Friday, 29 March 2013

Easter on The Dingle Peninsula.

Jack says he doesn't know if anyone had chocolate eggs at Easter when he was a child. Round here they used to boil a big pot of newlaid eggs on Easter morning and compete to see who could eat the most of them. One man was said to have eaten twenty. There was a boy who claimed he'd had six hen's eggs, two duck eggs and a goose egg for his breakfast. 

I sat at Jack's table and we agreed that they wouldn't do it now. They'd have chocolate bunnies.

Here in Corca Dhuibhne, the earth is waking to springtime.

New traditions replace old ones and across continents and millennia the symbols shift and change. But this is the time of year when they all speak of death and resurrection, seedtime and harvest time, life in the earth, fire in the sun, and the power of the moon over water.

Once, long before Easter was ever thought of, the egg was a potent symbol of fertility, strong enough to invoke a blessing or call down a curse.

And once, before he became a chocolate bunny in foil wrapper, the hare was a servant of the Goddess.

He carried her messages to earth from the moon.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Spring Equinox on the Dingle Peninsula

The earth is waking

 Primroses and celandines gleam under briars on the ditches.

Furze smells like coconut when the sun warms its yellow flowers.

Snow lies thick on Mount Brandon, but the hills and valleys below are green with new grass. 
This year Easter falls only two weeks after St. Patrick's Day and between the two is the Spring Equinox,  when day and night are in balance and the wheel of the year turns again towards light, life and fertility.
In ancient Ireland at the turn of the year, fires were lit on the mountains and offerings were made to 
the Good Goddess and her consort the Sun God, 
to bless the earth and bring luck to seed time and harvest time.

Beneath last weekend's rituals in honour of St. Patrick were echoes of those older rites.

And this evening, high on Mount Brandon, the sunset glowed like a ritual fire .

Dingle And Its Hinterland: People, Places and Heritage
Publication date April 18th 2017

Friday, 15 March 2013

Memory and Potential on St. Patrick's Day

Ok, so this is the story...

'Patrick approached the High King's fort at Tara where the Druids stood by the chair of the High King. And every fire in Ireland was quenched that night. The druids had called up darkness and shrouded the hills in mist. Because there was a law that no fire should burn on the eve of the festival of Bealtine, when the druids themselves lit a fire to their pagan gods.'

'But Patrick came to the Hill of Slane and lit a fire there and prayed for the people of Ireland. The druids saw the flames of his fire from the height of the Hill of Tara, and they spoke to the High King and told him that Patrick should be killed. But Patrick came to the Hill of Tara from the Hill of Slane and he praised God there and told the High King of God's goodness. And the High King fell to his knees.'

'Then Patrick took a shamrock that was growing on the hill. The shamrock had three leaves on a single stem. And Patrick showed it to the druids and taught them the wonder of the Holy Trinity, that three persons existed in one God, truly distinct and equal in all things, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And the druids were amazed and fell to their knees and worshipped God.'

Generations of Irish children grew up with that story, passed on from generation to generation, in churches, by firesides and in schools. I remember it from my first picture book in which Patrick towered above the dark-faced druids with firelight behind him and the shamrock held aloft. Behind the druids the high king knelt by his carved throne. And behind the throne a man with a gold harp, with his head bowed, was holding the palms of his hands on the harpstrings to silence its pagan music.

But, as always, the truth's more complex than the legend. Though the legend contains echoes of the truth.

Last night, in Dublin, hi-tech green 'doodles' were projected on the buildings and the flickering, dancing images went viral on the internet. On Sunday there'll be parades in cities from Cork to Chicago and from Boston to Beijing. Green flags, gold harps and three-leaved shamrocks, dancing, drinking and celebration - the whole world's going green this weekend for St. Patrick, the bearded bishop in the green robes with his fistful of shamrock and his gleaming golden crozier.

But meanwhile, on the hills and in the valleys of Ireland, the earth itself is going green. And this was the wonder celebrated by the druids. For the ancient Celts, the ritual fire kindled in darkness at the feast of Bealtaine symbolised the triumph of light over darkness in the return of seedtime and the sun.

They too gathered to celebrate with dancing and music, parades, religious rites and wild parties. But they needed no explanation of the concept of a triple-aspect deity. Their own vision of springtime was contained in the image of a triple-aspect goddess, the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. She was memory and potential, childhood, maturity and old age. Here in Corca Dhuibhne her name was DanĂº. Elsewhere she has other names. But everywhere it's her marriage to the Sun God that brings balance to the universe and fertility back to the earth.

This week a new pope was elected in Rome, the centre of the faith which Christian missionaries like Patrick brought to Ireland. This St. Patrick's Day I'll be thinking about memory and potential.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The Next Big Thing

Last week I was surprised and delighted to be tagged by the poet Aine Macaodha in a Blog Hop called 'THE NEXT BIG THING'  in which writers answer ten questions on their work in progress and tag other writers to do the same.

(Image © National Museum of Ireland)

When I'm sailing uncharted waters my mind's mostly on feeling the current, so I tend to be fairly useless when it comes to talking about work that's unfinished. But Aine's invitation arrived when the draft of my next book was already off my desk and with my agent. That means that although it's still a work in progress I do have some degree of separation from it. So here are my responses to the ten questions.

 1) What is the title of your next book?

Currently it's called The Songs Within Birdsong - titles often change before publication, though.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

I've been exploring its themes all my life. The immediate impulse came from the social and physical dynamics of the area of inner London where I live when I'm not in Corca Dhuibhne. One central part of the plot arose from a conversation with my literary agent, Gaia Banks, who, as well as being an agent, is a born editor and creative facilitator.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

 It's a novel.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

When it comes to movies everyone wants a name attached, to secure funding. Yet at the same time you long for a producer and director with the courage and imagination to think actor first and funding second. Since one of my protagonists is an adolescent there'd probably be a decent chance of that with this book. And since the other principle character is Central European and in her eighties there are wonderful choices to be made. (Many of whom are names, actually - look at the casting for Hoffman's Quartet.) (Looks. Drools. Pulls herself together.) Casting's a funny thing, anyway. Sometimes you set your heart on an actor, get someone else and find yourself unable to conceive of a better performance than the one you end up with. 

5) What is a one sentence synopsis of your book?

Can't really answer that. I don't write to say something so much as to find out what it is I have to say. One sentence synopses can't be produced till a work's completely finished. Besides, I'm never sure the author's the right person to come up with them. 

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My initial job's done once I deliver a draft that I'm happy with to Gaia and she's happy too. Then I drink tea, walk beaches and get on with the next thing till we get an offer from a publisher.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

My first drafts usually take a few months. Sometimes, as with this one, there are long breaks in the process. While writing my last book, which is a memoir, I realised that the oral, Irish language, tradition of storytelling has had as much influence on my work as the literary, English language tradition. That, combined with the fact that I've been a scriptwriter and playwright for most of my career, means I tend to see, hear and work on things in my head before I write them down

(There's a story about someone asking the Regency playwright Richard Sheridan if he'd completed a play he was working on. 'Yes,' he said, 'all that remains now is to write it.')

8) What other books would you compare yours to?

That's another thing I'm not sure authors should do.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?.

The starting point was Kindertotenlieder, a song-cycle by Gustav Mahler. The first title for the book was Dead Children Songs, which is a direct translation of Mahler's title.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Can't speak for my readers but the songs within birdsong concept delights and fascinates me because it exposes how much happens beyond human awareness. The heart of the book is the relationship between an adolescent and her grandmother.
This is how it opens:- 

'Birds speak in myriad fragments and complex patterns beyond our awareness. The stories of their lives reach us in disconnected snatches. In an egg a bundle of cells is suspended in liquid. Time brings a bird with the message of its cells imprinted in its voice. It speaks of danger, fear, hunger, aggression and desire. We hear songs.

The detail is lost. Digitally recorded birdsong, slowed down but played at pitch, reveals sounds within sounds, like painted Easter eggs one inside another. We now know that birds sing too fast for human ears.

Analysts have linked the speed of birds’ communication to the relative shortness of their lifespan. Humans, who live longer, have more time. But what we have to tell can also be lost.  Sometimes because it’s too hard to bear.' 

So that's it. Thanks for thinking of me, Aine. And, by the way, as I've been typing this I've had an email from Gaia saying she loves the draft. 
So .....

.... onwards and upwards.

Next week on THE NEXT BIG THING are two writers whose work I admire, one of whom I met recently, having read her blog, and one I've known and worked with in broadcast for many years. Many thanks to them both for accepting my invitation to blog hop.

Emily Benet

Emily Benet is a writer based in London. Her debut book, Shop Girl Diaries, began as a weekly blog about working in her mum’s unusual chandelier shop. Her blog was the winner of the CompletelyNovel Author Blog Awards at the London Book Fair 2010. She has written about the benefits of Social Media for writers in Publishing Talk, Mslexia and The New Writer and runs Blogging for Beginners and Improvers workshops. She is currently editing a romantic comedy called Spray Painted Bananas which she serialised on Wattpad. She blogs at

Michael Bartlett

As well as being a professional writer and a producer with a long and distinguished career in broadcasting, Michael Bartlett is a partner in Crimson Cats, a UK based audio book publishing company specialising in producing and publishing unusual and quirky audio books, mostly material which does not exist elsewhere in audio. From 1975 to the end of 1982 he worked for BBC Radio Drama, initially as a producer, then as Editor of Afternoon Theatre on Radio 4. Before that he worked as a Director in Children's Television, a reader in the Television Script Unit and a producer in Schools Radio. He blogs at

And do check out Aine's work too.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Thinking about mothers on International Women's Day

This week, intoxicated by the sense of spring in the air, I tweeted this photo of primroses. I love spring. I love its sense of expectation and anticipation, the gleam of celandines among green leaves and the way that primroses unfurl on the roadside ditches behind the dead, curling tendrils of last year's briars.

When I was a child my favourite season was autumn. Spring was my mother's. I asked her why once and she told me that she loved its quiet promise of renewal and growth. I'd forgotten that conversation when I tweeted the photo. But the response to my tweet brought it back to me. Because so many of the replies I got were about mothers.

Here's a typical example: - 

'Lovely - not out here yet - always remember being little girl picking them for Mam.'  
It's touching and fascinating to see how many women share the same memories of their mothers. But the response that touched me most was a series of Direct messages from a man. I've never met him and he'd never contacted me before. 

Here's what he said:-

'Hi felicity that was the first image I saw of the primrose this year its a good sign. Immediately thought of my mother ... She was a national school teacher all her life died 2008. On my birthcert it says she's a housewife as she was forced to quit her job 58 irl ... I think its terrible she was a writer poet musician storyteller historian homemaker choirmistress educator mother a woman's woman.... '

He went on to describe his own work as a creative artist, how he's recently felt frustrated, excited and full of anticipation as a current project nears completion. His message ended with renewed commitment to getting his work done.

Reading what he wrote I was moved to tears. In 1940s Ireland my own mother had to quit a job she loved when she married and became a housewife. She too was a woman's woman, a thinker who'd wanted to become a journalist, and a storyteller who'd dreamed of being a playwright. She had a happy marriage and raised five children. She believed, as I do, in the value of a housewife's skills. But she never fulfilled those personal dreams. 

Looking back, I know that the love of spring and its promise of renewal was one of her many gifts to me,  one that I need to grow into and didn't really recognise until long after she was dead. 

I know too that without her quiet, dogged support I'd never have become a writer. 
So on International Women's Day I thought I'd write this.