Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Big House

The Big House   by Sarah O'Mahony ©2014

Stolen and Lost
The big house stands there
Dark, mysterious, at cost.

I arrive at the entrance gates
They're solid yet carved intricately
Great greyish blue pillars of stone
Hi-tech automated
A key pad to admit one.

The drive way meanders like a river in its last breath
Curves widely and softly round
'Pastures of green';
Framed wooden rail fencing
Neatly raised yet doesn't take from the scene.

On I go into this open ancient book of lore
Its trees tell estate's age
Large mature yet foreign cedars stand solemnly above
As if leading the visitor to the master

I park in front of this historic mansion
Its columns of construction stately
Up the steps I go to a huge oaken front door
Its dusty green like from faraway lands of North Africa, Tunis;
I stand there three steps up and press the ashen bronze bell
It feels like miniature meeting a monster
Pray tell...

Tolkien, C.S. Lewis,
'The lion, the witch and the wardrobe',
Narnia all come to mind in a flash,

Oh my God I think, what childlike wonder this is,
I'm in a story book!
The door opens,
She smiles, a girl from the East,
Dark shiny hair tied back in a ponytail,
A hesitant smile reveals all,
"Come in, I'll show you around."

Saturday, February 21, 2015


© Madelaine Nerson Mac Namara, 12.03.2014

Grand-father clock
digital watch
you rob the work
of breaths, heartbeats
measured in steps.

Buzzing mobile
alarms alas
you put to sleep
many who dream
time is money.

Ancient and new
sundials share
with night and shade
signal mysteries
of time and light.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

My Safi Bowl

by Martin Rea    © June 2014            

The dust rising outside tells him another bus of tourists is coming.   Mostly people with blue eyes and reddened skin, they wear wide hats to protect themselves from the sun.  Many are overweight and some wear white socks inside their sandals; they carry heavy cameras that weigh them down.  They will enter his shaded workshop, look around for a while, and then they will approach him and ask him how much for his bowls and when he tells them the price they will laugh, they think it is the natives' way to argue about the price-and they will force him to reduce the price to something beneath fairness.  They come here and argue with him over amounts of money that mean nothing to them, as if it were a king's ransom, and he can do nothing but smile and make more bowls, more beautiful than before.
There must easily be ten charity shops in this city with more opening all the time: certainly a truism that they flourish in times of economic recession.  I find myself in them every now and then, browsing, to see what chance throws me in the way of books. I once found a copy of Palgrave's Golden Treasury in such a shop and was touched to find it had once belonged to a minor poet of national renown.  A book of poetry that once belonged to a poet: surely that has some meaning?
Crime fiction, while not exactly a dime a dozen, is great value for your hard-earned entertainment euro with all the best-selling authors to be found for nearly next to nothing.  I got the Larsson trilogy all in one go in a charity shop; there was a 'three for two' offer on at the time.  And I had helped a good cause with my purchase.
There's plenty of Romantic fiction there, at rock bottom prices, but none of that ever really interests me. Sometimes, though, I find good cook books and even if I never cook anything from them they still help to complete the look of the kitchen, containing plans for feasts of the future on the second shelf below the potted herbs.  Good quality literary fiction is admittedly hard to come by, but crime, there's always more than enough crime.
I never buy clothes in a second hand store-it's a hygiene thing, besides,  they never seem to have my size, but I do like looking for ornaments or curios to brighten up where I live: objects conveniently subsumed  from another's life, patina and ambiance gratis.  I've an impressive collection of old naturalists' prints of flowers, plants and birds-things with Latin names on them.  They hang understated on the walls of my rooms and make my place look stately.  
The bowl caught my eye in the window of one of the charity shops on the original medieval street of the city, a street that retains much of the dank meanness of those times. I was taken by it immediately.  Its sheer size, about two feet across, impressed me first.  I admired the intricate ochre patterns, evocative of fruits growing; vines; vitality. 
 The boldness of the colours made it look so brave that grey day. It looked Moorish but I wasn't sure.  It might have been from Portugal, I thought, Arab influence there, Andalusia even.  It was hand painted and glazed. I didn't know where it was from but I knew where it was going.
 "Do you work here?" I asked a woman hanging blouses onto a turning rail inside the door of the shop.
"I don't", she said.  "I'd love to work here, but they won't take me on-couldn't afford me, they say."  
She laughed first, then spluttered a bit and pointed towards a counter further down the shop. 
 The manager told me about the bowl. It was among the household contents left to them by a woman recently deceased. It wasn't on sale yet.  He did not know where it came from or how much it would cost. I could not place a deposit as the window display items would not be on sale until Friday week and only then would the price be decided.
I passed the woman hanging blouses on the way out and she confided something to me, "Foolish. You've shown too much of an interest and now they'll put up the price. "
That Friday morning I made sure no one else could have the bowl by being first outside the door at nine o' clock.  The window display had been changed, the rotating heirlooms broken down into smaller and smaller lots. I was vexed for a while by a woman who approached the shop and stood right in front of the door. Surely she's seen me standing here, queuing, waiting for the bowl, I thought.   What if she wanted it too?  Does she look like the type of person to be interested in such a bowl?  Would there be a disagreement, or worse still, a row?  
 The manager opened the door from the inside, looked out and beckoned the woman to enter.  "She works here," he said. "We'll be opening soon."  
He let me in at exactly half-past nine. He told me the bowl was on a table in the back of the shop.  I went down and picked it up and checked it for cracks or other possible flaws.  Nothing. It was perfect.  I turned it over; some Arabic script and the word "Safi".

Photo © 2014 Martin Rea

I brought it to the counter and asked for the price.
"Forty-five euro", said the cashier, my rival from the queue.
It was a lot more than I had reckoned with, more than seemed appropriate for a charity shop in such an age of austerity.  Had the spluttering woman been right? I physically felt my enthusiasm for the bowl dampen, my attitude towards it change.  
"Would you not take thirty for it," I said.
"No. Sorry, the price is forty-five.  There's been a lot of interest in this bowl."  She and the manager exchanged glances.
When I got it home I dusted it down and placed it on the coffee table.  I turned on the computer, typed in "Safi" and discovered a Berber city of 220,000 inhabitants in Western Morocco; a Portuguese outpost until 1541, now most famous for its pottery, especially large distinctly shaped bowls which can also be hung on the wall.  I went on to find many sites that sold such bowls.  I opened different windows and tabs, comparing my bowl against those that I saw, checking sizes and prices. I factored in the price of shipping. Only after some time searching was I satisfied that my bowl was a good purchase and that the price I paid had not been excessive. 
The bowl holds pieces of fruit, packets of nuts and diverse confectionary on the imitation pine coffee table in the centre of my living room.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Life of a Language Student

     by Nuala Murphy   © 2013

It is 3p.m. on a Thursday afternoon. I'm sitting in my dressing gown, writing an e-mail to my cousin.  I don't feel as if this lounging around the house is totally unproductive and indulgent however. I'm busy listening to French radio as I'm writing. This has always been one of the great benefits of studying foreign languages. The act of studying can take many forms, from passive studying i.e. listening to France inter on the radio while writing waffly e-mails, to more active forms, such as meeting French friends in the pub and again engaging in waffle ''en français bien sûr !"

'The conscientious language student should try to make use of different media forms in their study.'  With this in mind, a few hours later, two friends and I are at a UCC French department showing of a film called 'les plages d'Agnes', about the life and work of the surrealist French film-maker and photographer Agnes Varda.  There must be a grand total of 12 people watching the film in the lecture theatre in UCC (capacity of about 300). The three of us sit in the back row, eating biscuits and chocolate-covered peanuts, and skitting at the film. It is genuinely funny. At one stage there is a clip of Agnes Varda lying Cleopatra-like on the beach, in an enormous beautifully coloured tent in the shape of a whale. She explains that she was influenced by the story of 'Jonah and the whale' and says that she feels safe in the belly of the whale!!  There is another clip of her later in the film, dressed in a strange brown costume. She explains quite frankly and with the lovely logic of a surrealist, that she has decided to dress as a talking potato in order to draw people in to an exhibition of her photography. In one of the final scenes of the film Agnes Varda is collecting brushes. She has a collection of about 80 brushes. My friend and I decide that this is possibly because Agnes Varda's act is as daft as 80 brushes! We laugh, because we are both aware of the old saying "as daft as a brush" and also ''it takes one to know one!"   

A thoroughly enjoyable film,  and a good evening's study!  

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Tourist Detector

Tourist Detector

© 2011 by Evin O'Keeffe

When I first moved to Ireland, I was intimidated by moving to a European city. Sure, Washington DC, Philadelphia, and San Francisco are cosmopolitan metropolises, but this was Europe! I mean, the flip-flops and jeans I regularly wore in California may not cut it here. The very first week, I went out to dinner with a group and the first of many cultural truths revealed itself to me – It's more important to be wearing cute shoes than to have perfect hair.
I was caught staring at a woman with hair that is best described as windswept, but fabulously meticulously cared for peep-toe sling-backs. I asked her if my just- discovered 'truth' was in fact accurate and she confirmed it with a jovial chuckle, "Yes, that's how we tell the Americans since they never have hair in place and wear comfortable footwear."

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Mediterranean Diet – Messina Style

by Musetta Joyce   © 2015

Italy is divided into Regioni and each region subdivided into Province with each province having its own favourite food and Sicily is no exception as everyone clings jealously to their own local traditional customs.
Thus Messina is influenced by its position as the nearest city to what they call la continente. Your first taste of one of their favourite inventions will be on the ferry from Calabria, for during the twenty minute trip carrying unshackled railway carriages, heavy trucks and cars, passengers will flock to the bar to buy arancini. These deep fried balls of rice are examples of the Messinese passion for stuffing anything edible, and you can chose between stewed beef or ham with mozzarella to ooze out as you bite into the 'little oranges'.
As you walk along the streets at lunchtime you will get whiffs of whatever is on the menu of the day. It is likely that it will involve tomatoes, garlic and fish. Fish of all kinds and sizes, from huge tuna and swordfish to diminutive neonati newborn anchovies, are immensely popular. 
The two and a half kilometres wide Straits of Messina that separates Sicily from the mainland of Italy is where they catch most of the swordfish. Special fishing boats have lookout towers 20 metres tall for somebody to spot the fish, and a 15 metre long plank in front of the boat where others stand ready to harpoon the prey. This is to keep the fish under the illusion that the boat is far behind them, as the noise of the motor would scare them off. Swordfish usually swim in pairs, and when the female is caught her mate will always follow his partner to their death. So expert fishermen have learnt to recognise flirtatious feminine behaviour to aim for. Fish caught this way are deemed to have the best flavour and so are more expensive.

Photo © Victor Sullivan 31/05/2010

The three favourite Messinese ways of cooking swordfish are: grilled or steamed with garlic, lemon, olive oil and oregano; finely sliced and stuffed with breadcrumb, parsley, lemon zest and runny cheese, skewered and grilled, and fried, doused with white wine and stewed in a ghiotta sauce with tomatoes, green olives, capers, onions, garlic, parsley and celery; the sauce being served on pasta.
Locals also love little fish called costerdelle and aguglie that look like miniature swordfish and are eaten fried with a raw onion salad, or fresh anchovies that, being easy to filet, are usually stuffed. Stuffing is nearly always the same: breadcrumbs, garlic, parsley and grated cheese. The breadcrumbs are made from stale loaves, and last for months. They are also used for making meatballs, and for coating slices of meat, fish, aubergines etc, and even with pasta when funds are low. I once lived with a couple whose diet varied according to the husband's luck at the local gambling den, as he never went to work. On the bad days, they would serve spaghetti with garlic and salted anchovies fried in olive oil, with a sprinkling of pan-toasted breadcrumbs. On the good days he would bring home spiedini (stuffed veal) from the best tavola calda – takeaway.
Other seafood that the Messinese really appreciate include octopus, squid, clams (with pasta) and mussels (grown in the lakes at nearby Ganzirri), none of which I have ever managed to acquire a taste for, but their all time favourite is the one I hate most of all: stockfish! This dried cod from the far north is a delicacy both in Venice and Messina, ports at the opposing end of the 'boot'. They like to eat it raw in the summer and cooked alla ghiotta with potatoes (one of the very few times they tolerate potatoes) in winter, after soaking it at length. This is when it gives off the most awful stink. It is soaked for anything up to ten days and often treated with lime to hurry the process. I have to leave the room whenever it is being served.
On the subject of queasy stomachs, another local 'delicacy' that I cannot watch being enjoyed is the snail. In Messina snails live in small black shells and, once fried, are poked out with toothpicks in order to eat. They are so popular that they are sometimes sent abroad to homesick Messinese. La Mamma once sent a large packet full of live snails by post to her son in Salzburg. They were supposed to behave and stay asleep only the cold woke them and the post office in Salzburg phoned my sister-in-law to complain of very suspicious noises coming from the parcel. Evidently, unlike snakes that hibernate in winter, these snails go into aestivation during the hot summer when there is no rain and only emerge in autumn. But, as it is in their sleepy state that they are at their tastiest, they get dug up in July and August. With the widespread use of chemical fertilizers local snails have become very scarce; they are now imported from Turkey and Tunisia, and have become very expensive. 
Anyway, back to fish, the normal legless kind: in Messina they use the whole fish, head, bones and all, to make a sauce for spaghetti with garlic, parsley and tomatoes and white wine. One of the favourite fish for this sauce is the cernia, (grouper) and one day himself managed to catch a very large specimen indeed.
'What are we going to do? It's still alive. I could cut it up, give some away. Or freeze it.' He was so excited with his catch that it had to be shown off.
'But we have guests at the weekend – wouldn't it last till then?'
'Five days? You must be joking. Wait a minute – I have an idea.' And off he went back to the boat with hooks and line and an anchor.
'That should do it. Luckily the cernia has extra wide gills. It's got plenty of line to swim around for a few days.'
On Friday he managed to catch a couple of lads delighted with their 'find' just it time to save our plan and on Saturday evening we brought the poor fish to the best local restaurant where they cooked it and served us and our guests. It turned out to be one of those dinners that stood out in our records of extra special occasions.   
But, back to everyday mealtimes when the staple food is, of course, La Pasta. Not for Sicilians are alternatives like risotto or polenta, for a meal without pasta of some kind is not a real meal for them. Only if you are sick would you accept rice with a dab of butter, but even then they would prefer pastina, tiny versions of the real stuff, to satisfy the toothless or those with any digestive disorder.
The shape of the pasta is very important and varies according to the dish. Odd shapes like strozzapreti (priest strangler), cavatappi (corkscrews) or orecchiette (little ears) are not for the Messinese; they favour margherite (marguerite petals) or ditali (thimbles). It is vital that it is boiled in correctly salted water, for salt is never added at the table, and it must be al dente (biteable), both of which qualities are, of course, personally variable and subjects of heated argument.  
I was once startled to read an article on the front page of the Gazetta del Sud describing the scene of crime in an old people's home dining hall, when an eighty year old pulled out a gun and shot the elderly woman he had considered his fidanzata, because he had spotted her chatting to a rival. 'And the meal they had been eating was margherite with zucchini and baked ricotta!' the article continued, making the crime all the more inexplicable, as the old folk were eating a favourite dish.
One day, with some time on my hands and the children at the crèche, I made lasagne from scratch: fresh pasta with the help of a hand machine, slow cooked meat sauce and my first béchamel which turned out miraculously free from lumps. With the family at the table I drew the bubbling perfection from the oven, only to be met with scorn.
'Che diavolo! What is that supposed to be?'
'It's lasagne. It's famous. People love it.'
'And that creamy stuff on top?'
'Hah, French! I knew it was some foreign nonsense. Well, I'm not eating that stuff.'
And he didn't, for although Bolognese and creamy sauces have become international favourites, in Messina they prefer their pasta with simple tomato sauce.
Except on Sundays, when various kinds of meats – stuffed veal, sausages, spare ribs and meatballs are doused in red wine and slowly stewed in lashings of tomato sauce. The meats are then fished out and served as the main dish, after the pasta course. For special picnics a more complicated dish is usually prepared: pasta al forno (oven baked pasta), into which practically everything but the kitchen sink is added to macaroni drowned in tomato sauce: small meatballs, peas, hard boiled eggs, salami, mozzarella, parmesan, fried aubergines, ham, etc etc.
But it is in the stuffing of seasonal vegetables that the Messinese excel. It is very hard to beat stuffed artichokes in spring and peppers and aubergines in summer. The best stuffed aubergines I ate last year were made by a ninety-year-old great-great grandmother visiting her daughter in the nearby countryside. Coming from Messina with her son, an old friend of my husband's, she had got up at dawn to cook the aubergines with three different kinds of cheese. They brought fresh fish from the city: tiny prawns, squid as well as fresh tuna to make the pasta sauce. It was an unexpected feast and a celebration of energetic healthy old age.
Yes, it's true that the Mediterranean Diet is reputed to be one of the healthiest, with its emphasis on fruit, vegetables and fish as well as food prepared with care as an expression of love for family and friends and taking the time to eat slowly with the whole family around the table. Even the shops close 'for lunch' from 12.30. to 4.30.
However, one problem with the Messinese love for very sweet cakes and biscuits as well as too much sugar in their bitter expresso coffees, is that it has led to an increase in diabetes, not helped by their preference for fizzy orangeade while oranges rot on the trees all around the countryside. Add to this their sedentary lifestyle, for most town and city dwellers are confined to small apartments and drive everywhere, with fruit and vegetables grown out of season and bloated with chemicals, fish that are farmed and poultry that are battery reared, and it is not surprising that there are those who fall into ill health.
Still, death notices for country folk show them lasting well into their nineties, and a recent Italian survey claims that Eighty is the new Fifty, so the Mediterranean Diet must be worth considering.    

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Visiting a Dweller in the Mountains

  © 2014  by Cecily Lynch
                                                   Vanishing Ireland

(Dedicated to all those who dwell in remote areas of Ireland and lead a traditional life). 

My aunt, who lives deep in the country, brought me to visit her friend. The area is exquisitely beautiful, mystical and heart-breaking. We trudged uphill through the forest till we reached a clearing where a traditional thatched house stood, surrounded by barns and outhouses. Hens squawked as we approached. A cock crew. A sheepdog barked frantically. Pungent odours surrounded us. Farm instruments, rusted and neglected, lay in the outhouses. My aunt called out "Clodagh, here we are!"

A very old lady came to the door, wearing a black cloak and a knitted black cap. The room was almost in complete darkness, for the tiny windows, covered by faded lace curtains, admitted no light. The floor was earthen, the walls of bare stone. A small turf fire burned in an ancient fireplace which held a large black pot on a hook. The homely smell of turf and boiling potatoes permeated the room.

There followed an old Irish welcome, of the most warm and hospitable kind.
"Dia bhur mbeatha-sa." said Clodagh, speaking the Gaelic of Munster, soft and lilting. "Ach na bac leis!" She added, as the enormous Irish wolfhound sprang at me, then retired head hanging, as a stream of commands hit him "Suigh sios, a phuca, a amadáin!" Clodagh ordered. 

The oil cloth on the table held a huge array of soda bread, with large teapots of strong tea to wash the meal down. Clodagh sat on a stool, almost into the fireplace. She threw her head back and recited "Caoine Airt ui Laoire", that most passionate song of lament of a young wife for her murdered husband. 
"My heart is frozen, like an old trunk whose key is lost."
The fire flickered, the Gaelic rose to a crescendo of sorrow and passion, all the pain of life seemed centred in her voice. 
She thanked us warmly for coming. I felt as if I had gone back in time through several centuries that afternoon. The way back through the forest was difficult, but at last we saw the motorway through the trees. We had regained the 21st century. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Milky Way and Me

by Cecily Lynch     © 2015

''My God, what is that?''   I exclaimed, raising my telescope with trembling hands. I was half-way up a mountain, it was close to midnight, it was bitterly cold.  The Milky Way lay above me in all its beauty.  Into the little circle of my shaking telescope had come the most beautiful golden orb, hanging like a golden ball in the darkness, incredibly beautiful, serene, silent. 
''Why, it's our little old moon, I breathed.  ''Didn't recognize there, dear.  You are quite a Cinderella''
My hand shook a little as I held the telescope aloft. I caught a silver flash in the glass. I applied my good eye to the instrument.  Thereupon there appeared to me the spinning glory of Saturn's rings.  Round and around they went in rainbow colours.  I swore softly as my frozen fingers blurred the focus. But as luck would have it, I hit the spot where Venus shone glittering in frozen majesty.  
''Awesome,'' I muttered in my Cork idiom,'' ''Atta girl. You frozen princess, you!''
But being an Earthling, and badly in need of a cup of roasting coffee, I called out to the those beauties, the stars of the Milky Way, '' Bye Bye girls. Got to go'' and folded up my telescope.