Friday, 23 December 2011

An Irish Christmas Eve Tradition

In the past, doors here in Ireland were always left unlocked on Christmas Eve, fires were kept burning on the hearthstones, and candles shone in the windows.

They offered warmth and shelter to Joseph and Mary, walking the world on their long road to Bethlehem. And they echoed even older rituals that brought light and warmth into darkness.

In the Irish folk tradition, Mary, the mother of Christ, and Bríd, the Irish saint, protect sleeping households until daybreak. They’re echoes of the Good Goddess - the ‘strongest and most energetic of women’ - and images of fertility, and hope. For thousands of years the same ideas have been shaped and re-shaped in their stories. The goddess breathes life into the earth in springtime; grass grows when Bríd’s cloak sweeps the hills; and when Mary hangs her cloak on a rosemary branch, the bush's aromatic flowers become sky blue. 

And all three energetic women are linked with fire and light. The Good Goddess marries Lugh, the sun-god; Mary’s child brings light into the world; Bríd lights a sacred flame that’s kept burning for centuries (till, according to legend, a medieval bishop insisted it be put out!)

If you cross the mountains to Dingle this Christmas there'll be lights shining all around you. And as you drive back west along the peninsula, to the sound of the Atlantic waves against the cliffs, you'll see single flames glimmering high on the mountains. 

In isolated cottages, villages and farms, ritual candles still burn here all through the Christmas season, welcoming the stranger and offering refuge from the dark.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Winter Solstice On The Dingle Peninsula

Walking the hills of Corca Dhuibhne you find tumbled forts and gravesites, ancient mounds and stones, marking the lives of people who lived and died here under the panoramic sky. 

Some sites, nearer the tourist routes, are fenced and gated, hemmed in by car-parks and neatly-clipped fuchsia hedges. Others, in higher places, lie among plantain and tiny, pale-green wildflowers, lost in grasses and smothered by briars. 

Among them are single standing stones, some tilted in the boggy earth, with parallel grooves of different lengths scored along their sides. Some are carved with crosses or single or linking whorls,  etched in grey and yellow lichen. Exposed in high fields, they seemed forgotten, except for official notices warning against vandalism. Sometimes they're tilted in deep ruts carved by grazing cows. 

Many are gravestones. But where the sun warms the weathered stones they strike warmth back when you lay your hand on them. It's hard to believe that the earth beneath, cold and wet in the deepest places, holds smooth and ancient bones.

In some places you find straight rows of single standing stones, called 'stone alignments'. They're monumental calendars in the landscape, marking seasonal turning-points in the year. 

And they're sites where people once came together  to celebrate and promote the endless stream of energy which, according to their world-view, held the universe in balance. 

There are two stone alignments here in Corca Dhuibhne. 

One - orientated on the rising sun on midsummer's day - is near the village of Cloghane, on the far side of Mount Brandon from the house where I'm writing this. The other's on our side of Mount Brandon, at Ardmore, near Lispole, just beyond Dingle. 
The Ardmore site marks the winter solstice. Three standing stones line up on an elevated view of the landscape that stretches from Lispole in the east to the western tip of the peninsula, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the cliffs. They're orientated on the point on the horizon where the sun sets each year on December 21st. 

In Ireland, the season of Samhain was also the time when the Good Goddess was pregnant with the promise of springtime and longer, lighter days. So, to the ancient Celts, winter feasts and gatherings were demonstrations of confidence in the future. In the darkest days and nights of the year they celebrated sunlight to come.

As I'm typing this, rain's pouring down outside my window and during the last few weeks we've had days and nights of swirling mist and hail. So, although there's a gathering planned at Ardmore, it may be that this year's solstice sunset will happen here unseen. 

But the wheel of the year keeps turning whether or not we witness it. So, when the sun rises on Thursday, the days will begin to get longer. 

As the  evenings get lighter, sap will start to  rise in the hedgerows. 

We may still get snow before we get through the winter.

But soon the earth and the air will smell of spring.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Sinterklaas And The Second Month Of Samhain

When I was a child in Dublin my best friend was Diana Hesselink. I could get from my back garden to hers, over walls and across next-door's lawn, in two minutes flat. When we were both about thirteen her family moved back to Holland and I was devastated. But later that summer I was invited to Eindhoven to visit her. It was wonderful. My first flight on an aeroplane, my first holiday without my parents, and my first experience of a different country. 
And to a kid who'd never been out of Ireland, Holland really was different.

Last weekend I was back in Holland, visiting friends who've moved from London to Breda.
But this time instead of being struck by differences I was intensely aware of similarities.
It started with Sinterklaas.
My friends' kids go to local schools and they're integrating brilliantly.I arrived to a kitchen table fast disappearing under the orange crepe paper and papier maché creations that would wrap Sinterklaas surprises for their new classmates. Outside, the shops and streets were full of chocolate letters, marzipan pigs, curly white beards and traditional Zwarte Piet costumes. As we walked to a local restaurant Sinterklas and Piet, in full glory of jewelled mitre, feathered cap, flowing vestments and stripy knickerbockers, showered us with pepernoten from the back of a passing car. We all shrieked and failed to catch them. But there were plenty more of them to eat at home.
These aren't my traditions. But they're completely recognisable. And not just from memories of shoes by the stove in a fifties semi in Dublin, or the chocolate letters that Oma Hesselink used to send to Ireland each December. 
It's more than that. 
The old man in the white beard, his dark helper, the festive food and, above all, the twinkling lights and gift-giving are all part of a tradition of winter festivals rooted in pagan Europe's Celtic and Germanic ritual. 

Here in Ireland the winter festival's called Samhain, the first season of the Celtic calendar year. 
December's the second month of Samhain, the month when the Christian image of the child Jesus, born to bring light to the world, echoes the bonfires lit by the Celts to express confidence in the return of spring.

From the first introduction of Christianity to Europe, elements of older myths and legends have been blended with stories of Christian saints. It was one way of making the new religion acceptable and accessible. And it's the reason why the story of St. Nicholas, who became Sinterklaas - and then, in the US and elsewhere, Santa Claus - resonates with echoes of the pagan god Wodan. 
Wodan was the Germanic god of forests and dark places, a powerful protector of his people in the darkest season of the year. Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas's helper in the Dutch tradition, is an echo of his dark slave. Wodan was worshiped under different names all across Europe, and our Christmas trees and glittering lights are memories of the ritual fires lit to worship him, just as pepernoten, chocolate letters and marzipan pigs are echoes of ancient, communal winter feasts. And in the oldest stories of all the dark helper is himself a god, a shadowy nature spirit, wrapped in fur, whose totems are forest animals.

I love the thought that those links exist and have lasted through millennia across continents, echoing images, ideas and memories, and expressing shared responses to the changing seasons. I love the exuberant optimism implied in lighting fires and feasting in times of scarcity and darkness.

And I've just discovered a link I didn't know of before, between Holland and Corca Dhuibhne.
It's about St. Brendan The Navigator, the fifth-century Irish voyager. According to people round these parts, it was he who discovered America. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that the story of his voyage was a hit all over medieval Europe. It was told in countless languages by countless firesides and, later on, copied into medieval manuscripts.
One of the earliest  versions we have of it is De Reis van Sint Brandaen, written in twelfth century Dutch. 
And last weekend I discovered that one of the earliest versions of the legend of St. Nicholas is preserved in De Reis van Sint Brandaen. 

Shared images, ideas and memories echoed across countries, continents and millennia. 

Monday, 31 October 2011

It's Samhain - Happy New Year!

For the pagan Celts, the year began in winter, not spring. Their world-view celebrated dark times, recognising that life itself comes from darkness and a dormant seed.

The Celt's name for the first season of their year was Samhain, which is still the Irish language word for November. The festival that began their year was Oíche Shamhna. Samhain Night. It still goes by the same name here in Corca Dhuibhne. 

When Christianity came to Ireland the Celts' Oíche Shamhna became Halloween, the Christian feast of All Souls. But for thousands of years, throughout Ireland, it's been celebrated with rituals older than Christianity - bonfires, candles stuck in turnip heads, and masked visits to the neighbours.

Modern trick or treating is an echo of the ancient Celtic belief that on Oíche Shamhna the spirits of the dead returned to the homes they'd once lived in. People believed that - provided the living recognised and respected their ancestors' presence - the dead would protect them. So each year the dead were welcomed with food, fires, music and dancing. That way they they wouldn't get offended. And get nasty.

And each year, in every neighbourhood, young men, wearing masks, went from one house to another acting out the annual ritual of threat and appeasement, fear and trust.

When I first went to London I remember being astonished when people said Halloween was an import from America. It may have returned to England from America fairly recently. But it's rooted in Europe's Celtic heritage...

... though, having said that, I remember my own first Halloween mask was a cardboard Micky Mouse.

I wore it with a black polo-neck and tights, white gloves, and a long tail made of wool stiffened with wire from a straightened-out coat-hanger. Then my mother made me add a dark-grey duffel coat, with the hood up. Which definitely spoiled the effect.

On the other hand, I liked the sinister way my black tail showed under my coat when I turned away from the neighbours' doors with my pockets full of apples and monkey-nuts. I was a mouse that you wouldn't risk offending.

Then, back home, we'd sit by the fire drinking tea, eating brack, and cracking monkey-nuts with our teeth. None of which was easy to do through a Micky Mouse mask.

Masked kids knocking on the door and music playing are still part of Oíche Shamhna here in Ireland. 

Yesterday  I bought monkey-nuts at the post office. This morning I made a brack, dark with brown sugar and packed with the slow-release energy of raisins, currants and sultanas. Tonight we'll eat them by the fire, drinking strong tea and chucking nut-shells into the flames.

An open fire's not the most efficient, or cost-effective, system. But gnarled branches of fuchsia burn well when the sap's dried out of them. And the ash-trees throw down rotten branches for kindling. And, for thousands of years, living flames have been images of life itself. 

I remember our neighbour, Jack, coming into the house here one November day, and stretching his hand to the turf fire. It was chilly outside and the flames had burnt low. So I threw another sod on it. We watched red fire curl round black turf as the new sod took life from the old ones. The flames began to crackle and burn yellow. Then Jack said what we both were thinking ...

... 'you'd like to be looking at it'.

And the flames leapt up, releasing new life from the dark turf, compacted of fragrant herbs and ancient flowers.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Traditional Irish Art of Hospitality

When I first began to divide my life between two places it was like living in two different worlds. 
Corca Dhuibhne with its huge expanses of mountain, sea and sky, its ancient cultural heritage, musical language, and rooted, rural community. 
And Bermondsey with its edgy, multicultural vibe, crowded streets, sense of drive, and spectacular architectural statements. 

Moving from one to the other increases your awareness of each. Which is kind of the point.

One of the joys of London life is walking away from my computer screen, wandering down to the Thames and using the Tate Modern as a coffee shop. Stunning building. Great shop selling acid green pens and intensely desirable pencil sharpeners. A shimmering bridge across the river, framing a view of St. Paul's...

... oh, and the art in the actual art gallery.

Tacita Dean's current exhibition, FILM, consists of 11minutes of 35mm film, endlessly playing on a vast, slender screen that hangs in the airy silence of the darkened Turbine Hall. 

I saw it last week.

Framed by the punched holes of the film stock they were shot on, the images drift and fall from ceiling to floor. Sometimes the screen's a stream of moving shapes and neon colours, hard lines and fluid curves. Sometimes it's transparent, and the grey wall behind it suddenly rears up into darkness, like a cliff seen through spray.Then the colours come back, and rich, organic images of mushrooms and flowers.

Sometimes the sharp, black shadows of people wandering through the huge emptiness of the hall spring up and became part of the movie. The work becomes simultaneously public and personal. People's cameras and phones click and flash in the darkness, recording the moment.  And the circular cascade of  images streams on....

... while, outside, on the far side of the river, there's another huge, airy, public space where communal experience enhances personal awareness. For hundreds of years, under its jade-green dome, people have prayed among priceless artworks to a god born in a stable...

... but, as I'm writing this, St. Paul's Cathedral's closed to the public. In the last couple of weeks I've watched the peaceful growth of the protest camp in the square outside it. I've listened to the arguments for and against its presence there. And I've kept asking myself what I think.

Yesterday I came back to Corca Dhuibhne. And now I think I have my answer. 

People here have always lived and worked as a community. Whatever each person had was there to be shared. It's a system based on pooled resources, in which everyone can call on their neighbours for help when times get hard. 

Hospitality's so highly-valued here it's practised like an art. Or maybe a religion. There are ritual greetings and responses. Ways of asking and receiving. And an ancient belief that the stranger at your door could be god wandering the earth. So everyone's door was always open here, even to strangers. 

As a result, private and public space were almost indistinguishable. And - as a result of that - good manners area vital part of what makes the system work. You may have the right to sit by your neighbour's hearth when you choose to. But you also have the responsibility not to ask or take too much.

Basically, sharing's an inherited tradition. But it's bad manners to ask your neighbour for more than he can give.

I respect and admire the vision and commitment of the protesters outside St. Paul's. I think they chose the right place to gather and draw attention to their concerns. I believe the Cathedral was right to receive them hospitably. And I recognise the moral dilemma that confronts the Cathedral authorities as a result. 'Health and safety issues' made them close the cathedral to the public. It's been re-opened now, but the moral dilemma remains. Unwilling to align himself with increasing pressure to remove the protestors by force, the canon chancellor's resigned. Determined to draw attention to their concerns, the protesters still refuse to go.

Everything I've heard and read suggests that the people camped out at St. Paul's are looking for a fairer system, based on shared resources and mutual respect. That's a system worth fighting for. And the longer I live in Corca Dhuibhne, the more I realise that good manners are the crucial element that'll make it work.

So, that's my answer. I believe in protest and public debate. I believe that public spaces should be used to raise personal awareness. 

But I think the protesters outside St. Paul's Cathedral should say thanks now, and go home.

By doing so they wouldn't just be demonstrating for a better way of doing things. They'd be demonstrating how it might work.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

There's a Cattle Mart in Dingle Today

Rover, Jack and Spot stump through mud, loading the cows. Then Jack drives off with the cattle. And the dogs get on with their work on the farm.

Spot has two brindled pups and a black one. They're curled up squeaking in a corner of the woodshed. She's made herself a nest on the mud floor, with her back to the stone walls and straw pushed round the pups to keep them warm. When she's not up working in the fields she's in there feeding them. 

Otherwise she's just fighting to keep her strength up.

Rover's not allowed in the woodshed...

... but when he's not working in the fields he's guarding the doorway. His thin wolf's face checks out each passing car. With his nose on his paws, he keeps one eye on the hens. 
There's a fox up on the mountain.

Me, I'm writing this at my computer with a roaring fire at my back and a cup of tea at my elbow. Wilf's in the next room, practising Schumann on the piano. No mud. No demanding kids. No hens to mind, or foxes to fear, or need to balance the price of beef against silage. 

But artists are workers too, you know. Our trade takes effort ...
... and years of dedicated practice.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Echoes of Lugh In The Last Month of Lughnasa

If you turn right outside our gate and walk down past Jack Flaherty's farm you'll join a pilgrims' way called The Saint's Road. Its name in Irish is Cosán na Naomh. Its one of the oldest pilgrimage routes in Ireland. And people walk it still.

The Saint's Road runs from a staring point in Ventry to the top of Mount Brandon, Corca Dhuibhne's holy mountain. The mountain got its present name from the Christian saint, Brendan, whose voyage from Ireland to America was one of the great legends of medieval Europe.

But, long before the days of Brendan and the medieval monks, Mount Brandon must have had other names. Because other, pagan, pilgrims walked the same route and climbed its slopes, thousands of years before Christ was born in Bethelhem.

Memories of those other, older pilgrims still survive here in folklore. They prayed to the ancient Celtic sun-god, Lugh. And echoes of their world-view still resonate in rites that are held on Brandon every year.

Lugh is the god of the harvest, whose season, Lughnasa, ends with the month of October. Over the years and in different places there've been different versions of his story. Here in Corca Dhuibhne, he strides up Mount Brandon from the east, with flashing eyes and hair, and a golden spear. And in an epic battle that spirals on each year to eternity, he defeats Crom Dubh, 'the crooked dark one', releases the harvest from the earth, and gives it to the people.

Each year Lugh's victory's still celebrated here in Corca Dhuibhne, when local people climb the mountain from the east, light fires, have picnics and play music. And, though the mountain's now called after Brendan, the season's still Lughnasa, and the day of the festival's still called Crom Dubh's Sunday.

In the middles ages, Christian storytellers made Lugh into Brendan, and Crom Dubh into a pagan chieftain, whom the saint killed or converted. As time passed, the older beliefs were supressed by the new religion. On Mount Brandon, the pilgrim route's now marked by white stone crosses.

But last week a Dingle man, called Colm Banbury, was guiding two tourists along Cosán na Naomh when he found another, older symbol. Low to the ground, carved on a rock slab, he saw a perfect spiral.

Like a coiled snake carved in stone, patched with lichen, half-hidden by heather and furze.

It's the first example of Megalithic Art of this kind found in Kerry.

And it's an image of the ancient Celts' vision of eternity.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Kaffee, Kuchen And Celtic Conversation

A sunny autumn day, a quick leap over the last mountain peak on the Dingle peninsula, and it's time for the most westerly cup of coffee in mainland Europe.
At the Dún Chaoin pottery café and bookshop, looking out at the Blasket islands, misty in a shimmering ocean.

Among the books and plates and teapots are piles of hand-knitted sweaters, smelling of oiled wool. As you lift the latch on the half-door to the café you're met by the smell of baking. And outside, sitting on a wooden bench with your fingers wrapped round your coffee-cup, you breathe the salt smell of the ocean and the honey-scent of autumn flowers, buzzing with stripy bees.

A couple of girls sitting opposite me asked how to pronounce a local placename. After a few tries they'd cracked it, and we'd moved on to caife 'gus císte, which is Irish for kaffee und kuchen. It turned out they were on their way home to a Celtic Studies course at their German university. 

It wasn't that surprising. Irish language and folklore and Celtic studies are full of references to German sources. That's because interest in European folklore began in nineteenth-century Germany with Grimm's fairytales. Which mostly aren't about fairies at all. They're märchen, 'folktales, characterised by elements of magic or the supernatural.' The Grimm's interest was scholarly; they were philologists as well as folklorists. But all round the world the stories grabbed the popular imagination, and they've never been out of print since. Later on, Irish and German scholars collaborated on collecting Irish folklore and studying the Irish language. And German tourists and students still keep coming to Corca Dhuibhne.

But the links are much older than that. The name 'Corca Dhuibhne' means 'the territory of the people of the goddess Danu.'  And Danu was an ancient Celtic goddess whose people originated east of the Rhine. Long before the Roman Empire Danu's people spread across huge areas of Europe, including much of Britain, Ireland, Belgium, France, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy. Her name's remembered in placenames. Like the river Danube, along which the Celts spread towards the Black Sea, pressing on to Thrace and Macedonia, and even making contact with the Scythians. 

Back at the Dún Chaoin café the bees buzzed among autumn flowers. We ordered more coffee, and bit into rich, black porter cake. Out on the ocean the islands floated in silver mist. Sheep called on the mountain. We talked about Manannán Mac Lir, the Celtic sea god, who herds fish and sea-monsters as a shepherd herds his flock. The girls told me about the Nixe, mermaids that haunt German rivers. We watched six black seals' heads bobbing in the turquoise ocean. And I remembered something I'd read years ago, when I was a student too -  the earliest Irish reference to leprechauns called them water sprites. Not cute, fairy shoemakers in big, green hats. 

Monday, 15 August 2011

I Wish I Had A Kerry Cow

So I get up, weather's a bit drizzly, milk's a bit off, hair's looking dodgy, too much stuff needs filing. Dammit, I could be anywhere. What happened to the vibrant, joyous bit of this joyous, vibrant lifestyle?

Cup of tea, shower, good intentions about going straight to the computer. Open West Kerry Live instead. And there - illustrated by a cartoon of a cow chomping on dollar bills - is just what the morning called for.

Camp Cash Cow -
Sunday 7th August
1.00 - 6.00 pm

Camp's a village on the Dingle Peninsula. The event's a fundraiser for the local sports field. The ad in West Kerry Live lists the attractions ..... Tug-o-War, Dog Show, Horse Rides, Fancy Dress, Barbecue ..... 

..... so far, so ordinary ...

... and then it gets to the Cash Cow. It's sheer genius.The sports field's marked out as a grid of 500 squares. You buy a square for twenty euros. Then, throughout a tense, nail-biting day, everyone watches as a lone cow wanders the field, happily grazing. The top prize is a thousand euros. The day was a triumph. And all the winner had to do was guess which square the first cowpat would land in.

Incidentally, I Wish I Had A Kerry Cow's a traditional Irish polka. There's a brilliant version on YouTube, played by Brendan Begley and Caoimhín Ó Raghaillaigh, but I can't work out how to link it to this blog. Possibly not surprising, given my definition of genius...

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Growing Spuds The Irish way.

In some parts of Ireland these are called Lazy Beds. Round here they just call them ridges. First you collect your seaweed, at the start of the year when the Atlantic storms have thrown it up on the beach. Then you spread it on the land and wait for it to rot. Then, when the weather's right and the land's ready, you mark up your ridge with a length of string you've tied between two sticks. 

And, working backwards, using a spade, you cut a straight line through seaweed and sod along the length of the string, from one end to the other. Then you go to the far end again, and work backwards again, along the same line, cutting and turning sods to form the start of the ridge. The men here work with the minimum of effort, sliding the blade of the spade under the heavy, oblong sods and flipping them over with a turn of the handle; their long-handled spades are perfectly balanced. They move backwards in unbroken rhythm, breathing to the swing of the work. 

When you finish that stage of the first ridge, you move on to the second, using the string again to keep them straight and parallel. (That's a matter of pride and gets comments from the neighbours.) Each ridge is three foot across. They’re separated by narrow trenches. Digging the trenches provides both the sods that form the sides of the ridges and the earth that’s eventually shoveled over the seed potatoes.

In Ireland, different areas, and sometimes neighbouring parishes, have different ways of setting their potatoes in the ridges. In this village, sods are laid across each ridge, like the rungs of a ladder, and  the seed-potatoes are planted between them, in rows of three across. When each ridge is planted it’s covered with earth thrown up from the ditch. Then the earth’s gently beaten flat with the back of a shovel. 

When the stalks begin to show, you keep the weeds down. When the stalks are the right height you earth them up, throwing shovelfuls of earth in under them and flattening it. Once they bush out enough, no weeds will grow between them. After that it's a matter of shaving weeds from the sloping edges of the ridges with a spade, watering when you need to, spraying if you must, and looking forward to the first crop of the season.

We're eating ours every day now. With a lump of yellow butter on each plate and well-chopped chives or scallions. No need for salt if they're grown in seaweed.

The sticks you see on the other ridge are lost now under green leaves and red flowers (beans) and green leaves and white flowers (peas). And between them there's beetroot.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

This Weekend's The Festival Of Lughnasa

Here in Corca Dhuibhne the first weekend in August is the beginning of the fourth season of the Celtic year. It’s called Lughnasa. The ancient Celts held huge festivals to mark the turning points between one season and the next. They believed that the edges of the fabric of time weakened at turning points in the calender, allowing powerful forces to seep through. And they saw communal gatherings as a way to tap into the energy of the universe, and promote health and prosperity in the months to come.  

The word Lughnasa comes from the name of the Celtic sun-god, Lugh, and his story’s one of the oldest myths there is. The Celts saw harvest-time as a battle between light and darkness which frees the crops from the earth and allows us to gather them. So they imagined the earth itself as a fertile goddess, and the sun as a god who becomes her husband. Their union was a symbol of balance, which promoted health. Each year at harvest time whole communities climbed to high places at Lughnasa. It was a festival that had deep religious significance. But it was also a seriously big party. Huge crowds, tents, music, bonfires, eating, drinking and dancing till dawn. There was horse-racing on beaches too; extended families met and hung out together; marriages were arranged; and animals were bought and sold.

Here in Corca Dhuibhne the party’s still going on.

In the local tradition the sun-god Lugh strode up Mount Brandon from the east each year, with flashing eyes and hair, and a golden spear, and defeated Crom Dubh, ‘the crooked, black one’. His victory’s still celebrated every year in the village of Cloghane, on the east side of Mount Brandon. When I was in Cloghane a couple of weeks ago the festival programme was being printed, musicians were rehearsing, and everyone was keeping an eye on the weather, hoping there’d be a good day for the annual climb up Mount Brandon. 

Rain or shine, they’ll be walking a route that’s been walked here at Lughnasa for well over two  thousand years.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Blasket Island Memories

This is a picture, taken from the end of the Dingle peninsula, of the Great Blasket Island. It's the largest of the small group of islands off the westernmost point of this westernmost peninsula in Ireland. The elegant, curving beach is called The White Strand.

People here don't talk of going 'out' to the island. They say they're going 'into' it. It's a form of words which suggests that a trip there isn't just another holiday stop-off. It's a voyage into the heart of something remarkable.   

The islands are uninhabited now; the last people who lived there moved to the mainland in the 1950s. Isolation and emigration just made their life unsustainable. Today, you can get to the island by ferry from Dún Chaoin pier. You reach the pier by walking down a steep, winding slipway. To your left, it clings to the cliff face.To your right, a low wall protects you from the long fall to the Atlantic ocean below. It's partly made of concrete, partly of jagged rocks. When you get to the bottom you'll see the remains of an even steeper path, climbing directly up the towering cliff beside you. There was a time when the fisherman here climbed that crumbling path with their catch crammed into baskets on their backs.

When you reach the island you step from the ferry onto another slipway, and climb an even steeper path to a high, grassy road that leads to an abandoned village. The half-ruined houses, built of field-stones, cluster together against the Atlantic wind. Some are built so closely against the hillside that their roofs were on a level with the stony green fields. 

Higher still, at the edge of a dizzying cliff, you can lie on cushions of sea-pink and look down on the white strand. The islanders used to dance there in the summer evenings. The last time I was there it was a windless day. The sun was blazing. The beach below me looked luminous and the ocean round the island was a dazzling silver sheet. On days like that it seems impossible to believe in long months of darkness and howling wind. But in winter the islanders lived a precarious life here, cut off from the mainland for weeks at a time. Often they were close to starvation. They lived closer than family and everything they had was shared.To make a living from the unpredictable ocean and their high, salty fields they had had no choice but to work together as a community.

At the beginning of the twentieth century some remarkable books came out of that community. Their own tradition of storytelling was an oral one. But, knowing their way of life was coming to an end, some islanders decided to write down their memories. They wrote in Irish, their native language, but their books have been translated into English, and some into German and French.

They wrote them, they said, 'because the like of us will not be here again.'

If you come to the Dingle Pensinsula you can visit the Blasket Island Centre on the mainland, in Dún Chaoin, and find out more. But before you take the ferry into the island, read the books.

They include An tOileánach (The Islandman) byTomás  Ó Criomhthain;  Peig by Peig Sayers; and Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty Years A Growing) by Muiris Ó Suilleabháin.

The like of them will not be here again.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Irish Food Heaven in London

East St. Market on Saturday morning. It's a proper London market in a narrow, inner-city street. The pavement's lined with stalls. The road's crowded with shoppers. And the air's full of traders' shouts and loud Gospel music. Fruit and veg. pot plants and second-hand clothing. Watches. Barbie dolls. Salt fish and biscuits. Fresh flowers, cow's feet and cheap electric razors.  

On each side of the street, behind the market stalls, are shops. Furniture, stationary, boots and shoes and luggage. Fishmongers, phone shops and bolts of cloth for curtains. There's dragon fruit, coconuts, popcorn and watermelon. Sacks of rice and spices and Chinese herbal remedies. 

And then there's Dave's Family Butchers. Rashers and sausages and proper cuts of bacon ....

... but, hang on, Dave's isn't just a butcher's. It's more like a treasure-trove for nostalgic Irish emigrants. 

Remember Boland's Fig Rolls and Clonakilty Black Pudding? Galtee Cheese and Erin soups and Nash's Red Lemonade? Remember Old Time Irish Marmalade? And Silvermints? And real tea brack full of raisins, sultanas and mixed peel? Dave's got them.

But of course he has. The Granny was from Cork.   

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Rites Of Life

It was about eleven pm and I'd been sitting at my computer for hours. That's the point when you slump into bed with your mind still buzzing, and spend most of the night groping for a pencil to make notes about what you're still writing in your head. Or you do the sensible thing instead, and take a walk.

So, down Bermondsey St; through the tunnel under the railway, with its neon pink and purple lighting; and across Tooley St. Then follow the narrow conduit of running water that leads between the office blocks to the Thames.

And there's Tower Bridge, the Tower, and the lights bouncing off the river.

And there's this.

It's a beautiful, open-air photographic exhibition. If you're in London you have to see it. If you're not, there are other images from it at

And there's a book.

I went home and slept like a log. Next day I went back to see it again.
Now I have to get that book.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Fionn And The Seven Sandy Men

There was a hero called Fionn. He had a magic thumb.

Whenever Fionn needed to know things he put his thumb in his mouth and he bit it. 

And then he knew things.

One day Fionn was out in the woods. And a man came towards him.
“I’ve a wife”, said the young man. “And my wife has a baby girl,” he said.
“And one night,” he said, “a big hand came down the chimney and it stole the baby."

So Fionn put his thumb in his mouth.
And he bit it.
And  he knew where the baby was.

“It’s this way,” said Fionn, “the big hand belongs to a giant,” he said, “and the giant lives on an island. “
“Is it a big island?” said the young man.
“It is not,” said Fionn, “it’s a small island, and that’s where he’s taken your baby.”

“I’ll do my best to get her back for you,” said Fionn.  
“You couldn’t do more,” said the young man. “I’ll wait here for you.”

So Fionn walked away till he came to the seashore. 
And there were  seven men there, sitting on the sand.

“Who are you?” said Fionn, “and what do you do?”
“I’m a Shipwright”, said the first man,“I build ships”.
“I’m a Finder,” said the second man, “ I find things.”
“I’m a Climber”, said the third man, “ I climb things.”
“I’m a Thief”, said the fourth man, “I steal things.”
“I’m a Listener,” said the fifth man, 
“I can hear a whisper spoken
in a tall tower
on a high hill
at the other side of the world.”
“I’m a Marksman”, said the sixth  man,
“I can shoot an arrow through a needle.”

Then Fionn looked at the seventh man. “What do you do?” he said.
“ I’m a Gripper”, said the seventh man, “when I grip a thing I never let it go.”

“Will you cross the sea with me?” said Fionn.
“Why wouldn’t we?” said the seven men.
 And they all stood up and brushed the sand off their trousers.

Then the Shipwright made a ship.
And Fionn and the seven men got into it.
And the Finder pointed his finger.“That’s the way to go,” he said.
So they went that way.

At sunset they came to the giant’s island. The giant’s house was at the top of it.
“You’re first,” said Finn to the Climber.
So the Climber climbed up on the roof. The roof was made of eelskins, so it was slippy.
But he climbed it.

He looked down the chimney. Then he went back to the ship.
“The giant’s snoring below on a bed, “ said the Climber, “and the baby’s beside him in a cradle.”

Fionn looked at the Thief. “You’re next”, he said.
The Thief got onto the Climber's back. And the Climber climbed the roof again and the Theif went down the chimney. 
Then he stole the baby. And he brought her back to the ship.And they all set out to sea again.

Six of the men took two oars each. So twelve oars pulled the ship through the waves.
And the Listener sat at the back of the ship.

“Can you hear the giant?” said Fionn.
“I can,” said the Listener, “He’s still snoring”.

The six men kept rowing. And the Listener keep listening.

“Can you hear the giant now?” said Fionn.
“I can,” said the Listener, “He’s waking”.

The six men kept on rowing. And The Listener kept listening.

“Can you hear the giant now?” said Fionn.
“I can,” said the Listener,"he’s running across the waves,” he said. “He’s chasing us”.

“I think I can hear him myself now” said Fionn.

“You can, of course,” said the six men who were rowing. 
“You’d have to be deaf not to,” they said.

Because there was the giant, right behind them.
His big feet were turning the waves to foam. 
And his big hands were reaching  out for them.

“Give me an oar!” shouted the Listener. They gave him two.
So fourteen oars pulled the ship through the waves ...

... but the giant was still behind them ...

... so Fionn put his  thumb in his mouth  and he bit it ...

... and then he knew something.

“Marksman!” he shouted,
“What?” shouted the Marksman.
“Do you see that red spot on the giant’s hand?” said Fionn.
“I do not,” said the Marksman. “I’m too busy rowing.”
“Well, stop rowing,” said Fionn, "and take aim at that spot. There’s nothing can kill the giant,” he said, “ unless a marksman shoots an arrow through the red spot on his hand.”

“No bother to me,” said the Marksman, “can’t I shoot an arrow through the eye of a needle?”
“Haven’t I won prizes for it?” he said. “Only last week I was up at a county fair ...”

“WOULD YOU STOP THAT TALKING,” shouted the other six men.

“Oh, right, so”, said the Marksman.

He stood up in the ship with his bow in his hand. He aimed at the red spot on the giant’s hand.
And he shot an arrow straight through it.

The giant let out a roar. His head went down and his feet went up and he fell down dead behind them.
It was like a mountain falling into the sea.

A big wave washed up over the ship. They all fell back in a heap.
Then the ship rode on  through the falling wave and it sailed clear beyond it.

They all sat up and looked round them.

“ Where’s the baby?” said Fionn
“Was she washed overboard by the wave?” said the Shipwright.
“When we all fell down did we squash her?” said the Climber.
“Maybe she was”, said the Listener.
“Maybe we did,” said Fionn.

But they’d all forgotten the Gripper.
No trouble to him.
He had a tight grip on the baby.
Not a bother on her.

“We’ll go on home, so,” said Fionn, “and we’ll give her back to her daddy.”