Friday, 31 May 2013


Last Saturday morning we started by going to the Farmers’ Market, where we shop for things we don't grow ourselves, greet the familiar faces at each stall, bring our trophies of olives and cheeses to a table and discuss the foods around us, earnest as restaurant critics.

Such conversations are a rare privilege. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still her parent and set boundaries, and at eight she’s not above the occasional pout. Children's questions, though, deserve far more respect than we usually give them, picking at seams that run deeply through our lives.

That morning, perhaps spurred by the library book, The Girl began asking about faith. She knows our church is Catholic, that some of the local churches are Church of Ireland, and that I have friends that are Jewish, Muslim, Pagan and Pentecostal. I started to explain the differences, but she slipped into the kind of soteriological parsing that derails so many people.

 I’ll make it easy, I said. You know how we were talking about people taking care of the sick, or cleaning up the land, or making the world better? “Uh-huh,” she said.

Okay, that’s your religion, I said. Look at how someone lives their life. Anybody can say they believe in something.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Girl's reading

On Saturday morning a bout of bright sunshine and warmth hit our normally windswept island, and The Girl and I ran outdoors to suck every moment dry while it lasted -- bicycling, We first stopped at the library for more books to read. The Girl picked out a tween-market book set in 18th-century Ireland, about young lovers on either side of the religious divide.

Her bookshelves at home still creak with the weight of the Dr. Seuss and “Charlie and Lola” books she was reading a few years ago, when she had to pry each word apart like she was trying to get on a bike for the first time. Now the training wheels have come off and she flies off faster than I can run after her. As with so many other things, I must slowly relax my control, trusting that she will make the right choices -- and hope she doesn’t find some training-bra version of “50 Shades of Grey.” Rural Irish libraries are pretty safe, but these days, you never know.

“Can I pick this?” she said, grabbing a book from the children’s section. “It says it’s a vampire romance.”

I’d want to look that one over first, I said.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The store

For a hundred years a bicycle shop in Dublin has let anyone come into the store, borrow bikes and ride them around for a while, to see if they want to buy them.

One girl, the owner said, said she needed to ask her mother if she could buy a bicycle. She rode away and was gone for five hours, and the owners began to think they would never see the bike again. Finally she showed up, having ridden many miles across the city to get permission and money, and rode all the way back again.

From "The Curious Ear: Delaney's Bikes," a documentary on RTE radio, 2011. 
Photo: A store in Dublin -- not the same one.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Friday, 24 May 2013

What else to do with rhubarb

Before we casually shipped warehouses of vegetables across oceans and refrigerated them, spring was traditionally a lean time in Western temperate climates, a time when our ancestors had been living on things like salted meat or grains for months. The first edible greenery, then, gave food a much-needed injection of vitamins and flavour -- nettles, linden leaves, hawthorn leaves, sorrel, and most importantly rhubarb.

For this reason, early rhubarb – a vegetable that “thinks it’s a fruit” -- became an important crop for people who lived in far-northerly climates like ours, especially if you could “force” it to grow early and long. “Forcing” rhubarb involves moving the rhubarb into darkened sheds where they plants shoot upwards – reaching for the light, as it were – and the stalks grow long and tender. A tiny patch of Yorkshire, UK called the “rhubarb triangle” once produced 90 per cent of the world’s forced winter rhubarb.   

Country people here frequently gave rhubarb away as gifts for visitors, and newcomers described delivering party invitations door to door and walking away with armfuls of rhubarb at each house. Many people’s knowledge of cooking rhubarb, however, extends only to one recipe -- the rhubarb crumble dessert.

Many other dishes are possible, though – savoury or spicy, by itself or as a sauce for something else. To make rhubarb you simply have to deal with its two central facts – 1.) it is very tart, and must be mixed with other flavours, and 2.) it disintegrates into mush when cooked. That still leaves a lot of possibilities, though, beyond the one dish everyone makes. For example:

Savoury rhubarb spread – take one strip of rashers (bacon), one stalk of rhubarb (about 80g) and two red onions (about 100g). Dice the rasher into small pieces and fry it for about five minutes or so until they are brown but not yet crisp.  

Dice the red onions and put them in, or run them through a mandolin and break them up into slivers. Also slice the rhubarb with the mandolin, and mix the onion-and-rhubarb slivers together. After the bacon has been cooking five minutes or so, drain most of the oil out – save it for later – and toss the onions and rhubarb in the pan and mix them about. Add pinches of salt, black pepper, mustard powder and cayenne.

In about ten minutes the onions and rhubarb should cook down into a maroon paste; tart, savoury and spicy all at once. Once that is done you can spread the paste over crackers, as I did, or on toast.

Rhubarb-and-cucumber salad – The key to this is salting the rhubarb and cucumber to take the edge off the taste. Take one stalk of rhubarb (say, 80g) and one cucumber (about 150g) and peel the cucumber. Slice both thinly with a mandolin, put them in a bowl and add about 20g of salt. Let the mix sit for an hour or two, and then wash and drain the vegetables.

For the dressing, mix 200ml or so of some home-made yogurt or plain yogurt – “Greek style” works best. Chop about 100g or so of herbs – I used a mix of mint, dill, chives, parsley and Bernard – and mix them in thoroughly. Mix them with the cucumber and rhubarb, and you have an excellent salad.

Rhubarb salsa – Take half a stalk of rhubarb – say, about 50g – and slice it through the mandolin. Dice half an onion, also about 50g -- and a yellow pepper, of about 50g. Slice one jalapeno pepper in the mandolin. Keep them all separate.

Lightly oil the bottom of a cooking pot, turn the stove on low and throw in the diced onions. Cook for one minute. Throw in the sliced rhubarb and jalapeno and cook for two more minutes. Finally, mix in the yellow pepper and cook for one more minute.

While that is cooking, dice three tomatoes and toss them in, and turn off the heat. Chop up about 50g of coriander finely and toss that in as well, and mix everything together well. Add a teaspoon of Siracha sauce, or some comparable hot sauce, and a dash of garlic salt and black pepper.

Scoop up with nachos, crisps or toast, or eat by itself. 

Also appearing in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper. Image courtesy of Wikicommons.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Speaks for the trees

An old man -- The Girl refers to him as "The Lorax" -- has looked after these woods for decades, keeping track of the animals and plants in its system and making sure it remains healthy even when surrounded by the modern world. Every year it gets more beautiful.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Back then

"On Cable Street we lived in a tenement house where there was ten families in the same house and one toilet in the yard. It was so difficult to get a job, and most people had six, eight or ten children in the same room. Eventually we got two rooms, which was heaven."

"On the other hand, everybody helped everybody else -- you could trust anybody then. When we were barefoot children in winter going to school … they were hard times, but there was a community spirit -- women helped each other to have babies, and if a women went to hospital to have babies, everyone looked after her children."

"This Wednesday Club , making their own entertainment, goes back to a tradition of singing houses and house parties that used to be the norm in Ireland. They used to have hoolies and house parties, with everyone gathering around and singing, but that’s disappearing now. Somebody would start playing the piano or some instrument, and everyone began singing together – they all knew the same songs."

-- Elderly pensioners in Dublin reminiscing about their childhoods, in the RTE documentary "The Wednesday Club," aired 10 August 2012.


"The noise of wheels on cobbles, the crunch as it turned to clay outside our lane, the sound of the tumble churn, the jingling of harness, hobnail boots, the smells of horse sweat, cow dung, new milk, wet grass, sour milk, buttermilk, bacon and porridge. Our house was like a railway, people coming and going at all times."

-- An elderly Dubliner remembers his early years in a dairy family, from RTE documentary "The Cowslips," first aired 1978.

Photo courtesy of

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Death in the family

We’ve had to deal with more death lately – one of the chickens died.

Our flock has dimished quickly. First the ducks left us – now they lurk in the canal outside our front gate, taunting us. 

Then one of the hens turned out to be a boy, and that causes me to accelerate my explanations about sex, as I don’t want her images to come solely from the violent assault that is poultry mating.  Now, a hen – The Girl had named her Trudy -- died and we don’t know why. As of today we have two hens left, and I hope they can keep supplying us with some eggs.

Trudy and Marge had been the troublemakers of the group, and The Girl had declared that “Trudy’s not really bad at heart – Marge just drags her along and gets her in trouble. Trudy’s like Peter Lorre’s character in Arsenic and Old Lace.” 

The Girl and I buried Trudy beside the rowan tree.

“We’re going to have to be extra-nice to Marge,” she said. “She and Trudy were sisters.” the way ...

The Girl seems unaffected by Sunday's tragedy, and as been quite cheerful ever since -- what affects us as adults often doesn't affect children.

"I'd like to help next time," she said sincerely.

Thank you, I said, but I'm glad you did as you were told waited in the car a long ways away. It wasn't something children should see.

"I didn't mind, Daddy," she said brightly. "I was able to look through the back window and see the whole thing through my binoculars!"

Photo: The Girl in the birdwatching hide.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The Life

The Girl and I saw someone die today.

We were driving to a gathering of naturalists -- bird-watchers and amateur scientists – who were taking their children to see the fens near the shores of the Irish Sea. The Girl and I talk about the natural world every day, but she longs to talk about these subjects with kids her own age, and here I hoped I found kids who would share our interests.

On the way, though, we came upon a man lying unconscious by the side of the road, with a few people gathered around. I pulled over and let them know that I had Red Cross training, and was relieved to find that one of the people already working on him was a nurse preparing to give him CPR. The bad news was that the victim, a bicyclist apparently hit by a car, had a serious head injury and I didn’t feel a pulse.

I told The Girl to wait in the car about ten metres away, and in-between checking on her we did whatever we could, but when the ambulance finally arrived – it seemed like an hour later, and was probably ten minutes -- he still had no pulse.

I noted, in a moment of small gratitude, that he was an elderly man, at the end of a long life. I noted his church hymnal and apparent name, and pointed it out to the priest who arrived from the village. I saw the driver who accidentally killed him, distraught on the margins. The nurse in her Sunday finery knelt in the grass and attended to her ritual, a number of us struggling to help – and at the epicentre of this attention, a head wound and grey flesh that told us our efforts were pure ceremony.

As there was little we could do with the man we made ourselves useful however we could, directing traffic or holding cardboard to hide the body from motorists. Gardai (police) arrived one by one until the area was a crime scene, and long after there was nothing else for me to do, we still waited at the scene, as our tiny car was boxed in by emergency vehicles.

I returned to The Girl, waiting in the car. Thank you for being so patient, I said.

“Is he dead, Daddy?” she said. I nodded, and held her for a while.

When we finally got on our way, we talked about how it made her feel.

“I didn’t feel scared,” The Girl said. “I feel sorry for the man who died, but I don’t feel that much.”

You don’t ever need to apologise for how you feel, I said, only for what you do. You did the right thing, waiting patiently, and that’s what counts. You feel whatever you feel, and it’s never right or wrong.

“Did you know him?” she asked.

No, I said, but I saw what looked like his name in his hymnal - he seemed to have been riding his bicycle home from church. 

Whatever his name, we should try to remember him, not as he looked lying there, but as he must have been in life. He must have been a baby once, I said, and played as a child, and been a teenager. Maybe he had a first kiss, maybe he got married, and had kids of his own. So let’s you and I remember his life once in a while, because that’s what we’d want people to do for us.

“God, why did you have to give us such a strange day?” she asked rhetorically.

We’re alive and healthy, and it’s a lovely warm day, and we’re going to the seaside, I said. For us, it’s the best day in a long time, and all the better if we could at least try to help someone, even if we failed. We don’t need to feel sorry for ourselves.

As late as we were, the day turned out amazing; The Girl and I met children with the same passions and knowledge, and they talked eagerly about the prehistoric animals they both love -- the Jefferson sloth and the Opabina, and all the supersized animals of the world gone by. They went to the seaside and fished their nets in the surf, holding intense debates about whatever they found. The parents and I relaxed on the beach and exchanged numbers to get our kids together more often.

We explored the fens and hid inside a bird-watching hide together, looking first at the birds and talking about their feeding habits and mating rituals. Then, cheekily, she saw people walking along the beach through her binoculars, and began describing them in the same way as the birds.

“Daddy, I see a Pink-Suited Lady walking along the beach, and a Bald Glasses Man is giving her directions – I think they’re flirting!”

We drove home giddy and exhausted, listening to Vince Guaraldi and discussing how no one could ever feel too terrible listening to his music. We passed through the Dublin Mountains, their flanks covered in the blinding yellow of gorse and their tops of bald stone. We passed fields of rapeseed just coming into their own golden blooms, and sprays of toadflax erupting from castle walls.

Clouds in the distance looked like they had been touched in watercolour, and then smudged across the sky. Then the sun broke through in several places at once, sending shafts of light down to the green fields below and illuminating sheep in the distance.

The Girl putting her bare and sandy feet up on the seat cushions, saying, “Daddy, I think we are living the Life.”

Yes we are, I said.