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Photo: Cory Weaver
Wexford Festival Opera:
Dinner at Eight, by William Bolcom, got its European premiere at last fall’s event.

Back in the 1990s, I worked with a woman whose father was an opera buff. He loved opera so much that, although he had no real connections in the field, he managed to organize a high-quality company in the part of New York State where he lived. Westchester, if I remember correctly.

It wasn’t his day job: it was what he did for love. In another example of opera lovers who go out of their way to lend support, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has taken small, non-singing parts on stage, attracting some new audiences.

At the Irish Times, David McLoughlin has another example of what some folks will do for opera.

“Never intimidated by the weight of cultural heritage, each new generation of Irish artists continues to reimagine, reinvent and reinvigorate. The arts are constantly changing, finding new forms of expression and igniting new flames. …

“Wexford Festival Opera was founded on an idea and ethos which still remains at its core today, 67 years later – to present rarely performed operas, to unearth and shine a light on hidden gems.

“I was once told by the then chairman of a leading American opera company that the reason Wexford has rightly survived is because from the outset its rationale was plain wrong.

“He was right: the dream by a small group of local people, including a GP, a hotelier and a postman, in the early 1950s, of bringing international singers to a remote corner of Ireland to present rarely performed operas, wouldn’t even get past the first page of a modern-day feasibility study.

“But they weren’t dissuaded, and the minor detail of no real financial underpinning was from the outset not even considered a hindrance. The dream they were determined to see become a reality was enthusiastically shared and championed by the local community, who volunteered their time and skills. …

“The festival opened up not just Wexford itself, but Ireland and its arts sector, to the international performing world in a way no other cultural venture had done up until then – nor, I would argue, since. The spin-off has been enormous – artistically, culturally, and economically, generating [$14 million] annually. …

“Wexford is often defined as what it is not: a national opera company. It isn’t. Wexford is an annual festival, an international event, proudly Irish, presenting Irish and international audiences with a distinctly international repertoire, featuring Irish and international performers and attracting an audience that stretches well beyond these shores. It makes a vital contribution to the profile, development and reputation of the Irish opera sector. It may be niche but it’s broad enough to accommodate new audiences.”

More at the Irish Times, here. It will be interesting to see how this festival fares after Brexit, when Ireland will still be part of the European Union and its closest neighbors won’t.

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Kurds in Ireland


Photo: Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times
Carrick-on-Shannon, a small town in the west of Ireland, where a group of Kurdish refugees were resettled from Iraq over a decade ago.

No one should claim that adjustment to life in a completely unfamiliar world is easy, but when refugees have no choice but to try and when communities have many kindhearted people, it can work.

Here is a story of how Kurdish refugees adapted to life in Ireland, of all places — and how their new home adapted to them.

Megan Specia writes at the New York Times, “A bold black-and-red sign announces Jamshid Ghafur’s business — ‘Kurdish Barber’ — up a narrow flight of stairs just off the main street of Carrick-on-Shannon in western Ireland. …

“ ‘I am happy with this small business,’ he said as he gestured around the shop with pride. ‘I feel like home here.’

“Mr. Ghafur, 37, is part of a thriving group of Kurds who adopted this small town as their own after a United Nations-supervised refugee resettlement program brought them here more than a decade ago.

“Kajal Allakarami, 29, was 17 when she arrived. … ‘Maybe it wasn’t our ways, maybe it wasn’t our traditions,’ she said, ‘but the way they respected us was huge.’

“In 2005 and 2006, around 100 Kurdish refugees, most Muslim, arrived in Carrick-on-Shannon, population 5,000, plucked from decades of displacement. …

“The government provided social welfare and language courses for the adults, while the children enrolled in the local schools. Volunteers brought food and clothes, [Fawzieh] Amiri said. Among them was Nora Burke, a Roman Catholic nun, who visited Mrs. Amiri weekly to help her practice English.

“Still, the adjustment was not easy. Sister Nora said some locals resented the state-funded support the Kurds received.

“ ‘Carrick-on-Shannon was not prepared,’ she said. ‘They just arrived and some in Carrick thought: “God, who are these people? Where did they come from? What are they here for?” ‘ …

“But bit by bit, the Kurds established themselves. …

“For members of the younger generation, resettlement has been a complex process of not just understanding Ireland but of coming to terms with their Kurdish and Irish identities. …

“Some found the adjustment more difficult. Jabar Azizi and his twin brother were 16 when their family arrived.

“ ‘My age group, it was really, really difficult for us,’ Mr. Azizi said. ‘Even though I was in Ireland, my mind was somewhere else.’

“Still, he made it through school, and credits the small town.

“ ‘They respected us and our religion,’ Mr. Azizi said. ‘They respected the way we wanted to live.’ …

“But it took tragedy for the Azizi family and the rest of the Kurdish community to know they had found a true home with their new Irish neighbors.

“In March 2012, Jalal Azizi, Jabar’s twin, was swimming with friends in the Shannon river during a rare warm snap when he got into difficulty and drowned. The whole town was shaken. Shops shut their doors and residents lined the road to pay their respects as the 21-year-old’s funeral cortege passed by.

“ ‘To be honest, we didn’t expect that with our brother,’ Mr. Azizi said. ‘His death really touched everyone.’ …

“ ‘When he passed away, we saw all the community from Carrick-on-Shannon gathering in my house,’ Mr. Azizi said. ‘It is something I will never forget in the years to come; it is something I will tell my son about.’ ”

More here.

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Art: Rene Meshake
Ojibwe artist Rene Meshake was part of a group of indigenous storytellers from Canada who attended the Untold Stories conference in Ireland in May.

As many people know, there was a dark period in US history when authorities thought is would be a good idea for indigenous children to be separated from their language, families, and culture. The same thing happened in Canada. Today, those children and their children are reclaiming their voices and telling their own stories.

Here is Catherine Conroy at the Irish Times: “On a Friday morning in a house in Dublin, I sit down to speak with three indigenous storytellers from Canada. They are here for a conference called The Untold Stories of the Past 150 Years/Canada 150 at [University College Dublin]. …

“Maria Campbell, Rene Meshake, and Sylvia Maracle, from Canada’s ‘Indian Country,’ accompanied by indigenous historian Kim Anderson, tell me a story of pain, resilience and the rebuilding of a shattered community through stories.

“Sylvia Maracle is an activist and storyteller from the Tyendinaga Mohawks. She believes their stories will resonate with Irish people, ‘with colonisers having come and disrupted what was probably the natural order.’ …

“She tells me of a conversation she had with an Irish taxi driver when she arrived. ‘He asked, “Are people recovering their memories?” I said, “They were always there, we just didn’t have the conversation.” He said, “That’s what happened here.” ‘ …

“Maracle believes in the power of storytelling as a force for rebuilding their communities. She feels privileged to have been ‘old woman raised’ by her traditional grandmother. …

“Maracle tells me that people now visit Maria Campbell ‘because they want this good medicine, this traditional stuff.’

“Campbell agrees that storytelling is medicine. ‘I grew up with a great grandmother and she never spoke English, she was a total “savage” according to the priest because she never converted.’

“But while Campbell grew up with stories, she always felt split between her traditional home life and her life outside. It was only after she stopped using drugs and attended her first ceremony in her late 20s that she realised the healing power of the stories, which came from ‘the old ladies, always women laughing.’ It was a revelation to realise ‘that you’d got this medicine, everything you need to help put yourself back together.’

“Campbell tells a story about the effects of colonisation that she learned from her teacher, the Old Man. …

“He had been trying to explain to her the effect of colonisation on their community’s wahkotowin, which in English means kinship, ‘but if you look at the word bundle, it’s all of our laws, it’s the way that we talk to each other, the way that we laugh.’

“He threw [a] jigsaw in the air. ‘He said, ‘”That’s what happened to us, everything was shattered and wahkotowin flew. Maybe you have three pieces, maybe she’s got half of one, if we come back together and we start to rebuild that, you bring your three pieces, you bring yours, and soon we’ll make the picture.” ‘…

“She recalls one story she wanted from her father that he would not give. ‘Then he got diagnosed with a terminal illness and I had to do the translating for him [in hospital]. I kind of went to pieces when we were driving home. He pulled to the side of the road, rolled me a cigarette, and he said, “That story you want, I’ll give it to you now.” He retold it and she understood now that it was a story about death, not the funny story she’d always thought it was.

“She translated and published the story. ‘In my family’s way, they were telling me that they trusted that I would treat it with integrity.’ ”

More at the Irish Times, here.

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In environmental news, Lloyd Alter at Treehugger reports that an Irish county now requires new homes to meet the very high standard of energy efficiency called passive.

“In Ireland’s Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County, a near suburb of Dublin, it’s now the law. …

“The building codes there are pretty tight already. And it’s not completely a done deal; the national Minister of the Environment, of all people, may challenge it out of concern that it might raise the cost of housing. However the local Passive House Association says that it’s not necessarily true, and showed case studies demonstrating that in fact they could build passive houses ‘at or below conventional build costs.’

“Writing in Passive House Plus, Pat Barry of the Irish Green Building Council noted that really, it’s all about just trades having the skills and doing the job right. …

“As many as 20,000 houses could be built in the county, houses that cost almost nothing to heat, produce almost no CO2, and are comfy as can be day or night, sun or no sun.”

More here.

Photo: Kelvin Gillmor
Irish passive house built on a budget
. Hmmm. Does it burn wood?

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Art: Maggie Stern
“Fish for Supper”

Concord Art has mounted a juried show of member works. I have been twice this week. It’s accessible and stimulating.

When you first enter, you hear a strange clattering and turn to see a beat-up old medicine cabinet with vintage pill bottles inside that are rattling around like ghosts. Very amusing.

My former boss, Meredith Fife Day, had two lovely country scenes in acrylic from her travels in Ireland, and she was the one who reminded me to see the show.

I took a photo of Maggie Stern’s playful “Fish for Supper,” above. Stern says, “What I love most about art is that you get to make up the rules.” I Googled her and found that she has connections with the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Mass., and has excelled in a variety of artistic realms, including illustrating children’s books and making kits for crafty folks to reproduce her original stitchery.

I was also drawn to Lorraine Sullivan’s use of vintage linens. There must be something in the air about vintage. I’ve been doing a little prospecting (along with Erik’s mother) to add to Suzanne’s new vintage locket collection at Luna & Stella, and have learned that the idea of mixing vintage with contemporary birthstone jewelry is quite popular.

In fact, all sorts of vintage items are being cherished now, to the point that it was not only wonderful but a bit painful to see how Sullivan used her seamstress grandmother’s handiwork in the piece below. Creative destruction. Happy-sad.

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Irish-statue-Frederick-Douglass

I probably wouldn’t have known that Frederick Douglass spent time in Ireland if I hadn’t read the Colum McCann novel TransAtlantic. McCann likes to take historical events of different time periods and imagine the parts we can’t really know. In TransAtlantic, he wove together a historic 1919 flight from Canada to Ireland, the Douglass lecture tour of Ireland and his horrified witness to the famine there, a servant girl’s emigration to the United States and her role in the Civil War, and the rather thrilling negotiations to bring resolution to the Troubles between Protestants in Northern Ireland and Catholics.

According to an initiative called the Douglass/O’Connell Project, “Douglass was greeted in Dublin, Belfast, and Cork by enthusiastic crowds and formed many friendships on his trip, most significantly with Daniel O’Connell, a figure still revered in Ireland today for his role in Catholic emancipation and his fierce opposition to slavery. O’Connell and Douglass shared the stage just once, in September 1845 at a rally in Dublin, but retained a mutual respect and affection until O’Connell’s death less than two years later — and Douglass acknowledged O’Connell’s influence on his philosophy and worldview for the rest of his life.

“The Frederick Douglass/Daniel O’Connell Project is a living legacy to the leadership of these two men and the causes they championed by strengthening the bonds of friendship between Ireland and the United States, encouraging greater understanding between the diasporas of Africa and Ireland in America, and fighting injustice and human rights abuses throughout the world.”

Which brings me to how I happened to be able to take a photo of the Irish statue of Douglass today. The Center for Race Amity in Boston is partnering with the Douglass/O’Connell Project on a celebration this weekend, before the statue goes on tour. Isn’t it magnificent? Andrew Edwards is the sculptor.

There will be a preview of the public television film Douglass and O’Connell Saturday at the Museum of African American History at 7 pm, followed by a lecture by Don Mullen, the author of Bloody Sunday. On Sunday there will be festivities in the Greenway from 1 pm to 5 pm.

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When John was in fifth grade, the parent-teacher association held a “cakewalk” as a fundraiser. It was kind of like Musical Chairs except players didn’t sit down. People would get eliminated in each session, and the last one standing would win one of the cakes. At the time, the idea was new to me.

Now, as I’ve been looking into James Hackett’s Days Gone By again, I am realizing the cakewalk was based on a much older custom.

Writes James, “The cake dance, to which references were made frequently in the 18th and 19th century, was not a particular dance but rather a baire or session of dancing of which a cake was offered to the couple who proved themselves the best dancers. These events were usually sponsored by the local alehouse or tavern, and such gatherings were associated with hurling and other athletic contests. …

“The cake to be danced for is provided at the expense of the publican, or alehouse keeper, is placed on a board, which in turn is put on top of a pike that stands ten feet high, and from it hangs a garland of meadow flowers and also some apples fastened with pegs on the outside of the garland. … Those who are able to dance the longest around the cake are declared winners.”

Photo found here.
If you know where to find a photo of an actual Irish cake dance, let me know. In the meantime, here is an Irish piper accompanying a couple dancers.

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I have decided that if Ireland ever names people as national treasures, it should include James J. Hackett of Moate.

Last night at the Kellys’ party, James clinked the glasses at the table and called everyone to attention. Then he recited Yeats’s poem “The Ballad of Father Gilligan,” preceding it with a little history and acting out all the parts.

The grandson of a man who taught Latin and Greek in a hedgerow school back in the dark days when the English forbade sending Irish children to school, James has taken it upon himself to preserve the culture. His ordinary conversation is a living history, and he is frequently dropping into poetry.

James’s book Days Gone By is written in the way he speaks when talking to friends or taking people on a tour of some ruin. Consider this sample.

“It was long past the witching hour when the poteen revellers came upon Kate resting on the puchann and in a most distressful state.* They took her along to the wake, where she related all her adventures. Great was the wonder and fear that was expressed at hearing this story, and needless to say, many a post mortem was held upon Kate Brambles’s account of the witches’ dance at the half way house in Ballylurkin Bog on the Hallow’een night that Tubbs Lanigan was waked.”

Recent chronicler of Ireland lore and customs Turtle Bunbury discovered James in Moate and has included him in one of his Vanishing Ireland books. Bunbury also features James on a Facebook page, which I hope to access as soon as Turtle accepts my friend request.

[Update: Turtle has just put my post on his page, here.]

You may recall that I blogged about James once before, here, at another time that he was visiting his Rhode Island cousin.

(*James says a “puchann” is a little hill in a bog.)

Photo: Suzanne’s Mom
James J. Hackett in New Shoreham. He made his own shillelagh of blackthorn. He also made one for John and mailed it to him with instructions on how to cure the wood.

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Here’s something fun from the UK paper the Telegraph: Irish farmers taking pictures of themselves on mobile phones. The farm animals add that certain je ne sais quoi.

Emily Gosden has the story.

“Photos of Irish farmers taking ‘selfie’ photos with their livestock have gone viral,” writes Gosden, “being republished on dozens of news sites around the world. …

“The snapshots were originally submitted to the Irish Farmers Journal for its ‘selfie on the farm’ competition. Ten finalists picked by the journal include a photo by Patricia Farrelly from Ballyjamesduff, posing with a goose and an axe, and a shot entitled ‘two fine beards’ by Peter Desmond from Ballinhassig, sporting a beard and posing alongside a bearded goat.”

More here.

Photo: Irish Farmers Journal/Facebook
Farmer P.J. Ryan from Newport, County Tipperary, in his prize-winning selfie. The picture was submitted by his daughter Aisling.

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If you’re a country called Ireland and your soccer team doesn’t make it into the 2014 World Cup competition in Brazil, what do you do?

Change the “r” in your name to “c” and adopt another team.

I like David Trifunov’s headline at the Global Post, where you can read the background: “Iceland closes in on World Cup bid. Wait … Iceland has a soccer team?”

He continues, “Iceland is now one game away from becoming the smallest nation ever to advance to a World Cup. … It started in 2008 when the national economy, under the weight of an inflated currency, tanked.

“The modest Iceland soccer league cut ties with nearly all its more expensive foreign players, leaving the door wide open for homegrown talent. They took advantage, getting the experience they needed. …

“Ireland is one frustrated World Cup nation that has taken notice. At least the fans have. Eoin Conlon and friends were lamenting their country’s failed attempt to reach Brazil when he realized there’s only one nation that deserves their support now.

“ ‘And we kind of laughed, saying: “Well, that’s as close as Ireland’s going to get to Brazil. It’s only a letter difference. A ‘c’ for an ‘r.’ We might as well be brothers,” Conlon told Public Radio International.

“So they struck up a website and Twitter profile to encourage Irish football fans to back tiny Iceland.

“ ‘There are only about 320,000 people in Iceland,’ Conlon told PRI. ‘So if they were a county in Ireland — I’m calling them the 33rd county — it would [be] only the fifth-largest county in Ireland.’ ”

More here.

Photo: (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
Iceland’s striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, right, and Croatian defender Vedran Corluka vie for the ball during their World Cup playoff in Reykjavik on November 15, 2013. 

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I spent four months reading MobyDick in 2010, and I must say that for me there was way too much information about different kinds of ropes, how to cut up a whale, and the categories of seagoing creatures. I could not figure out why people I admire read MobyDick over and over.

So, avast! There is now a way for people like me to grasp the essence of Herman Melville’s classic. It’s a one-man show performed by the Irish actor Conor Lovett, who — along with his wife and director, Judy Hegarty Lovett — adapted the book’s highlights.

ArtsEmerson presented this wonder in Boston recently, and I’m in awe.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the actor in his Ishmael role has the stunned, wounded look of Tommy Smothers (remember the insecure brother in the 1970s comedy duo?), Conor is heartbreaking. His facial expressions and body language before he speaks Melville’s famous opening, “Call me Ishmael,” convey a haunted man, one who, like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, has witnessed mysteries beyond human understanding and feels condemned to tell the story to anyone who will listen. His look says, Why was I spared? Why did I choose this voyage? Why did I listen to the prophetic mad sailor Elijah on a wintry Nantucket dock and still choose to sail on the cursed Pequod?

The production is full of dark musings, the roars of a crazed Captain Ahab, and the savagely raging elements of air, water, and fire. But at the outset, stage time is lovingly devoted to the humorous side of Ishmael searching for New Bedford lodgings, having to bunk with the “harponeer” Queeqeg, and learning to recognize the interior decency behind the mask of the “cannibal.”

That the novel is deep is clearer to me now. I’m still pondering Ahab’s speech about whaleness being merely the “mask” that MobyDick wears. When the devout first mate Starbuck says it’s wrong to seek revenge against a whale that is merely a dumb beast — a creature of God — Ahab counters that beneath the mask is an infinitely malevolent force that must be conquered at all costs. We never feel sure what this force is supposed to be. Satan? Then why do the natural elements seem to take the side of the whale? I’m still wondering why we never learn if the whale dies or lives to wreak havoc another day.

But at last I see why people admire this book. Read more here.

P.S. The play is part of Imagine Ireland, “a year of Irish arts in America.” Check it out.

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Suzanne and Erik went to grad school with David O’Halloran, whose consulting company was recently cited in The Irish Times for its focus on sustainable business ventures in Africa.

“For Irish entrepreneur David O’Halloran, adhering to a sustainable business model that helps develop and protect local communities and their environment is the key to enjoying long-term success in Africa’s emerging markets. In late 2006, the Galway man, along with three former colleagues, rejuvenated a business development consultancy called BusinessMinds by turning it into an incubator company that develops, finances and operates sustainable commercial ventures in Africa.

“The idea behind the enterprise is to offer investors a socially responsible approach to doing business on the continent, while also making a profit. ‘Historically, many investors in Africa have used a more short-term, exploitative business model, one which has existed since the days of colonialism,’ O’Halloran says. ‘Unfortunately, for some investors this remains the modus operandi even today. As in, they take what resources they can and then get out without giving much back to the local economies.’

“However, O’Halloran says he believes people are starting to realise that such an approach is inherently unstable and increases risk.” His organization is called BusinessMinds, Africa.

Bill Corcoran wrote the Irish Times article. Read more here.

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To paraphrase a character in the Brian Friel play “Translations,” if you impose a language on people, one day you may find that their speech “no longer fits the contours of the land.” Language is critical to identity. People can always learn the language of the power group later, once they have learned how to learn.

That is the rationale behind a new effort in Haiti.

“When Michel DeGraff was a young boy in Haiti, his older brother brought home a notice from school reminding students and parents of certain classroom rules. At the top of the list was ‘no weapons.’ And right below it, DeGraff still remembers: ‘No Creole.’ Students were supposed to use French, and French only. …

“DeGraff is now an associate professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he is using his influence to try to destroy the barrier that essentially fences off most of Haiti’s children from a real education.” Read the Boston Globe report here.

The dominance of a few languages was one of the concerns behind creating Esperanto as a bridge. With a bridge language, Esperantists hoped, less common languages would not die. It hasn’t turned out that way.

“There are more than 7,000 languages in the world, and if statistics hold, two weeks from now, there will be one less. That’s the rate at which languages disappear. And each time a language disappears, a part of history — a subtle way of thinking — vanishes too.

“A new documentary called The Linguists, [which aired August 4] on PBS, follows ethnographers David Harrison and Greg Anderson as they race to document endangered languages in some of the most remote corners of the world.

“From the plains of Siberia to the mountains of Bolivia to the tribal lands of India, Harrison and Anderson have hopscotched the globe, but they sat down for a moment with NPR’s Scott Simon to discuss their race to capture the world’s endangered languages.

“Harrison, a linguistics professor at Swarthmore College, specializes in sounds and words; Anderson, who directs Oregon’s Living Tongues Institute, is the verb expert. Together, they speak 25 languages.” Read more here.

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James is an Irish poet, widely considered part leprechaun. Every few years he comes to stay with his cousins for a couple weeks, across the street from my house. James is on the left in this photo, which I took at the Fourth of July parade.

James has two main modes of conversation: storytelling and poetry recitation. It is a pure delight to chat with him. As we waited for the parade, he narrated pages of Irish history, including dates, and recited from W.B. Yeats and our own Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others.

Earlier, he was sitting on his cousins’ front porch and saw a young woman he knows coming across the street. He was moved by the way she walks, as he told me, and with a kind of poetic spontaneous combustion, intoned on the spot:

Meran, fairest maid art thou,

Lovely is thy stride.

My heart goes out to thee

As ebbs the great sea tide.

But, ah, my kind Meran, I’ll not forget thee.

Nor the kind words you said unto me.

James has self-published a couple books of lore in his unique style. He and his brother, both lifelong bachelors, sell peat. On certain Sundays, James bikes 18 miles to the ruins of an old monastery, where he narrates the history for visitors. Then he bikes 18 miles home. In any kind of weather. James is 73.

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