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Happy New Year!

Sunday, 1 January, 2017 0 Comments

Resolution for 2017: “Keep a little fire burning; however small, however hidden.” — Cormac McCarthy, The Road

The fire


Light Shining out of Darkness

Saturday, 31 December, 2016 0 Comments

Light in the darkness

Light Shining out of Darkness

God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sov’reign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

William Cowper (1731 – 1800)

Note: The cat was highly thought of the age of Cowper, especially by those artists who were judged to be a bit mad. Cowper, who had bouts of madness and depression, was the foremost poet of the generation between Alexander Pope and William Wordsworth and for several decades had probably the largest readership of any English poet. He espoused the cultivated beliefs of the time: a love of nature and thereby a love of animals. In The Retired Cat written in 1791, the plight of his cat that has become trapped in a dresser drawer offered an opportunity for a moral tale.


Hedging

Wednesday, 28 December, 2016 0 Comments

When you take out insurance to minimize the risk that illness will end your income, or you buy life insurance to support your family in the case of your death, that’s a hedge. This hedge, however, is the typical boundary formed by closely growing bushes and it’s overgrown, so it will have to be trimmed… today. To the hedging!

Our hedge


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 last time

Thursday, 18 August, 2016 0 Comments

You don’t think this will be the last time. It’s just the latest goodbye in a long list of leave-takings. Yes, there are indications, but you choose to ignore those. People survive and the will to live burns brightly.

There’s a car waiting outside, so you mumble and fumble farewell with a mixture of awkward gestures and formulas. Then, it’s out the door and away for a day of travel using a half dozen transport and communication technologies that ingenious humanity has created to link families and nations. The constant checking of timetables, the endless rechecking of documents, the eating, the boarding, the boredom fill the day and dull the ominous feeling that this might have been the last time. Twelve hours later, the trip has ended and there’s enough energy left over for a tired phone call to reassure everyone that all is as it was, here and there. Exhausted sleep follows and the routine is rejoined the next day. There’s little time for the thoughts of the previous day.

But it was the last time.

The last time


Green fingers are the extensions of a verdant heart

Wednesday, 20 July, 2016 0 Comments

“People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.” — Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat

Mother's garden of flowers


The holly

Wednesday, 23 December, 2015 0 Comments

On this day last year, with one foot on the dresser and another on the step-ladder, my mother was perched like an Alpine Ibex as she fearlessly ensured that the most important of the Christmas decorations, the holly, was positioned exactly. Despite her 86 years, she insisted on arranging the “sprigs”. Holly has an ancient terminology and “sprig” dates back to the Middle English sprigge, meaning a small twig or stem.

The holly

Green and spiky and adorned with red berries, holly is the perfect Christmas decoration. It is honoured in the “Sans Day Carol,” which was first transcribed from the singing of Thomas Beard, a villager in St Day in the parish of Gwennap in Cornwall.

Now the holly bears a berry as white as the milk,
And Mary she bore Jesus, who was wrapped up in silk:

And Mary she bore Jesus our Saviour for to be,
And the first tree that’s in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly! Holly!
And the first tree that’s in the greenwood, it was the holly!

Now the holly bears a berry as green as the grass,
And Mary she bore Jesus, who died on the cross:

And Mary she bore Jesus our Saviour for to be,
And the first tree that’s in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly! Holly!
And the first tree that’s in the greenwood, it was the holly!

Now the holly bears a berry as black as the coal,
And Mary she bore Jesus, who died for us all:

And Mary she bore Jesus our Saviour for to be,
And the first tree that’s in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly! Holly!
And the first tree that’s in the greenwood, it was the holly!

Now the holly bears a berry, as blood is it red,
Then trust we our Saviour, who rose from the dead:

And Mary she bore Jesus our Saviour for to be,
And the first tree that’s in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly! Holly!
And the first tree that’s in the greenwood, it was the holly!


The fourteenth Station: Legacy

Monday, 7 December, 2015 0 Comments

The happy news: These “stations,” these posts, will appear in book form in time for the 6 September anniversary next year. In this way, part of my mother’s great legacy will be preserved and published. She’d like that.

Mammy in Bally

As we stand at this final station in the life of Kit Fitz, as she was known by so many of those who admired and respected her, we give thanks for the privilege it was to have shared her company for so long. Her boundless energy and thirst for knowledge ensured that every moment in her presence was theatrical, informative and challenging. The Latin phrase, ora et labora (pray and work), which is rooted in Christian mysticism, was the engine of her life. She knew that time is fleeting and in her doing and her being she encouraged everyone to make good use of the precious hours we’re allotted. Despite the constant urging to strive and to save for “the rainy day”, she abhorred the pathetic existence of the workaholic. There had to be time as well for play. The cards, the games, the music and, above all, the prayers, were important because they helped anchor a person in the world.

We miss the constant expressions of wisdom and we regret not documenting more, but we are determined to share and safeguard this priceless legacy.


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.