Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Russian Undertakings

© 2013 Marie Guillot
A two-fold language story

Graphic by Marie Guillot

At the other end of the line, Boris's English is tinted with a Russian colour. Of course, mine has an equivalent tinge, due to my French native tongue. Thus, we are more likely to be able to communicate properly.
My problem is simple enough. Having learned the basics of Russian decades ago, I now want to write a short text in that language, in order to read it at my son's wedding: Marina's family is from Ukraine and now lives in the USA. That's where Pierre met her.

I am based in Cork (Ireland) and Boris, a seasoned polyglot translator, lives in Dublin. We agree on this: I'll prepare the English text and a draft of the Russian version, using my old books. Then, I'll email him the English bit and we'll complete the job over the phone.

In the late Sixties, there was a belief in France that the business world would become Russian-oriented. As a consequence, our Engineering College was, for the first time, offering a course in that language.
Professor Yvanovitch was a Russian exile; he was doing research in Strasbourg University and his current project was to develop a device helping students in their pronunciation of foreign languages. 
The principle was to record a sentence spoken in native speech (his, for example) and to display the correlating sound waves on a makeshift 'oscilloscope-cum-microphone'. Then the students repeated the same words, while comparing their own waves to the teacher's pattern. Not an easy exercise, but, with good guidance and many attempts, persevering students could certainly improve their intonation that way.

Starting my first draft, I immediately realise that I had forgotten the order of the Russian alphabet, not an ideal situation when using a dictionary; but this hurdle is only a small one compared to the bulk of the work.
As I move forward, my short text keeps shrinking: from a carefully hand-carved English creation, it becomes two short plain sentences, in the line of 'wishing you happiness all your life'. Almost heart-broken, I email them to Boris and we set up a time for the phone call.

With the receiver in one hand and a pencil in the other, I am ready to start. Boris interrupts me, right there. As a professional editor, his duty is to make suggestions. The first one is a slight modification to my English text. I am able to appreciate the service, because I 'do that to others' on a regular basis.
I get on with my reading, detaching each word for clarity. He listens to the whole text and repeats it slowly, taking one word at a time. I try to follow him, while scribbling a phonetic equivalent, using a code that I am making up as I go. Most words have to be adjusted, because of a declination or a conjugation, or else they are utterly wrong. All my adverbs are correct (ah!). Admittedly, my enthusiasm is a little bit dampened.
The wedding takes place next week: 'To read or not to read, that is now my question'. 

Unwittingly, my brain takes over: two days later, I wake up with the answer. Thanks to all that exercise with my books and Boris, there are simple words and numbers that are now coming back.
Full sentences are dropped altogether: I'll make a list of words and call it a 'poem'. Brilliant! Not only do I feel more comfortable with this version, but I can probably learn it by heart too. It goes something like this:
Ukraine, France, America
Today / Celebration / Together
Three cultures / Two hearts / One love 

Reflecting on all this, I think again of Professor Yvanovitch who, obviously, had not entirely wasted his time with us. I wonder if he was actually a dormant spy. Many of them were discovered after the Cold War, on both sides of the East-West front. It would not have mattered to us anyway, as we were really fond of him. His dedication to the little homemade apparatus was also touching. As apprentice engineers, we were able to appreciate the work behind the curtain, so to speak.

There we are now, two days before the wedding, settling in New Jersey.
A meal is organized, to finalise the acquaintance of both families, seventeen persons in total, including children. Each participant is encouraged to 'say-a-toast'.
I decide that this is my opportunity, not as intimidating as a wedding. Standing up, I recite my poem as well as I can, in Russian first, then in English. A reasonable applause follows, intertwined with some laughs.
I ask the person sitting next to me: "Why the laughs? My accent?"
"No, not really. It does not matter."
  "What does not matter?" I reply, a little worried.
"Well, Marie, you actually said two sisters instead of two hearts. But, believe me, we understood your intention and we are all very touched."

Two days later, the real thing. I feel quite relaxed: no worry about languages anymore! The young couple is about to exchange their vows. Both perfectly composed, eyes in eyes, they recite them: first Pierre, in Russian; then Marina, in French. Next comes English: "…To love you…in sickness…"
The world is vanishing around me.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

New Hands

by Madelaine Nerson Mac Namara,  ©2013
I prepare for the time
when it will not do
to be shy touching you.
At Shiatsu classes
my new hands find their voice.

Tonight I stand
behind your pink armchair
your aching shoulders
my homework practice.

Skin invents itself
currency and gift.
Your neck smoothens
like a kitten's
my back ripples, morning alive.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Where Do You Come From

by Sarah O'Mahony    © 2013

I come from the sea
Rolling waves on a beach
Stormy seas in winter time with great powerful energetic waves of deep
Sapphire blue, haunted with 
Crispy heavy droplets of snow white fringed waves.

I come from the land, mother earth, the rocks and soil,
Free fresh air, crisp fresh cooling soothing fresh Atlantic air.

I come from white splashes of rocks and stones all around and 
Mingled with deep mellow yellow ochre lichen.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Visit to Derrynane, Co.Kerry.

by Cecily Lynch 

Cecily Lynch

( Home of Daniel  O'Connell, The Great Liberator)

On a sunlit August afternoon I approached the rugged beauty of Derrynane, a national park on the famous ring of Kerry.  A winding road,  heavy gates, an avenue -  and there was the house, well preserved and  lovely to behold.  To the right was a glasshouse where  was displayed the golden coach which carried Daniel O'Connell, an activist for the poor Irish peasant in the mid-nineteenth century through the streets of Dublin in  a triumphant  parade.  To the left lay the lawns and sand dunes, behind which lay the golden sands and crystal clear waters of a lovely beach. Near it perched on an island was the ancient abbey cemetery, still in use.  It is most dramatic to see a funeral cortege wend its way across the sands, the coffin held aloft over the shallow waters.

Beauty of landscape lay all around.  The groves, the bays, the coves and inlets, the long stretches of golden sand and the rocky promontory of Lambs Head, delighted the eye.  The islands in the bay, Deenish and Scarriff, glistened in the sun.  The curving range of mountains was a background to the little groups of holiday homes among the bare rocks.
The history of Ireland lay before me near Coomakista, a steep incline facing the Scelligs.In the foreground were megalithic tombs, dating from 3.000 BC.  They faced the sea and the setting sun illuminated them.

 Nearby a stone circle pointed  towards the solar and lunar events, a place of religious worship for megalithic peoples.  Some yards away lay a perfectly preserved ring fort dating from  the early middle ages.  Still further,  scattered remains of famine villages, told the tale of hardship and deprivation.  Between these lay the stout farmhouses of perhaps two hundred years, still strong. And near them were the modern bungalows and beautiful holiday homes built during the Celtic Tiger years. I walked on, hunched under my knapsack and thought of  the harsh times gone by when people lived in and loved this dramatic landscape, people of my own race whose genes I carry on into the twenty first century.  May I carry the torch for them.

Cecily Lynch

Monday, September 9, 2013

Waiting Patiently in Sicily

by Musetta Joyce © 2013

I had been at a loss as to where men and women might meet and chat in our town, for women never drank in the bars and there were no clubs or social occasions that I knew of, until at last I got my answer: doctors' waiting rooms. That's where people mingle.
Personally I avoid doctors like the plague, but my husband, like most Sicilians, is addicted, and as he likes my moral support at such outings, I reluctantly tag along. Given the circumstances the conversation usually concentrates on bodily dysfunctions, but this time was different.
Sitting awkwardly on green plastic chairs lining the walls of the small room there were only two women, a mother and her middle-aged daughter, sallow-skinned and darkly clad. They spoke with raucous voices in a version of the Sicilian dialect that was almost impossible to understand, commenting on everything discussed rather like a Greek chorus. The men were dressed in jeans and tee shirts in primary colours. They were mainly middle-aged truck drivers and builders, deeply tanned. 
 'The hunting season is open at last. About bloody time too,' remarked a stocky man in a yellow tee shirt.
'Well it's all the same to me. I stopped paying for my licence and handed over my gun.' A tall thin man in blue opened the small window.
'Ah yes, there's a great scarcity of birds alright, I don't blame you.'
'No, no, it's not the birds that bother me. I was afraid I'd use the gun to kill a guy that cheated me.'
'Why would you want to do that? What did he do to you?'
'Ah it's a long story. Enough to say that he owes me a lot of money for jobs done. A lot of jobs. The bastard!'
'Why don't you take him to court?'
'You must be joking! In this town? I'm nobody. I would never get justice. No, I have to make my own justice.'
'But killing the man with your own gun isn't a good idea. Why not use a lump of iron? Bash him on the head one dark night. Much easier to get away with that.'
'Nonsense,' a third man entered the discussion. 'Far better to knock him down with your car. When he's sauntering around the piazza in the dusk one evening. Bang, crash- finito presto!'
'But you'd risk getting slapped into prison for manslaughter!'
'So? I'd get fed, wouldn't I? My children are all settled, my house is paid for and my wife is tired of me. I might even get time to read. I never get time to do my own thing. I've lived my life well, I'd be nice and cool al fresco and that bastard would be burning in hell. I'd get my revenge and he'd get his come'uppings. Nobody would miss me.'
'What about your grandchildren?' A red-faced man with matching shirt interrupted with a gravelly voice.
'You're on the ball there. The one thing that stops me is the thought of my grandchildren. How could I play with them if I was locked up?'
 'But surely your children would miss you. I know my son would if it was me in jail.'
'Oh now, so your son thinks you're special, does he?'
'My son is special, and that's because I made him special. A world champion, several times over he is.'
'World champion? Are you by any chance the father of … ?' This time it was my husband who wanted to hear more.
'Cairoli? Yes. That's my son. World champion at motor-cross five times. When he wins it eleven times we'll be happy.'
All attention turned away from the would-be killer to the father of the world champion of which the whole town is justifiably proud.
'How did he start his career? Everyone is amazed that our small town, with no facilities and no encouragement somebody could make it with such success!'
'I know. I had to make the track myself – down by the old riverbed. Started him on a bike when he was three. Took to it like a fish to water. Sings as he races, he does. You see I always wanted to race myself but my father was cowardly; wouldn't let me. After I die, he said, but then it was too late. So I had to wait for a son of my own to train to succeed where I had no chance. But first a daughter was born, then another and – a third baby girl.'
Sympathetic murmurs came from all around the room, for everyone knew the problems with having daughters: dowries to be saved for, husbands to be sought, unwanted attentions from unsuitable males to be fought off, no brothers to protect the sisters, and nobody to carry on the family name!
'And then, by the grace of God, after nine more years – a baby boy! I travel the world with him now. Lives in Belgium, he does, where he can keep up his training.'
'We had a great town welcome for him, when was it, two years ago? Not last year I think.'
'No, last year my wife died. So, no celebrations. Next year, though. He'll be back.'
Then it was Cairoli's turn to see the doctor, and the waiting patients sat back and basked in the glory of the townsman who made it and the satisfaction of hearing of a dream that came true.
My husband broke the silence to tell us a story about a very rich and successful businessman who owned a factory in the north of Italy.
'He made his money bartering rice for steel. You know how the rice fields in our northern planes are so fertile? Well, he got a great deal. Then, with the steel he started a large valve factory in the mountains near Turin where I worked for a short time and became a multi millionaire. But in spite of all his money he had a desperate fear of growing old and sick. So, when the huge Ragno underwear manufacturers went bust he bought the factory and started building a state of the art health centre on the site, and went about engaging top specialist doctors from Switzerland. Unfortunately, before it was completed, he was driving into the site one day to inspect it when he crashed into a gatepost – and was killed instantly. He was only in his early fifties. The health centre never went ahead and his daughter and his son took over the valve factory. The son had a strange name, what was it now? Oh, yes, I remember. It was Fausto!'
'Ah,' I rose as it was our turn to see the doctor, 'If he was afraid of growing old, of course he would choose Faust.'
'Why, who's Faust?'
'Tell you later. Come on, we mustn't keep the doctor waiting.'

Thursday, September 5, 2013


by Madelaine Nerson MacNamara  ©2013

The guitar case
Bobs by your knee.
Orange street lights
Nest in puddles.

Striding the bridge
Near the courthouse
Do you wonder
Who'll dance tonight?

Sunday, August 25, 2013


    © 2012 Madelaine Nerson MacNamara

Voices criss-cross the silence between trains.
Eleven years old Mona Lisa processes
The length of the porcelain-tiled metro station.
Long flowered skirt, tight red scarf.
Eyes brandishing a lance and shield.
Thorough, professional, she detects a target. 

My fellow travellers set their face
Into automatic, neutral or reverse
Against the curse of street begging. 
I try magicking change into my wallet
Rummage twitching fingers 
For coins I know to be non-existent.

From the barricade 
of warm coat, yellow bench
I withstand her entreaties
Perplex her with nodded 
Smiles that don't manage 
To convince me not to mind her.

Once more I've left myself 
Be swayed, failed to fight our corner 
Despite, unlike my companions,
Lacking valid reasons for refusing alms.
Next Sunday's Gospel reading
Confirms: "Give to everyone who asks".

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Week on the Beara Peninsula, West Cork, Ireland

by   Cecilia Lynch  ©  2013

July 2013  

I stood on the deck of the trawler facing the receding land.  Huge mountain peaks dwarfed the homes clinging to the lower slopes of the Mishkish range.  Ahead lay the Sceilg, austere and rugged, last outpost of the ancient monasteries.  The restless ocean  was alive with dolphins and whales.

View from Travara.           Photo © Victor Sullivan

I stood inside ancient stone circles, built as places of sun worship three to four thousand years ago.  The huge stones were weathered with age, some had fallen but they still pointed to significant solar and lunar events. They faced the rising sun and had also a view of the sun as it set over the ocean.  In the centre was the Altar stone, where perhaps dark deeds were done.

I explored rocky coves, unspoiled and untouched, where fish were plentiful and human presence had no influence.

I walked to isolated villages, where the houses were coloured in rainbow hues and no human was to be seen in the vicinity.  The mountains towered all around.

I watched the small fishing boats attend to the fish farms and oyster beds from my vantage point on the cliffs.

I attended the  Village Festival Country Show,  Irish dancing in the streets, set dancers in the Hall, stalls selling home-made bread, honey, cakes, wine, cheese, bric-a-brack, art and crafts, home knitting.

It is another world, a place apart from the grimy city.  It is a place of peace and serenity, unchanging, elemental and heartbreakingly beautiful.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Report on Bantry Literary Festival 2013

by Cecily Lynch

Bantry was resplendent in tropical sunshine.  People  rejoiced in the sizzling heat, went boating and swimming, entered the forests to cool down.   The literary festival was enhanced by this Mediterranean  atmosphere.

We sank gratefully into the library for the talks and into the cool and darkened hotel conference room for the evening lectures. 

Mervyn Bragg's talk was very touching and humane.  He read from his latest book, Grace and Molly.  I admired his frankness and pride in his roots in  a working town in northern England.

I particularly admired the Bantry Writing Circle's  readings, which were of a professional standard and their play which was most entertaining and comic, catching as it did the humour of the West Cork people who consider food and hospitality as the most important element in  dealing with any  crisis, be it cancer, imprisonment or death.

CNFWG presentation at Bantry Library.   Photo © Marie Guillot

The Cork Non-fiction Writers' presentation was a great success.  Victor explained very well what happens in our circle, ably helped by Marie.  Most members at the workshop had a chance to speak and give their opinions, showing participation in the discussion.  Interest was expressed by people attending the workshop  in setting up their own writing circle in their local libraries, thereby showing that the presentation was a success.

The morning talks in Bantry House were delightful. The sun beamed  as the pretty lady who sailed all the oceans in the world to highlight the spoilage of the seas by pollution, spoke about the narrow escapes she had  as her yacht was caught in storms.

Readings in the library were outstanding, especially those of Claire Kilroy who caught the dialogue of country dwellers perfectly and with trenchant humour.

The final offering was the 'Literary Tea', where Rumor Godden's eldest daughter spoke movingly about her mother's life in India after her husband left her to bring up two children on her own.  The British colonial period in India was evoked very lovingly and touchingly.

The 'Reality Show' of critiques of pieces of writing done by three working editors of publishing houses, pulled no punches.  If they thought something would not sell, they dismissed it.  Literary merit did not count. But that is reality -  real life publishing indeed, and  not for the squeamish.

'Open mike', held late at night, produced astonishingly original work.

After this feast of literary delights, I made my way to the beautiful, remote and spectacular Beara peninsula  to mull over and read  the new material. The dolphins frolicked off-shore, perhaps enjoying their own kind of  festival.

Cecily Lynch, 

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Family Friend

by Madelaine Nerson MacNamara     © 2013

Out of all the squillions of footsteps received
The pavement in Paris is pining for me.
I know this to be true, ever since the day
You assert that nobody, no one is indispensable.
And I don't believe you. As surely as I live
I know my father, mother, brother are indispensable.
I rebel, protest, indignant. You brook no argument.
Untypically I don't insist. You mean well
Someone must have died, you're trying to explain.

You answer all my whys, take me out for walks.
Just beyond the corner of Avenue Victor Hugo
And Rue de Longchamps, a cleaners to the right
Why do they clean clothes when the laundryman
Comes once a week for them? I help Mum to sort them.
She ties the tricky knot on the sheet that bags them.
To the left a huge plane tree, roots and base of trunk
Cradled in metal bars. Why? And who'd cut it down?
And why? And why does it need watering?

We halt suddenly. On the ground the monstrous racket
Of  a dozen small brown birds bickering over crumbs. Why?
You lecture: sparrows always fight, they're sparrows
That's their name. I'd not known birds had names.
Apart from pigeons of course. Now how would you catch one?
Something else I hadn't thought about!
A great hope rises. ‒Well, how?! ‒Pinch of salt on their tail...
Disappointment sixty years on stings even sharper!

School begins, you pick me up, streets are like rivers
I'm not to cross alone. Holding your hand like taking a ferry.
Before you reach the edge I'm there, race back to you three times
Amazed you reckon for Mother the mileage on my soles.

My friends make their own way home, you still collect me.
One day, we wait at the bus stop on the Champs Elysées
A pigeon shits on your head. I'm shocked, disgusted
Unfazed you wipe, pronounce this a token of good luck.
I see luck instead in your soft black hat held on with a jet pin.

Later again, chancing to stroll down empty sunny Rue Spontini
We pass a long, grey building now a fire brigade barracks
You point out its opaque cellar windows, recall reports of screams
Heard far into the street from resistants being tortured.
I ask why, but you've stopped knowing all the answers. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Luxury, Utter, Utter Luxury.

A story with thermal contrasts
Being a child in a large, cold house in rural Ireland in the winters of the 1940s meant wearing several layers of clothes. Before the arrival of the Rural Electrification Scheme our lighting was by paraffin oil lamps or candles. My father considered himself 'progressive' so we enjoyed bottled propane gaslight in the kitchen and sittingroom. Cooking was done on a large cast iron range that devoured wood and peat at an amazing rate. This range also heated water to a half-hearted lukewarm for the kitchen sink and bathroom.

Beds absorbed moisture from the high humidity of the West Cork air and there was a belief that some dire malady could be contracted by sleeping in a cold, damp bed, hence a variety of hot water bottles were employed every evening. We had three or four rubber ones, one scalding hot shiny aluminum one and two heavy earthenware ones that woke everyone and set the the dog barking whenever they crashed heavily onto the wood floor in the small hours. To protect feet and other anatomical parts from burns thick, knitted hot water bottle covers were employed, some mundane, some in teddy bear style. Throughout cold winter months the daily evening chore of  filling the hot-water bottles from two large kettles was a task stoically undertaken by my father.
He appreciated the comfort of his armchair beside the blazing open fire listening to the radio, reading a newspaper or playing Lexicon with my mother. Finally he would retire to the generously hot-water-bottled, pre-heated bed, something he considered to be a necessity rather than a luxury.

My father was manager of Warners Cash Warehouse, a large shop in the sea-side town of Bantry. It stocked the products of the firm's bakery, a wide range of groceries and it also had a hardware section.  In addition, the enterprise supplied any visiting ships, a position that gave my father, known to everyone as 'Jimmy-in-Warners,' considerable stature in the town and his maritime contacts occasionally led to some very exciting adventures for our family.

In the years immediately following the end of the Second World War, Bantry Bay was visited by some interesting ships. Minesweepers were active in the shipping lanes off the south coast of Ireland and in the Atlantic and some called to Bantry. One very large visitor was the British destroyer HMS Devonshire and thanks to my father's contacts our family was invited on board the warship; it had several shell-hole patches after its wartime sea battles, a really memorable adventure for this seven-year-old. 

A year later a very different type of ship arrived in the harbour  and my father's status once again came into play. This time the Harbour Master and Jimmy-in-Warners had each received a formal invitation to visit the Phanthome on a fine Sunday afternoon.
This was a magnificient three-masted, luxury Tall Ship, owned at that time by the Guinness family. It had been hidden away somewhere during the war and was at last able to enjoy its post-war freedom.

The Phanthome in Bantry Bay

We arrived at the appointed time at Bantry pier where we boarded the most pristine motor launch I had ever seen; all shiny varnish and polished metal glinting in the sunshine. The ladies of the party kept expressing amazement at how clean everything was.

We had an excellent view of the fresh black and white paint-work and the three graceful masts as the launch circled the Phanthome. The smartly uniformed sailor in the bow did clever things with a boat-hook and soon we were  alongside the ship's gangway. More pristine varnish and gleaming handrails led up to the main  deck, where, after a tour of the profusion of sailing ship fittings and much neck-straining while staring upwards at the soaring masts, we were welcomed into what I believe was called The Wardroom. There I drank my first sample of green fizzy lemonade while the grownups drank other stuff and seemed to like it a lot.

Afternoon tea was served on plates, cups and saucers, all of which bore the image of the Phanthome in full sail. We had nothing like that at home; not even one plate with a picture of our house on it! I was disappointed with the fancy cakes. They were exactly the same as ones we had at home sometimes, supplied by Warners bakery, of course.

The ladies were then wafted off to see feminine things, like the library, paintings, photographs, private cabins with their beds and bathrooms.

The three men, (that included me), were escorted down steep companion-ways to see the engine room where a  powerful diesel engine drove a generator 'that could supply a town with electricity.' Valves, gauges, dials knobs and pipes were everywhere and green paint dominated the scenery with highlights of more shining brass and polished copper. On either side of the centre gangway stood a pair of huge and silent marine engines. That's cheating, I thought, this is supposed to be a sailing ship!

On returning to The Wardroom I noticed my mother was, for once, speechless. Having examined various display cases and paintings of sailing ships, mostly of Phanthome, we prepared to leave and my mother managed to find her voice and asked our host, "Please show my husband that bed."
"But of course. This way."
The cabin we entered wasn't very big and it contained one single bed, neatly made up, ready for its occupant. My father was propelled towards it and my mother pushed his hand beneath the bedclothes. He lingered there for what seemed a needlessly long time, slowly moving his hand from side to side, grinning in amazement.
"Luxury! Oh, what utter, utter luxury!" he declared, "No need for kettles and hot-water-bottles."

It was twenty five years after that visit to the tall ship that Ireland's Rural Electrification Scheme connected my parent's house to the National Grid and the power was switched on for the first time on one cold winter's day. The first electrical appliance they purchased wasn't a kettle, a washing machine or an iron. That night my parents enjoyed the luxury of an electric blanket.
"Now we're as comfortable as they were on the Phanthome!" was my father's comment.

Over the intervening years whenever I found myself in a cold bed, my thoughts would flash back to that first encounter with an electric blanket on board The Phanthome. Luxury! Utter Luxury indeed.

Thursday, August 8, 2013


 by  Madelaine Nerson Mac Namara,   © 2013


Rumour shivers
up the long snake
of mid morning
sweat frazzled scouts.

Stragglers have spied
between warm stones
a thick dry stick
spring, slither.

Vipers favour
the sandy soil
of summer paths
between tall ferns.

Such hissed warnings
coil in the mind
thrive, redundant
in snakeless lands.

Clutched, handed on
like relay wands
terror, hatred, hope
travel dry ground.

Some canes quicken
into serpents
others strike rock
light fires, divine water.