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Thinking About The Gathering 2013

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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 expan…

Thinking about Maeve Binchy

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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 ex…

A Winter Day on the Dingle Peninsula

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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 bu…

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

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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 hu…

Memories Of My Enniscorthy Granny

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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 w…

Dancing through Darkness

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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 welco…

The Harvest Goddess and The Holly Man

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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 probab…

Embrace Your Inner Celt

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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’…

Autumn Equinox on the Dingle Peninsula

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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 it'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…

Dappled Things

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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

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How to Celebrate National Potato Day

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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 m…

The Festival of Lughnasa

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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…

Irish Music and Memory

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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 brin…