Tag Archives: Ireland

A HISTORY OF TEA

DSCF6075The thread of sense memory runs deep.
My mother scoops dry black shrivelings
Of Lyons tea
Out of the red and black tea caddy.
The rippling rope of amber
Pours from the spout of the
Battered aluminum pot.
A ghost of steam
Rises above the rim of bone china.
She would not think to start the day
Without her cup of tea—
Milk, two sugars.

Mimicking the grownups,
Three little girls sit in three little chairs,
Teddies perched on laps,
Around the low wooden table,
Sipping sweet milky tea from miniature cups.

Granny wreathed in
Roses and fat bumbling bees,
Labrador dozing in the shade.
Teapot resting under the knitted cosy
Beside a plate of warm shortbread.
Sugar lumps in the silver bowl.
Milk in first, one sugar.

Grandfather’s breakfast ritual:
Small gold teapot for one
And a half.
If you were lucky and early to the table
He’d save those soupy black dregs for your cup.
A fond gesture from a man at a loss for words.
Splash of milk, no sugar.

Banging in the door at four o’clock,
Schoolbags dumped,
Tongues hanging out
For McVitie’s and afternoon tea
Strong enough to trot a mouse across it,
As my aunt would say.
Dreaming in the firelight,
Staving off homework,
The pet rabbit munching on Gingernut biscuits,
Between the paws of the great yellow dog.

The interior hush of the car
After a rain-lashed buffeting down the beach.
Hot tea poured into tannin stained mugs.
A stew of dogs and tea and humans,
Steaming up the windows.
The wind keening and rocking,
Trying to get inside and share the family picnic.

Waking to dull yellow light filtering through the wall of the tent
And the hiss of the gas burner boiling the kettle.
The milk bottle resting in the dew of the morning grass.
Or the sip of wood-smoke from a fire blackened pot.

The taste of tea at once so familiar
Became strange and exotic
With the sharp bite of Greek lemons,
Or a handful of crushed mint and orange blossom
Sweetness swirled in small glass cups
In a Tangier souk.

Bewleys of Grafton Street,
Cathedral of stained glass windows and dark wood,
The place to take the pulse of Dublin
While sipping tea and eating gobfulls of sticky bun.
Thought too, the site of betrayal
Of my college coffee drinking years.

But the tonic effects
Could not be banished beyond the realms of coolness.
In the wee dawn hours,
After a late gig and too many pints,
Bleary-eyed under the buzzing strip lights of the all-night caf,
The table strewn with plates,
Fag butts put out in the runny remains of fried eggs,
Life saving pots of scalding tea to ward off the inevitable.

In my new homeland
That anemic thing dangling on a string
Was no substitute for the stuff that would
Put hair on your chest and fur on your tongue.

But old habits and all that—
If not the tea, then the age-old ritual
Of sipping and sharing
Passed on to my husband—black, two sugars.
My daughter’s first phrase—will you have a cup of tea?
Getting straight to the heart of the matter.

And now?
I sit in the green chair, cradling the yellow mug,
Warmth seeping into my palms,
Thinking and not thinking,
Each honeyed sip of green tea
Bringing flesh to my bones.
My own ritual.

Three thousand miles away my father
Shuffles from the bedroom
In the predawn hours,
His head a cushiony place
Familiar with rote patterns—
Set the kettle murmuring on the stove
Scald the battered aluminum pot,
Reach for the red and black caddy,
Pour the boiling water over the tea bags,
Shuffle back to bed
Carrying my mother’s first cup of the day
And his own—milk, one small sugar.

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EVERGREEN

DSCF0423When russet beech leaves coat the ground
And bark is bare in field and wood
An evergreen to tease the eye
As winter’s symbol should.

Sprig of holly at the door
To ward off lightning, poison, war
Druid staff, Witch’s brew
Sword forger’s friend
Dreamcatcher, too—
nine sharp leaves bound in cloth
with nine tight knots
will conjure truth,
according to the old belief.

Holly King rules his natural realm
And never far from his side
From summer’s height to winter’s chill
Fidelity, his ivy bride.

Sprig of ivy up the wall
Keeps home safe from beast and squall
Lover’s bind, Good luck plea
A poet’s crown
Fertility—
bridal wreath intertwined
carried by a blushing maid
will ensure a fruitful match,
according to the old belief.

Pagan totem, Christian sign
No matter what it cares to mean
The holly and the ivy’s gift—
The ever present, Evergreen.

Whatever holiday you celebrate, may you find moments of peace and joy.
Best wishes, Melissa
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LITTLE BLACK DOG

little black dog 1

I keep it on a tight leash
It’s inclined to be a pain
Gnawing on invisible fleas
Half the time
Turning in circles on itself
Looking, but not finding
That sweet spot on the rug
If I could kick it I would
Yell at it to “Heel!”
And do my bidding
But one minute it’s chasing fallen leaves
The other, barking at ghosts
Doesn’t it know
That all I want for it
Is to bound with joy
Forget itself
Run off down the road
And discover new horizons.

 

When I was in a bad mood, as a young child, my grandmother would make a joke out of the little black dog sitting on my shoulder. Drawing attention to the nasty creature that had taken over my personality was a sure way to banish it back to the dog house.

IRELAND AT THE OPENING AND CLOSING OF DAY

DSCF9888At this time of year in Ireland there’s a scant eight hours of daylight. The sun rolls lazily over the horizon at 8.30 am, and is already slipping away by 4.30 pm, leaving sixteen hours of darkness.

DSCF9917Of course the reverse is true in the summer with close to seventeen hours of daylight. On Midsummer’s night on June 21st, you can still be leaping the St. John’s Day bonfire in twilight at 11pm. But you’ll need to be up by 4am to milk the cows at dawn.

DSCF9900This is not surprising, given it’s latitude, (roughly 53˚North) which it shares with southern Alaska, Canada’s Hudson bay, and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. The Gulf Stream’s North Atlantic Drift, however, sweeps warm water up from the Gulf of Mexico, giving Ireland a much more temperate climate, thankfully.DSCF9881

No matter how grey and wet the day, at dusk, a little magic happens.DSCF9688

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IRISH THANKSGIVING

DSCF9559I step from one world into another
Like a bather setting my toe in the icy Atlantic on a June day.
It is a painful transition
And yet once the gut is sucked in with a sharp inhale of breath
My horizon shifts and it is palatable.

I step into the damp air of an Irish morning,
Tang of salt and mud off the Shannon estuary,
Strong whiff of cow manure. I know I’m home.

The navy suit and general greyness of the men at the passport desks is expected.
One takes my passport and in a soft Galway accent—
you would be forgiven for thinking the fella had a marble rolling around in his mouth
says to me, Ah you must be David and Sally’s daughter. Tell your parents I was asking for them.

I am at once comfortable with the scale of things:
Four steps to the luggage belt, a few more and you’re out the door
into the waving arms and hurrying faces and cries of delight.

I drive the Shannon to Galway road
Sun at my right elbow shuddering into existence over the horizon to the east.
I think of Dublin 200 kilometers away, my birthplace and rooting of my soul.
Haven’t been there in years,
And like the thought of meeting a childhood friend
it fills me with pangs of horror and awe—
how could you change so much, and not at all?

But back to the driving. In the stone-walled fields along the road
Sheep and cattle, already on the move,
search for the first dollop of creamy winter sunlight to caress them,
stroke the night’s chill out of their bones, and who can blame them.
The long November grass is bowed down with a rime of hoar frost.

Heading north, smoke rises from the odd chimney,
a few cars on the road this Sunday, off to early mass,
but mostly I’m on my own.
Sleeping towns left to the rooks and grey crows, scavenging on the verge.
A pair of swans fit for a ballet, necks kissing reflections on the surface of a lake.
Sheep, and more sheep,
And piebald, shaggy-hoofed horses in rough fields, more marsh than grass.
I have the radio tuned to the local requests show,
still playing the horrendous hits from my 80’s teenage years.
I am a traveler through a strange land of rebuilt memories.
Before my eyes the landscape, the smells, the sounds – that jackdaw-
Are a time lapse photograph.

A scene plays out—corner of my eye—a nativity:
under a bare beech tree the cow stands with her calf and attendants,
burnished like some godlike being, fit to be kneeled in front of.
The old abbey is draped in pearly morning fog,
awash with a light that would do Monet proud.
I remember why this is a fairytale land.

My parents are out on the gravel to greet me before I’ve gathered up my wits,
dogs barking like the half-witted maniacs they are.
We gush through the front door all bags and whisking tails and exclamations.
I step into the bright kitchen, moments of calm reign sipping tea
—ah the taste of a great lump of yellow butter sliding across a piece of toast—
and talking of the journey and the weather and the latest gossip.
My eyes follow the birds fluttering around the feeders,
At once alien and yet ordinary
The greenfinch, blue tit, bullfinch; still remember the names.
My father has the usual complaint,
Bloody magpies, always bullying the others.

My feet crunch the brittle grass and leave dark footprints
On the path to the lake.
I brush past brambles burred with frost,
dried seed heads, orbs of frozen dew, lit up like Christmas baubles by Herself.
Ducks explode out of the reeds with raucous quacking,
beating at the water in panic.
A flash of iridescent blue is the kingfisher
perched in the alder at the end of the pier for a second
before torpedoing on up the bay.

I draw in cold, moss scented air. Re-acquainting myself.

Tomorrow I’ll start the work of clearing out the attic—
blowing dust and dead flies off forty years of family stuff.
But until then, I’ll revel in the familiar, and give thanks.

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TAMING A ROBIN

European_Robin_Singing-1Ten, and half in love
With a boy in a book.
He had the gift
The gentle way to tame
A bird or timid creature.
Like him, I fancied I could
Win the confidence of a bird.

Common or garden,
The robin did me no favors
His curiosity, age-old
Had him poking his beak
In gardeners’ business
Long before my time.
Still, I flattered myself
He liked the lilt in my voice
And the soft whistle through half grown teeth.

With the patience of a heron
I stood unmoving
In blackberry scented air,
Hand outstretched with
Crumbs for a peace offering.

Cocking his head on one side

He hopped

            And hopped

                        Tossed aside a fallen leaf

            Pretending business

One beady black eye on me
All the while.
He came so close
I could see
The fluttering of his red breast—
And no closer.

He sought me out
The next day and the next.
Down at the beech tree
We grew quite chatty
The pair of us . . . never understanding a word the other said.
I wonder if he boasted
In the hedgerow
Of the strange human child
He’d managed to beguile
With his soft chirps and bright eyes.

HALLOWE’EN

DSCF1527Hallowe’en is the holiday that most reminds me of my Irish upbringing. I well remember trailing costumes, cobbled together from grown-up cast offs, down muddy country lanes, only seeing the puddles through the cardboard slits of our homemade masks when it was too late. And for all our effort we might get a handful of nuts, some windfall apples, or an orange. Mrs. Topping was the last stop, and if we were lucky she might have a few pennies or a chocolate bar for us to savor on the way home. Flickering light from bonfires and the smell of woodsmoke, intensified by the sharp frosty air, added to the mystery of the night. There was a always the possibility that something unearthly might grab you from behind before you made it home.DSCF8638

I’ve spent many an evening trick-or-treating with my kids in our hometown in New York’s Hudson valley—my daughter even has a Hallowe’en birthday. But none come close to capturing the spooky feelings of my childhood. The reason, I think, is simple. The tradition of Oiche Shamhna, or ‘the vigil of Saman,’ the Lord of Death, is so deep-rooted in Ireland that you can sense it palpably.

Throughout Ireland . . . lesser feast days pale in comparison with the culminating festival which marks the end of the dying year on All-Hallows Eve. An astonishing amount of lore still clings to Hallowe’en . . . The crops should now be all gathered in and no fruit should be picked after this date, for the púca, a supernatural being, is busy befouling unpicked fruit . . . we notice superstition acting as a stimulus towards the completion of routine tasks. The return of the livestock from their summer grazings, once accompanied by their herders, made the occasion one of family reunion, and this is a strong element in the present festival. But it was also a reunion with the ancestral spirits of the family: for Hallowe’en was preeminently a commemoration of the dead, a time when ghosts and fairies were unusually active, the whole of the world of the supernatural astir and the dead returned to their earthly homes. On that night the grass-grown homesteads—the fairy raths—were wide open and the fairies were on the move to winter quarters, surely a folk memory of a former transhumance. It used to be thought unlucky not to make preparations for the return of the dead by leaving the door of the house open, putting out tobacco and traditional dishes such as sowans—a kind of porridge—and setting seats around the fire. The games and amusements which alone survive have commonly degenerated into pranks and horseplay, but one can detect in them echoes of magical observances. The many divination customs may well have begun as rites to avert evil or to secure the benefits which they now pretend to forecast. Among the things involved in these games and divination customs are apples nuts, oatcakes, cabbages, a ball of yarn, articles made of straw and rushes, and herbs such as yarrow . . . The breaking of pots is one of the elements in Hallowe’en pranks—one might almost say rites—and again we notice the association with the dead, for All-Hallows is the time when the dead are believed to return to their homes.
                                                   Evans, E. Estyn, Irish Folk Ways, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. © 1957DSCF8684Colcannon is one of the foods traditionally eaten at Hallowe’en. Often a dish of this would be left out for visitors from the other world. This recipe comes from Theodora FitzGibbon’s A Taste of Ireland.DSCF8717

1lb each of kale or cabbage, and potatoes, cooked separately
2 small leeks or green onion tops
1 cup of milk or cream
4 oz. (½ cup) butter
salt, pepper, and a pinch of mace

Have the kale or cabbage cooked, warm and well chopped up while the potatoes are cooking. Chop up the leeks or onion tops, green as well as white, and simmer them in milk or cream to just cover, until they are soft. Drain the potatoes, season and beat them well: then add the cooked leeks and milk.
Finally blend in the kale, beating until it is a pale green fluff. Do this over a low flame and pile it into a deep warmed dish. Make a well in the centre and pour in enough melted butter to fill up the cavity. The vegetables can be served with the melted butter. Any leftovers can be friend in hot bacon fat until crisp and brown on both sides.

If all that butter and cream weren’t fun enough—
A plain gold ring, a sixpence, a thimble, or a button are often put into the mixture. The ring means you will be married within a year; the sixpence denotes wealth, the thimble a spinster and the button a bachelor, to whoever gets them. DSCF1610