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The seventh Station: Farming

Monday, 30 November, 2015 0 Comments

Each cow had a name and a designated place in the stall. All had unique personalities and this had to be taken into account during the milking, otherwise the bucket might be kicked over and its valuable contents would merge with the rushes and dung that covered the cow-house floor. Unappetizing. Unprofitable. It paid to be mindful.

Mother milking

Nothing much changed when the milking machine arrived. The hard labour of milking by hand ended and the herd size doubled, but the individual attention to the cows remained the same. Mother and father fed them all kinds of good things: wheat pollard decorated with pulped turnips; crisp hay adorned with scented beet pulp and, above all, good grass. In return, they delivered quality milk. My mother’s love of cows was more than the stereotypical affection for those big bovine eyes. It was bound up with the firm knowledge that care and attention would be rewarded with a product that fed the family, warmed the home and provided for the rainy day.

The cows and their precious milk were part of an ecosystem called “the farm”. Like the cows, this was not an anonymous conglomerate: each field had its own name: the Paddock, the Long Field, the Spout Field, the Drainy Field, the Meadow, Egan’s, Neill’s, Franks’… That latter name was bound up with a contested Anglo-Irish history that stretched back to the 17th century and both my parents had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the connections between the parts that made up the whole. Twice, in the 1960s, they bought fields that helped turn the farm into a more viable enterprise. This was the biggest “play” of their careers. Money had to be borrowed which was risky because farming, regardless of the scale, is a hazardous industry and an accident or an illness can change everything in an instant. With a young family and a lack of “staff”, as my mother used say, they took the chance, anyway, and it paid off. Their assembly of fields, paid for with blood, sweat and tears, was their joint masterpiece — a true labour of love.

There’s a vague memory of early summer Sunday mornings, when the milking still took place in the fields. It was early because the milk had to be taken earlier than usual to the creamery on a Sunday. The splish-splash of the milk hitting the inside of the metal buckets was accompanied by the sound of my mother and father singing. They were in their prime, they were healthy, they were happy and they were in their fields.

Our next station in this series of meditations on 14 photographs is Bibs.

The sixth Station: Childhood

Sunday, 29 November, 2015 0 Comments

One of my best friends in this photo is a dog. Actually, the dog is more of a playmate than a friend here. Animals are not toys, but they can offer children endless delight. Cuddly creatures are far more fun than gewgaws of wood or metal, no matter how cleverly these things might be designed and crafted. Farms are zoos of a kind, and while most of the animals are involved in the earnest business of converting their meals into milk, meat and eggs, there are other players on the periphery, such as cats and dogs, and their roles blur the line between work and play.

Childhood in Cullane

One of the noticeable things about this photo is the lack of things, apart from a very utilitarian bucket, a tin can and some items drying on the wall. Subsistence farming in the rural Ireland of my childhood did not generate luxury. It wasn’t quite a cashless society, but there was little in the way of disposable income. Despite this, there was no hunger and neither was there material or spiritual poverty. Ghosts still existed and fireside stories about “the troubled times” and characters who “drank the farm” had the power to enchant — if one was disposed towards enchantment, that is. And I was.

Even the prosaic had charm. On the last night that I sat and spoke to my mother beside the fireplace, she told how a neighbour, Hanny Egan, assisted her with the knitting of jumpers. Going to a shop and buying clothing for children was still a novelty at the time. The money wasn’t there, anyway, so the alternative was to make the clothes oneself. Hanny Egan wore a long black coat and she would put a large ball of yarn in each pocket. As she walked to the village of Ballylanders and back, with her knitting needles in hand, she would cast on the stiches — one plain, one purl — and pass away the journey productively. Hanny specialized in the knitting of sleeves, which was quite tricky; my mother worked on the bodies of the jumpers, which required more exertion, and the two of them would then join up the parts over tea.

Love cannot always be articulate, but this act of love was one of many that made for a happy childhood and the creation of those jumpers says all that one needs to know about these people. Within their limited means, my parents did heroic things for their children. They were totally selfless. No holidays for them. No extravagances, either. There may not be much in the way of stuff in that photo but the things that are absent could not be bought nor captured by a camera.

Our next station in this series of meditations on 14 photographs is Farming.

The fifth Station: Writing

Saturday, 28 November, 2015 0 Comments

This box is filled with some of the letters my mother wrote to me during the course of four decades. It’s one of many boxes because she wrote often. Three times a week sometimes, and as well as the letters there were cards: birthday cards, Christmas Cards, Easter cards, Saint Patrick’s Day cards, Mass cards, get-well cards, good-luck cards, postcards…

Long before blogging was invented, my mother was posting early and often. Everything that happened at home was noted and remembered and a lot of what was observed made it into her letters.

Mother's letters

“The sun is shining now, but for how long? It’s very cold, no late news of the Tipp murder. You’ll read all the latest on the paper clippings. Too bad.”

“Today is the feast of St Martin, 3rd Nov. I have been making novena, I’ll be going to First Friday to-night so I finish it. I was at mass last night for the Souls & on Wed for the Saints. I went to mass in M-Town yesterday morning for at 10 AM & went to the graves of the Fitzgeralds.”

“It was cold this morning when cycling down at 9.30 to chiropodist. There were 11 before me. I got out a quarter to one. There were 12 more after me inc. Mgt Maguire. She offered to bring me up. I said no as she’d miss out her place in queue.”

The “news”, to use my mother’s term for all things great and small was evaluated, filtered and then committed to bits of paper, usually at the end of the day. The topics featured family, friends, farming, sport and, especially, the weather, and while this framework might appear narrow, these miniature narratives are as revealing as the paintings of Vermeer, whose works are apparently set in two smallish rooms in his house in Delft. The more one looks, the more one sees.

All human life is expressed in these hundreds upon hundreds of letters. The characters that populate their pages are affected by love, pain, happiness, greed, luck and despair. There are weddings and wakes; there is profit and loss, darkness and light, sickness and health.

In total, the letters represent a tremendous act of communication. Throughout, the voice is unique, the script is always legible and age does not dim the ability to express that which so many people find difficult or impossible to say. What powered this fierce determination to document so many details? The wish, no doubt, the offer comfort to those far from home. But there was something else at work here. There was sharing and there was caring in all this articulation. The time and energy devoted to all these letters were acts of selflessness that had its own rewards when they were written and posted, and nothing can repay such generosity, but the least that can be done is to bring these letters to a wider public and place them before a wider audience. They are worth reading.

Our next station in this series of 14 photographs is Childhood.

The fourth Station: Faith

Friday, 27 November, 2015 0 Comments

When pilgrims visit Saint Sedna’s Well in the grounds of Clonbeg Church in the heart of the Glen of Aherlow, they tie a piece of cloth on the overhanging tree and bless themselves with its water. Faith and folklore have it that this water will cure eye ailments.

Saint Sedna's Well

My mother’s faith was a theatre of belief and the stage props included places of pilgrimage, holy wells, blessed medals, prayer books, rosary beads, candles and relics. Her spiritualism had all the hallmarks of a Catholicism that was deeply influenced by the elements and the environment. In this way, it harkened back to an ancient time when other-worldly powers could be called upon to help with suffering that no earthly treatment could heal. This confidence in “cures” was also rooted in the memories of the poverty when when people could not afford conventional medical treatment. Even when the rising tide of modest prosperity that swept over rural Ireland in the second half of the 20th century and provided greater access to doctors and hospitals, Saint Sedna’s and Saint Pecaun’s holy wells always offered hope when the diagnosis was grim.

Faith was the glue that held my mother’s notion of community together. Funerals were occasions of grief, of course, but the murmured rosary declared by the bereaved and their friends helped to soften the loss. Happy occasions were enriched by mass and precious memories were kept alive with the help of lighted candles. More candles were brought out when exams threatened or illness occurred. No trip could be made without a sprinkle of holy water on those leaving the house.

Faith was also an occasion for excursions to Knock, Lough Derg, Rome and Lourdes. It was a bond between the believers and it gave them an excuse to talk and laugh. Faith was friendship.

Above all, faith provided the strength to endure. Regardless of the hardships and the humiliations, faith gave comfort. Yes, misfortune was complained about, but it had to be “offered up” and the prayers continued to be said and the candles were lit. The faith was kept.

Our next station in this series of meditations on 14 photographs is Writing.

The third Station: Thanksgivings

Thursday, 26 November, 2015 0 Comments

On Saturday, 14 October 1989, my mother wrote the following diary entry: “My last day in Brooklyn after a beautiful holiday, the holiday of a lifetime. Today is really warm. Temp 75 degrees, everyone in summer clothes, etc. Got up at Writing this now while the kettle is boiling. Had tea now. Must bake my last cake now. I have 6 cakes put in boxes for Ea & Ann so I am sure they’ll have nearly enough until Xmas. Ann had a great old metal frying pan for baking them in. The real thing.”

The “holiday of a lifetime” was not just a trip across the Atlantic, although that was of itself a milestone experience. What made it momentous was the knowledge that she was retracing the steps that members of her family, near and extended, had been taking since the middle of the 19th century. On ships first and in planes later, they had voyaged to the United States and spread out from New York to Chicago, Salt Lake City and San Francisco. Her own brother, Tom, emigrated to America and meeting his children in Waterbury, Connecticut, was an especially poignant moment for her.

Looking at photographs taken during the holiday, the thing that stands out is the pure happiness. The optimism of the New World suited my mother. The pace of the place agreed with her. The constant motion matched her high-energy approach to life: Sights had to be seen, people needed meeting, trips had to be taken and in the midst of all this, bread had to be baked and all these things had to be noted in the diary. This particular observation never fails to intrigue: “Seen World Trade Centre with its Twin Towers. Rise 110 Stories and 1,350 each and on one of them is a high pole to warn the planes not to fly too low.”

Mother with Twin Towers

The “holiday of a lifetime” was also a break from the sometimes-monotony of the rural environment that had been my mother’s reality since birth. She loved where she had been born into, but she appreciated every opportunity to explore the wider world and nothing was wider in the world for her than the USA. Watching her enjoy each encounter with America, one felt that had the cards been dealt differently she would have made a wonderful life for herself in a place where energy and creativity are so much appreciated. That was not to be, but we give thanks today for all that was, for the memories of that happy holiday and the cakes baked in Brookyn.

Our next station in this series of meditations on 14 photographs is Faith.

The second Station: Food

Wednesday, 25 November, 2015 0 Comments

The most treasured of my mother’s many recipe books was published in 1960 and over the years it had doubled in size thanks to countless newspaper clippings interleaved between its pages. Strong, red rubber bands kept the lot in place and prevented the volume from breaking its spine. Full and Plenty by Maura Laverty was aptly titled for the needs of its users and the eight chapters embraced the essentials: Bread; Cakes; Pastry; Fish; Vegetables; Meat, Poultry & Game; Puddings & Desserts, Accompaniments.

When good musicians are presented with a simple melody, they improvise and transform the piece into something delightful, and good cooks are no different. Down through the decades, Maura Laverty’s recipe for currant buns morphed into my mother’s framework for fruit scones, with the margarine being replaced by butter, yeast by baking soda and buttermilk taking over from milk, while the candied peel was dropped entirely. Here is Maura Laverty’s original recipe:

Currant buns

Ingredients: 1 ½ lbs flour, 2 ozs raisins, 2 ozs currants, 2 ozs candied peel, 6 ozs margarine, 6 ozs sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, ½ pint lukewarm milk, I oz yeast

Method: Cream yeast with a little sugar. Sift flour with salt. Melt margarine in lukewarm milk. Add yeast and milk mixture to flour and beat well. Cover and leave in a warm place until mixture doubles its bulk. Turn onto floured board, spread with sugar and fruit and knead well. Cover and leave 30 mins. Shape into buns (these quantities will make 20). Place on greased baking tin, leave in warm place 20 mins, then bake 15 mins at 240 °C / 475 °F / Gas Mark 9. Just before they are cooked, brush with water or egg white and sprinkle with sugar.

No matter how many buns/scones were formed from the ingredients, there was always an extra piece of dough left over after my mother had finished and this would be the first item retrieved from the oven after the 15 minutes had elapsed. This prototype would be assessed for colour, felt for consistency, then be broken in two and spread with butter. “How does it taste?” was the expectant question. It was exquisite every time.

Mother's scones

Writing in the Irish Times at the end of October, historian Diarmaid Ferriter summed up the significance of Full and Plenty in contemporary Irish food preparation. He noted Maura Laverty’s focus on the idea of a balanced diet; praised her advice about everything in moderation and drew readers’ attention to the fact that Laverty’s “minimum daily ration” included egg, cheese, butter, bread, vegetables, fruit and “a serving of meat or fish or bacon.” His conclusion? “Bring it all on.”

That cherished and much-used copy of Full and Plenty was placed on my mother’s coffin on the day she was buried. Its presence was a reminder to the mourners that most of them had benefited greatly from her interpretations of its contents during their lifetimes. The hands that that had lovingly turned its pages had generously and without demur placed before them bread; cakes; pastry; fish; vegetables; meat, poultry & game; puddings & desserts and accompaniments. The best of the lot was those mysterious “accompaniments”. They were the incantations, the acts and the embellishments that made the cooking and the presentation so memorable. Maura Laverty mentions this extra dimension of the kitchen in her introduction to Full and Plenty when she describes the sensation of “rubbing butter into flour scones”. She continues: “The purity of flour, the pure velvety feel of it, the gentle, incessant, calm-giving motion of the finger-tips — no tangle or turmoil could hold out against such homely comforting.” And none did.

Our next station in this series of meditations on 14 photographs is Thanksgiving.

The first Station: Work

Tuesday, 24 November, 2015 0 Comments

Look at these faces. What do you see? Life. Health. Energy. Family. Friends. Play. Work. This photo opens a door to the past and reveals a summer glimpse of a lost world. We know now how the story will end for some of the characters in this scene, but that’s hindsight. For the moment let us stay with what was captured on film when the shutter was released on that summer day.

Hay day at home

What’s going on here? The hay that was saved has been transported from the meadow and is being stored in a barn so that the livestock will have food for autumn, winter and spring. It’s an existential moment because that hay is the fuel for the engines of the enterprise: the cows. No hay, no milk; no milk, no money. No money… It’s a knife-edge moment, but there is no sign of anxiety in this image. Instead, there is acceptance. It was hoped that the hay would be saved. It was expected that it would be gathered in to the barn and it was accepted that whatever obstacles emerged along the way the cycle would repeat itself annually for the benefit of all those present and to come.

Yes, there was fatalism in this worldview, but not resignation. “‘Tis the will of God” was how misfortune was explained. There had to be a reason for setbacks, especially those that affected the most vulnerable, but it was assumed that a higher agency was involved and life went on and so did work.

For my mother, work was neither an occupation nor a career. It was an all-encompassing mission. Work secured. Work provided. Work was noble and necessary. “She’s a great worker” was the ultimate praise. “Slavery”, on the other hand, was the word used to dismiss the miserable life of the workaholic. “He’s a pure slave” is how she would describe the farmer bent over double with rheumatism after a lifetime spent in pursuit of money. It was the definitive waste of our brief time on earth.

For my mother, work was an extraordinary series of tasks that began at down and ended, often, after midnight. There was lighting the fire, milking the cows, feeding the calves, baking bread, preparing dinner, washing clothes, making tea, knitting jumpers, darning socks, planting vegetables, pruning flowers, visiting the sick, attending funerals, going to Mass, selling livestock, buying hens, painting, cooking, cleaning, shopping, caring, helping, loving, talking, thinking… This list is not exhaustive, but it is exhausting. Not that she ever used the word. “I’m tired,” she would sometimes say. “I’m exhausted”, never.

Our next station in this series of 14 photographs is Food.

Stations of a life in 14 photographs

Monday, 23 November, 2015 0 Comments

The handbag my mother took with her on the last journey of her life contained a variety of objects that encapsulated her character. Along with the practical — tissues, mints, vital phone numbers scribbled on scraps of paper — there was the metaphysical: a rosary beads, a prayer book, holy medals and a memorial card of her late husband. This combination of faith and practicality made her the person that she was. The contents of that handbag reflected a personality conscious of the detail of the everyday and devoted to a traditional Irish spiritualism that is as ancient as the water from sacred wells and as modern as using a mobile phone to find out for whom the latest bell has tolled.

Along with Mass, the Rosary, graveyard visitations and pilgrimages to Knock Shrine and Lough Derg, my mother’s canon of devoutness included the Stations of the Cross, with their depictions of Christ’s sufferings and death. As Piero Marini, Archbishop of Martirano in Calabria, puts it, these 14 images “shed light on the tragic role of the various characters involved, and the struggle between light and darkness, between truth and falsehood, which they embody.” In the spirit of the Stations of the Cross, the coming fortnight here will be given over to meditations on 14 photographs that reflect key aspects of my mother’s life. We begin tomorrow with Work.

The handbag contents

Occupied: Cold horror

Sunday, 22 November, 2015 0 Comments

Present: Norway supplies 30 percent of the European Union’s natural gas imports and 10 percent of its crude oil imports. Future: The US is no longer a member of NATO, fossil fuel reserves are running low and a new Norwegian Prime Minister has decided that his country will switch from oil and gas to alternative energy options. Faced with this crisis, Brussels turns to Moscow for muscle and thus Okkupert (Occupied) begins.

Conceived by Jo Nesbø, the best-selling Oslo-based writer, Occupied is the most expensive TV series ever produced in Norwegian and it is excellent. The scenery is cold, the colours are cold, the occupiers are cold and the horror is cold. With winter at hand, Occupied forces us to ask ourselves what we would tolerate to stay warm. The dismemberment of Ukraine? By the way, Nesbø had the idea long before Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, but the story reveals the unease that many of Russia’s neighbors feel. It’s cold up north. Occupied is now showing on Arte, the Franco-German TV network.

Detroit and Buffalo and beyond

Saturday, 21 November, 2015 0 Comments

Her vocals have been compared to those of Dolly Parton; her songwriting to that of Tom Waits. David Menconi wrote in Spin that she sings “like an earthbound Emmylou Harris.” After her parents divorced, Amanda Shires divided her childhood between the Texas cities of Lubbock and Mineral Wells, and it was in a pawn shop in Mineral Wells that she got her first fiddle at the age of ten. From there on, there was no doubt about where she was going. Since then, she’s been to Detroit and Buffalo and beyond. Her husband, Jason Isbell, is scheduled to play at La Maroquinerie in Paris, France, on 18 January. Memories of the Bataclan will still be vivid, but the music must go on.

Houellebecq: How France’s Leaders Failed

Friday, 20 November, 2015 0 Comments

Just as we end our week of postings about Submission, the important new novel by Michel Houellebecq, the great man himself makes a rare appearance in the public prints to comment on the state of France. In today’s New York Times, under the headline Michel Houellebecq: How France’s Leaders Failed Its People, the writer addresses la Grande Nation in its hour of need.

Soumission Quoting the famous motivational poster produced by the British government in 1939 in preparation for the Second World War, Houellebecq places his faith in the people and says: “Keep calm and carry on.” He regrets that his France does not have a Churchill to lead the nation at this critical moment and despairs of the country’s political class: “It’s unlikely that the insignificant opportunist who passes for our head of state, or the congenital moron who plays the part of our prime minister, or even the ‘stars of the opposition’ (LOL) will emerge from the test looking any brighter.”

He then cites a gap, no, “an abyss”, between the people and their elected representatives. “The discredit that applies to all political parties today isn’t just huge; it is legitimate.” This leads him to formulate four democratic theses and nail them to the door of France in the following order:

  • That the French population has always maintained its trust in and solidarity with its police officers and its armed forces.
  • That it has largely been repelled by the sermonizing airs of the so-called moral left (moral?) concerning how migrants and refugees are to be treated.
  • That it has never viewed without suspicion the foreign military adventures its governments have seen fit to join.
  • That the only solution still available to us now is to move gently toward the only form of real democracy: I mean, direct democracy.

And just to prove that Houellebecq is central to understanding the true nature of the crisis now gripping France, Todd Kliman rows in with The Subtle Despair of Michel Houellebecq in today’s Washington Post. The “d” word is the one that struck him during his second reading of Submission. It “permeates every page, every scene, every observation.” Still, he points out, and this is very true, that “Submission is very funny, easily the funniest of the four Houellebecq books I’ve read.” As regard’s the author’s politics, Kliman concludes that Houellebecq is a man of the right, but a particular kind of right — a right of the long view that is…

“… pessimistic about notions of progress, skeptical of easy answers, or of any answers, a man of measured despair whose immersion in history and literature has taught him that time can’t be measured in election cycles or decades, that technologies exist to distract us and/or give us new means to destroy ourselves, and that people never do change.

Today, in this age, that qualifies as real subversion.”

Submission is, without doubt, the novel of the year. Somewhat plausible, rather worrying, funny, subversive and very, very important.