No matter how often you visit Ireland, you can nearly always find something fun, new, and interesting.
Last autumn, we loved hearing on the radio and reading about “UFO sightings” in Irish skies. Local radio stations were abuzz with reports that unidentified flying objects had been spotted by several commercial airline pilots.
The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) reported in November that the Irish Aviation Authority was investigating reports of bright lights and UFOs off the southwest coast of Ireland. The stories began when a British Airways pilot, flying from Montreal to Heathrow, asked Shannon air traffic control if there were military exercises in the area because something was “moving so fast” in the sky.
Traffic control reported that there were no exercises. The pilot said there was “a very bright light” and the object came along the left side of the aircraft, then “rapidly veered to the north.”
About the same time, a Virgin Atlantic pilot flying from Orlando to Manchester, suggested it might be a meteor or some other object re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. He reported that there were “multiple (very bright) objects following the same sort of trajectory.” The pilot said he saw “two bright lights” over to the right that climbed away at great speed.
According to press reports, another pilot quipped, “Glad I’m not the only one” who saw the strange lights.
The Irish Times reported that the Irish Aviation Authority was investigating the incident and would file the conclusions from a report that “will be investigated under the normal confidential occurrence investigation process.” We haven’t heard of any updates since then.
As I drove across Co. Galway heading for Connemara last autumn, local radio stations hosts were chatting about Harriet the Singing Donkey, whose bray was said to sound like an aria by Madame Butterfly. Harriet was an international sensation. Assorted newspapers, radio, and television stations from everywhere had trekked into the somewhat remote region of Connemara to record and report about her singing.
Not to be outdone by other media, we hitched a ride with a friend to Carraroe and found Harriet, who as then eight years old, down a narrow one-lane road bordered by ancient stonewalls. We drove past the local school and stopped several people along the road to ask where we might find the soprano. They all knew.
A bit farther on, there she was, braving the rain and wind in her muddy pasture beside the road. A blue rope tied a metal gate across the stonewall opening. I had anticipated a grander and more sheltered enclosure for such an international celebrity.
With our bag of fresh carrots, we knew she couldn’t resist us. A Connemara gale blew sheets of rain against us as we fed her the carrots. Did she sing to thank us? Actually, she didn’t utter a single sound.
We met her owner, Stephen McGrath, 15, walking along the road with his sheepdog, and asked him about his famous donkey. He said Harriet - originally named Harrison until they realized she was a female jenny - was never able to heehaw like other donkeys. Martin Stanton, a neighbor who lives about 20 minutes away, regularly brought her carrots, bread, and ginger nut biscuits and she “sang” every time he approached.
One day, Stanton took a video of her singing and posted it online where it went viral, making Harriet a star. “I never knew she sang until he took the video,” Stephen said. Even though the media reported that her song sounds like the aria from Madame Butterfly, we can’t verify that because she didn’t make a sound for us.
MAYO BEACH AND GIN
Mayo’s Dooagh beach on Achill Island has disappeared, reappeared, and recently disappeared again.
The beach was washed away in 1984 but reappeared in April, 2017, when many tons of sand were deposited by the sea back onto the shore, much to the delight of the tourist industry. That story made international headlines and visitor numbers reportedly increased by 70 percent after the beach reappeared.
This winter, the beach headed out to sea again after a series of strong storms. Seamus Molloy of Achill Tourism was quoted in the Irish press as saying, “In 2017 when it reappeared, it was over the Easter period and it was a very cold snap. It was a very strong wind but it was a constant northerly wind and it was just in the right direction to bring the sand back in. It was a very freak occurrence. I wouldn’t be holding my breath that it will come back again in April but you would never know.”
Also making headlines in Mayo recently is the gin produced in Tourmakeady. Gin has become popular in Ireland; for instance, at a recent wedding there, favors at dinner were small bottles of gin sporting the names of the bride and groom.
The Tourmakeady product is called Loch Measc Gin and it says on the bottle that it is “handmade in the wilds of Mayo” and was “inspired by the wild juniper berries and botanicals that grow around Lough Mask. We distill small batches of gin in a traditional copper pot still.” The distillery also brews single malt whiskey and vodka.
To learn more, see loughmaskdistillery.com.
WILDE IRISH CHOCOLATE
While passing through Shannon Duty Free, some cute cartoon sheep caught our eye. Eight wooly critters pleaded from the wrapper of a pure milk chocolate candy bar, “Are we going home with ewe?” Seven more cartoon sheep hovered on a ledge at the Cliffs of Moher saying, “Crowded at the Cliffs.” The bars are handmade by Wilde Irish Chocolates in Tuamgraney, Co. Clare, and are sold in Shannon’s outstanding duty free shop and at numerous other locations, including the Cliffs of Moher.
Not only is the chocolate delicious but there’s interesting information on the back of each wrapper. The Cliffs wrapper cites the height of the Cliffs at various locations and notes that more than a million tourists visit the site every year. The other wrapper says Ireland’s sheep flocks are small by international standards, with half the flocks having fewer than 50 ewes, even though there are more than 2.2 million breeding ewes in Ireland. The most common breed, according to Wilde, is the blackface, which is hardy and can cope with the wind, rain and cold.
Be sure to look for these cute gifts when you next pass through Shannon or visit the website, wildeirishchocolates.com, to find other locations where the chocolates are sold.
GAME OF THRONES
If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, you’re in luck if you’ll be anywhere near Belfast this year. A touring exhibition is coming to the Titanic Exhibition Center (TEC) in Belfast for a limited visit, starting April 11. The exhibit features costumes, authentic props, and settings from all seven seasons to create an interactive Game of Thrones experience.
The exhibit runs through Sept. 1. The exhibition will give fans an up-close look at the artistry and craftsmanship behind the Emmy award-winning series, as well as opportunities to experience the landscapes of the North and the tree-lined pathway of the Kingsroad; view a garrison of Unsullied warriors and the iconic costumes of House Targaryen; step into the House of Black and White; and explore Castle Black, the home of the Night’s Watch and Battle for the Iron Throne.
Tickets can be booked at: gameofthronesexhibition.co.uk
Have you ever been to one of Ireland’s fun and fascinating medieval banquets? There are a number to choose from in the Shannon area, including Bunratty Castle in Bunratty, Knappogue in Quin, and Dunguaire in Kinvara. See shannonheritage.com for bookings and details.
Another interesting place to visit is Craggaunowen Castle and Crannog to see how Bronze Age peoples lived. Be sure to check the Shannon Heritage website for opening times as winter sometimes curtails availability.
Enjoy Ireland whenever and wherever you go. It’s a magical country with something for everyone.