and Beasley Fork east of Catbird School and along a number of small creeks north of West Union."

Maybe there was an historical abundance of catbirds along the southwestern Ohio stretch of the river. Maybe people were predisposed to use catbird in an expression like someone elsewhere might have used sparrow, pigeon, starling or robin.

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