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The Sorrowful Mystery

Sunday, 6 March, 2016 3 Comments

Six months have come and gone since 6 September and the pain, the loss, the grief is undiminished. Everything changed when that great force of nature and nurture known as “Mother” left us. It’s been a sorrowful time.

Sorrowful are the Mysteries of the Rosary, one of my mother’s favourite prayer rituals. From the perspective of a young boy, the nightly incantation of the Rosary was a chore but there were moments when the boredom cracked and something intriguing broke through the beads. Strange words tumbled out between the ‘Glory Be’ and the ‘Hail Mary’ and so was born a love of language.

The Rosary Vocabulary

“To thee do we send up our sighs.”

In the beginning was alliteration: several sad sighs sent since

“Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.”

The geography of suffering was mapped out early. Young travellers would have to learn how to weep.

“So that by her fervent intercession we may be delivered from present evils.”

If there is going to be intercession, then let it be fervent. Who needs timidity when faced with present evils?

Eternal gratitude to you, Mother, for the love and the love of language.

Mammy praying on the road to Knock


Laelius de Amicitia

Friday, 8 January, 2016 0 Comments

“The life of the dead is placed on the memories of the living.
Anyone who was given love will always live on in another’s heart.”

ā€” Marcus Tullius Cicero (3 January 106 BC ā€“ 7 December 43 BC)

Lisvernane church

Cicero concluded his great treatise on Friendship, Laelius de Amicitia, thus:

“We had one house, one table, one style of living; and not only were we together on foreign service, but in our tours also and country sojourns. Why speak of our eagerness to be ever gaining some knowledge, to be ever learning something, on which we spent all our leisure hours far from the gaze of the world? If the recollection and memory of these things had perished with the person, I could not possibly have endured the regret for one so closely united with me in life and affection. But these things have not perished; they are rather fed and strengthened by reflection and memory. Even supposing me to have been entirely bereft of them, still my time of life of itself brings me no small consolation: for I cannot have much longer now to bear this regret; and everything that is brief ought to be endurable, however severe.

This is all I had to say on friendship. One piece of advice on parting. Make up your minds to this: Virtue (without which friendship is impossible) is first; but next to it, and to it alone, the greatest of all things is Friendship.”


The Irish coffee

Thursday, 24 December, 2015 0 Comments

“We’ll take off the clothes” was the first statement my mother would make shortly after returning home from Christmas Eve mass. What sounded like an invitation to party was, in fact, a declaration that a new round of chores related to the preparation of the Christmas dinner was about to begin and it would continue long after midnight.

But before the job of preparing the sherry trifle started, the traditional Irish Coffee had to be made. The ingredients were four: whipped cream, coffee, Demerara sugar and whiskey, preferably Powers, but Paddy would be accepted in its place. As a lifelong Pioneer, my mother had pledged to avoid alcohol so how could she justify drinking whiskey? Well, it was only “a taste”, it was a family tradition and it was Christmas.

Irish coffee on Christmas Eve

Method: Pre-heat a stemmed glass with hot water. Empty the water and add two teaspoons of Demerara sugar. Now add some freshly brewed coffee and stir. As soon as the sugar is melted, add a decent measure of whiskey (about 2.5cl). Stir again. Now, the tricky bit. Take a hot teaspoon and pour the whipped cream slowly over the back of the soon until a solid head forms on the coffee.

Serve and enjoy. And we did.


Object of the Year

Tuesday, 22 December, 2015 1 Comment

It’s a lapel pin. But it’s a unique lapel pen because my mother wore it on her favourite suit the last time I saw her on this Earth. We swapped lapel pins that night in September and I got the “better bargain”, as she’d say herself. Therefore, our Object of the Year award goes to my mother’s Pioneer pin.

Pioneer Pin

The Pioneer pin has its origins in a temperance movement that began in Cork City in 1838. At the time, Father Theobald Mathew was alarmed at the widespread alcoholism among Irish Catholics and he campaigned for what become known as “The Pledge, which was a solemn promise to avoid alcohol and stay sober for life. As a result, expressions such as “take the pledge” and “keep the pledge” became part of popular speech. My mother was a member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, which grew out of Father Mathew’s crusade. The association does not advocate prohibition, but it does require complete abstinence from alcohol of its members and it also encourages devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The importance of revered objects was emphasized on Friday when the Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, revealed his final acquisition before stepping down from his job. It’s a cross made from the wreckage of a boat carrying refugees from Eritrea and Somalia that sank in the Mediterranean in 2013 with the loss of 350 lives. The Lampedusa Cross was made by Francesco Tuccio, a carpenter who lives on the Italian island. MacGregor said: “This simple yet moving object is a poignant gift to the collection.”

There’s a clear link between the Lampedusa Cross and the Rainy Object of the Year in that both are linked by a humble, impressive and enduring faith.


The eleventh Station: Substance

Friday, 4 December, 2015 0 Comments

“Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” Those words from the 1960 Lerner and Loewe musical were written with us in mind for this photograph shows our very own Camelot.

Home, sweet home

The camera never lies and what it captured with its eagle eye on this summer’s day was an Arthurian castle with walls, enclosures and fortifications. Here we were secure because father and mother had built something of substance that would protect us from the elements and shield us from invaders. Well, that’s how one young imagination saw it anyway.

The court was the kitchen. This was where ambassadors were received, feasts were enjoyed, tales were told, games played, songs sung and plans for the upkeep of the kingdom were made. Despite the many demands of “business”, there was always time for tea because tradition required that knights, ladies, clerics and scholars had to be entertained. Substance was more than just putting food on the table. It was hospitality, it was generosity, it was decency, it was dignity. The satisfaction that my parents felt in the substance that was the result of their labour was reflected in the attention they devoted to its upkeep. Paint was applied, weeds were banished and flowers were cultivated.

Our Arthur and Guinevere have found their final rest in the local Avalon but for those who sat at their table it will never be forgot, “that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”

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


The ninth Station: Tracing

Wednesday, 2 December, 2015 0 Comments

It’s a summer evening, we’re in the home of John Grogan in the Glen of Aherlow and the tracing is about to begin. Neither of the main performers takes strong drink — only a ‘mineral’ — but the custom of the country dictates that other refreshments are provided in case the observers get thirsty. Then the remembering starts.

Mother and John Grogan

What is tracing? It’s the skill of joining the dots between the living and the dead. It’s an oral tradition of genealogy in which lineage is parsed during a performance that tests the memory of the “artistes”. In a world where blood is far thicker than water, your relations are of paramount importance because you can never tell when you might need their help, and when you go looking for that help it is advisable to know who married whom and where and when. Every human closet has it skeletons so having the back story, with all its triumphs and failures, can prevent one from saying the wrong thing. Why did they have to sell the place? Did she have a child? Was he in jail for a while? What happened to the youngest of them? It’s a small world, knowledge is power, a faux pas can be fatal, so it’s best to be informed. Hence, tracing.

Paper is needed for the more common type of tracing, but it plays no role in the traditional practice, which is why it’s almost impossible to write down the improvisational memory exchanges that happens when two star performers are in full flight. Just to illustrate, however, my mother and John Grogan said things like this during that evening’s tracing last summer:

“He was called Edward O’Donnell, I heard.”
“Well, he was baptized Edmond O’Donnell, my father said, and he could go back as far as his grandmother, who was a Mullins woman, and his father was one of the Gallahues — a Dan Gallahue.”
“That name is in the Gallahues, all right. And what happened to this Edmond O’Donnell?”
“He went to America, like most of them those times, and his three brothers went after him.”
“What were their names?”
“Con, John and Dan.”
“And all of them went to America, you say?”
“They did, but the only one we heard about after was this Edmond. He went to San Francisco and after that he went to a place called Salt Lake City.”
“I think I heard my own mother saying that. He was in the undertaking business.”
“He was and he married a girl called Miller, she was an American, and the family kept on the business, and it might still be there today.”
“When did he die, then?”
“Well, I can tell you exactly. It was 1923 and do know you how I know that? This is a funny one for you, my mother, God rest her, was in Cork and she…”

And on and on flowed the talk as the tracing filled the spaces between the generations and conjured up images of those who went before us. There was magic in those words. There was humanity in those memories.

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


The eighth Station: Bibs

Tuesday, 1 December, 2015 0 Comments

As the tide of the past recedes, it carries away much of what we thought was permanent. Gone with the undertow are the “bibs”, those apron-like uniforms rural women once wore indoors and outdoors. Unlike so much of modern work clothing, numbingly alike in its drabness, the bib was colourful, floral, cheerful. So what if the work that had to be done by the wearer involved drudgery? One could still tackle it in style.

The bibs

My mother’s favourite was the crossover bib. As a young girl she had fashioned them from recycled cotton flour bags, adding an embroidered decoration here and there and finishing off with some bright ric-rac trim as a flourish. The patterns had their origins in pinafores that relatives had sent back from England and the uniquely Irish result was a wrap-around coverall titled the “bib”. The word itself has its origins in the Middle English verb bibben, meaning to drink, from the Latin bibere, either because the garment was worn while drinking or because it soaked up spills. It was definitely the latter in my mother’s case as the bib was worn when bathing children, milking cows, washing dishes and countless other tasks that involved spills and splashes.

“I’ll take off the bib,” was my mother’s declaration that something significant was about to happen. This could indicate preparation for a trip or it might involve the arrival of an important visitor. Once the visitor had departed or when the trip ended with a return to home, the bib has donned and “the jobs” began again.

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


The seventh Station: Farming

Monday, 30 November, 2015 1 Comment

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 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 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.

Currant buns/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.


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