Mother

My mother’s Christmas cake

Saturday, 17 December, 2016 0 Comments

The tin that was used for baking this cake was bought in Ballylanders, County Limerick, in the early 1950’s for 2 shillings and 9 pence. It measures nine inches across. Now that Ireland has gone metric, that measurement can be expressed as 23 cm. A euro equivalent for “2 shillings and 9 pence” is harder to compute, though, as the price refers to a foreign country — a pre-decimalization Ireland of almost no disposable income, zero inflation and a tendency to regard even humble baking tins as once-in-a-lifetime purchases. But, regardless of whether you are using an antique tin or a modern one, it is vital that you line it with a double-thickness of silver foil.

INGREDIENTS

750 grams sultanas
350 grams self-raising flour
150 grams “soft” brown sugar
250 grams butter
4 tablespoons water
4 tablespoons brandy
4 eggs
1 teaspoon almond essence
pinch or two ground almonds

PREPARATION

Preparing the fruit Put the sultanas (light-coloured ones are preferred but the darker variety will do) in a saucepan and add the water and brandy. Heat gently until the mixture begins to steam. Remove from heat and cover saucepan.

Next, place the brown sugar in your mixing bowl. Take four eggs and break each one separately in a saucer to test for quality before adding to the sugar and beat until the mix is creamy. Add a half-teaspoon of almond essence for flavour.

The wooden spoon test Gradually sieve in the flour and fold into the mix adding a few pinches of ground almonds as you go along. Remember those sultanas and brandy? Cut the butter into the steamed fruit and add to the flour, sugar and eggs in the mixing bowl.

Use the “vertical wooden spoon” test to see if the consistency of mix is suitable. If the spoon stands to attention, you are on the right track. Finish off by adding the remainder of the flour.

More lining for the tin now. This time it’s greaseproof paper, folded doubly. Pour the mix into the lined tin and paste into the corners. Make a hollow with your hand in the centre to allow for expansion.

The baking tin Bake at 180 degrees for twenty minutes and then at 160 for an hour; leave in the oven and probe the centre of the cake with a knitting needle (recommended) or other sharp object until satisfied that it is baked thoroughly.

A slice is best enjoyed with a big cup of tea. If a roaring fire is at hand, appreciate the warmth, and remember that this cake was once made by a person who lived her life for the benefit of others, many of whom were grateful, and remain so.


The day of immaculate things

Thursday, 8 December, 2016 1 Comment

For my mother and her mother’s mother, 8 December was the day Christmas really began. And it began with Mass to celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception with its intricate web of religious relationships that were as real to my mother as if the people involved regularly walked the road in front of our house. She’d patiently instruct a later generation, ignorant of most things spiritual, that today does not refer to the conception of Jesus. Rather, it marks the conception of his mother, Mary. “Wouldn’t the date tell you something?” she’d ask, and point out that the Feast of the Annunciation on 25 March marks the conception of Jesus, nine months before Christmas Day. And she’d add, for good measure, “Mary’s birthday is the 8th of September. Put that in your book.”

After Mass, the first great round of Christmas shopping took place and most of the essentials, and some treats, would be purchased. Home again, the bags of “messages” would be unpacked, the apron donned and “tidying” would begin in earnest.

The 8th of December was traditionally the last day of the year for outdoor painting, which meant whitewashing. Weather permitting, families cleaned and then whitewashed the walls around their farmyards to “tress them up” and symbolically purify them for the coming of the saviour. Only when that was done, could the indoor decoration, with berried holly and glittering tinsel, begin.

Everything had to be immaculate, and everything was done on this day, devotedly, devoutly, to ensure that this was so.

Home


The faithful departed

Wednesday, 2 November, 2016 1 Comment

There is a Mexican saying that we die three times: the first at the moment of death, the second when we are lowered into the earth and the third when our loved ones forget us. Día de los Muertos, which corresponds with today’s All Souls’ Day, is dedicated to ensuring that those who loved us will not be forgotten.

This morning, at 7 am in the Theatinerkirche in Munich, a special memorial mass was celebrated for the souls of Kit Fitzgerald ( 6 September 2015) and Mick Fitzgerald ( 2 April 2011) of Ballylanders, County Limerick; and Mary Walsh ( 27 December 2004) and Tom Walsh ( 12 June 2012) of Mullingar, County Westmeath. May they rest in peace.

Mammy praying on the road to Knock

“People do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad.” — Marcel Proust


Here’s a health to Bunclody

Sunday, 23 October, 2016 0 Comments

Before he became a wandering minstrel, Sam Lee was a wilderness survival expert. Now, he spends time among marginal communities and uses his iPhone to save the remnants of their ballad culture, with its rich trove of stories about love, hate, wealth, poverty, parting, exile and sorrow. He collected the The Moss House in Wexford from an Irish singer called Sally Connors and it concludes his album The Fade In Time. My mother sang a version titled The Streams of Bunclody that included this verse:

“That’s why my love slights me, as you may understand
For she has a freehold and I have no land
She has a great store of riches and a fine sum of gold
And everything fitting a house to uphold.”


Reflections

Friday, 9 September, 2016 0 Comments

We end our anniversary week here with a reflection on L’Élégance du hérisson (translated into English as The Elegance of the Hedgehog) by Muriel Barbery. The book is narrated by the residents of a small upper-class Paris apartment block, mainly its secret-intellectual concierge, Renée, and Paloma, the radical teenage daughter of a neighbouring family. Nearing the end, Renée says:

“Yes, my first thoughts go to my cat, not that he is the most important one of all but, before the real torment and the real farewells begin, I need to be reassured regarding the fate of my four-legged companion… and I take the measure of how the ridiculous, superfluous cats who wander through our lives with all the placidity and indifference of an imbecile are in fact the guardians of life’s good and joyful moments.”

Reflections

Now, I can confront the others.

Manuela, my sister, may fate keep me from being for you what you were for me: a safeguard against unhappiness, a rampart against banality. Carry on with your life, and think of me with joy.

There you are, Lucien, on a yellowed photograph, as if on a medallion, the way I see you in my memory. You are smiling, whistling… I did  love you well, after all, and for that reason, perhaps, I deserve to rest. We’ll sleep in peace in the little cemetery, in our village… In the evening, at sunset, you can hear the Angelus.”

Sometimes, you have to look back or look in the mirror to understand what lies ahead.


All you who sleep tonight

Thursday, 8 September, 2016 0 Comments

“Life is not easy for anyone here. Loss and fear, failure and disappointment, pain and ill-health, doubt and death – even those who have escaped from poverty have no escape from these. What makes life bearable is love – to love, to be loved, and – even after death – to know that you have loved and been loved.” Vikram Seth

The novelist and poet Vikram Seth divides his time between India, England, China and the USA. His most famous work is A Suitable Boy. Published in 1993, the book is one of the longest novels ever printed in the English language with its 1,488 pages and 591,552 words. A sequel, to be called A Suitable Girl, is due for publication next year.

At Evening

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right
And emptiness above —

Know that you aren’t alone
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.

Vikram Seth

Evening candle


Oisín i ndiaidh na bhFiann

Wednesday, 7 September, 2016 0 Comments

The Irish phrase Oisín i ndiaidh na bhFiann (Oisín after the Fianna) means to be alone in the world after all your people are gone.

Oisín i ndiaidh na bhFiann

In the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology, Oisín, the son of Fionn mac Cumhaill, is visited one day by a beautiful woman named Niamh Chinn Óir (Niamh of the Golden Hair), who declares she loves him and takes him away to Tir na nÓg (“the land of the young”). After what seems to be three years (actually 300), Oisín wishes to return to Ireland and Niamh gives him a magical horse, but warns him not to dismount, because if his feet touch the ground he will become old and die. Upon arriving in Ireland, Oisín notes to his astonishment that all of Fionn’s palaces are in ruins and nobody can recall any of his companions. When he comes across a group of men building a road and attempts to help them lift a stone out of the way, his stirrup breaks and he falls to the ground, becoming an old man as Niamh had forewarned. Hence, Oisín i ndiaidh na bhFiann.


In Memory Of My Mother: First anniversary

Tuesday, 6 September, 2016 2 Comments

It is said that the mind, to protect sanity, covers old wounds with scar tissue and thus lessens pain. Maybe so. The pain does not go away, however. As we wrote on this day last year: Our loss is enormous. Our hearts are broken. Our sorrow is great. Our hope is that our mother, Catherine O’Donnell-Fitzgerald (29 July 1928 – 6 September 2015), will smile up at us and down on us — eternally — because we will be forever in her debt.

In Memory Of My Mother

I do not think of you lying in the wet clay
Of a Monaghan graveyard; I see
You walking down a lane among the poplars
On your way to the station, or happily

Going to second Mass on a summer Sunday —
You meet me and you say:
‘Don’t forget to see about the cattle — ‘
Among your earthiest words the angels stray.

And I think of you walking along a headland
Of green oats in June,
So full of repose, so rich with life —
And I see us meeting at the end of a town

On a fair day by accident, after
The bargains are all made and we can walk
Together through the shops and stalls and markets
Free in the oriental streets of thought.

O you are not lying in the wet clay,
For it is a harvest evening now and we
Are piling up the ricks against the moonlight
And you smile up at us — eternally.

Patrick Kavanagh

Mammy


Trees make a long shadow and a light sound

Monday, 5 September, 2016 0 Comments

“I’ll lie here and learn
How, over their ground,
Trees make a long shadow
And a light sound.”

Louise Bogan (1897 – 1970)

Mother and trees


I remembered her head bent towards my head

Tuesday, 30 August, 2016 0 Comments

The poet Seamus Heaney was born on 13 April 1939 in a “one-storey, longish, lowish, thatched and whitewashed farmhouse” in Mossbawn, Co. Derry. He was the eldest of nine children and he grew up in a culture that was “Catholic, folk, rural, Irish”. He died on 30 August 2013 in Dublin, after a short illness.

Seamus Heaney shows us a sepia snapshot here of a mother and her son preparing dinner. It is a simple, almost hum-drum scene, with the silence being broken by “pleasant splashes” of water as their peeled potatoes drop into a bucket. The next sounds we hear are of sobbing and of murmured prayers: “some were responding and some crying”. As his mother dies, Seamus Heaney recalls the peeling of those potatoes “when all the others were away at Mass,” and the beauty of that moment is heartbreaking.

In memoriam M.K.H., 1911 – 1984

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives —
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

Picking the potatoes


Small acts of kindness and love

Tuesday, 23 August, 2016 0 Comments

“Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

Scones of love