I meant to write this post in the actual month of July but the month ran away with me! This is one of my favourite poems by Patrick Kavanagh. It’s of a time in Ireland that has since long past but the vestiges of which could still be found in the west as I was growing up.
Inniskeen Road: July Evening
The bicycles go by in twos and threes - There's a dance in Billy Brennan's barn tonight, And there's the half-talk code of mysteries And the wink-and-elbow language of delight. Half-past eight and there is not a spot Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown That might turn out a man or woman, not A footfall tapping secrecies of stone. I have what every poet hates in spite Of all the solemn talk of contemplation. Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight Of being king and government and nation. A road, a mile of kingdom. I am king Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.
It’s that time of year again where children of the western world dress up in an array of costumes and go out, under cover of darkness, to knock on doors, whereupon they trot out the words, “trick or treat” to whoever answers the aforementioned door before sticking a bag under their nose into which they expect to receive all manner of sweets and treats. Ah yes, Halloween, the great American festival of carved pumpkins and children hopped up on sugar and additives. Except it isn’t.
I was shocked to see a number of posts across social media in the last few days where people clearly believed Halloween started in America. Okay, perhaps its current incarnation of pumpkins and candies has more to do with popular American culture than anything else but the tradition of Halloween is thousands of years old and has its origins in Celtic culture and many of the activities associated with this night of chaos and mischief come from Ireland.
The ancient Celts celebrated Samhain, which signified the end of summer and the beginning of winter. It was believed on this night the barriers between the worlds of the living and the dead became unstable and the souls of the dead could come back to earth. Candles were lit to guide the paths of loved ones and a place would be set for them at the table, where food would be left for them (treats). Of course not all the returning souls were good ones and just as the barriers between the living and the dead of the human world were less stable on this night so were the barriers between the human world and the “other” world, the world of supernatural creatures such as fairies, puca and banshees. All manner of magical creatures were believed to roam the earth on the night of Samhain, so precautions were taken such as leaving food outside the house in the hope the hungry creatures from the otherworld would take it and pass by your door. People also dressed themselves in costumes and disguises in order to trick the souls of the dead and the creatures who may wish to take them back to their worlds.
Due to the increased presence of mystical creatures on the night of Samhain it was believed the human world was richer in magic than at any other point in the year and that this aided the druids in making their predictions for the year ahead. Therefore, Samhain also became associated with divination. One of my favourite childhood memories is of the barnbreac, a traditional Irish fruitbread. On Oiche Shamhna (Halloween) the breac would be baked with a tiny piece of cloth, a ring, a pea and a coin. If you found the piece of cloth in your slice then this would signify hard financial times for the year ahead. The pea signified ill health if it was black, the coin meant prosperity and the ring meant your were going to meet the love of your life or become betrothed. It was always great fun to see who got the ring!
All sorts of divination formed part of the traditional celebrations but sadly very few of them have survived to this day, even in Ireland. As the centuries passed the Celtic festival of Samhain became intertwined with the Roman feast of Pomona – celebration of the harvest and then of course the Catholics came along and hijacked the event altogether with Pope Boniface in the seventh century declaring November first, All Souls Day. The night before became known as All Hallow’s Eve from which we get Halloween.
It’s still a big night in Ireland even though we no longer have bonfires or fireworks. Barnbreacs still get eaten with big mugs of tea around blazing fires but only the ring has survived as part of the Samhain fun. Nowadays, the celebration is more likely to resemble the American version of carved pumpkins and children going from house to house looking for treats but I like to think that underneath it all our ancient Celtic heart still beats.
There are times in life when everything comes together in one perfect moment. These moments are rare and sometimes we can be so distracted, we only realise they happened after they have passed. To be aware of one of these moments whilst it is happening and to have a camera on you at the same time, to capture the magic and preserve it for all eternity is an incredible stroke of luck. Thankfully I had one of these such incidences of luck last year when on holidays in Ireland and took the photo below.
The photo is of my daughter as she runs along the beach, the water splashing at her heels and the sun warming her bones. Now, the west of Ireland is a beautiful place to be on any day of the week but on a day when the sun shines it is sensational. We were blessed with weeks of uninterrupted sunshine, long lazy days of summer with ice cream afternoons, beach days and breath-taking sunsets. To get a summer like this in Ireland is too rare for words, to get a summer like this the only time you have been home for two years is incredibly special.
This photo was taken at about 4:30 pm in the afternoon on a day when the heat from the sun enveloped us like an invisible blanket that never seemed to end. The kids were pottering around the beach, building sandcastles, making stone sculptures and just being. I was relaxed in a way I can only be when I am in the west of Ireland – at one with body and soul.
My daughter decided to go in for a dip and I watched and listened as she lit up the beach with her smile and squeals of delight. As the cold water connected with her little body, she ran unfettered and free, a perfect study of joy in flight and I knew….. I knew I was witnessing one of those childhood moments that precious memories are made from. I reached for my phone, activated the camera and clicked and clicked.
A year later I’m sitting at my desk in Australia, yearning for an Irish summer in the west of Ireland and not knowing when I’ll be there again but I have a precious memory, a moment of pure joy captured on canvas, hanging on my wall. For the minute that will have to do but I feel so lucky to have grabbed that moment and preserved it. Looking at the photo brings me back to that day and an indescribable moment of happiness shared by me and my girl.
Well it’s been a week since Ireland rocked the world and voted yes for gay marriage. I knew the wonderful people of my country would do it and they did it in spectacular fashion. So many people have expressed surprise to me stating the fact that the Republic of Ireland is pre-dominantly a Catholic country. Yes it is but to focus on Catholicism is to miss the point, first and foremost the people of Ireland are Irish and a passion for freedom and equality beats at the very heart of every person in Ireland. Each scandal involving the Catholic Church over the last twenty years has loosened the shackles that institution used to hold the country in, to the point where many who might have made their decisions before, based on doctrine and liturgical rhetoric, now look into their own hearts. And what they have found there is compassion and love, two precious commodities many religions spout about but so few practice. Well done Ireland, you displayed your beautiful heart and soul to the world and I couldn’t be prouder to say I’m Irish than I am today. Below is a beautiful video collage of some of the special moments of an incredible day in our history. Enjoy.
Today, the people of the Republic Of Ireland go to the polls to vote yes or no for marriage equality. That is, they are voting for the right for gay people to enjoy the same marital status as heterosexual couples.
Whereas, civil partnerships and gay marriage exist in other countries, Ireland is the first country to hold a national referendum on whether or not to enshrine the legal protection of marriage equality into the nation’s constitution. Basically, the Irish people are getting to say how they feel about gay marriage.
The debate in Ireland has been a lively and impassioned one for the last few weeks and has diverted off into areas such as “the fall of the family”, children’s rights, adoption, surrogacy and human rights.
If I was in Ireland today (and I dearly wish I was) I’d be voting YES and my vote would be driven by one simple principle: My vote would be a vote for love. As far as I am concerned love is sacred and it’s sacred whether it’s between a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a man and a man. With so much hatred in the world, I feel we all have to do as much as we can for love and to provide a counterpoint to those with hate in their hearts. Marriage is a celebration of love and I look forward to all people being able to celebrate their love through the medium of marriage, if they so choose, regardless of whether it’s same sex marriage or heterosexual marriage. I thoroughly believe Ireland will lead the way today.
The west of Ireland is a place that has inspired writers and artists for hundreds of years. If you have any sort of creative inkling in you at all then you can’t spend any amount of time there without drawing an abundance of inspiration from its stunning natural beauty and cultural heritage. I was lucky enough to grow up and attend university here and after a few years working in Dublin, I returned and spent the first ten years of married life in a small, renovated cottage on the shores of Lough Mask.
It was during this time I had the opportunity to acquaint myself with a number of the historical houses of counties Mayo and Galway. Many of these properties became the ultimate status symbol during the Celtic Tiger and others became the targets of developers, as featured in the storyline of Remember Me. Practically all of these houses were designed by the most talented architects of the day and all of them are built in stunning locations. They are beautiful testaments to a bygone era and as the general architecture of Ireland continues to evolve they stand as eternal links to the past.
Two of these houses in particular served as the main inspiration for Carra House, in Remember Me. Carra House is a fictional amalgam of these two houses, which I’d like to share with you.
The first one is Partry House. It was built in 1667 by Arthur Lynch as a dowager house for his widowed mother. It’s a stunning property with a wonderful feeling of warmth in it which is missing in so many historical houses. It also has a beautiful gate lodge, which is the inspiration for the gate lodge in Remember Me.
The second one is Cloonee House, built in 1775 as a hunting lodge for the Brown family of Westport House and nestled on the shores of Lough Carra, one of Ireland’s best fishing lakes.
During my time living nearby, it was owned by the local vet, who very kindly looked after my dog whenever I was away. I always loved dropping him off and collecting him from this amazing property. The private road up to it is hairy, as described in Remember Me but the drive is well worth it when you round the last bend and arrive at this stunning location. The scene where Flynn arrives at Carra House and makes a dash up the front steps and opens the ancient door, is a scene straight from my own memories.
I arrived one very dark evening to collect Rock and there didn’t seem to be anyone home even though lights glowed all over the house. The rain was monsoon-like and I didn’t fancy getting out of the car as I usually did and wandering around the property till I found someone. So, I decided to use modern technology to solve my dilemma and phoned. George answered and told me they were in the kitchen at the back of the house, just finishing their dinner and that I should come in the front door and go into the drawing room and wait for them there. So, just as Flynn does in Remember Me, I dashed up the front steps, opened the huge front door and let myself in. A beautiful, antique brass umbrella holder stood just inside the door and the entrance hall was decidedly chilly. However, I’ve never forgotten the warmth and intoxicating smell of the log fire that enveloped me as I opened the door to the drawing room. The fire spit and crackled, an old leather armchair stood empty in front of its flames and the room was full of antiques and history. I stood there and breathed it all in as I imagined a man sitting in that chair, a man with a past, brooding and plotting as he stared at the flames and fuelled his plans for revenge with a glass of one of Ireland’s finest whiskey’s.
It’s taken me a while to bring that man from the dark depths of my imagination into the bright light of reality but I’m so glad for those few minutes in the drawing room of Cloonee House where the idea of him was born.
As an interesting footnote, I’m not the only writer to have found inspiration at Cloonee House. D.H. Lawrence availed of its peace and tranquillity to write part of his novel “Women In Love” there.
As I said – the west of Ireland, a magical place that never fails to inspire.
I can’t believe it has been so long since I put a post together. It seems only a few weeks ago I was drowning in the depths of pre-Christmas homesickness and writing about the Candle In The Window and now, somehow, it’s Valentine’s day. The lack of seasons here in Queensland seriously messes with my sense of time – as in I just don’t have any sense of time passing or the year moving on.
So here we are in the middle of February and at that time of year again in the Western world where people observe various celebrations of love – mostly of the romantic kind. Admittedly it is an ancient celebration that has been pretty much hi-jacked by peddlers of the tawdry and the tacky but I feel it is no less important for all that.
For me, anything that celebrates love is wonderful. The world is full of so much negativity and hate that if we can preserve one day of the year where we celebrate love – even if it is for the most part romantic love that is celebrated – then that is a good thing. Love is the most powerful force on the planet and the more we can celebrate it the better. Not everyone is lucky enough to find true love in their lifetime and for some it is simply a fleeting moment, if you have been so fortunate to find the person you truly love and are spending your life with that person then take the opportunity to observe just how how lucky you are.
Below is a painting by one of Ireland’s most celebrated artists, Frederic William Burton. The painting is titled, The Meeting On The Turret Stairs.
The work itself was inspired by an old Danish ballad of forbidden love between a princess – Hellelil and one of her bodyguards – Hildebrand. Hellelil’s father deemed Hildebrand most unsuitable for his daughter and ordered his seven sons to kill him. The painting is Burton’s interpretation of the last embrace of the ill-fated lovers before Hildebrand goes to face Hellelil’s brothers.
I think it is a stunningly beautiful piece of work and I am fascinated at how Burton managed to depict so much emotion in it. The tenderness of Hildebrand’s kiss is particularly poignant and gets to me every time I see it. And I’m not the only one who loves this particular painting. It was recently voted Ireland’s favourite painting and despite the tragic tale it depicts, it is seen as one of the country’s most romantic paintings and many proposals of marriage have taken place before it.
Wherever you are this Valentine’s weekend, I hope you get to spend some time with the one you love or at least to tell them how much they mean to you because as the song goes, “love is all there is.”
Well here I am facing into my third Australian Christmas and I have to admit to not being altogether thrilled about it. It’s one thing when you sign on for the big adventure, when you agree to up sticks and travel to the other side of the world and in the bigger scheme of things you are fine and enjoy all that your new place of abode has to throw at you. However, hiding in the seams of the bigger scheme are those times when you just can’t get your head around where you are. Christmas in Australia is one of those times for me. The Aussies love their summer Christmas – as they should but for me it’s just not Christmas.
Christmas for me is so many things. It’s about home, open fires, over the top decorations, seeing family and spending time with friends, wrapping up against the cold, walks in frosty forests or on wind-swept beaches, sharing wonderful food, having a few drinks in the local pub, impromptu sing-songs, fun and laughter. The west of Ireland is an incredibly special place to be at Christmas time. Decimated by emigration over the years it is a time when people come home and it is this that creates an amazing buzz. People are happy to be home and those who are at home are ecstatic to have their family members back even if it is for only a few short weeks. Christmas Eve in any of the west of Ireland towns is a day for last minute presents, picking up “the bird” and joining the old friend you just ran in to for a drink or two.
Later on in the evening most people make their way home and their journey is lit by candles twinkling in the windows of all the houses. This is a tradition that dates back to ancient times and is rooted in the old Brehon laws of hospitality – whereby a stranger knocking on the door must never be refused. In later times it was understood to symbolise the lighting of the way for Mary and Joseph as they searched for somewhere to stay before the birth of their child. Nowadays it is seen as lighting the way for Mary and Joseph but also for those who are returning home.
One of my favourite things to do on Christmas Eve is to stand, in the darkness, at the window of my parents house, high up on the hill, and look out across the island as it twinkles in the night. It’s a beautiful sight and one I’m looking forward to seeing again, just unfortunately not tonight.
Wherever you are this Christmas I hope you enjoy it – Roisin.