Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas poem

Cá bhfuilir, a Íosa?
Le hAodán Ó Sé.
Flosc na Nollag ag dul i dtreise Christmas bustle building up
Féile mhór an chaiteachais The great feast of spending
Féile ghéar an uaignis The sharp feast of loneliness
Cá bhfuilir, a Íosa?                         Where are you, Jesus?

Nuacht an lae as gach aon chearn Headlines from around the world
Féile fola an achrainn The blood feast of conflict
Féile shearbh gan dídean                 The bitter feast of homelessness
Cá bhfuilir, a Íosa?                        Where are you, Jesus?

Tusa a saolaíodh gan dídean, You who were born without shelter
Tusa a chuir an ruaig ar mhangairí You who banished the money-changers
Tusa a ghlac conair na croise, You who accepted the cross
Cá bhfuilir, a Íosa?                        Where are you, Jesus?

Féach ort sa mháinséar sínte, There you are lying in a manger
Féach ort i gceartlár daoine, There you are in all mankind
Féach ort i gcochall mo chroí-se, There you are within my heart
Chím anois tú, a Thiarna! At last I see you, Lord!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Going Home for Christmas

 by Dan Coakley  ©  2013
I worked for the UN as Technical Manager of the Electricity Sector of the Oil for Food Programme in Iraq during Saddam's time in 1998/99. Around December 1998 tensions arising from the Weapons of Mass Destruction controversy were high between Iraq and the US and these were heightened to divert attention from the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the US. When the scandal refused to go away Bill Clinton upped the ante and threatened to bomb Iraq. We were warned to be ready to leave at short notice and were under the impression that we could go through Turkey or Iran but these hopes were dashed when they both refused to allow us safe passage through their countries.
In Erbil preparations were going ahead for Christmas and we gave and received Christmas presents. Vianne, my Kurdish Secretary, gave me a figure of Santa Claus complete with drum and drum sticks and he would beat the drum furiously every time his clockwork mechanism was wound up. It underlined the fact that in this war-torn country the symbols of peace and joy were still surviving and that a beautiful lady of Parthian descent and Sunni faith gave an image of a Christian Saint as a Christmas gift.
My Santa Claus is still surviving sans drum. My twin grandsons made short work of the drum before I could rescue poor Santa
I also received a Christmas card from the PM, Nechirvan Barzani, of the leading Kurdish Barzani, dynasty and one from Massoud Barzani the present President of the Kurdish Regional Government.. We worked from day to day with one eye on CNN as the drama unfolded. When the bombs began to fall on Baghdad we were put on 30 minutes standby to be ready to leave. Eventually, on the 20th of December, we were given the word to depart. Roger Guarda, the UNDP Director, Mousa Olyan, our Financial Administrative officer and I got into our Land Cruiser and sped down through the length of Iraq at 100 miles per hour. We passed Tikrit, Saddam's home town, and noticed that the road checkpoint was unmanned and that the obstreperous policeman who tormented us in the past had disappeared. When the chips are down it is easy to separate the men from the boys. As we passed the villages and towns all the mosques were full to overflowing, out on to the courtyard and streets, with praying men. These men were like the men who would unleash the bombs on them. All they wanted was to bring up their children in peace and love. I thought of the words of my friend Imad Hannoudi in Baghdad whose home narrowly escaped the 1991 bombing. "My daughters are in hysterics Dan with the fear of having to go through this (the bombing) again". Down along the road, mile after mile, we could see Iraqi 214 ST Super transport helicopters parked under trees that lined the road. While American spokes-persons were announcing the destruction of airfield after airfield they did not know that the vital hardware was still safe and operational.
Iraqi 214 ST Super transport helicopter.
We passed the Saddam College of Armour at Taji with its two Soviet tanks acting as gate guards not realizing that it had been extensively bombed the night before as the camp itself was well in from the road. I was also un-aware that the Al Salam Palace that I used view from the Hotel Babil in Baghdad was treated again and was in ruins. It had just undergone a $1 billion dollars reconstruction after its 1991 destruction.
Eventually we reached UN HQ at the Canal Hotel Baghdad where we were met by Hans Graf Von Sponeck, (Graf is a German Count) the international Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Iraq and successor to Dennis Halliday, and had lunch with him. He told us that the night before the Mukhabarat Barracks, that was located about 400 metres from the Canal Hotel (where we were eating), was smart bombed. The bomb entered through the roof and burst through every ceiling in the high-rise building and went right through about 5 levels of basement, where the prisoners were kept, before it exploded. Von Sponeck said the UN women were terrified and crying as they sheltered under the stairs of the building. Three buses were then brought to the Hotel and loaded with UN personnel from all over Iraq. Roger, Mousa Olyan and I led the convoy of buses in our Land Cruiser, with our UN pennant straining from the car aerial, and made for the border, about 5 hours away. Our little Land Cruiser racing through an Iraq that was being bombed by the UN put me in mind of a wagon train of homesteaders led by Cary Grant as they raced through hostile Apache country.  As we journeyed through the night we passed numerous pick-ups armed with wicked looking machine guns and manned by Mujahedeen looking for any infiltrators in the desert.
This is a typical type of Pick-up armed with a heavy machine gun used by Mujahedeen
 The SAS were in the habit of crossing the Jordanian-Iraqi border to seek out and destroy Saddam's Scud sites. From what I saw of Saddam's men I did not fancy their chances against the SAS. At the border (that was closed to all traffic at the time) we were put through a long slow rigorous process at the Iraqi and Jordanian customs posts. When we drove out of the Jordanian side of the frontier we were met by a squadron of Jordanian motorcycle police and escorted through the night to Amman, a further 5 hour journey, from where we all made it home for Christmas.
It was a welcome relief to enjoy the peace of Christmas at Cork and to hear the "Adeste Fidelis" and "Silent Night" playing in the magical atmosphere at home. When I viewed the self appointed celebrity Iraq experts, whose only qualification was the gift of the gab, pontificate on television on the Iraq situation it reinforced a dictum of my father's "Never believe anything you read in the papers".  This stemmed from his experience in Canada in the 1930's, when he sold his business to go North to the Yukon on a gold rush only to find later that the rumour of the gold discovery was started by the owners of a hardware company.

Monday, November 24, 2014

An English Market Butcher

An English Market Butcher

By Evin O'Keeffe, © 2011 

When I first arrived in Cork to live, my first priority after unpacking was to find a butcher. Yes, fresh meat was more important to me than a good hairdresser or even friends. I knew that a great butcher meant the difference between spending an hour preparing meat to cook or just spending a few minutes, not to mention quality and flavor of the final meal. Meat was my mission – along with buying a teapot.
It took six months of trying different butchers to find the one we've been going to ever since. The first one inconveniently relocated away from City Centre where I live. The second had more pork than beef, lamb, or chicken. I am allergic to pork so we sought out a third butcher. This time, I asked my new friends that I met through a local knitting group. Two raved about the most tender steak ever so I thought it was worth a try. Enter P. Coughlan's at the renowned English Market. Having held a stall at the Market for about seven decades, it was clear this family business was a stable and reliable choice. Growing up, I was taught that though it's fun to run out to a new restaurant or shop, it's the one that has been open for at least a year – and not just catering to tourist business – that is the one worth trying. Well, 70 years selling raw meat certainly qualifies!
The first visit set the tone. It was just before closing and my father was visiting from the States. He cooks amazing steak so we thought it was a good time to try that super tender beef my friends boasted about. We picked up a few just as the Market was closing up and they were amazing. My husband actually asked where we had found such tender steak. It all felt very much like a commercial the way we hungrily devoured each bite with happy eating noises. Fast forward nearly three years and we're still going to the same butcher. I visit them a few times a week since Cork has completely overhauled my American approach to weekly grocery shopping. Each time, I am greeted warmly by Paul, Alan, or Anthony. 
Usually, we eat different meats each week, but for much of my pregnancy this year I lost my interest in meat. It was tragic! It became a bit predictable that I would always get four chicken fillets, visit after visit after visit. Then one day, my husband offered to make hamburgers and it actually sounded good! We popped into the Market, stepped up to the counter and asked for a kilo of minced steak. A look of surprise flashed across Alan's face then he disappeared in the back. A few minutes later, he explained that since I had not eaten beef in so long, he wanted to mince us some fresh steak for the occasion. Having come from a country where the large majority of meat comes packaged in a sterile styrofoam and plastic container, I cherish the care that goes into the meat we get from the Market. No matter who your butcher is, you get that there.
Of course, the charms of my butcher go beyond mincing me fresh beef to knowing their cuts. I can bring in an American recipe and they know what cut of beef it is asking for and can recommend substitutes based on the cooking method. Weeks later, I can return and ask for "that beef I got that time you sliced it thinly for that slow-cooking recipe with all the onions" and they remember! The first time that happened, I nearly fell over in shock. Now, I'm just spoiled.
After all this time, my dad still remembers being with me the first time we visited P. Coughlan's so it is one of his favorite places to visit when he comes to Cork. This past visit, we went almost every single day as he was doing a lot of the cooking so I could put my feet up and focus on growing his only grandchild. Each day, we'd choose a meat and chat a little. The morning after he went home when I was back at the Market, Paul asked if my dad got home ok. Half asleep and being tortured by the scent of the croissants at the bakery across from Coughlan's, I didn't hear. He repeated, "Did Bill get back to DC so?" You can't help but smile when your butcher knows your dad by first name. But that's Cork for you.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Memoirs of Schooldays in Ireland of 1920 by a Country Lady

 by 'Abbie'  © 2014

The school was old and draughty. A peat fire burned in the grate. The pupils brought a few logs every morning to aid the faltering flame.
I liked lunch-time best. We streamed out into the wind-blown yard. Games of 'tig' and 'catch' got us nice and warm. Lunch consisted of rounds of brown soda bread wrapped in newspaper. No treats at that time; perhaps some apples in Autumn; maybe a biscuit at Christmas times.
The talk was of threshing, mowing, saving the hay; a barn dance maybe. Older brothers and sisters went to work in England and America, sending back magical parcels containing clothes. The lucky people who got American parcels were the envy of all.
But all the time in the background there was the music of fiddles, of flutes, of accordions, the old songs sung in the fields and at night at the fireside, when the neighbors gathered. Then the old people threw their heads back and with eyes closed, launched into the ancient songs of lost love from time immemorial.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Luckiest Kid

by Kenny Morris   © 2014 

The luckiest kid that ever lived was an orphan surrounded by high rise blocks. We felt so at home in our new council house. Daddy and mummy worked hard, saved money, and we moved to a house on the edge of Epping Forest.

My awkward conclusion you'll find in a small nest, along with a note that says: "Hey, Mr postman, leave her alone, she's just a little wren minding her own."

Monday, November 10, 2014

Wine Time

by Musetta Joyce   © 2013

In Sicily, November 11th, the Festa di San Martino, is traditionally the day to celebrate the new wine for, as their saying goes, it's when 'Entra l'acqua, esce il vino!' (In with the water, out with the wine!), as the Indian summer fades and the rain begins. And this year it comes with a vengeance, as six months rain falls in twenty-four hours in Sardinia, killing 16 and causing vast damage. Just three years ago the sudden rainfall in the suburbs of Messina killed 39 people and left many  homeless. Along the north coast of Sicily, riverbeds that have been dry for years suddenly become seething torrents, sweeping everything and everyone in their path into the sea.
But, to get back to the wine. By now the grape juice that has been fermenting since mid September should be ready to taste. The day is also known as the Feast of the cornuti, (cuckolds) when, while their husbands get drunk, their wives make love to who, presumably, resist the temptation of Bacchus. However, there must be women who prefer the vino, for a popular local proverb declares that 'Non si puo avere la botte pieno e la moglie ubriaca!' (You can't have a full barrel and a drunken wife!). 'Does that mean you like to have your wife drunk?' I've asked several men, but if they do they won't admit it, for Sicilian women consider it unladylike to drink alcohol in public, and when in a bar, they generally drink coffee or soft drinks. There are in fact lots of non-alcoholic aperitifs for the faint hearted. However, in the central piazza in Marsala, the town on the west coast that produces many dessert wines like its namesake (used for making the delicious egg-nog dessert Zabaglione) there is a huge statue/fountain of a very happy woman draining a barrel, with water gushing lewdly out of her every orifice. In a restaurant nearby, curiously enough, while I ordered a small carafe of white wine to accompany my cannelloni for lunch, I noted that all the other diners were drinking Coca Cola or beer.
Local wine in Sicily can often be rough and very acid. The house wine provided in restaurants is usually referred to as either red or white, without any indication of what kind of wine. The white is often dark urine yellow and very strong; while the red is usually pale ruby and very dry. Only recently have wineries begun planting the darker varieties of grapes to yield the mellower Cabernet and Nero d'Avola. The best Sicilian wines like the white Donnafugata ('Runaway woman') or the lovely dessert wine Zibibbo from the Aeolian Islands are not easy to find in Ireland. It's a pity, for Zibibbo is perfect for dunking biscotti after a special dinner. 
This year is forecast to be a good year for wines and we decide to make our own. We were hoping to buy the darkest grape juice from a nearby organic vineyard. Unfortunately, it had been already harvested so we have had to make do with a medium-bodied blend. 
It's been many years since we sold our old country cottage which was ideal for keeping barrels cool in the summer months. There, we used to experiment with wine-making, fermenting the grape juice with varying results, sometimes leaving us with dozens of litres of nasty vinegar. But now our neighbour, Cicero, has persuaded us to try again, following his advice as to how to get the best effects. Cicero is one who believes in living the Good Life, being almost totally self-sufficient, with fruits trees that ripen in varying seasons so that he has lemons and figs longer than anyone else.
So, with the intentions of following his guidance, we ordered 200 litres of musto (grape juice) from our friends who grow organically, and a large wooden barrel.
First we had to get the barrel ready. This involved boiling a few pounds of carobs and lemon leaves for about half an hour in ten litres of water, rinsing out the barrel while rolling it to one another along a ladder (while singing you know what) and leaving it overnight to infuse. Then, having drained all this liquid, we left the barrel to dry in the sun. Next we have to light a piece of sulphur attached to a wire and insert it inside the barrel. If the flame goes out it means the barrel isn't ready. As it happens the sulphur ash falls into the barrel, so we light another, and then another until the blue flame, with the cork tap closed, continues to burn. The following morning we haul out the Hoover to extract the fallen bits of sulphur ash.
Now we are ready for the musto. When we get to the winery it isn't ready yet as, having been harvested the previous day, the juice has to stay with the skins soaking  overnight and then filtered. We have to wait around for an hour or so while the huge steel machine does the job. 
We wander uphill above the vineyard to investigate the archaeological findings the owner made after purchasing the land, and we are dumbfounded. There, in the midst of gentle slopes waiting to be cultivated, a rock surface has been sculpted to make a  basin for pressing the grapes by foot, with a small hole leading onto a lower basin to collect the juice. Over two centuries ago people grew grapes here, harvested them and made wine just as we are doing now!
 Back at the winery I spot a row of beautiful trees, similar to weeping willows, and on closer examination I find there are millions of clusters of tiny rose-coloured balls. Pink peppercorns! I pick a couple of dozen to take home. 
At last the grape juice is ready and we take it away in large plastic containers, and pour into our barrel, except for 20 litres that we pour into a cauldron on the already lighting barbeque, where it starts to boil. We add more carobs, leaves from lemon and orange trees, a fistful of dried sour cherries and a pound of raisins. I consider adding the pink peppercorns, but decide against the idea. While himself takes the borrowed containers back to the winery I keep an eye on the fire, pushing more wood beneath the pot to keep it on the boil. After an hour or so it has reduced to half and we drain the syrupy liquid and, once cool, add it to the barrel. Immediately the grape juice begins to hiss. And hiss it will for several weeks, while it ferments. We put a small net over the hole on the top to allow the musto to breath while keeping any insects out. Only when it ceases to hiss will we cork it, and leave it to mature.
By the time it is first ready, however, we are far away, and it will be springtime before we will be able to taste our new wine.
Wine in Sicily is very cheap, particularly when you buy it sfuso (on tap) from a grocery with a few barrels or, these days, steel vats full of a few different kinds of wine, distinguished by their place of origin and not the variety of grape used. This year a litre costs under two euros.
Bars don't generally serve wine at all, for people only drink it at mealtimes. The only exception is Prosecco, which has become fashionable as an aperitif. The fizzy white wine that originated in the townland of the same name is drier than spumante and an economical alternative to champagne.
There are the traditional rustic betoli 'that serve wine to men only. They are usually working class men, who meet up after work to gossip and play cards.
Suddenly last summer, for the first time a new kind of bar has appeared at the airports in Palermo and Catania, calling themselves with the English term: 'Wine Bars'. For 6 euros they serve wine by the glass from standard size bottles of decent quality wine. I have even spotted the odd Sicilian signora perch on a high stool, clutching her long stemmed glass of Cabernet with a certain touch of class. So, if this fashion takes off, perhaps Sicilian women will start to appreciate wine at last for, as a wise writer once said: 'A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine!'  


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Steaming Home in Style

   by Victor Sullivan     © 2012
How Lateral Thinking got a  Steam Traction Engine home

Throughout the harvest season Christy had steered the clankling, hissing, fuel-hungry, steam traction engine along the quiet country roads of Ireland from one farm's haggard to the to the next. Nicknamed 'The Raspberry,' Christy's traction engine towed a Ransomes threshing machine which towed a straw elevator which towed a large tin shed on wheels that was inappropriately known as The Office. The Office contained planks, chains, ropes, saws, axes, drums of oil, drums of grease, a crowbar, hammers, wedges, belting, wheels, spare parts, bolts, nuts, washers, a couple of buckets and a shining milk churn for conveying feed-water to the engine's thirsty boiler. There were many other things that might be useful sometime but had never been called upon, yet. Emergency fuel included wood blocks, peat, two sacks of coal, branches of trees, scrap wood from a builder's yard and any potentially good flammable material found along the way. During the threshing season maintaining a fuel supply was seldom a problem as each farmer was traditionally obliged to provide enough fuel to thresh his own grain from the straw plus provide sufficient fuel to take The Raspberry and all its appendages and attachments as far as the next farm. 

Each harvest-time Christy's work pattern began with the assumption that anything that might go wrong would do so in the first week of the threshing operations. He therefore selected his earliest customers from those nearest his home, his workshop and his spare parts store. As the season progressed the distance from home increased and, rather than walk or cycle several miles each day, Christy opted to sleep in the primitive, grimy tranquility and oily atmosphere of The Office. 

It had been a difficult harvest in 1955. Rain had interrupted the work on many occasions. Eventually the final sheaf was threshed and the Ransomes threshing machine was cleaned down for the last time. It was then slowly hauled onto the roadway by The Raspberry. The straw elevator followed and finally The Office was hitched on behind, ready for the long, tedious, overnight journey homewards through the  network of narrow country lanes, avoiding the main roads. 
The final client had not been generous when it came to providing fuel for the long trip home. Christy had eyed the meager bag of coal with deep foreboding. While the farmer went indoors for money to pay the threshing fee, Christy discreetly hoisted a shabby stable door off its hinges and heaved it into The Office, following it with several heavy wood planks he found lying nearby. Then, having pocketed his fee, he mounted the engine and urged it forward, glad to be on the road home at last. 

After a couple of miles he stopped to introduce his saw and axe to the combustible newcomers in The Office, transferring the result to the engine's fuel bunker and ultimately its furnace.

A long, slow and challenging journey stretched before Christy but he was determined to get back to his home, his wife and the children.  All went crawlingly well for the first two hours that saw the sun set and a darkening sky turn to a display of stars and welcome moonlight.  The roadsides were seemingly endless banks of dark vegetation broken only by the regular bleached wooden gates that most farmers in that part of Ireland liked to display as symbols of affluence at entrances to roadside fields.   Occasionally Christy would dismount from his still moving engine to pick up a fallen tree-branch. When a dead tree in a field caught his eye it warranted a stop while he sawed and chopped several comforting bundles of wood from its decaying stump. As The Raspberry panted gradually homewards Christy began to calculate the fuel reserves relationship to the distance remaining to be covered and concluded that his casual foraging along the roadside would not suffice. The Raspberry's greedy furnace had already consumed almost all of the reserves in The Office, including the stable door and its accompanying planks. A large one-stop source of fuel seemed unlikely, especially in the small hours of the morning. A regularly spaced reliable fuel supply would be ideal if only such a thing existed...... 

Christy would not have been familiar with the term 'Lateral Thinking' nevertheless he was very good at it. Also, part of Christy's philosophy was that his personal necessity bestowed certain priority rights over the lesser rights of others, such as ownership of food, drink and fuel. Surely this was an occasion that warranted determined action. Once he had made the decision he began to act accordingly and within the transit of a couple of miles he had proved to his satisfaction that his strategy would work and he confidently looked forward to steaming proudly back to base at the end of another Harvest season. He mentally rehearsed his triumphant approach to his family home. A blast on The Raspberry's whistle while still a quarter of a mile away would ensure a noisy dawn welcome from his children. They would run down the avenue to meet him to climb on the straw elevator or join him on the engine for the final yards of his epic journey. His smiling wife would have the frying pan sizzling on the kitchen range by the time he turned the huge rattling rig into the yard. It would be a most enjoyable arrival.

And so it was.

The wild-life on the quiet, empty miles of dark country lanes and traffic-free roads had been the only witnesses to  the overnight passing of The Raspberry and its threshing rig. By sunrise those lanes and roads were hosting numerous herds of pedigree Hereford cattle that mingled with black and white Fresians, Aberdeen Angus heifers and half a dozen delighted bulls of mixed status. Cart horses nuzzled thoroughbred mares from a racing stable and even a few donkeys took carnal advantage of their liberation. Flocks of sheep completely blocked the roads in numerous places. Dogs barked, men cursed and shook sticks while agricultural confusion and wrath stretched across the county.
Urgent Police action was demanded, extensive searches were undertaken. The usual suspects were rounded up, interrogated and released without charge due to lack of evidence.  Solicitors were appointed and compensation claims were proposed but no trace was ever found of the missing wooden field-gates. It was speculated that the gang responsible must have used a lorry to carry off so many gates in one night. Over sixty years later the event is still recalled in local folklore as 'The Time of the Gates.'

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Yoga for Softies

by Aidan O'Shea   © 2014

We are all creatures of habit, good habits and bad ones. In today's hectic world, most of us would admit to the cardinal sins of our time: too much sitting, too much fat, sugar and salt in our diet, too much needless anxiety, too much passive gazing at TV, iPads and laptops. Sit on the bus and look around at those surfing on the internet, ninety percent of which dulls our judgement or floods us with stimulation or stress.  How do I step off this whirling roller coaster? Last July, I stumbled on a clue, by accident.
While on holiday in Spain with my daughter and her family of three girls, I was getting used to the energy and clamour of the children. My daughter took time out each morning after breakfast to practise her yoga. She practised on the balcony while I entertained the girls. As we ran out of patience and ideas to share, the girls demanded that they join their mum at the end of her session. She agreed, and suggested that she show us some basic postures and yoga moves. We were two adults and three children flexing and stretching in a tiny space under the Mediterranean sun. I was sceptical, but gradually felt an improvement in my moves, a gentle calming of my mind.
Later that day, I noticed that my breathing, the weakest aspect of my swimming, had improved, allowing me to swim further without a breathless break. Next morning, I was first to join my daughter, even though I was least flexible and mobile. I also discovered how strong my right-handed bias is, leaving me much weaker and stiffer on my left side. Some of the balance postures caused great laughter, as I toppled after a few seconds, while the children stayed upright.

We returned to Cork and I quickly forgot about my holiday yoga trial. I simply enjoyed the best Irish summer for a decade. In September, my daughter spotted a yoga course for beginners at Ashton School. I registered on line, took my courage in my hands and joined trainer Helen O'Connell's class. First impressions count, and Helen had the places carefully laid with a non-slip mat, chair, strap and foam blocks for each of us.  Seventeen students in the class, and I was the only man. Helen's calm yet determined instructions brought us through a series of progressive steps using all the main features of yoga: deep breathing, relaxation, stretching and meditation. The session ended with a ten minute rest period ending in a salutation. I came into the room somewhat nervous and sceptical, and left after 80 minutes, feeling relaxed and refreshed. There were no machines, no treadmills, no weights and no extremes. We worked to our personal limit for each exercise. Ten weeks later, we had learned a variety of yoga stretches and poses and begun to practise them at home. Even on the wettest and windiest morning, and we have had plenty of those, I have enjoyed the yoga practice to start my day. 


Yoga can be traced back to India in the 6th century BC where it has formed part of the meditative practice of Hindu and Buddhist thought. Yoga means union or yoke, linking breath, body, mind and spirit. Yoga now enjoys great popularity all over the world. It may be practised at any age from seven years to old age. Practice is most important, and even half an hour daily can easily be accommodated in a busy lifestyle. The pupil is also the master, in that the practice is modified in time and intensity to suit the individual. One can explore more complex postures, deeper meditation and adapt the practice in line with any personal medical problems. Some pupils like to explore the faith aspects of yoga, but this is optional. 

There are many different styles and disciplines, and people practice yoga for a variety of reasons. One of the main goals of yoga is to improve overall well-being through teaching discipline and self-regulation. Recently, research has been conducted on the healing properties of yoga and how it relates to positive psychology. Researchers wonder what psychological advantages it can afford, in addition to the previously discovered physical benefits. Yoga has proven to offer different and multiple benefits for individuals ranging from consciousness of one's body and its capabilities, satisfaction from challenging oneself physically, and increased energy and mental clarity and concentration. While the topic is still somewhat new and some research is still preliminary, results have shown significant improvements in both physical and mental health among a variety of subjects in various circumstances. It has been proven to give relief for patients with asthma, high blood pressure, anxiety and lower back pain. In diseases such as cancer and AIDS where anxiety adds to the stress, yoga has provided relief to the psychological symptoms. 
Thanks to yoga, I have discovered an accessible means of combining relaxation, deep breathing and muscular exercise, a new habit with a lasting benefit.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

No Small Beer

by Martin Rea  © 2014

Beer seems to be experiencing something of a renaissance as of late.  For so long the unsung tipple of the plain man, the malt based beverage  is now lauded in the food and drink sections of glossy weekend supplements  in the fulsome language once the preserve of wine reviews.  One reads, among other things, of citrus aromas, robust bodies, caramel undertones and satisfying maltiness when a beer's sensory impact is appraised, and reviewers go to great pains and self-sacrifice to successfully pair a beer with food, decreeing it safe for us all to enjoy.  It's all a far cry from a pint of plain being your only man.

The talk these days is of craft beers and micro breweries; maverick artisans going against the grain (sorry) and putting their very souls into creating sublime brews.  It is a romantic notion, for sure; one where David, the plucky micro-brewer, is cast fighting the good fight against the unfeeling Goliaths of bland, mass-produced global brands.  Having a glass of beer has now become a political statement, an act of defiance, for the discerning urbanite of a certain socio-economic demographic.

A little historic perspective will show, of course, that none of this is new.  At the start of the nineteenth century there were over two hundred breweries in Ireland producing ales and stouts.  The smaller ones were bought out by the bigger ones and subsequently shut down.  Mergers, inflation and World Wars altered beer consumption patterns until some twelve major breweries remained in Ireland by 2000.  Then, taking their lead from the flourishing American beer scene, the micro-breweries began opening, offering new styles and tastes, and now there are some fifty operating in the country.

And is this craft beer any good, you might ask?  Well, generally it is; some of it, in fact, is very good.  Craft beer is characterized by small scale production and the freshness of the finished product is palpable. The intensity of the brews, owing to the unstinting  use of all-natural ingredients often leaves the more established brands in the shade, looking insipid and miserly, so much so that they now are launching their own ranges of craft beers.  (Surely an oxymoron, I think to  myself.)

It's something of a paradox then, that while craft beers have caused such a stir in certain more edified circles, and can justifiably call themselves superior, premium products, they have still made such little impact on the mass market in terms of sales.  Latest figures show that sales of craft beers are up 180% since 2011, but that still only accounts for 2% of the overall beer market.  Some would say it is early days yet and the trend can only go upwards, but some who invested in brewing kettles and fermenting vessels must also be feeling a little nervous by now.

For it seems the core of beer drinkers is an inveterate bunch and unflinchingly loyal to their own chosen brand, the same brand they've been drinking all their lives, possibly, even, the same brand their fathers drank too.  I was in a fine pub in a seaside town recently where I ordered a pint of craft beer.  It was presented in a glass tankard, ruby red with a fine creamy head-a beautiful looking, tasty thing it was.  Between satisfying gulps, I asked the affable barman what he thought of that particular drink, but he had no answer for me; he hadn't tried it yet although they had stocked it for over two years!

My advice to you would be to try a craft beer. If you feel a little nervous about doing this in public you can always buy a bottle or two in an off-licence and take it home discreetly in a brown paper bag. Maybe you won't like it, maybe you will, but at least in buying that one drink you'll be giving yourself the chance of experiencing something new, and you'll be acknowledging  the efforts made by some to bring more choice to your local's shelves.  It's not a new religion nor will it change your life; simply put, some of it just tastes very, very good.

Monday, September 15, 2014


by AIDAN O'SHEA    © 2/8/2010 

My cousin never saw her father. Bernard died on September 15th, 1941, four months before she was born. A massive heart attack, the hallmark of the O'Shea males, felled him at the age of 39 years. He had been 18 years old in 1920 when the War of Independence erupted in Ireland. It was a conflict characterised by ambush and guerrilla stealth on the Irish side, and by curfew, repression, summary arrest and military trial by the governing British forces. Small wonder that Bernard, a printer by trade and an avid reader, was swept up in "The Boys". This affectionate title for The Irish Republican Army (IRA) conveys the covert support and protection then provided by the local nationalist population.

During martial law and curfew in Cork City in 1920-21, each household was obliged to post a list of family members on the inside of the front door. When raided by the police, or the dreaded paramilitary Black and Tans, Bernard's mother struggled to explain his absence, claiming overtime and night working as the reason. The truth was that Bernard was on the run, living hand to mouth in safe houses between acts of sabotage and violence against the forces of British law and order.

A truce with Britain in July 1921 was followed by a treaty establishing an Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann). The treaty was approved by a majority in the provisional Irish parliament (Dáil) and by the people in a subsequent general election. But Bernard's rebel heart could not accept this half-way house to a republic, and he joined the resistance against the nascent state. This resistance dragged on into a bloody civil war lasting into the early months of 1923. Families, friends and IRA comrades were divided during that dark period.

History tells us that many of the republicans left Ireland after the amnesty ending the civil war, while others regrouped under De Valera to form the Fianna Fáil Party, which won a majority in the general election of 1932. Despite the passage of time and the politicisation of republican support, a small group of so-called diehard republicans vowed to resist the Free State and its partition from the six counties of Northern Ireland. This diehard group re-activated during World War Two (1939-45), in which The Irish Free State was neutral. Bernard went on the run yet again, despite being married with two daughters and another baby on the way. Many republicans were interned without trial by the Irish government to stifle any subversive contacts with Nazi Germany.  Then Bernard's fevered life of idealism, fanatical resistance and flight came to a sudden end in 1941.

So, as I have said, my cousin never saw her father, although she was named Bernadette in his honour.  Neither did I see her father, as I was born a few months after her. But I was thrilled in a childish way by his acts of daring and defiance. I failed to see the struggle that his widow Christine endured, raising three girls in the bleak years of the 1940s, trying to add to her meagre pension by doing housework for others. She died in November 1957, aged 54 years. Bernadette was 15 years old and it was then that I lost her. She went to live with her older sister who had qualified as a nurse in England. That entire branch of the family went to the very country whose imperial power their father had resisted.  A pall of distance and silence separated us.

Fast forward fifty years (1957-2007). Ann Cantwell, a client in my pharmacy at Blackpoool, casually mentioned that she might be related to me through marriage. Her late aunt Christine was married to Bernard O'Shea. Not only that, but my lost cousin Bernadette was writing regularly to Ann from Harvey Bay, Queensland, Australia.  Two email addresses and a couple of clicks of a mouse later, we were in touch!

Bernadette's story unfolded like this. Having left school at 15 without a certificate, she left Ireland at 16, worked in unskilled jobs around Portsmouth, and then joined The Royal Air Force!  Did she hesitate over her oath of loyalty to the Crown? This experience gave her discipline, training and the ambition to progress. She trained as a nurse, married a policeman and they subsequently divorced. At the age of 37, she took an assisted passage to Australia, under a scheme to encourage immigrants from the mother country (UK). She worked in hospitals in Sydney, progressing to the rank of a theatre nurse, and then joined the nursing corps of The Australian Army. There she met Bob Ney, a veteran of the Vietnam War, and they married. They had no children, and now work voluntarily for the many widows and injured veterans of the Vietnam campaign, and laterally of the Afghanistan campaign.

Bernadette and Bob recently spent a week in Cork meeting the lost cousins of her youth, chatting in her lilting Cork accent about her early life in Dillon's Cross and school at South Pres convent.  She was full of enthusiasm for the extended family.   Cork bore her but Britain and Australia made her. She was very pleased to learn that my son is named Cormac Bernard O'Shea, and that he lives in Sydney, Australia.

Friday, September 12, 2014

War Ends in the Morning

by Madelaine Nerson Mac Namara    © 2014

Dashing the early mists
like the towers of a keep
beside lake or river
dreams half-forgotten
appear arbitrary
as if they might belong
just to anybody.

You cling to that fancy
though I claim otherwise.

Yet sometimes you relent
propped upon grey dawn light
you'll grip more tightly
the quilt of regained ground
condescend to recount
as you might a weird play
your latest disowned dream.

Other times, as you sleep
you cry out, or moan, agonised.

Unpaid guest of your dreams
baffled interpreter
of your booby-trapped night
I'll sit up, haul you out
of your own no-man's land
where nightmare's chalked your face
rocked your dutiful schoolboy soldier soul.

Monday, September 1, 2014


by Victor Sullivan    © 2010

How a Great Moment in World History was unexpectedly revisited.

Essex, England in 1959 and I was being entertained in my girlfriend's home by her parents.
While preparations for dinner were being made in the kitchen, I sat beside my future father-in-law, Horace Mansfied, watching a documentary programme on a black and white TV set. The subject was the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaaki in 1945.  

Hod Mansfield, a tall, handsome man, addicted to cricket and crosswords, had never told his family or friends what he had been doing during World War 2 other than that he had been a wireless operator at an RAF ground station. He never spoke of what his wartime duties involved and, if asked, he would display a little silver fish badge pinned behind the lapel of his jacket. (Fish do not speak).

The TV programme concluded with vivid black & white images of the two devastated cities and the formal Japanese surrender to General Douglas McArthur on board the American Naval ship, Missouri, in Tokyo Bay on 2 September, 1945. The narrator's concluding words were:
 "..... a message was sent to London saying Japan has capitulated."
Suddenly my future father-in-law, slapped his knee loudly and shouted, "I decoded that message! I knew the war was over before Churchill or the King." 

It was the first and the only indication that he had ever been engaged in anything unusual or exceptional during his wartime service. The only additional information he disclosed was that the hardest part about it was keeping the momentous news a secret. He could not tell anyone what he knew while the entire world continued to live in ignorance of the situation. The official public announcement was not made until two days later.

After Horace Mansfield's early death a few years later, the family requested access to his Service Records. They were informed that no records were available. All the pages had been neatly cut from his Log Book.


Monday, August 18, 2014

My Wedding Anniversary

by Dan Coakley      ©  2014

One night when my wife had returned home to Cork I was staying in the Yalta Hotel with some colleagues. When I mentioned that it was my wedding anniversary a group decision to celebrate it in style was agreed spontaneously. Our first port of call was the ground floor restaurant. When we entered we were struck by a vibrant air of tension the source of which was soon obvious. A large group of men were sitting at a long conference table and a number of thugs armed with sub-machine guns were distributed around the room. The waiters were shaking and tense as they hurried to bring more drink to the conference table. We had stumbled on a Mafia meeting obviously one intent on conflict resolution. The opposing chiefs sat in the middle of each row facing each other. The exchanges were pretty brusque but finally the two chiefs rose and shook hands and everyone relaxed. We hurriedly finished our first drink and departed to the next bar above us. We repeated this procedure a number of times until we arrived at the bar on the 15th floor next to the casino. As it was quite late by this time we had the bar to ourselves. A sound of laughter from the room behind the bar alerted us that it had some patrons after all. On entering the room we saw about ten young good-looking ladies sitting around a circular table. In their midst sat an older lady with a telephone in front of her. We had seen her a few times on the beach with her grandchild. The group was a very convivial one and invited us to join their company which we did. We had a very lively repartee and considered ourselves very witty indeed, or at least we thought we were. Every few minutes the phone would ring and the old lady would scribble out a number that she gave one of the young ladies who would immediately take her leave. It soon penetrated our confused minds where we were and what was happening so we hurriedly departed. When I reached my room I romantically rang my wife at home to declare my devotion for the day that was in it. For some reason she did not reciprocate. It was four am in Cork. I also marvel at the wifely ability to smell alcohol over the phone. It is a wedding anniversary I would prefer to forget but for some reason I am frequently reminded of it. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


By Aidan O'Shea     © 2014

I went to Cork's St. Patrick's Day Parade this year. Or rather, I was told to go, by two of my granddaughters who were marching with Ballinlough Brigíní. Childhood  memories of parades gone by recalled cold and often wet days, featuring a damp parade of trucks polished up for the day, a marching band or two, and schools of Irish dancers bravely keeping their blue-kneed balance on trailers in tow. Mór-shiúl Lá Fhéile Pádraig. Fast forward to 2014,  and we saw an altogether different parade, including gigantic figures on stilts, trick cyclists, fire-eaters, community groups and colourful squads of new Irish from many countries and several continents.  The rain threatened, and then retreated. The Brigíní marched past very early in the column, and we picked the girls up in time to secure them a vantage point opposite Eason's in Patrick Street. So, I got to see the parade almost twice, if you follow me.  It was now almost 3pm and I had not eaten since 8.30am; fantasies of blueberry muffin and café latte came to mind, but all the shops in Merchant's Quay were closed.
I struck up a conversation with a lady from Germany, who really enjoyed the spectacle. She had been cautious about coming, as there had been mention of drunken behaviour on the feast day. Striking my Helpful Irish Tour Guide pose, I explained that the penitential season of Lent was strictly observed in the past, with many drinkers going on-the-dry for forty days. For these heroic efforts, St Patrick's Day, midway in Lent offered a beacon (and a beaker!) of relief, when resolutions were set aside. Thanks to St Patrick, children gorged on sweets and chocolate, adults on beer and spirits. 

Temperance movements.

Handily enough, as I told my tale, we were standing close to THE STATUE, Cork's centre of gravity. Here stands the life-size bronze of Fr Theobald Mathew OFM Capuchin (1790-1856), Apostle of Temperance. He is the only person to have a statuary monument on Pana and on O'Connell Street in Dublin. I did explain to the visitor that things could get messy with drink later in the day, and that Patrick Street was not the best place for a solitary stroll after dark.  Fr Mathew began on 10th April 1838 with the establishment of the Cork Total Abstinence Society which relied on one enduring act of will to keep a person sober for life. 
It was called simply The Pledge:
"I promise to abstain from all intoxicating drinks except used medicinally and by order of a medical man and to discountenance the cause and practice of intemperance."
It could be made by anybody, either with or without an alcohol problem. Father Mathew did not believe in gradual approaches or temporary commitments. He advocated a promise that meant complete commitment. It did not bind like the vows of marriage, but the principle of permanent commitment was the same. Fr Mathew believed that as long as the act of will continued, it could overcome all difficulties.
In less than nine months no fewer than 150,000 names were enrolled as taking the Pledge.  At its height, just before the Great Famine of 1845-49, his movement enrolled some 3 million people, or more than half of the adult population of Ireland. In 1844 he visited Liverpool, Manchester and London with almost equal success. Let's get our terminology right at this point. Temperance suggests drinking in moderation, but Abstinence means total avoidance. So Fr. Mathew's movement asked for a pledge of abstinence, other than under doctor's orders.

The Pioneers.

The Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart was founded by Fr. James Cullen, Jesuit, in Dublin, on 28 December 1898. Fr. Cullen was concerned with social issues, and his motivation in setting up the Pioneers was to address the enormous damage that he saw excess alcohol was doing in the Ireland of his times. Many workers were heavy drinkers, and alcohol was the greatest drain on the weekly earnings of the family. 
In the early 1950s, I took part in a mass induction into the Pioneers (PTAA).  This being the era of obedience, we were not offered a choice. The induction was conducted by a Pioneer priest with our fourth class at Scoil Chríost Rí. We pledged three things: to abstain from alcohol until the age of 18 years (referred to as "The Heroic Sacrifice"), to say the Pioneer prayer twice a day, and to bear witness by wearing the junior pioneer badge at all times. The PTAA has always been underpinned by devotion to the Sacred Heart, and its emblem reflects this.
When you are nine, and receive a badge and a certificate, you feel quite proud. At Confirmation time, the pledge was renewed and we received a slightly classier pioneer pin. This was about the time that we did our oral Irish exam for An Fáinne, another badge to pin to your jacket. I loved badges. At the Confirmation pledge, one boy in class stood up and refused to renew it. He was whisked off to the principal's office, but no punishment followed. Perhaps the same principal was fond of a drink.  By the early 1960s, those wearing both An Fáinne and the Pioneer pin were often derided by their swinging contemporaries. In the final year at school, I developed a taste for Murphy's stout, and the Pioneer pin was quietly tucked away. But I still wear An Fáinne with pride, Buíochas le Dia!