Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Midwinter! We Have Reached The Solstice!

 Well, what a strange year it has been for everybody, in all corners of the world.  The last time I spoke to you, it was coming into high summer and everywhere was beautiful.  The advantage of lockdown was that you could really see the season changing, day by day.

When the restrictions eased enough to let us travel within our own county, we took advantage of it right away.  The fact that Cork is the largest county in Ireland did help - you can go a hundred miles and still be within the regulations.  Which we did.  Right down to the Beara Peninsula.

Bantry Bay was a heart relaxing sight after so much time spent at home.

And taking the tiny ferry across to Bere Island was just what was needed - a brisk short sea voyage.

The bog cotton was blowing across the grasslands in great swathes.  Always wished you could spin this, but the fibres are far too short, alas.

And look at these glorious old hand-built stone steps, leading up to the loft above an old homestead.  

All the crops, the hay, the potatoes and turnips, would have been carried up there and stored carefully against the winter.

The advantage of this remote region is that you have no problem with social distancing.

Unless of course it's a female pheasant casually crossing the road on her way to the shops. Yes, of course they have shops.  'A bag of nice blackberries please, and some hazelnuts if you have them. Oh, and some new socks for the children.  The way they wear those out, running round..."

To keep myself and every other likeminded knitter busy during the long quiet summer, thought it would be a good idea to start a Great Summer Gansey Knitalong on Ravelry, the online knitting club.  Well, it took off amazingly!  Hundreds came in on it, and we all had great fun comparing patterns and showing off our progress.

This is my Great Gansey Adventure, worked in three strands of a Shetland yarn which had been dozing in the stash for years.  Those trees and diamonds and things really stop you getting bored when you're beavering away on the back or the front.  We had so much fun indeed, that the KAL continued in autumn and is now going full blast for winter.  Because the seasons have swung round, and we are at the turning once more.  From now, the days will start drawing out.  And surely things will slowly get better.

You know it's winter when the zoo starts spending more time indoors.  Well actually, all the time they can possibly get away with indoors.  Brogeen (who has grown into a splendid young man) enjoyed watching Autumnwatch on TV, occasionally trying to pat a bird by way of being friendly.

When it's a cold night, cats and dogs pile up together in a warm heap.  You wouldn't think you could get two dogs in that box, let alone a cat, but Marigold is pretty determined, and can usually find a corner of opportunity.

'Oh surely there's a place up there for me, too?  Oh go on, move up a bit, will you?'

This morning it wasn't actually raining (although that was forecast for the afternoon) so we headed down to neighbouring Kerry before new restrictions stopped us going over the county bounds

Muckross House in Killarney was looking splendidly Gothic in the drifting clouds,

and the legendary lakes were as still and beautiful as they have always been.

Even the cafe was open!  I know, I know, social distancing and all that, but we were well masked up, and the place was empty, so we risked it.  Isn't this miniature display lovely? It greets you as you go in. The scones and coffee were delicious too, especially when such little treats have been almost non-existent since the start of the pandemic. You never know how much you take for granted until you don't have it any more.

But the best was kept for last!  We decided to drop in to that weaving shed in the woods (in a deadly secret location) to wish a good friend the compliments of the season.  And once there, well, how could you not look along those shelves of coned yarns, drool over colours, almost reach out until you remembered not to touch?  But our friend was in happy mood, and hauled out a box of leftovers, cones too small to be of use, inviting me to dig in.  And then, when coaxed,he allowed the purchase of a few at the top of the range too. What a haul to bring home!  The dogs raised their collective eyebrows at the big box with which they had to share the back seat of the car, but DH agreed that it could be his Christmas present to me.

Here they are, being unpacked at home.  Nearly all pure alpaca, except for some rather jolly Donegal tweed in an unusual chunky gauge.  Oh will there be some fun with these over the festive season!

Joys of the solstice to you!  Keep your woodstoves well stoked, see to the bird feeders, and if you hear the horns of the Wild Hunt sounding out in the woods between now and Women's Christmas, then clutch a branch of apple or rowan, and wish them well.  They are searching out the bad things, and are no danger to you.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

It's Maytime, and Summer Is Icumen In!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 10, 2020

A Quieter, More Peaceful Time Returns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From that inspiration, came these:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, actually there is.

Friday, August 09, 2019

A Day in The Remote Valleys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The blackberries were ripening -

the bees were busy -

and a grayling showed his preference for heather honey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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