Sunday, December 30, 2012

Of Frozen Far-Flung Foragings and Cunning Cat Capers

Oh my, now I know what real cold is!

Let me hasten to reassure.  This is not West Cork.  This is nowhere near Ireland.  Just before Christmas we took a quick trip to Lithuania.  Right now it's cheaper to fly there than it is to take the train to Dublin.  Really!  And we so wanted to see something other than rain, sodden fields, rain, wet grass, rain, dripping trees.

And did we just about get that!  Dear heaven, I will never complain about what I considered cold days in Ireland again!  Many degrees below zero here in the main street of Vilnius, and a wind from Siberia via Belarus driving freezing, iron-hard ice crystals against your face.  Was extremely glad I'd brought my lined ski cap and cashmere cowl.  Needed both of them.  And more.

Here is another view of Vilnius by night.  It's beautiful.  Spectacular old buildings, onion domes, archways, wedding-cake Baroque splendour, and very little traffic.  (Well you wouldn't drive in that weather unless you had to.)

There were little stalls everywhere, selling hand-knit gloves, hats, and socks.  I liked these ones with cats on.  There appears to be a separate toe on the side of the foot there, or maybe a pouch for secreting small amounts of amber?  Because Lithuania is of course the home of amber.  Pretty well all the supplies for the legendary Amber Room in St Petersburg came from there, as I recall.

Caught a glimpse of this beautiful Aran-style jacket in the window of a linen shop (linen being Lithuania's other main export).  It looks for all the world like the one worn by Cameron Diaz in The Holiday.

Shop was shut at the time unfortunately, so couldn't check it out.

And there were even smaller establishments selling handknits too.

Elderly ladies like this one would come into town every morning early from their villages and set out their wares, socks and gloves knitted with loving care.  It was a long hard day in that freezing cold and bitter wind, but they kept their posts and even managed to smile for potential customers.  I'll remember her when the next Sock Madness starts and I'm whinging about not having exactly the right colourway or fibre.

I had a special mission on this trip, and it involved searching out the best yarn shop in all of Lithuania (naturally!)

This is Mezgimo Zona or the Crafty Place.  And thanks to Ravelry, I had a friend to meet there.

Virginija lives in Vilnius.  She's also on Ravelry (virginute) and her colourwork would make you ashamed to claim to be a knitter.

I had some commissions from friends for various yarns and Virginija guided me towards the right ones for mittens, lace shawls, and more.  And then we went for coffee and were able to talk about so many things.  My Lithuanian is practically non-existent but Virginija's English was, thankfully, far better, so I was able to find out what life was like before 1991 when they finally became independent.  It made me thoroughly ashamed of the way we complain in Ireland about weather and politics and annoyances generally.  Try living in Eastern Europe during Iron Curtain days and you might have more reason to complain.   But it really is marvellous to be able to exchange ideas and thoughts and ask questions in strange countries.  That way you make real contact.

I was even introduced to the best thrift store (a favourite occupation of mine in foreign cities) and Virginija pointed out that if I wanted nice leather buttons for a new knit (as I did) it was actually far cheaper to buy an entire coat and snip off the buttons than to go shopping for those expensive little items alone.  Which I did!  On that particular day, at a cost of all of one Lita (about 25c).  It was a truly hideous black and white tweed coat that had seen better days, but it had not only twelve beautiful black leather buttons but also twelve tiny flat ones, sewn on at the back.  And a buckle on the belt too.   (Yes, yes, the coat went back to the shop.  Nothing wasted, nothing thrown away.  'You learned to be very thrifty in Soviet times,' said Virginija soberly.  Rest of the world, take note and learn.)

We walked under the bare black branches of trees in the park and shivered to see the castle on the hill above with the wind and snow howling around it.  Rather grateful to be staying within the thick walls of an old nunnery (Domus Maria) rather than an ancient castle, however historic.  You could just imagine those tapestries flapping and the icy draughts caressing bare shoulders as the banquet progressed and the minstrels tried to keep their fingers warm enough to play.

These cheery birchwood elves look happy enough to be outdoors.  It's a nice idea and one I might copy myself next winter.  Wonder how they would take to endless mist and rain though?

Even getting back on the plane for the flight home was an endurance test.  You stood in that warm building and saw everyone in front of you donning coats, hats, gloves in preparation for the short walk across the tarmac.  'Is that really necessary?' I wondered out loud.  I soon found out! 

Absolutely adored Vilnius.  Glorious architecture, lovely people, delightful food (dined in this most atmospheric restaurant down in brick-lined cellars).  Its name, Lokys, means The Bear, and yes, there are still bears in Lithuania.  Next time, next time...

Back home it was all systems go for the Christmas rush.  This is the final result of the Advent Scarf KAL organised by Zemy on Ravelry.  The angora/merino was so cosy I was most reluctant to take it off to give to its intended recipient!  Every day of Advent brought a different Aran pattern so you had got plenty of practice in the technique by Christmas Eve.

And this is a little Norwegian-style cape for a small friend aged just 15 months.  Crochet is much quicker than knitting and I was able to get this whipped up in a few evenings. 

Sophy Wackles tried her best to help on a shorter neckwarmer-style Aran scarf in scarlet alpaca, but she still hasn't got the hang of cabling without an extra needle which makes her rather slow.  Never mind, slow and steady wins the race, doesn't it, Sophy?

Regrettably, the cats are more interested in the machinery than the manipulation.  The skein winder fascinated them both and now each morning they have a few energetic minutes turning it, just to flex up their paws.

They are both working hard for their Yarnslayer badges though, and hope to be able to wear these with pride in the New Year.

And finally, as a good wish for that same New Year, here is a picture to make you smile through the clearing up and the tidying away and the wondering what the future holds.

Wockin' Aroun' Da Cat-Mas Tree...

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Concerning Furry Foundling Felines and Festive Fibre Fun

I'll have to do a quick update.  If I wait until there is time and enough to write a full-length posting,  it will be Tibb's Eve before I get round to it.

Felines first, for I know that's what you want to know.  Last time I introduced you to the small and beautiful Maine Coon cross, Mishka.  Well she is no more.  Not a topic for discussion, let's just throw unpleasant words like 'minor road used as a freeway by hasty commuters' and 'wild kitten born to explore pastures new' and leave it like that.

A day and a night of tears and self-accusation and tough questions like 'do I deserve to have a cat if I can't care for it?' and DH had had enough.  He hauled me into Cork, to the local rescue centre.

'No, we don't have any kittens' said the young man firmly.  I buried my face in my hands and DH looked at him hard.  'Well, you could look at these pictures on the wall if you like.'  More sniffles, more hard looks.  'Well, you could come in here and look at these cages I suppose.'

A long room with all kinds of cats stretching and clawing and meowing in separate cages.  One serene mother with a new litter, a splendid tabby tom pawing the bars imperiously, a couple of battered animals that had definitely seen better days.  I wandered down to the very end, to a cage in the corner that appeared empty, and peered half-heartedly in.

A huge pair of eyes, like emerald green lamps, looked back at me.

As my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I saw there was a very very tiny black kitten behind the lamps.  It was scared, but courageous.  A finger through the bars was approached timidly, then rubbed against, with the beginnings of a tiny purr.

'That's it' I said instantly.  'That's the one.'

The young official objected.  This kitten had only just come in, it had to be checked out, vaccinated, its papers stamped.  'Friday at the earliest.'

Now he was on the receiving end of two hard stares.  Then I remembered the persuasive technique and reminded him of how much all that officialdom would cost.  'We'll take him straight to our own vet.  Save you all that outlay.'

'Well... I don't know.'

I tucked the kitten inside my jacket and headed for the door, pausing only to leave a contribution on the counter towards the centre's sterling work.  DH smiled comfortingly and followed me.  As we got into the car, the young man rushed out after us with the kitten's papers.  A single sheet with a fuzzy picture clipped to it and a number.  'Just mention Cat 303 if you need to call us.'

Cat 303.  What a start in life!  A mugshot and a number.  He curled up quietly in my jacket all the way home and soon found a comfy warm spot of his very own, with toys in case he was lonely.

His official name is Wolfgang since he considers himself a bit of a dangerous lad, but he's been Pollywog from the moment he arrived.  You know, those wriggling long-legged black creatures you find in ponds?

Of course it wasn't long before he started tormenting Sophy Wackles, who, though she pretended to be annoyed, was secretly overjoyed at having someone to play with.

And things went along very happily.  Pollywog was not allowed out of the house at ALL.  Not until he's a lot older and calmer.  I would love to see him climbing trees and exploring bushes, but I never want to go through that road experience again.

As kittens will, he grew and got more playful.  Soon nowhere was safe in the house from his marauding paws and explosive bounces.  'Needs a companion to play with,' I said to myself.  Not to DH yet - need to take these things carefully, don't you?  But I did mention it in the end to Animal Whisperer In Chief, my friend Eileen, who runs a boarding kennels and can speak, soul to soul, I verily believe, to any creature under the sun.

'Funny you should say that,' she commented.  And immediately unfolded a story that would raise the hair on your head.

That very morning, she recounted, a friend had taken a lorryload of cattle into Cork and had brought them to a large barn on the outskirts.  While his mate unlocked the lorry doors and started the cattle down the ramp, this man went ahead to open the barn doors so they could rush straight in.  There, in the very centre of the vast empty concrete floor, sat a smidgen of a tiny grey tabby kitten.

'He couldn't delay,' explained Eileen.  'He could hear the clattering hooves behind him, so he simply rushed over, picked it up and shoved it in his pocket and got out of the way.'

Later he tried to find its home, but with no success so, as everyone tends to do around here, brought it back to Eileen.  'It's in the car with me now, would you like to see it?

Would I what?  Was this a gift from the gods or not?

Baby Podge was so very young that he needed all of Eileen's expertise to get him to normal eating and drinking habits.  But at last he was fit and able and came home to join Pollywog.  And what a party they've been having ever since!

I worried for the first couple of days, since Polly seemed to be doing most of the trouncing and Baby most of the shrieking, but Eileen counselled calm, and sure enough the little warrior was giving as good as he got.  He would scream, Polly would back off, and Podge would double his fists and dive right back in.

Now we have one big happy family.  Baby has notionally been christened Amadeus to go with Wolfgang, and once he loses those roly poly curves we will have to stop calling him Podge for his everyday name.  Suggestions welcomed.

With all this excitement, the festive season sort of crept up without my noticing until I started getting requests for those special shawl kits again.  So I had to haul out the Victorian skein winder and all the huge containers of yarn, and start making up a few.  So far I have created blues, purples, greens and pinks, or Sea Cave, Connemara Twilight, Forest Path and Wild Rose to give them their proper titles.

Here is Connemara Twilight in its handy case.  Must get those which haven't already been booked up on eBay before too long or we'll miss Christmas altogether!  Time, time, we need more time.  (You'd think they changed the date of Christmas every year, wouldn't you, the way it always seems to catch us on the hop!)

Somebody asked to see that lovely old skein winder again, so here it is, busily working on the Wild Roses kit.

These aren't just for shawls of course.  They're ideal for those Jane Thornley-type vests, wraps, whatever.  Anything that needs lots of lovely different textures and fibres and shades to create a unique work of art.

As if there wasn't enough to do, there is also the Advent Scarf knitalong, started by Zemy on Ravelry.  These engaging events mean you get a different pattern by email every morning and work a section of the scarf.  In the end you have a wonderfully varied scarf which also serves as a sampler and reminder for future projects.  This year Zemy has chosen cables, which is great fun.


Here is mine so far, worked in scarlet alpaca.  It's a coned yarn so will soften and plump up considerably when washed.  It's lovely to wake up each morning and wonder what new variation is waiting!

There was a nice pink shawl completed before the Advent Scarf started.

Got the idea for this when pulling on a dark winter coat to go out.  I realised that something bright pink peeking out from underneath would add just that flash of colour one needs in winter.  It's much the same as my Ruffled Shawl a la Duchesse, but I blocked it into points for maximum effect.  And used yarn from the stash too, yay!

Working on several gift projects too of course but won't show any of them here.  Suffice it to say that both hand-knitting needles and the knitting machine are in full use. 

Actually I remember distinctly my mother getting us to sew up sweaters for our cousins on Christmas morning because she had only just taken them off the machine the night before.  That and preparing the turkey too - how did she manage it all without flipping?  Nice to know I have inherited the last-minute gene.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Cuchulainn's Stone and The Cave of the Cats

We had to gallop right around the country recently, to get some pictures of particularly important places for De Next Book before the autumn winds got going with a vengeance.  There are so many wonderful things to see, and it never ceases to appal me that I have visited so few of them.  These were just the ones which absolutely, positively, definitely, couldn't be overlooked.

That mound rising in the distance is Newgrange, where at the winter solstice the rising sun strikes directly through a narrow aperture, along a stone passageway, and illuminates the very heart of the mound.  It's generally called a passage grave, but was more probably a ritual site of worship used by the ancient druids.  That's the River Boyne in the foreground and no, we didn't go any closer because the crowds at Newgrange are fairly extreme, any time of day or year.  Better to see it looking peaceful from a distance, don't you think?

The goddess Brigit, later subsumed into St Brigid, is well loved everywhere in Ireland, and there are hundreds of sacred wells bearing her name.  She is particularly associated with Kildare, and there are actually two wells here, both equally well patronised. 

Apparently this older one, being close to a busy main road, was considered dangerous for worshippers by the local authorities, so they created a second one down a quiet lane a hundred yards away.

The new one is certainly more spacious, with a statue of Brigit and a nice air of calm about it.  Maybe one is for the goddess and the other for the saint?

I really liked these rushes or flags which had been plucked from just outside the wooden fence at the second well and plaited on to the tree branches.  You often see rags and cords tied to trees at sacred wells, but using the natural rushes was nice.  Might do the same myself next time I pass a well.

One ancient monument I was determined to find was Cuchulainn's Stone up in Co. Louth 'in a field somewhere'.  Cuchulainn, that mighty young warrior of the Red Branch Knights, fought a one-man battle against the forces of Maeve of Connaught in the ancient epic known as the Tain.  In the end Maeve had to resort to druidic magic to kill her adversary, but even then Cuchulainn managed to tie himself to a tall stone so that he could die upright with his sword in his hand.  When his spirit finally passed on, the Morrigan, or death goddess, came and perched on his shoulder in the guise of a raven.  There is a bronze statue representing that moment in the General Post Office on Dublin's O'Connell Street, but out in the middle of a lonely field in Louth, as dusk was falling, we found the actual stone.

As you can see, it had its guardians who clustered closely around, carefully watching to see that we didn't intend any disrespect to the great Cuchulainn.

Oh we went all over the place to get our pictures. 

Emain Macha or Navan Fort, just outside Armagh, was once the proud palace of King Conor MacNessa and his Red Branch Knights.

Lough Derravaragh is the very place where the Children of Lir were changed into swans by their cruel stepmother and condemned to three times three hundred years of wandering before their enchantment ended.  It's such a peaceful place in the Irish midlands, yet you can easily imagine those four beautiful children stepping into the clear shallow water to bathe, and then being struck by the queen's wand and becoming graceful white-feathered swans.

What do you think of this?  It's a strange statue, now in a very old graveyard on Boa Island in Co. Cavan, but clearly brought there from somewhere else.  It is two-sided, one face severe, the other smiling. 

I suspect it could be the two aspects of the ancient earth deities, male and female, who were depended on for crops, fertility, good weather and good health before we started to personalise and name individual spirits for different purposes. 

Whatever their original purpose, they're keeping their history to themselves.  And quite rightly too.  Who are we, to demand a full and thorough explanation of everything we find?

And here is something rather strange, and we're back to Brigit again.  Miles from anywhere, you stop on a narrow lane and tramp across the fields to a tiny ruined church.  Behind that church is an old graveyard.  In the far wall of the graveyard, a well-used gap indicates much traffic over the centuries.  Beyond it a faint track leads down almost to the edge of a lake, and here stands Brigit's Stone.  A huge drum-shaped rock has a number of deep depressions on top, each one filled by a rounded stone that needs two hands to lift it.

Know what they are, what they represent?  Well, I've seen something like it before, down in Kerry, but never one specifically dedicated to a goddess before.  And it throws an interesting light on the character of that same goddess, because these are Cursing Stones.  Or, as I would prefer to call them, Wishing Stones, because that was, in all probability, their usual use.   You came down here, grasped your chosen stone, and turned it sunwise (ok, modernistas, clockwise if you prefer, but this was long before clocks) and at the same time whispered your wish.  Then you left an offering and went away, hopeful that the goddess had heard.

Of course, if your mind was full of angry thoughts and you wished bad luck on someone who had annoyed you, then you could turn the stone deliberately anti-clockwise or widdershins, while wishing evil to befall your enemy.  But it's never a good idea to wish bad luck on someone.  Such wishes have a way of coming back on you.  So let's call them Wishing Stones and should you ever find such a site, have good thoughts in your heart and wish good fortune to all the world as you turn the stone sunwise.

I was talking of things happening in the distant past, but clearly these stones are still very much in use.  I lifted one to check its weight, and found a very modern coin underneath.  So recently placed there in fact that it had not had time to tarnish.  Let's hope the user turned the stone in the right direction.

I mentioned Queen Maeve of Connaught earlier, and of course we had to visit Rathcroghan where her palace once stood.

Gary Dempsey, the man in charge, was very helpful in taking us around and explaining the different sites.  Here he is showing me a recumbent stone which gives off a strong electro-magnetic charge and is probably linked into a ley line that leads to the mound behind us in the picture.

But perhaps the strangest place we saw at Rathcroghan was The Cave of the Cats, a very old limestone underground chamber known for centuries and believed to be an entrance to the Otherworld, under the guardianship of the Morrigan herself.  Getting into the cave was not an easy job, as it involved lying on your back and sliding down a muddy slope into pitch dark with only inches to spare between you and the rocky roof above.  Being a coward, I encouraged Gary, who after all knew the place, to go first, while DH tried to ensure that all his cameras were tucked out of harm's way.

The roof was quite high once you got into the natural subterranean cavern, but it was narrow and dark and rather claustrophobic.

Look at this superb ogham stone over the lintel.  As far as I recall, it says 'Fiach, son of Maeve', but how it got into the Cave of the Cats instead of standing upright in a field where it can easily be read, I don't know.  Ask Maeve.  Or the Morrigan.

Now here is the strangest thing of all.  As I was inching my way out, on my back, trying to push upwards towards the beckoning light, I thought my senses had temporarily left me.  I could hear purring in my ear! 

And there, just outside, by the entrance, was a small white kitten, curled up in the grass.  No, really!  It seemed to be encouraging me as I struggled towards the light and the air.

I hope you appreciate this picture.  I really hope you do.  Because it wasn't easy to get.  Bear in mind that I was lying on my back in a very narrow muddy sloping space, encased in an absolutely filthy muddy raincoat.  Somehow I managed to get my hand into my pocket and extract my mobile phone, twist around, and take a shaky picture.  Because it was the most extraordinary experience of my life.  Just when I was thinking that I really, really didn't like where I was, it was there.  Purring into my ear!

'Yes, I've seen her here before,' said Gary, once we were all safely outside once more, picking the little thing up and stroking her gently while she purred even harder.  'I don't know where she calls home, but she just turns up when I arrive.  Sometimes she even comes into the cave with me and keeps me company.'

Well.  What do you think of that?  No, of course I didn't try to bring her away!  Is it mad you are?  What kind of misfortune do  you think that would bring down on me?

Friday, August 24, 2012

In Which The Cat Bids for a Title, The Stash is Enhanced, and An Antique is Rescued

We were in Norway recently.  Will post about that next time - lots of beautiful fjords, rocky headlands, forests and heathery moors, with a clean cold air that was thoroughly invigorating.

Now its best friend couldn't call Norway inexpensive.  Even indulging in a small beer involves taking out a second mortgage.  So yarn enhancing was to be frowned upon.  All the same, when you're in a country like Norway - is there any other country like Norway for yarn and knitting and crafts generally?  - it's impossible not to take a peek at least, finger one or two of the utterly irresistibles.  A few balls, therefore, found their way into the homeward-bound bags.

I simply cannot resist this gorgeous violet shade in Drops Baby Silk.  First discovered it last winter in Tromso, and, you may remember, made a pair of long cabled wristwarmers out of it on the spot (on a ski lift too, and while searching for the Northern Lights).  This time I gulped, dropped ten (yes, ten) balls on to the counter, gave the girl my credit card and asked her not to show me the total.  Well, where will I find it again?  Enough there for a superb polo neck winter sweater in ribs and cables, I would think.

This is another heartstopper:  Drops Fin, 50% baby alpaca, 50% silk, and as soft as you can possibly imagine.  Kitten's coat comes close, but not quite.  Originally took two balls, to make some self-indulgent winter socks, but then imagined what a cowl or scarf would feel like in this, and made it four.  Ah well, we can work 24/7 for the rest of the year.

After that, a quick trip to the jolly Spar store on the quayside in Kirkenes, where the Hurtigruten boat docks and everybody stocks up, was a positive relief, with that famous wall of yarn offering very reasonable prices.  (And if they seemed reasonable to me, in Euro-pressured Europe, how cheap must they be to Norwegians?)  Chose five balls of Ullteppegarn in two shades of grey plus a bright scarlet for contrast.  These are intended for the Litchfield Shawl, a particularly classic pattern that will be lovely for winter.

You will remember that the very dear and beloved Muffy the Yarnslayer finally passed on to the Happy Hunting Grounds earlier this year.  For a time, therefore, the stash was quite safe.  But as I was photographing the new acquisitions, small Mishka (growing by the day) decided it was time to make her bid for the title she felt was hers by right.

After all, if they will leave these nice bouncy soft balls lying about, what is a girl to do, ignore them?  Not!

I realise that this is rather a blurred picture, but the speed with which that yarn was skilfully hooked from the chair, dropped to the ground, and attacked with full energy beggars belief.  I did rescue it, since it still has a job to undertake, but gosh, it's tempting to unload a whole fleece on the carpet just to see what she would do, isn't it?

What do you think?  Has Mishka proved herself worthy of the title of Yarnslayer yet?  Or should we try the Fleece Test?

Now - going to the recycling centre is usually regarded as a way of getting rid of all the surplus in the house, the garage, the shed, lying around untidily.  Or it should be.  DH and myself have always been incurable collectors, snappers up of unconsidered trifles, veritable truffle hounds when it comes to other people's discards.  Yesterday I was virtuously unloading plastic here, glass there, when DH casually said, 'There's a battered old Singer sewing machine over there in the skip with all the computer stuff.'  I knew I didn't need another one but I went to look all the same.  You owe that much courtesy to such a lifelong hard worker as a sewing machine, don't you?

Upside down, almost hidden by grey plastic computer bits, it didn't look promising.  But it was clearly old, hand-cranked, with some gold scrollwork still visible.  Hand cranked?  That's coming home with us!  Show me the crafter who can pass by any hand cranked sewing machine.

Here it is, with Mishka diligently studying for her Yarnslayer (Advanced) badge, which demonstrates competence not just in knitting yarns but in all other forms of threadwork too.

Cleaned it up excitedly, discovered that nearly all the paintwork was in excellent condition, and - incredibly - all the interior workings were there, right down to a full bobbin in the shuttle!  (Long bobbin and shuttle, not the later round kind).  A lot of bits are still seized up with rust, but currently taking advice on the best way to deal with that.  And it's not a Singer.  It proudly proclaims itself as a Harrodia Prima, provided by - who else? - Harrods of London.  To discerning wealthy customers only, one would imagine.

Of course there were many brands of sewing machine back then, often manufactured elsewhere and then badged up by different stores or suppliers.  So you look further.  Like here, on the back.  Can you just see Made in Germany on the main column there?  That puts it very definitely before World War I.  Once hostilities broke out, England imported nothing from Germany (I have a theory that the English 'throwing' method of knitting gained much popularity at this time too - Elizabeth Zimmermann remembered being scolded by her governess in England as a child for trying to use the Continental method, being told, 'That's German!  You do NOT knit like that!')  Did some research, and have narrowed the manufacturer down to Frister & Rossmann, a large industry in pre-war Berlin, thanks to a most useful website run by the delightful Alex.

So can you believe it?  An early 20th century (or, more likely, late 19th century) hand-cranked sewing machine, supplied from 'the top people's store', with all its workings complete, on a skip full of computer scrap in West Cork!  It made me feel warm and happy every time I woke up in the night and remembered it.  Oh I do wonder what its life story is?

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Climbing to Crom, and Saluting the Sun

It's Lughnasa, the month of August, and almost time for harvest to begin in Ireland.  Mind you, with the summer we've been having, the farmers will be lucky to get anything into their barns at all.  It's been the wettest on record, and pretty well the coldest too.  And yet, I know that many of my friends in the southern half of the world are experiencing hideously high temperatures and no moisture at all.  'If I could get over to your place, I'd dance in your garden in the rain,' wrote my friend Angeluna feelingly, from Texas.  'It's 109 deg here and I only go outside to refill the birdbaths,' says Linda in Oklahoma.   Here in the grey north we simply can't imagine temperatures like that.  My thoughts are with you, and here is a quick trip into Ireland's damp green landscape to cool you down.

Being the beginning of August, and therefore the great sun festival of Lughnasa  there is only one place to be.  Mount Brandon, down on the Dingle Peninsula in Kerry, where every year at this time the local people celebrate Lughnasa by the age-old tradition of scaling the mountain.  They call this Climbing to Crom, which links it to a very early pre-Christian nature god.  Today, of course, a priest or two will be among the climbers, and prayers are said at a grotto on the way up and on the way back, but the original ritual is still preserved, no matter what decorative vestments may be thrown over it.

The same celebration takes place at Croagh Patrick up in Mayo, where upwards of three thousand pilgrims made the climb at dawn this year, and there are several other mountains around the country, each with their own faithful followers.

It's not a harvest festival, but more a festival of first fruits.  The blackberries and froachans (bilberries, wild blueberries) are ripening, and in some counties they celebrate Froachan Sunday at this time, young people heading out to the hills to gather the fresh berries to bring home.  Yes, I know we can all buy jams and jellies at the local supermarket these days, but try to think back to a time when your life, and that of your family, depended on the crops you could grow?  July was always known as the Hungry Month in Ireland in earlier times, and probably in many other lands too.  You had used up all your carefully stored foodstuffs and had to wait, sometimes half starving, until the new crop was ready to cut.  The ripening berries were not just welcome, they were desperately needed.

When potatoes were introduced into Ireland around the 17th century, they became the eagerly awaited early August crop.  On this day the very first new potatoes were dug, and the family would have a celebratory meal, always remembering to say Go mbeirimid beo ar an t'am seo aris  ('may we all be alive at this time again.')  I still say it when I bring in the first blackberries, the first new potatoes.  It's nice to keep up the custom.

So why climb the mountain?  Well, it's the nearest you can get to the sun, and to the sun god Lugh, after whom the month of Lughnasa is named, to ask his blessing on a good harvest to come.  If he isn't thus honoured, he might just throw an unexpected thunderstorm or a battering bout of rain into the picture, and ruin the long-awaited crop.  Crom, the earth deity, would have been an earlier nature god, before the Celts came to Ireland.  You find references to him in different parts of the country, always associated with the land and crops.

Gosh, sorry.  I didn't mean to go into all that detail.  Blame the new book.  It's driving me mad in these final stages.  Here are some of the climbers, a few going up, some coming back down already after the long climb there and back.  You can just see the little base camp grotto there on the right, beyond the fence, under the trees.

There are several routes up Mount Brandon, two of them, on opposite sides of the hill,  bearing exactly the same name Pilgrim's Road.  This one was less frequented that day, but just look at these sentinel stones looming powerfully over the track, observing all that comes by.  Straight out of Lord of the Rings.  And it was a wild blowy day too, brief glimpses of sunshine giving way to driving mists as we drove up to the very end of this track to the point, in a deep dark valley surrounded by hills, where you had to strike off across the slopes and up into the clouds.  So mysterious you fully expected to see little shadowy figures darting from the shelter of one rock to another, dodging out of sight before you could see them fully.  Gollum or an elf?

The village of Cloghane was in full festive mood that day, with weary climbers returning to join their friends who were busy setting up stalls, organising dog shows, corralling the sheep for the shearing contest later on.

Gosh I remember well the days you'd be lucky to get a chipped mug of instant coffee anywhere on the Dingle Peninsula.  These days things are much better.  The local shop not only brewed up a fresh cafetiere of good strong brew, but also had delicious freshly-baked buns and cakes on display.  Locals were rushing in and out for loaves, still warm from the oven, or home-made raspberry and redcurrant jam (yes of course I bought a pot, how could I resist? First fruits, after all!)

After that it was a quick dash down to Brandon Quay a few miles away, for the Blessing of the Boats, another ceremony which takes place during the Feile Lughnasa.  That's something that has been observed since earliest times too, whether carried out by a clergyman or a druid, since the dangers of the sea have always been well known, and too many families have known the loss of a father, a brother, a son.  Do you know that incredible play of J. M. Synge's, Riders to the Sea?  At the end, when her last son is drowned, the old woman, Maurya, echoes Greek tragedy in her strange almost-relieved acceptance.

                 They're all gone now, and there isn't anything more the sea can do to me. . . . 

Here is Brandon Quay, looking lively and cheerful in the afternoon sunshine (the grey clouds had decided to go off and dampen somebody else's spirits for a while).  The Dingle lifeboat was there, and scores of smaller fishing craft.  You probably can't make it out from here, but there are traditional tarred canvas curraghs up on the slipway too.  They've been used as long as men have fished the coasts of Ireland and they're still being made today.

Ha, you thought I wasn't going to mention knitting, didn't you?  Well you're wrong.  The Ravellenics are on, which means thousands (possibly millions) of knitters around the world are somehow finding time to work on the most challenging projects possible, and achieve their personal best.  Me, I went for this cabled jacket in a gorgeously soft merino/silk from Malabrigo.  Cabled did I say?  This pattern has cables on cables, and then some.  There is barely a row when you can draw breath in between twists and lifts and crossovers.  But it will look stunning when it's done. IF it's done by the end of the Olympic Games, next Sunday...

Nice picture, isn't it?  Credit to DH once again.  He really knows how to capture both colour and texture.

But here's the one you wouldn't normally see - me retracing my steps carefully from the fence where we photographed the piece, gathering up the miles (well it seemed like miles) of unwound yarn from the ball which for some reason had decided not to come with us but wait further down the cliff until we should see fit to return again.  Sophy Wackles was no help at all.

Oh I almost forgot.  Those of you yearning to move to Ireland and cooler, damper climes (are you absolutely sure?  Haven't been able to hang out the laundry for months), I've found your house of dreams.

Now look at that.  On a quiet country lane, where right now the wild roses and fuchsia are running riot, with Mount Brandon on one side and the sea on the other.  Desirable residence?  I should think so.

Sorry?  Oh you want another angle to make absolutely sure?  OK.

Not exactly sure how many rooms, but you'd get a nice traditional kitchen anyway, with an open fire and one of those cranes for hanging the pots over it.  A settle bed would be a bench by day, sleeping quarters at night.  Then in the other room you could have a real bed, muslin curtains at the window.  Bathroom?  Well there is plenty of space outside.  Myself, I think a little stone outhouse would add the perfect touch.

All right, all right, don't all rush at once.  Maybe I should go look up the estate agent?

Here is another little spot I thought you might like to see.  I simply love places like this, a microcosm of the countryside.  An old stone wall, covered with moss, ivy, and small plants.  Two protecting holly trees leaning over it to frame the distant view.  The kind of place you'd like to have at the end of your garden.

See, a whole posting without mentioning De Cat?

Well since you insist...   Of course Mishka is progressing superbly, growing inches by the day.  She's discovered that trees can be climbed (although the reverse procedure is still giving a little trouble) and has perfected the art of popping up by Sophy's chair to pat both doggy cheeks with each paw in turn at full speed (really confuses Sophy, that trick).  And the other day, observing her graceful and effortless leaps from one piece of furniture to the next, across beds, down staircases, DH determined to capture her in full flight.  It took two hours, and hundreds of shots (thank heaven for digital photography, can you imagine the rolls of film?) but in the end -