Monday, 15 May 2017

Summer and The Rough Month of the Cuckoo

This week sees the publication of the second in my series of Finfarran novels, set on a fictional peninsula on Ireland's west coast where, in real life, I have my own home. Both the book's name and its release date, May 18th, signal the approach of long, lazy summer days of reading. 

And, in my case, gardening.
It's important not to get ahead of yourself where the garden's concerned, though. Because, round these parts, we still have to get through The Rough Month of The Cuckoo.
Scairbhín na gCuach* (The Rough Month of The Cuckoo) is the name given in Irish to the uncertain weeks between mid April to mid May when chilly winds from the north and the east can blast the early growth in the garden and send us scuttling home from walks on the mountain to nights of music by the fire. You could call it the extra month in the Irish calendar.

One day you can be strolling on a beach by a shimmering ocean.
The next day you can wake up to find snow powdering the mountain.
Writing and gardening teach you the same lessons. The best things in life come when the time is right for them to happen. Sometimes you need to be patient and wait till an idea is ready to blossom or a seed to be set.

Every author knows the slow, steady process of drafting, re-working and editing, the discussions about cover images and colour, and the careful distilling of the heart of a work to produce the description on the jacket. It all takes time and, towards the end, you almost feel jaded by the process.

And then - just as the day comes when, at last, the Scairbhín is over - the advance copies arrive through the post, you find yourself doing interviews, and it hits you that, any day now, your book will appear in the shops. 
Summer at the Garden Café, the sequel to The Library at The Edge of The World, is about secrets hidden and shared between four generations of women, the fact that love can be complicated, and the healing power of friendship and books. I hope you'll enjoy reading it as much as I loved writing it.

* You pronounce it something like 'Skarv-een nah Goo-ock'.

Monday, 13 March 2017

St Patrick's Day 2017: A Different Story.

Green flags, gold harps and shamrocks, dancing, drinking and celebration - the whole world will go green next weekend for the bearded bishop in the green robes with his fistful of shamrock and his gleaming golden crozier.

So this is the story...

Patrick approached the High King's fort at Tara, where the Druids stood by the chair of the High Kind. And every fire in Ireland was quenched that night. Because there was a low that no fire whould burn on the eve of the festival of Bealtine, when the druids themselves lit a fire to their pagan gods.'

'But Patrick came to the Hill of Slane and lit a fire there, and prayed for the people of Ireland. The druids saw the flames of his fire from the height of the Hill of Tara, and they spoke to the king and told him that Patrick should be killed. But Patrick came to the Hill of Tara, and he praised God there and told the High King of God's goodness. And the High King fell to his knees.'

'Then Patrick plucked a shamrock. It had three leaves on a single stem. And Patrick taught them the wonder of the Holy Trinity, that three persons existed in one God, truly distinct and equal in all things, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And the druids were amazed and fell to their knees and worshiped God.'

Generations of Irish children grew up with that story, passed on from generation to generation, by firesides and in schools. And, annually, it was preached from the pulpit on March 17th, when we all leapt to our feet and chanted Hail, Glorious St Patrick ( ... DEER saint OV our isle ...). Usually followed by that other hymn, Faith of Our Fathers, ('... how SWEET would be thy childrens' FAY-ate, if DEY, like dem, could die for DEE-eee?) After which, having marched through the streets wearing shamrocks, we went home to devour sweets before the resumption of Lent. He was a great saint that way, Patrick. If you were Irish he'd sneak you a bit of chocolate behind God's back.

I remember the story of St Patrick from my first picture book, in which the green-robed bishop towered above the dark-faced druids with firelight behind him and the shamrock held aloft. Behind the druids the High King knelt by his carved throne. And behind the throne a man with a gold harp, with his head bowed, was holding the palms of his hands on the harpstrings to silence its pagan music, and accept the robust authority of a new regime.

But this year we may have to find a new one.

At home in Ireland, faced with new evidence of the vicious criminality of the Catholic Church and the stranglehold that it's had on our State institutions, we'll be asked to celebrate that overt and dangerous identification of Church with State, and of Christianity with Irishness.

In The US, Irish-Americans in Boston have already seen their St Patrick's Day parade threatened by the pernicious homophobia of the Trump administration, and, on March 17th, NYC will see 'Irish Stand', a rally to assert that anyone who supports Trump's travel ban has 'forgotten the Irish story'.

And all over the world, the 'greening' of rivers, symbolic landmarks and buildings will push the message of Ireland as a great place to be altogether, and the perfect destination in which to spend your holiday money.

Though, maybe less so if you're a woman of childbearing age. Or a refugee. Or an asylum seeker. Or someone desperately trying to discover whether the Church falsified official documents, buried your sibling in an unmarked grave, or trafficked him or her to America.

Meanwhile, on the hills and in the valleys of Ireland, the earth itself is going green. And this was the wonder celebrated by the druids. Because, for our pagan ancestors, the ritual fire kindled in darkness at the feast of Bealtaine symbolised the triumph of light over darkness, the return of seedtime, and the eternal need for balance.

They too gathered to celebrate with dancing and music, parades, religious rites and wild parties. But they needed no explanation of the concept of a triple-aspect deity. Their own vision both of springtime and balance was contained in the image of a triple-aspect goddess, the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. She was memory and potential, childhood, maturity and old age.

Here in Corca Dhuibhne her name was Danú, which means Water. Elsewhere she has other names. But everywhere she brings health and balance to the universe and fertility back to the earth.

This St Patrick's Day it might be good to remember that the hallmark of authoritarianism is the desire to control and corrupt the stories of who we are and where we came from.

 Dingle And Its Hinterland: People, Places and Heritage
Out April 2017 from The Collins Press.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The Mysterious Eggs

This year the last weekend before Lent brought snow on the mountain. We went walking on Sunday, along the bóthairín, where the rutted mud crunched underfoot, and on the beach, where the wind and the hailstones cut like knives. And when we came back, there on the windowsill was a mysterious box of eggs.

No note, and no indication of who had left them. Just eggs left by a neighbour, which often happens round here. Proper new-laid eggs, grubby and unequal in size, from which a tiny, downy feather may flutter when you open the box.  

The box was a supermarket one, but that's often the way.

Today is Pancake Day - Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. The fire is still needed in the evenings, but a bunch of daffodils, carried up from Jack's, fills the house with scent.

Pancakes aren't traditionally eaten in Corca Dhuibhne on Shrove Tuesday. Instead, people cooked a big meal of whatever they had in the house the night before Lent started, in preparation for the six weeks of fasting and abstinence before Easter. But tonight, the pancakes added to the scent of our daffodils, filling the house with the aromas of nutmeg, lemons and frying apples.

When Jack was young, Catholic weddings didn’t take place during Lent, so this was often a popular day for wedding, sometimes with the match being made the previous Sunday. A bride married on Shrove Tuesday had to take care to move all her belongings to her new home by midnight. Otherwise, she had to continue to live with her parents until Easter – even if her husband’s home was only across the road.
Round these parts, there was much mockery of unmarried men. Neighbours would threaten to round them up and send them off to the island of Skellig Mór where, traditionally, Lent began later and marriages could still be made.The oldest bachelor was supposed to captain the boat.

No one remembers boats actually being sent off to the Skellig, though. Instead, after the horseplay, everyone went home to the fire and the huge meal.

We ate our pancakes with lemon and the fried apples, and there was a scatter of nutmeg in the batter mix, which definitely isn't traditional.

The happenstance of a timely gift left by a neighbour definitely is, though.

Latest book 

Publication Date April 18 2017