Monday, June 15, 2015

The Strange Case of the Disappearing Altar Stone

Truth is stranger than fiction.  In De New Book (and don't forget, lovely people who've been ordering it from O'Brien Press and requesting personally signed copies, let me know too, so I can match up the personal inscription with the order form, which isn't always easy because I might know you as Meg or Sunshine and the official order will have quite a different name, you can let me know by my email link on this page) ANYWAY where was I?  Oh yes, in De New Book the beautiful ancient site of Gougane Barra gets a good look in, both for its history and for its traditions which continue to this day.

Now in Gougane, on the tiny island in the lake -

There is a green island in lone Gougane Barra
Where Allua of songs rushes forth as an arrow
In green-valley'd Desmond a thousand wild fountains
Come down to that lake from their home in the mountains...

there is not only the tiny 19thc church which is enormously popular for weddings (and who could blame any couple for wanting to plight their troth in a place like this?) but the ruins of a much earlier chapel which lie, moss-grown and peaceful, to the back of the island.  Within these ruins, laid on a rock, is the venerable slab known for centuries as The Altar Stone.

For generations, those doing 'the rounds' at Gougane at St John's Eve and in late September pause at this stone and make crosses in its surface with a sharp pebble.  Over the years the grooves have been worn deeper and deeper as the faithful perpetuate a tradition that is likely to have started a long long time before Christianity ever reached this land.  Since time immemorial it has been customary to make sunwise circles around a sacred site and mark stones at specific points to ensure good harvests, good fortunes, fertility, cures.  And the Altar Stone is part of that tradition.

Or it was until a little while ago.  Breda Lucey, whose family run the wonderful old-world hotel at Gougane, went over one evening and discovered to her shocked surprise that the stone was gone. Nowhere to be seen.  It had vanished utterly.

Outside, in the greater world, theft and criminal acts are, sadly, accepted as part of daily life. But Gougane is a place apart, a sheltered haven where those seeking help and guidance have been comforted and supported by the very strength and spirit of the place.  Who could commit such an act?

The reverberations of Gougane's loss echoed well beyond the valley.  The police, the clergy, the newspapers, TV and radio all joined in the questioning and the searching.

The assistance of a diving club from Cork was requested.  When they heard what was missing and from where, they declined any payment for probing the depths of the lake - known in ancient times as Irce, after a goddess who protected its waters and its sacred island.  'Sure wasn't I married on that island myself,' said their group leader.

They searched the water for hours, hoping that perhaps some thoughtless teenagers had hefted its not inconsiderable weight as far as the shore just for a joke and slid it into the depths.  But nothing was found.  Members of the Lucey family donned waders and trudged right around the edges of the island in the shallower water, hoping to find the stone lying there.  But it was not.

One would feel tempted to say that no luck will come to those who have taken the Gougane Barra stone.  It's hard to think otherwise.  If someone desired it for a garden ornament, an amusing souvenir, or, worse still, stole it as a commercial undertaking on request, then one would not be in their shoes in the future.  The Altar Stone is part of Gougane, and should remain where it belongs.  Everyone hopes that it might quite suddenly be discovered one day soon, perhaps by the side of the little road that leads into the valley, returned quietly in the middle of the night.  If so, the matter would rest there.

In the meantime, the faithful will continue to observe the tradition of St John's Eve when they make the rounds, If the stone is not there, they will touch the tree under which it lay.  The custom will continue, as the Midsummer bonfires blaze on the hills around.

Those same Midsummer bonfires are another fascinating echo of the past (yes, they're given full coverage in De New Book).  Today's little rapscallions rushing around with branches and anything else they can lay their hands on to feed the bonfire (in city streets I've seen old furniture being pulled out of houses and thrown on the blaze) have no idea that they are continuing to observe a tradition whose origins go back far into the mists of prehistory.  In ancient times druids would kindle the sacred bonfire, made of nine special woods, and from that fire all household hearths would be re-ignited, having been put out beforehand.  Cattle were driven through the smoke, and young couples joined hands and jumped over the flames.

Once I had the good fortune to be flying back into Cork on St John's Eve.  Looking out of the plane you could see the grey smoke of a hundred bonfires curling and wreathing up to the clouds, right across the countryside and the city.  (Yes, the fire service does regard this night with apprehension, do you need to ask?)  It was a strange scene, and one which confirmed the strength of the old ways, even when today's fire-makers have no idea why they are doing it, just that it's something they must do.

Had a spell of tidying up not long ago.  Having opened a cupboard in search of a knitting project, and then retiring hastily as dozens of project bags fell out and tumbled all over the floor, I decided enough was enough.  The sight of so many UFOs (UnFinished Objects) was intensely depressing, and the only way to deal with that is to SORT IT OUT.

Here is the sorry heap of horror.  Half-finished, hardly-started, rejected, mixed up, totally forgotten about.  Time to show a little discipline chez Celtic Memory.  Several days of determined unpicking, rewinding, even (in a couple of rare cases) rescuing and laying on one side to finish after all, led to this:

Neatly-wound balls of yarn, ready to be returned to their respective boxes.  One dog mat for the car, which was so close to being finished that it hardly took ten minutes.  And lots and lots of lovely circular knitting needles of every gauge, crochet hooks, and stitch holders.  Oh I did feel virtuous. Currently am trying very hard to restrain the overwhelming urge to cast on for seventy-two shiny new projects before finishing those lying patiently in wait.

Speaking of dog mats, Petroushka, being still somewhat of a puppy, demanded a good day out recently.  'I'm entitled,' she explained, sitting up earnestly and studying our faces at the breakfast table.  'Every dog has her day, and mine is NOW!'  So we took her to West Cork's lovely coastline, and let her run wild on Toormore beach (she's out there somewhere, a tiny speck in the distance) which was deserted, despite it being a lovely summer weekend.  We still don't get crowds here, thanks be.

Then we went up to the hill above Lissagriffin and wandered around the old graveyard which holds many victims of the Famine in huge unmarked plots.  It's hard to imagine such sorrow and grief in a place like this, but echoes of the past are everywhere.

Came back through the Pass of Keimaneigh and discovered this lovely green woodland by a stream.

It was ridiculously Tolkien-ish and you kept expecting to see elven folk flitting among the trees and perhaps a green elvenstone lying by the water.

And finally, as evening was drawing in, we walked across the old clapper bridge at Ballingeary.  The hollowed slabs showed how many had walked that way before us over the centuries.  A lovely end to a perfect day.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Fair Set The Wind For France - And For De New Book!

I'd been feeling a bit under the weather a while back, so DH decided what I needed was a relaxing trip to France by car.  After so much air travel, going by ferry is an utterly blissful experience.  You just load up with everything you think you might need, from spanners and battery charges (DH) to knitting projects and books (me).  Then you simply pootle down to the ferry port, drive on board what must be the most delightful ship ever (Brittany Ferries' Pont Aven) and, barely pausing to drop your overnight bag in the cabin, head straight up to the patisserie for afternoon coffee.  Followed by an indulgent dinner and a good sleep to a gentle rocking.  When you wake up, you're in France!  No queues, no baggage weigh-in, no sitting rammed into a tight space for several hours, absolutely no hassle.  I can quite see what our grandparents enjoyed about going to New York by liner.  I'd do it myself if the QE2 were more obliging with timetables.

DH wanted to visit Noirmoutier in the Vendee to look for bluethroats.  This is the causeway which links the long island to the mainland.  At high tide it's submerged, but at low tide, just look what happens!

The whole world, his wife, and his grandmother too, head out to dig for palourdes (cockles in the Old World, mini-clams in the New).  It was fascinating to watch them carrying on this age-old harvesting.

The medieval city of Guerande where we stayed had this marvellous gargoyle (among hundreds of others, they're not short on gargoyles in France as a general rule).

Do you think it's a nun or a cat?  Or a blend of both?  Strange, I thought.

One of the most unusual experiences was stopping at a petrol station on the way down the autoroute.  These aires or rest stops are pretty busy, crowded places, the last location for anything charming or gentle or indeed unexpected.  But what would you call this?

A whole meadow of sweet peas, right between the petrol pumps and the exit road.  No, really.  I couldn't believe the incredible scent and just had to get down and lie among them.  For heaven's sake, I didn't know sweet peas could hold their own out there in the real world!  Where I live they have to be cosseted and coaxed into blossom and then revered and sheltered.  Here they were fighting cheerfully and giving tough remarks to the few invading poppies.  Must be the sunshine which was growing stronger the further south we headed.

Nipped past the medieval city of Carcassonne, famed in many a blockbuster novel.  We know its traffic jams of old, so contented ourselves with taking a quick view or two as we kept going.

Because I couldn't wait to get to the Pyrenees.  I'd been thinking of them for months, dreaming of the wonderful moment when you stare at the clouds floating far ahead on the horizon and then slowly realise that they're not clouds, they're the snow-capped peaks of that great barrier between France and Spain.  Once you're past the congested city of Lourdes, the road gets quieter (not surprisingly, since it also gets extremely narrow and exceptionally twisting).  But it's balm to the soul and to the heart to be back there among the wild ravines and crags.  You breathe easier in that amazing mountain air.

This of course is the awe-inspiring Cirque de Gavarnie, a sheer cliff face rising into the sky as the most formidable barrier imaginable.  (One generally avoids the over-used term 'awe-inspiring', but this is one example of where it is justified.)  Can you imagine a weary pilgrim on the way to Santiago de Compostela from Paris or London or anywhere else in northern Europe, taking a wrong path at the last minute and ending up facing that?  Because of course there are narrow and dangerous paths some way on either side of the impassable Cirque which will take you over the peaks into Spain.  And a road for cars too, nearer to Biarritz.  But I still like to think of those who sought safety and refuge by crossing the mountains from one country to another in harsher, more uncertain times.  The same thought occurred when flying across America some years ago, and looking down on the appalling tumbled mass of rocks and peaks that faced the early pioneers heading for California.  What did the women feel when they looked at the way they would have to go, and then looked at their children, their own aching, weary feet, their remaining baggage?  By that time of course to return would have been impossible, so going on was the only option.

Oh I have to show you this one.  If you're thinking of trading up on  your house, wait until you've explored this opportunity.  I'm being fairly generous sharing it with you, because I saw it first and I want it, I want it, I WANT IT!

This desirable residence is way up in the Pyrenees, in the Vallee d'Ossue, not far from Gavarnie.  No, I actually didn't notice any electricity cables or indeed water pumps, but I'm sure it has all the conveniences the true romantic would need.  Wouldn't you agree?  And of course happy wildlife all around to keep you from being lonely.

I loved the way Mama Marmot was placidly gazing at the view here while her children murdered each other in the background.  It's the same in every family, isn't it?

What was more unexpected in the wildlife line came as we were traversing an extremely streep and narrow road down from the heights, finding extreme difficulty in navigating through heavy cloud which had descended and masked everything more than a few inches in front of the car.  At times you literally couldn't see the road - and since there was a rock wall on one side and a vertical drop of a few hundred feet on the other, that was kind of worrying.  There was even snow banked up in some places.  And then, quite suddenly -

these appeared out of the mist, crossed the road in front of us, and then paused politely on the hillside to allow DH to let go of the steering wheel and grab his camera (I, meanwhile, grabbed the handbrake and pulled it.  Hard.)  Now what are the odds of finding three llamas crossing your path?  Is it good luck or what?  A sign?

A few kilometres further down, the mist lifted and we were back in brilliant sunshine.  With gentians.  Now Celtic Memory's favourite colour is undoubtedly bright blue and gentians hit the spot precisely.

This is the sock I was working on during the trip.  An Austrian twisted-stitch design which isn't quite finished yet.  (Have you ever tried working twisted stitches on switchback roads?)  When I do finish and wear these, I will always remember the gentians.

Down from the heights, a sharp turn right, and eventually you hit the South of France.  But not, alas the glamour of St Tropez.  DH had his eye and his heart set on the Camargue and a particularly hot and dusty plain known as La Crau.

La Crau is where you send cars for punishment.  If yours is acting up, give it a week on this and it will come home begging for mercy.  Small vicious rocks cover the ground almost entirely, with dry red dust trying to make a living between.  Occasionally huge flocks of sheep, their fleeces stained red by the dust, wander past, ensuring nothing else can grow very fast or for very long.  On colder winter nights the sheep stay in tiled barns like the one shown here.  Which also play host to lesser kestrels in the roof space.  Which is why DH spent an entire very hot day there.

But I didn't mind.  The south of France meant we were within easy striking distance of historic Orange.

Stunning place with all its ancient remains, and quite a charming place to spend an evening too.  Quite close to Avignon and all its sights, but out of the really huge crowds of tourists.  And at dawn next morning I was waiting impatiently at the gates of a very old mill a few miles north.

I'd been determined to get here, ever since the French trip was mooted, but DH had thought it was too much out of our way.  Ha!  I knew once I tempted him with the Camargue I was home and dry!

Pierre Loye et Cie has been on this site for about two  hundred years, spinning those wonderful yarns for Anny Blatt and Bouton d'Or.  And they have a factory shop...

Although it wasn't supposed to open until 11, the staff took pity on me knitting so very obviously outside their gate, and let me in early, through the back door.  Yes, I had a lot of fun.   No, I have no intention of telling you how much I spent.  Some things are better not recorded.

We came back up through the Cevennes (remember Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels With A Donkey?), another place I love a lot.  It has deep gorges and tiny villages clinging to hillsides as they have done for hundreds of years.  If you enlarge this picture (I think you can by clicking on it) you will see what appears to be a strange huge figure standing up there on the crags above the village.  It gave me quite a shock when I glimpsed it.  Didn't know Bigfoot holidayed in Europe!

Even found time to drive through the magical forest of Broceliande, where Merlin lies buried and a thousand legends waft around the sacred fountain.  This is another powerful place, although the little villages are starting to build on its reputation a little too much with a lot of pseudo-magical mystery stuff and souvenir shops.  Can't blame them, though, really.

And so back home, coming into Cork in the early morning where the weather was cool and damp after France but the Continental visitors crowded the deck to look at Cobh and its cathedral, and all the brightly-painted houses spilling down the steep streets to the shore.  Cobh was, of course, the last port of call for the Titanic, but you knew that.

And home to a wonderful surprise.  De New Book had arrived!  A special advance copy was waiting in the letterbox.  You can see what it looks like up there at the top of the page.  It was a long, hard slog (as is every book for every writer) but holding the finished product in your hands for the first time is always incredible.  And, despite all our fears, the sepia tints and black and white pictures did work most effectively.

Don't you think?    Oh I can't disguise it, I'm as proud as Punch!  What started out to be a fairly simple and easy overview of fairy tales and legends took its own path and insisted I explore the old ways and old beliefs of Ireland, showing how they are still there, still practised, still to be found.  And that's what it became.

Oh look, why not show you this?  I got DH to take it in St Malo.  The sign is pointing the way to the ancient House of Poets and Writers.  And I thought well if not now, when?