Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Thinking About The Gathering 2013

I became aware of The Gathering 2013 back in 2011. It was a corner-of-the-eye thing, spotted online and then forgotten. I was in Ireland writing The House on an Irish Hillside, a book that's part memoir, part exploration of my own sense of identity as a member of the Irish diaspora, and partly an examination of the Dingle Peninsula's Celtic inheritance. Which, I suppose, is why something called The Gathering caught my eye.

The ancient Celts disapproved of writing. They believed it weakened their ability to remember; and in their worldview shared memory was the vital component that bound people together in a web of individual awareness of communal identity. In Ireland they reinforced and passed on their sense of community at seasonal tribal gatherings deliberately sited on mountaintops which gave them the widest possible view of the landscape with which they identified.

It was a formidably successful culture, characterized by its own diaspora which was apparently fuelled by expanding tribal populations, a warrior ethos, and a culture of maintaining close links with its homelands. Celts seem to have started out east of the Rhine and expanded across huge areas, including much of Britain, Ireland, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy. They spread along the Danube towards the Black Sea, pressed on to Thrace and Macedonia and made contact with the Scythians. At the height of their expansion they crossed into Asia Minor, founded settlements in Galatia, in eastern Phrygia, and occupied the site of modern Ankara. What's remarkable is that they did this without financial systems, written records, or administrative centres. Instead, their cultural identity was expressed across vast territories by shared language, belief systems, customs, skills and art.

The Gathering 2013 is a government initiative reaching out to Ireland's worldwide diaspora. It's designed to boost the tourist trade and encourage emotional and financial investment in the home country. Glamourised by identification with the concept of ancient Celtic gatherings, it's a feelgood project in a time of world recession, intended to showcase Ireland's willingness to embrace not only those with Irish roots but those who identify with Irishness.

And as 2013 approaches I'm fascinated by the emotions it's arousing in Ireland.

What delights me about those ancient Celtic gatherings is that they seem to have made no distinction between their spiritual, social and economic elements. They involved sacred shamanist rituals to promote, balance and support the powerful flow of energy which, in their belief system, linked and animated each element in the universe. But they were also huge, cheerful parties at which goods were bartered, marriages arranged, and animals bought and sold, amidst feasting, music and dancing. It was a system designed to reinforce shared identity by identifying and passing on shared values. And it took place in settings intended to reflect an ideal state of balanced interdependence.

Part of the challenge for The Gathering 2013 is that it's a response to economic crisis. Recession's hit hard in Ireland and anti-government feeling's rife since the latest budget proposals have been unveiled. There's general resentment and trepidation, and cuts to child benefit and carers' allowances in particular are seen as indications that our politicians have little respect for women. Added to that, in the wake of a young woman called Savita Halappanavar's tragic death in a Galway hospital, many Irish people currently feel ashamed rather than proud of their inherited values.  

Savita, an Indian immigrant to Ireland, was pregnant but it became clear that the pregnancy wasn’t medically viable. Her own medical condition was deteriorating so, recognising that they’d already lost their baby, she and her husband asked for a termination. But an unresolved discrepancy between Ireland’s legislation and its constitution led to the conclusion that termination would be illegal while a foetal heartbeat remained detectable. Ultimately Savita and her baby both died.

The case is still under investigation but when the story broke thousands of Irish people took to the streets with banners. Abortion’s a political hot potato in Ireland where part of our cultural inheritance is a legacy of state subservience to the Roman Catholic Church. Many people, including some with moral objections to abortion, believe Savita's death occurred as a result of political unwillingness to confront that legacy. Others, including myself, feel shamed by our unawareness of the legislative position and its implications and, to that extent, believe we own a share in the  responsibility for what happened.

Coming in the wake of a series of revelations about paedophilia in the priesthood and the Vatican's response to them, the combination of the Halappanavar's tragedy, the government's austerity measures, and its plans for The Gathering 2013 seem to have touched a deep nerve in Ireland's national consciousness. Last month the image of one placard protesting at Savita's death went viral on the internet. “You Wanted A Gathering,” it read, "You Got It.”

So the feelgood initiative's become a focus for protest. But, in my opinion, that’s not a bad  thing.

A few weeks ago I was asked if I’d take part in a Gathering 2013 events launch in Dingle town on New Year’s Eve. I was glad to. Here on the Dingle peninsula, an area that's suffered successive, crippling waves of emigration since the nineteenth century, The Gathering offers a practical boost to the tourist trade on which hundreds of families depend for employment. The same applies all across Ireland, where individuals and locals have come together with energy, creativity and wit to embrace the initiative as an expression of self-help and solidarity in recession. That in itself seems a valid reason to support it.

But to my mind there are other reasons as well. For me they're rooted in the template provided by those ancient gatherings that seem actively to have made no distinction between the spiritual, social and economic elements of the society they expressed. Recently, responding to public pressure, the Irish government’s announced its intention to introduce new legislation on abortion. I can’t think of any subject so much in need of a broad, balanced context for debate. Or any country in which the sacred needs so badly to be reconciled with the profane.

On that basis I can’t imagine a better forum for debate on Irish values than The Gathering 2013. It seems to me that its greatest strength lies in the fact that the government’s reached out to the worldwide diaspora, contextualizing national issues and encouraging input across vast territories from people with a shared sense of identity but strongly contrasting ideas about what that might actually mean. I think that if we grab it by the scruff of the neck and use it, The Gathering can be more than just a huge, year-long party to boost the economy. It can be a creative focus for something profound.


Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Thinking about Maeve Binchy

This time last year I wrote a sentence which I remember erasing twice. Each time I typed it I was afraid it might seem pretentious. And each time I erased it I felt like a coward and typed it again. ' My own trade', I wrote, 'is crafting the world into words'. In the end it took assurances and endorsement from others before I could let it stand.

Why is it so hard for a writer to have confidence in what she does? Why should I feel my statements need external endorsement before I can write them down? In the past I believed it's because writers work alone. There's a sense in which we create without any context: and that's ironic because creation is about contextualisation; the act of writing is about  framing and re-framing life as a series of pictures, juxtaposing one against another to provide the balance and perspective that enhance awareness of the world. All in an attempt to understand it.

For over a year, as I wrote The House on an Irish Hillside, I explored the ancient Celtic concept of a joined-up universe in which everything that exists, or ever has existed, shares a living soul. It's a worldview that expands the idea of individuality and redefines the function of community. It's rooted in the idea that balance is the essence of health. And it rejects the idea that death destroys life.

During that year, and in the months before it, my own life was shaken by death, and my perceptions of health and how to maintain it were challenged. Unable to write, sometimes unable to think, eat, sleep or - it seemed - even to breathe, I experienced two apparent opposites. One was the emptiness of feeling utterly alone. The other was the incomparable comfort of communal support from neighbours and individual support from friends.

Among those friends was Maeve Binchy, whose warm, unsentimental, practical advice arrived in a series of phone calls and postcards, supplemented by large glasses of white wine and plates of smoked salmon sandwiches. I'd known Maeve since I was a child and when she died in August this year my world, which still felt delicately balanced, was suddenly shaken again.

Maeve's funeral was a celebration of her life. Her coffin emerged from the church to the soaring sound of  traditional Irish music. Her photo was displayed in shop windows in the streets of the little town she'd lived in, where her neighbours lined the pavements to say goodbye. Tributes poured in from statesmen, fellow-writers and readers, all praising her talent, generosity, compassion and charm. Along with huge numbers of her friends throughout the world, I've missed her ever since.

A few days ago I travelled from Corca Dhuibhne back to London and found a padded envelope waiting among my post. Inside was a copy of Maeve's latest book, A Week in Winter. It was sent, said the inscription, because Maeve had wanted me and my husband to have it and it came 'with her love'. It's vintage Maeve Binchy - warm, compassionate and astringent, razor sharp and richly intelligent. And, like everything she wrote, it's informed by equal measures of energy, enthusiasm and optimism.

Before she died Maeve made a statement. She didn't believe in god, she wrote. She'd thought about it for a lifetime, wanting to hold onto the faith in which she'd been raised. But she now knew that what she believed in was life, love and kindness, and human potential for good. It was a brave statement and I suspect that in making it she may have lost some fans who saw her as a feelgood writer who dealt in certainties, not soul-searching. But a life of examined awareness had led to her conclusion and, as a writer, she needed to share what she perceived to be true. Her funeral was held in a church where the priest reiterated her statement from the altar. It was an honest, dignified memorial characterised by no hypocrisy, deep grief and much humour.

Like Maeve, I don't believe in a god. But I don't believe either that death's destroyed her life. In the obvious sense she still lives in her books. But that's not what I mean. Everything I've learned from my own experience suggests that our Celtic ancestors were right. On some level that exists now, in a circular universe in which linear time as a concept is irrelevant, everything that exists continues to exist and shares a living soul. So, although it wasn't published until after she died, I think that the book that's beside me on the desk as I write this really has come with her love.

In the past I believed that isolation was part of the writer's condition. In a practical sense that's true, and it makes the perfect environment for crises of confidence. But the real truth, I think, is that it's impossible to be alone. I believe that as writers we create as individuals. But we reflect a world within a universe where everything's joined up - a state in which each element is vital and equal, and all are balanced by an animating flow of energy which means death's always pregnant with life.

I wish I could talk to Maeve about that. Balance expressed with humour inhabits the heart of her work. For much of her life she lived with ill health. She knew light doesn't register without darkness. There've been so many times since she's died that I've reached for the phone and been stabbed by the memory that she's gone. She was a mentor as well as a friend. I loved her bossy, witty, crystal clear analysis of situations and ideas, the stories with which she illustrated them, her certainties and her doubts. I'd value her opinion of my own new, still slightly precarious worldview.

And I'd like her to know that I no longer need anyone's endorsement to have the courage to write it down.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

A Winter Day on the Dingle Peninsula

Preheat the oven to c230/ gas 8. Scatter flour thickly on a large, heavy baking tray. Sieve twelve ounces of plain, white, unbleached flour and a level teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda into a large bowl. Hold the sieve as high as you dare, to incorporate plenty of air. Add a large pinch of salt if you want to. I never do. Then sieve four ounces of wholemeal flour into the bowl as well, tip the residue of bran in after it, and throw in a handful of linseed or sunflower seeds, and maybe a fistful of oats.

Tap the bowl on  the table to bring everything to the bottom. Then combine the lot with a swirl of your hand in one direction and a turn of the bowl in the other.

Next make a well in the centre of the mixture and add 350ml of buttermilk all in one go. (I know I've mixed metric and imperial measures, that's the way my mind works. And anyway I just use the full of a big glass for the buttermilk.)

Then, using one hand and turning the bowl with the other, draw the flour into the buttermilk, combining them.

Work from the sides to the centre; it shouldn't take more than a minute. The ball of dough you end up with should be soft, but not wet or sticky. If you need to, add a bit more flour or buttermilk. You'll know you're right if the dough comes together quickly, and it leaves the bowl perfectly clean.

Throw some flour on your table and turn out the dough. Wash and dry your hands. Knead your bread from the sides to the centre for just a few seconds, turning it, to make a round loaf.

Flip it over onto the baking tray. Pat it down with a floury hand. You want it about two and a half centimetres thick. Then cut a deep cross through the loaf, almost dividing it into triangles. It'll come together as it rises.

Bake for fifteen minutes in the hot oven, then reduce the heat to c200/ gas 6 for another twenty. Keep an eye on it for the last ten minutes. You can turn it upside down if it's getting too brown.

It's done when the bottom sounds hollow when you tap it with your knuckle.

Cool the bread on a wire rack. Eat it on the day you bake it - hot, with butter and honey. Or with blackcurrant jam.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Echoes of ancient Irish ritual on St. Martin's Day

It was dark last night as we drove home across the country. Our last stop had been in Clonmel at the seventh bookshop in three days in which I'd met booksellers, chatted to readers and signed copies of The House on an Irish Hillside before taking photos, grabbing another coffee and a sandwich and taking to the road again with the mapbook on my knee.

It had been a lovely trip along autumnal Irish roads that snaked between broad, harvested fields edged by stone walls, tall trees or golden-brown beech hedgerows. But as darkness fell and rain began to spatter the windscreen my mind was reaching out for the rougher, wilder landscape of West Kerry, Tí Neillí Mhuiris and home.

We lit the fire when we came in, sweeping away the soot and ashes blown down onto the stone hearth in our absence, and heated soup for our supper. A fierce wind was gusting from the ocean. Later we slept again in our own bed, protected from the gale by the cluster of ashtrees planted at our north gable nearly a hundred years ago by Neillí's husband, Paddy.

This morning we got up late, pottered round a bit and walked down the hill to see Jack.

His kitchen was warm and welcoming, full of the lingering smell of a fine chicken dinner, just being cleared from the table. We sat down and chatted about book signing and the weather, and the birth of a new baby to a neighbour below in Ballyferriter. The table was cleared and wiped clean, the scraps were gathered onto a plate, and outside the door Spot twitched in anticipation of her own dinner. She eats it each day from an old fryingpan at the corner of the house, scrupulously leaving a few mouthfuls behind her for the hens to eat in their turn.

As the chicken carcass was removed from the table we were still talking schedules and booksignings. Someone asked about the date - was today the tenth or the eleventh? 'It's the eleventh,' said Jack as the rest of us glanced round for the calendar or reached for the local paper. 'It's St. Martin's day'.

And he told us another story about Tí Neillí Mhuiris.

Neillí always killed a hen for St. Martin's day and Paddy took his dog up onto the mountain and killed a hare: they were plucked, skinned and prepared by Neillí and cooked over the fire on the hearth I swept last night. It was always the way on St. Martin's day, to eat a fine dinner.

I asked Jack why and he just shook his head. 'It was always the custom'.

When we came back to the house I switched on the computer.

St. Martin's Day, or Martinmas, is a time for feasting, when autumn wheat seeding was completed, fattened cattle were slaughtered and, historically, hiring fairs were held where farm labourers gathered looking for work. In the Christian calendar November 11th is dedicated to St. Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier who was baptized as an adult and became a monk. From the fourth century AD to the late middle ages much of Europe observed a period of forty days of fasting beginning from St. Martin's Day. And on the eve of the fast people cooked and ate a fine dinner, which traditionally included a cockerel, a goose or a hen.

But the tradition of feasting on St. Martin's day is far older than Christianity. November 11th falls roughly midway between the September Equinox and the Midwinter Solstice. It's one of the ancient Celtic festivals associated with harvest-time, when bonfires were lit on the hills, cattle were slaughtered, and the blood of sacrificed cockerels was sprinkled on thresholds to bring fertility to the farm and protect the household from famine in the dark months ahead. It was a ritual act, traditionally carried out by the woman of the house. Afterwards the whole family would feast on the sacrificial victim.

'It was always the custom to have a good dinner on St. Martin's day,' said Jack. 'Paddy hunted a hare on the mountain. And Neillí always killed a hen.'

Friday, 2 November 2012

Memories Of My Enniscorthy Granny

I'm writing this on a chilly evening in Tí Neillí Mhuiris after a long day spent making arrangements for an Irish book signing tour. Hours on the phone talking to lovely, welcoming booksellers, eager to advise me where to park when Wilf and I arrive in Cork, Clonmel, Wexford or Waterford next week. Emails confirming dates. Updates on local radio slots. Interviews with local newspapers. Piles of notes on my desk waiting to become the orderly schedule I always need to type out for myself before we set off.

But now, with a glass of wine by my elbow, I'm able to think past logistics to the joy that's to come. This time next week I'll be back in the soft green landscape of Wexford amongst memories of my Enniscorthy granny, a tiny, gentle lady who marched through life with the courageous motto that one should always 'keep the best side out.'

In Chapter Five of The House on an Irish Hillside I write about the starched cloth on the polished table where we had tea when we visited Enniscorthy; granny's own mother’s blue and white china, patterned with roses; and pink biscuits in a cut glass biscuit barrel. For some reason, they were known as ‘curly-wees’. I remember gooseberry jam, made with fruit from granny's garden, and ‘country butter’ served on thin slices of brown soda bread.

Granny's house in Enniscorthy was built on a hill and the long garden had a raised terrace running along one side. I remember conifers, and tall ivory-coloured lilies on thick green stems, with golden stamens and petals like curled vellum powdered with pollen. There were flag­stones outside the kitchen door and a path that ran down the garden to apple trees and fruit bushes.

One day, when I was four or five, I was sent out to play. Running at full tilt, I tripped on a stone and landed flat on my front in a puddle. I can remember my nose streaming and the salty taste of tears as I stumbled, dripping, back up the path and into the kitchen. After I was washed, dried and put into a clean frock, I was given a curly-wee and told to sit on the doorstep while my damp socks were hung by the fire. Granny left me there with a kiss and one of her brisk, ritual sayings. ‘It’s-all-over-now-throw-my-hat-in-the-sky!’ I never quite knew what that meant, but my mother used to say it too when things had gone wrong and it was immeasurably comforting.

Later, the three of us walked down the garden together, the mother, the child and the old woman. I remember the strength of their hands as they swung me across the puddle, and standing between them as we counted the hard, green apples setting on the apple trees. The same trees are still there today. Spring blossom still sets on their gnarled branches, now propped with stakes and powdered with grey lichen.

Each autumn when I was a child, Granny sent boxes of apples on the train from Enniscorthy to Dublin, carefully tied with twine and addressed to my mother, ‘to be collected’. I remember learning to make apple tart in our kitchen in Dublin, the print of my mother's thumb crimping the edges, and the mark of her wedding ring on the pastry scraps she’d flatten with her hand and pinch into leaves for decoration. When I look down at my hands as I type this I can see that ring on my own finger.

Next week as I sit signing copies in a Wexford bookshop, I'll be thinking of my granny. Wexford's only about fifteen miles from Enniscorthy but going there after she was widowed meant a lonely, daunting trip to the big city. I still remember her tiny, upright figure, shining buttoned shoes, and the jaunty tilt of her hat as she walked down the hill to the station, shoulders back, head up, keeping the best side out. 

And sitting here now I realise I'm just a bit daunted myself. Booksignings are like that. You wonder if people will come. If they've liked your book. If you'll spill your coffee or your pen will leak. You worry that you'll lose your schedule or the car keys or forget how to spell your own name. 

But my granny had another saying, ritually produced whenever I got shy before a party. 'You'll-love-it-when-you-get-there-so-you-will.' And I know she's right. I've never arrived at a signing to anything but broad smiles and cheerful welcomes. It's great to meet friendly readers, hear fascinating stories, and put faces to names you've only known from Twitter or Facebook, or from warm, perceptive comments on your blog. 

In fact the only daunting thing is crossing so many new thresholds. And that's just a matter of keeping your shoulders back, head up, and the best side out.

I'll be signing copies of The House on an Irish Hillside in Cork Thurs. Nov 8th Easons, Patrick St. 12.00 noon/ Mahon Shopping Centre 2.30pm: Wexford Fri. Nov 9th The Book Centre, South Main St. 2.00pm: Waterford Sat Nov 10th The Book Centre John Robert Sq. 11.00am: Clonmel Sat Nov 10th Easons, Gladstone St. 3.30pm.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Dancing through Darkness

I love this time of the year when golden afternoons on the mountain turn to silver evenings by the sea.

I love the smell of frost on the grass, the low light casting long shadows and the mist drifting low on the slopes of Mount Brandon.

Most of all I love the sense of warmth and nourishment that comes from the familiar round of each year's winter festivals.

As Halloween approaches, the house fills with the warm fruity smell of baking brack, the sharp tang of vinegar, and the satisfying sounds of onions, apples, and spices being chopped and ground up for chutney.

Wrapped up against wind and rain, we drive to Dingle to buy monkey nuts, then home again to pile them into a bowl on the bench by the fire.

Squelching between the ridges where the last of the potatoes are still waiting to be dug, I pull a knobbly green and purple turnip and carry it indoors, muddy roots and all, to carve into a lantern. 

On Halloween night it sits on the gatepost, banishing the darkness of Samhain and welcoming all the familiar ghosts returning to bless the house.

This was the night when the ancient Celts danced and sang through the darkness, lit bonfires high on the mountains, and shared the best of their food and drink with neighbours, strangers and friends.

It was a gesture of courage and confidence in the face of the dark months ahead. And a triumphant communal celebration of the certain return of Spring.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Harvest Goddess and The Holly Man

In Corca Dhuibhne, living between the ocean and the mountain, I've become increasingly aware of how profoundly my neighbours' lives are shaped by Ireland's seasonal festivals. It's an ancient inheritance, rooted in the time when the Celts saw the steady turn of the seasons as a sign that the universe was in balance.


Each festival had its own dances, music, customs and food. And each year they're celebrated with the same communal rituals that express joy in the present moment and hope for seasons to come.

It's not surprising to find a profound awareness of the seasons in rural Ireland. But when Wilf and I found our flat here in Bermondsey I was amazed to discover echoes of the same seasonal rituals in inner city London.

Huddled under Victorian railway arches, in the shadow of Southwark Cathedral, Borough Market's one of the oldest markets of its kind in England: food and drink have been sold there to Londoners since at least the eleventh century. And probably far longer.

These days Borough market's about as fashionable as city markets can get, a must-see stop on every tourist's schedule where camera crews jostle with celebrities and locals frequently discuss their dinner menus with tv chefs out on a recce. And each year, on Apple Day, in a festival that's now called October Plenty, it hosts the annual procession of the Goddess of the Harvest.

Her journey begins in Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on Bankside and continues through streets that Shakespeare himself once walked in the footsteps of countless Londoners who'd lived here long before him.

With St. Paul's Cathedral in the background and ordinary life flowing round it, passers-by join the procession. Cameras flash, kids are hoisted onto parents' shoulders, buggies bump over cobbled streets. And versions of jigs and slides I know well from sessions in Ballyferriter bounce back from the high walls of offices and apartment buildings .

When the crowd reaches Borough Market the goddess, still surrounded by music and dancers, weaves her way between the heaped-up apples and cider kegs, in a ritual progress from stall to stall to bless the stallholders, celebrate the harvest and invoke good luck for the future.

Exciting, dynamic and numinous, harvest festivals tap the roots of human hopes and fears. They're local celebrations of fertility echoed throughout the world and across millennia. They're shared rituals, rich with communal memories of firelight, warmth, comfort and plenty.

But the cold days and nights ahead hold other memories too, of harder times when survival through the winter months was never certain.

These days they're the months when the old and the poor juggle the price of food and fuel, and the homeless sleep on freezing pavements and die in their sleep before morning.

That's why the Holly Man who accompanies the Harvest Goddess has an edge of ancient terror to his beauty.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Embrace Your Inner Celt

I love watching food programmes on the telly. Could be Indian cuisine, which I’ve never cooked and never expect to, could be fifty shades of feta, or how to do Tarte Tatin without turning your kitchen floor into a skating rink. Basically I’ll watch anything, especially if it includes shots of a windswept presenter ambling down the garden with a trug – and, possibly, a dog – and ambling back up again with armfuls of seasonal vegetables. One thing about this rash of seasonal food programmes, though. It may be trending on Twitter, and tv commissioning editors may think it’s the happening way to go, but seasonal food isn’t, and never has been, just about fashion. 

Look at the ancient Celts. A couple of thousand years ago they crossed the Irish Sea moving west ahead of the Romans. As a plan it worked. The Roman legionaries never made it to Ireland, so having got here the Celts could stop charging like lemmings into the west. Which was just as well because, if they’d had to keep going, they’d have faced a long swim to America from the end of the Dingle peninsula. Anyway, once they got here they settled down and became our ancestors. And in Ireland we’re still living with that Celtic inheritance – red hair, freckles, endless talk, and a rich legacy of artefacts, stories, myths and poems. As well as a deep urge to throw enormous parties.

Lounging on a sofa in your pjs, it’s easy to see seasonal food in terms of lifestyle. But if you actually depend on the food you grow and rear yourself, bad weather, sick animals or a poor harvest can mean famine - a scary scenario which could easily lead to a tendency to slam the door on the neighbours if they happen to roll up at mealtimes. But the ancient Celts did exactly the opposite. No matter how bad the harvest, each year at the turning point between autumn and winter they flung open their doors, reached for their musical instruments, and ate and drank all round them, in ballsy, communal expressions of confidence in the future.

I love that confidence. I think we should recapture it as a nation. And I love the ancient Celts’ passion for turning points, those dynamic moments of balance between one possibility and another. Life for them was all about celebration, and body and soul were interdependent. Their spiritual awareness and sensual appreciation of food and drink live side-by-side in spare, delicate nature poems and grotesque, mind-blowing stories about forts of butter, rivers of cream, and bridges made of sizzling sides of bacon. 

Cut to twenty-first century Dingle on the first weekend of October and you get much the same vibe at the Dingle Food and Wine Festival. A little less human sacrifice perhaps – though that rumour may just be sore-loser Roman propaganda – and a little more chilli in the chocolates. (Ok, not exactly native or seasonal, those, but definitely hand-made in Ireland.) In fact, a blue-faced druid strolling up Main Street wouldn’t bat an eyelid – or, indeed, raise an eyebrow. Ancient Celtic festivals lasted for days. Families met and hung out together, playing music, singing and dancing; marriages were arranged; bargains were made; and everyone indulged in an orgy of seasonal produce. These days there’s all of that. Plus Tasting Tickets.

Like everything Dingle does, there are no half measures. Out in the streets locals and visitors wander happily along the festival’s famous Food Trail, over 60 establishments, ranging from pubs and restaurants to pottery studios and hat shops, showcasing Dingle Bay shellfish, Blasket Island lamb, local beef, and Dingle peninsula cheeses. Halfway up Main Street, St. James’ churchyard is lined with stalls offering artisan food from across Ireland. In the church itself, free cookery demonstrations are packed throughout the weekend. And there’s music everywhere – outside on the streets, in hotels, pubs, restaurants and shops, wherever yet another fiddler, piper or concertina-player could squeeze behind a pint.

This year, the festival has a Heritage Food theme, highlighting foods and cooking methods used on the peninsula in living memory. That probably excludes the ancient Celt’s method of stewing meat by dropping red-hot stones into a deerskin full of water suspended from spears. But you never know. There’s certainly emphasis on the ancient Celtic art of brewing, one of the few things the Romans admitted we were good at. An Canteen, one of the town’s restaurants, is hosting a beer and cider festival, featuring the Dingle Brewing Company and the West Kerry Brewery. The festival also launches the new Dingle Whiskey Distillery and includes the finals of the Blas na hEireann, Irish Food Awards, with over 40 judges blind tasting produce across 40 food categories. 

So between the jigs and the reels, the craic and the crab claws, you never quite know what’s round the corner. One thing’s certain, though; whatever it is, it’ll look good, smell great and taste like heaven. I can still remember last year’s fudge flavoured with heather honey, chunks of dillisc-flecked cheese on warm soda bread, wine drunk sitting by the harbour, and my Dingle Dexter burger, made from the meat of hardy little cattle grazed on the high mountains. It’s a brilliant way to spend a long weekend as autumn turns towards winter, a gourmet celebration of life, and a communal demonstration of confidence in Ireland’s quality, seasonal, native food and drink. Why hang round on a sofa watching telly this weekend when you can rock on down to Dingle and express your inner Celt?

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Autumn Equinox on the Dingle Peninsula

Last night I watched dusk roll down the mountain as we climbed the long road to the Conor Pass. As we drove into Dingle the jade and turquoise ocean around us was turning to pewter and steel. When we reached home the house was quiet. Out in the garden the evening dew was touched by a breath of frost.

I love Corca Dhuibhne in autumn. Along the roads low shafts of sunlight strike fire from the crimson fuchsia,  and trails of fallen blossoms stain the tarmac like wine. 

In melting clumps by the ditches, the neon orange montbretia flowers are fading to tawny gold.

Today outside Tí Neillí Mhuiris, the paper-thin skin on onions drying on the willow tree shakes in the wind like scraps of half burnt vellum.

The hydrangeas I despised so much when we came here are freckled, dusty balls of damask light.

And today's the equinox. The turning-point between one season and another. A day when summer and winter hang perfectly in balance expressing all the dynamic potential of in-between times, when one moment waits serenely for the next.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Dappled Things


Glory be to God for dappled things -

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.



All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow, sweet, sour, adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Pied Beauty   by  Gerard Manley Hopkins 1877

Saturday, 25 August 2012

How to Celebrate National Potato Day

Potatoes are a serious matter in rural Ireland. Dinner's hardly dinner without them. Connoisseurs will tell you that Queens are better than Home Guard and that Champions are subject to blight. Pub bores make annual announcements that the floury spud, now, would be the Irish choice while the English want them waxy, which the world and his wife know well is just perverse.

And each year during the growing season when the radio, television and Met Office issue warnings about threatening weather conditions, everyone eyes the stalks on their ridges warily. Potato blight can strike after a single night of heat and humidity, and unsprayed crops can 'melt' and turn black, the stalks wilting and the tubers beneath them rotting into the earth.

Every year we debate the question of spraying. If you're like us you don't like the idea of covering your food with chemicals. If you're a farmer with a lifetime's experience of saving and setting seed, tending your crop for months and watching the sudden devastation blight can bring, you can see it differently. And so the debate goes on.

This year, though, it was different. Here in Corca Dhuibhne we're celebrating National Potato Day with three  cheers for Tibet.

Last autumn, Wilf was working in the garden when a man we didn't know passed by on the road. He stopped at the gate and looked in. Wilf saw him and nodded. The man leaned on the gate. Then he wandered in to admire our crop of late spuds. Some time later, having checked out the parsnips and turnips, refused a cup of tea because he was in a hurry, and sat on the bench discussing the merits of chard, he stopped at the gate and turned back. 'Did you ever try the Tibets?' he said. 'No', said Wilf. 'Right so', said the man 'I'll be passing tomorrow in the car,' he said, 'and I'll throw in a few for you there in the boot.'

And he did. Somewhere round lunchtime the following day, he drew up at the gate with a bag of potatoes for eating, another for seed, and an armful of leeks 'in case she might want to make soup.' Then he drove off and we haven't seen him since.

Checked out on the internet, the Tibets turned out to be an old 'blight-free' strain. This year Wilf set them alongside our Champions and we all sat back and waited to see what would happen. It's been a bad year for harvests of every kind. The wet, muggy weather blighted the Champions and sent slugs chomping happily through our greens. But the Tibets have been triumphant. The sun's come out as I've been typing this, and outside my window their purple flowers and green-leaved stalks are rippling gently in the wind.

Yesterday Wilf and Jack lifted the first potato. It was a fine size, sound and smooth-skinned, with a reddish tinge and a sweet, delicious taste. We ate it with salt and butter, savouring every bite. Today we'll be digging a proper meal's-worth.

And we'll be celebrating the generosity of a passing stranger for many meals to come.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Festival of Lughnasa

Lunasa, or Lughnasa, is the Irish language word for 'August'. It's also the name of the third season of the Celtic year, which starts with the festival of Lugh.

Lugh, the Celtic sun god and sky father, is the god of the harvest. His ritual marriage to Danú, the earth mother, whose name means 'water', symbolises the vital balance of heat, light and moisture required to nourish the crops and livestock on with we depend for survival.

Last year when I wrote about the festival of Lughnasa I was in Ireland, on the Dingle Peninsula. The peninsula's Irish language name, Corca Dhuibhne, means The Territory of the People of The Goddess Danú, and Lugh's festival's still celebrated there each year with bonfires and dawn gatherings on Mount Brandon.

This year I'm writing  in London at the start of the Olympic Games. You might think that the two places couldn't be more different. But, as always, the similarities are as striking as the contrasts.

The other night, watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics, I was fascinated by the fusion of the elements of ancient folk ritual with the magic of twenty-first century multimedia technology. There was fire and water. Light repeatedly conquered darkness. There was dance, music, celebration of identity, and ritual re-enactment of past, communal experience. As darkness fell, the god - or at least the Queen's stunt double - descended from the sky to bless the gathering. And finally, in a frenzy of firelight and drumbeats, there was a demonstration of faith in the future, symbolised by the handing on of the sacred flame from one generation to another.

None of that's surprising. And it's not just because of the Olympic Games' origin in an ancient Greek festival honouring the sky god Zeus. It's because the universal human instinct for communal, ritual expression is rooted in a primal need for a shared sense of identity. It's always been with us and it seems like it always will be.

We need teams, tribes, neighbourhoods, nations. We know who we are when we know where we come from. And our sense of ourselves as individuals seems to be supported by a sense of community, continuity and context. It allows us to view ourselves as elements in a larger picture. Distance gives perspective. Perspective gives a sense of balance. And balance promotes health. 

Yesterday I had a text from a friend in the village of Cloghane, the starting point of an annual walk up Mount Brandon, where Lugh's festival's been celebrated for milennia. This year I'll miss the music in the pubs, the food and drink and laughter, the traditional gatherings and rituals that express joy in the harvest and hope for the future.

But here, where the ancient Greek festival of Zeus is being echoed in East London, I've just discovered a faint echo of the festival of Lughnasa. The river Lea runs through London’s Olympic Park. And the name Lea is believed to be a corruption of the name of the Celtic sky god Lugh....

... which suggests that at this exact time of year, thousands of years ago, other ceremonies may have taken place on that riverbank.

So maybe David Beckham's neon speedboat wasn't the first craft to bear a flame to London 2012's Olympic site. 

Contrasts. And similarities.


Sunday, 1 July 2012

Irish Music and Memory

The longer I live in Corca Dhuibhne, the more I'm aware of tradition - not as something fusty or introspective but as a rich, creative inheritance held in trust for generations to come. And the more aware I become, the more inspired I am by the hands-on way in which each generation passes it on to the next

As I sit here writing this I remember sitting in a meeting with my commissioning editor in London two years ago, trying to describe the book that I had in my head.  'The house is ours bought and paid for, but it's still Tí Neillí Mhuiris.'  I was attempting to distil the essence of this low, grey house on an Irish hillside. But I was also trying to describe how deeply heritage and tradition inform my neighbours' lives.

My editor's assistant brought tea. I remember the warmth of the mug in my hands as I leant forward '..Tí Neillí Mhuiris means Neillí Muiris's house. From the day it was built it was a gathering place for the neighbours. They'd bring a sod of turf for the fire and maybe a bottle, and they'd sit round the hearth to talk and sing. They'd play cards and tell stories. It's an Irish tradition..'

Outside, traffic roared past on the Euston road. In my head I could hear gossip about the neighbours and legends of Fionn Mac Cumhaill; folktales; recipes; stories of emigration. There was the sound of pipes and fiddles and dancing feet on the floor. Songs echoed from a curved timber ceiling. Firelight threw shadows onto rough whitewashed walls. Sitting on the sixteenth floor of a London office block, I searched for the right words to make the spark of my idea ignite in my editor's mind. 'It's a house of music and memory.'

I remember thinking that sounded corny. But I swallowed a mouthful of tea and I said it. Because it's true.

Mark Óg (Rowsome) Lysaght
Last month the Irish flute-player Mary Rowsome and her son Mark Óg travelled to London to play at the UK launch of The House on an Irish Hillside.Young Mark's an uilleann piper. Uilleann pipes are a traditional Irish instrument, smaller and quieter than the Scottish bagpipes, with a bag that’s inflated by a bellows pumped by the player’s elbow. (Which is where the name comes from – the Irish for ‘elbow’ is uilleann.) He's one of six generations of pipers whose skills in playing and pipe making have been passed down through the Rowsome family since the 1820s. His great-grandfather, Leo Rowsome, one of the founders of Comhaltas Ceolteóirí Éireann, was known as Rí na bPíobairí, which means The King of The Pipers. Leo was also a founder of Na Píobairí Uilleann, the Irish uilleann pipers' association: Kevin, Mary's brother, is one of its board members today.

The House on an Irish Hillside was launched at the Irish Cultural Centre, Hammersmith, as the opening event of Irish Writers' Month London 2012, by Jimmy Deenihan the Irish Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. It's dedicated to Mary Rowsome's uncle Jack Flaherty, our neighbour here in Corca Dhuibhne. Mary can remember her Flaherty granny singing songs by the fire in Jack's kitchen; music's a tradition on both sides of her family. Her husband Mark Lysaght is a talented musician too and their three sons all play instruments.

Me, Mark Óg and Minister Deenihan at the London launch of The House on an Irish Hillside

When Leo Rowsome died in 1970 he was the only fulltime uilleann pipe maker in the world. And not all that long ago it seemed that pipe-making  in Ireland was dying out. Which was ironic because the number of uilleann pipers in Mark Óg's generation is growing, and there are seven-year waiting lists for new, Irish-made pipes.

But respect for tradition is a cornerstone of Irish piping. And last week Minister Jimmy Deenihan opened PIPECRAFT, a dedicated Pipe-making Training Facility established in Dublin by Na Píobairí Uilleann. Home to a three-year full-time course with ten trainees from all over Ireland, it's a triumph of vision and determination on the part of a dedicated group of musicians who cherish their inheritance and intend to hand it on.