Irish Country Observer
In 2002 my husband and I left America and moved first to the UK. To keep in touch with my family and friends I began a newsletter I first called the English Country Observer. By the time we moved to LIncolnshire where my husband took a place as a teacher, it transitioned into the Town & Country Observer.
The adventure in Ireland began October 2004 when we packed up our things in Lincolnshire and threw caution to the wind (well I did) and moved to Ireland. The music, the scenery and the people drew me, and having relatives there didn't hurt.
House October 2004
October 2004- February 2005
My husband stayed on another week to finish out to the half term at school and then traveled down to Cornwall. I meanwhile had the challenging task of traveling with friends to my sister-in-law’s house in order to be there when the furniture arrived. The furniture had been packed up at Lincolnshire with impressive efficiency, despite the pouring rain. At my sister-in-law’s, after a few phone calls the following day, I found that the furniture would arrive in just under a week’s time, giving me time to sort a few things out. I also could relax a bit and soak in the fact that I was in Ireland. The weather was fair--a good sign, along with the fact that the much promised library had opened in the village that week. I went over to the house with my friends and managed to take them up a completely different road to the one I had lived on (it rose up in a windy way just like mine). I got the right road in the end and it all checked out as sound and no immediate problems. That done it began to become clear that the piece of the road from the nearby farm to our place might be a problem for the moving van. That evening my brother-in-law quizzed me on the size of the lorry (van) and I assured him that it was moderate in size and he just grimaced and said we’d just have to “suck it and see.”
My unease deepened in the following days when we got differing reports from various depots in Britain that indicated the furniture was part of other deliveries and they could not be definite about the arrival of the lorry. But the assigned day dawned and we got a phone call from the lorry driver who had managed to lose himself in the next valley. My brother-in-law gave him directions and then asked him the size of the van-- of course it was huge. Sucking mightily I got in the car with my brother-in-law and went to meet the lorry as showers began to fall. The lorry made it up to my new neighbors’s farm but could go no further. So my brother-in-law, wise in Irish ways after 6 years in the country, knocked on the door and
recruited our neighbor’s help. The farmer was with the cows drying them off (dairy herd) so they would have their holiday the next week, but his son was glad to lend a hand on his day off. So out came the tractor and the hay trailer and the long slog to ferry the furniture, ¼ mile down the road began. I stayed at our house and directed and rearranged things as they came in and prayed that the showers would abate when the mattresses, sofa and chairs came bouncing down the road.
All in all it went amazingly well and no mishaps occurred. The young English mover moaned about it the whole time but the driver was quite philosophical. He had about three more loads to drop off in Cork, Waterford and Dublin and he laughed that he was supposed to do it by the evening. (we are about 5 hours from Dublin). My gratitude was huge to all involved and I felt I was fortunate in my neighbors.
My good fortune in my neighbors continued a few days later when my brother-in-law and I went searching for water with our other neighbor, who lives in the other working farm on our road. He’s a part time farmer though, since it is difficult to make a full time living these days on the small farms that are typical around here (20-50 acres). He works at the Dairy, or the Coop as it’s officially named on the sign. It’s the Agway of Ireland, where the dairy farmers sell their milk, buy their feed, fertilizer and a thousand and one other things including building materials. It’s also where many go for the local “craic,” the buzz, gossip and
jokes. It’s where we were to become so well known that they would key in our order for cement whenever they saw us enter. In any case our neighbor works in the yard, loading goods and giving insight on the best this and that for a particular need. He’s a lovely gentle man who had helped out the former owner of our house, Peter Creedon, when his body, worn with drink and hard work, could no longer cope. Our neighbor had helped Peter make repairs on the pipe work several years before.
So we tramped behind him as he regaled us with tales about the land, the ponies he’d put on this patch and the hay grown over in that patch. As if divining he went to the place where one join was, dug it up for inspection and made a few adjustments. Then on to the next join, up through a stream and across to a small outcrop of “sally” trees (Sally or more correctly spelled, saile, is the Irish word for willow). We cleared back the bracken and bramble and located the pipe work and joins which needed a coupling. Then he tramped on and we finally found the well. It was lovely and clear and bubbling away, so we knew it was fresh. The pipes were intact and he said we’d only have to blow the pipe clear at the coupling and we’d be fine. Skeptical, I thanked him and trudged back to the house, proud that I could understand about 80% of what he said and could converse intelligibly. On the other hand I wondered at the distance of the well from the house.
But a few days later I was to be amazed when my brother-in-law and I, armed with the coupling and the air bed pump, went over to the well and made the repairs. It was blowing a gale and we slogged around in deep water going up to the well. I didn’t mind because when we finished there was no hesitation when we turned on the faucets at the yard and the porch, and the water poured forth. To celebrate we laid a little fire in the fireplace and had a cup of tea (no, not from the kettle boiled on the fire- from a thermos). We had made a small step forward in this adventure.
About this time I also had a visit from our prospective builder, who came to look at the general house plans drawn up by the engineer and talk to me about the build in general. He was the builder who’d worked on my sister-in-law’s house six years before and was known in the area as a fine tradesman. He has many building skills and does everything from blockwork to roofing to chimneys. He’s a Kerry man, but despite that they like him well in the village and think of him as an honorary Cork man.(there is a great rivalry between the two counties). He moved here about 20 years ago when he got married. He has an
injured hand, but still turns his hand (so sorry about pun) and we were most fortunate to be able to get him to do our building work—the extension, the chimney work and the roofing. He is a grand fella who likes to joke, but sometimes speaks so fast and when he’s excited you can only shake your head and look blank. Is this the way all Kerry men talk?
Our builder was able to give me an estimate on the building cost and I was greatly relieved to see it was within our budget that I had set up based on research using U.K. prices. (The house is currently 2 bedrooms above two rooms below. Old wiring and no bathroom and the kitchen consisted of the fireplace). Our builder was not able to start until December, he said, because he had a large roofing job on. As it turned out in the discussion there was plenty of preparation work to do before he arrived on the scene so it was fine.
One of the things on my starting list was to phone the county road maintenance department about the road. Our road is a public road but I’m sure you would find better bike trails in the states. I realize this is the charm of the back woods mountainy people and why it probably remained remote, but our car couldn’t suffer it for many months. We are the last farm on the road and the road people had just created a beautiful surface the month before we got there. The problem is they ran out of grant money (so they said) just at our neighbor’s. There is ¼ mile (as you probably remember) from their farm to our house. The farmer’s wife told me to start phoning them and just bug them every week until they get tired of it and do something. So I started. Each week I got different tactics and answers, so it’s now like a bit of a game to see if he can catch me out. I’m not sure I’m getting anywhere, except perhaps entertaining him. “Well you know now, the road was bad when you bought the place, so you did know it would be that way.”
“Ah, but you’d started the work as we bought it so we assumed you’d pave all the way through.” “Ah,” says he, “I can see your point.” And so on we go.
Shortly after fixing the water and meeting with the builder I went back over to Cornwall to join my husband and help him load our car and drive back over to Ireland (I just love ferry trips—not). All in all I was away for about 4 days and traveled back this time up through Wales to Fishguard and across to Rosslare. This time I was spared the fun time in Dublin at rush hour and had a relatively straight forward journey from Rosslare to my sister-in-law’s. My husband spent a few days getting over the shock of being first teaching in Lincolnshire, then packing in Cornwall then arriving in Ireland within 5 or 6 days. It was disorienting to say the least. But then he was ready to “get stuck in at our place.”
After we arrived at our place and spared a few moments of “where the hell do we start,” my husband tackled the living room fireplace—trying to clear it so we could light a fire and air out the room while I assisted searching for bits to stick up there. Unlike the kitchen fireplace, which you can literally stand up in and see up and out with no problem, the living room fireplace is probably the smallest chimney possible. The fishing rod proved unsuccessful after it snapped at the join, but we did manage much with the guttering that had fallen off outside. Needs must. Improvisation. That is the watch word of this whole project, I think. And reminds me that I have assimilated a bewildering array of Irish, American, English, and Cornish building terms. For example: guttering (English); launder (Cornish). I can also add Kerry terms and Cork terms for tools. So I beg pardon as time goes on and there is confusion in my terminology. More than likely I don’t know the American term anyway.
Terminology is fascinating anyway and I find that here, there are times the Irish favor American terminology over English terminology (if they’re not using their own particular Irish terminology). You buy kerosene here for lamps, not paraffin, the English term. As for proper names, well that is a whole different story that sort became strongly evident when my husband and I went down to the village to get timber to make doors for the barn. With our brother-in-law’s help we’d cleared out the barn—took out the rotten upper floor timbers and the milking stalls down below (it was a dairy farm) and then painted wood worm killer on the floor beams. This was to enable us to move the furniture over to the barn, but we needed doors and windows to secure it. We were directed to go to Jerry Fries in the village (of course I’m thinking Jerry Free’s). He and his brother run the local undertaking and coffin business. Jerry builds coffins and is now one biggest suppliers of coffins in Ireland. But he is a real character who likes the local “craic” (gossip/jokes/fun) that the locals go there for bits and bobs in timber. When we went there bearing our credentials (we’re related to so and so and told by so and so) he asked us where we live. My husband looked to me and I said it as I had learned –COOL-ya-hur. Jerry laughed at us and told us it’s cool- LEE-er. I didn’t know if it was a wind up or not, but I duly pronounced it his way and he nodded at me, satisfied. A few days later I said it again to someone else and they corrected me and tell me another pronunciation. At this point I just mumble the name and launch into spelling it. I await proper instruction from our neighbor’s wife, who was born and raised here. She, I think, would know and I can understand her.
Later we tried to phone Jerry to check about some more timber but we couldn’t find him in the little area phone book. Sure he’s in there, we were told. Humphrey Lynch. O---o-h. (Jerry FRIE from- HUMPHREY—all a nick name). And Dinny Matty, our local font of information for workmen, well his real name is something else entirely, as is John-the-Rookery and half of the older men in the community, it seems. In the next week or so we worked to get the furniture over to the barn and set up a basic kitchen in the little porch attached to the kitchen (well, the room that was called the kitchen). We put our waist
size fridge in there, the LPG stove/range (called cooker here) which my husband's niece gave us when she remodeled her kitchen—each of them on either side of the Belfast sink (a swanky sink in posh homes of the U.K. nowadays, but its humble origins are evident here). We got the gas cylinder hooked up and viola—A HOT CUP OF TEA. Very exciting since the fridge was only show and was not on in the absence of electricity. The fridge was more a pantry—a mice proof place to put perishables.
We created a semblance of living arrangements as December approached. We relied on the kitchen fireplace for heat and lit oil lamps in the evening. I clipped a flashlight to my collar to wash dishes out in the“scullery,” after boiling the kettle for hot water. Our toilet facilities were very basic and those of you unhearty souls can skip over the next bit. My husband erected a toilet tent over a deep hole and equipped it with a white plastic chair with the seat cut out ( he used a saw for that). With a bucket of lime beside the chair the scouting answer to outdoor living was completed. At this point we had yet to spend a night at our place but we cooked all our meals there.
During these weeks I tried to take time most days and walk up the road (even more like a bike
trail that way) to what was becoming my favorite sight—the ridge our neighbor pointed out to me as his place to go and see the view. It is amazing there. It’s just off the road, over some tufts of grass and gorse to a little ridge that is surrounded by views of the various colors of the Derrynassagert mountains, the valleys and the Paps in the distance. The Paps are two mountains shaped like breasts and were held sacred as far back as Pre-Christian times. I read about them years ago and still cannot believe my fortune to have them so near to me. It is a sight that can never tire, never bore, because the colors change constantly. The sky is always new with different blends of colors and clouds, even when it’s overcast.
Such plays with color were strongly evident when my husband and I took a break on his birthday,
November 24, and went to Inch Beach on the Dingle Peninsula in Kerry. Inch Beach is famed because it featured in Ryan’s Daughter and you can still see the schoolhouse they erected for the film (no it wasn’t original). That aside, Inch seems a misnomer, for when you arrive it stretches for miles. We walked along it, the wind whipping at our faces and clothes, and stared out at the waves breaking in the distance. The clouds were moving quickly across sky from the distant hills onto the sea, creating colors among the wet sand and rock pools that shimmered under shafts of sunlight that filtered through the clouds. A scene Turner would paint.
A scene Turner wouldn’t paint occurred a few days later when my husband and I decided to drive up the
other way and go over to his sister’s through the village of Coolea. We drove up the little hill and around the corner, careful of the ruts in the road and were met by a huge black bull standing in the road, complete with
brass ring and ornery expression. My husband, hailing from the country, says we’ll see if we can persuade him to move to the side and let us pass (me I think-turn around—he wins—but of course there was no where to turn, being boggy heather and gorse on either side). So slowly we inch our way up the road and the bulls just walks on before us, casting back increasingly annoyed glances each time. We do this for several hundred yards while I imagine visions of our car hood being trampled by a bull, until finally, just as the bull is starting to stamp and blow, we see a spot to turn around and make short work of it.
I’ve seen the bull several times since and he still hasn’t found a more pleasant expression to
wear. I’m told he’s a Limousine, an ornery breed to say the least. He usually stands on some hillock or other at the side of the road munching on some scrubby grass, surrounded by various cows. At first we thought the cows belonged to the brothers who own the farm just beyond the end of our road. They are a set of 4? bachelor brothers between the ages of 70 and 85 or thereabouts. They have a fair size farm and raise cattle. Each brother apparently is responsible for one aspect of the farm. Who ever is in charge of the yard has very high standards, as is the one in charge of the cooking (so I hear). We figured that the brother in charge of maintaining the fences, let the side down (ha, ha).
It seems, though, the fields belong to the O’Leary’s and I don’t know where their farm is, so no speculation yet. I’ll have to see what I can pick up here and there, a method that is allowing me to slowly assemble a picture of the community and the history of our house and its inhabitants. The last owner was Peter Creedon, one of 11 children who lived here. His father married the only daughter of the family who owned this farm, (O’Leary?). He was the schoolmaster at Coolea and apparently wrote many manuscripts about the history of the area. Some copies are now in the hands of some of the people around here (hmmmm). Not that I would be able to read it, because it’s all in Irish. But my archive training makes me itch to get it copied and put in the library.
I feel I uncover bits of the history of the family when I work around the house, pulling off ceiling boards to reveal the beams or remove brambles, weeds and mud from the various stone buildings and remains of buildings. I feel that I’m uncovering the soul or spirit of this place and the people who lived here. On one side of the drive, which my husband spent days shoveling out the mud and brambles, we found the stone walls of the donkey shed. In the shed were the remains of the donkey cart (the seat had been used to repair the door to the another shed). Later, as I shoveled and cut back inside, I found the collar, harness, a small saddle and other bits and pieces belonging to the donkey. When we mentioned it to our neighbor, and then my husband's sister’s neighbor they told us stories about Peter and his donkey. Peter was a large man, 6 ft. 5in., very broad, but not inclined towards work. He used just get up on the donkey and ride it to the village or just roll the cart down, since he couldn’t be bothered to harness up the donkey. Peter was also fond of poteen, we hear. Poteen is like “white lightening.” We’ve found many little bottles of it in the ground already. Though it is illegal to make, it still finds it way around these days. I had a taste of it (brought to my brother-in-law to “help his fierce cold”). And I can say only that it tasted somewhat like Ouzo and even with hot water it wouldn’t be my choice.
Not soon after my husband's birthday we were able to get our phone connected. It was quite an occasion since it is an important tool in any house renovation (phone here, phone there, phone everywhere for supplies, utilities, and of course roadworks department). We did find that the English phone we had didn’t work, it had an American phone connection, so we needed to get an adapter. That done, we were in business and able to mark the next step in our settling when we got our first postal delivery—the phone contract. Our postman is Tighe (pronounced Tig -long i) O’Sullivan (so our neighbor said) and he drives up in his little green van. He lives locally, as do all the local postmen. He has delivered post to us anywhere from 3 pm to as late as 7 pm during Christmas.
By the first week of December we had a happy surprise from our builder, when he told us that he would be able to start the building work since he had finished his job early. By this time we had our preparation jobs done and were ready to go. After he went over the very basic drawings we had from the architect he did his own measurements and calculations and we were set to get the foundations dug. We called in a local farmer for that and he came along with his JCB. This is the common practice over here in rural communities since farmers can make some extra income from hauling and digging for neighbors. Tighe did our work (there are loads of Tighe’s around here).
In the next few days we had the readymix concrete ordered and poured into the foundation ditches. I was amazed at the speed of it all, though we did have to hold our breath and see if the big cement truck could get up the road and, more difficult, turn around in our concrete yard. Bold man that he was, he did it with little problem.. As with the digger we paid cash on delivery. That is the way of it here, very much old style in the handling of business transactions. No invoices or pre-paying. And it is much the case of ordering one day and it’s here in the next few days. Sometimes it might be in the evening, too.
In the midst of all this building activity I took the first weekend in December to at last attend the Diarmuid O’Sullibhean Traditional Music Festival. I scanned the little brochure and eventually asked the help of the librarian to make out what everything was. It was in Irish of course. This is one of the Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) areas and they get grants to sponsor events to celebrate Irish culture. In this festival, the best events, as I expected, got really going around 10 pm and ended at 2 officially, but probably went on until 4 or 5. But I decided to husband my strength after a day of shoveling and skip Friday night’s ceili and reception and go for the workshops on Sat. morning, starting with the fiddle. In the end I managed to
forget my chin rest and when I got there I was greeted in Irish and given various instructions about form filling and other things in Irish. It was slow to dawn but it finally penetrated my brain that the instruction would be in Irish. Did I mention that, other than a few words, I don’t speak Irish? Sure I can pronounce the words off a piece of paper enough to sing, but understand rapid fire Irish—not at all and not especially in the morning. Desperate to enjoy something, I opted for the later sean nos dancing (old style dancing) workshop.
The teacher was a youngish magnetic man who spoke with a lovely voice. He apparently asked in Irish if everyone had the Irish (according to the woman next to me who asked me if I had the Irish) Of course the time had passed to raise my hand so I thought I would just wing it. So off I go, imitating his steps and having no clue about the background he was filling everyone in on. It was not step dancing, but a sort of early style shuffle dancing with a few step dance bits to it. I could see it more than likely contributed to the tap that emerged in America. Despite the lack of understanding of the words, the feet spoke well enough that I was able to enjoy it. There were about 30 people there of all ages 7-70 say and both male and
female. They thought it was grand.
Feeling bolstered by the experience I returned to the house and helped my husband the rest of the afternoon, resolved to go down for a session at the Mills Pub later. Don’t know what happened but by the time we packed up and went down to the Mills the musicians were packing up there—bad timing! Never mind, we had a pint of Guinness and observed the local color.
The next afternoon I was determined to give the festival one last go and drove down for the sean nos singing session at the Mills. Arriving there it was crowded with people eating and talking and watching hurling (hurling is very big in the area) on the TV. Finally I asked where the singing was held and they directed me out the back door to the stone barn. There my luck was in (well after a bit of a wait—things don’t start on time of course). Sean nos (literally—old style) is singing that is unaccompanied. Usually in Irish, but not always and intoned with various ornamentations added to the notes. I find it very beautiful and felt I’d been allowed a real treat that afternoon. There were many locals there, many older men and women, the men in their misshapen and worn suit jackets they wear on the farm or their stiff Sunday best, singing in deep rich silky tones that you don’t hear much today. The MC who knew everyone (or those who sung) went around and encouraged various people to give a song. There was some modesty displayed but the voices that followed belayed any need for that. As the singer gave his particular rendition a person or two would shout a word in Irish at a pause, to give them praise or encouragement. Others would nod or sing the chorus along with them, if it was appropriate. It was a beautiful to experience. They were still going strong 3 hours later when I left to get dinner.
Christmas was fast approaching by now, though the decorations in and around the village were modest. Shortly after this festival the librarian asked me if I would do the storytime for Christmas. She’d had one for Halloween and it had gone very well. I had mentioned that I would be willing and so now my chance had come. I looked forward to it and managed to dig out my old dog puppet, Hudson, who’d been my companion at Glenside Library storytime. I also made a new Santa hat for him and found my reindeer antler band and after borrowing some flashing Santa earrings from my sister-in-law, I felt I was ready. It was great fun really. There were about 20 kids there and surprisingly they ranged from 4-10 years of age. And so well behaved! I told them Hudson was from America and loved it here, except he wasn’t sure that Santa came to Ireland. I was hoping that reading stories and getting the kids to help
me with his questions would convince him.
So I read various stories, sang songs and then asked them things like what kind of food goodies they left Santa when he came. One older girl started it off with the usual milk and cookies and we went through other variations until one little 4 year old chimed in “a glass of beer!” Then another said, “we leave whiskey!” It was a hoot really. After it was over the librarian chatted with me about the events she was hoping to do in the coming year. She asked me if I would lead a teen book club and I agreed to do that.
One of the questions I asked the kids was if it was going to snow for Christmas. They assured me it was, and I thought yes, well, I don’t think so. But they were right. My husband and I woke up Christmas morning at his sister’s and saw a carpet of snow covering everything. We went for a walk with the dog up the hill as it was still snowing. It was like a fairy land with the white distant hills and valleys and little houses with curls of smoke billowing up from the chimney. Very picture postcard. My husband’s sister outdid herself with a huge Christmas meal filled with all the trimmings, including the fish for the three vegetarians (his sister is vegetarian too). The best of course is my favorite—Christmas pudding for dessert. My sister in law makes a mean pudding and also a wicked Dundee, which she made specially for me again this year. So much for losing weight with all my house renovation.
The next day was St. Stephen’s Day. In Britain (and the colonies—except U.S.) the day after Christmas is called Boxing Day. This came into use (so BBC says) in 1830 after the Christmas boxes the employers and the land owners would give their employees. Before that it was known as St. Stephen’s Day in Britain too. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, apparently. In any case there are old traditions about hunting the wren in Ireland that have some pre-Christian connotations, but I don’t think it’s practiced anymore.
We had a very quiet new year with my sister in law and brother-in-law, his sister and friend who
were over for a visit. Later that week we went to a neighbor’s for an evening. They have two boys 8 and
10. The husband, runs a dairy farm and his wife, is a teacher. We had quite a crackin time and they had loads of food.
With the new year unfolding my husband and I had managed to establish a little cosy set up at our
place and began to spend some nights there. We’d set the erected bed downstairs in the kitchen and there we could keep warm with the fire going in the fireplace or with our newly acquired portable gas heater. The weather had become mild again so we really didn’t feel any cold there at night. The various nooks and cracks the wind found were quickly plugged up with bits of paper and plastic.
The building project itself had stopped a few days before Christmas and, as with the local shops and factories, the builder gave himself a very good holiday that lasted well over two weeks. Christmas is definitely a time for a rest and enjoyment as far as I can tell, which is not such a bad thing really.
So it was back to work about the second week of January, but once started, things began to shoot up. With my husband laboring with blocks and mixing cement for the builder, the walls grew apace and my husband began to start thinking about windows. My husband has done something of a grand design in the upstairs window. He felt the view up there was too special and after much thought decided to carry the glass up to the eaves, making a sort of triangle of glass. He also enlarged the size of the window so that it’s something like 5’ 6” across. The room is only about 8x11 so it will dominate the room, but it was something he really wanted. It’s funny, but I never knew what a fetish he had about windows until this
project. He’s spent ages on all the windows and choosing what openings where and all of that.
Along about the second or third week of January my husband was asked to tutor again at the learning center in Killarney. He’d done a bit of tutoring there for a few weeks in Nov. when he first got here, but there wasn’t enough pupils there so he was dropped. With the new year in hand and the thought of leaving certificates and junior certificates that are the educational passports here, pupils were coming in droves. The learning center is less than a year old and so it was just getting known in the area. With his maths background it was a gold dust opportunity for him. He is now tutoring 6-8 sessions a week, all of them in the evening. This works very well with him since it allows him to work on the house in the day.
As for myself, I have made a few overtures to try and get some harp gigs, but since the pressure is off at the moment, I have deferred it to later when I can practice better and I know the community better and they know me. I might do a few gigs down at the library later in the spring or early summer, though.
I did take advantage of more music opportunities in January when I saw that Mairead Ni Mhainaigh of Altan fame was appearing with her nephew and husband in the village. I nearly shrieked when I saw the poster in Macroom. I really enjoy her singing and fiddle playing and Altan are a world class Irish band. So I asked to go as a treat for my birthday and roped my sister-in-law into joining me. It was stupendous. An amazing event. It was at the local culture hall which was packed to the gills. We got there early enough that we were on the second row. The seats rise up high behind so it wouldn’t be a problem anyway for viewing. The little auditorium probably held only a few hundred at best, so it was a most intimate setting. It was all done in Irish though, of course, except for a few words here and there, like when they explained the exits. But it didn’t stop me from enjoying it. Her voice was beautiful and her husband (she married the accordian player of Altan fairly recently) and her nephew, also a fiddle player were in fine form. After the break local musicians joined her on stage and she even encouraged others from the audience that she knew to come as well (some too modest, declined). This area is known for excellent musicianship in traditional music and so it was problem to get another singer, a flute player, an accordian, a guitarist, a pianist and a concertina player on stage –well maybe physically. Then the most incredible session began and went on and on – they were encored twice and ended up playing a half hour over schedule. Apparently (and as I suspected) they went on the Mills Pub and played on there. Mairead had her baby with her (mother in law looking after it upstairs at the Mills) and she slipped away about 2 am to breast feed and came right back and played on until about 6 am. Did I mention Mairead is in her 40s?
Irish Country Observer 2
Cows come to call
We knew spring had truly arrived a few weeks ago when Dave went out to the toilet tent first thing in the morning and was greeted by three cows and three calves in our meadow, staring at him in surprise. They had wandered down the road (probably sired by that bull we met last fall) and were drawn into our luscious meadow filled with daffodils. Not certain who owned the land up there I phoned our neighbor and found that they belonged to the O’Learys; and it wasn’t an unusual event and they even sometimes got as far as her yard. I duly phoned the O’Learys with the ditty about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and the Chicago fire going through my head. Mrs. O’Leary answered the phone and sure enough they had three cows and calves out and himself would be up in a while, after his cup of tea. It was the longest cup of tea (an Irish “while”) cause we never saw him, but the cows wandered back along the road shortly after he rang, so I guess he knew.
Meanwhile, our work on the house has gone along at a fair pace. It doesn’t seem so at times, but when I look back at January and the hole in the ground I do see the difference. After the walls went up, we seemed to hover in the “just about to do the roof” time period for the month of February. The builder went off on another job with the promise of a return in 10-14 days that ended up the whole month. The weather turned very cold and we had hail and rain for several days. In the mean time we ordered and put in the stone for the floor. It’s called “trunken” here which sounds about as heavy as it was taking barrow loads from the pile and dumping it into the extension. I lost count after about 100 barrow loads (was it 100?). Dave did most of the back work. I did wheel out and dump the barrow loads of earth before hand though (that was along the lines of about 50-60).
Dave also worked on the fireplace in the dining room. The builder and Dave had lined both chimneys with new flues and packed the surrounding areas with lime and cement. The large chimney we had to re-cement and then build up the floor. We also had the crane (the iron pole and pot hook) mended and replaced it into the floor. It looks really good.
February is also the month for celebrating St. Bridgit’s day (Feb.1) and St. Gobnait’s Day (Feb.11). St. Bridgit is well known to all of Ireland here and her feast day signals the first sign’s of spring, lambing and other stirrings of life. In the village they had the day off school and had St. Bridgit’s cross making (with rushes) in the Ionad Cultura. St. Gobnait’s is less well known, but she is the patron saint of the area and her grave is just outside the village just by her sacred well. She lived in about the 7th Century and was a religious woman who traveled around Ireland and ended up here when she saw the special sign of siting 9 harts (deer). Here she raised bees and healed many many people with her honey. People visit her grave and do special circuits of her oratory, grave and the ancient church ruins as well as the holy well. On her feast day they take an ancient statue out in the parish church and employ the old custom to take “Tomhas Ghobnatan”—measuring the length and breadth of the statue with a bit of ribbon which was believed to have powers to ward off evil and cure illness .
In Feburary I also did another storytime for the library. I had a good lineup of books for the older kids who came this time. They really still enjoyed the singing and little games too. They all turn up regularly and enjoy the story time given in Irish which is given every other week.
While I was there at the library, besides setting a date in March to start the teen book club, I happened to mention that I liked to sing in Irish, even though I didn’t speak Irish. The librarian invited me to join the choir, which were looking to get some new members. She explained it was the Cór Ban Chúil Aodha (Coolea Women’s Choir) and it was led by Peadar O’Riada, son of Sean O’Riada. I’d heard of Sean O’Riada who had settled in this area in the 60s. He was a power house movement behind the resurgence of interest in Irish traditional music. He started the group that was to become the Chieftains and wrote contemporary music for films as well as lecturing and writing about Irish music. I was really excited. Apparently this choir had restarted many years ago by Peadar and they worked on his composition of an 18th century Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire (Lament) written by Eileen O’Leary for her husband, Art, who was from the area and shot dead. They performed several times locally and in places all over Ireland, but now they were working on a new piece, The Song of Solomon in Irish. Laoi na Laoithe. She did warn me that the choir sang only with the words in front of them, Peadar had them memorize the music without any of it written down. The whole of the Lament in fact was only in Peadar’s head and on a recording.
So I showed up on the Wednesday and of course was the first one there, since no one ever shows up at the designated time, not even Peadar. The librarian was there soon and she introduced me to Peadar and many of the others as they came in. And that was the last I heard English that night, until choir ended. What a hoot. After a warm up (I could do that well enough) we began the real work. While reading off of the librarian’s sheets for the words, I tried to pick up the music for the piece. Peadar would stop occasionally and issue instructions (I think) and from gestures and a note on the piano I would pick up some of what was going on. Then for a few minutes Peadar would pick up a paper and scribble down some notes and the next bit of the piece was composed! He composed as we went along. Playing around with tones and harmonies and then giving us about 5 minutes to pick it up and commit it to memory. ACK. But I have to say I enjoyed it very much and looked forward to the next meeting.
In the next few weeks I managed to acquire the words for the Song of Songs and also the Lament
and some of the other short songs they sang as well. Soon though we started concentrating on the Lament since the date of the performance was approaching and Peadar wanted us to brush up on the lament. The first time we went through it I was a little overwhelmed, even though I had played the CD a few times at home to get the gist of it. The problem was hearing my part among all the harmonies. In many cases we were split off into six or more parts. I was clustered with 2 others (“altos”—read mezzo soprano/alto) and couldn’t always make out our part, even when I was there with them. That and trying to read the words and pronounce them right was something. So the librarian took pity on me and recorded the part along with the other woman. The next week or so before the performance I sat in the car singing along with the tape practicing while the building went on with Dave and the builder.
Besides being overwhelmed with the complexity of the performance the first time we sang it through in choir I was completely perplexed by a section in which the bulk of the choir sat there waving their right arms up and down and sang “Mar Winging.” “What is that?” I asked later. “Is it some kind of obscure Irish saying? And what’s with the hand waving?” There was groaning. “It’s not Irish at all.” It was explained it was something Peadar came up with to sing in the back ground while the three soloist sang their pieces to give it atmosphere. It had a mixed reception in the choir until they heard the recording and they could see his point. As for the hand waving, it was to help give the tempo to the group as they counterpointed against one another. But all it did was confuse, really. “And what does it look like, I ask you? A Mexican wave gone wrong, I tell you.” That’s what someone said who saw the performance.
That aside it is a truly impressive piece that lasts 45 or so minutes and is a tribute to Peadar. And I was looking forward to being a part of it. Not the least because it would mean going up to Galway, on the Connemara coast. Where we would stay in a B&B. Where there was a shower. Maybe even a tub. Dave was green with envy.
We went up the Saturday afternoon for the performance in the evening. I ended up in the car with the librarian driving and three other choir members along too. It was an incredibly lively group that made the journey a laughter filled experience. Thankfully they talked exclusively in English and treated me as a good friend. We managed to get lost a few times and I learned that the sign posting from Cork to Galway is not the best. A few times we circled the roundabouts at least 3 times before we decided which road to take.
The performance was in the Culture Hall and we were that late that we went directly there for rehearsals. That allowed me only a quick change at the B&B before we returned for the performance. I stood in a borrowed black jacket and yucky hair with my black Ph.D. academic gown in place of the Macroom black cloak the others wore (there was no time to have one made for me). But it was grand. The place was full and they loved us.
Afterwards we went to the pub nearby. And then the singing began. The choir members are mostly good singers in their own right. Peadar runs a sean nos (old style, unaccompanied singing) class once a week and many are part of it. So it was a chance for them to sing and boy did they. It was great. The locals joined in too. Everyone ended up singing a song or two in the end. They even made me sing one (The Water is Wide) and luckily one of them sang along with me. I was terrified in the face of such great singing and wouldn’t dare try one in Irish. But it went okay. Finally at 3 or so in the morning we found our way to our beds. I still managed to get up at 8:30 so I could have a shower before breakfast. I spent ages in it. After breakfast a few others went in search of coffee at the nearest pub and eventually we all ended up in a different pub singing again! The locals sang as well and made requests. It wasn’t until 3 we pulled away to make the journey home.
After the performance we have now been concentrating on Song of Songs again. Because of the interlude some of us forgot our parts and Peadar couldn’t find his notes or remember himself so he had to compose it all over again! The next week he turned up with pen and music paper and started writing it down. The night changed as well to Tuesday, and since Dave was tutoring those nights I have now taken to walking down myself. It is a beautiful walk, and so far the weather has cooperated. I have witnessed some amazing colors and sunsets in the sky as I make the 45 minute trek out the back way and down the hills, pass St. Gobnait’s well to the village.
Porch with temporary kitchen set up
The house meanwhile moved on once March arrived and the builder returned. We had arranged to have scaffolding delivered on the builder’s advice and so that he and Dave wouldn’t have to balance on wood planks spread across oil drums. Did I mention this is not
your standard building approach? Well it might sound like progress with scaffolding, but when they were delivered at 9:30 at night by the guy who sold us our lintels and sills I could only laugh. They were probably about 40 years old and the joints required many squirts of WD40. Dave and I spent a few hours erecting them and made them as stable as we could.
Still, the builder made nimble progress around the roof building the carcass and finishing off the chimney at the top. It took shape and the felt and battens were put on (they don’t board it here and don’t use shingles) in less than a week. The next week the builder and Dave dodged showers and put in the veluxes (skylight windows) and began the slating (man made). The weather really started to break then, but luckily we were in the dry with the felt and battens protecting us. Or so we thought until one night when the rain poured down and we were laying in bed and could here the flashing around the velux funnel water right into the upstairs. Whooosh. Dave scrambled upstairs clad only in a t-shirt and madly spread buckets around. I groaned and thought, this is it, I’ve had enough.
A few days more and we were truly dry though and the guttering and trim was installed. It really began to look nice. We had more window estimates and door estimates and finally made the decision on that. We also finally got approval for a grant to go ahead with drill for a well. Things seemed to be going in the right direction.
One issue that has risen occasionally in the last few months is the parcel of land across the road. It was originally part of the farm but was bought separately in a 7 acre parcel by a Canadian who promptly sold the 1 acre across from us to an Englishman who wants to build on there. He has put in for planning permission and has yet to hear if he got it. The problem is that our gravity fed water runs across his land so we were anxious to get permission for a grant to dig our well. This permission to get the grant was good news.
We arranged for the well digger to come and he arrived with much pizzazz and geared up with a bit of wire. Over here they divine
for water before they bring out the fancy rigs to drill. I watched him as he walked the land with the bit of wire out before him that bobbed occasionally. He settled on one area and then offered it to me to try out. I had a go and found it very strange. It did pull up a bit in an area. All very interesting.
In the end we had a second opinion. Not because we didn’t trust the divining, on the contrary, we thought he was a bit too flash and not eager to try and find water closer to the house. We ended up with an older man in coveralls who brought his own bit of wire and, without the flash, quietly found water closer to the house. We still await the rig to come and drill though to confirm his findings.
March of course is also the month for St. Patrick’s Day. And of course it’s big over here. In Macroom, the town near us they have a huge parade. I toyed with the idea of going, persuaded by the news that they were having a few Philadelphia mummer’s bands there. There is also much music and events there too. But I heard the traffic and parking is a nightmare and I have to confess we were so tired from lugging that we went to bed early and didn’t even go down the village to hear the great band playing at the Ionad Cultura. Next year.
The teen book club started off with 2 very enthusiastic members, a boy and girl. By the second meeting we had doubled our membership to 4, with the addition of another boy and girl. They are a good group and are very talkative about their books. They have some good insights and can analyze some of the points very well. The first time we just discussed books in general and what they liked. The second meeting we discussed the book Apocalypse, which had some heavy duty religious themes, even though it was about a boy shipwrecked on an island with his parents. They didn’t like it (ha). The next meeting is this Saturday and we’ll be discussing A Gathering Light (published as A Northern Light in America) which is an adult cross over book that I really liked.
After the roof went on we got some quotes in on plumbing. The plumber’s name came by recommendation from a friend. He is semi-retired. When I told the builder his name, he said he didn’t know him, but then when the plumber showed up the builder greeted him like he knew him. Later he told me he didn’t know his proper name, but his nickname. We also had a quote from the electrician and then the builder said that the O’Leary’s son (the cows in the field) was an electrician who was starting his own business. I rang Mrs. O’Leary and shortly after the son phoned me. He came round and gave a quote worthy of a neighbor. Feeling more confident about our finances we decided to roof the pig shed on the side of the house and knock through from the porch into it so that it runs right round and will become our utility room. That done in a week it looked great, complete with roof light. Dave moved in the washing machine and I was in glory. I could do washing at home! With the gravity fed water and a hose stretching across the yard it only took 3 hours per load. But still, it was great.
So we make progress. We studded out the rooms upstairs and down in the extension and then arranged to pour the floor before we let the builder go on to his next job with someone else. We arranged for the cement truck to call and the builder arrived and prepared with Dave for it. 2 hours late it showed up, just as Dave had to leave for tutoring. The truck rolled down off our concrete drive to the ground to pour
through the window. And yes, you guessed it, it got stuck. Many, many tries and muck and stone laid under it, it still went nowhere. So I called our neighbor and he came with his tractor and a roar of laughter and pulled it out in 5 minutes.
It was a good thing our neighbor only got rid of his milking cows and not his tractor. His wife told me a few weeks ago that her husband sold off his dairy herd (of course we had heard that from my sister in law’s neighbors and the builder). He kept a few dry cows and calves at this point. He is 60 and dairy herds have been steadily become less profitable in the last 10 years and I think he just had enough. None of his children intend to carry on the farm so he decided to enjoy life. That is the way of things in many areas now, even here, it seems.
His wife told me this when I was visiting with her and showing her some of my art books. She’s a beginning painter and is very enthusiastic. She invited me along to a painting class she attends once a month in nearby village, Inchigeela. It’s such a view just going there that you want to get out and paint on the spot. The mountains and sky and then the view of the nearby Loch Allua. Lovely. The class is held in the pub dining room of Creedon’s hotel. Joe Creedon is a very large man with a great heart and a natural talent who has an English painter, James, come in from Kinsale to give guidance. It is a good laugh and good craic. Mainly I find it 2 hours of uninterrupted painting and a chance to look at others’ approach to art. Joe is amazing—a fast painter of colorful impressions. I’ve gone twice now and thoroughly enjoyed it.
I will miss this month’s class though and 2 choir practices much to my dismay. We are going to Cornwall on Monday for 2 weeks in order to sell the car and celebrate Dave’s mother’s birthday. We hope to get a vehicle more sympathetic to the state of the roads here and it’s easier to do all this in England. Within a few days of our return we should have the windows put in and the plumbing and electrics done shortly after. Realizing that a few things won’t fit up the stairs we have now been working on getting the bed, the bureau, the tub and the drywall through the large window upstairs. That meant hoisting them up on a ladders and through windows. We did the dry wall today. My biceps are amazing now.
The latest news in the area here though is the film that is being made. It is on a famous Irish rebel, Dan Barry (don’t know him). Apparently they are thatching a cottage in Coolea for the film location only to burn it off for the filming. Peadar is somehow involved and his sister’s husband is singing in the film. One of the women in the choir came up to me and asked about our barn. She apparently is working on getting
locations and items for the film and she needs a stone barn. They have one but she wanted another one to view in case that one isn’t suitable. They are also looking for cows with horns (horns are illegal here now) so it looks authentic to the 1920s. So who knows, our barn might be in film!
IRISH COUNTRY OBSERVER 3
Our geriatric computer had a power supply problem that prohibited any efforts to write for a few weeks, so that is one excuse for the delay in this issue of the Observer. The other excuses have to do with the long daylight hours and work on the house. You would think with such an excuse I would report that things are almost done and I am relaxing in my study after having had a lovely meal in the kitchen. Well I had my meal in the kitchen, but it is the old kitchen, dubbed such because it has the fireplace and that is what they cooked in. The new kitchen is still a shell alas, though it does have some very fine windows looking out on a very fine view.
We did go off to Cornwall and had a lovely time too. A few days before we left, though, we were invited down to our far neighbor’s home for a Station. A Station is an event that is held in different farm houses in each community twice a year—spring and fall. It is held for the priest to come round and say mass and then there is food and a social gathering afterwards. It is a big event and people will spend years getting ready for it. Our neighbors had their garden and home looking immaculate and the weather cooperated in creating a wonderful atmosphere. We didn’t attend the mass (though they said it mattered not if we were
Catholic) because I had to do storytime down in the village and Dave had to tutor, but we went to the gathering afterwards. The wife had her relatives bustling in the kitchen setting up the first sitting for all the people gathered. We went through to the living room and talked to the “second sitting” group. There was much joking and reminiscence going on there. The husband was off sick from working down the Dairy because of a slipped disk, but he was still enjoying the day and smiling all around. He is a lovely gentle
man with a quiet sense of humor. He took me through their house, which is one of the oldest in the parish
and just newly renovated. They had done the renovation over a number of years and had worked hard to preserve the character. It still had its low beamed ceilings and upstairs the quirky walls.
So it was a warm feeling that followed us over to Cornwall as we sailed smoothly across on the ferry and drove down to Fowey. The journey was tiring but considering we slept on the floor in the ferry restaurant we weren’t too tired. The weather was still cool for the season and a bit rainy, like in Ireland, but I managed to get to some of my favorite walks and even painted a picture of the view of the harbor and castle. While we were there Dave’s great niece was selected as a fairy queen attendant for the Fowey
feast week. She’s a little young at 5 but they felt she was able to manage the duties, especially since the fairy queen herself was someone she knew well. Our niece was beside herself with excitement and she duly modeled her dress for us—in her favorite color, purple (lavender shade). It is a foamy creation that looks very fairy like.
We returned to Ireland 2 weeks later with a new car that has a higher ground clearance and 4 wheel drive. It has worked out very well so far and has allowed us to drive out the back way (bulls notwithstanding) and cut off time and miles to go to places like Coolea.
As I mentioned before, I hoped that on our return we would get the plumbing, water and windows done very shortly. These hopes were not realized as everything went spinning off into classic tradesmen ideas of time commitment. The windows took many phonecalls and finely materialized 2 weeks later than they were supposed to. I do have to say that when they were installed it did transform our living. We moved upstairs for sleeping, which really improved our outlook and made us feel less cramped and crammed into a box. The view from the extension bedroom is breathtaking with Dave’s ceiling-high window. We have taken to sitting up there with tea in one hand and binoculars in the other. We have spotted a barn owl that has taken up residence in the large tree by the barn as well as watched the swallows conduct their acrobatics in our meadow. They have nested in the shed next to the barn, in their old nest.
The well was more of a problem, primarily because as it finally became clear, the drilling rig had broken and it took them over 5 weeks to get a replacement part from America. They finally arrived one evening at 6:30. I couldn’t believe it when the huge rig pulled into the yard and drove around the front of the extension. I thought then they would set up and go home, but no, they worked away until 9 that night and then were back again the next day about 11 and worked until they finished at 2. They dug 220 feet and said that was fine and good. In places in Galway they could dig an average of 1500 feet. A few days later our well pump and tank were installed and we had our very own water. I can now wash clothes in the normal time.
We crept our way onto the next stage and arranged for the electrician to start the wiring. He arrived as promised and worked his way carefully around, evaluating and suggesting any modifications he thought would improve the place. We certainly agreed with all who mentioned him that he was a very nice lad. A few years ago he apparently was All-Ireland electrician champion apprentice and went on to compete for the world title in Geneva and came 5th. I certainly have no quibble with that. I also got to see him more as a neighbor too as he chatted away with us and shared some humorous stories about the area. It became more a neighborly experience when his little 10 year old brother visited off and on his way to our neighbors down the road. So the wiring is nearly completed—there are just the final fixes which come after the plumbing and walls are done in the new parts.
Plumbing. Yes well. I think I mentioned that Ken Loach was filming around the area for a picture on Dan Barry called “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.” What’s that got to do with plumbing? Well a choir member who lives below us served as the nurse on the film set. One evening, after a choir event in Coolea, she was giving me a “spin”(a lift) home and we went via Coolea village where they were just wrapping up the filming of the cottage burning down (mostly special effects). She needed to pick up some notes. We pulled up beside a man standing on the side there and she started to chat to him. And who would it be but the plumber. Yes, there he was, working on the film set as a driver. It took a while to sink in (no pun intended) that HE WAS WORKING ON THE FILM SET and therefore would be committed until the filming ended. With a sinking heart I asked the choir member when that would end and she gave me the date in mid July. After many epithets raging in my head I tried to look on the bright side. I can’t remember what the bright side was I came up with, but it didn’t look so bright when I told Dave.
So we decided to focus on the septic system and get that installed. This meant much reading in the DIY books and internet searches to finally have a firm grasp of the “ins and outs” of waste (yes well, somewhat of a pun). To confuse the matter a bit we had the English fellow across the road, an extreme ego oops eco warrior (without any of the ability to critically evaluate internet ragings), coming across to us to expound on his unique septic system based on an approach in India. India where it is arid and dry a significant portion of the time. I told Dave that he is just making interesting times for himself in the future (he has since abandoned his septic ideas, saying they weren’t open to new ideas here. He has plenty of other ideas).
On our own information we ordered our septic tank and had the holes and trenches dug by a local farmer with his JCB. It was a two day job really as we put in the rainwater and drainage trenches in as well as a trench to carry the electric wires across to the barn. Then we moved onto piecing together pipework, bandying around words like “A.J.s” It took me a while to get that word because some people pronounced it in an Irish way “Ah Jay” and others “A Jay.” Finally looking down at the list at the Dairy it clicked what they were saying.
Dave now has most of the pipework laid out and covered over. He diagrammed it on the computer so he wouldn’t forget (good man). There are just a few bits that will wait until the plumber is finished. Back to the plumber again. The film wrapped up a little early and our man the plumber returned to being a radesman and showed up. He is a very nice fella, it was just the timing never seemed to cooperate between our stuff and his. He has measured up and the material is ordered and we hope he will start this Wednesday doing most of the first fix work. Then we can get on with the dry walling (slabbing it’s called here, forget what in England) and plastering. I have actually wire brushed, sanded, caulked and then painted the beams in the living room as well as painted the walls. We knocked the plastering off the wall where the fireplace is because the peat stains were terrible and you can’t paint over them. So we left the stone showing on the wall and Dave repointed it (replaced the crumbling lime mortar with cement). It looks grand. So we have moved the sofa and some of the other furniture into the living room. The harp came soon after and I can now play the harp at home. I was very rusty at first but it is wonderful to have the sound fill the house.
Dave meanwhile is using “found” objects to finish off the fireplace in the living room. We had the old axle from the donkey cart (slightly bent) in the yard and Dave decided to cut it in half and put stands on them to erect as pillars for a mantlepiece made out of wood from the barn. He got a local iron worker to put the stands on. Now he intends to cement them into the hearth he’s making. Very folky.
Dave’s work at tutoring meanwhile has wound down for the summer and he is only going in twice a week, in the morning to do sessions. It will pick up again once school is in session. In Ireland they follow the American schedule for school terms and are out in the summer from mid June onwards, unlike the English system which dismisses in the end of July for just 6 weeks.
Though the choir broke up for the summer in June, it seems there are still events centering around the choir. In early June we were asked to sing at an opening of a photograph exhibit at Tir Na Meala (Irish for Land of Honey) in Coolea. Tir Na Meala had once been a honey farm, a coop run by Peadar (our choir director) but it folded and was taken over by a Dutch couple who live there and run different arts courses there. The photo exhibit was from the participants of their course and featured many sites and people of the area. We sang some local Irish songs and then had the run of the place to look at all the prints. Wonderful.
The teacher of the course is a professional documentary photographer from England (Irish descent) but now lives in Bantry. She became interested in our choir and the men’s choir (famous nationally for singing the Irish Mass written by Sean O’Riada, Peadar’s father). There is a lot of history associated with the two choirs and she decided to capture some of it on film. The first inkling I heard of her interest was when the librarian phoned me and said that we were wanted for a photo shoot dry run at the river by Peadar’s house. I was to wear casual clothes since it would be outdoors. So I turned up in a pair of old narrow legged jeans from a charity shop I wore for working on the house and a sweatshirt. The weather was cool and damp (summer didn’t kick in until July this year) and there were only about 8 of the 24 choir members there. (I should have clued in when the librarian hadn’t turned up). Turns out the photographer is a visionary type photographer and her vision of us, after listening to the CD of the lament, was that we would be in the river with our cloaks draped around us and the blue lining of the hoods reflecting in the water. So I found myself trying to roll up my jeans above my knee to wade into the river, a hopeless cause. Three of us stood in the middle of the river, among the reeds blooming with little white flowers among the green and the water (cold, cold) rushing around our ankles, the black cloaks trailing back from us. This was mid-summer day, the summer solstice and here we were singing solemnly in the river the lament while wearing black hooded cloaks. If the local priest saw us he would have had an eyeful.
Did I mention I was told this was a dry run? The photographer took some photos on both digital and ordinary camera to see lighting and composition. Then we went off to Peadar’s house ( as I struggled unsuccessfully to roll down my jeans) for a cup of tea and to hear about what was really going on. She mentioned one idea was to have us all in a circle in the river and Peadar to come splashing up in the middle. OKAY. This is not an image I can imagine Peadar creating. But in the end we set up the next meeting and had instructions to wear a black swimsuit or black top and shorts underneath our cloak.
We’ve now had two more photo shoots. I ended up wearing old ballet leotard and warmup tights which didn’t do much for the cold water when we were immersed up to our necks draping our heads back dramatically for some “skin to skin” shots. Suffering for the sake of art. Not every choir member has wanted to do this suffering, but we have had at least half turn up for the other shoots. The last shoot, though (after the skin to skin) the photographer herself standing in the middle of the river, went to step backwards and fell in a hole, soaking herself and her camera. She had a jar to her leg but was much more concerned about her film. It seemed to be okay. Our next location for filming though will be by the water—St. Gobnait’s
well—and not in it.
There have been many cultural offerings on this summer and I have resisted spending all my time immersed in it. One offering I couldn’t resist was the Munster area Fleadh Ceoil held this year in Macroom. There are four regional fleadhs which are a competitions in all areas of Irish traditional music and dance. Each winner and second place go on to compete in the prestigious All-Ireland final in August. They have people come from England and the U.S. finals for that as well. So this was a chance for me to get a peek at the level of competition from the Irish viewpoint. I had friends who had competed in the New York Fleadh and had always wanted to see it in Ireland. So I went over to Macroom and sat in on the harp and singing competitions for the teenagers. It was wonderful. The town itself was alive with music and dance in the streets as well as the two school campuses. Just walking around you became steeped in the music and feel and excitement. And the tension. Boy I couldn’t compete with the amount of stress and tension that is present as the adjudicators sit and listen to you and then mark down comments on sheets. But as a viewer I loved every minute of it. In the singing I was able to hear songs that were unfamiliar, sung by incredible voices.
I was unable to go back the next day for the adults (one of the choir members won the sean nos) because I had to help Dave on the septic and the rest of the following week I was indulging in the Dan Corkery Summer School events in Inchigeela. The summer school is run by Joe Creedon, our painting class host who set the school up with others 10 years ago in honor of a man who was involved in so many aspects of Irish culture in the community. So every morning in the week I traveled over to Inchigeela with my neighbor’s daughter and the other neighbor and we went out with the summer school participants to paint
various scenes around Inchigeela. Inchigeela is by a lake and is surrounded by mountains that change colors and textures with every movement of cloud and sun. It was wonderful treat to discover a new place to paint every morning and just have the beauty wash over you. The participants were from around Ireland, England and Scotland and brought so many different talents to the group. There were a few musicians and a few poets there. One poet was Nigerian who wrote very spiritual poems about his homeland. One morning, before we set out he read selections along with an Irish woman whose poems evoked her rural upbringing very vividly.
Wednesday evening of the week my choir provided the entertainment so I went over twice in one day.
The performance was given to a full house—we sang the lament for Art O’Leary. O’Leary’s family
originated in Inchigeela so there is much appreciation for the lament. Following the performance other
people came up and performed different songs on the piano—from classical to jazz. One woman was a performer in London, but she was visiting home (Inchigeela). She sang with a deep husky voice the song,“Summertime.” She also made up a song about Joe out of a familiar tune and had the choir get up to back her up. Joe was delighted. There was also a couple from London who performed an opera selection. Following that Joe sang a broadway song. Then he invited various members of the choir to sing songs and many did—some sean nos and then others sand Irish ballads. The audience broke up about 1 am and the hardiest retired into the bar next door and continued singing. As much as I wanted to I knew that I would be useless the next day so I went home. Later I heard they were there until 3 am.
Undaunted I returned twice the next day when I heard there was to be a talk given by Nicholas Carolan, the head of the Irish music archives in Dublin. The rumor was that it would be on sean nos singing or something along those lines. I saw several choir members who sang sean nos there and sat with the woman who won the sean nos at the fleadh. She’s a lovely woman from Coolea. I was amazed and absolutely thrilled when the topic of the talk turned out to be Irish music during the penal period in Ireland (c. 1650-1750). He focused on a publication that came out in 1724, the first collection of music published
in Ireland. Though it was published for violin, flute and hautboy (early oboe) it was in fact originally harp music. My night was complete when he distributed a sheet containing about 9 tunes on them that were all originally harp tunes. This publication is little known outside Ireland apparently and will be shortly reprinted through Nicholas Carolan’s efforts. I talked to him a little and he explained that his archives collects all Irish music recorded in and outside Ireland. It doesn’t have to be in traditional either—it could be an Afro Celt mutation or played on sitar. Amazing collection policy and very ambitious.
After the lecture I found myself talking to a couple who were in the painting class in the morning. They were from Suffolk, both artists, but the husband was also a musician. He’d played the bagpipes one morning when we were painting by the lake. We started talking Celtic music (he has Scottish connections). He also played the whistle. In the end I agreed to bring the harp and have a go playing with him the next morning if were in a site that I could manage it and it wasn’t raining. In the end site and weather cooperated and our location was an old ruined church and yard of the O’Leary clan. I set up in the bell tower and he beside me and experienced the great acoustics of stone and slate. The views were very inspiring and before I knew it a few hours had passed. Joe joined us midway, dashing off his wonderful impressionist abstract paitings before he joined us and started singing along. He has a lovely tenor voice. We wound things up shortly after and then Joe gave us an especially creative tour of the graves, reciting poems, singing songs in Irish and English and spinning the history of the area. He has a real gift.
That was the last day of the week long experience and it was with great reluctance that I returned to the realities of plumbing and piping. Still it’s all heading in the right direction.
Irish Country Observer 4
The leaves are coming off the trees now, the huge ash is almost bare and the light is different in and around the house. Autumn has arrived. It’s been a year now since the furniture van struggled up our road only to halt at our neighbor’s and eject our load there. Now, like then there are squally showers, creating currents of rain across the yard. Now there is music in the house and the windows are tight against the elements.
Since I last wrote summer has gone and much has happened in the evolution of the house. For so long in the summer it seemed things were only progressing at a snail’s pace, for only a snail could go slower than our plumber. Or perhaps not. I mentioned before that our plumber seemed a nice man who had conflicting schedules. I was being too kind. Originally he had agreed to take on the job and start in May. We were away in Cornwall for part of May so it was understandable that he wouldn’t turn up immediately upon our return. I also should have taken some hint when people looked puzzled when I said who our plumber was. At first I thought it was because people only knew him by his nick name. Our neighbor is actually his contemporary and knew his real name but didn’t know about his plumbing skills. I thought it might have been because he had lived in England for 20 years and had only returned to the area about 9 years ago.
When he finally did start the plumbing he completely confused us by demanding that the drywall and plastering be done first. This contradicted the information we had from our builder and our books where “first fix” is done before any drywall or plastering (in the British Isles it’s customary to put a thin coat of plaster over drywall instead of taping joints and then putting on joint compound). The plumber indicated this was not the way he worked. So we tried to accommodate, but we couldn’t get the builder back just for a few walls in the new section. We pressed the our plumber to start work in the old part of the house, just to get something done.
The first day he showed up (at around 4 pm) he looked through all the material we had ordered and had delivered (we were largely responsible for the supplies). He tinkered with the radiators and put some valves on. Then oops, oaah “Must go home. The wife is waiting –it’s our anniversary.” Dumbfounded we watched the van disappear down the road. And so it went. If he came it was more likely around 3:30 and he would stay until about 6 or 7pm. During that time he managed at least 2 cups of tea ( NO! I’d scream in my head to my husband– don’t offer him another cup of tea). He’d install maybe a yard of two of pipe and if we were lucky, a radiator would be hung. He told us that his grandchildren were visiting; he was semi-retired ; he didn’t like to work more than 3 days a week.
His price was right. We were paying a set fee, not an hourly rate. I tried to cultivate Bhuddist like patience. Words like “yes grasshopper, when you can snatch this pebble from my hand, you will be truly ready” wondered through my head. Still I wanted to take that pebble and jam it down the plumber’s throat. I started to work madly on the old kitchen beams while he would pass through and comment on my patience and tenacity.
Finally, the man perhaps felt guilty, but he decided to install the downstairs toilet temporarily. He did emphasize its temporary nature. This was after he had put up dry wall in that room (2 walls) so he could hang a radiator there and just outside the downstairs bathroom. It took him d-a-y-s. My husband meanwhile had installed the sink that had been out in the porch into the utility (the converted piggery shed. The plumber chided my husband for doing it himself and said that he would have done it. We knew it would be Christmas if he had installed it. Then the toilet leaked—everywhere. My husband looked at the fitting and found it was the wrong fitting (he’d been doing a lot of reading about plumbing). The plumber came out specially on a Sunday and fixed it. My husband looked and found that it was still the wrong fitting. It leaked again. The electrician came to do some more work and raised his eyebrows and made a few oblique comments about the plumber’s work. It was days before we saw the plumber again, but when he showed, we were determined that he should fix the toilet with the right fitting and press on with installing the upstairs bathroom fitments. I had quizzed My husband's sister about another plumber she’d contacted for a small job, because I felt increasingly uneasy.
When the plumber finally came, my husband pointed out the leaking toilet and asked him about starting upstairs. Our builder had drywalled and plastered most of the area and it was ready for the tub, toilet and sink. He harumphed and said something about needing paint. My husband pressed him and the plumber became defensive. In the end he told us he had to do it his way. We left to go buy some materials for him, as he was leaning over our toilet . When we returned he was gone—all his tools cleared away and removed. I couldn’t believe it. My husband spent the rest of the day phoning his home, but no reply.
My husband finally reached him from work and he told us he wouldn’t continue unless we had a contract. That night he showed up with the most ridiculous joke for a contract I’ve ever read. We’d already paid him a third of what we’d agreed. And he was demanding more and we’d not had a third of the work done, plus we’d bought materials. That was the final straw for me. In a way I was glad that he never got to the real serious stage of our plumbing and had only hung 5 radiators out of 9 and run some pipework that was visible.
Our builder showed up the next day and between him and a desperate run down to the library and a phone call to my sister in law, I was able to scare up a few names of plumbers. While I was at the library an woman came in and heard me talking to the librarian and explained her English ex-husband was a “plummer” and wrote down his name and phone number (later when he rang me back his Newcastle accent was so thick I thought he was speaking Irish and told him he had the wrong number). In the ensuing phone calls it wasn’t clear if I would be able to get anyone because of time commitments or inability to reach them. I rang my friend in Cleethorpes and talked to her husband, a retired plumber and he prepared to come to our rescue. Luckily we were able to get a local plumber in the end who came and completed the job in 6 consecutive days- more than the bulk of the job. It had taken the old plumber 6 weeks to do his part of the job. A few weeks later we got a letter claiming he had done 2/3 of the job and wanted payment for things done outside the agreement, like estimates, planning layout and other fairytales. Though many things like“gobshite” ran through our heads we decided silence was the best policy with him.
So now we have plumbing and I can luxuriate in lovely warm baths and indoor toilets. I’ve done a mad bout of painting and most of the paintwork is now done and the place looks transformed. We’ve bought our flat pack kitchen and have assembled some of the cabinets, but we’re waiting for the final wiring to be completed before we can install them, get the sink and countertop in place, and have it functioning. I have moved the stove and fridge in there so I’m no longer cooking in the porch. I do still have to wash
dishes in the utility sink, though. But the camping feeling is pretty much gone from our home. We have a lovely wood burning stove in the sitting room and my husband's axles stand proudly on either side of it in the small rounded stone hearth he built out of the fireplace. I’ve even assembled book cases and unpacked some of the books so that it’s really feeling cosy. The furniture is completely out of the barn and only boxes of ornaments, pictures and kitchen gear and of course miscellaneous (what on earth is in them?) remain there.
Meanwhile whenever people ask about who our former plumber was, they say, “Him? I didn’t know he was a plumber.” “He’s not,” we say. “Ah,” they say and a little more after that. One should never underestimate the Irish capacity for irony. I think they can beat the upper crust English at it.
The past times of the old upper crust came back to the fore in Britain this summer with the hair-raising cricket match between England and Australia in August. I sort of wandered into the whole thing because we listen to BBC Radio 4 (Enlgish radio) on long wave. Cricket is the only game where they can give you the score and you still have no clue who’s winning. Well if you’re like me and clueless. The commentator sounded as though he’d stepped out of a PG Wodehouse book and all his friends were called Biffo and Bounder. In any case my husband enjoyed listening to the matches and managed to decipher it all. They only broadcast cricket on long wave, the English fans of Radio 4 get the station on FM and have the normal
I have long been a fan of Radio 4 and when I left England in 1984 it was one of the things I missed most. It is a station most akin to NPR (or actually NPR is most akin to it). It broadcasts interesting plays, stories, books, as well as programs of comedy, science, nature and current events. And of course The Archers, the longest running soap opera. I couldn’t really wean myself off Radio 4 and since we have no TV as yet (ours bit the dust in the crossing) it is on quite a bit.
Irish Radio is of a different ilk. On FM there are about 4 or 5 stations. One is RTE 1 which tends to be mostly talk radio. The Irish love to voice their opinion and they have all sorts on there talking about anything from the Taoiseach’s (pronounced tee-shuck-meaning prime minister) latest policy to Brad Pit’s latest fling. Saturday is devoted to sports on this station as it is on RTE2 who during the week will play a few bits of 70s,80s,90s music inbetween the DJ’s views on anything and everything. That goes for the
FM102 station who tends to play more recent music but will yap more inbetween them. Classic is Lyric FM and not bad. There is also Radio Na Gaeltachta, the Irish Language Radio station. Unless they’re playing music there’s little point in listening to it. Then there is Radio Kerry the local station (there’s also Radio Cork but that is physically farther away and not as eccentric. Radio Kerry broadcast things like the cattle prices and local events, as well as the death notices of the region. Its there you can find out what time the rosary or removal is for anyone who died in the village. Most recently we had a 76 year old man, John The Rookery, hit and killed by a car as he stepped off the pavement to cross the main street from his sister’s house to the café. We didn’t need the radio to tell us when his burial was—everyone knew—he was so well liked. My husband’s sister and her husband went, they knew him. The service was held up in Coolea and sung in Irish. Ownie Mikey sang a long traditional lament.
Killarney National Park
Besides the cricket and practicing patience with the plumber I did manage to do some outdoor activities when my husband’s niece arrived with her two sons in tow in August. At 14 her oldest still found a visit to Ireland appealing, as did his younger brother. We spent most of the time with them on hikes outdoors. One hike was in Killarney national park, which follows the many lakes that populate the area. The park is huge and you could never walk it all in a day. It’s full of many trails that lead through forests and by the various lakes and a bit in the Kerry Mountains. There is a lovely area where two of the lakes meet and provide tremendous views of the mountains. That was the best of the hikes we took.
Besides Killarney National park hikes, we also took a foray down the Beara Peninsula. My husband and I had been halfway down there before on one of our various jaunts with his sister, looking for potential properties. This time we went around the whole peninsula with a stop at the end to take the cable car across to Dursey Island. The weather was rather iffy on the way to the point, but we could see the Magillacuddy Reeks across on the ring of Kerry rise dramatically from the edge of the coast. Gulls and other seabirds scudded the waves across from the little bay where we stopped to have tea. By the time we reached the point it was belting down with rain, but his niece and the boys still were eager to take the cable car across to the island.
My sister in law and her husband declined to cross because they had heard about it swaying in the great winds that blow in between the cliffs of the point and the island. My sister in law was unconvinced the cable was sound (you could see rust and frayed bits I have to admit) and looked dubiously at the only cable car in use, but my husband and I agreed to accompany them across. With the wind whipping at our legs we waited as the first group went across and then elected to come right back again on the car’s return journey. No hike around for them. We duly hopped in and the man said we could return on the same trip if we liked. The ride over was not as bad as we expected, though the drop to the sea was quite long. The rain slammed against the car and we all looked like drowned rats as drips found their way in the holes in the car’s roof. There were only two others able to fit in with us. When we arrived on the other side a group of Swedes? demanded/ pleaded with us to get out so that they could go back over. They had been hiking around and waiting at the hut for 2 ½ hours and were cold and wet. Despite their confused story we took pity and went out into the island where it was blowing such a gale you couldn’t see a thing. We went into the little hut to wait for the next cable car and then waited outside to be sure of a seat, only to find that when we climbed into the car more Swedes swarmed out of the hut and demanded we give way to them. Perhaps it was my ugly American side that took over, or I didn’t like the way these 20 year old Swedes behaved. But I looked at our niece’s youngest son’s bedraggled cold face and chattering teeth and told them nothing doing honey and stayed my ground. Our niece followed suit and eventually we won the day as the cable started to move and we shut the door. I’m sure I helped international relations there.
It was soon after my husband’s niece’s visit that my husband and I started to realize that our 25thanniversary was coming up soon and we really hadn’t thought or settled on what to do. It was something that we’d had talked about in the abstract here and there in the past few years and my husband had always insisted that his dream was to go to Las Vegas and renew our vows in an Elvis Presley ceremony. Usually I would either ignore the comment or tell him he was welcome to go there, while I found my own renewal in the grand canyon, or some place equally remote from the likes of Vegas or Elvis impersonations. Up to the bitter end he insisted that he truly wanted to do it since he knew I would never dream of calling his bluff. Besides, I could see him thinking it would be a good joke and do it anyway, even though it would not be his kind of thing.
Instead we decided to go to the Sheep’s Head Peninsula and the Mizen Head Peninsula and stay at a B&B. Neither of us had ever been to these places. We couldn’t have picked a more glorious, clear weekend to visit them. They are the most southerly peninsulas in Ireland and jut out into the Atlantic from the western corner of County Cork. The Sheep’s Head Peninsula is entered from the town of Bantry which perches by the sea at the northern side. The north side of the peninsula is more wild and sparsely populated still. Across the bay you can see the Caher mountain range of the Beara Peninsula and in the large bay, the boats that leave the port of Castletownbere. The clouds were scattered around providing colors of purple and indigo mixed in the greens and browns on the mountains there. Near the point we found a little old pier down a windy road. It was a tiny little inlet with a weather beaten boat pulled up on the grass beside a rusted winch. We spread out a picnic on a little hummock then ate as we gazed out over the sea. Later, my husband took a swim and I explored over the hill to see more tremendous views of the Beara. Back in our car, just around the point we found the beginning to a trail I had in a little hiking book from the library. Following the trail up and up we climbed the ridge to the highest point on the Sheep’s head, Seefin Head. From there we had a 360 degree view, showing sea, mountains and hills nearly back to our own hills north of Dunmanway. After climbing back down we made our way along the south coast, a more populated area and headed on towards the Mizen Head. We ended up in Schull for the night, a little town on the coast of the Mizen Head Peninsula that still has a few fishing boats as well as some sail boats moored at its long stone pier. We found ourselves a lovely B&B overlooking the sea that boasted Maeve Binchy among its regular customers. I was in heaven with the wonderful shower (this was before our own plumbing was finished) and Dave with the remote control TV. These luxuries we enjoyed after getting a bite to eat in one of the local pubs, The Black Sheep. We sat there enjoying our fish and chips (fancy meal for an anniversary, us) when we looked up and spied our neighbor who lives at the bottom of our hill. I think he was as surprised as we were. He had just returned from sailing with some friends.
The next morning we set off for the point of the Mizen Head where they have the lighthouse and you can get a ferry across to Fastnet Lighthouse (always featured on the shipping forecast on Radio 4). You reach the lighthouse by crossing a dramatic ravine which is spanned by a small walking bridge . The rocks are huge and vault above you and then provide little peeks into the sea and other side. The weather held for
us here and the other areas around the Mizen head which were filled with little inlets and bays dotted with crumbling lookout towers from the 16th century onward. In some areas it’s like another world, another time and in others it could be the U.S. east coast/west coast.
Maybe because our meal sounded so pathetic, but my husband’s sister cooked us a grand 3 course event on our actual anniversary and instructed us to “dress up”. As a joke we almost went in costume, me in my wedding gear (too deeply buried in a box) and my husband in a Cornish kilt, but in the end we opted for more conservative wear. My husband put on a boiler suit on top of his clothes though, just for a wee bit of a wind up. We had fancy fish, butternut squash with cinnamon and other things, but for dessert an amazing plum tart (trust me to remember the dessert).
Besides September being our anniversary it was also time for things to start up again like school and various activities. My husband resumed a heavier tutoring schedule back in the evening and choir duly started again. The photo shoots had halted after the photographer had her fall—apparently she tore ligaments and required surgery—jees we’re dangerous lot. This year the choir are aiming to have enough of a performance piece for the Cork Folk Festival in May. The piece is Song of Songs in Irish and of course Peadar is composing it. The composition is pure inspiration of the moment as we stand there whispering to each other while he stares at his scribbled notes or plucks a few notes on the piano. A few moments later he comes up with several phrases in 4-6 part harmony. Although brilliant and beautiful in its results it is not the quickest method (is he related to our plumber? No no just a joke). We had to break of this creative endeavor for a few weeks to practice the O’Leary Lament for a performance in the beginning of Oct. at Neenagh in Tipperary.
The performance was in a Protestant church and we were hosted before hand in the rectory by the English female vicar. It was interesting to see how the choir members found it fascinating, their own contact with anything of the Protestant faith being very limited. They whispered how it was amazingly like the films—so classic with the piano in the dining room and the straw hats in the bathroom (??). I had to admit that
the cook book on a stand in the kitchen opened to a recipe of Christmas mince meat did look a little staged. But the vicar was lovely, yes and a bit like the Vicar of Dibley as SHE welcomed us with tea and scones.
The performance went well despite the fact that Peadar had rushed his severely disabled son to Cork Hospital that morning and then drove straight to the church. We were also down 4 altos but managed to carry off a strong performance. Afterwards, before the gathering at the pub, there was a quick assignment of sleeping arrangements with various families in the area. I was partnered with the woman who won the sean nos last July. She had worked in Neenagh for a few years and I thought, great I can relax, she’ll know the way back from the pub. Yes, well, we all make assumptions. After a great sing song in the pub ( I managed to remember the words of 500 miles after they sang this Texan thing I’d never heard of) it was 3 am and we were finally tossed out of the pub (very gently of course). Very difficult finding a taxi at that time. Most of the choir members could walk to their assigned homes with their little piece of paper of directions. My roomie didn’t think it was walkable for us, and though she’d been there, she wasn’t certain where it was.
Finally we got a taxi and at first he was reluctant to take us, but at the insistence of one of the other choir members who was getting a ride to another place, he conceded. Before then I’d asked her if we could go with her, because at least we knew where that was, but she said it would not do, we must go where we were expected. Eventually we made it. The next morning my roomie decided to text that other choir member and tell her we were at some hotel 6 miles away and could she pick us up (they all love a good joke).
The people we stayed with were lovely. They were fluent Irish speakers, but they spoke English in front of me. He does a lot of research on Irish literature, plays and songs at the National Archives in Dublin. He had two pieces to show my roomie that he’d dug out from our area. One was a song written in the 1930s about a poor bootmaker and another was recitation about a potato found in the drains in Macroom in 1917. They were hilarious.
We had a lovely few hours with them on Sunday and then we left for home. I was supposed to go back with someone else, but my roomie, in her inimitable laid-back manner had gabbed away the time and forgot (despite a gentle prodding from me) to drive to the pub where they were all gathered before departing. “Never mind, says she, “I’ll take you, it’ll be company." Many hours later I arrived home after a “slight detour” to visit her neighbor who was in a sanitarium to overcome his drinking. We toured the gardens inside and out over looking for him, until I suggested we check in reception to find out where he was. He was a lovely man and full of good humor, so I tried to suppress my growling stomach and enjoy the experience. By the time I arrived home though I was car sick and starving and my husband could only take pity on me.
As well as the choir starting up the teen book club resumed its meetings. We have new members this time but we’ve also lost old ones to jobs and exams. So we’re about the same numbers but with some new faces. Though some are as old as 17, many still are loyal to Harry Potter and have extracted a promise for a book club outing to the film premier in Nov. (My husband laughed because he took a school class to the second HP film when we lived in Cheltenham—boring he thought).
The teen book club started requests for an adult one for which I agreed to be facilitator. We had our first meeting the first week in Oct. and had 5 women there with a promise of 2-3 more in the next meeting. One woman is an artist and promptly announced that she reads only poetry. HMMMM. Later she conceded to reading Maeve Binchy and I thought, well she might enjoy this book club. The fifth woman who breezed in a half hour late (she lives next door and she hadn’t seen the notices, so the librarian went at that moment and told her), saw the two selections on the table and promptly gave me the third degree about it. Why were there two (number of books available) who would keep track of who was reading what –what if everyone read the one book and no one read the other—it just wouldn’t work—we need to have commitment in this book club to read the books you just can’t waltzing in….. We all of us blinked. After several careful explanations I could see that she was going to be an interesting addition. Later the librarian told me that another woman, an American was joining the book club. Was she the wheezy emphesemic who lumbered in with her stick and bag of books complaining about everything? A slight cough and a nodded head was the reply. Hmmm. I can only laugh.
Besides keeping myself busy with bookclubs and choir meetings I now have a harp student. It was more by accident than by design that I acquired her. I was attending the painting class in Inchigeela when one of the members who commented on my harp playing in the summer mentioned that her granddaughter had a harp but had no one to teach her. She more or less said it was a shame that I lived so far from her that I couldn’t teach her, but would I? I said I would if she lived closer. The next thing I knew they were phoning me asking if I would consider it. They didn’t mind the distance since there was no one else. They live about 1 hour away near Cork City. She is 17 and has had some lessons before and can read music so it is really a pleasure to teach her. I am not really ready to receive harp students in our home, but since her last teacher was a new age traveler, she says our home is fine. Meanwhile I’m trying to connect with someone who teaches harp in Ireland who can tell me where to get music for her. Till then she has to use my old stuff.
Other music pleasures occurred in September too when the Ionad Cultura started up its musical season with Liam O’Flynn appearing with the uillean pipes. My husband, his sister and brother in law and I all went and I thoroughly enjoyed it. He is in the old style playing and has appeared with Christy Moore, Seamus Ennis, the Chieftains as well as being one of the founder members of Planxty. I also took my own foray out on the harp that week when I went over to Kilgarvan and played the harp at a fundraiser marathon of music in the pubs there. It was a strange eclectic group ranging from little Irish girl dancers to men playing hurdy gurdys, a jazz saxophonist, Danish women imitating Edith Piaf (badly) and some bluegrass, country and western with a little bit of English folk thrown in. Among that I managed to play a few Cornish tunes while people crowded and jostled by me with their Guinness in their hands. Very strange but never mind.
Irish Country Observer 5
December 2005 Nollag Shona
That’s Happy/Merry Christmas in Irish. One of the few expressions I can say with certainty now that I’ve had 4 whole classes in Irish. I started taking them in November. There were supposed to be 8 classes this term but they were a little late starting so there were only six in the end. I was sick for one of them and the last one was a pub quiz on the night I had choir practice. It all was a bit of a muddle from the start. The woman who organizes it is in the choir (Peadar’s sister ) and she told me she put me on the list to be contacted when they were to start and mentioned that one class was on Tuesday in Ballingeary, the Wednesday class was in Ballyvourney and the Thursday class was in Kilnamartyra. Since choir alternated between Wednesday and Thursday of course it was the Tuesday class for me –in the furthest village (of course). But I never got the letter so I only found out on the Thursday of the first week and so I went to Kilnamartyra for the first class. There were about 25 of them there, many of them English. It was a mother and daughter team teaching and the daughter (about 20 years old) took the 5 of us complete beginners (I didn’t think I was ready for the“improvers”). We shared the room with the other 20 improvers and it was a bit noisy. The daughter just pointed to a sheet she had and started saying various phrases beginning with “hello” and working her way through “how are you” and“my name is.” All very casual.
The next class I took over in Ballingeary and it was taught by a woman who left us in no doubt she was a national school (primary) teacher. There were only 5 of us and the others were Irish women who had learned Irish in school years ago and claimed they had forgotten it. What a contrast. It really stretched me to say the least and I felt like I did years ago when I was in Advanced Placement French reading Sartre, or The Red and the Black in French and the teacher rabbiting on about existentialism in French. The teacher here was kind enough to give me 15 minutes extra before each class to give me some basic nouns and things so I could string a few sentences together. After the first week though, there was no chalk to be had and so she couldn’t put words on the board and so she would spell them out. Now there was a challenge too, because the Irish don’t spell quite like I’m used to. A is said “ah.” It’s not rocket science but it does slow you down as you’re trying desperately to make sense of it all. Then toss in a fada (an accent) and it really can throw you for a loop. Not to get too deep into Irish spelling and pronunciation, suffice it to say it drives Dave into “gaels” of laughter (ha-ha) and can be confusing even if you don’t take into account regional differences. I had learned some pronunciation before I came from listening to and singing songs in Irish. But what I learned and heard was the Donegal and a little Connemara, not Munster Irish which is what is spoken here. But one thing is common among all--the expression for Santa Claus (Father Christmas really): Daddaí Nóllaig (fada over the I in daddai and over the o).
I am starting to differentiate the accents a bit from general region to general region. Apparently there is a definite Cork city accent which is “much different” from the accent around
here. That one I haven’t a clue to differentiate. The first strong difference is of course the northern Irish accent, which has some tones similar to Scotland for obvious reasons.
The funniest obvious little clip of a northern accent was on the TV at Dave sister’s the other night when we heard them announcing when the next episode of the American drama ER was to be shown. The woman pronounced it “E—Ore” My brother-in-law looked over at us and said “like the donkey?” “It’s the Shrek effect.” (The shrek effect is what in England they call all those urban people who have moved out to the country and then don’t want to mow their miles of grass so they buy a donkey—“they’re so cute”. The prices of donkeys have soared in Ireland and the continent).
TV is something we still haven’t done yet at our household, though we did actually try and put our old one on a few months ago only to have smoke come out from the back of it. It was old so we weren’t too surprised. As of yet we haven’t bought a new one. They do have a license fee over here—it’s about 140 euro per year which is only a little less than the £115 or so it cost in the U.K. For that though you get about 4 stations, one of which is in Irish most of the time, though there usually are English subtitles at the bottom. This station, TG4, actually broadcasts the American TV show, Survivor, which is hilariously narrated in Irish with subtitles and then the actual conversations are in English.
TG4 were at the culture center in the village a month or so ago to premier this new film about Cork city. It was a free night that also shared bill with the local winners of the Oireachtas. The Oireachtas is a national competition held in a different place each time to celebrate and promote Irish language and culture (It’s also the name of. There is singing, reciting, plays, poetry and various combinations of these for all ages, for about 4 days. This year it was coordinated by Peadar (our choir director) and a few others but since there was no where in the area big enough to hold it they had it just outside of Cork City. Many of the choir members competed in various events and several of them placed or came first. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t attend because Dave needed the car for tutoring, but it was the next best thing to go to the evening at the culture center to celebrate the local winners. They had singing and recitations and a little humorous vignette by some young teens. It was all in Irish of course, but they were so good and I had heard the summary from someone so I got the gist of it.
One of the men who won first place, Ownie Mikey (real name Owen O’Sullivan but his Dad was called Mike) got up stood there in his rumpled jeans, work boots, hands in his rumpled jacket pocket and sang in a beautiful baritone voice. The whole evening concluded with several of the men’s choir (made famous by Sean O’Riada when he composed the mass in Irish for them in the 1960s) leading the hall in their favorite--Mo Ghile Mear.
The song Mo Ghile Mear (pronounced Mo Gheela Mar in Munster Irish) featured at one point the next day when I had a choir workshop with a singing instructor. The woman, Mary Mac (short for Mc something I can’t remember) was originally from the area but had spent the last 15 years teaching and coaching singing in Germany. She is now head of the voice department of the School of Music in Cork. She is a personal friend of Peadar’s and he asked her to come and give us a workshop to help us with our singing. She was amazing. She incorporated many kinesthetic things with the voice coaching as well as theory and metaphysical aspects too. She worked on some of us individually too I was too chicken to have her pull and push my lips, jaw and head or have me on the floor with her hand on my diaphragm while I belted out a
song in Irish. I have enough problem remembering the tune and words without all that. Maybe next time. The song Mo Ghile Mear came up when she was discussing interpretation. She had Irish but it was rusty and she was confused about the song because the manner in which the song had been sung the night before had her thinking it was a march. But when she translated the words to herself it was not. So she had a choir member say the words in Irish while another translated them. Then she had the woman say the words as if she was acting them out. The song, translated as something like My Bright Hero, or My Bright Light is a woman lamenting that her hero, her lover is gone, and won’t return to rescue her from her life of oppression. The woman though, is Ireland, and the lover/hero is Bonny Prince Charlie, who was supposed to come across and defeat the English but he never did. So Mary Mac drew out another approach to singing the song, one filled with passion and sorrow, but the choir said the men had made their stamp on that song in this area so much they wouldn’t dare sing it any other way around here. Maybe if they got up in a disguise they could get away with it…
Session -Peadar on left
Cor Cuil Aodha (men's choir of Cuil Aodha)
Singing and music was also on the menu a few weeks later when they had the annual Eigse in the village. It commemorates the life of Dhiarmuid O’ Suilleabhan, a local singer (brother to Ownie Mikey) who was tragically killed in a car crash in 1991. The weekend is a festival of workshops and music sessions, singing and ceili dancing. It is really a feast where there is too much choice. I went last year and, if you remember, seemed to arrive just as things were packing up. I also attempted the workshops and ended up trying to learn sean nos dancing with the instructions in Irish. A little wiser this year, I missed the workshops and focused on the pub music and singing sessions at the Mills pub. There were two different music sessions there- one in the back and one in the front. While I was in the back I saw many choir members and had one of them came up to me and introduce me to a young woman who was from California. She was staying in Cork City for a term doing her masters in folk music. Besides playing in sessions and studying fiddle she was also taking sean nos singing classes with the choir member and another choir member (sister to Dhiarmud O’ Suilleabhan) . The choir member asked me to look after the girl while she nipped back to Cork City for an event. She would return later for the sean nos singing in the dining room. So the girl made the rounds of the music session quite happily playing her fiddle with loads of others playing flutes, uillean pipes, bodhrans, concertinas, accordians and all the rest. The people were from all over Ireland, and I also heard a few American accents mingled with English. Then a smattering of Dutch to add to the flavor. But the music was all traditional. Along about 11pm I made my way to the dining room and settled in for a few hours of beautiful singing. One little lady was 83 and had just released a CD that day of 24 songs she recorded in Peadar’s studio. She is the mother of one of the choir members (of course) and she lived in the area until the 60s when she moved to Cork. Her songs are all from the area and she used to travel around with her daughter and sing with her. She is still very elegant and her voice is lovely. Others sang songs in Irish that were local but there were some who sang with a mixture English/Irish as well. There were young and old which was very gratifying. They were still going at it when I pulled myself away at 1 am.
The next day I had to be awake for my harp student. I now have two. I acquired another harp student through an email to a woman in Cork who has a little harp society through Cork City college. She teaches harp through the music school and had no room for this 15 year old girl so she asked if I could take her on. I did so willingly and she was keen to come out to me, despite the 45 minute trek. Harp teachers are hard to find, so she said. She already had years of piano, violin and saxophone so I have some good groundwork to build on with her.
Art has made some headway lately too in my life. Just after the choir workshop I took a watercolor workshop in Macroom with my neighbors. I’ve sadly missed the painting classes in Inchigeela because they clashed with the choir, but we all three were up for going to an all day workshop on a Saturday. It was great craic. The woman who led it was from South Africa, though she’s been over here many years. Her accent is still strong though and when she was talking about painting in the “wet in wet” technique, I had to think for a minute what she meant because it sounded like “wait in wait” or something near to that. Still she was a good instructor and she took us step by step through various techniques while we then tried it ourselves and painted a scene from the region. Overall I was pleased with my own result though my bridge somehow became humpbacked—definitely putting my own stamp on it as it were.
Where in all this comes the work on the house? Well it has slowed down now that it’s left to our own steam, but we are making progress. Dave has tiled the bathroom and I painted the rest of the house, so it is pretty much complete in that respect. Every room needs something and most particularly, until recently, the kitchen. Slowly we installed the cabinets. Thanks to our wonderful plumber we had some pipes to hide and cut out of cabinet backs. We also had sockets to move, adjust or install. Then our countertop was ordered and the wrong one came in. One piece was so long we had to bring it through the window and take it out again when we were cutting out a piece to allow for the plumbing. At one point it was balanced on my head and I thought I was going to be bored into the ground. Then of course installing the sink is never straightforward, and one of the fittings was in metric, and the other was in inches so the taps/faucets wouldn’t go straight on. Never mind, it all came right in the end and I now have a kitchen sink! Who’d have thought I would get excited about doing the dishes? The person who honed dishwashing avoidance skills while growing up! So we now have most of our cabinets installed, the kitchenware all in from the barn and it looks like a real kitchen. There are still the larder/pantry bits, the new stove to install properly (the old one bit the dust a few weeks ago), the tiling and the flooring and a door installed, but hey that’s minor stuff….
Meanwhile there’s Christmas. We’ll be going to Cornwall for Christmas to spend it with Dave’s mother. There’s a new addition to my sister-in-law’s son’s family. They now have another little girl, so I will be seeing her for the first time over Christmas. Back after the new year to take up the tools again.
Irish Country Observer 6
Hard to believe a year has gone by since I last wrote an observer. That is not to say that I haven’t been observing, it just seemed that too many things took hold and computer problems seem to make it more and more of a task as the time went by. It has been a busy year, not so much with the house but with life in general.
Yes the house is still here, ever present and wanting attention. We did manage to complete the kitchen even putting tiles on the floor (well Dave did) and I actually hung a picture—the only one I have hung to date. The kitchen does look good and I spend time in there, especially when the sun is shining. The upstairs extension is finished--- the bathroom fitted out with a built in cupboard with specially made cottage like doors and wood floor. The skylight window brings in the light and at night (when it’s clear) you can see the stars. The new bedroom is really lovely- two skylight windows and a huge picture window facing south, looking out on the valley and hills. The rest is still a work in progress, though Dave has made bits and pieces. In the dining room he fitted a new “clevvie” a shelf that goes above the fireplace. The old one was so rotten we could only use it as a template for the new one. He’s refinished the built in cupboard beside the fireplace so I have salvaged more storage space. He also made a new porch door—it’s kind of a mixture of an Irish style and English style. It is one and a half door in front (Irish style) but the whole door is white with a black letter box and black handle. The half door tradition in Ireland probably evolved to have air come through in the summer but keep the animals out (chickens, dogs, donkeys and any other rambling beast).
I continued to take Irish language classes last winter. It was a small class with only about 4 of us. I drove over the mountain to Ballingeary for it again because the local one in the village here met on my choir practice night. It was really enjoyable, but I had to work hard to keep up with the other three since they were Irish and had learned it in school and were only trying to brush up. I’m learning Munster pronunciation which, though spelled the same, sounds different to Donegal or Conemara Irish. So listening to the Irish language radio is confusing a bit, as are the tapes I get out of the library. Over the summer I started working out of a high school book so I could start stringing together sentences of my own instead of repeating phrases of common conversation. Still it is not like your French or German I have to say with rules for adding and subtracting letters that only make your head spin. But at this point I can say some of the essential phrases like “what’s the gossip?” and “bugger off” that make up the vital part of any language. Now, though I can ask about the gossip, it doesn’t mean to say that I will understand it when they tell me. Perhaps that is just as well. Still, I am coming along at choir understanding some of what is going on other than “sing it again” in Irish.
The choir is still working on our huge monumental piece “Laoi na Laoithe” which is the Song of Solomon in Irish. Peadar O’Riada still sits at the piano and wings through composing bits at a time while we wait to hear our part. God knows how long it will take to sing the whole thing. We are up to Chapter 7 of 8 chapters and our big performance is due to be given on March 4. It was originally to be February 11, St. Gobnait’s Day, the patron saint of the village. But the new seats in the culture center won’t be in until 4 March. Somewhere the gods are helping us, because the deadline is too close. We did perform half of the piece (the first four chapters) at the Choral Festival in Cork in March of last year. It was our “world debut” of the piece. We performed in St. Finbarr’s Cathedral and I was amazed at the acoustics, which made us sound wonderful. Some of Peadar’s composition we all thought was a bit ropey sounded beautiful and we understood then what he had in mind. One of the choir members recorded it and we each got a copy and were stunned at how good it sounded.
The choir is still working on our huge monumental piece “Laoi na Laoithe” which is the Song of Solomon in Irish. Peadar O’Riada still sits at the piano and wings through composing bits at a time while we wait to hear our part. God knows how long it will take to sing the whole thing. We are up to Chapter 7 of 8 chapters and our big performance is due to be given on March 4. It was originally to be February 11, St. Gobnait’s Day, the patron saint of the village. But the new seats in the culture center won’t be in until 4 March. Somewhere the gods are helping us, because the deadline is too close. We did perform half of the piece (the first four chapters) at the Choral Festival in Cork in March of last year. It was our “world debut” of the piece. We performed in St. Finbarr’s Cathedral and I was amazed at the acoustics, which made us sound wonderful. Some of Peadar’s composition we all thought was a bit ropey sounded beautiful and we understood then what he had in mind. One of the choir members recorded it and we each got a copy and were stunned at how good it sounded.
In the spring, during the month of Bealtaine (May—pronounced Bee-AL-tin-a) I performed down in the library with the harp telling stories. All month long the libraries have different programs for the senior citizens and the librarian hired me to perform on the harp. It turned out one of the classes of the local grade school came in for it too so I had quite a crowd. I wasn’t sure how they would receive it—the older people are used to story telling and some of them can really tell them well. I told mostly Irish tales, but I slipped in a Cornish one and a Welsh one I turned into an Irish one. It went down really well and I was pleased.
That month I took a Bealtaine workshop—lacemaking--at the library since it wasn’t full. I thought it would be crochet lace, but it was more like an applique, which is a special kind of lacemaking done in Ireland that came across in the late 18th century from the continent I think. It was really interesting and I made a handkerchief with a fuschias and shamrocks on it. It doesn’t sound like much, but believe me it took time and attention and some fiddling with the needle. Some of the older women brought in work that their mothers had done which
was a real treat.
A few weeks later I was also called on to play the harp at an opening of an art exhibit in the town of Macroom. An artist who lives across the valley asked me to play at the exhibit of her work and a few other artists in the area. It was quite an event with the local mayor and councilor there to open it and loads of people coming through. I understand my photo was in the local paper, though I never saw it.
In June we had the debut around here of the film, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” filmed the summer before all around the area. It won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, but raised quite a controversy in England when it was shown. Ken Loach, an Englishman made it, but it gives quite a sympathetic telling to the republican side of the years 1919-1923, during the struggle for independence and the civil war years after it. It tells of the Black and Tans and then the conflict between the two factions after the treaty was signed. When you talk to those older people around here it was an accurate depiction. The librarian’s husband’s father was involved in it in this area, and was jailed in Macroom where he was beaten badly. Later he was transferred elsewhere and treated much better. He expected to go to London, where some had been taken, and was actually looking forward to the trip, but it never happened. He sounds a real character (just like his son).
house used in film 'Wind That Shakes the Barley' Another local story taken to the stage happened this past summer in Gougane Barra at the hotel there. Gougane is a national park with lovely mountains and a lake and a chapel on the lake as well as the 7th? century ruins of St. Finbarr’s oratory. There is an old Victorian hotel there and they have put on a play, 'The Tailor and Ansty', the past two summers.
'The Tailor and Ansty' was a book written by a man who visited the area and came to know the local tailor and his wife, Ansty. He wrote a book in the 1940s about them, filled with anecdotes that more or less celebrated a passing way of life. There were a few bits where the tailor is looking at the newspaper and drooling over the lingerie ads, but that was as racy as it got. But the church didn’t think so and the book was banned up until about the late 1960s. Then a playwright put it on stage and it has now lately been revived. The library adult book club members gave me tickets to have dinner at the hotel and see the play as a thank you for my volunteer work, much to my astonishment and great delight. My husband couldn’t go, so it was his sister, and I had a great time with wonderful food in a great setting followed by a good play.
In the month of August my husband's mother came to stay for a month. My husband went over and escorted her back on the plane. It was her first flight and she managed it very well. She found the area so quiet after Fowey and the weather really cooperated to be warm and sunny. She helped in picking a bumper crop of blackberries—a tribute to the very dry and fairly sunny summer we had.
My huband’s brother-in-law fell ill at the end of the summer—he was diagnosed with neck cancer and had surgery followed by chemo and radiation treatment in the fall. It was quite an experience and a difficult time for him. At one point he had to be hospitalized and contracted blood poisoning, but he managed to overcome that and is now home recovering. It was quite something to experience the hospital staff and routine, and in some ways I realized how much has changed (some good and some bad) since I was nursing, and how some things never change.
In the fall I also started taking painting classes with a local painter that I really admire. She is showing me some great insights on techniques and I have really learned loads from her. Unlike this past summer, when I went over to Inchigeela again, like I had the summer before for the week of painting in the morning. This year they didn’t have James, the easy going and encouraging young man that does it once a month. They had a German woman, whose name escapes me, but her manner didn’t. We ventured out most days to the local places to paint the
surroundings. Lovely sites, but she gave a little lecture and said how we must all stand while we paint so we would be free flowing. Well I have my own method and I have to say, standing isn’t in it.
But anyway I went off and sat and pulled out my stuff. She comes over and just grunts after I explain I can’t paint standing. Then I hear her giving out to these women because they are using white in the water color. “NO white! There is no white in water color!.” (Her English wasn’t that good). Well the Irish women just looked at her and one said, “then why do they make white water color paints?” She just repeated what she had said and stomped off. Well that give you an idea of the week. I more or less went off and hid and did my own thing. My neighbors who were there with me and the artist who had the exhibit in Macroom and I had a good laugh later.
I’m still writing when I can too. Earlier in the summer I submitted a short story for an arts council competition and was notified a few weeks ago that I was shortlisted for the final. It means that my story will be published in their book of short stories next May. It’s exciting,
especially since my story was about Lakota camp meeting in Montana and I just submitted it through the village library so someone would have submitted from there.
The book clubs are both going well at the library. The teen book club lost members who have now gone onto college but we were replenished by a younger crew that just started at the high school and now qualify for the book club. They are an enthusiastic bunch, but it makes it interesting to have 4 very young and 4 older teens. The older ones are pretty patient with them, which is nice to see. I generally do two books- one for the young ones and one for the older kids. We recently read Anita Shreve’s 'Light On Snow' and they enjoyed it. The adult book club is still going well and we’ve also had a few new members this fall. We seem to have found a few books that we like, after a run of really bad ones. I’m sorry but Orhan Pahmuk’s highly acclaimed, “Snow” didn't go down well with them.
My work with the library volunteering seems to have reaped other benefits as well. I have just got a part time temporary job as a librarian in Macroom, the next town. I am there to fill in the hours while someone is on carer’s leave, but hopefully it might lead to something more permanent. I went for training on the computer system 1 ½ days last week and then did 2 ½ days at Macroom. Normally they would spend a week training me, but they needed someone badly and I think they figured my background was sufficient I could cope. The circulation system is ancient, and is command driven rather than windows, so that was a bit of a gulp in the midst of check out and patron registration on the desk. I also was asked to do story time at the library 5 minutes before it started on Saturday, because there were two other events to prepare for that day. So it was deep end for me, but it was fine. It’s a nice library and the staff are nice. It’s smaller than Glenside back in Philadelphia, but big for the county. They also never had card catalogs for patrons in Ireland, so there is a culture of coming to the desk and asking if a book is available rather than looking in a catalog, online or not. Interesting.
Anahareo, Grey Owl & friend
My time has also been taken up this year researching a biography of a woman named Anahareo. It started when Dave and I saw the film about Grey Owl last Christmas in Cornwall. It starred Pierce Brosnan. Grey Owl was a man who was thought to be half Apache. He was very much into wild life conservation, especially the beaver and along with Anahareo, his wife, they began to promote it in the 1930s in Canada. He wrote books and toured England. After he died it came out that he was in fact English, though Anahareo never knew before he died. Anahareo was an amazing woman—a trapper, a prospector and she drove dogsleds. She was a Mohawk, educated and most of the bushcraft she knew she learned from Grey Owl. Her life is a unique testimony to a strong willed woman who overcame much in her time to pursue her love of the wilderness.
I have been researching it slowly and was able to contact members of her family to begin to fill in the many gaps that aren’t covered in her short autobiography written in 1972. There’s loads yet to do, but I’m enjoying it.
So now Christmas 2006 approaches, though it’s hard to believe. We will be celebrating Christmas here this year. My husband has constructed a tree out of a chimney brush and branches from a pine tree that fell in the storm that knocked out our phone and computer. It’s a complex statement, but some of it is because the hype over here is to have a black christmas tree== “black is the new green.”
With that I will wish you all a happy Christmas—Nóllaig Shóna.