Sunday, May 10, 2020

It's Maytime, and Summer Is Icumen In!

Yes, at last May is here, and the start of the Celtic summer.  Way back, we only had two seasons in this corner of the world, winter starting on November 1, and summer beginning May 1. Of course Pope Gregory threw things out a bit when he arbitrarily decided to lop ten days from the calendar, in the 16th century, thereby putting Mayday back around the 20th of April.  But then whoever decided back in Roman times that there should be 365 days in the year plus an extra one every four years - oh forget it.  Main thing is, if your may blossom or hawthorn isn't out on the current accepted May 1, then don't worry.  It will be out by old Mayday which is tomorrow.  And by the same token, if by any chance you forgot to wash your face in the dew on Mayday, then you can still do it before tomorrow night.  Very important to observe that ritual.  Celticmemory has done it since she was old enough to toddle out by herself.

And to show you just how long Celts have been celebrating May or Bealtaine, here is a special picture.


This is Beltany stone circle, up in Donegal.  You can't get more proof of the ancient rituals of summer than a special stone circle where druids kindled the first fire of summer, using the nine sacred woods. Just imagine if those stones could talk?  What have they seen, what could they tell us?

Everything is bursting into bloom here right now, and about time too.  We had a cold spring and everything was late, but the good side of that was that they all came out together.


The clematis that I thought had died hadn't done so at all.  And to show its health, it clambered way up from the trellis, right into the branches of a birch tree.  It was simply lovely to see the veil of pink swaying gently in the breeze.

The apple trees have been blooming too, from the tiny crabapple through the old Irish species like Ardcairn Russet and Kerry Pippin, to the splendid old cooking apple that was espaliered against a back wall of the garage by Richard's father a long time ago.


We have tended to let it grow as it wants to these days, rather than tying it firmly down and lopping off extra growth, but it still produces baskets of fruit each autumn.

There is something else there too, underneath that apple tree, something very precious.


Lily of valley, or muguet de bois, must have the most heavenly scent going.  I have no luck with this aristocrat - have got roots, tried to raise them, many times, but they simply refuse to cooperate.  So how are we fortunate enough to have a little bed of them here in this dry patch under the apple tree? They were brought there from France by Richard's mother a long time ago, and they have stayed ever since.  When I see the first spear-like leaves appearing, I know it's time to go out and tackle the bramble stems and twitch grass to give them a good chance.  Lovely little things.

The zoo is adapting fairly well to this quiet isolating life, although Troushka still yearns for a gallop on a long deserted beach.  Not just yet, Troush, not just yet.  The cats are putting all their energy into attacking each other - sort of cabin fever, one would imagine, although they do have the extensive fields behind the house.


Isn't this a perfectly lovely picture of Marigold practising her high diving skills?  Actually she is pursuing Paudge Mogeely, who had been peacefully enjoying a rabbit dinner until she came along and ruined the picnic.  I must say she really shows her fluffy Turkish bloomers to best advantage in this shot.  Good one, DH!

And Brogeen is so much at home that you would imagine he had always been here.


Here he is dreaming on the small pond in the rose garden.  It's an old pig feeding trough with a central knob or boss, just big enough for a kitten to sit atop, albeit with his tail trailing in the water. After a happy day exploring though, he is content to come home and take a nap. Especially if he can find a nice soft ball of wool to use as a pillow.


Well of course there has been knitting!  When have you ever known me not to be knitting?  That gansey got finished at last:


and there was a huge frogging session when WIPs that had been hanging round for months if not years were determinedly ripped, the yarn balled up, the needles returned to their racks.  Couldn't believe how many circular needles I actually possessed!  Of course that meant I was now free to cast on another project - or two - or three... Working on a sort of smock tunic that I will call Viking Traveller, because it's just the kind of thing a warrior might wear under his chainmail to keep comfortable, and thinking of starting yet another Aran sweater.  That is one good thing about the lockdown - you do get time to knit and even finish a couple of projects.

But we get out too, if not very far from home.  Fortunately the Gearagh is very close, and at this time of year it is looking stunning.  Early the other morning, when we went down to admire the hawthorn in full scented bloom,


we suddenly glimpsed a heron, beautifully reflected in the still water.


We tiptoed past, so as not to disturb his quiet morning meditation.

Further on, we saw a mallard with her ducklings, all in a row.


When Mother Duck saw us, she got a bit worried and hastened off into shelter, with all the little ones frantically trying to keep up.


Can you see that second one almost running on top of the water?


Here he is, determined not to be left behind.  We waited to make sure the full complement had got into shelter before we turned for home.  The last look is always for Shehy, the fairy mountain, which is sometimes pointed and sometimes appearing flat topped.  That's when the Good People put up a mist so humans can't see them preparing for a hosting or a journey to another fairy fort.


Can see the top quite clearly there, so obviously Themseleves are at home, feasting and singing and playing harp music.

Gosh, forgot to tell you about the new book, and the fun we had researching it.  Brehon laws might sound boring but they were fascinating to find out about.  Wasn't all that easy - sources tend to be very academic and hard going - but underneath all the strict and severe words, a magical world lies hidden for those with eyes to see.

Gradually we got a picture of a bright ancient time where women had as many rights as men, if not more so, great care was taken of bees and birds, animals and trees, where offenders weren't imprisoned but put to work for the good of the community, and the starving, the mentally afflicted, the wanderers, were looked after.  What I found best of all was the detail on women's crafts like spinning, dyeing, weaving.  An embroideress's needle was worth more than a queen's jewels, because she could earn so much with it.  If your hens got into my garden and scratched up the woad plants I was going to use to dye my wool a lovely bright blue, then you had to pay me at least two full spindles of spun yarn, and furthermore put boots of rags on the hens in case they ever got out again!   And woe betide the person who stole a lady's pet dog.   Not only did he have to replace the pet, but was hit with a very heavy fine too.

Cats weren't forgotten either.  A moggie that could purr and also catch mice was worth more than one which only purred, and although if your cat stole some food from my house, you were liable for a fine, if it could be proved that I had carelessly left the lid off a jar or a door open, then no blame attached to you or your cat!  See what I mean about research revealing a magical world?  How practical and humane they were.  Wish we still had those laws.

Thought the lockdown would put paid to anyone even seeing the new book, but in fact it's going great guns in online orders, which is very nice.  In fact anyone ordering any books anywhere, whether for themselves or for loved ones, is doing a good thing.  I know I'm doing much more reading lately.  Oh, don't forget - if you are ordering Brehon Laws from O'Brien Press and want a personally inscribed copy, do tell them on the order, and for safety email me as well.  Wouldn't want you not to get it if you had asked for it.

I hope you are all making good use of this quiet time we are all sharing.  At times I wonder if it will be all that welcome to return to hurry and bustle, the noise of traffic, crowds everywhere?  It's so peaceful now.  Let's make the most of the quietness.

Friday, April 10, 2020

A Quieter, More Peaceful Time Returns

Most of us can remember a time when life seemed much more peaceful.  Childhood, generally, when the worries of the world escaped us, and endless afternoons could be spent perched in the branches of a tree or tucked up on a window seat, reading and dreaming.  Indoors, there was time to experiment in baking, under mother's watchful eye, attempt dress designing for our dolls, explore the excitements of crochet and knitting. Meanwhile, your brothers experimented with Meccano or tried to make model planes, applying glue liberally wherever it wasn't meant to go.  Outdoors, every hedge, every stream, every new flower appearing in spring was a cause for excitement and celebration.  Gardening, first wildly, digging up new seeds to see if they had sprouted yet, later more carefully, tending each little miracle as it pushed timidly out of the ground.  And at the end of a busy happy day, you tumbled into bed and slept soundly until the risen sun beckoned you to new adventures.

Life got in the way of course over the years.  It usually does.  And new cares and responsibilities, as well as new inventions, new technologies, all moved us away from those quieter times.  Suddenly it seemed as if there was never any time to do anything.  Funny, when you consider all the labour-saving devices, from dishwashers to ready meals, that were now on hand, but there it was.  We were all far far too busy just keeping up with life.  Who has time for gardening, craftwork, reading for heaven's sake?  Indeed, one of the most frequent comments heard when one was knitting a sock in a cafe was 'Wish I had time to do something like that...', usually followed by a sigh as the speaker looked at her nails or checked her mobile phone for new Facebook postings.

Well, to paraphrase Yeats, all is changed, changed utterly.  And yes, in the midst of all the panic and fear, a calm beauty is re-emerging.  Somehow, there now is time for all those old pleasures and practices.  Time to really admire those beautiful little violets coming up everywhere, a true sign that spring is at last here.


Time to sit silently and share the delight of a little dunnock or hedge sparrow taking a refreshing bath.


And time for baking too.  Old recipe books, tucked away in the library for years, were hauled out and dusted off.  Favourites were re-made, sampled, pronounced excellent.  Fudge was made, but didn't last long. Who needs shop-bought, factory-processed sweets?

Finally, there really was time to tackle those WIPs or Works In Progress in the knitting bin, of which far too many had piled up.  Sock Madness began in March, as it has done for fourteen years now (and I can well remember that very first one back in 2007, when I was in San Diego for some reason, and worked wildly on my pair all through La Jolla and Julian and Borrego Springs, finally to finish and photograph them triumphantly at that strange vestige of a long-ago flood, the inland Salton Sea. 

This year's first pattern was called Wohin? after the lovely Schubert lieder which asks where a stream is wandering to.  Because of that nice link, I asked DH to find me an inspiring picture of a stream. Which he duly did.


From that inspiration, came these:




Who?  Oh that's Brogeen.  Now you won't have met him before, he is New.  Arrived very late one night on the doorstep, purred, accepted a handful of food, and then trotted into the hall, asking politely where his bed was to be.  Checked online, with the local vet, and finally got a call from a farmer up the road who roared cheerfully down the phone, 'I hear ye've got a lodger!'  One of a large litter, apparently, small Brogeen was bullied by older cats, and was always straying.  'See how ye get on with him,' suggested the farmer.  'But he'll need neutering soon enough, he's getting to that age.'

Well, that's one of the responsibilities everyone should observe - find a stray, take steps to avoid future trouble.  He romped through the simple op, and was back stealing the other cats' food in no time.

Ah yes, the other cats.  Trouble loomed blackly on the horizon.


Paudge Mogeely, most senior of the tribe, hated him on sight, and didn't restrain his language.


Marigold and Pawtucket (aka The Scut, and you'd know why if you met her) retreated to a safe location to discuss the matter.  Then emerged into the fray, to teach this upstart a thing or two.  Didn't matter, Brogeen (he's named for a famous Irish leprechaun, incidentally) sailed happily on his confident little way, eating everything that was laid before him and quite a lot that wasn't.  Life was good, and every moment to be enjoyed.


It was intended that he should be planted on my brother, who lost a  very similar cat some years ago, but the current social conditions/lockdown have made that option not possible for the moment.  Whether he ever gets there or not is something to be discussed later.  Much later.  In the meantime, the little lad is happy to lend a hand with anything:


Like this blue gansey in progress, which had been laid out on the lawn to show a difficult saddle shoulder join, of which I was quite proud.  'Ah sure, let me sort that thing out for you!' cried Brogeen.  Fortunately Donegal Tweed yarn is quite tough and capable of surviving kitten attacks.

Generally the household zoo is very good about following the lockdown rules.  Marigold and The Scut do their daily boxing exercises indoors:


while 'Troushka does her bit with delivering the groceries safely:


and Paudge is very careful about not going further than the back field for his hunting:


The garden is getting plenty of attention too.  It had been rather neglected in the last couple of years with books to be got out to the publishers (gosh, forgot to tell you about the new one, revealing the shocking secrets of ancient Ireland, will do that in the next post, remind me if I forget), but now was the time to tackle the wilderness.  In Ireland (as in most mild wet climates, one would imagine) leave a neat garden for ten minutes and it's The Wild Wood before you know it.  Ivy creeping down from trees re-roots at intervals and ends up with a length and thickness that  Tarzan could use.    Brambles (yes, they're nice when they produce blackberries in autumn but an unpleasant neighbour the rest of the year) are also great tip rooters.  But the monbretia!  Now I love monbretia as a wild flower, and it's one of the sights of West Cork lanes in summer:


When it gets into your garden, though, it multiplies like - well, have you ever seen a nest of mice?  Millions of the little things, with the escapade repeated over and over again nonstop?  Well that's what the monbretia does too.  It not only multiplies and crowds out everything else, it eventually stops flowering because there are just too many corms underground.  They spread, attach themselves to bush roots, attach themselves to each other, grow and multiply until you could dig up a square foot of them at least six inches thick, like - like nut cracknel!


See that wheelbarrow full?  That much was taken from the tiny square of dark earth you can see behind them in the flowerbed.  And there are still more in there! 

But there is great joy in having time to sit at the upstairs window with a coffee and watch the birds in their spring preparations.


The wren letting everybody know that he is building his little cock nests, and ladies are courteously invited to inspect and approve.


The song thrush meditating on whether to take a bath now, or wait until the sun gets higher.


And even a starling, showing that while his voice may not be the most melodious, he always gives it everything he's got!

So although at first it was a little disconcerting to be ordered to stay home, to realise that many shops were shut, that events and entertainments to which we had become accustomed were cancelled, slowly it became more and more relaxing.  Time to return to simpler days.

Stands the clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

Yes, actually there is.

Friday, August 09, 2019

A Day in The Remote Valleys

'Twas my birthday the other day, and of course we had to head out into the wild blue yonder to make the most of the August weather (sunshine now and again, showers equally likely, but then, that's Ireland for you).  So the dogs were tucked into the car, the cats were warned to stay in the garden and not on any account to chase birds, and we set off westward for Killarney.

Because birthdays are times for Doing Nice Things, and the first of those had to be a stop at a certain weaving mill in the woods not far from the lakes which make Killarney such a magnet for visitors.  You wouldn't know this mill was there,except if you thought to enquire where its lovely products on sale in the shops at Muckross House came from, because it really is tucked far away from there in a place which shall be nameless (not giving away my best secrets, am I?)


And here is a triumphant re-emergence from said mill, with not just one but TWO treats - a scrumptious cone of brushed suri alpaca (stop drooling!) and another of dark blue boucle.  Oh the fun of deciding what to make with those!  The brushed suri in particular is so incredibly soft that you can't stop stroking it.  Would make beautiful scarves and cowls for ultra-sensitive skins.

Not far away, the native red deer of Killarney were moving around peacefully.



These young stags were all lying down, but once they caught sight of us, they rose as one and moved quietly off.  Can't imagine why their antlers don't get tangled up, but they seem to manage them just fine.


And here is a fawn, anxiously checking to see where his mother has gone.

Next we headed for Moll's Gap, which, as its name suggests, is a gap between the mountains where since time immemorial travellers have journeyed between Killarney and Kenmare.  The Avoca cafe here serves the most delicious cakes - sorry that DH didn't take a picture of them for you, but he was too busy sampling the merchandise.  And yes, some scraps got brought out to the car for the dogs too.

As you  head on from Moll's Gap, there is a steep and winding tiny road leading off the main thoroughfare, down, down, down into a long glacial valley.  This is known as the Black Valley, and it's a remote place now, although in earlier centuries it would have had a good population scraping some sort of living there.  You can still see traces of the old ridge and furrow fields where potatoes were planted - some of them so high up the mountainsides that you realise just how desperate their planters must have been, seizing any sort of ground that might yield enough food to live on.



Can you see the tiny ruined cottage down there, with its old stone walled fields still visible?


Here it is, a little closer, with that wonderful green track leading to it.



The blackberries were ripening -



the bees were busy -


and a grayling showed his preference for heather honey.

It was beautiful out there.  The acid soil of the mountains, which is ideal for heather, has a very distinct and lovely scent of its own, and it was wafted on the breeze across the valley until you felt like sitting there for the entire day, just drinking it down into your lungs, and committing the whole scene to memory, so that you could think about it lying in bed at night.



Look!  Here are holly berries BEFORE they get that December red glow!  They aren't really noticeable at this time of year, but it looks as though it is going to be a splendid crop this winter. The birds will be pleased.

Tamzin, the little Shi-Tzu, has always had a problem with her built-in GPS or homing device.  She could, quite simply, get lost in a straight corridor or a paper bag, and this trip was no exception.  I took both dogs out of the car and straight up a little goat path into the hills, to pick some bog myrtle (good for keeping flies away).  After a while I noticed that Tamzin wasn't with us, but didn't worry because the car was parked right at the foot of the track....  Foolish!  Came back down, no sign of Taz.  A woman came along in a car and said the dog was about half a mile down the road.  Rushed off, found her trotting happily along, wondering where we were.  Never again!



This has happened too many times.  The last was a few weeks ago in an acre of sand dunes down by Mizen Head, and it took hours to find her - at the other side of a river which she had somehow crossed all by her tiny self (and managed to struggle back over too, when she joyfully saw us).    From now on she stays on a lead or she stays home.


Can you just see Petroushka there, peeping out of the car at that rather friendly piebald pony?  'Well hello, and how's everythin' with you?' enquired the pony.  'Tis nice to have a stranger passing by.'


This young robin (only just getting his chest colouring) kept following us, wondering what we might be up to next.

But the real delight came with the fleece-dyeing sheep who have evidently been trying new colour combinations to see what works best in the damp climate of the Black Valley.


Red perhaps?  So handy for espying your friends and relations across the hillside.


But maybe some blue would look good with it?  Colour blocking, you know, it's all the rage.

Had I knitting with me?  Of course I did.  The current project is a quite complex one, The Oban Cardigan, by Baby Cocktails.  It's worked all in one piece up to the armholes, which makes for a very heavy project to drag along in the car.


Here is just a section, with the buttons I am going to use.  Got those from the lovely Button Store on Cork's quayside.

And it may not have escaped your notice that the Tour de France was on during July, and that always signals the Tour de Fleece among committed spinners.  You are supposed to spin each day of the Tour, and challenge yourself on the days that the poor cyclists have to struggle up steep mountainsides.


Celtic Memory's challenge was to create beaded yarn on a drop spindle.  Which succeeded.  A bit finicky, but it is entirely possible.

And here was the entire plan for TdF, piled on to the spinning wheel (Orkney) and spinning chair (Welsh) - spin this, ply that, try to do something with those... Of coure it didn't all get done.  But it was a lot of fun, and it is always good to keep your hand in at an ancient craft.  Go and refresh your own memories of working with your hands.  NOW!


Monday, April 30, 2018

It's May Eve: and The Old Road is revealed!

It is a long-held belief in Ireland that on May Eve the old roads make themselves visible, winding far away across the boglands, and that at midnight you may see the folk of ancient times travelling them as they did so many thousands of years ago.  Celtic Memory will certainly be out at the witching hour, to see who may pass by.

And what better time for Follow The Old Road to come out!  Yes, the new book is now in the shops and online, and it is my fervent hope that every single person who reads it will go out and explore these old roads too, rediscover how our ancestors travelled from earliest times up to the last century.



Several of you have asked how you can have your copy signed, and I have arranged this with O'Brien Press.  You do have to order from them rather than from Amazon, and make sure to put in the Comments box that you want a signed copy.  Then email me, so I can make sure your name is on there.  You'll find my contact address on the side of this page.

It was hard work researching this book but we did have such a wonderful time doing it, discovering such amazing things and such fascinating scraps of history.  I think one of my absolute favourite pictures perfectly captured by DH was that of the deep grooves cut into the stonework under an old canal bridge.  




Generations of horses pulling boats along the towpath did that.  It was an old man up in the Midlands who told us to go down the bank to the old bridge and we would see them.  I never cease to thank him.  Ever after, we always went in search of them.  And always found them.  Truly tracks of time.

Well, on May Eve, spring seems to be here at last, although it is still unseasonably cold at nights.  The flowers are cautiously emerging, the baby rabbits are playing in the fields, and even The Waif is getting frisky.  

You remember The Waif?  She came to us three-quarters starved and in a very bad way, a few months back.  She still wouldn't win any Beautiful Cat contests, but she is a happier little animal, no doubt about that.  One day we watched her creeping cautiously out into the rockery to enjoy the sun.  Having sniffed all around, she put out a tentative paw and patted a leaf.  DH grabbed the camera.  Next she positively smacked the leaf.  Then, in one glorious moment:



An explosion of happy exuberance!  A leap in the air to celebrate the joys of spring.  I had tears in my eyes.

A day or two later, we were surprised to see The Waif slipping through the hedge and making her way down the field behind the house.  Going back to her gipsy ways?  We hoped not.  Right down to the edge of the woods she toddled, to where dozens of rabbits were watching with suspicion.  She sat there for ages, just calmly observing them.  And then she pounced!



A very young baby rabbit. Far too new to the world to know what was going on.

Which actually wasn't much.  Relax, no baby rabbits were hurt in the taking of these pictures.  Remember The Waif's personal circumstances?  No teeth, apart from one lone canine sticking out at the corner of her mouth?  She held the baby in her mouth for a minute or two, considered her position, and dropped it, deciding to go for a stroll instead.


But the baby didn't want to lose sight of her!  'Are you my mummy?' it enquired plaintively, following her along the edge of the wood.  Obviously it had imprinted on her, albeit briefly, since its genuine mother now emerged furiously from concealment to rush it back into hiding.  And The Waif came peacefully home by the long route.  She had showed them that she was still there, that was the main thing.


New calves have arrived too.  Here Mum is attending to one of the twins while a jackdaw seizes the opportunity to get some nice soft hair from the other, to line his nest.

Every year we wait for this beautiful beech tree to come into leaf.  It was ahead of most of the pack this season, shaking a diaphanous see-through gown of green in the morning sun.


The dogs needed clipping, and that meant a bonus for the smaller birds who wouldn't dare to pluck from the back of even a very little calf.  


Others preferred the tried and tested nice green moss to line their nests.


The primroses are coming out in the orchard,


and Scheherazade is exploring new territory.


De time is wrong on dis sundial!





Yes, of course craftwork is continuing.  When does it not?  This is a shawl in progress called, appropriately enough, Secret Paths.



And here is the current sock in progress from Sock Madness.  Safe Harbor is its name, designed by the gifted Amy Rapp.  It has a most ingenous way of dropping rows of stitches and then gathering them up to make a bee or butterfly.  Lovely.  Out of the competition by this time (the Scandinavians, as usual, are showing Grand Prix speed) but enjoying knitting along nonetheless.


We have been down to Brow Head on the Crookhaven peninsula in West Cork.  They filmed some scenes for the newest Star Wars out on the end of Brow Head, and it was off limits for a while (with all the locals being sworn to secrecy) which was very annoying if it is one of your go-to places for serenity and recovery of resilience) but they are all gone now and it is back to its wild natural state.



The waves were crashing on the rocks at Galley Cove,



but the dogs had a wonderful time.



The state of the car afterwards was another matter.  'My cameras!' shrieked DH in despair.  I keep telling him to use a big rucksack to protect them from sand and seaweed but he likes to have them ready to hand to snatch up when a moment offers itself.

And so, it is May Eve.  Make sure you go outside tonight, even if not to the woods to gather great boughs of mayblossom as your ancestors did.  Look to the skies and the stars, and, if you are near open land, to the ground to see if the old roads are becoming slowly, glimmeringly, visible.  It's up to you if you follow them or not:  just be prepared to accept what happens.

And tomorrow is May Day!  Up on the Kerry border they will be bringing their farm animals to the ancient fort to drink at the well, as they have done for millennia.  Back at your own home, don't forget to wash your face in the dew, say good morning to the first bird you hear singing, and celebrate Beltane, the coming of summer.