Showing posts from 2013

The Wran's Day in Corca Dhuibhne

The Wran’s Day, which happens on 26 December, just after the winter solstice, is as much a part of the holiday season in Corca Dhuibhne as Christmas Day itself. Its name’s a corruption of the English word ‘wren’, and in Irish it’s Lá an Dreoilín

There’s endless research on the Wran’s Day, and suggestions that dreoilín, the word for wren, comes from draoi-éan, ‘druid’s bird’. It’s linked to ancient midwinter festivals and shamanism, when a shared web of ideas and information was accessed like a form of internet powered by human energy, and to later folk traditions like Straw Boys and Guisers. 
Its rituals belong to a dream state beyond stories, or even words, when there were just images and rhythms.
But if you turn up in Dingle on 26 December, what you’ll see is one big party. Basically, the town gets taken over by musicians and dancers. In the past, the boys back west used to dress up in rags and old coats turned inside out. They’d smear soot on their faces, or wear masks, and go from …

Christmas Eve in Ireland

The old people believed that animals celebrated the birth of Christ and that beasts in the sheds and sheep on the hills went down on their knees at midnight. 

Here in Corca Dhuibhne lighted candles still shine in each window as a sign of welcome to Mary and Joseph, travelling the night in search of shelter. Traditionally, the candle should be lit by the youngest member of the household and only be blown out by a girl whose name is ‘Mary'.
In the past, house doors were left unlatched so that Mary and Joseph, or any wandering traveller, could come in. A loaf of bread left out on the table for the passing stranger was said to ensure bread in the house for the hungry months ahead. And a bowl of water left by the hearth to be blessed by the travellers was carefully saved by the woman of the house on Christmas morning, to be used for cures throughout the coming year.

People said that blackthorn branches flowered at midnight on Christmas Eve, and that bees woke from their deep winter s…

Received Wisdom

This is Tomás Ó Criomhthain. He was born on The Great Blasket Island off the westernmost end of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula. The island's an isolated place, hard to access and often cut off from the mainland for weeks by fierce Atlantic storms. There's a story that its people took refuge there from invasion and land grabbing on the mainland. The community they built believed that it preserved a cultural inheritance that held lessons for the world.

The photo was taken sometime in the mid 1930s and the book in Tomás's hand was written by himself. Writing was not a part of the Blasket islanders' culture. In their oral tradition the knowledge, skills and beliefs that made up their worldview were passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. They were farmers and fishermen, musicians and storytellers, whose community depended for survival on a deep, shared understanding of their environment and a vivid sense of spiritual awareness of their own place within it.

Barnbrack or Barmbrack?

I was reared on Barnbrack. Or brack, for short. It's a fruity bread served at Hallowe'en in Ireland, cut in slices - always, in our house, by my sister Mary - and thickly buttered to conceal the whereabouts of a lucky ring baked in the loaf. Actually, the fact that Mary did the cutting and buttering may explain why, year after year, to groans of disappointment from the rest of us, when we sat down at teatime she always got the ring. But that's another story.
The point is that we called it Barnbrack. Not Barmbrack. Now, barm is the foam, or scum, that forms on the top offermented alcoholic beverages and is used as a raising agent in bread. And it's perfectly true that a brack requires a raising agent. But it's name is Barnbrack, not Barmbrack. Besides, we always used yeast.   
I first heard Barnbrack called Barmbrack in England, shortly after I arrived there in the 1970s. But it was clear that the English - though fine people in many respects - hadn't much of a c…

Winding down towards Winter

Light hits the world at a different angle. The focus changes and everything seems closer. Folds in the mountains. Foam on the waves. Shadows on the sand, and the work to be done before winter contains us.

Freckled sunlight catches the last splashes of colour in the garden.

Then colour shifts to monochrome and clouds herald storms. Down by the strand, grass melts from the fields where cows wait for the sileage.

Back at the house, work goes on with one eye on the weather.

And, between sunshine and showers, we gather in our own winter fodder.

The last of the beans and greens from the garden, the blight free spuds, mustard and a couple of Jerry Kennedy's sausages.

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Arbitrary Autumn Baking.

I love these autumn days when you bundle green beans, or garlic, or apples, into newspaper and take them round to a neighbour. And then come home to find somebody else has done the same thing for you.

It's the time of year whenbaking's completely arbitrary. A walk produces blackberries, so suddenly there's a pie. Or, if a pie's too complicated, it's three ounces of butter rubbed into eight of self-raising flour, three tablespoons of buttermilk and a beaten egg mixed in by hand, an extra sprinkle of flour to keep the ball of dough from sticking on the work surface, pat it flat and cut yourself nine rounds. Then ten minutes in the oven at 200c (make the tea while you're waiting) and there I am with my feet up by the fire, squashing dark, juicy blackberries onto hot, buttered scones.

But, to get back to that  gift on the doorstep, here's an arbitrary upside down cake.

As far as I can remember, this one was rhubarb and apple - probably more apple than rhubarb…

Layers of Memory

There's a family story that it was made as a wedding present. I don't if it's true.
I know that it once stood in my grandfather's home in Galway, in a room above his barber's shop in Eyre Square. I know that, when the shop was sold after his death, it came to Dublin with my grandmother, a charming, angry woman, who took to her bed on arrival and stayed there, in a temper, till she died.
I know that when I was born, my father shortened the legs so my mother could use it as a nursing chair.
I remember kneeling in front of it when I was five, playing house; I put a pastry board across the arms as a roof, and tucked my teddy to sleep on the seat.
As I work down through the layers of paint, the memories blur. The top layer is white. That was put on by my brother after my mother's death. Beneath it, there's a layer of Wedgewood blue. That went on when my father died. I remember my mother, alone in the home they'd made together, afraid that even to change the…

Is it Lughnasa or Crom Dubh's Sunday?

You're looking at the face of Crom Dubh, The Crooked Dark One. Depending on which team you batted for in pre-Christian Ireland, he was either Lord of The Harvest or The Bringer of Famine. And a thousand years later, depending on whether you were a Christian convert or a stubborn adherent to the old gods, he was either a pagan wizard banished by holy St. Brendan or a dark and evil deity defeated by the sun god, Lugh.

Across the millennia, his stone image was preserved in the village of Cloghane, at the foot of Mount Brandon here in Corca Dhuibhne. And each year people climbed the mountain from the east to celebrate his annual festival with bonfires, feasting, dancing, hand-fasting and sacrifice.

Mount Brandon is Corca Dhuibhne's holy mountain. Brendan the Voyager, the medieval saint said to be the first European to reach the New World, began his epic voyage from Brandon Point at the north western end of the peninsula. Before setting out with his companion monks, he's sai…

Salad Song.

Nothing beats the pleasure of arriving home to a garden that's suddenly sprung to life in two weeks of  sunshine after a slow, chilly start to an Irish summer.

Grass in the orchard high enough to tickle the backs of your knees. Apples swelling on branches and fuchsia flowering on the ditches. Opening windows ... leisurely unpacking ... checking the post ... a little watering ... a beer at sunset ... and then the first home-grown salad of the season.

Broad bean tops. German radishes.Young rocket leaves. Baby spinach leaves. Red clover leaves and flower heads. Chive flowers. Rainbow chard leaves. Parsley flowers and chopped parsley stalk. Beetroot leaves. Marjoram buds and flower heads. Chopped chives. Shredded garlic stalks fried in olive oil with black pudding. 

Tossed in a bowl with sunflower oil and cider vinegar. And served at the kitchen table with more beer and  crispy ciabatta.

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Strawberries and Cream in a Writer's Dream Venue.

All my childhood memories of Enniscorthy revolve round fruit and flowers. My grandmother’s house there was built on a hill. I remember roses in the garden, and tall lilies on thick stems, with ivory petals like curled pollen-powdered vellum. Tattered, golden irises, called flags, grew near a row of tumbledown stone sheds. There was a broad, scrubbed step outside the kitchen door and a path ran down the garden to an orchard of apple trees and fruit bushes.

Granny was frail by the time I remember her. There was a starched cloth on the polished table where we had tea when we visited; the cups were her own mother’s sky blue and white china, patterned with flowers. I remember gooseberry and blackcurrant jams made with fruit from the garden, and ‘country butter’ served on slices of her own brown soda bread. The strong taste of the salty butter was almost like cheese.

Each year in June we’d take the train down from Dublin for Enniscorthy’s Strawberry Festival. Bowls and baskets of the locall…

Thoughts on Father's Day

When I was a child in the 1950s my father worked in the Art and Industrial Division at the National Museum of Ireland. He subsequently became a noted military historian but, until I was five or six,  he was an assistant keeper at the museum, with responsibility for the Military History and the War of Independence collections.
When I visit the museum today I can still feel his presence. He was fascinated by archaeology as well as history, and so passionate about Ireland's past that, even at that young age, I learned to share his enthusiasm. It was a passion rooted in a philosopher's sense of the universality of human experience as well as in delight in his own cultural inheritance, and, above all, it was founded on a pursuit of truth. Looking back now, I'm aware that his uncompromising insistence on the importance of facts over nationalist sentiment must have made him unpopular in some quarters in the Ireland of his time. But as a child I was just gripped by the stories he …

A Time For Listening.

A cold, wet spring after a cold wet winter. And now a cold, late summer after the slow coming of spring.

Snow on Mount Brandon at Easter. No growth in the grass. Furze and fuchsia bushes slow to flower and primroses still starring the ditches in the last week of May.

For the last three years the rhythm of the seasons has faltered and the certain swing of one thing to the next thing has changed. Now, with livestock crying out for fodder, farmers are shaking their heads and talking of bankruptcy. Here in Corca Dhuibhne, the price of bought-in fodder is high and all over the country the effects of this year's weather are being factored into predictions for next year's profits and losses.

In pubs and shops, and on the roads when people stop to chat with their neighbours, there's talk of selling up and shipping out. Emigration's always been a quick-fix here in Ireland: but now shoulders are being shrugged. The weather's wrong everywhere, they say. There are floods in En…

St. George's Day at Borough Market - more Circles Links and Layers.

The legend of St. George belongs to England. I remember standing under a statue of him when I first came to London as a child, admiring the dashing knight in armour on his rearing horse, poised to slay the fierce, curly-tailed dragon that was snarling at his feet.
It was years later that I discovered that St. George belongs to many other countries as well, including Catalonia, a region proud of its Celtic cultural roots, where his feast day's known as La Diada de Sant Jordi. But it's only since moving to Bermondsey that I've discovered the Catalan tradition of giving a rose and a book to a loved one on Sant Jordi's Day.
And then today, wandering round Borough Market, I discovered the link between St. George's Day, which is April 23rd, and UNESCO's International Day of the Book, which falls on the same date because of that Catalan tradition, and because it was the date of the death - and possibly the anniversary of birth - of both the English playwr…