Saturday, 24 November 2018

Butterfly nursery

As the weather gets colder and colder, you surely noticed that fewer insects can be spotted around. The reason is that they do not cope well with changing temperatures - scientists call them poikilotherm, meaning that their body temperature is adapting to the temperature of the air. In winter they either hibernate or they die. For those who miss some of the prettiest insects, I have a special trip today.

What you see here are not dry leaves, though they would like you to believe it. At least if you are a predator (which you are most probably, but I do not think that you pray on those little fellows).

Take a closer look.

These are chrysalides so the pupal stage of a butterfly. This is where those disgusting caterpillars transform into the ultimate beauty.

This little miracle is still fighting to remove its wing from the remaining of its chrysalis.

Her sister was more successful.

So was her cousin.

When the young butterflies are ready, they can leave the greenhouse and check on those beautiful orchids.

The humans were kind enough to leave some lunch.

But who would not like to dine such a beauty?

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Fly spot

Today we will do something completely crazy. I will take you to a fly spot. It looks like some kind of weird chimney.

Inside, the chimney has glass walls. And yes, someone is flying inside.

How is it possible? The floor is made of a metal net, through which the air is blown upwards.

The speed of the fan is managed by a professional operator so you should be safe.

But to be even safer, remember the ground rule - no loose ends, nothing that could fly on its own and hit you or break the glass.

Remember to put on your helmet!

Now you can get inside and wait for your turn.

The instructor will teach you how to take off.

Then you will go up.

And up.

And up to the ceiling!

I hope that you will not mind that I will stay with my four horseshoes strongly on the ground. I am not a Pegasus after all.

Saturday, 10 November 2018


Just 7 kilometers to the West from Newgrange, on the same side of Boinne river, there is a beautiful castle. It has been the family seat of the Conyngham family since it was built in the late 18th century, on land first purchased in 1703 by Brig.-Gen. Henry Conyngham, after it was confiscated from the Flemings, Anglo-Norman Catholics who had aligned themselves with the Jacobites in the War of the Grand Alliance, and thus after the Williamite victory lost their property.

Obviously every castle has its stable.

With my great ancestor monument I feel here like at home.

But since there are less horses now than earlier, part of the stables were converted in the Slane Irish Whiskey Distillery.

Ladies, gentlemen, horses, let's go inside and see how something better than Guiness is created.

On the picture below you can see the first stage of the process - the barley malting.

To start the process you need the best barley, like the one growing on the castle fields just around.

After harvesting we need to collect all the grain.

Add the water and wait a bit.

After pouring out the water ...

we will see the rootlets meaning the seeds started to produce sugar.

Now we can start "kilning" which means drying in a special oven.

Next stage is milling, that allows to separate external part of seeds from its content that we need to use in further process.

Here comes the mill.

And its output.

Unfortunately taking photos is forbidden in the places where next stages of the process happens, so you can only analyze the below scheme to understand the brewing, fermentation and distillation. The product of all the stages on the scheme is the spirit consisting in over 90% of alcohol, so way too strong to be drunk.

You can just admire the distillery from outside.The metal pipes are used to cool down the alcohol during the destillation.

Up to this stage, the manufacturing process for vodka and whiskey is in fact very similar, maybe except that vodka is rather not produced from barley. But what make the great difference in the flavor is what happens further and is called casking.

Casking means allowing the whiskey to spend time in casks (which means barrels). Irish whisky requires at least 3 years and one day to be certified, one day more than Scottish.

What makes Slane Whiskey special is that it is triple casked, what means the whiskey spends time in 3 types of barrels: Virgin (not used previously) and Seasoned casks raised by hand at the venerated Brown-Forman Cooperages, and Oloroso sherry casks by way of Jerez in Spain.

Once the liquid has been aged to perfection, it is masterfully blended to create an exceptional Irish whiskey. Virgin casks contribute flavours of toasted Oak and vanilla. Seasoned barrels of Tennessee whiskey and Bourbon contributes flavours of caramel, plum, banana and butterscotch. Sherry casks contribute flavours of raisin and spice.

Let's now sit and try it.

Have you noticed the colour of a warm, golden topaz with hues of rich toffee ? If you smell it you will find a complex fruit aroma with drizzles of caramel, butterscotch, vanilla, brown spice and toasted oak. When you take your first sip, you will first find it spicy, but quickly sweetened with rich caramel, vanilla and butterscotch atop a deep layer of dried fruit. Even after you leave the bar you will still find the lingering hints of dry fruit and caramelised wood sugar.

Now the biggest challenge, try to go straight through the gate :)

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Brú na Bóinne

I will take you today to one of the most amazing places that I have ever visited. I am sure that if I simply told you that there is an opportunity to visit a place built by Neolithic people (so let's face it - people from stone age), you would immediately think "what could cavemen do that would be worth a one hour drive from Dublin? I'd rather stay in my pub and focus on my Guinness". Well, let me tell you that you would be wrong, all way long.

Brú na Bóinne is a UNESCO World Heritage site (and this alone should make you drink your Guinness faster!).

Boinne is the name of a river in Ireland. On its North bank, you will find three archaeological sites of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.

In the visitor center you can learn a lot about the life of the people who have built them. And yes, they were primitive by our standards.

They were hunters but they settled by Boinne because of fertile soils.

They lived in round shaped houses made of wood. Since wood is by far not a material that would survive centuries, most of our knowledge about those settlements is guessing.

But the presence of wood is critical for archaeologists because this allows them to use the dendrochronology or tree-ring dating. We all know that archaeologists use radiocarbon dating to estimate the age of their findings. But this method works on the assumption that the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere has always been the same. This is not the case, and, for certain periods, radiocarbon dates may be out by hundreds of years. This is where dendrochronology comes into play.

Certain species of tree (in Ireland mainly oak) put on a growth ring every year. The width of the ring varies depending on the climate, but all trees of the some species have the same growth pattern if they lived at the same time. By starring with living oaks and working backwards in time (examining wood from medieval structure, earlier archaeological sites, etc.) scientists can build a picture of the pattern of growth rings stretching back over seven thousand years.

And this is really vital because the sites of Brú na Bóinne are dated (radiocarbon and dendrochronology combined) to be built between 3300 and 2900 BC! So, are you ready for a trip in time? Let us cross the river then.

We will see today Newgrange, the largest of the three sites. It has 85 meters of diameter, a height of 15 meters and a passage of 19 meters that leads to the inside chamber. Quite impressive for simple cavemen.

Newgrange is a passage tomb. But generally speaking, this was no only a burial place (though they did house the bones of the ancestors). It was also a place of religious ceremonies and rituals, a place where ancestors were present and also important landmark, well visible on top of a hill. A place to impress and a place to feel proud.

The building of Newgrange took roughly three generations. Three generations of planning, arranging, organising and hard work. No cranes included. The greywacke (or grey-green sandstone) used to build Newgrange had to be transported over a pretty hilly landscape. Stones of up to two tons could be lifted by men with rope slings over shoulder posts. Heavier stones would have to be dragged on sledges of wooden rollers and pulled with ropes. It could take up to four days for 80 men to bring a four ton stone from three kilometres away.

If you have difficulties imagining the size of such a stone, compare one to a horse (though of course Europeans did not know horses over five thousand years ago).

People of Newgrange did not simply use stone as a building material. they also covered it in amazing ornaments. Many Ph.D. thesis were written about the meaning of these ornaments. But as I have been told, each of those theories is probably as good as yours. The best knows stone is in front of the entrance of the passage tomb.

But actually it is not the stone that is the most stupefying proof that Neolithic people were much smarter that you (and admittedly - me as well) though. Can you see this little window above the entrance? During the winter solstice, for six days, the morning sun enters the passage and enlightens the main chamber. Pure magic. Or actually pure science - Newgrange is offcially the oldest astronomically oriented building in the world. One thousand years older than the pyramids. 

I am sure that you are not surprised that it is not allowed to take pictures inside, but I really invite you to go and see the amazing skills of the Neolithic men. If you wish, you can also enrol to a lottery. Twenty lucky winners can visit Newgrange at dawn, during the winter solstice, and admire its magic themselves.

After leaving the inner chamber, we will take a walk around the tomb. A surprisingly circular tomb.

The largest stones create a foundation that is then topped by smaller stones and finally ground.

The large stones are often ornamented. Did I mentioned that the builders of Newgrange did not have any metal tools?

I hope that you did not miss your pint of Guinness toaday and that this trip in time was for you as eye opening as for me. For sure, Newgrange will be a place that I will never forget. I only hope to be able to see it one day from bird's eye view. Today, I will need to use a shortcut only.