The Sea

I first read John Banville’s extraordinary tale, The Book of Evidence, based on a real-life murderer staying as a guest at the Irish Attorney General’s residence while on the run,

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back in the late eighties. Banville’s insightful recount of the “grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented*” set of circumstances which arose in Dublin in the early eighties was fascinating.

Funny how things change, along with latitudes, and Banville, like other authors I read back then, became forgotten, discarded and in competition with an increasing variety of TV shows, movies and the advent of video recorders and that was before VCD or DVD and Blue Ray!

Anyway, jump forward to now.

The Sea by John Banville caught my eye recently. Seen through the haunted eyes of the narrator, Max, an art historian, who returns to the seaside village where so many disturbing events one childhood summer took place.

Bereft of his recently deceased wife, Anna, Max seeks to come to terms both with his bereavement and the events that have haunted him since that summer so many years ago.

The early mention of the strange tide at the seaside village and Max’s odd assertion that he would not swim again combined with the novel’s bleached out seascape cover hooked me. My childhood summers too were spent down at the seaside so the title resonated with me too!

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Anyway, Max switches, ably assisted by booze, from recent episodic memories of the surgeon’s almost unseemly haste in washing his hands of the death of his wife, Anna (“At that, as if released Mr. Todd gave his knees a quick smack with two flat palms and jumped to his feet and fairly bustled us to the door”) to other, less well understood images from a traumatic childhood summer when the insouciant and feckless Grace family arrived for the summer holidays at the small seaside village.

The first thing I saw of them was their motor car parked on the gravel inside the gate. It was a low-slung, scarred and battered model with beige leather seats and a big spoked polished wood steering wheel … on the shelf under the sportily raked back window … was a touring map of France, much used. …the girl’s voice coming down from on high, the running footsteps and the man here below with the blue eyes giving me that wink, jaunty, intimate and faintly satanic.”

Mingled with scenes from his current stay at the Cedars – the cottage where he has retreated since his wife’s death.

“There goes the Colonel, creeping back to his room That was a long session in the lav. Strangury, nice word. Mine is the one bedroom in the house which is, as Miss Vavasour puts it with a demure little moue, en suite.”

Staying now at the same guesthouse which the wealthy Graces had rented that summer, Max drifts in and out of the past and present, interspersing his memories of the twins, the withdrawn Milo and the petulant Chloe, their lush mother, Connie Grace, jovial Carlo her husband and the outsider Rose, with the newly discovered trivia of his life at Miss Vavasour’s guesthouse where he is the only other guest along with the Colonel.

“Miss Vavasour is downstairs playing the piano. She maintains a delicate touch on the keys, trying not to be heard. She worries that she will disturb me, engaged as I am up here in my immense and unimaginably important labours.”

Unfamiliar with their world, Max attributed godlike stature to the Grace family but it was with the voluptuous Mrs. Grace that attracted the young Max.

“Was that a complicit smile? With a heaving sigh, she turned and lay down supine on the bank with her head leaning back on the grass and flexed one leg so that suddenly I was allowed to see under her skirt along the inner side of her thigh all the way up to the hollow of her lap and the plump mound there sheathed in tensed white cotton.”

Slowly, the three threads of Max’s memories coalesce and mysteries, cunningly concealed throughout the novel, are revealed and minor characters assume major proportions while the erstwhile understandings are now shown to have been misunderstandings.

Gracefully the strands, of seemingly unconnected events from the triad of introspective settings that Max relives, are woven into a stunning denouement whereby all is made clear from what had been only partially hinted at and mistakenly understood before.

Fantastic, a great read.

 

*          Attributed to Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien with reference to Charlie Haughey’s government during that period.

An Irish Childhood

I grew up during the mid fifties, sixties and seventies in an Irish family of six people on the outskirts of Dublin where the weekly menu followed a regularity which didn’t dull. Meals – breakfast, lunch and tea – were simple, quick, filling and always eaten!

Breakfast was invariable – bread, butter and Chivers orange marmalade, Kelloggs Cornflakes and lashings of tea, strong enough so that the spoon could stand up in it, as my father used to say. No tea bags for him – the sweepings off the factory floor, he used to refer to them disparagingly – but rich, dark Lyon’s breakfast tea. Sunday broke the monotony because that was when my father would cook breakfast for my mother, my brother and two sisters. That in itself was another invariable ritual. Good Galtee back rashers, Hafner’s homemade pork sausages, two eggs fried in the sizzling bacon fat, sliced black and white puddings and half a fried tomato, each plate kept hot in the oven while the final touch was prepared – a thick “doorstep” a slice of high loaf, fried in the remaining fat in the pan and liberally sprinkled with Lea and Perrin’s Worceshestshire Sauce. Not too healthy a breakfast, perhaps but it was only once a week.

Lunch was the big meal of my day. I’d come home from school by 12:50 to always find my mother in her tiny, cramped scullery (she always referred to it as the “kitchenette”) cooking our midday meal which I would wolf down before rushing out the back door to catch the 1:40 bus back to school.

Monday lunch was another fry, supplemented with baked beans but without the fried bread. Looking back now, I suppose it was just to use up whatever my father hadn’t cooked for Sunday breakfast. Tuesday was par-boiled sausages rolled up in mashed potato with butter and milk, lightly dusted with flour and then baked in a hot oven and served with fresh green peas from the garden, seasons permitting. Wednesday was steak and kidney pie, with a sopping crust of baked pastry supported in the middle of the casserole dish with a curious little Pyrex glass dome, which I have never seen since.

Thursday was lightly boiled eggs, chopped up and stirred into creamy mashed potatoes, garnished with parsley and served with a thick slab of calves liver, fried onions with baked beans on the side.  Friday was always the same because that was when Granny came for lunch and tea. Friday also meant fish and chips, but certainly not take-away ones. I’d peel the spuds on a Thursday night and leave them soaking in a large pot of cold water and then sometime on Friday morning, my mother would labouriously chip them by hand and cook them in hot lard, while at the same time the fish fillets would be dunked in home-made batter and then deep fried in the same chip lard, the whole lot served with the ubiquitous green peas from the garden.

Saturday was the only day my father was home for lunch and he’d insist on a real stew because, he claimed, he couldn’t get anything like that from the canteen in the maternity hospital where he worked. A real stew was one with a thick, dark gravy that could be sopped up with thick hunks of buttered home-made soda-bread.  Sunday was different in that, because we had had a late breakfast before tramping off as a family to 11:30 mass in the local town, we had no lunch. Back home at about 1:00 PM, my mother would sit at the kitchen table, a Silk Cut cigarette in the corner of her mouth, smoke wisping up into her eyes as she read the Sunday paper, a cup of instant coffee at her elbow. We’d all join her at the kitchen table and share a packet of Cadbury’s Half-covered chocolate goldgrain biscuits. I remember there were thirteen in a pack and five of us so we were all guaranteed getting at least two biscuits each. My mother might forgo her third biscuit which always presented the awkward situation of having three biscuits left over to share among four children, of whom I was the youngest.

The “cut” was usually the solution, as it was for the impartial divvying up of most tasks in our household. A book would be produced and each person would take turns, holding the book spine away from them and opening a page at random. The first letter on the top left hand corner block of print, headings and titles not included, was the key. The three “cutters” getting a letter nearest to A would then get the extra biscuit while, obviously, the unfortunate getting the letter furthest from A would not. This system, introduced by my father, was used for deciding who would wash the dishes, peel the nightly potatoes for the following day and for all the other mundane tasks that made up my Irish childhood.

Our evening meal, or tea, was just that. Identical to breakfast, only this time we had red jam, home-made loganberry, or gooseberry jam from the garden, more homemade soda bread, or as a change, crusty “Vienna Roll” from the shop up the road. Rarely did we have shop cakes, my mother turning out hot, buttered scones, jazzed up sometimes with the addition of raisins or some candied fruit and on Fridays, because granny was there, we always had homemade apple pie with a few cloves sprinkled through the chunky slices of green cooking apples, the shortcut pastry glazed with coarse brown sugar. Granny would always bring a Bewley’s Barn Brack with her, a rich, dark fruity cake on which the currants on top had always been burnt, giving a bitter, acrid undertaste to the brack’s sweetness.

Occasionally, perhaps for some adult celebratory reason, which I never though to ask about, my father would come home with a cake box, again from Bewleys’ Oriental Cafe in Westmoreland Street in Dublin, with individual Mary cakes. The mere thought of these delicious, gooey, chocolaty cakes on a hard biscuity base, capped with a shell of green marzipan with a drizzled chocolate M on the top is enough to bring back urgent memories of having to wolf down at least two slices of boring bread and butter and jam (in comparison to the anticipated sweetness) and gulp down hot, sweet tea before being allowed to have one’s reward.

Later, my father’s horizons expanded and he developed a taste for liver pate which he would bring home in a transparent tube as thick as my forearm, and which he would spread a inch thick layer of on top of his quarter inch of butter. Similarly, jellied eels were introduced, oily herring rollmops, stinky blue cheese that my mother insisted that he keep in the tool shed out in the garden. Summer time might produce smoked mackerel or punnets of strawberries, always accompanied by thick cream, but in the main, tea was just that – bread and butter, jam and hot tea with milk and sugar.

Sunday tea of course was different. We always had it around 5:30 or so in the evening and it was the most sumptuous meal of the week. Roast chicken, stuffed with chopped apples, walnuts, raisins, and bread crumbs, roast potatoes, giblet gravy, firm Brussel sprouts and sliced carrots, or perhaps Roast shoulder of pork, my mother’s favourite, homemade apple sauce, roast potatoes again, long green french beans with blanched, slivered almonds, carrots cooked in honey, butter and brown sugar. There was always a dessert to follow – stewed rhubarb with custard, sweet gooseberry fool with cream, semolina with a spoonful of loganberry jam swirled through it or sweet rice pudding with nuts and raisins stirred thought it.

Looking back, I never missed – nor even knew enough to notice their absence -such things as pasta or rice or the commonplaces that now abound worldwide. I was 18 and in Italy before I tasted my first ever pizza in the Trastevere in Rome and 22 in New York before I had a cheeseburger. I never knew of the delights of capsicum – indeed had never seen one until that eventful summer of 1971 when I first went to Europe – nor the bite of chilli or the freshness of ginger, the essentialness of garlic, the texture of beans and pulses, the succulence of seafood, the satisfaction of rice and noodles, the richness of aubergines, the meatiness of field mushrooms, the complexities of sauces and spices and fresh herbs…. Oh I could go on forever in a glorification of all the foods I have tasted and savoured and look forward to so much.

Looking back now, I wonder if my father’s eclectic and sporadic palate led me in search of new tastes or if necessity – that great mother – set me on the culinary path I have enjoyed so much all my life. Whatever it was, the career I chose brought me into contact with people and cultures, their food and tastes that was more than a quantum leap from the simple fare that I had grown up with and been accustomed to.

 

The Táin and the Manuscripts

cropped-img_0322_edited1.jpgAn Tána – or in English, the Táin – is the Old Irish word for a raid or a foray, usually involving attacking a neighbour and carrying off slaves and cattle and whatever else was available, although most wealth in those days involved cattle. The most famous examples are the Táin Bó Fraoch or the Cattle Raid of Fraoch and the Táin Bó Cúailnge, or the Cattle Raid of Cooley (an area in the north east of Ireland).

The latter is the central tale in the manuscripts dealing with what is known as the Ulster Cycle comprising almost eighty tales of heroes. Unfortunately, most of early Irish literature has been lost. Originally, tales were passed down in a strictly oral tradition until the advent of Christianity in the mid fifth century. The mythological and heroic tales were then recorded by scribes in the early monasteries and centres of Christian learning and it is not surprising that they overlaid the pagan tales with Christian overtones. The manuscripts that survive show clear linguistic signs of having been copied from earlier manuscripts, now lost, having been destroyed between the eight and eleventh centuries during the incessant Viking raids of that period. Much of what was saved was then, in turn, destroyed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the organised policy of the English Penal Laws in a deliberate attempt to destroy Irish culture.

The oldest of the surviving manuscripts is the Book of the Dun Cow, or Leabhar na hUidre, an 11th century manuscript written in the monastery at Clonmacnoise, now preserved in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. Unfortunately, the MS contains a rather jumbled version of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, which is augumented by another jumbled account in The Yellow Book of Lecan, a 14th century manuscript now held at Trinity College Dublin.

The origins of the Táin are much older than the surviving manuscripts. The language of the earliest versions of the tales have been dated to the 8th century while some of the verse elements are possibly two centuries earlier. Most Celtic scholars now believe that the tales of the Ulster or Heroic cycle must have had a long oral existence before they were given a Christian overhaul bu monastic scribes.

Free!

cropped-bookcase.jpgI just want to let everyone know that my book Raiding Cúailnge will be published on Wednesday 20 April 2016 as a multi-format ebook. As many of you may know, the book is an historical / fiction novel based on Old Irish manuscripts. I hope you’ll take time to take a look at

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where you can download the book for free with this coupon YR29P which is valid for one month, when you go to the check-out.

Could you also take a moment to spread the word about my book to everyone you know?

Thank you so much for your support!

Cheerio

Stephen

PS Of course besides being available (free) on Smashwords.com, my book is also available on

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Celtic Trivia – Who and When

cropped-img_0322_edited1.jpgCeltic Trivia  – when & who

Here’s a snippet of info about the Celtic Way of Life. I suppose I had better clarify what I mean by Celtic or rather when and who I refer to.

Late Bronze Age C1300 – 800 BCE (before the current era)
Iron Age 800 – 600 BCE (Hallstatt Iron Age C)
Late Iron Age 600 – 475 BCE (Halstatt iron Age D)

Now I am certainly not an expert or even particularly knowedable about much of these periods but, because of the novel I was writing, Raiding Cúailnge, I found my self adapting background details for my setting of the North East of Ireland circa 400 BCE and while much of the information and backropund information I collected was to do with the widely varying tribes of Celtic people roaming Europe, my tale is firmly set in Ireland during what is known among the manuscripts as the Ulster Cycle, which describe some episodes from the life of my main character, Setanta, aka Cú Chulainn.

Anyway, these are the original documents on which all the known translations  are based.

None of the manuscripts contain a complete account of the period so I hope my stitching together of events in my novel will be acceptable, even to the purists.

The Book of the Dun Cow Written in the 11th century. Thought to have been based on texts from the 9th century which in turn were based on texts from 7th century (texts no long extant)
The Yellow Book of Lecan Circa 14th century. Ditto re earlier texts
The Book of Lenister Late 12th century

That’s probably enough for now.