Archive for ireland

The Calm Before Lorenzo

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 3, 2019 by telescoper

It was calm and rather mild this morning as I walked into work, although the news on the radio this morning was filled with news about the rapidly approaching Storm Lorenzo. Lorenzo is a huge storm and was only downgraded from hurricane to tropical storm when it was about 500km from the Irish coast so it could be even more serious than Storm Ophelia, which caused chaos a couple of years ago.

This is how the storm looked in the early hours of this morning:

And this is the projection for later today. The prevailing wind right now is westerly, but this will veer to south-westerly as the storm moves along its (roughly) north-easterly path:

Here is an infra-red image taken this morning showing the outer belts of cloud already over Ireland.

Quite a few events have been called off in anticipation of the arrival of Storm Lorenzo this evening, with heavy rain and gale force winds forecast across the country. There are signs, however, that the low pressure region at the heart of the storm is filling more rapidly than expected, so it might not be as severe as feared, although there remains a significant risk of localized flooding and wind damage, especially in the West. I plan to sit it out at home this evening with a glass or two of wine for company…


University Rankings Again

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on September 18, 2019 by telescoper

Last week saw the publication of the Times Higher World University Rankings which have once again predictably generated a great deal of sound and fury while signifying nothing very important. I can’t be bothered to repeat my previous criticisms of these league tables (though I will point you to a very good rant here) but I will make a couple of comments on the reaction to them here in Ireland.

First let me mention (for what it’s worth) that Maynooth University has risen from the band covering 351st-400th place to that covering 301st to 350th place. That means that Maynooth went up by anything from 1 place to 99 places. That’s two consecutive years of rises for NUIM.

(I’ll add without further comment that I arrived here two years ago…)

The Irish Media have not paid much attention to this (or to the improvement in standing of NUI Galway) but have instead been preoccupied with the fact that the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin, known as Trinity College Dublin for short, has fallen by 44 places to 164th place; see, for example, here. Now there’s no question in my mind that Irish universities need an injection of income – especially in science subjects – in order to improve standards of education and research, but I don’t really understand the obsession with Trinity College. It’s a fine institution, of course, but sometimes it’s almost as if the press think that’s the only University in Ireland…

In response to its declining fortunes Trinity College has claimed that Ireland needs a `Rankings Strategy’. No it doesn’t. It needs something far more radical – a higher education strategy. The current government  doesn’t have one

Anyway, given the rate of Maynooth’s rise and Trinity’s fall it is a straightforward undoubtedly scientifically valid extrapolation to predict that in two or three years time, Maynooth will have overtaken Trinity in the World Rankings anyway!

(No, I’m not going to take any bets on that.)

Turning away from the exercise in numerological flummery that is the Times Higher League Tables, let me pass on some numbers that are actually meaningful. The week before term with not everyone yet registered, the number of students taking Mathematical Physics in the first year at Maynooth has increased by 31% since last year and the number on our fast-track Theoretical Physics and Mathematics (TP&M) programme has increased threefold. These increases are very pleasing. Although lectures proper don’t start until next week, I did an introductory session with the TP&M students this morning. It was very nice to be able to welcome them to Maynooth for what I hope will be an enjoyable time at Ireland’s soon-to-be top University!

The First Landing on the Irish

Posted in History with tags , , , , , , on September 7, 2019 by telescoper

While at the Irish National Astronomy Meeting last week I picked up a free copy of the magazine Astronomy Ireland. I chuckled when I saw this little item about the stamps issued in Ireland to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 first landing on the Moon:

If you can’t read the text it refers to a spelling error in the Irish language version of the caption on the Neil Armstrong stamp at the top image: instead of the Irish word for Moon (Gealach) the text contains the word for Irish (Gaelach). The caption thus translates as the 50th Anniversary of the First Landing on the Irish

ERC Starting (and Finishing) Grants

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on September 3, 2019 by telescoper

Just time for a quick note to announce that the European Research Council has announced the winners of the latest round of `Starting Grants’ (which are intended to further the research plans of early career researchers). Full details are here. Congratulations to all the winners, and especially  Erminia Calabrese in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University!

In all, 408 applicants were selected for funding, hosted in 24 different countries. The split by nationality and discipline is as follows:

I’ll make two comments on the numbers.

First, the United Kingdom is host to a total of 64 awards. It is however very unclear what will happen in the case of a `No Deal’ Brexit in which the British Government refuses to honour its existing financial commitments. Hopefully even in this case these grants will go ahead in some form (perhaps funded directly by the UK).

Second, note that there is only one award for Ireland and nothing in either Physical Sciences or Life Sciences. This is very disappointing, but is probably a fair reflection of the Irish governments ongoing failure to invest in basic science.

It’s not that the Irish aren’t good at research. Here is another graphic that shows that 7 Irish researchers were actually awarded grants under this scheme, but none of them chose to hold their awards in Ireland:



That tells you something about the environment for early career researchers in this country.

The imminent departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union makes its future participation in such schemes unlikely. Brexit could be a great opportunity for the research community in Ireland, if only the Irish Government would seize it, but it would first need to recognize the benefits of increasing investment in research. Sadly I don’t think it will.


Brexit and the British Border in Ireland

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , on August 31, 2019 by telescoper

The events of the past week have given me even more reason than usual to rant about Brexit, and the damage it is causing even to those who voted for it. So let me take as the subject for this one the absolute claptrap that brexiters are talking about the so-called `Backstop’ which is part of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) negotiated between the United Kingdom and the European Union but voted down three times by the House of Commons. This part of the agreement is designed to allow the free flow of goods and people across the British* Border in Ireland by keeping the United Kingdom in the Customs Union and some parts of the Single Market if no free trade agreement is negotiated between the UK and EU that comes up with alternative ways of achieving this during the transition period allowed for in the WA (which extends at least until December 2020, but could in principle be extended further).

*Note: I consider the term `Irish Border’ to be misleading, so I use the more accurate `British Border in Ireland’.

The first thing to say – and this is blindingly obvious if you have actually read the WA – is that the backstop does not come into play at all if an alternative solution to the Border issue can be found. The fact that leading Brexiters are so exercised by the backstop therefore betrays their belief that no such alternative arrangements exist or can be put in place in the foreseeable future. If such arrangements existed the Brexiters would not be in the slightest bit bothered by the Backstop as it would be irrelevant. The fact that they are opposed to the backstop is an obvious signal that they know there is no technological or other solution consistent with the position into which the UK Government has trapped itself.

So why the constant demand from the ERG et al for the backstop to be removed? And why all the lying about its purpose?

To answer that I think you have to consider the true motivation of the Leave campaign. The purpose of Brexit was not just about the UK leaving the European Union. That was merely intended to be a step along the path to destroying the EU and so destabilizing Europe. The original theory was that Brexit would lead to a parade of other EU nations wanting to leave. That didn’t happen. Indeed the solidarity of the EU in the face of the attacks on it has been quite remarkable.

So now it is Plan B, which is based on the premise that the Achilles Heel of the EU is Ireland. By creating economic and political chaos – and possibly a return to violence, sparked by Britain’s intentional violation of the Good Friday Agreement – in Ireland they will force the EU to offer the UK favourable terms on access to the Single Market. To do so, however, would open the floodgates to other governments who might want to reap the benefits of EU membership without the responsibility that goes with it (as Britain does).

And even if this doesn’t work, Leave supporters will still have to find someone to blame when the cake-and-eat-it Brexit they promised – the `easiest trade deal in history’, `no downside only a considerable upside’, `because we hold all the cards’ Brexit – will never actually materialize. The alternative would be for the whole gang of them to admit they were lying (which we know they were). No prizes for guessing who the scapegoat will be…

The strategy of setting up Ireland as a target for economic aggression may well cause a great deal of pain in the short-term, but I hope and believe that it won’t succeed. For one thing, I don’t think the Irish economy is as vulnerable as the UK government thinks. for another, it may quickly lead to a United Ireland. That, at any rate, is far more likely than Ireland becoming a British colony again, which is what some Brexiters want.

More importantly, however, although Ireland and Britain differ substantially in size, the former will a great advantage over the latter in the world after Brexit: Ireland will still have friends, and Britain won’t.

The Myths of UK-Ireland Trade

Posted in Finance, Politics with tags , , , , on August 20, 2019 by telescoper

It is clear now that the UK Government’s strategy on Brexit is one of economic aggression towards Ireland.  Senior Brexiters seem to think that threatening to put up barriers to trade with the Republic will frighten it and the European Union into abandoning the rules of the single market and customs union.

As well as being morally repellent this strategy is also extremely stupid, as is based on a complete misconception of the state of trade between these two countries. For example, one prominent Leave campaigner and former Minister of State recently claimed that 90% of Ireland’s trade is with the UK. That may have been the case in the 1950s but it is certainly not the case now.

In fact, according to the latest figures, only about 11% of Ireland’s exports in goods go to the UK and this figure is falling rapidly. The largest export destination for Ireland within the EU is actually not the UK, but Belgium (11.65%) with Germany just behind on 8.56%. Overall the EU accounts for about 49% of Ireland’s exports; the largest other contribution is the United States on about 29%.

Contrary to popular myth, Ireland’s exports are not dominated by agriculture and food. By far the largest contribution is from chemicals and pharmaceutical products many of which go to Antwerp for onward distribution and/or further processing. This accounts for the large trade figure with Belgium.

Another fact worth mentioning is that while Ireland overall has a healthy trade surplus overall (it exports more than it imports; see above Figure), its trade balance with the United Kingdom is actually negative (i.e. the UK exports more to Ireland than it imports). In 2018, UK exports to Ireland were worth £38.3 billion; imports from Ireland were £21.9 billion, resulting in a trade surplus of £16.4 billion with Ireland. Ireland accounted for 6.0% of UK exports and 3.3% of all UK imports. Ireland was the UK’s 5th largest export market and the 9th largest source of imports. The UK has recorded a trade surplus with Ireland every year between 1999 and 2018.

Brexiters have frequently used the argument that, since the UK has a negative trade balance with the EU, the EU needs the UK more than the UK needs the EU. It’s a wrong argument, of course, but it’s interesting that the Brexiters don’t apply it to Ireland.

There’s no question that the `No Deal’ Brexit which I’ve regarded as inevitable from the outset will disrupt the Irish economy, or at least parts of it, and in the short term, but I agree with the Irish Times analysis from some time ago and a more recent article from the FT that it will cause far greater damage to the UK.

In the longer term, when the UK is out of the European Union I’m sure its trade surplus with Ireland will quickly disappear as Ireland finds alternative (and more trustworthy) trading partners. Irish businesses are already eliminating British companies out of their supply chains and it seems likely that if and when the hard Brexit arrives, Irish customers will be increasingly disinclined to buy British products.

The UK seems to be hoping that some sort of deal with Trump’s America will help it out of the economic hole it has dug for itself, but remember that the UK currently has a trade surplus with the USA. The Americans will be keen to eliminate that during any future trade negotiations.

The really important thing however is not the overall effect on the economy but on the problems it will cause for communities either side of the British border in Ireland. The recently-leaked documents from Operation Yellowhammer make it clear that the UK government `expects a return to a hard border in Ireland’. The implication of this is stark: the UK government is planning to renege on its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement, which is an international treaty.

If it goes ahead and does that, then it may be that the economic effects of leaving the single market and customs union are small potatoes compared to the price that will pay for becoming a rogue state. I can’t see the United States, with its approximately 40 million citizens of Irish descent, being keen to support a British government that is so obviously seeking to bully Ireland especially, as seems sadly likely, British actions spark a return to violence in the North.

The Coles of Arms

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , , , , , , , , on August 8, 2019 by telescoper

Sparked by an exchange on Twitter last week with another person (who has the same surname as me) on the subject of heraldry, I did a little bit of googling about and found a little snippet I found quite intriguing. Although the name Coles is found all over England and Wales, with strong concentrations in the South West of England and in Northamptonshire, according to this source the name is of Anglo Saxon origin and is first recorded in Yorkshire as the family name of George Coles, which was dated 1555, in the “Register of the Freemen of the City of York”, during the reign of Queen Mary 1. The same source also points out that a branch of the Coles family subsequently moved to Ireland, though it gives no details (unless you pay for them).

I subsequently found that in Burkes General Armory (which details all the Coats of Arms registered in the UK and Ireland) the first entry under the surname Coles is indeed in Ireland, where it was confirmed in 1647. That date is during the Irish Confederate Wars, a couple of years before Oliver Cromwell arrived in Ireland with his army. One might surmise that this particular branch of the Coles lineage was somehow caught up in these hostilities, probably on the English side.

Anyway the description of the corresponding Coat of Arms, in typically cryptic heraldic language is:

Gu. on a chev. betw. two lions’ heads erased or, ten ogresses. Crest — A snake wreathed about a marble pillar ppr. garnished or.

The first part refers to the escutcheon (shield): Gu is short for Gules, a tincture (red), and it describes the main colour of the field of the escutcheon; chev is for chevron (an inverted v-shape), one of the Honorable Ordinaries (basic designs for the escutcheon). This and the two lions’ heads are described as `or’ (andother tincture, meaning gold-coloured); erased means `without the body’; an ogress is a special case of a roundel (filled circle) in which the circle is black (the word `pellet’ is also used).

The Crest is self-explanatory other than that `ppr’ is short for `proper’ which means, roughly speaking, `natural-coloured’. I’m not of the significance of the snake and the marble pillar.

Here is a mock-up of the whole thing:

There are several other entries for the name Coles in Burkes General Armory and I’m certainly not claiming that I have the right to use this Coat of Arms but I am intrigued by the Irish connection with the name Coles and will see what more I can find out about it.