Saturday, 5 September 2015

Memory and Potential

To the Celtic ancestors of peoples who now live all across Europe, the in-between spaces between one season and another were taut with energy. They were the points of balance between memory and potential, when the belief that all things contain all other things was expressed in communal ritual.   

This is the season of Lughnasa when the wheel of the year turns again and the world prepares to enter the   months of darkness which we see as cold and dead and the ancient Celts saw as pregnant with new life. It's a time for gathering in, for celebrating life and expressing mutual support.

The ancient Celts' rituals were held in in-between places - on beaches between land and sea, on mountain tops between earth and sky, and on water which is the basic necessity for life.

Here in Corca Dhuibhne memories of those ritual gatherings are still to be found at Lughnasa. All around the peninsula boat races are held, in which crews from the different communities pit their skills against each other.

On a beach near Ballyferriter called Béal Bán, a name that translates as The White Mouth, horse racing echoes the ritual races once held in honour of Lugh, the Celtic sun god.

To the ancient Celts everyone and everything in existence was interdependent because everything in the universe was sentient, and shared a living soul. The emphasis on community in their seasonal gatherings expressed the place of the individual within that worldview. And their annual celebrations of Lugh's union with Danú the Earth Mother expressed their belief in the interconnectivity of the universe in terms of the human family. 

Tomorrow, on Béal Bán when the tide is out, the drumming of horses' hooves will echo the ancient communal gatherings at which drumming and dancing promoted a world of harmony and balance.

Races at Lughnasa are life-enhancing family celebrations. Whole communities gather on the beach; mums and dads, babies and adolescents. People of all generations participate in the contests, lay bets on outside chances, make music, share stories, eat ice-cream or just hang out.

And this year, on other beaches in other parts of Europe, individuals and families who have been torn from their communities are also experiencing in-between spaces, praying for a restoration of balance, and giving thanks for life.



Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Dublin Table

First there was the Galway chair. There was a family story that it was made as a wedding present. I don't if that'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.

When my mother died it went from our house in Dublin to my brother's house in Enniscorthy. On the twenty fifth anniversary of my own wedding I asked him if I could have it as an anniversary present and it crossed the the country again, from Wexford to Corca Dhuibhne

As I worked down through the layers of paint that had accumulated on it, the memories blurred and refocused. The top layer was white. That was put on by my brother after my mother's death. Beneath it, was a layer of Wedgewood blue. That went on when my father died. I remember my mother, alone in the home they had made together, afraid that even to change the colour of a chair was somehow to betray his memory. 
Underneath the top layers a creamy undercoat clung to the spindles and the seat, and needed digging out of the legs. I worked on it for months, revealing the knots and scratches, the marks of other, older tools, and the colours and grains of the different woods chosen by the man who made it. Beneath it I found the initials of his name.

Under the steady, repeated gestures of chipping and sanding, turning and dusting, my mind played with ideas for a new book. That was two years ago. Now the book is written and the Galway chair has been joined by the Dublin table.

It was made by a man who worked as a joiner in Ireland's National Museum. There's a family story that he used offcuts of timber from a display case. My father, who also worked in the museum, had responsibility for its Military History and War of Independence collections. The table was built for him to write on, though I never remember him working at it. I don't think it would have been big enough for his manuscripts and books.

At different times it stood against different walls in our Dublin house. I remember rubbing Ronuk Polish into  its mahogany surface and buffing it with a pad made from a worn cotton sheet. There was a pewter bowl of oranges that always stood on it at Christmas time. My mother guarded the table top carefully against heat marks, scratches and stains. When she died it went to my sister's house. When my sister died and that house was sold, her husband offered it to me. 

Yesterday Wilf and I drove from Dublin to Corca Dhuibhne with the table in the back of the car. The day before that we had been in Enniscorthy, talking about the book, which I've just finished editing. It's called A Woven Silence: Memory, History & Remembrance and it maps my own family's stories onto the history of the Irish State, seeking and exploring blurred communal memories and the reasons why they were lost. 

The cover shows a photo of my mother and her sisters taken in Dublin about 1915, when their father's cousin was in the British Army, fighting in Flanders, and their mother's cousin was drilling in the fields outside Enniscorthy with Cumann na mBan. In my mother's clenched hand is a coin. The memory of its story would have been lost forever had she chosen not to pass it on.

As  I reached the last chapter, I told my publisher that I couldn't finish writing the book till the marriage referendum was over. It ends with Pantibliss on the stage of the Abbey Theatre, crowds singing in the yard of Dublin Castle, and three faceless stones on an Enniscorthy hill.

Yesterday Wilf unscrewed the table top, so we could fit it into the car. Sixty years earlier, a man whose name I don't know fitted those ten screws, each an inch and a quarter long, into place, and fastened the top to the base. They came out easily when Wilf turned the screwdriver, having been put in with no more pressure than was required to do the job right. 

We carried the Dublin table into the house in Corca Dhuibhne in two pieces and reassembled it on the floor. Now it stands here beside the Galway chair. I don't know what will happen next to either of them.


               A Woven Silence: Memory, & Remembrance will be published by The Collins Press in September 2015

Monday, 20 April 2015

The Rough Month of The Cuckoo

Here on the Dingle Peninsula I am emerging from one book to the next in The Rough Month of the Cuckoo.
Scairbhín na gCuach 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.
Yet bright sunny days can tempt us out for lunch on the stone table in the garden under the sally tree. And last year's chard, sprouting broccoli, turnip tops and rocket struggle gallantly on, offering new shoots and flowers for salads, while fresh parsley, marjoram, garlic chives and fennel are springing in sheltered beds.
Last week I was standing around in a t-shirt in Killarney National Park posing for photos to promote Enough Is Plenty. 

This week I'm wearing woolly socks under wellingtons and bundling up in a fleece. By the time we get to the book launch at The Dingle Whiskey Distillery on May 8th I'll either be shimmying around in crepe de Chine or wearing a Cossack hat. Feel free to join us if you happen to be in Dingle. Dress code will depend entirely on the Scairbhín.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Happy New Year - in Ireland it's Oíche na Coda Móire.

Happy New Year, everyone. Here at the westernmost end of the Dingle Peninsula it's still Oíche na Coda Móire, a name which means The Night of The Big Portion and is pronounced Eee-heh Nah Cud-ah Moir-eh. Well, not quite like that but something like it.

The idea is that you eat the largest meal you can manage to ensure plenty of food and prosperity in the coming year.

So, even though my next book is called Enough Is Plenty, this seems the proper occasion for a post focusing on the pleasures of the large portion. Enjoy!

Fógraím iarsma oraibh uilig. Good luck to you all in 2015.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

A (Virtually) Traditional Irish Christmas

It began at The Charles Dickens Museum in London which happens to be down the road from my agent's office and serves seriously good lemon drizzle poppy seed cake in its café. Which makes it the perfect place for a meeting.

My agent and I discussed the novel I was writing and talked about sales figures on another book. And then we got down to the coffee and cake stage which is when seeds of new ideas quite often emerge, apparently from nowhere. 

That day, prompted by the fact that we were sitting in what once would have been Charles Dickens' back kitchen, we chatted about his little Christmas books.


Just the right size to be stocking fillers, they'd been mood setters for Christmas each year in my childhood home in Dublin. I still have two worn copies, 1886 and 1903 editions, bought for sixpence each by my father from a bookstall on the quays in 1947.

I was describing my annual ritual of curling up with those books at Christmastime and remembering how I'd  heard that they'd produced the same fizz of festivity round Victorian firesides when Dickens first published them.

And then, between one sip of coffee and the next, an idea emerged. I'd write my own little Christmas book.

Christmas at the end of Ireland's Dingle peninsula has its own particular traditions, some of which are very different to the Dickensian images of jolly innkeepers welcoming rattling stage coaches, bustling city streets, and overworked clerks wearing woolen mufflers struggling with Scrooge-like employers.

Here we walk long beaches on frosty mornings, and at nighttime single candles flicker in the windows of high mountain farmhouses. Holly and ivy are traditional decorations but, until recently, Christmas trees weren't. A salted fish dish of ling with onion sauce is eaten on Christmas Eve. And December 26th,  known as The Wran's Day, is celebrated with rituals that reach back to the ancient Celts' midwinter festival. 

So, Christmas at the end of the westernmost peninsula in Europe has resonances that are very different to those I absorbed in my Dublin childhood from Dickens' little Christmas books.

Yet some things about the feative season are universal and timeless.

Hot, comforting food after chilly winter walks. Time to relax by the fire.

And the urge to reach out to neighbours, friends and family, to share music, stories, food and good fellowship.

These days Skype and Facebook draw Irish emigrant families together at Christmas time, and my neighbours here on the peninsula send texts to arrange their music sessions and festive gatherings. 

And as I sit here at my desk in a stone house on the side of the mountain, there on my computer screen are people I've never met and who've never met each other, sending me messages and sharing stories sparked by my photos on The House on an Irish Hillside's Facebook page. 

That day, sitting with my agent in what used to be Dickens' back kitchen, we talked about that warmth and conviviality engendered by the internet. I said that I reckon that if Dickens were alive and writing today he'd be the king of social media. And, between one forkful of cake and the next, the idea for my own Christmas book suddenly crystallized.  

Here it is, a Kindle Short, available exclusively for download. 

I see it as a virtual stocking-filler, to be read with with a large piece of cake to hand and a pot of tea at your elbow.   Available worldwide on Amazon, you'll find the US link HERE and the UK one HERE 

Monday, 27 October 2014

Ireland as a crucible

Nearly forty years ago I was in a production of The Crucible, Arthur Miller's play about the Salem witch trials in the seventeenth century. It's a forensic exploration of individual and communal disaster, set in  a community riven by unspoken jealousies, resentment and sexual tensions, which is eventually destroyed from within by the morbid effect of mass hysteria. This weekend I've been thinking about it a lot.

Throughout the last week Ireland's news coverage and social media have been dominated by allegations made by a young woman called Maíria Cahill who says that in 1997, as a sixteen year old in Northern Ireland, she was repeatedly raped by a senior member of the IRA and subsequently, in 1999, forced to go through a 'second nightmare' at the hands of an IRA 'kangaroo court' which, over an extended period of time, summoned her for interrogations and eventually confronted her with the man whom she'd claimed had raped her.

The story broke eleven days ago with screamer headlines about child abuse and in the past week the question of what did or didn't happen to Maíria Cahill has been complicated by farther allegations about the involvement of Gerry Adams, president of Ireland's Sinn Féin political party and a TD (member of the Irish parliament) since the 2011 general election. Maíria Cahill claims that at the time of the alleged kangaroo court Adams was aware of its proceedings and that, after its investigation was concluded, he spoke to her about it. Adams claims that he wasn't and he didn't.

The claims and counter claims continue. Cahill has been accused of consensual sex with the man whom she claims to have raped her. Adams' political career is said to be in jeopardy. Senior figures in the Irish government have been accused of turning the alleged rape of a teenager into an opportunity for party political point-scoring. And Maíria Cahill is currently coping with unspeakable levels of cyberabuse, in what she's referred to as an 'online campaign of vilification'. On Saturday she tweeted a link to an interview in which she claims that she's had to move home four times and  fears for her safety.

I hope the next investigation of Maíria Cahill's case will be be advised by professionals who recognise and can deal with the fact that she's already been subjected to two nightmares. I'd like to add my voice to all those raised in outrage at the cruel abuse she's currently being subjected to online. I don't think I've anything useful to add to the current speculation about her allegations of a crime and cover up which has implications that extend beyond the experience of one individual into the political and moral heart of the nation. But what I do think, having read and listened to a rising tide of commentary in online fora and on radio phone-ins, is that Arthur Miller's play contains a significant warning which has direct relevance to Ireland in the coming weeks.

Miller's dramatisation of the dynamics of the Salem witch hunt charts the social and physical destruction of a community which comes to believe in the possibility of impossible levels of evil in its midst. It seems to me that - encouraged by rising levels of political and social frustration and exacerbated by the unfolding story of Maíria Cahill - a particularly vocal element in Irish public opinion is heading the same way. Over the last few days I've seen and heard repeated dismissals of the Irish police force, social services, politicians and religious institutions as intrinsically and irredeemably corrupt. Logically, it's simply not possible that every politician and public servant in each of Ireland's institutions is, and has a for a long time, been part of an institutional abuse of power of which every citizen has been aware. The assertion ought to be laughable.Yet the combination of an atavistic horror of paedophilia, the perception that corrupt bankers and politicians have gone unpunished, and widespread resentment of increased taxation appears to have produced a willingness to accept it as the truth.

What's asserted is that Maíria Cahill's allegations are unsurprising. Ireland, we're told, is riddled with rapists and paedophiles, always has been. And the same rapists and paedophiles are hand in glove with the guards and the politicians and the social workers and the priests and the whole pack of devious shysters in high places who cover up for them. And haven't we all known the truth of it all along?

It's deeply disturbing to think that there may be criminal collusion, inefficiency and cowardice in high places. But what frightens me more is the morbid mental laziness of a mind that's prepared to assume that everyone is evil. It frightens me because, ultimately, it's a doomsday scenario. Who can benefit from this passive aggressive dismissal of all possibility of worth? What hope is there for justice if the next sixteen year old rape victim believes it's pointless to report the crime? What hope have we for a better society if the next generation of potential police officers and social workers are too cynical, or scared of  ridicule, to apply for the job? What chance is there for inspiration, aspiration or improved moral standards in Irish politics if decent individuals who want to serve their communities have to run the gauntlet of an electorate that smears their motives before they've had a chance to prove their worth?

And what of the honest, hard-working individuals in public service today? They're there. We've all encountered them. They're not perfect but they haven't made a pact with the devil. What they may do, however, if we're not careful, is throw their hands up in despair and leave us to our smug determination to believe the worst of ourselves and everyone around us.

I remember a conversation after a rehearsal of The Crucible when the cast sat round in a coffeeshop trying to imagine a contemporary community buying into a mindset which inevitably would destroy it from within. Being young, we concluded that the psychology of the Salem witch hunt belonged to the seventeenth century and that people knew better now. In doing so, we sidestepped the fact that Miller wrote the play in the 1950s as an allegory of McCarthyism in the US. I think it also has resonance in Ireland in 2014.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Smell of September

It's a kind of a cold smell with mist in it.

When you cut back the rattling fennel the spicy scent of pollen tickles the back of your throat.

The rich smell of garlic mixes with the smell of damp earth when your spade nicks a bulb as you're digging spuds in the garden
Blackberries ripen on briars


bringing the fruity, sugary smell of jam, and the warm smell of soda bread rising in the oven.                     


Scented flowers give way to huge, dusky hydrangea heads waiting to be picked and dried.
And once again you open the door to the dark smell of turfsmoke.