Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Holiday Hiatus / Instagram

As of today, I will be in Florence until the weekend, so regular posting will not resume until next week. In the meantime you can follow my Tuscan escapades, on instagram. If I can get near a wi-fi connection, there will be lots of pictures of gelato. You have been warned.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Gaelic Chieftain / Colooney, Co. Sligo

It's been a particularly eventful few weeks in Ireland. Justice for Magadalenes tireless campaigning finally prompted Taoiseach Enda Kenny to issue a State Apology to Magadalene Laundry survivors. There;s little of value i can add to the ongoing dialogue, but if you're uncertain as to what I am talking about visit Justice for Magadalenes website.

If you're driving from Sligo to any of the other major cities, you will be on the N4, and you'll pass this fellow on the Colooney bypass. It is 'The Gaelic Chieftain', a steel sculpture by sculptor Maurice Harron, commissioned to commemorate 400 years since the Battle of Curlew Pass. As history has it, during the Nine Years' War (a revolt against English occupation, 1595-1603), in April 1599, the Earl of Essex landed in Ireland with over 17,000 troops and cavalry to put down the rebellion of Hugh O'Neill and Red Hugh O'Donnell, which had spread from Ulster to all Ireland. Here, at the pass of the Curlew mountains, a rebel Irish force led by Red Hugh O'Donnell successfully faced down an English force under Sir Conyers Clifford, leaving hundreds of English casualties. (Thanks wikipedia for filing in the blanks!)

Maurice Harron's sculpture is iconic in Sligo's landscape. The Chieftain watches over those who enter and leave Sligo through the land of his ancestors. Harron is also responsible for the Boston Irish Famine Memorial in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Apparently this is also a hot spot for Irish UFO watchers. The west of Ireland has always had a reputation as being a mystic landscape. The Chieftain is located on a hill above the bypass, and while I can't speak for UFO sightings, it does have a fantastic view east and west along the motorway, and over Lough Key. There is a small car park here that has a few picnic benches, and it is a popular place for drivers and families to stop off on their journeys, particularly on sunny days.

Sadly, one of the consequences of Ireland's recession is the theft of Irish public art, particularly if they are made of valuable materials, such as copper. Only a month ago, a large part of a WB Yeats copper sculpture was stolen by thieves and has not been recovered.

For size reference, a reluctant picture of me beside the sculpture. It's certainly impressive to behold - I love Harron's use of material and angular shapes.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Forty shades of blue / Old Head, Co. Mayo

Admiring the view, in my 1950s mouton jacket that I picked up at a vintage fair in Sligo before Christmas!

A couple of weeks ago I was down in Westport over the weekend for a friend's birthday. I hadn't wandered around the town itself (voted best place to live in Ireland in 2012) since I was in my mid-teens and was obliged to climb the reek at Croagh Patrick with my parents on pilgrimage Sunday. Since that observance has faded from my life, Westport remained in my mind as a place where I spent an uncomfortable few hours stumbling upwards and downwards on a rocky mountain face with thousands of others, and ate at a hotel carvery with my family afterward. I always felt a curious mix of guilt and resentment, guilt because as a family we didn't eat out a lot, but I hated carvery food, and have developed a life long aversion to this Irish tradition ever since.

My friend Lara told me of the beauty of Old Head, and true to her word, took me there for a drive on Sunday morning. It's about a half hour drive outside Westport town and there are some quirky houses to be seen on the way! One of the joys of living in Ireland, you can have Sunday rituals where you go for walks in the countryside, to shake off the sleep.

It was a cloudy day so the peak of Croagh Patrick was obscured (see second picture). What I found most breathtaking at Old Head however, was the many different shades of blue I could make out, between the sky, horizon and the sea. There were shades of blue I don't think I've ever seen before, even on afternoons in Italy gazing across the water. It was a still, tranquil landscape, I found it very peaceful there.

We took a walk along the headland. The wood there reaches right down to the water and I think it is one of the only remaining pre-medieval forests in Ireland.

Couldn't mention a party without a party picture!

A restaurant where the patrons can openly complain about the food then?

Sunday afternoon trad session in Matt Molloys

I didn't take any pictures in the town itself, preferring to wander round and peep in boutique windows. I'm hoping to get back some weekend when the weather's warmer. They have some lovely pubs and restaurants, and beautiful boutiques. I have also heard of a café that apparently sells an incredible cup of hot chocolate, and that's always a serious lure for me!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Meat Free Monday / Hearty Spanish Lentil Dish

My Dad was in hospital recently and it really shook me up, we're very close. While he is fit and healthy, I do wish he would eat less red meat and animal fats. He's more receptive to vegetarian dishes now, because I do cook a lot, I enjoy cooking family meals at least once a week. After the recent scare, I've been cooking some healthy meals for him, and this evening as I made dinner, I realised that I was cooking a meat-free meal, on a Monday, and I thought of the "meat free Monday" movement, promoted by the McCartney family. So in the spirit of things, I hope on every other Monday to post a meat-free dish, to inspire anyone who does stop by, and to give me some motivation, while I convince my family to make Mondays meat free.

While watching daytime telly recently, I flicked over to Rick Stein's Spain, he was about to cook a delicious looking lentil dish, where the meat element could easily be left out. It's a lentil stew I suppose.

I adapted this recipe, on the cheap. I left out the Serrano ham, and the white wine, I don't have pimentón (smoked sweet Spanish paprika) so I used regular paprika.

300g green lentils
6 tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic, cloves peeled and thinly sliced
1 medium onion, finely chopped/diced
200g/7oz carrot, finely chopped/diced
1 tbsp paprika (or to taste)
A couple of glugs of tobasco
I tin chopped tomatoes
rock salt and freshly ground black pepper

- Check the lentils for stones, then rinse in cold water. Add to saucepan, adding enough cold water to cover them and bring to the boil over a high heat. Reduce heat and leave to simmer for about 30 minutes or until just tender but still a little al dente (or follow packet instructions). Drain, and keep back the cooking liquid, setting to one side.

- In a deep frying pan, heat the oil, adding the garlic and onion, sweating it off for a few minutes, then add the carrot and cook gently for 15 minutes or until the vegetables are soft and just beginning to colour.

- Stir in the paprika and tomatoes, and simmer for 5-6 minutes or until the mixture cooks down into a thick sauce. I chucked in some tobasco at this point, because I like some heat.

- Stir the lentils into the sauce with 150ml of the lentil cooking liquid, as needed, with a pinch of salt and some pepper. Simmer for a further 5-6 minutes. Serve!

I served this with potatoes fried in olive oil and paprika, 'patatas bravas' style.

You can watch Rick himself whip up this dish via youtube, what a charming man!

Join the movement and tag your tweets/instagram pictures with #meatfreemonday

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975): A Valentine's mystery


Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), directed by Peter Weir, is an Australian mystery film, set in Victoria at the turn of the century, adapted from the Joan Lindsay novel of the same name. The film opens at Appleyard College, a private girls school and relates the mysterious disappearance of a group of girls on a picnic excursion to a local geological and former Aboriginal settlement, on St. Valentine's Day in 1900. The film explores the subsequent effect this has on the small-knit community.

If you're into the eerie and the mysterious, with the addition of beautiful girls floating about in Edwardian garb, then this might the one for you. Don't be tempted to pass it off at sheer whimsy, Weir has crafted a bewitched piece of cinematic history that will haunt you long after you've watched it. I've had friends comment on how discomforting they found it, and when you hear that pan pipe music, you might agree.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Yeats Country: Rosses Point, Co. Sligo

Of the two main beaches in Sligo, Rosses Point is the closest to where I live. It is referenced in W.B. Yeats poem The Stolen Child, and one stanza in particular comes to mind whenever I go for a walk here:

(Click images to enlarge)

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand

In the summer when the sun does make an appearance, Rosses Point was my preferred beach for sun lounging. The sea here is much calmer, and if you walk to the end you can see Lissadell House across the bay. I remember when I was working at the Leonard Cohen concert in 2010, in the evening just looking across the water to see Rosses Point glowing in the moonlight, with Cohen's husky voice providing the backdrop to a memorable midsummer's evening.

Less bustling than Strandhill, it is more popular with dog walkers than surfers. The romantic in me endears me to Rosses Point, and I find it very restful sitting on a bench among the sand dunes when I feel like having some headspace. Maybe Yeats did the same. The artistic and mystic poet George 'Æ' Russell said to have witnessed mystical visions here on one of his summer visits with Willy Yeats. I'm not so sure about that, but Sligo can be magic, if you allow it to be.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Carrowkeel Megalithic Cemetery, Co. Sligo

Of all European lands I venture to say that Ireland is the most mystical, and, in the eyes of true Irishmen, as much the Magic Island of Gods and Initiates now as it was when the Sacred Fires flashed from its purple, heather-covered mountain-tops and mysterious round towers, and the Greater Mysteries drew to its hallowed shrines neophytes from the West as well as from the East, from India and Egypt as well as from Atlantis; and Erin's mystic-seeing sons still watch and wait for the relighting of the Fires and the restoration of the old Druidic Mysteries. Herein I but imperfectly echo the mystic message Ireland's seers gave me, a pilgrim to their Sacred Isle. And until this mystic message is interpreted, men cannot discover the secret of Gaelic myth and song in olden or in modern times, they cannot drink at the ever-flowing fountain of Gaelic genius, the perennial source of inspiration which lies behind the new revival of literature and art in Ireland, nor understand the seeming reality of the fairy races.
- W. Y Evans Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911 (via The Sacred Island)

On the last Friday of January my Dad had a few days off work so I was trying to think of something we could do for the afternoon. I had the idea in my head a few weeks ago that I wanted to climb Carrowkeel, not having done so before. Sligo is richly adorned with remenants of our pre-historic past and I'd like to explore as much of it as I can.

Carrowkeel is a Neolithic (Stone Age) passage tomb cemetery in South County Sligo (I live to the North). The tombs are between 5400 and 5100 years old, so that they predate the Pyramids by 500-800 years. Carrowkeel is one of the big four passage tomb cemeteries in Ireland. This whole area, a good chunk of County Sligo was one of the most important centres of neolithic Ireland. (more info) On a clear day you can see the whole landscape of Sligo, due to its height, and sometimes you can even see as far as Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo.

There isn't really a 'typical' Irish day, but a great number of them involve grey skies and rain. When we climbed it was a 'typical' Irish day. The mist hung heavy about us, sticking to the wool of my coat and skirt and blurring my vision. I wore a sensible pair of boots, my Dad had his wellies. It was very muddy, but it was only us and the sheep ascending the mountain that afternoon.

My umbrella wasn't quite up to the challenge of Carrowkeel

The only other living things we met on our climb were sheep and rams, like this fellow here

When we got to the summit and alighted by one of the cairns, even though I couldn't witness the famous aerial view of Sligo due to the heavy fog, it did make it all the more atmospheric. It was one of the rare moments that you did genuinely feel like you could be one of the only people on earth, it felt so far removed from civilisation. Though the evidence of past civilisation was there. Looking around, you almost expected to see spectres moving silently through the mist. The mood reminded me of Andrea Arnold's adaption of Wuthering Heights.

Walking downhill was tricky, trying to recall your path through a carpet of thick heather is as difficult as it sounds. The wind whistled in our ears and the mist lay heavy upon us. We plodded through the mud on the way back to the car, we were glad to make it back to the 21st century as we shook the rain off our coats.

It is a pity that the OPW (Office of Public Works) don't provide more information on the site, onsite. However it is quite easy to find, and if you are visiting Sligo, it is a short detour off the main Dublin road into Sligo, and is well sign posted. I hope to make it back during the summer.

Skirt - 1950s St. Michael, made from Yorkshire wool and cashmere; Jumper - 1960s Pringle, Scottish wool. Book - Noblesse Oblige edited by Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, picked up at the Temple Bar book market a few years ago.

I wrapped up in my woolens for the day. I had just finished reading The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters by Charlotte Mosley (highly recommended!) and my outfit was inspired by the Mitford mood I was in at the time, as well as by necessity!

To warm up, my Dad and I went to 'A Casa Mia' in Sligo town for a treat, before going to see Lincoln in the Gaiety cinema. I blogged about the meal, from a vegetarian point of view, at Sligo Bites.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

#wavehunting, Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo

Photo by Denise

Sligo is surprising. It's a surfer's paradise with its sandy beaches, on the cusp of the Atlantic sea, all those waves. The only thing that's missing from this paradise is the sun that puts in an occasional appearance.

A couple of weeks ago, Denise informed me that Billabong's Tow In Session was taking place. International surfers ("wavehunters") travelled from around the globe at mere days notice to surf the big waves. I had known that 'tow surfing' (getting towed out further to enable surfers to ride bigger waves than they'd normally be able to paddle out to) was a thing off Mullaghmore Head (in North County Sligo), but I'd never witnessed it for myself. I dressed in my most sensible woolens, my winter coat, packed a thermos and she picked me up and we headed out.

The biggest waves in Europe, measuring 40-50 foot high had until this year had been surfed off Mullaghmore Head by an Irish surfer in 2010. The day we went out there (January 23rd) groups of onlookers had gathered to watch the waves and the surfers in the blustering wind. The waves seemed to me to be almost like something out of a film. When you stand at Mullaghmore Head you are confronted with the awesome power and force of the sea. I get an adrenaline rush just standing there, thinking of the restlessness of the sea, and how nothing but the unpredictable Atlantic is between you and America.

Ooops, I forgot to bring gloves!

I was mostly too absorbed anticipating the waves to take many photographs, and these are a poor reflection of the mood out there that day. The surfing community is an international one, they're all there for a common goal, there's an etiquette to surfing, that you won't find in many team sports. The community is very pro-active, there are extreme surfing photographers and surfers who capture incredible footage to distribute and share with the international surfing community. In these cases, capturing these moments on film aren't simply for personal preservation, but as visual proof for competition judges, but they're also enjoyed by surfing enthusiasts and curious folk such as myself (I had a brief fling with surfing when I was 16, and haven't been involved since).

This is what was taking place a couple of weeks ago, in my backyard (in a sense):

Classiebawn Castle, with a snowy Ben Bulben providing a winter backdrop, January 2013

At Classiebawn Castle, December 2012

As you drive along the coastal road of Mullaghmore Head, Classiebawn Castle with Ben Bulben in the background comes into view. I always have to get out of the car for a few moments to admire my favourite view in the world.