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To tell of times that were..

Forget-me-not. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Forget-me-not. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Recently  I had news of the death of a lady  from my home village in County Donegal. Having moved away many years ago, I had met her on perhaps two or three occasions in the past decade or so. Yet the news of her death made me feel particularly sorrowful. As the days passed and memories flooded back, I came to realize that the reason for my sadness was that her passing more or less closes the curtain on the memory of our late father’s fun-filled younger days over 70 years ago in that relatively isolated Donegal village.

Dad was born in 1921, the third of 5 children, each separated in age by 2 years. As electrification had not yet arrived, candles,oil filled Tilley lamps and blazing turf fires lit the long winter evenings of their youth. Cars too were scarce and bicycles – often the ‘high Nelly’ type were the preferred mode of transport. In a small community young folk made their own  entertainment. There were three Gallagher families in particular that forged deep and life long relationships, (although our family was not related to the other two). With others in the village they played badminton in the local hall, played golf on Logue’s 9 hole golf course, attended horse racing on the strand, played cards, kicked football on the Lee, told stories by the fireside, went out on the Mummers at Christmas and enjoyed the annual arrival of Duffy’s Circus. Touring repertory and variety players would arrive from time to time and put on shows that would be remembered for months afterwards.

Poetry was a big part of their lives and they tried to outdo one another with great recitations! Poetry came easily to them as they had to learn it by rote at school from the age of about 7 or  8, in much the same way as we learned our times tables in later years.The poems our father recited and quoted on a regular basis included

There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu,

There’s a little marble cross below the town;

There’s a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,

And the Yellow God forever gazes down.

(The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God , by J Milton Hayes)

And..

No stir in the air, no stir in the sea,

The Ship was still as she could be;

Her sails from heaven received no motion,

Her keel was steady in the ocean.

Without either sign or sound of their shock,

The waves flow’d over the Inchcape Rock;

So little they rose, so little they fell,

They did not move the Inchcape Bell.

(Inchcape Rock by Robert Southey )

And, from  Tennyson’s ”Charge of the Light Brigade”:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
(My father was still reciting this poem to my son, almost 80 years after he learned it).

In the 1920s and 1930s these young folk had a small band that played at dances in the local hall. Much of their musical  inspiration came from a crackly valve wireless that was run off a wet battery,like the one that filled the deep sill of our kitchen window.

I recall my father telling me how good a badminton player Annie was, but it was her reputation as a pianist that was second to none. He often spoke of their great music sessions. He played drums that were still in our house decades later. He had the full kit – snare drum, cymbals, drumsticks, drum brushes, the wooden block and the big base drum with pedals that operated the wooly beater. ”Top of the Pops” was different back then  –  if they heard a song or tune on the wireless that they liked, they sent away to McCullough Pigot in Dublin for the sheet music.

Wind up gramophone

Wind up gramophone (Image Wikimedia commons)

Shellac gramophone records were ordered to play on their wind up gramophone players so they all learned the melody and the lyrics. Dad was a good singer and he sang away to himself for all of his life! One of his favourite songs  was Abdul Abulbul Amir. We children were totally mesmerized by the exotic sounding names and the incomprehensible words, – such as Mameluke, skibouk, and truculent sneers, but that only added to our glee on hearing him sing! Written in 1877 by Percy French, one of Ireland’s most prolific songwriters, what appeared to be a light-hearted ditty was in fact a skit on the war between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire and was a deadly serious tale! The great thing about Abdul Abulbul Amir was that  it sounded equally impressive whether spoken or sung,  and we delighted in either!

On his last visit to his home village in 2005, just eight months before he died, Dad and I  called to see his long time friend Annie. To the best of my recollection her piano had pride of place in her home, but the abiding memory of the day was how they both laughed and laughed as they remembered singing and playing Abdul Abulbul Amir. And so, the reason for my sadness is the evocation of beautiful memories that I saw a decade ago, remembering times stretching  back into the mists of time some 70 years before.

Annie’s love of music was honoured at her funeral with the singing of her favourite song from way back then – not the skittish Abdul Abulbul Amir, but the more appropriate and beautiful Tennessee Waltz that she loved.

Our father had several phrases that he repeated very often.When thinking back on events in his life and on those who were no longer with us, he would say – ”Ah! To tell of times that were…God rest them all.”

God rest them all indeed.

Listen here to ABDUL ABULBUL AMIR sung by Frank Crumit in 1927

Abdul Abulbul Amir Lyrics

The sons of the Prophet are brave men and bold
And quite unaccustomed to fear,
But the bravest by far in the ranks of the Shah,
Was Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Now the heroes were plenty and well known to fame
In the troops that were led by the Czar,
And the bravest of these was a man by the name
Of Ivan Skavinsky Skavar

One day this bold Russian, he shouldered his gun
And donned his most truculent sneer,
Downtown he did go where he trod on the toe
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Young man, quote Abdul, has life grown so dull
That you wish to end your career?
Vile infidel know, you have trod on the toe
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Quoth Ivan, “My friend, your remarks, in the end,
Will avail you but little, I fear,
For you ne’er will survive to repeat them alive,
Mr. Abdul Abulbul Amir!”

So take your last look at the sunshine and brook
And send your regrets to the Czar
For by this I imply, you are going to die,
Count Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

Then this bold Mameluke drew his trusty skibouk,
With a cry of ‘Allah Akbar!’
And with murderous intent he ferociously went
For Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

They fought all that night ‘neath the pale yellow moon;
The din, it was heard from afar,
And huge multitudes came, so great was the fame,
Of Abdul and Ivan Skavar.

As Abdul’s long knife was extracting the life,
In fact he was shouting, “Huzzah!”
He felt himself struck by that wily Calmuck,
Count Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

The Sultan drove by in his red-breasted fly,
Expecting the victor to cheer,
But he only drew nigh to hear the last sigh,
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Czar Petrovich, too, in his spectacles blue
Rode up in his new crested car.
He arrived just in time to exchange a last line
With Ivan Skavinsky Skivar.

There’s a tomb rises up where the Blue Danube rolls,
And graved there in characters clear,
Is, “Stranger, when passing, oh pray for the soul
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.”

A Muscovite maiden her lone vigil keeps,
“Neath the light of the pale polar star;
And the name that she murmurs as oft as she weeps
Is Ivan Skavinsky Skivar.

(many more verses are sometimes quoted)

 

 

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With those hands…Family treasures

 

imageThis week I had one of those catastrophic events that resulted in my airing cupboard being at the wrong end of a burst pipe. Filthy dirty water from the heating system ruined my sheets, towels and everything else secreted away in there,  so there was nothing for it but to transport the black, heavy sodden mass to the washing machine and put on a boil wash, with stain remover and biological powder added to be sure, to be sure!
Imagine my horror when unloading the washing machine, to discover that a hand embroidered table-cloth had also been boiled in the soup! This particular table-cloth was a special one that was made specially for me 45 years ago. My Aunt May was a nun and nuns always kept busy, presumably because ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’. Nuns too were often wonderful needle women, and I know that Aunty May was, as had been her mother before her. My grandmother appears on the 1901 census with two of her sisters, all of them seamstresses. So it was in the genes.
Post Vatican 2, Roman Catholic religious orders had to renew their vow of poverty, and with my 21st birthday coming up in 1969, Aunty May asked me what I would like to have for my birthday, as she may not be able to send anything after the renewal of the poverty vow. I did not hesitate and asked if I might have an embroidered table-cloth. I was so thrilled when she presented me with my very own embroidered tablecloth. image

The embroidery is of the same quality on both front and back, and the edges are trimmed with crochet lace. I have no idea how many hours thus must have taken to create, but I love it as much today as I did when I first saw it. What a relief to find that it had survived a boil wash! To think of the number of perfect stitches on this one piece, the eyes that peered so closely at them,the expert hands that made each one, fills me with wonderment. I particularly love the texture of the flower petals. I am proud and delighted that my Aunt undertook such a labour of love!

My mother and my other Aunt Di had beautiful tablecloths.  ‘Di’ whose real name was Eileen, was also my godmother. She had a most beautiful hand embroidered tablecloth that had been given to her as a wedding gift by Mrs McCloskey in Carrigart, Co Donegal in 1946. Mrs Mc Closkey had a factory that produced the most elegant ladies knitwear and clothing and beautiful elegant gifts. Di’s wedding gift tablecloth was a heavily embroidered Willow Pattern design and I had never seen the like of it before or since. It was quite simply, exquisite.
Her linen tablecloths and treasured pieces of china were her pride and joy and she was especially fond of that Willow Pattern cloth. I often visited her at her home in Glasgow, and she would open the sideboard drawer and take out the tablecloths one by one, followed by her china that she used as often as she could when she had visitors to the house. Together we would admire these beautiful things laid out before us. It was a ritual that I loved. Beautifully embroidered tablecloths and special china called for beautiful homemade cakes and pastries, and she was a most wonderful baker of these fancies. Her Porter Cake was simply to die for! The last time I saw her, on a visit in 1999, just months before she died, she gave me one of her very special tablecloths and a couple of pieces of her beloved china. These are now among my most treasured possessions.

imageThis is the beautiful cloth she gave me with overlooked scalloped edges. I often wonder how many stitches went in to the making if it and who made it. Was it made by one person or several people working together? I am not sure where she got it, perhaps it was a gift from my Aunt May, who was her older sister.

And so the dark cloud of a flood in my airing cupboard led me to rediscovering these treasures, so safely tucked away that I rarely see them.

My mother too had  a number of beautiful linen tablecloths, many of which disappeared down the years, but I do have a couple from her collection.

This one below is a simple cross stitch and I remember it on a small table in our sitting room when I was a child. I have always loved the colours of this one, although I have never used it in my own house.

The next one is my favourite of my mother’s. It is such an honest ‘ordinary’ cloth for a small table. This was brought out when someone came for tea, and it survived many washings and spills – a trusty stalwart of the linen drawer!

imageIt is necessary to look at this one quite closely to appreciate the detail of the wreaths of flowers.

And so the dark cloud of a flood in my airing cupboard led me to rediscovering these treasures, so safely tucked away that I rarely see them. I thought it would be nice to make a record of these beautifully crafted works of art and to share them. Although I do not know who made each of them, that they were crafted with love and pride is obvious in the exquisite needlework. I am blessed indeed to own these beautiful pieces of my Family History!

 

 

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Postcards from Newcastle West

In July 2013 we enjoyed some wonderfully warm weather, with clear blue skies and up to 15 hours of uninterrupted sunshine.  In the last few days of the month we have had torrential thundery downpours, interspersed with hot sunshine and sunshowers.  Sunshowers are a very local phenomenon and are as the name suggests – showers  and sunshine at the same time. It can be raining across the street but perfectly dry and sunny on the other side!  It was on a ‘sunshower’ morning that I  happened to have the  camera to hand to take a few snaps of my very attractive local town.

A medieval town, Newcastle West, is the principal town of  the  County  Limerick, outside of Limerick City.  Known at one time as Castlenoe, and then Newcastle, it is now officially Newcastle West, although often referred to still as simply ‘Newcastle’.

DSCF1554

The  town has a very elegant square at its heart.

DSCF1546A 15th Century  Banqueting Hall dominates the streetscape, where the Earls of Desmond had their feasts.  Mounted on a plinth in front of the building  is a figure of the 14th Century Gerald FitzGerald  on horseback,entitled “Gearóid Iarla”  (Earl Gerald)

DSCF1549The Arra river flows through the town. After heavy rain it can be spectacular as huge torrents  of water crash over the rocks. Today it was quiet and serene – little more than a babbling brook.

DSCF1550

The medieval complex as seen from the banks of the River Arra. This is a view familiar to thousands of travellers on the very busy main Limerick to Tralee/Killarney road. However, by simply taking a small detour for a coffee break  these travellers would be pleasantly surprised  to find  a very pleasing and attractive town centre.

DSCF1560

The tree-lined square with Desmond  Banqueting Hall at the southern end.  Also at the southern  end of the Square is a memorial statue of the renowned local poet Michael Hartnett, created by Rory Breslin.DSCF1542

Such is the popularity of Michael Hartnett (1941-1999) that  each year Newcastle  West hosts a hugely successful Poetry Arts and Literary Festival named in his memory. Eigse Michael Hartnett is a prestigious event attracting notable figures from the arts, creating a  town a-buzz  with events, for all interests and ages.

DSCF1555At the other end of the square stands an impressive work by the renowned sculptor Cliodhna Cussen. Standing on the base of an old water pump, the bronze and limestone work  depicts a buttermaid, milk churns and a mill wheel, in recognition of the importance of  the dairy industry to this area. I love this work, especially the buttermaid in her  flowing costume holding her butter pat, which was an important part of the butter-making process.

DSCF1559

Cliodhna Cussen is  a native of Newcastle West and also created the work “Gearóid Iarla”located outside the banqueting hall . She is an artist of considerable repute with installations in many locations throughout the country.

DSCF1557

Detail on the ground at the  Cliodhna Cussen sculpture, with a cow in the centre.

This site was once home to a bronze cross that had been installed some years earlier  in the 1950s, to mark the Marian year  and the Latin inscription associated with it can still be seen on the plinth – see below.DSCF1558

Newcastle West was once home to a very adventurous female aviator called Sophie Peirce whose family lived in the square, in the 3 storey house on the left of the picture.  DSCF1561The plaque commemorates Sophie, who in the 1920s was one of the most well-known women in the world, a pioneering aviator, a dispatch rider in World War 1, and who helped  introduce  women’s athletics into the Olympics. (Sophie  will feature in a dedicated post on this site in due course)

DSCF1545

Newcastle West is the hidden gem of the N21 – and it is well worth a visit!

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St Patrick’s Day:Badges,Shamrocks and ‘Going Green’

adare shamrock

A bowl of ‘Shamrock‘ on a restaurant table in Adare, Co. Limerick this week

St. Patrick’s Day…When half the world turns green and the other half is out parading –  or so it seems! Airports, rivers, waterfalls, tourist features, buildings, beer and people the world over – all in green livery for the ‘big day’. From Pyramids to Google Doodles– they are all ‘at it’!  But, it is far from all of this that we were reared!

Trifolium.dubium

This little 3 leafed plant looks like the Shamrock that we used to pick for St Patrick’s Day. It grew tight to the ground and was difficult to pick the little sprigs.

St. Patrick’s Day celebrations  in my small village in Donegal were traditionally simple. Apart from obligatory Mass and school being closed, nothing else much happened. I have tried to recall the events of a typical St Patrick’s Day when I was growing up. I remember being dispatched to find some  shamrock a week or so before the big day and again on the day before. The double harvest was required as we had small purpose made boxes in which shamrock would be posted to relatives abroad in England, Scotland or America,(no customs restrictions in those days!) and then people at home needed fresh Shamrock to wear on St Patrick’s Day itself.

Shamrock is  a very specific plant that can be found growing in certain places. I recall a roadside bank, and a particular field  where I used to gather quite a bit. The stems creep along the ground and I have vivid recollections of having cold and sore fingers from trying to uproot  stems with a bit of length, so that they could be pinned onto  a coat or lapel. The wet mud would compact under fingernails and it was often quite painful! I also recall being sent back out to get the real thing, when tired of the pulling, decided to just pick clover instead –  much easier to harvest as the stems did not cling so tightly to the cold wet earth!

clover

This is clover and earned me a clip on the ear if it was brought home for St Patrick’s Day

Clover is a much softer plant with the leaves on longer stems than ‘proper’ shamrock. Clover usually had  a white mark in the centre of the leaves.

Oxalis

Oxalis is not Shamrock either !

As well as wearing Shamrock, we children had a St Patrick’s Day badge. These were bought in the village shop for about 4 pence and consisted of a length of  green, white and orange ribbon. Some had a gold paper harp attached. Several designs were usually available and these were worn with great pride. Later at Mass, the very lively hymn ‘Síor Glór do Naomh Padraigwas sung.

Traditional-irish-stipatricksidayibadges

St Patrick’s Day badges c. early 20th century, from the Museum of Country Life. Image Wikimedia Commons.

It is often said that the designation of March 17th as the Feast Day was an ‘Irish solution to an Irish problem’  as it falls slap bang in the middle of Lent, when most  Irish would be abstaining from sweets, alcohol and other niceties.  Being a feast day, Lenten rules of abstinence and mortification did not apply, so it was certainly a ‘feast day’ with a difference. The tradition of ‘drowning  the shamrock’ appears  to go back for several hundred years. This is variously described as alcohol being poured over a shamrock in the bottom of a glass, or shamrock being floated on top of a glass. Either way, the alcohol was quaffed, and presumably the drowned plant went with it. Public Houses were forbidden to open on St Patrick’s Day from the early 1900’s up to the 1970s, in an attempt to curb excessive ‘shamrock drowning’. Irish people are of course aware that neither a ‘closed door’ nor licensing regulations are of much consequence when there is serious shamrock drowning to be done.

St Patrick’s Day is a relatively modern feast day, having been so designated as recently as the 17th Century. It is recognized in many Christian traditions, including Anglican and Eastern Orthodox as well as Catholic. It has now turned into a world-wide festival of Irishness – interesting,  given that St Patrick was not even an Irishman! St Brigid would have been much much more appropriate as a National Saint but for two major failings – serious enough that she was tentatively associated with a pagan pre Christian deity,  but worse still – she had a gender issue – she was after all only  a woman and therefore highly unsuitable for such a prestigious position. The foreign Patrick is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland in 432 AD. This is contested as it is believed that there were groups of Christians in Ireland before he ever arrived. Many places in Ireland contain his name, the most famous being Croagh Patrick, a mountain in Mayo and a place of Pilgrimage, and there are many holy wells that bear his name although it is highly unlikely that he visited all of them.

StP

Patrick misrepresented in 17th century ecclesiastical garb, with equally misrepresented serpents

It is rather odd that he is depicted wearing a Bishop’s Mitre and green church vestments that were not invented until several hundred years after his death. This is a dishonest portrayal of the truth of who he was . Another myth prevails that he drove the snakes out of Ireland as apparently there were none here in the first place.

Whatever the truth and the fiction, St Patrick’s Day in the early 21st century is far removed from the simple religious celebration of the Ireland  of  50 years ago.  It is now a world-wide celebration of all that is Irish and it continues to reinvent itself. For the past number of years Ireland has had parades and the St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Dublin have now become an annual festival. The famous New York St Patrick’s Day Parade first took place in 1762 and it is thanks to Irish emigrants in far flung places that the tradition has been kept alive. While we do have to tolerate the  stereotypically awful  ‘begorrahs’ and ‘top of the mornin’ and red bearded leprechauns, not to mention the emerging excruciating ‘St Patty’s Day’, we Irish are immensely proud that the world celebrates us so enthusiastically each year.

St Patrick is the lynchpin for Irish identity right across the world, for believers and non believers.  The blurred boundaries between a national saint’s day and a national Ireland day are easily forgotten when we witness the enthusiasm and the joy and fun as people party for Ireland all over the world.

For academic and fascinating scholarly information on St Patrick, a visit to Terry O’Hagan’s  blog voxhiberionacum. is a must.

This post originally posted in March 2013  was updated in March 2014

Lá ‘le Pádraig sona daoibh!

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2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 23,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 5 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

 

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December 31, 2012 · 11:58 am