Archive for ireland

Ireland And The Roman Empire. Modern Politics Shaping The Ancient Past?

Posted in History with tags , , , on July 18, 2018 by telescoper

I’m here in Dublin Airport, not far from Drumanagh, the site discussed in the following post. I’m on my way back to Wales for, among other things, tomorrow’s graduation ceremony for students from the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University.

I thought I’d reblog the post here because it’s very interesting and it follows on from a comment thread relating to my post a few days ago about the current drought in Ireland which has revealed many previously unknown features of archaeological interest, and the (unrelated but also recent) discovery of a 5500 year-old passage tomb in County Lowth.

The site at Drumanagh is not related to either of those new discoveries, but it is fascinating because of the controversy about whether or not it is evidence of a Roman invasion of Ireland in the first century AD. I think the idea that no Romans ever set foot in Ireland during the occupation of Britain is hard to accept given the extensive trading links of the time, but there’s no evidence of a full-scale military invasion or lengthy period of occupation. The only unambiguously Roman finds at Drumanagh are coins and other artefacts which do not really indicate a military presence and there is no evidence there or anywhere else in Ireland of the buildings, roads or other infrastructure that one finds in Roman Britain.

My own opinion is that the Drumanagh site is more likely to have been some sort of trading post than a military fort, and it may even be entirely Celtic in origin. The position and overall character of the site seems more similar to Iron Age promontory forts than Roman military camps. I am, however, by no means an expert.

You can find a description of the Drumanagh site in its historical context here.


Way back in 1996, the Sunday Times newspaper in Britain ran an enthusiastic if awkwardly-phrased banner headline proclaiming that a “Fort discovery proves Romans invaded Ireland”. The “fort” in question was an archaeological site in north County Dublin known as Drumanagh, situated on a wave-eroded headland near the coastal village of Loughshinny. Nearly 900 metres long and 190 metres wide, the monument consists of a trio of parallel ditches protecting an oblong thumb of land jutting out into the ocean, the seaward sides of the irregular protrusion relying on the waters of the Irish Sea for defence. The location is fairly typical of a large number of Iron Age promontory settlements found in isolated spots throughout the country. However what made the area at Drumanagh of particular interest was the significant number of Roman artefacts found within its fields.

Unfortunately a comprehensive archaeological survey of the site has yet to be published due to questions over property rights and compensatory payments for finds, meaning most discoveries from the location have come through agricultural work or destructive raids by…

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Ode to Tayto

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on June 3, 2018 by telescoper

One of the deep cultural differences I have discovered between Ireland and the United Kingdom lies in the arena of potato crisps.

Here the crisp of choice for the discerning consumer is the Tayto, a brand I have not seen elsewhere (though apparently it is also made under licence in Northern Ireland). So familiar is the name Tayto over here that people use it to refer to any kind of crisp, in much the same way that in the UK you might use ‘Hoover’ to refer to any kind of vacuum cleaner.

If you don’t believe that a humble potato crisp can be a cultural phenomenon then note that there is even a Tayto Park which is only 30 minutes from Dublin but which, regrettably, I have not yet visited.

Tayto’s crisps have been around since 1954 and the manufacturer is credited with inventing the method of production of flavoured potato crisps. Tayto has the right, therefore, to call itself the original potato crisp.

Naturally, while in Ireland I try to buy locally produced items whenever possible, so I have sampled Tayto crisps on a number of occasions. They come in a relatively narrow range of flavours, but the Cheese & Onion variety is definitely nicer than, e. g. Walkers.

When Log Tables aren’t Log Tables

Posted in Education, mathematics, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on May 17, 2018 by telescoper

Every now and then – actually more frequently than that – I reveal myself in Ireland as an ignorant foreigner. The other day some students were going through a past examination paper (from 2014) and I was surprised to see that the front cover (above) mentioned  `log tables’.

Now I’m old enough to remember using tables of logarithms (and other mathematical tables  of such things as square roots and trigonometric functions, in the form of lists of numbers) extensively at school. These were provided in this book of four-figure tables (which can now buy for 1p on Amazon, plus p&p).

As a historical note I’ll point out that I was in the first year at my school that progressed to calculators rather than slide rules (in the third year) so I was never taught how to use the former. My set of four-figure tables which was so heavily used that it was falling to bits anyway, never got much use after that and I threw it out when I went to university despite the fact that I’m a notorious hoarder.

Anyway, assuming that the mention of `log tables’ was a relic of many years past, I said to the group of students going through the old examination paper that it seemed somewhat anachronistic. I was promptly corrected, and told that `log tables’ are in regular use in schools and colleges throughout Ireland, but that the term is a shorthand for a booklet containing a general collection of mathematical formulae, scientific data and other bits of stuff that might come in useful to students; for an example appropriate to the Irish Leaving Certificate, see here. One thing that they don’t contain is a table of logarithms…

Students in Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University are also given a formula booklet for use during examinations. I don’t remember having access to such a thing as an undergraduate, but I don’t object to it. It seems to me that an examination shouldn’t be a memory test, and giving students the basic formulae as a starting point if anything allows the examiner to concentrate on testing what matters much more, i.e. the ability to formulate and solve a problem. The greatest challenge of science education at University level is, in my opinion, convincing students that their brain is much more than a memory device…

Funding Basic Research in Ireland

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on May 15, 2018 by telescoper

I received an email the other day about a scheme run by Science Foundation Ireland. Among other things, the Technology Innovation Development Award is intended (among other things)

… enables researchers to demonstrate the technical feasibility of an applied research project directed toward the development of a new or innovative technology, product, process or service that has potential for further commercial development.

The thrust of this scheme is pretty typical of funding calls in Ireland, and it spurred me to go on a mini-rant.

It’s quite clear to me since arriving in Ireland that funding for basic research – especially in the sciences – is extremely poor. This is largely because of a high-level report published in 2012. This identified 14 priority areas of research that are most likely to give demonstrable economic and societal return, and where Ireland should focus the majority of competitive funding. Four criteria were used in selecting the 14 priority areas for future, competitively-awarded investment for economic objectives:

  1. the area is associated with a large global market or markets in which Irish-based enterprises already compete or can realistically compete;
  2.  publicly performed R&D in Ireland is required to exploit the area and will complement private sector research and innovation in Ireland;
  3.  Ireland has built or is building (objectively measured) strengths in research disciplines relevant to the area; and,
  4. the area represents an appropriate approach to a recognised national challenge and/or a global challenge to which Ireland should respond.

The `vast majority’ of SFI’s funding is directed towards the 14 areas so defined, leaving virtually nothing for anything else, an outcome which has dire implications for `blue skies’ research.

I think this is a deeply misguided short-term policy, which will have a strongly negative effect on science in Ireland in the medium to long term, especially because Ireland spends so little of its GDP on research in the first place.  On top of that it will mean that Ireland will miss out on a golden opportunity to capitalise on Brexit by encouraging European scientists disaffected by the hostile environment that has been created in Britain by its government’s xenophobic policies to relocate to Ireland. There’s simply no point in trying to persuade world-leading researchers to come to Ireland if insufficient funds are available to enable them to establish here; the politicians’ welcoming platitudes will never be enough.

As the Irish economy grows, I hope the Irish government can be persuaded to reverse this situation by investing more in basic research and being more pro-active about reaping the Brexit dividend. Perhaps now that I live here I can play some sort of a role in campaigning for that?

EXPLANATORY NOTE: By `Brexit dividen’, I mean the real dividend, i.e. that which will be experienced by EU countries after Britain gives up all the collaborations, trading opportunities and inward investment that it currently enjoys by virtue of its EU membership.

In the meantime I thought I’d fire an opening salvo by re-iterating a line of thought I had some time ago in the hope that it will provoke a bit of debate.

A while ago, in response to a funding crisis in the UK, I wrote  about using taxpayer’s money to fund research in universities:

For what it’s worth I’ll repeat my own view that “commercially useful” research should not be funded by the taxpayer through research grants. If it’s going to pay off in the short term it should be funded by private investors or venture capitalists of some sort. Dragon’s Den, even. When the public purse is so heavily constrained, it should only be asked to fund those things that can’t in practice be funded any other way. That means long-term, speculative, curiosity driven research. You know, science.

A similar thing was said in in the Times Higher, in a piece about the (then) new President of the Royal Astronomical Society:

Notwithstanding the Royal Academy of Engineering’s “very unfortunate” recent submission to the government spending review – which argued that the need to rebalance the UK economy required public spending to be concentrated on applied science – Professor Davies is confident he can make a good case for spending on astrophysics to be protected.

Research with market potential can already access funding from venture capitalists, he argued, while cautioning the government against attempting to predict the economic impact of different subjects.

This is pretty much the opposite of what Irish government thinks. It wants to concentrate public funds in projects that  can demonstrate immediate commercial potential. Taxpayer’s money used in this way ends up in the pockets of entrepreneurs if the research succeeds and, if it doesn’t,  the grant has effectively been wasted.

My proposal, therefore, is to phase out research grants for groups that want to concentrate on commercially motivated research and replace them with research loans. If the claims they make to secure the advance are justified, they should have no problem repaying it  from the profits they make from patent income or other forms of exploitation. If not, then they will have to pay back the loan from their own funds (as well as being exposed as bullshit merchants). In the current economic situation the loans could be made at very low interest rates and still save a huge amount of the current research budget for higher education. Indeed after a few years – suggest the loans should be repayable in 3-5 years, it would be self-financing. I think a large fraction of research in the applied sciences and engineering should be funded in this way.

The money saved by replacing grants  to commercially driven research groups with loans could be re-invested in those areas where public investment is really needed, such as pure science and medicine. Here grants are needed because the motivation for the research is different. Much of it does, in fact, lead to commercial spin-offs, but that is accidental and likely to appear only in the very long term. The real motivation of doing this kind of research is to enrich the knowledge base of the UK and the world in general.

In other words, it’s for the public good.  Remember that?

Most of you probably think that this is a crazy idea, and if you do please feel free to tell me so via the comments box.


The Joy of Fecks

Posted in Television with tags , , , , , on May 10, 2018 by telescoper

One of the things I’ve noticed in the time I’ve spent in the Dublin area recently is that Irish people tend to swear a lot, and I mean a lot. On the other hand, the combination of an Irish accent and the imaginative way in which expletives are used makes this habit colourful rather than offensive.

Something I have discovered only relatively recently concerns the word `feck’ (as used frequently by Father Jack in the comedy documentary series Father Ted). I’ve always assumed that this word was simply an alternative form for the word `fuck’ and as such was an extremely offensive swear word. I have used it frequently in the Irish vernacular phrase “feckin’ eejit” (usually in the context of a British politician) assuming that it had that meaning.

However, I am reliably informed by Irish colleagues and Wikipedia – although I’m not sure whether either of those sources really counts as reliable – that `feck’ isn’t really the same as `fuck’ because it derives from a different root, and although it is an oath it is far less offensive. In fact, `feck’ is a word which is also in use in Scotland meaning force or value, from which we get the word `feckless’ meaning worthless, or something like `a large amount or quantity’.

In modern Irish slang, `feck’ can be used as a `minced oath’ (i.e as a euphemism for `fuck’, as one might say `eff off’ instead of `fuck off’) but it has a variety of other meanings, including `to steal’ or `to throw’. None of these other meanings relate directly to sexual intercourse. In summary, then, it seems that while `feck’ is undoubtedly rather vulgar, it is far less offensive than `the bad F-word’, i.e. `fuck’.

I hope this doesn’t give the impression that my opening statement – that Irish people swear a lot – is false. ‘The bad F-word’ is definitely in widespread use. All I’m saying is that `feck’ (a) isn’t the same word and (b) it’s not as offensive as you might have thought.

Here’s an explanation by the inestimable Mrs Doyle from Father Ted in which she discusses these issues in the context of modern Irish literature.

Now I think I’ll feck off home.

Hands off the Good Friday Agreement!

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , , , , , on February 22, 2018 by telescoper


I’ve been watching with increasing alarm the concerted attempt that certain extremist `Brexiteers’ have been trying to make a case for scrapping the Good Friday Agreement that came about in 1998 after decades of violent conflict in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.  These reckless fools think that derailing the peace process is a price worth paying for their ideological obsession with rejecting anything that involves the EU, in this case the Customs Union that allows an open border between the Republic of Ireland (whose future lies in the vibrant and outward-looking European Union) and Northern Ireland (which will remain shackled to the corpse of the United Kingdom, at least for the time being, until the creation of a united Ireland…). Not surprisingly, Irish politicians and the Irish are incensed about the reckless statements being made by some UK politicians.

Incidentally, the Good Friday Agreement was supported by simultaneous referendums in Northern Ireland (71.1% in favour) and the Republic  of Ireland  (94.4% in favour) ; a majority of the NI electorate also voted against leaving th European Union.  It’s strange how selectively some people are prepared to accept `The Will of the People’…

Anyway, just as a reminder of what is at stake, here are three examples based on my own experiences of what things were like before the GFA, when I lived in London (which I did for about eight years, between 1990 and 1998). During that time I found myself in relatively close proximity to three major bomb explosions, though fortunately I wasn’t close enough to be actually harmed. I also concluded that my proximity to these events was purely coincidental.

The first, in 1993, was the Bishopsgate Bombing. I happened to be looking out of the kitchen window of my flat in Bethnal Green when that bomb went off. I had a clear view across Weavers Fields towards the City of London and saw the explosion happen. I heard it too, several seconds later, loud enough to set off the car alarms in the car park beneath my window.

This picture, from the relevant Wikipedia page, shows the devastation of the area affected by the blast.

The other two came in quick succession. First, a large bomb exploded in London Docklands on Friday February 8th 1996, at around 5pm, when our regular weekly Astronomy seminar was just about to finish at Queen Mary College on the Mile End Road. We were only a couple of miles from the blast, but I don’t remember hearing anything and it was only later that I found out what had happened.

Then, on the evening of Sunday 18th February 1996, I was in a fairly long queue trying to get into a night club in Covent Garden when there was a loud bang followed by a tinkling sound caused by pieces of glass falling to the ground. It sounded very close but I was in a narrow street surrounded by tall buildings and it was hard to figure out from which direction the sound had come from. It turned out that someone had accidentally detonated a bomb on a bus in Aldwych, apparently en route to plant it somewhere else (probably King’s Cross). What I remember most about that evening was that it took me a very long time to get home. Several blocks around the site of the explosion were cordoned off. I lived in the East End, on the wrong side of sealed-off area, so I had to find a way around it before heading home. No buses or taxis were to be found so I had to walk all the way. I arrived home in the early hours of the morning.


Does anyone really  want to go back to experiencing this kind of event on a regular basis? If  the UK government is persuaded in its weakness to ditch the Good Friday Agreement then there is a real risk of that happening. And if it does, those calling for it will have blood on their hands.




University Pension Differences

Posted in Education, Finance, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2018 by telescoper

Following a ballot of members of the University and College Union (UCU), the UK university sector is gearing up for strike action over proposed changes to the USS pension scheme. Unless the dispute is resolved in the meantime (which I think is highly unlikely) the first strike lasting two days will place on 22nd and 23rd February. Thereafter strikes will escalate to cover three days, four days and five days in subsequent weeks.  I’ll actually be in Maynooth for the first 48 hour block so won’t have to worry about crossing a picket line initially, but will have to later if it drags on. It looks set to be a bitter dispute which will not be easily resolved.

When I joined USS (in 1988) it was a simple `Final Salary Scheme’. Both employer and employee contributed and the benefits accrued were an index-linked pension of 1/80 of the final salary for each year of contributions and a (tax-free) lump sum of 3/80 for each year of contributions. I joined at age 25 so I expected to accrue 40 years of pension if I retired at 65, namely a pension of half my final year’s salary and a lump sum of three-halves. It looked a good deal and was a significant factor mitigating the relatively low starting salary for academics in those days.

Over the years it became apparent that this scheme is actuarially unsound because (a) people are living longer, increasing the scheme’s liability and (b) investment growth achieved by the USS fund managers has decreased, with a negative impact on asset growth. Moreover, the USS fund is not underwritten by the government, so if it collapses completely members could be left with no benefits at all.

The USS Final Salary scheme was closed to new entrants some years ago and replaced by a less generous defined benefit scheme. A couple of years ago it was closed to existing members too, though the benefits accrued are retained; I will now only be able to get 28/80 of my final salary from that scheme when I actually retire. The scheme was replaced by a hybrid of an even less generous defined benefit scheme and a defined contribution scheme (where the pension benefit is dependent on the fund valuation at retirement, as most private pensions). Now the proposal is to remove the defined benefit component entirely. The loss of pension benefits will be substantial.

I don’t see any easy settlement of this dispute so I’m glad that it won’t affect me very much. I’ll be leaving the UK Higher Education system this summer and relocating to Ireland. Quite a few people have asked me how the pension scheme works here so I thought I’d point out the differences.

The first thing to say is as a professor in the National University of Ireland at Maynooth I am treated as a public servant so my future pension benefits here are covered by the Single Public Service Pension scheme. This resembles the final salary scheme that USS used to be, but with the important difference is that it is integrated with the State Pension to which everyone is entitled if they pay social insurance contributions. This – called the SPC – is similar to the old State Earnings-Related Pension Scheme (SERPS). Since public employees benefit from this as well as the public service pension scheme, the accrual rate in the latter is lower than the old USS scheme – just 0.58% per year – on salaries up to €45,000. For salaries above this figure the amount above the  limit generates an accrual rate 0f 1/80, just as the USS version. There is also a lump sum which accrues at 3.75% per annum, the same as the USS scheme.

In summary, then, the big difference is that in Ireland the public service pension is integrated with the state pension, whereas in the UK the latter is entirely separate. It’s also the case that in Ireland the pension is guaranteed by the government (which, of course, can change the rules…)

In my opinion the pension scheme for University staff in Ireland is significantly better value than the diminishing returns provided by the USS scheme, yet another reason why I made the decision to move here.