Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Strawberries and Cream in a Writer's Dream Venue.

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

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

Each year in June we’d take the train down from Dublin for Enniscorthy’s Strawberry Festival. Bowls and baskets of the locally-grown berries were everywhere. 

The steep streets of the town were crowded with locals and visitors. People would take picnics down to the water meadows by the broad river Slaney. And sometimes we did too. Cows grazed there, and I loved the humming of bees in the buttercups.

Coming back from the riverside, we’d climb the steep streets of the town, past the grey stone castle. The castle was closed to the public in those days, but I remember being taken up a winding staircase once, to the top of a tower, and emerging onto the flat roof to watch a golden sunset.

Last year, in Enniscorthy on a book signing tour, I visited the castle again, now beautifully restored and home to a fine museum. It was a hurried visit, tucked in at the end of a busy day, so I didn’t see half of what’s housed there. 

 And then this year I received an invitation from the Words In Wexford Literary Trail, to speak about my memoir The House on an Irish Hillside at an Afternoon Tea there. What writer could ask for a better venue? At one point in its history, back in the 1500s, it was leased by the poet Edmund Spencer. And, besides, the event is part of  this year’s Strawberry Festival. Already I’m fantasizing about scones and whipped cream topped with rich, red Enniscorthy strawberries. 


Sunday, 16 June 2013

Thoughts on Father's Day

My father G.A. Hayes-McCoy and his parents, Galway, 1930s

When I was a child in the 1950s my father worked in the Art and Industrial Division at the National Museum of Ireland. He subsequently became a noted military historian but until I was five or six  he was an assistant keeper at the museum, with responsibility for the Military History and the War of Independence collections.

When I visit the museum today I can still feel his presence. He was fascinated by archaeology as well as history and so passionate about Ireland's past that even at that age I learned to share his enthusiasm. It was a passion rooted in a philosopher's sense of the universality of human experience as well as in delight in his own cultural inheritance. And, above all, it was founded on a pursuit of truth. Looking back now, I'm aware that his uncompromising insistence on the importance of facts over nationalist sentiment must have made him unpopular in some quarters in the Ireland of his time. But as a child I just loved his stories. Not that I grasped many facts at the age of five of six. Instead I received a kaleidoscope of impressions, a sense of excitement and drama, colour and texture, discovery and delight. It has lived with me ever since.

I remember him lifting me up to admire Iron Age ring-beads of translucent black glass with spiral yellow inlay, and twisted gold collars with gorgeous fluted ends. There were amber beads and inlaid boxes too, enamelled horse-bits, jet ornaments, and ceremonial trumpets. Unlike their later, medieval counterparts who laboured over complicated strap-work and heavy decoration, Iron Age craftsmen produced works that are almost modernist in their simple clarity.

That early experience in the museum sparked a lifetime's ambition to achieve the same simple clarity in my writing. It also produced a misunderstanding that, in hindsight, has clarified my understanding of my father as a historian.

The Broighter Boat (photo courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland)

Among the artefacts in the museum is a little boat which was probably a votive offering to Mannanán Mac Lír, the ancient Celtic sea god. It’s a perfect model of a sea-going version of a naomhóg, the slender, curved coracle still used round the west coast of Ireland, where I live today. About seven inches long and fashioned in beaten gold, it was ploughed out of a field in 1896, by a farmer whose name was Tom Nicholl. 

Several little objects were found with the boat, one of which I saw in my childhood as a slender, golden spear. To me that made sense. I knew from stories about ancient Irish voyagers that saints and explorers hunted whales for food. And I’d been told that the Celtic sun god, Lugh, wore a golden collar and carried a spear of light. So I imagined Lugh and Mannanán sailing the golden boat to towards the western horizon and finding the Isles of The Blessed.
I know now that the object I saw as a spear was actually a model of the steering oar that guided sea-going naomhóga.I know too that no offering’s ever been found that links the Celtic sea and sun gods as neatly as I linked them then in my imagination.But I also know that imagination itself, balanced by discipline and meticulous research, has a vital place in our understanding of the past.

It's a lesson I learned from a father whose own rigorous, uncompromising scholarship was informed by an imaginative awareness of the universality of human experience. 

My mother, father and me, O'Connell St. Dublin, 1960s