Showing posts from 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 b…

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…

Sinterklaas And The Second Month Of Samhain

WhenI 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. Outsi…

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 Celts' 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. 
With the passage of time and the coming of Christianity Ireland, the Celts' Oíche Shamhna celebrations were replaced by those at Halloween, the Christian feast of All Souls.But for thousands of years, throughout Ireland, the start of the season of Samhain has been celebrated with rituals older than Christianity - bonfires, candles stuck in turnip heads, and masked visits to the neighbours.
Modern trick or treating echoes 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 li…

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 Ha…

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…

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…

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 …

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…

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 o…

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…

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 jag…

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…

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.

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…