Tuesday 17 May 2011

Ethel never sat on the fence!

(A quick aside to say how much I love working with my computer. In the old days, finding the piece below would have meant hours sifting through hundreds of columns and features. Instead, just by typing the letters ‘kingf’ of the word ‘kingfisher’ into the drop-down spotlight gizmo on the top of my Mac’s screen, I’m immediately given access to Diary of a Blow-in #8, a column I wrote for the Irish Examiner during the years I lived  in stunning north Co. Mayo, near the splendid village of Killala.)

In the midst of life we are in death, and I’m loath to apologise for all the obituaries appearing in this colyoom recently, because believe me, I’d rather not be writing them. However, on the same day that Merlin died, an old friend of mine passed away in Castlebar hospital.

Ethel was loved by many, and universally revered, respected and admired. Her fierce wit and long-lodged opinions presented a very firm fence, which you were either her side of or the other. For reasons I’ll never fully understand, yet always appreciate, she took to me when I lived in Killala, and we formed a cross-generational friendship that I suspect gave us both much pleasure.

Ethel’s sister in Cork sent her copies of my Diary of a Blow-In columns, which Ethel read and then tested me on.

“How have you seen the Brent Geese yet? I didn’t think that they’d be around yet, but you said in the paper that you’d seen them. When did you see them? I see the beach from the field every day when I visit my cows, and I have not yet seen them.”

Throughout the entire area her prowess as a cook was unquestioned. Ethel’s cakes and jams were legendary, as was her love for the man she ironically referred to as ‘His Lordship’.

I remember my inevitably unexpected visits to her house so clearly: met with fussing and great hospitality, the living room toasty warm, huge pots boiling on the range, her late husband Jack sat in his chair by the stove, with Ethel up on the blanketed and cushioned shelf she called her ‘nest’; all was well with the world.

Then Ethel would put a glass filled with whiskey and a mountain of thickly-sliced fruit cake in front of me. I knew that neither drink-driving laws nor my desire to fit into my clothes would prove useful as excuses for not eating and drinking the lot. Ethel did not have to behave like Father Ted’s Mrs. Doyle, with all that “You will you will you will!” blather.

Ethel was not one to blather. Not a chance. Ethel just put the drink and food in front of you and told you to eat and drink it, and you did. She was one who must be obeyed.

Possibly it was my confidence in her presence that attracted her, or maybe merely that I wrote about the rural world that she loved, but I was happy to have her as a friend. My thoughts and love now go to her close family and all the people of Ross.

I didn’t know Ethel well, but I liked well what I knew, and also knew that I was honoured to be on the right side of her fence.

Here’s the kingfisher piece, wherein I first meet Ethel, which appeared in the Irish Examiner, May, 2001.

Diary of a Blow-In #8

I have now enjoyed half of the journey through a year's seasons up here in north Mayo, and it really feels like my place now. As if to prove it, I have a garden that's grown out of control.
The September sunshine was kind to my nasturtiums, which have spread over every spare spot of earth, climbing up the back hedge, and tumbling over the raised stone bed, cutting long straight orange blades across the green grass.

The end of my first summer brings a small but pleasing harvest. The wee herb garden I built has proved a major success, and now I cut and dry the copious growth of rosemary, oregano, mint, chives and thyme, before they whither in the early frosts. Flowers from my home-grown lavender are snipped and stored in a jar that smells somewhere between dizzy and divine.

It took me only an hour to spot the arrival of the ram in the field opposite my house, but I'll bet it didn't take the ewes that long! He has a white face, and a brown fleece - well, it's beige really, but that sounds so terribly urban, dwarling! - and the only other white-faced sheep in there is the aptly-named Bianca.

Romeo Ram systematically walks the white-fenced edge of the field, like a rampant lad in a nightclub easing his way along the red carpet, hugging the brass rail. Sheep are more direct than humans, so Romeo simply tries to stick his schnozz up each ewe's rear end. The gals cop on to this ruse pretty quickly, moving away before Romeo even gets close to a genital whiff.

But all of a sudden he strikes lucky. A big old ewe raises herself to her feet, slowly and deliberately walking backwards onto Romeo's nose. There she lingers for a while, before wiggling her Sunday Dinners off to a bucket of feed.

I recognise this behaviour as the ovine equivalent of Isabella Rosellini singing Blue Velvet. This is sheep-talk for Lauren Bacall telling Steve he knows how to whistle.  Just more honest. And more effective.

My plan was always to arrive in the area with a mild plop, rather than a loud bang, and it is paying off. I have seen what happens when others elsewhere have tried to make a quick and big impression on new neighbours. It was always my wish that the locals would come to me, rather than the other way around, and gradually it is happening.

Landlords in pubs are starting to call me by name, and the other day, I was visited by a charming mother and daughter-in-law team. Much to my delight, they came bearing jars of home-made gooseberry and blackcurrant jam, and rather less welcome, they also brought a dead kingfisher, which the elder of the two emptied from a plastic bag onto my outstretched hand.

She told me that she had read of my birdie adventures in this column, and was eager to show me a beautiful bird that we had living in our local environment. I agreed that indeed, when alive, the tiny kingfisher is a glorious sight, but pointed out that it does lose a certain charm after it's been wrapped in a plastic bag, a good few days after a cat killed it. I had to ask:

“Please tell me you’re leaving the jam and taking the bird away?”

I enjoyed their short but pleasant visit, which culminated in my accepting their kind invitation to a party. Unbeknownst to me, the celebration turns out to be a Silver Wedding Anniversary, and the warm friendly house is packed to the gunwales with crowds of friends and relations. There is an enormous effort made to make me feel welcome, which I do as soon as I enter, but I become nervous when I am introduced to a silenced kitchen of revellers thus:

 “This is Charlie - he's a writer, and he'll be putting all this down in the paper!”

From that moment on, I feel conscious of my every movement, and end up drinking far too much beer, and boring the bejazus out of a family visiting from Yorkshire.

As the party develops, a great banquet reveals itself. There is a large table laden with massive congratulatory cakes, cooked chickens, salads and burgers, while out in the yard, there are two barbecues grilling fresh mackerel and salmon. Everywhere I am greeted by smiling, kindly faces, and although still very much an outsider, I taste for the first time the 'joie de vivre' enjoyed by my local community.

It was an honour to be invited to such a special occasion, and an absolute pleasure to feel included.

The October sky brings rainbows back to the west of Ireland, along with an incandescent tangerine glow to the early evening sky that brings a glow to my heart. The air carries the sodden smell of decay, softened by the sweet scent of turf smoke, while the low sun shines brighter, the wind blowing ever colder.

As the nights close in on these burned-out ends of smoky days, there is no better place to be than warm and cosy in the Irish countryside.

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