Sunday, March 04, 2012

In Which Farewells Are Made But New Arrivals Hoped For

Didn't really want to tell you about this, but since so many have enquired, I suppose I'd better. Little Christmas Kitten was only allowed to us until January. Turning out to be a small male, he was christened Maeldun,, after the old Irish saga about the wanderer of that name. The original Maeldun went far and wide across the oceans, saw amazing sights and survived many dangers, to arrive safely home once more. It's the sort of tale we call imramma or soul journey, in which your personal crusade is mirrored by the real-life adventures you experience. And since little kitten had clearly come through several adventures to arrive in our garden, he was a fitting bearer of the name.

Sophy Wackles, after initial mistrust, became fascinated by our new resident and followed him everywhere as he explored the garden and discovered the delight of climbing trees.

Not fair! I can't get up there! Come down here this minute!

It actually took surprisingly little time for Sophy to shed her normal suspicion of anything new and different (and possibly dangerous!) and start to enjoy herself. Wherever Maeldun went, she would follow. Gone were the days spent lounging on her special chair, gazing into space. When she wasn't actually out in the garden with him, she was watching from the window to see where he was. She got more exercise than she'd taken in years, and even started to play little games with her new best friend.

Ah go on! Let's play pat-a-cake!

We got rather pleasantly accustomed to Maeldun's bright little presence too. It was nice to come home, park the car, and see the vivid little face instantly peeping from his nest on the rocker in the porch. Then, as you got out and retrieved your bags, he was coming across to meet you, tail held in the highest welcome mode, and making cheerful little chirrups of pleasure. And of course you don't need to be told about the comfort of a purring kitten on your lap, on the windowsill by your computer, by the fire...

Unfortunately it wasn't to be. One day, something wasn't right, and it got worse from there. He spent more time in his nest, still purring, still stropping his paws with pleasure when you spoke, but without that wild energy that had broken flowerpots, knocked over plants, sent him up the highest trees. The vet said he had a serious heart problem. I thought I could fix it with tender loving care. I couldn't. He got quieter, weaker (although that defiant purr kept going almost to the end).

I went to bed one night, having tried all the old knowledge and remedies I could. He pushed his face against my hand and purred lovingly from his new indoor bed by the radiator. Next morning he was lying on the floor, uttering despairing cries. He was in pain, there was nothing else to do. Early and all as it was, we packed him into a soft bed box and drove up into the hills to the vet's home. He's a good vet, didn't say anything, just stroked the little cat and gave him something to make him sleep peacefully before putting him out of his misery.

We brought him home and buried him in the corner of the orchard. I made a Brigit's Cross of rushes, and put it on the stone.

'Bye, Maeldun. You brought such joy into our lives for a little while.

Sophy is lonely for you, and keeps searching in the orchard where you used to play. I've told her you're in the Happy Hunting Grounds, but she still can't understand why you won't come back to her, your best friend.

I will admit to being devastated for a couple of days. Hadn't been sure about this new arrival at all at the beginning, then of course gave him my heart. DH too, always a committed cat hater (they kill birds, you know they do!) had also discovered the joy of watching sheer feline beauty on the move, the pleasure and comfort of a purring warm body snuggling up on your lap. He followed Maeldun for hours with his camera, capturing every leap, every stretch. And it had given Sophy Wackles so much joy too. The two older dogs really didn't play with her any more and this was a whole new experience for her.

Once the tears were dried, the next step seemed obvious. Give another small kitten a good home, right? Wrong! Or at this time of year at least. It's not the season for kittens over here, would you believe? Since early January, I kid you not, there hasn't been a single one on offer. Now in Ireland, you normally can't move for tripping over kittens in need of a good home. Every shop, every notice board, has pretty pictures and pathetic pleading notices. They're everywhere.

But not right now.

DH, bless him, was ringing round while I was still sobbing myself to sleep. My friend Eileen, who runs an amazing kennels and cattery, had been doing likewise. They even, apparently, rang each other, which is when they discovered that both were on the same hunt! Every likely source has been checked. Not a sausage (well, not a kitten anyway). But it's March now, and any day, there will be a phone call or more likely a flood of phone calls, given the efforts we've been making. I'll be lucky if we don't end up with forty-five kittens, black, white, tabby, marmalade, tortoiseshell, the lot. (How bad would that be?)

Hurry up, small kitten, wherever you are. Sophy needs you. She's still looking out of the window, hoping against hope to see a small triangular face, an upright tail, and a chirrup asking her to come and play.

Somehow lost even the passion for knitting. Couldn't stick at anything. Forced myself to finish the Solstice Shawl which I'd begun up in Tromso, but that was about it. And then, yesterday, we said goodbye to the oldest and most dignified of our dogs, Natasha de St Petersburg II. She was in her fifteenth year, and had been getting quieter and less active for some time. She wasn't really enjoying life any more, so there was relief as well as sorrow to find her curled up in her bed at breakfast time, in a last long sleep.

A lady of impeccable breeding and rare intelligence, Tasha knew and kept her place at the top of the household ranking effortlessly. She will doubtless be organising the poker games in the Happy Hunting Grounds tonight, and heaven help anyone who takes her on.

And that really is that. I've cried enough. Let's get on to thoughts of spring and blossoms and, hopefully, an adorable new kitten one day soon. Sock Madness, that annual bout of insanity, has just started, and the first round is a delightfully zany pattern in which you throw a dice to decide whether to cable a column or not. It makes every repeat of the pattern on Dicey a laugh, and that's pretty good at any time. Thank heaven for Sock Madness!

I meant to tell you long ago about the Wren Boys, but the worries over Maeldun sort of took up all the time. Every St Stephen's Day in Ireland (that's Dec 26 in the rest of the world) we have this ancient ritual whereby heavily disguised revellers go from house to house or pub to pub, carrying the figure of a wren in a bush of furze or gorse. It's such an old tradition that nobody is quite sure what it means, or how it originated. I have my own ideas, based on a lot of research, but you'll have to wait for De Next Book to find out.

Anyway, one of the best places to see this event is Dingle, way down in Kerry, and there we headed on the day, leaving home very early to be sure of not missing anything.

Don't know what it's like in your part of the world the day after Christmas but here it tends to be empty, silent, everybody indoors nursing hangovers or washing up or just plain recovering. Dingle looked a lot like that - windswept empty streets, shuttered windows, everything closed. But we knew where to go, and headed for one particular pub. From the outside it all looked deserted, but push the door open and you find yourself in a maelstrom of noise, activity and excitement.

The place was packed. In one corner, several men were making sheaves from a pile of long stalks of grain (where had they kept that all winter, you wondered?) and skilfully plaiting these on to a rope strung between two pillars. Seeing them work was extraordinarily reassuring - clearly the old skills have not gone away, despite the best efforts of modern technology. Even the youngest lad there handled the stalks with a sure touch.

These ropes of grain were becoming cloaks to be worn by the marchers in the procession. They also had beautifully woven head dresses of straw, with a small model bird perched in the very middle. I was entertained to see that the birds were in fact not wrens but robins, the kind you can pick up in any shop around Christmas time for a few pence. I mentioned this to one of the men. 'Ah sure, 'tis a bird anyway, and who'll know the difference? ' I suppose the thought was there, and I don't think you can buy toy wrens that easily anyway.

Look at this strange atavistic creature. The head is woven of willow, the eyes are limpet shells, and the beak is a split cow's horn. I wouldn't be surprised if that would be recognised back several thousand years ago. It gives you the authentic chill of recognition when you see it.

How its wearer actually drank the beer I cannot imagine, but every now and again he tipped his head back and poured the liquid down into his beak. Didn't see any trickling out, so it must have worked. (But then again, can you imagine an Irishman not thinking of that necessity first, and working it into the design?)

It took them most of the morning to make all the straw cloaks. I asked why they didn't make them beforehand and they looked at me crossly. 'Sure, they have to be done on the day itself,' explained one patiently. Eventually somebody struck a mighty blow on a huge drum and everybody crowded out into the street where the procession formed up.

I liked this moment in the procession very much. The ancient tradition passing by a newer one. No matter what influences sweep over Ireland, it still holds fast to the Old Ways and the Old Knowledge. Come over sometime for St Stephen's Day and we'll go down to Dingle together.

Now, is that it? Oh wait, no, I know what I wanted to tell you about. I was in Dublin the other day and went to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Parnell Square on a mission. I felt in need of the spectacular beauty of Harry Clarke's famous stained glass window, The Eve of St. Agnes.

I'm sure you know Keats' poem - it's been a favourite of mine since college days. When Clarke was commissioned to illustrate it in stained glass, he really went to town. It's a masterpiece and we're lucky to have it here in Ireland.

Each handpainted panel illustrates a different scene from the poem but what gives this window its exquisite breathtaking effect is the colour. There are blues and silvers, pinks and crimsons here, and the skilful way it has all been lit from behind, makes it something you could stand and look at for hours.

Awakening up, he took her hollow lute,—
Tumultuous,—and, in chords that tenderest be,
He play’d an ancient ditty, long since mute,
In Provence call’d, “La belle dame sans mercy:”

And they are gone, ay ages long ago,
These lovers fled away into the storm...

If you find yourself in Dublin, don't miss the chance to stand before this masterpiece.