A stuffed dog and the baby Jesus

Years and years and years ago, my Christmas revolved around the annual visit with my my aunt and grandaunt to the moving crib on Parnell Square in Dublin. I would wander goggle-eyed through the fourteen scenes from the bible, each depicted by moving characters. Eve tempting Adam with the apple and him feebly shaking his head. Noah and his family building the ark. Daniel in the lion’s den. The angel appearing to Mary. Joseph and herself being refused at the inn. All the characters move in some way and the combination of bible scenes and the real stuffed dog who saved three people from drowning is slightly peculiar if not a tad surreal.

The background paintings for each of the 14 scenes depicted are the work of Dublin artist Cormac Larkin. I took my nephews there this week and although it wasn’t nearly as big as I remember, it still has that certain something that makes it part of Christmas. It’s been on the go for years and yet so many people have never heard of it or visited it. And it’s free! So if you’re in or around 42 Parnell Square, you might drop by and have a look for yourself. It’s worth it.

Maybe it’s age – but this Christmas I find myself wanting to do the traditional stuff – the visit to the zoo, the crib, and out with the Wren boys on Stephen’s Day. I wonder what’s driving this? Perhaps the fact that there’s so much misery and sadness in this country and from what I’m reading in the papers, and hearing on Irish radio, things aren’t much better in Hungary. Here’s hoping that 2012 brings back some sanity to our world and that we learn to recapture that childish wonder and appreciation for the simple pleasures of life.

To you and yours, wherever you are. May this Christmas be the start of something wonderful and the New Year bring with it peace and prosperity for all.

Getting married immediately

Bring up the topic of faith healers in any Irish pub and you’ll immediately see a divide that hasn’t been seen since the parting of the Red Sea. You either believe or you don’t. My mother, tired of listening to accounts of various visits to GPs, neurologists, and other ‘alternative’ therapists, decided to take matters relating to my health into her own hands. We were to go see the famous Eddie Stones, in Clonfert, Co. Galway.

Unlike many other Irish healers – Danny Gallagher, Michael O’Connor or Aidan WrynneEddie doesn’t lay claim to being the seventh son of a seventh son. His call was more tangible – Our Lady appeared to him as he was having his tea one night. This appariton was the first of many callings for him to leave his life as a butcher and take up this calling from God. [As I said, you either believe or you don’t.]

Emmanuel House was founded by Michael Cullen, an Irishman who spent time in prison in the USA before being deported. While in prison, he found God and when he came home, he set up the community in Clonfert (the site of the 6th century monastery of St Brendan the Navigator). Eddie and Lucy Stones were drawn to him and took over the minstry when Michael and his wife went back to the States. People come from all over the country to see him, to have him pray over them, to be healed. As reports for these mass gatherings include those who ‘fall’, faint from the experience, I was decidedly curious to see how I’d react.

When we eventually arrived, it was to find a notice to say that the centre was closed for two weeks holiday. Not one so easily deterred, my mother rooted out the man himself and we were sent to wait in the oratory. Some others also driven by blind faith and expectation arrived, too. All told, there were about twelve – so we didn’t get the full treatment. We said the rosary (the five new mysteries of light which can be said on a Thursday) and then heard various accounts of people healed.

Finally we came to the blessings. I was third in line. He took my hand and asked me what was wrong. I said I didn’t know. Pins and needles, exhaustion, lack of focus, and a deep-seated curiousity as to what I was doing in this world. He touched my head and told me my illness was in my brain (which shocked the proverbial out of me – as only the previous week had a systemic inflamation of connective tissue starting in the brain been mooted as a possible diagnosis). He prayed over me and then asked if I was married. I said no. He said: How about immediately, and ten kids! Now believing that would take some measure of faith.

Do I believe that I’ve been cured? Yes. Am I cancelling my MRI booking and my appointment with the neurologist? No. Does this mean that I really don’t believe? Or am I being pragmatic. Some say that faith healing actually risks recovery. I’m resorting to old Irish ‘to be sure, to be sure’. I feel a lot better. I seemed to have turned a corner. My outlook is more positive and there’s a contentment there was wasn’t there before. It could well be the Holy Spirit working through the hands of Eddie Stones. Who knows. But, I tell you, if I meet a widower with ten kids….

My red-headed Scotsman

I’ve just spent the most glorious couple of days in Co Clare with a tall, red-headed Scotsman who goes by the name of Hamish Macbeth. (Did you know that Hamish = James in English and Séamus in Irish?)  We spent hours sitting on the cliffs overlooking the Diamond Rocks in Kilkee. And he gave me a lot to think about. Hamish lives in Lochdubh, a tiny village in the highlands where he’s the local policeman. And quite refreshingly, he’s completely devoid of any ambition and has passed up promotion on numerous occasions to avoid moving to the city. And no, this isn’t just an excuse for laziness or lack of perceived success. He’s one of the few truly content people  I’ve come across and my reaction was quite interesting. We have a lot in common, even if I don’t understand half what he says when he’s wound up – that sibilant Scots-English sounds like a foreign language. He’s a romantic at heart and like myself, goes through a rapid  fast-forward framing of all possible scenarios on first meeting – and I think we both do this subconsciously. Tall. Check. Nice chin. Check. Well read. Check. Sense of humour. Check. Doesn’t take himself too seriously. Check. Honest. Check. Considerate. Check. Doesn’t slurp. Check. Doesn’t have to have his shoes invite his trousers down for tea. Check. Finds Terry Pratchett funny? Couldn’t possibly spend the rest of my life with him.

So as we sat contemplating the rocks, I got to thinking about life in the highlands. I’ve always had a hankering to live in Scotland and have been known to fall for a red-headed Scotsman before. But would living in the wild purple yonder do my head in?  The village has Internet so I could work there. It sounds idyllic. Long cold winters, just like Alaska. Reasonably mild summers so none of the August heat of Budapest or Malta. Plenty of fishing. Just a few tourists. Mind you, I’d probably live there for 20 years and still be an outsider but at least I’d be an Irish blow-in and there’s already an Irish recluse living in a croft just outside the village so I’d be in good company. I’d have lots of time to write and I might even take up baking. Inverness is not far away so I’d always have a flight out.

Would life married to the local copper in a small village be a little like living in a fishbowl? Yes. Most likely everyone would know my business but as Oscar Wilde once said – the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about. What about the animals? A dog, a cat, and a flock of sheep… with some chickens. Not quite a farmer’s wife but am sure I could adjust. There’s something very appealing about collecting fresh eggs for breakfast. And something even more appealing about the highpoint of the social calendar being the village fete. Would I go mad? Probably.

As I closed the last of the four MC Beaton books that I’d read in quick succession, and said a temporary goodbye to Hamish Macbeth, I found myself wanting to stop the world and get off. I’m too young to feel so old. There has to be places left in the world like Lochdubh and people like Hamish Macbeth who know what it is to enjoy the simple things in life, to be happy with what they have. MC Beaton isn’t an award-winning crime novelist. Her plots are far from tightly knit. Her continuity editor does a poor job of catching her inconsistencies. And yet for all that, the pictures she paints of Hamish and his village are wonderfully simple. Perhaps too simple. And yet it is so tempting. Where’s that stop button?

My morning constitutional

There is nowhere quite like the West of Ireland. My first morning walk of the year along  Doughmore Beach in Doonbeg Co. Clare left me wondering where the rest of the world was. About a mile and a half of beach stretched in front of me and I could count on two hands the number of others on the sand with me. A couple of surfers were out in the water but despite sunshine and that it was Saturday, I had the place practically to myself.

And then I saw the jellyfish. Hundreds of them. Everywhere. I remembered as a child trying not to walk on the cracks of the pavement – bad luck. Well, it was a little like that, trying not to squish a fish. Last time I was in Malta, a chap with the interesting Maltese name of ‘Jesmond’, mentioned raw tomato as a cure for a jellyfish sting; sadly, I didn’t have a tomato in my bag and wasn’t all that pushed to check the veracity of his cure.

But it’s not just the jellyfish. The riptides off Doughmore make it a very dangerous place to surf, let alone swim. I chanced upon a surfers forum that makes for interesting reading if you have the time. As one old guy put it: Safety should be practised by the individual, not coming up with nanny state, half baked nonsense. You are either capable of getting out there surfing or you are not. No amount of ‘rescue bases’ are going to save you if you have no place out there in the sea. Now this gem of wisdom could be applied to just about everything we do these days.

Doughmore Beach is overlooked by the magnificant Doonbeg golf course – a links course designed by Greg Norman. What a fantastic backdrop for golfers frustrated by the vagaries only a links course can offer. At €185 for a round of weekend golf, I’d want to be at the height of my game just to try it. I still have vivid memories of a round of golf at Baltray (another famous links course) many many many years ago and the frusration felt by my virgin-links partner as he emptied his bag of balls and watch his single-digit handicap being castrated.

Just 24 hours in Clare and I’m even more determined to live here. Just a small place within hearing distance of the sea would do me nicely. And if it’s near Doughmore Beach, with just the jellyfish for company, so much the better.

How’s she cuttin’?

IMG_3967For as long as I can remember my dad has been going to the bog and cutting turf. Once a year, we get a delivery at home that has to be neatly stacked in an outside shed. The main bulk of it can be thrown into a heap inside but the walls have to be carefully constructed. I used hate to see the turf coming. It meant hours of back-breaking work after school when I’d rather have been reading. And never, in all these years, never once did I ever bother to go the bog with him – not once.

I was at home in September and he was heading over one evening to check the turf…to see if it was drying and to fix any stacks that had fallen. As we drove through the bog, he explained how various families were given plots during World War Two as coal supplies from Britain had stopped almost entirely. They would cut turf manually with a special spade called a sleán. Imagine, at that time, over six million tonnes of it was hand-cut. Once cut, the turf is stacked to dry. Neat rows lined up like sentinels, watching over each other as the air dries them out. And once dry, the turf is drawn. Cut, dry, and draw. That’s the order. A tradition that is centuries old and fast dying out.

IMG_3971IMG_3985The purple heathers and bog pools simmer, emitting a soft glow in the shadow of the setting sun. The place is deathly quiet. Surreal. For thousands of years, this turf has been growing. For hundreds of years, we have been cutting it and using it as fuel. And now, experts predict that in five years’ time, we’ll see the beginning of the end. Four bogs in Kildare alone are stopping turf-cutting. What then? What will happen to the tradition?

IMG_4004My dad works away, restacking fallen walls, checking that each sod is drying out. These strong hands  have built and made and sown and harvested. These hands have held mine to cross the road; they’ve shaken hands with mine in congratulations; they’ve worked to give me that innate sense of security that allows me to be who I am. As I listen to the silence, I am moved by the rhythm of his singlemindedness. As I watch him at work, I am ashamed that it has taken me so long to take the time to travel those five miles with him. And as I write this, I say a quiet prayer that he will be around to draw turf for many years to come. I promise myself that I will spend more time listening to what he has to say, lest the traditions disappear entirely.

Jam and the patience of Job

IMG_3097For years now, the  end of June/beginning of July has been jam season in our house. On any given evening, if you look out the back window, up the garden, you will see Boss in underneath the bird nets, picking fruit: blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries, strawberries, raspberries. It’s back-breaking, fiddedly work that has to be done at least once, if not twice a day…. especially when it rains (and it rains a lot in Ireland). Buckets and buckets of fruit are handpicked and brought down to be topped (redcurrants and blackcurrants); topped and tailed (gooseberries); or shucked (raspberries). Evening after evening is spent in quiet contemplation as hands busy themselves readying the fruit for the pot. Hands too bloodied with fruit juice to turn on the TV.

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It brings to mind the electricity blackouts of the 1970s when conversation was rediscovered before being lost altogether to mulitmedia and home entertainment systems. We sit around, chatting. About nothing of consequence really. Just chatting. The odd comment thrown out to see what it will reel in. The occasional cluas bodhar (deaf ear)  turned to a question best left unanswered. On and on it goes. Bucket after bucket. Hundreds of berries being readied for the making. My father has the patience of Job. My mother has the patience of Job, his mother, his aunts, and his sisters.

JIMG_3077am jars, collected over the previous 12 months, sterilised, stand to attention waiting to be filled. Empty pickle jars lugged home from Budapest; pesto jars from Dublin; mayonnaise jars from Limerick. Jars from the four corners of Ireland find their way, like spawning salmon, back to be refilled for yet another year. Boss watches over each pot, stirring. Making sure the consistency is just right; that the mint for the redcurrant and mint jelly is chopped just so. The night’s takings are IMG_3082jarred and left to set.

One Christmas, a particularly large empty jar appeared with a handwritten note inside: please Mr Murphy, may I have some more? Every visit from our house for the next few months will have a jar of jam for company. Gooseberry for Bridie in Limerick; raspberry for Northbrook; redcurrant for Craigford. Every year, one fruit is scarce. Last year it was gooseberries. This year it’s blackcurrants. These become the valuable jars, saved for those who really appreciate them.

IMG_3089The tools of the trade are simple. What’s needed is time, patience and dedication. The reward is found in the doing. In the accomplishment. In knowing that the fruits of the labour will be enjoyed by so many.  Each pot is handed over with a wish for a prosperous year of good health and happiness. Jim Murphy’s jam is famous at home. And as that jam is spread on scones or home-baked brown bread, a thought is spared for the man who made it. And the woman who made it possible. Priceless.