Monday, April 25, 2011

Being A Tale Of The Pheasant, The Fox, The Robin and the Rabbits

These baby rabbits are too young to know fear. No bigger than the palm of my hand, out of the bushes they pop, to browse on the soft green grass of the lawn. A dog wanders past, they blink at it in wonder. I come by with a rake, and they move a few feet away in respect, but then return to their grazing.

The other morning, one came adventuring right up through the rockery, and peeped in the window from behind a clump of primulas. Next thing you know, they'll be sitting up to nursery tea and wanting stories read to them.

The robins are more careful. They had their nest built, the eggs hatched and the babies being fed before we even realised they were back at the old box in the shadow of the ivy-clad tree.

DH (who is ingeniously clever at these things, whereas I wouldn't even know where to start) unobtrusively set up a camera close to the nestbox, linked to his computer, so that he could sit at his desk and press a button whenever the parent bird appeared with food for the hungry nestlings.

All done without any birds being worried or upset. And, more importantly, without attracting the attention of opportunistic predators like magpies or crows, who would be delighted with a local fast food takeaway.

The blackthorn has been amazing this year. The flowers come out before the leaves, usually around March, but with the cold weather we've been having, it was delayed, and made up for it with a really splendid show of white blossoms on bare black branches. There will be a good crop of sloes this autumn. Tongue-dryingly bitter to the taste, with the addition of plenty of sugar and a little alcohol, they make a lovely soothing winter syrup.

It's been a lovely Easter weekend here. Chill winds, but sunshine most of the time. We went out to see what could be seen.

Early morning is a good time to come across someone like this splendid dog fox on his way home across the fields. He paused, watched us narrowly for a minute, then loped off again and was lost to sight in the ditch. Doubtless his poor wife is cooped up underground in the den, dealing with a brood of fractious babies, and with no hope at all of seeing the sun and feeling the breeze on her back for another month yet.

Up the Shournagh Valley there is an old old tin shed that was once a shop for the local community. I've met middle-aged men who waxed sentimental about going in there as children, and buying toffee bars with their hard-earned pennies. (Remember penny toffee bars? I recollect being much addicted to a real tooth-cracker that had peanuts blended in, and was known as Sailor's Chew.) Last time we were here, about five years ago, it wasn't as overgrown as this, but leave a car standing in West Cork for more than a week and the brambles and ivy will have it. The bright yellow kerria japonica, though, was in full bloom, and I took a few slips, to see if they would root in my own garden, and keep the memory of the country store alive.

On that previous visit, which was in autumn, we'd climbed a venerable apple tree and brought home bagfuls of fruit in triumph. This time the poor old tree was bent double under the weight of a crushing mass of ivy, but it was still determinedly putting out its blossom on every branch that could reach the light and sunshine.

Is there anything lovelier than apple blossom in spring, promising warm summer days followed by a rich autumn? Those selfsame children who bought penny toffee bars here back half a century ago probably sneaked around to the side of the shop in October to pick up windfalls, destined for merry games of snap-apple and bobbing for apples by the fireside at Hallow-E'en.

There was an old man, bent over his walking stick, waiting to cross the clapper bridge at Ballingeary as Sophy Wackles and I came over. I apologised for keeping him waiting. 'No hurry at all, girleen, no hurry in the world,' he said in that soft West Cork accent. And off he went, at his own peaceful pace, across the ancient flat stones and into the woods for a stroll. It's a while since I've been called 'girleen', and it made me smile whenever I remembered it during the rest of the day.

Spotted this pheasant glaring at us from over a hedge, and DH immediately stopped the car to set up his long lens. After some patient waiting, the bird obligingly flapped its wings and called hoarsely, to warn any other resplendent males in the vicinity that this was his territory and no mistake about it.

Look at the graceful curve of that wing. Wouldn't you love to create a shawl with that effect? Here, have a look at the full back view:

I simply love the way those primaries curve upwards. What little female pheasant in her sensible but boring plain brown dress could resist a man like that?

It was a nice wandering sort of day, with pauses here and there.

Of course the knitting came too. This was one of those easy, mindless projects that could be dropped down and picked up without too much worry. An Aran cardigan in Noro Shirakaba (never can remember that name, wonder why?), yarn picked up at Knitting in La Jolla simply ages back.

Here is a close up of one of the fronts. I inset a pocket halfway up, where you can just distinguish the little band of moss stitch. It's going very well, but I fear I won't have enough of the yarn to complete the full cardigan. If any of you live closer to a source of Noro Shirakaba than I do (it isn't generally stocked in Ireland or, I fear, the UK) do let me know, and we can do a trade or PayPal, OK?

And then it was time to turn for home. But not at speed. You can't move at speed on the winding narrow lanes of West Cork.

You wouldn't want to hurry tomorrow's milk and cream and butter, would you?

Monday, April 11, 2011

In Which A Thorn Tree Points The Way, And A Small Bird Prefers Wool To Moss

I meant to tell you last time, but there simply wasn't space. Which is why there will be a blue moon tonight, as Celtic Memory is posting again within the space of a week. Well it's not just to put in the extra bits - it's also to avoid that awful feeling when it's been let go too long, and the stories to be told, and the pictures to be shown, have piled up so high that even the thought of sitting down to post for several hours is appalling. No more. Nevermore! Going to post little and often from now on. Did I say that once before? Twice before? Anyway, the lovely story I meant to tell you last time. We had been out in North Cork on a job and were wandering home through the lanes when I bethought me to look out for lone thorn trees. This of course is for De Next Book. Of all the trees, the hawthorn possesses the richest folklore even today. You'll know the old song: All night around the thorn tree The Little People play, And men and women passing Will turn their heads away. But if your heart's a child's heart And if your eyes are clean, You need never fear the thorn tree That grows beyond Clogheen. Hawthorn comes into bloom on May Day. Or it would if the powers that be hadn't decided to change the calendar from Julian to Gregorian time back a few centuries ago (no, I'm not going into the details now, Google it if you want to, it's quite complex, involving the loss of ten days, then a change of mind, and a loss of eleven days instead, plus, believe it or not, a Feb 30 in 1712 to get it all sorted out finally, only it didn't.) So unless it's a particularly mild year, the lovely, milky-scented white blossom stars the hedgerows around the second week in May. (It's also why Twelfth Night or Women's Christmas is still celebrated, but that's another story.) You wouldn't believe how cross people were at having eleven days just snatched out of their lives. I mean, wouldn't you be? Go to bed one night, planning to plough and harrow tomorrow, plant the potatoes the day after, take the wife to market the following weekend... and then suddenly you're told 'sorry' (actually forget that, the Church never said 'sorry', wasn't its way) 'dem days are gone boy, you're going to have to hurry to catch up, you're almost two weeks behind in your work now.' Where the tarnation was I? Oh yes, the thorn tree, the fairy thorn. It's believed to possess considerable power in its own right, and also to be very much connected to the Good People. Of all the sacred wells and springs in Ireland (and we have thousands) the majority have a thorn tree growing next to them, and you'll usually find little scraps of cloth, yarn, offerings tied to its prickly branches. To damage a fairy thorn or, worse still, dig it up, is considered very bad luck indeed. And often you will see a lone thorn right in the middle of a wide ploughed field, because no farmer with any sense of tradition would dare to touch it. If you find a lone thorn growing on the edge of a rath, a lios, or fairy fort, of course, then it's doubly magical and doubly dangerous to lay aggressive hands on it. So as we were driving along, I asked DH to keep an eye out for just such a lone thorn, so we could get pictures of it. And then, over a hedge, I spied one that wasn't particularly typical, but would do for the moment, so we stopped in a farm gate. The farmer wandered out for a chat, and we explained what we were doing. 'Oh the thorn,' he said. 'I thought you were coming to see the stones.' The stones? THE STONES? What stones? 'Ah, it's The Sessions they call them. Never did know why, but that's what they've always been called.'

Look at this picture of the thorn tree. Look back there in the distance, slightly to the right of the thorn. See some dim grey shapes? Flipping 'eck, I had no idea whatsoever that they were there!

Up the lane with us, through a gate, and across a long field, never mind that the sun was setting. And gradually those strange grey shapes became larger, more definite.

Gosh, they were big. Six originally, you can see one fallen there, fourth from the left.

Here you can see the height of that end stone, the heaviest and widest of the six. Of course there is probably as much underneath the ground as there is above, so their original height would have been awe-inspiring indeed. A genuine stone row, but for what purpose? Leading where? Marking what?

Looked it up in the records as soon as we got home, where the name appeared as An Seisear or The Six. Maybe we misheard the farmer. That name would make more sense. Well thank you, thorn tree, for pointing the way. Wouldn't have spotted them without you. Yes, Celtic Memory is ashamed of herself for not knowing about An Seisear, but then, there are so many stone rows, stone circles, lone standing stones, within a stroll of home that you can't be knowing everything, I suppose.

That same day we'd passed through the lovely little village of Bruree just over the border in Co. Limerick. The name means The Seat of Kings, and certainly the kings of Munster used to live here in ancient times. It was a gathering place for bards and poets too, once or twice a year.

That ivy-covered bulk rising above the old graveyard is actually the medieval de Lacy castle, though it's not particularly recognisable. The stones and the ivy are probably old friends by now, holding each other up.

While I sat on a bench in the sunshine and dreamed of the past glories of Bruree, DH climbed nimbly up the old castle and took a picture of me, far below. Wish you'd all been there with us.

Sock Madness is proceeding apace, with the Norwegians beating everybody in terms of sheer speed. I simply do not know what they have for breakfast in the far north, but I certainly can see why the Vikings were so successful. Didn't hang around wondering about life, simply seized it with both hands.

I'm not as fast as that. Here are my Dangerous Turns, designed by the clever Maya. Love cables, and these are delightfully mirror-imaged. Using my own hand-dyed merino/bamboo in a colourway called Swirling Mists. I'd say they'll be a couple more days yet in the making. Also working on the Irish Mystery Shawl by Meagheen, which will take a lot longer, having lots and lots of stitches, not to mention those diabolic creations, nupps. But a gorgeous design, nonetheless. Using a beautiful Cashlana from Fleece Artist for that, in mossy green. Pictures when there are some worth showing.

In the meantime, I am glad to report that it is not only we humans who appreciate fine wools and the soft warmth they offer. At this time of year I usually put little handfuls of wool or dog hair out on the bushes for the birds who are busy making their nests.

Bingo! A bluetit (chickadee to you New Worlders) forthwith ceased his busy gathering of moss from the hedgerow and came straight up to investigate. 'Ooh, wool', he squeaked. 'Lovely, just what we needed for the babies. The wife will be pleased!' And he tugged and tugged energetically.

He hung upside down, determined to get the longest draw possible on the fibres.

And finally he hovered, wings beating vigorously, pulling the strands up, up and away, before flying victoriously off with his spoils. Isn't it nice to think that little nests will be cosy and warm in West Cork this spring? Go on, do the same. Put out dog hair after you've groomed out the winter undercoat. Do as my mother always did: hang a little net bag of yarn ends, scraps of wool, bright colours, from a branch, and then have fun in the autumn seeing the well-used nests which have incorporated your offerings.

Enjoy the spring. I gotta go finish some socks...

Monday, April 04, 2011

Of Brigit's Cloak, An Ancient Yew Forest, Bee Judgements and Bould Actors

I should have thought of it sooner, of course. Isn't it always the way, that you have studied something for years, and yet you never apply its practicalities to your own life? That back of mine wasn't getting any better, and I was still unable to sit at the computer - or anywhere else for that matter - for more than two minutes at a time without discomfort. With time to think (a rare commodity), I remembered that the morrow was Feb 1, Brigit's Day, Candlemas, Imbolc, whatever you call it in your corner of the world. And that very day, a friendly woman who runs a great coffee house in Macroom town square, had said her family had always put out the 'Brat Bride' on the eve of her festival. I'd been checking for old customs and traditions as usual, for De Next Book, and noted this down carefully as evidence of the old ways still continuing in West Cork. Somewhere between twilight and dark, the rusty penny dropped in my own brain. Why not put out the Brat Bride myself, and see would it help the back any? (It's pronounced 'brah breed-eh' by the way.) This is a length of ribbon or cloth placed on a friendly bush on Brigit's Eve where the dew or rain can fall on it, and Brigit herself can confer power upon it as she passes. Next day it is brought back into the house, dried, and kept carefully for the year ahead, to apply to anyone suffering from pain or injury. What better to use than the Advent Lace Shawl I'd knitted along on with Zemy during December? Just the right sort of thing to appeal to Brigit, I felt.

Outside the front door it went, to be carefully draped around the bay tree which stands there in a pot. Didn't dare to place it any further afield, as the wild winds would certainly blow it to Tir na n'Og and I'd never see it again. Brought it in duly on February 1, dried it, and laid it across my bed that night. Possibly it was going to happen anyway, especially with the physiotherapy I'd been getting, but my back started to improve right away.

Now it's in a place of honour on the spinning chair, ready for the next emergency. Old ways are good.

So much recovered did I feel that we headed down to Killarney in search of a very ancient yew forest, the only one remaining in Ireland, and one of just three in Europe overall. It has all kinds of official protective status now, but for me the important thing was that it had been there back in the mists of time, when trees were highly valued and believed to be the holders of considerable magical powers. Oh of course we know better these days. How could a tree be stronger or better for us than a computer chip, for heaven's sake? What benefit could a bush possibly bestow that modern technology cannot?

Here's just a glimpse of the edge of that ancient wood, which was old when the Tuatha de Danann walked this land. You'll get more when we go back in brighter spring weather to do a serious photoshoot. But let me share with you a very very venerable quotation which I discovered recently while researching De Next Book. The speaker is Fintan the seer, who claims to his hearers that he survived the Deluge and has lived in Ireland ever since, seeing kings come and go, landscapes change, while he lives ever on. ‘One day I passed through a wood of West Munster in the west. I took away with me a red yew berry and I planted it in the garden of my court and it grew up…’ Now you can't get more west Munster than Killarney, and I think that Fintan is surely speaking here of this selfsame ancient yew wood of Reenadinna, now within Killarney National Park. It gives you a strange feeling to stand silently amid those trees and moss-covered rocks, and think how long this forest has been here. Of course the individual trees grow and die (though yew has a very long life, sometimes a thousand years), but new ones spring up from their roots or their fruit, and the forest continues in an unbroken tradition.

Here is Sophy looking suitably enigmatic, almost swallowed up in the thick moss which covers every rock and fallen branch in Reenadinna.

On the way back, called in at Muckross House where a craftsman was making the traditional straw hats for the Biddy Dancers.

Here are the Biddy Dancers themselves, executing a lively jig outside the house. They even had a brideog with them, the traditional figure which used to be carried around by children on Brigit's Day, while they begged for pennies. I should point out, in the interests of historical accuracy, that this version I saw at Muckross had been pretty well Christianised with a white dress and veil. The original type would have been roughly fashioned of straw and wrapped in a scrap of cloth. But she is holding Brigit's cross of rushes which is genuinely historic. It's not really a cross, but the very ancient symbol for the sun, used by the Sumerians among many other races. That the Irish would greet the coming of spring by making sun symbols of rushes is entirely appropriate. Now where was I? Oh yes, trees and their power. Did you know that the old Irish Brehon laws provided specially for the protection of trees? They most certainly did, and the modern Tree Preservation Order is but a poor copy. Seven species were classified as Nobles of the Wood, and to damage one of these in any way brought heavy fines. They were oak, hazel, holly, yew, ash, pine and apple. After that came the Commoners, the Lower Divisions, and the Bushes of the wood, all with their own legal protection. Heck, to remove one of the noble trees entirely brought a penalty of three milch cows with their calves. That would beggar you in ancient Ireland, and certainly make you think again about random acts of devastation. But the Brehon Laws were, above all, sensible, practical, and reflective of the life of the times. Wood was valuable, trees were important. So were bees, which provided the only source of sweetness before the coming of sugar. There was a special section of the laws known as the Bee Judgements. Isn't that nice? If you kept bees, you had to give a share of their honey every third year to your neighbours, since after all the bees had gathered pollen over their fields too. See what I mean? Practical and sensible. Enough. You're probably thoroughly sick of old Irish yew woods, not to mention the bees. On to more interesting topics. Like world famous actors, for instance.

The nice thing about pottering down by the seashore for an afternoon is that you simply never know who's going to happen by. Now you might not recognise this well-wrapped up gentleman on the skewbald, but think Brideshead Revisited, French Lieutenant's Woman, Betrayal, Lolita, The Merchant of Venice, or indeed the upcoming Borgias. Yes, it's Jeremy Irons, who lives not far away along the coast, when he has time to be in Ireland. Didn't get better pictures than this, because quite honestly, we both feel that when he's at home, he wants to be treated like one of the crowd, and that's what everyone does. Have to say though that he is an amazing rider, the best I think I've ever seen. Rides long, like an American, and stays simply glued to the saddle even at full gallop. Quite something to watch... and watch...

Knitting, knitting, knitting. Yes, it's been done - lots of it. Sock Madness is upon us once more, and so far two rounds have been completed.

Here are the Nornirs from Round Two. I love this brightly dyed yarn, a present from Zemy (she of the Advent Scarf KAL). It was perfect for the Nornirs.

And do you remember that nice Hitchhiker scarf I made some time back, in Wollmeise yarn? Well, we were dashing through Amsterdam airport a week or so ago, and I thought I saw something rather familiar just in front of me in the queue:

Look at that! What are the chances of finding two Hitchhiker scarves, both worked in Wollmeise, in the queue for the Cork flight? (The lady was a little taken aback by my enthusiasm, so I promised I wouldn't show faces, just her lovely pink version of the scarf.)

Managed to get a batch of dyeing done this weekend,

and the sun came out long enough to allow them to be photographed. You wouldn't believe how wet that grass is, and how drenched the branches above! When the next downpour came, retired to the study and put all the yarns up on eBay. Mostly merino/tencels, but a couple of merino/silks too.

Now that's it, I think. Oh no, no, I forgot! We have another sock machine! Yes, really. I know, I KNOW, but how could I pass this one by? Blessings on LizLimerick who alerted me to the devastating news that there was one for sale in Annascaul. Couldn't sleep that night! Kept waking up thinking, 'I can't, I can't. But - how can I not?'

This is when the true worth of the DH comes out. He could have said, 'You're joking!' He could have said, with truth, 'Don't you think you have enough already?' But he didn't. He hauled on his heavy coat (it was a freezing day) and went out to warm up the car. What a treasure.

And it was a freezing day. You wouldn't believe that we could get snow in March in West Cork, but we did.

It was quite eerie, driving through the tiny hamlet of Glenflesk with the grey winds whistling, and seeing the mountains towering up with their filmy white mantles.

Even the unicorn which rears up proudly on the border 'twixt Cork and Kerry had drifts of snow on his western flank, showing without doubt which way the wind was blowing.

Annascaul is the village that produced Antarctic explorer extraordinaire, Tom Crean, a mild-mannered, soft-voiced man who went out with several terrifying and fateful expeditions yet survived them all to come home, open a pub, and live peacefully ever after. What a man. Ni beidh a leitheidh aris ann.

But the sock machine, the sock machine, I hear you cry! Yes, here it is, just as I saw it first, when we arrived at the house where it was waiting.

Well could you have left that behind, turned your back and walked away? No, I thought not. The sheer weight of history (we won't talk about the weight of the machine, no, not, while my back is still delicate) would stop you in your tracks.

Almost the best thing was that Derek, here seen dismantling the stand for easier transportation to the car, actually knew its history, and had been involved in it. That makes the machine so much more intrinsically valuable. It had belonged, he explained, to an elderly lady called Hilda, who lived near them in London. She had been blind from teenage days, and had been taught by the Society for the Blind to operate this machine which they found for her. So adept did Hilda get at making socks (yes, even turning the heels, a procedure I myself haven't yet ventured to try on one of these babies) that the Society would take her to festivals and fairs to demonstrate. Isn't that something? Puts me to shame, it really does, with my pusillanimous efforts. As she became more elderly, though, Hilda's arthritis wouldn't permit her to work the machine any more, and rather than let it fall into disuse, standing ina corner of her flat, she offered it to Derek and his wife. They brought it over to Ireland, and now he wanted to sell it on to someone who would actually continue to use it.

Here is a picture of Hilda herself (who has since passed away). It's taken from Derek's computer screen, so it might look a little odd, but it's wonderful to see this courageous lady, all dressed up for a special occasion. A good life, well lived. That we may all learn from you, Hilda. And thank you, Derek, for passing on the trust.

Miraculously the cafe at Inch Strand (an amazingly long beach jutting out into the ocean for miles, they filmed the horse races for Playboy of the Western World there back in the late 50s) was open, not at all a common occurrence during a chilly Irish March, so we went in and had coffee and lemon cake. The management obligingly turned a blind eye to the fact that Sophy had come in too.

Oh the fun we had unpacking! Because not only was there the machine itself (a Harrison Sun by the way) and its mightily heavy stand (made, Derek told us, by the same Glaswegian firm that made stands for deck cannon, and I wouldn't be surprised), but several sacks of yarn cones, some beautiful antique wooden cones, set-up baskets, weights, spare ribbers, cams, and all kinds of other goodies. Look at these! Genuine old wooden stocking shapers. And sixty - yes sixty - steel DPNS, about size 2.25mm as far as I can ascertain. Yes, I'll be looking to dispose of some of the spares in due course, and will let you know. Need to work out how much yarn is on the cones, that sort of thing. But the machine works delightfully, even though it desperately needs a good clean to remove the oil and gunge of half a century or more. I think it's happy to be back in use again. They built these beauties to last, and more power to them.

Welcome to your new home, a chroi istig.