Monday, 15 May 2017

Summer and The Rough Month of the Cuckoo

This week sees the publication of the second in my series of Finfarran novels, set on a fictional peninsula on Ireland's west coast where, in real life, I have my own home. Both the book's name and its release date, May 18th, signal the approach of long, lazy summer days of reading. 

And, in my case, gardening.
It's important not to get ahead of yourself where the garden's concerned, though. Because, round these parts, we still have to get through The Rough Month of The Cuckoo.
Scairbhín na gCuach* (The Rough Month of The Cuckoo) is the name given in Irish to the uncertain weeks between mid April to mid May when chilly winds from the north and the east can blast the early growth in the garden and send us scuttling home from walks on the mountain to nights of music by the fire. You could call it the extra month in the Irish calendar.

One day you can be strolling on a beach by a shimmering ocean.
The next day you can wake up to find snow powdering the mountain.
Writing and gardening teach you the same lessons. The best things in life come when the time is right for them to happen. Sometimes you need to be patient and wait till an idea is ready to blossom or a seed to be set.

Every author knows the slow, steady process of drafting, re-working and editing, the discussions about cover images and colour, and the careful distilling of the heart of a work to produce the description on the jacket. It all takes time and, towards the end, you almost feel jaded by the process.

And then - just as the day comes when, at last, the Scairbhín is over - the advance copies arrive through the post, you find yourself doing interviews, and it hits you that, any day now, your book will appear in the shops. 
Summer at the Garden Café, the sequel to The Library at The Edge of The World, is about secrets hidden and shared between four generations of women, the fact that love can be complicated, and the healing power of friendship and books. I hope you'll enjoy reading it as much as I loved writing it.

* You pronounce it something like 'Skarv-een nah Goo-ock'.

Monday, 13 March 2017

St Patrick's Day 2017: A Different Story.

Green flags, gold harps and shamrocks, dancing, drinking and celebration - the whole world will go green next weekend for the bearded bishop in the green robes with his fistful of shamrock and his gleaming golden crozier.

So this is the story...

Patrick approached the High King's fort at Tara, where the Druids stood by the chair of the High Kind. And every fire in Ireland was quenched that night. Because there was a low that no fire whould burn on the eve of the festival of Bealtine, when the druids themselves lit a fire to their pagan gods.'

'But Patrick came to the Hill of Slane and lit a fire there, and prayed for the people of Ireland. The druids saw the flames of his fire from the height of the Hill of Tara, and they spoke to the king and told him that Patrick should be killed. But Patrick came to the Hill of Tara, and he praised God there and told the High King of God's goodness. And the High King fell to his knees.'

'Then Patrick plucked a shamrock. It had three leaves on a single stem. And Patrick taught them the wonder of the Holy Trinity, that three persons existed in one God, truly distinct and equal in all things, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And the druids were amazed and fell to their knees and worshiped God.'

Generations of Irish children grew up with that story, passed on from generation to generation, by firesides and in schools. And, annually, it was preached from the pulpit on March 17th, when we all leapt to our feet and chanted Hail, Glorious St Patrick ( ... DEER saint OV our isle ...). Usually followed by that other hymn, Faith of Our Fathers, ('... how SWEET would be thy childrens' FAY-ate, if DEY, like dem, could die for DEE-eee?) After which, having marched through the streets wearing shamrocks, we went home to devour sweets before the resumption of Lent. He was a great saint that way, Patrick. If you were Irish he'd sneak you a bit of chocolate behind God's back.

I remember the story of St Patrick from my first picture book, in which the green-robed bishop towered above the dark-faced druids with firelight behind him and the shamrock held aloft. Behind the druids the High King knelt by his carved throne. And behind the throne a man with a gold harp, with his head bowed, was holding the palms of his hands on the harpstrings to silence its pagan music, and accept the robust authority of a new regime.

But this year we may have to find a new one.

At home in Ireland, faced with new evidence of the vicious criminality of the Catholic Church and the stranglehold that it's had on our State institutions, we'll be asked to celebrate that overt and dangerous identification of Church with State, and of Christianity with Irishness.

In The US, Irish-Americans in Boston have already seen their St Patrick's Day parade threatened by the pernicious homophobia of the Trump administration, and, on March 17th, NYC will see 'Irish Stand', a rally to assert that anyone who supports Trump's travel ban has 'forgotten the Irish story'.

And all over the world, the 'greening' of rivers, symbolic landmarks and buildings will push the message of Ireland as a great place to be altogether, and the perfect destination in which to spend your holiday money.

Though, maybe less so if you're a woman of childbearing age. Or a refugee. Or an asylum seeker. Or someone desperately trying to discover whether the Church falsified official documents, buried your sibling in an unmarked grave, or trafficked him or her to America.

Meanwhile, on the hills and in the valleys of Ireland, the earth itself is going green. And this was the wonder celebrated by the druids. Because, for our pagan ancestors, the ritual fire kindled in darkness at the feast of Bealtaine symbolised the triumph of light over darkness, the return of seedtime, and the eternal need for balance.

They too gathered to celebrate with dancing and music, parades, religious rites and wild parties. But they needed no explanation of the concept of a triple-aspect deity. Their own vision both of springtime and balance was contained in the image of a triple-aspect goddess, the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. She was memory and potential, childhood, maturity and old age.

Here in Corca Dhuibhne her name was Danú, which means Water. Elsewhere she has other names. But everywhere she brings health and balance to the universe and fertility back to the earth.

This St Patrick's Day it might be good to remember that the hallmark of authoritarianism is the desire to control and corrupt the stories of who we are and where we came from.

 Dingle And Its Hinterland: People, Places and Heritage
Out April 2017 from The Collins Press.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The Mysterious Eggs

This year the last weekend before Lent brought snow on the mountain. We went walking on Sunday, along the bóthairín, where the rutted mud crunched underfoot, and on the beach, where the wind and the hailstones cut like knives. And when we came back, there on the windowsill was a mysterious box of eggs.

No note, and no indication of who had left them. Just eggs left by a neighbour, which often happens round here. Proper new-laid eggs, grubby and unequal in size, from which a tiny, downy feather may flutter when you open the box.  

The box was a supermarket one, but that's often the way.

Today is Pancake Day - Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. The fire is still needed in the evenings, but a bunch of daffodils, carried up from Jack's, fills the house with scent.

Pancakes aren't traditionally eaten in Corca Dhuibhne on Shrove Tuesday. Instead, people cooked a big meal of whatever they had in the house the night before Lent started, in preparation for the six weeks of fasting and abstinence before Easter. But tonight, the pancakes added to the scent of our daffodils, filling the house with the aromas of nutmeg, lemons and frying apples.

When Jack was young, Catholic weddings didn’t take place during Lent, so this was often a popular day for wedding, sometimes with the match being made the previous Sunday. A bride married on Shrove Tuesday had to take care to move all her belongings to her new home by midnight. Otherwise, she had to continue to live with her parents until Easter – even if her husband’s home was only across the road.
Round these parts, there was much mockery of unmarried men. Neighbours would threaten to round them up and send them off to the island of Skellig Mór where, traditionally, Lent began later and marriages could still be made.The oldest bachelor was supposed to captain the boat.

No one remembers boats actually being sent off to the Skellig, though. Instead, after the horseplay, everyone went home to the fire and the huge meal.

We ate our pancakes with lemon and the fried apples, and there was a scatter of nutmeg in the batter mix, which definitely isn't traditional.

The happenstance of a timely gift left by a neighbour definitely is, though.

Latest book 

Publication Date April 18 2017

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Home For Halloween

Halloween is the hag at the gate ...

... apples gathered from the garden ....

... onions hanging in the trees to dry ....

... and their nourishment combined to make spicy chutney.

It's toasted brack with butter and blackcurrant jam, eaten after long walks on shining October beaches ....

... and jelly snakes in a bowl in the porch, waiting for those who brave the hag and come knocking.


Thursday, 16 June 2016

Libraries at The Edges of The World

The protagonist of my latest book is a local librarian called Hanna Casey and I’ve created a fictional county for her to live in. It’s on the south west coast - say somewhere between Cork, Kerry and Clare - Wild Atlantic Way country where the stunning scenery brings hosts of summer holidaymakers and the local council is bent on keeping the tourist numbers up. 

We’re talking feelgood summer reading here, so Hanna starts out as a sad divorcee living in the back bedroom of her monstrous mother’s retirement bungalow, and ends up independent, re-empowered and reinvigorated, taking her time before taking the plunge into an affair with a younger man. 

So far, so fictional. But as well as writing what in effect is pastoral comedy, I wanted to explore the realities of contemporary rural Irish life and the importance of focal points like library buildings and of the mobile services that bring library books to those who can't otherwise access them.

In my novel a scattered, dysfunctional community comes together to oppose the closure of its local library, the value of which hadn’t even been noticed until it came under threat. My characters’ belated awareness of the need to assert their own cultural requirements is a reflection of a growing concern in the real rural Ireland; how do you maintain a balance between branding and selling your locality as a tourist destination and maintaining it as a place where you yourself would want to live? 

In the countryside, where a sense of isolation often results in high stress levels, local schools, post offices, libraries, police stations and social services are vitally important. Their absence or presence is barely noticeable to tourists who turn up for a few days in one place and then move on to the next. But, for the people who run the B&Bs and the boat trips, juggle farm work with shifts in call-centres, teach, keep shops, and own small businesses, they’re necessary for a healthy community life. They don’t, however, matter to a mind-set that sees the countryside as a sort of theme park in which the primary function of those who actually live there is to provide increasing streams of tourists with a dash of local colour.

That’s a view that makes sense if your sole concern is to thrust Ireland to the forefront of an aggressive global marketplace. But clearly there ought to be more to our thinking than that. In any given locality the actual point of seeking to increase tourist figures is the economic benefit that ensues if your efforts succeed. Local people work in local businesses. The local economy is what provides the option to build a desirable and viable future in the place where you grew up or have family roots. Here in Ireland having that option is still a significant matter; most of us over the age of forty can remember a time when emigration was the norm. You left because you had to, choice didn’t enter into it. And, in tourist areas at least, the spectre of emigration has never really gone away. A serious shift in exchange rates, one terrorist incident, even a couple of lousy reviews on TripAdvisor, and last year’s destination of choice can become this year’s wasteland. 

So rural Ireland knows that it has to keep ahead of the game. People adapt – brilliantly in most cases – rebranding what they have to offer in accordance with perceived fashion, and watching with eagle eyes for discernible trends. Foodie Breaks become Wellness Weekends; Walking Trips are resold as Adventure Experiences; and Cultural Tourism has knocked plain old Holidays into a cocked hat.
And nothing wrong with that, you might say. But if ‘cultural tourism’ is to be anything more than a cynical catch-phrase, the living culture of an area is just as important as a carefully-packaged version of its past. As voters, we empower central and local government to choose where to target our tax-spend. But we also need to consider the results of choices made on our behalf. How, for example, do we justify investing in a centre that interprets an area’s heritage for visitors if we fail to invest in the cultural future of those of us who actually live there? 

Communities require focal points, and local libraries are a brilliant example of what that means in practice. Library buildings are centres for community information and venues for book clubs and other gatherings, as well as repositories of books and digital material. They’re cross-generational spaces serving groups and individuals from childhood to old age. They offer a portal to other libraries and resources via the internet. And if you’re isolated, housebound or suffering from rural Ireland’s lack of consistent broadband, their mobile library services provide physical links to the mother ships which can change people’s lives.

In fact, as a breed, local and community librarians ceaselessly challenge the constraints of isolation, and not only in the countryside. As an author who lives both in Ireland and the UK, I’m often in a position to admire their dedication and enterprise. London’s Hackney, for example, has a Telephone Book Club for housebound and handicapped readers whose age-range spans more than seven decades. According to Chris Garnsworthy, the librarian, the changing face of Hackney is increasingly affecting the club’s older members; their daycentre has closed, the local pub is boarded up, and the church has turned into six trendy flats. But by creating a new sense of community the book club’s existence has mitigated a damaging sense of dislocation. 

The kind of change Chris describes is familiar here in Ireland, and maybe it’s inevitable. Indeed, there’s a case for calling it preferable to the ‘heritage’ approach that, for fear of losing their perceived attractiveness to tourists, refuses to allow rural communities to develop. But if change is important, so is continuity; and, if our tourist destinations are genuinely to thrive, so must the people who live and work and rear families in them.

 A version of this piece appeared in The Irish Times Culture Section June 8th 2016