Top o’ the morning to ye.

I’ve never heard an Irish person say that, btw.  But it’s a nice sunny day here and all’s well with the world – at least here in my kitchen – so it seems appropriate.

When I have conversations with people in New Zealand there are a few questions that come up fairly often so, because I know you’re all on the edges of your seats waiting to hear about me and my life, I thought I might as well answer them here.

Are you still planning to go to America?

Short answer: I don’t know.

Longer answer:  Seattle is still sort of the Holy Grail for Josh’s career.  To be promoted he needs to be visible and have his work noticed by higher-up people.  That’s chugging along all right here but there are more people-who-need-impressing in Seattle.  It is the Amazon mothership after all.  Also, Ireland has high tax rates and America has much lower ones which doesn’t matter too much now but in a couple of years, assuming he’s still working for Amazon somewhere, he will start getting shares as part of the salary package and they’ll make a bigger dent in the mortgage if they’re not taxed at 40%.

On the other hand, there’s Mr Trump bellowing around like a bull in a china shop and things seem…unstable.  The main concern for us would be health insurance.  Under Obamacare insurers had to cover pre-existing conditions.  It’s been said that this will continue, even though Obamacare will be gone by lunchtime, but who knows.  Amazon pays for Josh’s health insurance, and subsidises it for the rest of us, but with things in flux because the president is such a loose unit we don’t know what that will mean.  If pre-existing conditions are not covered by whatever insurance Josh is given and the rest of us can afford, the first large-ish medical event that isn’t fully covered could cripple us.  Medical expenses are the leading cause of bankruptcy in America, and it’s not just poor people or uninsured people suffering.  We don’t have to put ourselves in that position, so we’ll do the research and maybe decide that it’s not worth the risk.

Because it's not like it won't happen, y'know?

Because it’s not like it won’t happen, y’know?

Then, we may not get the choice in the first place.  We’d be immigrants.  White and professional but still not Americans.  Back in the day, when Josh was first offered the position in Seattle, his visa application was put in a lottery.  We were told that 70% of applications would be pulled out and processed.  His was in the other 30% and was returned unopened.

Now, he’s been told by colleagues visiting from America, Amazon doesn’t bother putting anyone in the lottery at all.  It sounds like they’re not even trying to hire foreigners for positions there any more.  We would use the internal transfer process, but who knows how successful that might be.  If it was, the visa he would then hold would entitle him to work at that one job and that job only.  If he wanted to leave Amazon, or had to, we would pretty much have to leave the country the next day.  Previously, if he had been working in Seattle, they would have started the process of getting a green card for him, giving us a lot more freedom.  But now, frankly, it’s beginning to feel a bit like they may not want us.

Then there’s the question of whether we want them.  Out of all the options, is is the best place to raise children right now?  I don’t know.  No country is perfect.  There’s racism everywhere, there’s poverty everywhere, there’s injustice everywhere.  There’s stupidity everywhere.  I do see signs, though, that in all those regards and others, New Zealand is at least trying to head in the right direction.  So is Ireland.  But America?  I’m not so sure.  There would be opportunities there that the children don’t have here.  At the moment, though, it’s in the wait-and-see box.  We have told the children that they will definitely be here until the end of the next school year.  Amy will then sit her Junior Certificate, giving her something to show for a so-far fairly piecemeal secondary education. Beyond that?  Watch this space.

How’s school working out?

Broadly speaking, pretty well.  Cassia is about to finish Senior Infants, and she loves school and her teacher and all the things.  Apart from reading Astrosaurs books she certainly isn’t anywhere near the level she would have been if she’d stayed in New Zealand, but I’m not bothered.

Seeing the system from within has changed my perspective on children starting school at four.  As a teacher and a parent I was horrified by the way that children in Britain often start at four, and I see from the social media discussions that pop up from time to time that I’m not alone.  The reality, at least here, is a bit different than I imagined.

In Ireland all children start in September, at the beginning of the school year, and they can start aged four or five.  Most seem to be four.  They do look so tiny in their uniforms.  When Cassia joined the Junior Infants last April, aged five and a half, she was a great big bruiser beside most of them.  However, it’s not like putting a four-year-old into the school system that we’re used to.

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Could we have a normal photo face just once please? No. No we could not.

For one thing the school day for the first two years ends early.  At our school it’s 8:50 – 1:30 for the Infants.  The school down the road finishes at 1:15.  So in length it’s really more like a kindy session.  That includes lunch time, so they could go home and fit in a nap if they wanted.  Cassia will be a week off seven before she has to do the full school day of 8:50 – 2:30.  And it’s definitely a kindy curriculum.  Cassia joined the class last year at the start of the final term of the year and they were still spending plenty of the day on developmental play – blocks, cars and dolls, like that.  Now, a year later, her homework in maths and literacy is still very much the ‘draw a line between two shapes that are the same’ type thing that she was doing in pre-school three years ago.


I can’t speak for the rest of Britain but I can say that in our experience, the wee ones are not really starting school at four.  They’re starting two years of pre-school that just happens to be in a school setting.  They’re playing, they’re painting, they’re growing endless sunflower and tomato seeds, and they’re certainly not being put under the pressure of spelling tests and reading levels that my first three children were.  Yes, Cassia could be writing more and doing more sophisticated maths. But she’s reading fluently and she’s happy and she’s allowed to stay young a little bit longer and all the rest will come.

Noah has had a rocky few weeks because he got a new teacher in February when she returned from maternity leave and she’s mean and shouty.  So would I be probably if I had a little baby and a full-time job.  He adored the previous one, who was kind and gentle and gave a group of them the harder maths work that he wanted, so the contrast isn’t helping.  After a good few evenings of tears and mornings of sore tummies I had a chat with the principal who said I was not the first parent to complain (far from it, was the impression I got) and he was taking it very seriously.  He told the teacher not to be mean and shouty and assured Noah that he’ll have a different teacher next year then we looked on the calendar and found that there’s only three weeks left, and we’re all okay again.

Bake sale day, though. So it's not all bad.

Bake sale day, though. So it’s not all bad.

I think part of the problem for Noah was boredom.  When I buy their stationery at the start of the year it’s in the form of a workbook for each subject and separate ones for homework.  The books have set work for each week and the kids work their way through them over the course of the year.  They are bright and colourful and fun, but they do seem to operate on the assumption that every child will be at the same level and working at the same speed for the entire eight years of primary school.  When Noah got his new maths homework book in September and realised that he could already do all of it, and his spelling homework book with a year’s worth of activities to teach words he already knew, he got pretty upset.  We spoke to the teacher and she set up a maths group with a new book and all was well until she left.  They do other things in class as well as following the books, and some of it must be ability-grouped.  I will be going in to talk to the new teacher in September, though.  It does seem like his time is being wasted to some extent and I don’t blame him for being frustrated.

Apart from that we still love the primary school.  It is friendly and gentle and none of them have ever been made to feel that they’re not good enough.  If only Daniel could have had a primary school experience like this, how different his attitude to school and learning might be.

Daniel has finished his first year of high school.  The school system here is about thirty years out of date, by our standards.  It reminds me very much of how it was back in my day.  No technology or digital learning, three years’ work being measured in one set of all-or-nothing exams for Junior Certificate with no internal assessment, very limited optional subjects of the cooking/woodwork/art variety and none of the more modern graphic design/outdoor education/drama type classes offered at the college he would have gone to in New Zealand.  This won’t matter for the other three, who can thrive in that environment well enough, but it’s a backward step for Daniel.

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Daniel’s in all these photos, if you squint, except for the middle one.  That’s his friends.  He was busy on the bouncy castle when that one was taken.

It is what it is, and he just has to manage.  The teachers are very responsive (apart from the English teacher who appears to be mostly asleep) and they do their best for him under extremely trying circumstances.  He was given a scribe for the end-of-year exams last week and he certainly felt that it was helpful.  Results will arrive in the mail eventually so we shall see.

Amy changed schools at Christmas.  Among the small pool of 25 or so girls in her year at the local school, she just didn’t find any that she had much in common with.  It’s in a socially disadvantaged area and she felt that most of the class time was wasted by behaviour problems.  So we put her in a convent.

Finding a new school wasn’t the easiest.  By the time we eliminated private and boys’ schools, it was clear that she’d have to travel out of the area and that she’d be lucky to find a space.  However, it all worked out.  It’s a long day with the bus ride, but she has bus buddies and, like all high schools, they finish at 1:00 every Wednesday which takes the pressure off a bit.  She now has friends and challenging work and it’s all much better.  It’s not really a convent these days.  It’s a 180-year-old Dominican Sisters college and they’re taught by teachers, not nuns.  It’s very multi-national and the religious education component is true religious education – learning about various different religions, philosophies and belief systems – rather than catechism.  The library is in the former chapel in the oldest part of the building and it’s this long narrow room with huge vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows, and it’s marvellous. So, all’s well that ends well.



And this is one of the things I love about Ireland.  Everything is old so there’s always a story.  Or at least a bunch of interesting photos.  These are all from the archives at Amy’s school:


The original Blessed Virgin’s Dormitory.  It doesn’t exist now which is a shame; it would have been handy to threaten her with when she doesn’t keep her room tidy.


Girls on the Domestic Science Training course. Learning how to dust, those were the days.


German refugees making their First Holy Communion in 1951.


And then this. Does the background look familiar? Yes, because only in New Zealand do we build houses out of materials designed to last only a hundred years. In 1871 ten Sisters from Sion Hill, Amy’s school, came to New Zealand and started a convent in Dunedin, and later others around the South Island. This picture is from 1876. It’s a small world.


How does Josh like the job, after all that?

Mostly fine.  Some days not so much, but that’s the nature of the beast.  Almost nobody there is Irish so if we have an Irish-person question I have to ask around the school gate.  They hired something like 600 people in Dublin last year, so he’s like an old-timer now.  The working conditions are fine and the people are nice.  They held a lovely Christmas market with free stuff for the families, and do occasional other social events.  Every two months or so he’s on call for a week and can be paged to fix things any time of the day or night, which is a bit like having a new baby – if you get a decent few hours’ sleep you’re really grateful – but it’s not usually too bad.  In the last year Josh has worked in London for a few days and in Seattle a couple of times, which is enough travel to be interesting but not difficult.  Worth coming all this way for?  Yes.

You don’t appear to have a job, so how do you fill in your time?

No, I don’t appear to have a job.  This is because a) I don’t have a working visa, b) I don’t really want one, and – mostly – c) with Cassia finishing school at 1:30 every day and with the ridiculous three-month school summer holidays, it’d be more trouble than it’s worth.  When September comes and Cassia’s occupied all the way to 2:30, I should probably look into it.  In the meantime, however, I do a fair bit of not much.

I do almost all the free stuff on offer at the primary school (although I did draw the line at flower-arranging): book club, yoga, card-making, bus trips.  I’m getting a bit disillusioned with yoga though, to tell the truth.  I got active-wear and everything and expected to become all thin and flexible in no time but – well – maybe I should ask for my money back on the active-wear because it just doesn’t appear to be working.  I’ve done it heaps of times, too.  At least, like, fifteen. Hmph.


I go to another book club at the local library, which is also my go-to for Irish person questions and for movie buddies for the Monday night programme at the local cinema.  (Or, in Irish: going to the fillums).

I go along to school for the various reading-with-the-Infants type programmes, and I go to the library, and I (grudgingly) keep the place vaguely sanitary.  I organise our various trips away, which can take a surprisingly long time, because six people is a lot for hotel rooms or airbnbs or rental cars.  It’s good fun though.  For every trip we do I get to spend about six times as long researching all the possibilities.  I can avoid many a boring household task by checking out every campsite in Donegal, or whatever has taken our fancy.  I have found treehouses in France and yurts in Scotland and glamping in Venice and hot pools in Iceland, and we haven’t got to them all yet, but if I’m willing to sacrifice enough vacuuming, there’s still time.

One day, oh yes. One day.

One day, oh yes. One day.

How bad is the weather really?

Not at all, in my opinion.  Winter is cold but we have the miracle of central heating which I just love.  Having warmth in the whole house instead of just the lounge?  Brilliant plan! And, at least in the time we’ve been here, cold hasn’t always come with rain.  When autumn came last year I was a bit worried about the kids getting wet and cold walking to school every day but it didn’t happen.  All through November and December and January they were fine.  It rained in the night often enough but always stopped by morning.  It wasn’t until February that they came home soaked a few times, and it wasn’t many.  In winter it’s dark by 4:30 but I enjoy it.  We turn on the lights and heating, maybe light the fire, have tea and send everyone to bed nice and early.  Excellent arrangement.

The summer is well and truly as warm as I need it to be.  I have no heat tolerance these days and the New Zealand summers had me completely wrecked.  May was gorgeous last year, and April and May this year have been lovely too.  My mother was here for six weeks through April and half of May and there was only one really wet day in that time.  Every other day we were able to be out and about  We even got sunburnt one day at the beach.

Brittas Bay, Co. Wicklow, early May. Only spring, and you see the people sunbathing and swimming? It's like the Fiji of the northern hemisphere.

Brittas Bay, Co. Wicklow, early May. Only spring, and you see the people sunbathing and swimming? It’s like the Fiji of the northern hemisphere.

I can see why people like to do the traditional ‘sun holiday’ every summer – a week or two in Ibiza/Corfu/Majorca/Lanzarote – to get some real, dependable heat.  There are spectacular beaches here but I doubt the water ever gets, say, Mediterranean warm.  We’re going to Scotland this summer which I think will be much more to my taste.  There’s a tearoom in Perth where you can eat cake for charity and I’d rather do that than get a tan any day.

And to finish off, here's a freebie for you: that time Cassia wanted me to take a photo of the sculpture she'd made out of her dinner. Yup.

Here’s a freebie for you: that time Cassia wanted me to take a photo of the sculpture she’d made out of her dinner. Yup.


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So that’s how it is.  Now you’re up-to-the-minute informed.  If anything changes, you’ll be the first to know.





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Never Seen Nothin’ Like a Galway Girl

Let me say this:  Ed Sheeran’s song is a travesty.  Plus, I always think of it as ‘Galway Grill’ because that’s what he ends up getting tattooed on his arm in the music video.  He isn’t even Irish.  If you want to hear the real ‘Galway Girl’, here is is:

It’s based on a true story and when he says ‘a fine soft day’ it’s Irish for ‘it was raining’.

But I digress.

I left you back in the Burren amongst the voles and eagles.

The following day it was time to take a little whirl around the Salthill Prom so we set the GPS for Galway city, saddled up and rode out.  Driving in County Galway is an exercise in patience because all the back roads are very narrow and bordered on both sides by little stone walls.  Two cars passing have enough trouble, and then you come across a combine harvester.  It’s picturesque as all get-out but not for the faint-hearted.  Probably you wouldn’t bother with panel-beating if you lived there; you’d just accept that scrapes along the door panels are a way of life.

We parked at the wharf, admired a very fine scrap metal collection and went to the Spanish Arch.




The city wall dates from 1584 and was built to protect the quays.  In the early 18th century the quays were extended and two arches were built to allow access through the wall to the new part, the Long Walk (as mentioned in the song above).  It has no connection with Spain and is called the Spanish Arch for no reason whatsoever.  In 1755 the two arches were partially destroyed by a tsunami caused by an earthquake in Lisbon.

We headed off along the main street into the Latin Quarter.  Funny thing, I thought.  I’ve been to Galway a few times before, back in another life, and I don’t remember there being a Latin Quarter.  Sure enough, Josh, having had the same thought, looked into it and found that the name was created by a marketing department in 2009.  If you didn’t know that, it would reek of ancient heritage, wouldn’t it?  Never mind.  At least they didn’t go with Chinatown or Little India.

Name aside, the (ahem) Latin Quarter is pretty awesome.  It’s the old part of town with the narrow cobbled streets and the Irish dancers and trad music buskers and the many gastro-pubs.  Josh and I were hoping to find The River God, a restaurant we have happy memories of (and when you’re among shops that have been trading since the middle ages, you do get to have some optimism about favourite restaurants still being there a mere fifteen years later) but although it apparently still exists it was hiding among the clutter and maze of the little alleyways and wonky streets that pre-date the concept of town planning by quite some time.


We found lunch despite the absence of The River God and headed west towards the heartland of Irish language and culture, the Gaeltacht and Connemara.  You have to know where you’re going because the signs, bi-lingual everywhere else in the Republic, are often in Irish only around here.  We stopped for a good long play in the rock pools at Spiddal

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then, having put all the people with soggy clothes in one car and me in another, carried on through Tearmann Eanna, Costelloe, Camus Oughter, Screebe, Maam Cross, Quiet Man Bridge (from the movie), Oughterard, Moycullen and Barnacranny, and back through Galway to our temporary home in Ardrahan, near Gort (apparently this last name means something if you’re enough of a geek.  I wouldn’t know).

Some of the Twelve Bens. I think.

Some of the Twelve Bens. I think.


There are still plenty of thatched roofs to be seen, including new ones. Each thatcher has their own distinctive pattern at the top.

There are still plenty of thatched roofs to be seen, including new ones. Each thatcher has their own distinctive pattern along the top.


The next day the youngest and oldest of us paid a visit to the Burren Nature Sanctuary in Kinvara.

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Irish alpacas have big thick sheep wool.  They’re like sheep on stilts.


Emilia the micro-pig. She went on walks - well, runs -around the estate.

Emilia the micro-pig. She went on walks – well, runs – around the estate.  And anywhere else she felt like.

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Even the gypsy caravan had a fairy living in it.

IMG_6656This is a stone field, used as a paddock and to keep stock safe at night.

The Nature Sanctuary is a sort of kid-friendly beginner’s guide to the Burren flora and fauna.  Ireland used to be tropical (we’re going back a really long way here) and there are fossils here from when the warm ocean waters covered it.  There’s a boreen (ancient green road) and an ancient abandoned farming village.  It has a turlough, or disappearing lake, a rare geological feature almost unique to Ireland that happens only in limestone karst regions such as the Burren.  It’s a fresh tidal lake and disappears once every 11 hours as it drains down through the limestone through cracks and fissures formed by the mildly acidic rainwater dissolving the stone.


There was also a nice playground, a special birthday party yurt with a throne for the honouree and a good café.  All boxes ticked.

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After lunch we met up with the others and headed for the Cliffs of Moher.  The Cliffs are one of Ireland’s most famous attractions, with over a million visitors a year, but I have to say that I find them a bit underwhelming.  It’s Born In NZ Syndrome again: I am used to big, spectacular landscapes.

Since I was last there a new visitor centre has been built and I will say, it’s impressive. It’s built into the hill, Hobbit-style, so as not to spoil the contours of the landscape.  Inside you can find out about the geography, geology, bird and marine life, and history of the area, and watch a short film from the perspective of a bird flying around the cliffs and diving into the sea.  That was pretty awesome, and some of us had to be bribed to leave the room where it was playing on endless repeat.

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Here you can see O’Brien’s Tower, built on the highest point of the cliffs in 1835 by Sir Cornellius O’Brien to give the Victorian tourists somewhere to stand and look, or to impress the lady he was after, depending on whose version you believe.  From here on a clear day you can see to the tip of Clare and beyond to the mountains of Kerry in the south, the Twelve Bens in Connemara in the north, and the Aran Islands to the west.

The following day we headed home.  We stopped for lunch in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, which features a cute little castle in the middle of town and a seemingly permanent green sign outside the tourist information centre listing the dates and names of the 1916 executions.

Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t a long way at all.

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Those photos were taken by someone who didn’t quite have the knack of the zoom button.

We detoured through Kilkenny to see the wonderful Kilkenny Castle and the National Reptile Zoo.


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Castles come in two types, broadly speaking.  You have your big old ruin, which is impressive from the outside, and you have more of a palace type, impressive from within.  Kilkenny, while perfectly adequate from outside, has its real magic indoors.  It is one of my highlight memories from our last trip here when even the crippling morning sickness of the time couldn’t ruin the experience.  We went on a guided tour and heard a thousand stories, and saw a thousand details, and I loved them all.  My particular favourite room is the Chinese bedroom because the wallpaper, covered in lovely Chinese-style birds, was entirely hand-painted.


Kilkenny Castle has been restored relatively recently – just before we visited last time – and the current wallpaper is a printed reproduction of the original, and this photo certainly doesn’t do it justice, but it was marvellous.  The tour guide talked about the restoration; about how they reproduced the colours and designs of French silk poplin wall coverings from tiny remnants of the original that had been stuck under skirting boards, and how they had a replacement carpet woven by the same firm who’d made the original back in the early nineteenth century, possible because a) the firm is still going and b) it was easy to trace them because the family had kept the receipt.  None of this ‘keep everything for seven years’ rubbish.  The Butler family owned the castle for six hundred years, and if that’s not a totally legitimate excuse for hoarding, I don’t know what is.

For a complete change of pace, our last stop was the National Reptile Zoo.


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There was a tarantula like a dinner plate.  And that white snake up there, you can’t get any perspective from the photo but he was like a tree trunk.  In fact there wasn’t anything in there that you’d want to meet in a dark alley.  It was great.

To finish, here’s one from the Birds of Prey centre that brought to mind a much-missed friend of Daniel’s:



And that’s all from Galway.



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