Saturday, 31 August 2013


The clans are gathering. Friends and family slowly amassing. There's a strange feeling about how this works because we are not on home territory, but camping out in a strange house in a strange landscape. I have a sense of the various ports and airports - their direction and distance, and I imagine each party arriving in those quarters, and starting to make their way over the green land. Some made it to our house last night, and these of course were old friends - people who have known our son since before he was born, so although we were all in a strange place, and there were all the formalities to be completed - checking in, mostly - there was an extra quality to their arrival. 'Hallo!!!!!' and hugs or handshakes, and smiles, and picking up the threads of the conversation which may have been let drop months or even years ago….  And all this is for a party. I imagine it must have been like this for the armies before the campaigns over many centuries - finding old friends, testing out who's with you and maybe who's going to let you down.  I am surprised by the turn my thoughts have taken here. No sense of war at all. Just a big crowd gathering for a wedding.

We bogged about a bit yesterday morning,  The bride-to-be, along with her mother and me, went for some pampering at the spa.  It was delightful to listen to Anita from Hungary - fluent in English but with a powerful Irish/Hungarian accent as she did my nails.  It turns out we have a common acquaintance - Father Liam! Back at the ranch we gathered a gang of 9 to go for lunch at Cashel. We headed for the Bishops Palace Hotel, which had been one of the possible venues, and there we showed Granny round the elegant entrance hall and drawing room, admired the fabulous 18thC furniture and staircase, and took her down in the lift to the Buttery Bar restaurant. There we met up with Margaret the waitress who looked after us last time, and had a splendid lunch - variously choosing chowder, black-pudding salad, hake and chips and cabbage and bacon.  We left Granny to sit quietly in the hall and went out into the garden - picking mulberries from the splendid sprawling trees which had been planted in honour of Queen Anne nearly 300 years ago, and then made our way up the path to the castle and abbey on top of the rock.  It's windy up there…  I think Mervyn Peake must have seen it because it's a kind of Ghormengast in miniature - a great tooth of limestone rearing up from the flattish lands, topped with great extravagances of towers, turrets, machiolations, conical and steeply sloping roofs, arrow-slits, sheer drops, all in grey stone, with the town sprawling around the base.  Inside, some small courtyards and massive ruins, scaffolding for repairs, and a small range of rooms furnished with solid practical oak tables and coffers in the style of the 16th or 17th century. There are chapels and corbels and barrel-vaulted roofs, and angels and wall-paintings and vanished music, and a panel showing the Queen's visit last year - when she wore a brilliant and very diplomatic green coat.

Then we hurtled round Tesco (sigh) stocking up for a supper tonight, for all these friends arriving - risotto was the plan.  We collected up all our party from the Palace and went back.  We were driving behind a convoy of three tractors loaded with huge straw bales - the first of these had its load wrapped in black plastic and was going very slowly indeed.  After a few miles, the second tractor driver decided it was too slow even for him, so he boldly overtook the first. Straw particles streamed out behind him as he scratched past the overhanging trees.  Eventually the plastic-covered load turned off and the great stream of traffic of which we were just a part surely heaved a collective sigh of relief as we assumed the speed of the 2 other tractors. But, more trouble - a bus was advancing towards us and the whole caboodle came to a halt on a narrow part of road as the front tractor and the bus had to measure their way forward. From our position 4 or 5 cars back it seemed there was plenty of room, as the drivers were walking quite comfortably between them (maybe sucking air in through their teeth), but it took a good while to reach a decision that one or other of them could move in safety.  Irish country lanes!

As guests we can use the swimming pool and other facilities - and how calming and soothing that is. No diving allowed - the pool is no more than 1.3m deep but how warm and spacious. There is a steam room, a sauna, a jacuzzi, and a stern requirement to wear a swimming cap.  This makes the men in particular look very purposeful….

Gillie and James were i/c of making the risotto - not so easy when you're in a poorly-equipped kitchen and the plan is to feed 20 - but they did a magnificent job. It was delicious, and one-by-one the groups of friends arrived.  There was texting and telephoning, and Andrew had to deliver THE DRESS and Lulu over to the bride's house at Thurles 20 miles away and bring back more stuff for today's party…. But in the end the evening went splendidly. Baby Maddox loved the singing. Young and old came to eat and drink - about 25 in the end.  'Hallo!' 'Hallo!' There were bouts of washing-up to have enough plates. The sky gradually darkened and stars could be seen…. It was all quiet by 11.30.  

Today's the day!

Friday, 30 August 2013

Nostalgia.... memories, school dinners, old photos

After the long hours of the last two days, we've had a quieter time today - late breakfast with Tasha, Lulu and Matt, getting some ironing done, looking over childhood photos of David (and Lulu) to be embarrassingly or cutely displayed at the party on Saturday.

I wanted to append a couple of thoughts…. Why it is that so much of the place looks French, for instance. One reason is the scattering of tiny little 'model' farms which are very like the ones you see all over France, with a small farmhouse set back from the road, flanked by two sturdy buildings which stretch forward on either side, creating a neat courtyard. This seems to reach back to Napoleonic or even Roman design - the same practical arrangement created and recreated wherever you go.  We see very small versions of this layout all along, many if not most abandoned or in poor repair.

Another thought. Why is that while we are experiencing being in one particular place, with its own characteristics and details, we are constantly driven to compare it with some other place? "This reminds me of - France/Northumberland/England…" We do it with people too. Doesn't he look like x? No, I thought he looks like y.

We had a brief misting of almost-rain this morning, but set off determined not to do too much driving. Tasha suggested we go to see a ruined abbey - at Athasell and by golly we found it (tourist roadsigns are excellent). The old abbey was  colossal, stupendous. Makes Tintern look cramped.  We climbed over a neat stone stile, across a liitle field and then over a gorgeous old 4-arch bridge now spanning a muddy gully but once (presumably) a real river. The bridge had no walls. Then through various portals, courtyards and ruins, with violent changes of door arch, height, wall-thickness, level and design all evident in the stonework, and all higgledy-piggledy. What a story these stones could tell. Parts of the structure rear up - 3, 4, 5 storeys tall. There are blocked up arches, new supports, vaults, even a pair of silent medieval larger-than-life statues in prayer emerging from a wall, and some modern graves in old the nave, the chancel, the centre of the cloister.  I have never heard of this place, and it is astonishing. There are no interpretation boards.  What was the business of the abbey - we couldn't see signs of (say) a water-mill. Whatever they did they must have been very rich at various times because of the great range and spread of buildings.

Then we headed to Tipperary itself. The tiny lanes are very quiet and wiggly, but at this time of year they are the natural pathways of huge tractors loaded with massive bits of gear folded in, so they look like some kind of massive insect in a stage of transformation.  These creatures are frequently driven by very young men.

To the south lies the range of the Gaity Mountains which looked fabulous - velvety-purple, swooping down in a gentle curve to the  Aherlow river - itself a branch of the River Suir whose name offers endless possibilities for bad jokes.

Tipp seemed to us a less merry place than Nenagh but very business-like and we found lunch (genuine Irish cooking) in a place which seemed ridiculously French in décor. Only when we left did we realise it was called the Shamrog Bistro. The service was initially dour, the food was hearty and nostalgic as regards the cabbage (chopped fine and cooked to a brownish pulp), but the lamb's liver was tender and delicious, the beef casserole sweet (all our beef is Irish), and the chips and creamed potatoes were sweet and memorable. Two of our number chose pudding: apple crumble with custard for one, and jelly and ice-cream for the other. Nostalgia? School dinners.

Shopping (I am ashamed to say) was back in one of Lord Tesco's accouterments). Lulu couldn't face it.  We'd be feeding a large part of clan Mussett at our house so we chose a menu of mushroom stroganoff and what not….  All accomplished v easily. 

Texts still flying back and forth about arrivals, arrangements.

Home - to unpack, walk about, meet up with new arrivals.   We changed the booking for the second s/c house to be a 3-bed one, so the Hills with their three kids could come over - Tasha showing them in after they'd called on us to say hallo.

The afternoon was warm enough, and light.  It was a blessing not to be driving around…  Andrew started making the supper, I was steam-pressing my outfit. Gradually people gathered - by seven o'clock we had the wine-boxes open and the party began.  Everyone was looking through David's childhood - the masses of pictures I brought with us from the days of prints… Here he is new-born, here in the arms of my mother, then his other granny and his aunt Gillie, then being pushed in a pram, feeding the ducks,  here in his daddy's arms looking alarmed at the sound of a steam-train at Tenterden, here half-naked having fallen into the duckpond at Worth Matravers, here crashed out on the back seat of the car, here eating ice-cream, here on a horse for the first time, here looking divinely glamorous in France, here in school uniform for his first day at the Chaucer…  Everyone is delighted with the photos. It's all so long ago. The photos bring a whole different world back to life, just for a moment or two.

Gillie and James brought Granny Rye to the hotel so Andrew and Lulu whizzed down there with her cases to install her in her room, and came back  saying she was pleased to have her toast and pate in her room and crash out. 

We sang Dubliners songs over supper, ate and drank liberally, and then split up for the evening - the young heading to another music evening in a pub/farmhouse, while some of us oldies stayed around the hotel at their Irish night. A roomful of even older people, sedately and expertly dancing to ceilidh music - they knew all the steps, needed no caller.  It was brightly lit, charming, friendly, another trip back in time. Gillie and James took to the floor, glowing with love and happiness. My brother in his white suit took photos and flashed his smile at everyone.  Eventually I left them to it and came home and went to sleep in about 4 seconds.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

The Emerald Isle

August is perhaps the one month in the year when you might not get drenched in the south of Ireland. In fact, we keep seeing people suntanned to the point of being bronzed. Men are - no! - surely not! - wearing SHORTS!  Children, some quite fat, are out on their own riding bikes… they've been spending a bit of time practicing doing that.  The skies occasionally clear to a marvellous, high, shining emptiness, filling the land with radiant glory and sharp outlines. In the towns, cafés have outside seating which looks more or less plausible as a place to stop and while away a few quarter hours.

Today we had a naughty breakfast - scrambled eggs on toast. All the ingredients were brought from Kent, but hey, never mind. This is Ireland. We've booked ourselves a self-catering house in the grounds of Dundrum House Hotel in Tipperary - and we're making the most of it. The house is new, huge in comparison to most new houses in England.  We arrived about 9.30 last night, dead tired. Unloaded most of our kit, padded about a bit, sorted some stuff out, eventually crashed out.

This morning, after our delicious breakfast, we went into the main hotel in search of wifi, and a short list of other items: more coat-hangers, some bedroom chairs, tablets for the dishwasher, light-bulbs for some of the table lamps, a salad bowl, a fruit bowl, loo-brushes for 2 of the 4 bogs….    The hotel staff were fantastically accommodating and helpful. In this downturn, they are really keen to encourage their customers and look after them. We had coffee in an upper lobby, looking out over part of the golf course and some fields, with black cattle grazing. A big old oak guards the carpark.

After we'd installed our top-up booty, we headed off to Nenagh (Nee-nah) to pick up €200-worth of cheeses for the wedding party on Saturday.  Our drive was along small, almost-English-looking country lanes which nonetheless have a French look to them….  Each house is firmly and cleanly placed on a dry, stone or concrete-based footing, and with plenty of space all around it.  Some are adorned with flowers like Hawaiian brides. Some are as stark and bare as prison cell blocks. The fields are small, hedged, loved. The roads have familiar (English) beds and twists. Every now and then a castle rears up, pure Norman, mostly ruined. 

Nenagh has the benefit of being a county town - Tipperary having a N and S Riding - and this is in the north, and it's bustling and fun. Lots of spacious shops, lots of choice. Almost as if the downturn has not happened. We collected cheese for the wedding from an ebullient delicatessen-owner, learned from him how to construct a cheese tower using wine glasses to hold the cheeses up, promised to look after his splendid mirrored Victorian cheese-stand which he was lending for the party, did some errands including buying a couple of maps, and went up to see the newly restored and opened castle. This is, frankly, perfect. A single cylindrical tower dating from Norman times with subsequent losses and additions, its been done up by the Ministry of Public Works to an exemplary standard and has free entry and not one but two lovely men guarding it and handing out free postcards. Up the spiral staircases, tighter and tighter, out to the roof, see the distant views…. We learned that one disgruntled farmer, 200 years ago, tried to blow the whole thing up because it housed too many sparrows which ate his crops. He only succeeded in blowing a crumbly hole at the base… that is now the duck-your-head doorway into what would have been a very dark donjon or store. Every child should be brought here.  If I could take this castle  home, I would.  

Then we idled along the shores and slopes of Lough Derg (which allows the River Shannon to leak out at its southern end)… beauteous distant views, little farms, green woods and fields, hovels and millionaire houses tucked in here and there, and smart motor boats in tiny private harbours when you get down to the water's edge.  You could film Swallows and Amazons here.  A German lorry had parked up on the viewpoint carpark to get his tacho-sleep. 

Then we motored on through more winding lanes to Ballina (pron. Bally-nah) further down the river, and queued at the complicated traffic lights to cross the narrow ancient bridge (15? stone arches) to Killaloe on the other side. More walking about - how pretty everything is. Again, it's really very French in feeling…   The river is immediately deep but sparkling clear with reeds and fish dancing about underneath. There's a side-canal - remains of an old mill, maybe, with a separate iron bridge leading up towards Killaloe church. We called into a shop to buy some coffee and came out with a pack of cheap coathangers and some cotton-wool - this place had 25 million items on sale and the proprietor's profile was utterly geological with golden pince-nez perched on the front. However, there's no disguising the recession in Killaloe - so many empty shops. Those that are still trading in so many of these little towns tend to be hippy - Ayervedic treatments, craft supplies, shambolic cafés, art which is difficult to imagine being bought,.  But, it turned out that Killaloe has a great treasure - the church is actually a cathedral, and ancient, partly and unashamedly made up from bits of lots of other churches over the centuries. It is a huge plain nave of varying roof construction, divided by a wonderful glazed screen half-way along, and with the wooden roof at the chancel end held up by a series of strappy corbels, one of which depicts six kilted folk hugging each other, and another supported by a horse!  My diligent readers will know that for me, to find a horse depicted in an ancient church is extraordinary. Apart from Minster Abbey on the Isle of Sheppey, this is the only example I have ever seen.  This did not look particularly pagan or powerful, more like a pack-pony plodding along, but still…….  The acoustics in the west end of the nave are fantastic - with an echo-decay of about ten seconds!

Beside the church is an ancient oratory, dedicated like its neighbour to St Flannan, and now stripped out to reveal a lovely barrel vault roof, with some chunks of stonework stored in what look like French peasant rabbit hutches.

We turned east then,  back to Dundrum - marvelling at the beauty of the land. There was a lot of texting going on, trying to co-ordinate the whereabouts and rendezvous of other parties - eventually we were back at our house, David and Jo arrived for supper (salad niçoise and then summer pudding), and (after another while) Lulu and Matt and Tasha arrived. We installed them in their rooms, and eventually about 10.30 (VERY late for us to be going out!) we 5 set off to follow D&J who had gone to meet up with Jo's family at a musical pub in Thurles 20 miles away.  Another marvel.  Apparently just a little place - O'Gormans (aka 'The Monk') - crammed to the very edges with happy people listening to 15 amateur musicians (banjos, guitars, squeezeboxes, bhorans(sp?),  violins, bass, etc) playing a seemingly flawless sequence of traditional tunes. It was wonderful.  At the very back of the pub in a larger space was the Coffey clan - so many aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, cousins - all there to meet us and check us out.  I discovered that the older ladies may be wearing hats to the wedding, but the younger ladies probably not. Towards the end of the evening, Jo's sister Becka asked the band to play 'Where do you go to, my lovely?' as a special request for David and Jo - who stepped forward to warm applause and danced for us. I have never seen my son looking so happy.  This is the song Jo's dad Chris has sung there many a time. He is too ill to gallivant at the moment.

Andrew (our heroic driver) brought us safely back to Dundrum and we crashed out. Who knows what will happen today? A trip to the sea? More errands for the wedding?  We have Gillie and James arriving this evening with Joan. She will stay in the hotel (we checked out her room earlier on - ground floor and with super bathroom - quite a long corridor to get there and three beds, but we think she'll be fine there).  Gillie and James are staying in our house - Tasha will move out to a second cottage we've rented.