A walk down our lane

 

We’re lucky enough not only to live in the country but to live on a lane where the only traffic is a few tractors or on a busy farming day, huge farm machinery. As that only happens on a handful of days a year the rest of the time the lane is a peaceful place to walk the dog and enjoy nature at its very best. The hedgerows are of particular interest to me as in these days of clearing everything in the name of progress they stand out. As I walked along last week I took a few photos of the plants growing on each side of me. Such a fine selection there was too. I know they are mostly what we called weeds and I suppose I’m a hypocrite in some ways as I dig them out of my own flowerbeds but here on the lane I can appreciate their individual beauty especially up close.

As a child I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who were interested and knowledgable about plants and gardening. Both my parents and my aunt and uncle were avid gardeners and all four had a deep appreciation for nature. I often went for walks with my Dad in the early morning and he would point out wild flowers and different plants as we walked the land. My father was a butcher and a farmer and fattened his own cattle. As we walked accross a field he would point to clover or wild sorrel growing in amongst the grass and proudly proclaim he had never added anything to the soil apart from cow dung. 

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a bee enjoying the flower of the wild pea or vetch on the lane

We would walk the lane to his farm which and he would point out primroses, violets, cowslips and lady’s fingers. One of my favourite memories is of vetch or wild pea which in mid summer would ripen and yield a small hard black pea with a really strong taste. We would pick the wild sorrel and chew it as we followed the track made by the cattle that meandered accross his largest field. Another favourite time of year was late summer or mushroom season as we competed to see who could collect the most mushrooms. Dad would pick a long piece of grass with a seed head and thread it through the mushroom stems to carry them home. 

My mother would pick dandelion leaves and add them to our nightly summer salad telling us they were full of iron. My father would carefully pick them out and toss them onto her plate telling her she was the one that needed it most. She experimented with nettle soup which was delicious and to this day I’m always delighted to find the cure for a nettle sting generally growing right beside it in the form of a dock leaf. Although the nettle stings hurt the fun of finding a huge dock leaf and rubbing the offending area until your skin went green almost made up for it. She made white wine from elderflowers in summer and red wine from elderberries in the autumn. I now look forward every year to gathering huge handfuls of elderflowers to make the more innocuous elderflower cordial. We scoured the hedges in late summer for blackberries and I have the fondest of memories of going blackberrying with my Uncle John on a summers evening in the fields behind his house. In later years when I was working he faithfully gathered blackberries for me every august and froze them until I could come to collect them.  We gathered rose hips by the bag load to send to Africa. I was motivated to help as I felt sorry for people in a faraway land having to eat rose hips. It was only many years later I discovered in fact the rose hips were high in Vit C and used to make a syrup to help children in a famine ravaged world. Every year when I see the wild roses growing and later in the year the bright red hips form I think of all the ditches I was sent into as a child. These snapshots in time  stand out for me and I enjoy reminiscing as I take my daily wander on the lane. 

On my walk last week although its too early for the mushrooms or the blackberries there was a lot in bloom and a lot of interest and I enjoyed thoroughly the trip down memory lane as well as our own lane. 

Be someone’s garden angel

Recently published in the April newsletter of the Irish Garden Plant Society ( IGPS)

I met a fellow gardener recently and as we chatted she referred to someone who’d helped her  out as her ‘ guardian angel. ‘I was immediately struck by the thought that I’m lucky enough to have one of those too. Then I thought to myself she really she should be known as my’ garden angel’ for throughout my life she has guided me, encouraged me, supported me and been generous to a fault with all the plants she has given me.  When you’re starting out on your gardening journey it can be a little overwhelming. Too often people are put off by failures and they give up feeling inadequate and useless.  I’ve met so many people who say “ oh I’m not really a gardener” though I’d love to learn more. This I think is a shame as with a little encouragement and guidance we can all be better gardeners. I think I’m somewhere in the middle now between beginner and expert and I’m eager to continue learning. For example I’m not great on remembering latin names but have recently been inspired to at least try.

 For someone starting out on their gardening journey there’s a long and daunting list of things to be aware of. First you’ve to pick your site, plan your beds, get rid of weeds, improve the soil and pick your plants. Do you want trees, shrubs, perennials, a veg patch or the lot. Then there’s  the soil type whether you’ve acid, alkaline or neutral ,do you have  damp or dry conditions, is your site sheltered or exposed , is it shady or baking in full sun. The list is endless and if you’re hit with all this before you start you might just give up and concrete over the lot.  All of this can be a bit intimidating  for a new gardener who while enthusiastic might throw in the trowel ( if you pardon the pun ) without a little guidance.  Nowadays we’re lucky to have all that information at our fingertips and we can google to our hearts content . I however remember the days when my greatest gift was a copy of the RHS encyclopedia of garden plants and flowers and its sister the RHS encyclopedia of gardening.

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This wedding cake tree or ( Cornus controversa Variegata ) was aptly a wedding gift from Margaret. ( Photo: Richard Murphy )

 

I would pore over these at night time and it was an enjoyable if rather laborious process as I’d much prefer to be out in the actual garden digging and planting. I often tell the story of being handed graph paper to plan my dream garden. Ideally I should have taken all the pointers I’ve mentioned into consideration carefully planning it all in advance. Instead the graph paper went into a drawer and I started random planting. Enter my “ garden angel” Margaret a dear friend of my mother’s and a gardener who has probably forgotten more than I’ll ever learn.

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Margaret and I at the IGPS plant sale 2019

 When we moved to our dream house complete with a large garden she would arrive with a veritable treasure trove of slips, divisions or plants grown from seed. To me it was a bewildering collection of sad dejected looking plants all with labels and a passionate description about its eventual size  and all the information relevant to helping it settle in. She was hands on too and would roll up her sleeves and wander about with me looking for a suitable location in our absolute wilderness of 3 acres. She planted slips of snake bark maples about a foot high assuring me they would be magnificent in time, a tiny cutting of viburnum,  a division of Solomon’s  seal, huge dinner plate corms of Cyclamen hederifolium, small seedlings of Japanese wineberry, and countless perennials all from her garden .

She waded into our newly discovered natural pond and thrust a few divisions of water lilies  into its muddy bottom, she arrived with flag iris and marsh marigolds to colonise a rather ugly ditch. Another visit and pheasant berry and dogwoods were planted on the bank behind my pond. Rose cuttings, some of which she had taken from my mother’s garden were extra special and one year she accompanied me to my Uncle’s home before it was sold to dig up a very precious red rose. On that particular occasion the rose’s root snapped in half leaving a very dejected looking specimen which made me want to burst into tears and stamp my foot. Undeterred by both my tantrum and the broken root she inspected it and airily declared “oh don’t worry it’ll still grow.” She then uttered what has become my mantra which I now quote to others “ just remember everything WANTS to live dear.” We lovingly planted that rose with all the right conditions and it has totally rewarded her belief in it and blooms with its heady scent and velvety red perfection  every year.

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my aunt’s red rose now thriving in my garden

Over the past 17 years we’ve planted hedges, trees, shrubs, put in paths, new borders, patios and a veg patch. I’ve learned as I’ve gardened encouraged by those earlier successes. I’ve talked to many other experienced gardeners, visited open gardens, joined gardening clubs, googled plants and how to videos and read as much as I can. Nothing however really compares to that earlier instruction, generously given and her belief in me as a novice gardener. My garden is now maturing nicely and I’m finally  in a position to do what Margaret has done for me which is to divide plants, take cuttings and save seed and pass them on to encourage and nurture other budding gardeners. I’ve a few friends and neighbours in whom I recognize the gardening bug .I now in my turn am  giving  them some of my fairly sad looking pots assuring them that in 2 years you won’t recognize it if you do x,y and z .

I know  the slips and cuttings don’t have the instant impact of buying a plant from a garden centre but I like to think that in the long run it will have the edge  when it reminds people where they came from . An experienced gardener I met recently told me they had a similar mentor. To quote her “ a rather irascible man who decided I had to be educated and encouraged. “ I simply loved to hear that and hear about her gardening journey. We all learn about gardening in different ways but to have a mentor, someone who believes in you and encourages you and in my case watches with a keen interest and pride is a priceless gift. So take a budding gardener under your wing. Encourage them in any way you can and you’ll enjoy the giving as much as they will enjoy the receiving. So go on, encourage and inspire them and be someone’s “ Garden Angel .“ 

Gardening in strange times

                                                                   Gardening in strange times 

 

The garden has always been a place where one can forget everything except the job at hand. Plants are living things and as such absorb me totally in their care. My dear Uncle John a bachelor who lived a solitary life in the main, would often proclaim “ It’s hard to be depressed in the garden”. He was a great man for planting fruit and vegetables and had rhubarb, currant bushes, raspberry canes , potatoes and peas all fed by manure from the neighbouring cattle mart in Ashbourne. I have an image of him in my mind wheeling his wheelbarrow across a narrow plank over the ditch to collect the manure for his garden. He would put some in a barrel of water and let it stew for a few days and then upend the lot over his rhubarb. He trimmed hedges and cut his lawn with an old fashioned push mower. He lived with his sister until she went to work in London and he would tend her roses and plant wallflowers for her in perfect circular beds he made in the front lawn. He had plum and apple trees which in his words were “hanking with fruit”. I remember loving the Victoria plums and trying to climb to the very top where of course the best ones were. He would patiently and silently go to the shed and get his ladder, gently telling me not to fall while he himself would balance the ladder precariously against a branch and climb to the top to rescue the ripest, sweetest plum. When I planted Victoria plums here I made sure to plant them on dwarf root stock so I never missed any. I think of my Uncle John a lot in these days of self isolation and try to channel his patience and stoicism . 

 

While we’re lucky to have a large garden even the smallest of patches can bring us joy and more important peace. Weeding is surprisingly satisfying and even an hour or so a day gives a great result. The garden is unaware of the pandemic, it soldiers on giving of its bounty and we as gardeners reap what we sow in the very literal sense. Work we did last autumn is rewarding us now as precious bulbs push up and light up the garden with colour.

 

Now as we tidy up the dead foliage of our perennials we are heartened by the signs of life and new shoots hiding underneath. We’ve hopefully by now pruned our roses and the new growth is a vibrant red reaching for the sky and nurturing the glorious blooms we will enjoy in just a few short weeks.

 

Shrubs which flower on their bare branches are coming into bud with cherry and apple blossom about to warm our hearts. Pieris are putting on a show with clusters of flowers giving way to fiery red new growth. Hyacinths are filling the garden with their heady scent. Tulips are opening day by day each colour competing to be the most glorious.

 

Acers are putting on their new leaves in various shades of reds and greens and as I gaze out the window I see the bright blues of forget me not forming a carpet underneath the snowy stems of the silver birch.  Everything in the garden has its time to shine and it is continuing its journey and is a stabilizing force in these difficult times. The birds are nest building, the crows raucous as they complain when I garden underneath. As always there is a curious robin nearby as I turn over the earth and the blue tits, blackbirds and goldfinches dart to and from the birdfeeders , tiny flashes of colour making me smile.

 

Everywhere there is life from the earthworms, to the welcome sound of solitary bees and newts and frogs spawn in the pond. The distant drone of tractors remind me that farmers are continuing their valuable work, tending to the land, taking care of animals, planting crops and it’s a comforting sound from behind our house. 

 

I’ve always appreciated the garden and now it is my solace. I hope you enjoy a few photos from April in the garden and some of my dear Uncle John, a wise man indeed.

Gardening is more than just plants

( An article recently published in the IGPS newsletter. )

Anyone who knows me will be aware of my love of gardening. When I try to analyse it there is never a clear picture of why that is. On the down side its hard work. Gardening in all sorts of weather spent dodging rain showers, being  buffeted about by the wind or being scorched by the sun ( I just added that last one in for the fun of it )

Then there’s the physical work , digging ground that is too wet, too dry, too sandy, too heavy or  too weedy . The part where you wrestle with plants that attack you as you try to prune them like roses, raspberries,pyracantha,berberis or holly. Don’t they realise you’re trying to help them stay healthy. Then of course our favourite pastime of weeding. The annuals that pop up like shepherds purse, willow herb and groundsel that though easy to weed arrive with alarming speed and spread everywhere unless you get them early before they seed about.  Buttercups with their cunning method of sending out arching slender stems that root as they go ending up a metre away from the parent. Dandelions, and docks that send down roots to Australia are another bane and of course the weeds that makes every gardener tremble in their boots like bindweed or robin run the hedge. I’m sure you’re begining to think I actually don’t like gardening at all but I’m only teasing.

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I’ve given up trying to weed out celandine which does die away naturally by June

The list of what makes me love gardening is so much longer. Firstly it gets you outdoors in all sorts of weather. I’ve spent many a pleasant morning in the garden with one eye on the darkening sky and one eye on the job at hand and feel that great sense of achievement when I complete my task ahead of a shower. I’m lucky enough to have a greenhouse that means of course I can sow seeds, divide plants, pot on plants or even tidy up though that’s really pushing it. Its important to also take time to walk about your garden and inspect and enjoy the results of your labours though I find it impossible not to bend to pull a weed or deadhead a flower thats gone over. We call it the driveway dance as you walk, bend, pull then repeat. In the few good summer days is there anything more rewarding than to sit on your patio and enjoy the fragrance,colours and sounds of a happy garden.

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It’s nice to relax on the patio after hours of gardening

There’s a lovely quote attributed to Audrey Hepburn that says “ To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow “ and I really believe that to be true. We sow seeds, we divide plants and nurture them willing them to go on and thrive. We take slips and watch over them eagle eyed until that eureka moment where we see the signs of new life as new roots appear at the base of the pot and the cutting puts on healthy top growth. We plan borders and colour schemes, we trim, prune, mow, strim, deadhead, feed and nurture our plants along, taking care of their individual needs until they delight us with blooms or striking leaf colour. We plant bulbs on chilly autumn days content in the knowledge they will reward us in Spring from the shy hello of a snowdrop to the full blown explosion of colour that shouts “we are tulips look at us.”

Oh the delight of it all is what keeps me gardening but one thing more than anything else brings me such joy that my heart is filled to bursting with it. I know we all buy plants wherever we can but it is the plants that remind us of people that are the most special. I’ve many plants in my garden from loved ones gone before us who gardened in their lifetimes. Their plants are a connection to them that tugs at the heartstrings and flood us with memories. I’ve got snowdrops my parents dug up from an abandoned farmhouse in the 1950’s, roses my Dad planted for my mother who adored their fragrant blooms, rhubarb my beloved uncle tended to for most of his 96 years, slips of scores of plants from my mother’s best friend and plants that have been gifted to me by fellow gardeners equally obsessed with the joy that is gardening.

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The rhubarb I got from my Uncle John which has been in the family for about 80 years

So those plants are not just plants to me they are reminders of gardeners in my family, they speak to me of a generous friend, they bring back a memory of a visit to a fellow gardener who delighted me with a slip of a rare or unusual plant. Each memory is a perfect prism reflecting a moment captured in time. Emotions are tied to these plants and give us focus as we tend to their care and nurture them , yes getting cold fingers and toes and the odd scratch from a thorn but mostly the pleasure of seeing them grow and each enjoying their moment in the sun. So we gardeners can  reflect on the fact that we are a link to our past and hopefully to a future generation of gardeners. 

Raising Hedgehogs

About 8 years ago I raised 4 baby hedgehogs which was a steep learning curve and such an honour. We found a disturbed nest with 5 little ones strewn about the ditch. One had died and the other 4 were tiny so I gathered them up and brought to our vet.In the wild about 20% of the hoglets die before they even leave the nest and once a nest is disturbed the mother will not return condemning them to certain death.  The vet dusted them down for fleas ( fleas that live on hedgehogs will not live on dogs or humans )  and gave them each an antibiotic and I was sent home with a heated mat and instructions to feed them every 4 hours with warm goats milk as they cannot tolerate dairy.

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4 tiny orphaned hedgehogs
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They soon advanced to feeding themselves, goats milk and tinned cat food

We kept them in a cardboard box in our kitchen and I fed them initially from a tiny medicine dropper which was time consuming and fraught with prickles from the growing spines. I learned to wear a leather glove on my left hand, pick one up with my thumb under their chin to prevent their natural urge to curl into a ball and once they smelled the milk survival instinct took over.

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The one in the foreground was a whopper and the tiny one on the right I had to continue to feed as he was pushed out of the way
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they napped after their feed

As they were only tiny about 10 days old I also had to help them with the other end too. Like kittens their mother normally does this so A quick phone call to a hedgehog rescue and I was informed that a cotton bud soaked in oil and rubbed on their nether regions soon did the trick. The result was  masses of green poo which stank to high heaven. They quickly adapted to life in my kitchen but soon became way too smelly. As they were a later litter I read that unless they achieved a weight of 550 grams by November they were unlikely to survive their winter hibernation. Survival rates even then are low with many unlikely to see their first birthday but I had to at least give them a fighting chance.

 

They advanced to a larger box, self feeding and were dispatched outdoors to the shed. Tinned cat food, more goats milk and bananas became their regular diet. As August approached I stopped the goats milk and  added wild blackberries to start to introduce them to food they would be able to find themselves as I know cat food and bananas would be in short supply in the natural habitat. I knew they ate slugs so set off on a nightly slug hunt with my torch. The first time I gave them slugs they turned their backs on them totally indifferent and I was afraid I’d completely interfered with nature but within seconds thousands of years of instinct kicked in and they suddenly made little piggy snorting noises and literally ran over the slugs in their enthusiasm . A boon for my garden as I think in the following 6 weeks I must have gathered up a few generations of slugs for their nightly feed. As they were getting bigger we made a larger den for them and placed it inside the high walls of one of our ruined outbuildings. Hedgehogs can scale walls of 6 feet or more but these were at least 16 feet high and kept them contained.

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This was the largest one just before his release
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The next one who weighed in eventually at 795 grams

I was quite touched as a lot of my neighbours came to see them , one who was an elderly farmer who said he wanted to see them as he’d never seen a live one, only the squashed ones on the road.

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By Mid October they were all a good weight the smallest weighing in at 650 grams, the largest 850  and they were ready for their release. Padraic had made 2 little wooden hedgehog houses with a long interior corridor veering left and then right to allow the hedgehogs in and keep larger predators such as foxes out. Hedgehogs live solitary lives once they leave the nest only getting together to mate so one was given to a friend in Dublin with a large walled garden, one was given to the vet who’s friend had a large chicken farm where they eventually released him and the remaining 2 stuck around here for a few nights coming back initially for the food I left out then they disappeared. They can travel miles every  night in their search for food so who knows where they ended up. Although I was sorry to see them go hedgehogs do not thrive in captivity so I’m hoping that years of instinct will have taken over and that they survived . I read somewhere that they live for about 3 years if they survive the various hazards they face such as cars or eating poisoned slugs or falling into ponds or drains, the list is endless.

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The tiniest of them had to be hand fed a bit longer
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I would put my hand in and allow them to crawl onto it
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love the pointy noses

A few years ago our dog Lily was out in the garden barking furiously and dancing around what looked like a huge football. I went to investigate and found it was a very large hedgehog rolled up in a ball spikes fully up. We put the dog in and I got my gardening gloves and placed him gently back into the hedge line and he meandered off. He came back for 3 nights in a row despite the dog and then disappeared. Maybe it was one of my babies who knows but I was glad to see that hedgehogs are still here in my garden.

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This guy was huge and curled into a tight ball
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I picked him up so I could place him out of the dogs reach into the hedge
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He stayed curled up for a bit but when I checked 5 minutes later he was gone

I’ve created a few safe areas for them to overwinter by placing piles of logs into a corner and we put their old wooden house under some branches in another spot. Our garden is surrounded by farmland with little or no traffic so I’m hoping that for some it will be a safe haven. It was a highlight of my life to raise the 4 hedgehog babies or hoglets as they’re known. I have no way of knowing if they survived but I like to hope that they did.

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we’re slowly adding to this log pile at the very back of the garden near the bank and the hedge line

 

 

St.Patricks Day

 

Happy St.Patricks Day.

Its a day that means different things to different people all over the world. This in itself is extraordinary that a simple national saints day has come to be celebrated in most of the biggest cities worldwide. Every year more and more famous landmarks are up lit in green and St.Patricks day revellers take to the street to see parades and enjoy ” the craic agus ceol”  as we call it ( which for any of our non Irish readers means fun, banter and music.)You’ll read about all these various celebrations in every newspaper and see all the parades on TV but these are my memories and experiences of this special day. We’re lucky enough to live in Slane village and the view in front of our house is the beautiful Slane Abbey. Although its up lit all year around this year for the first time its gone green. On a foggy night this lends an eerie air to the skyline.

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the Hill of Slane goes green.

I grew up about 20 miles from Slane yet we came here many times a year as children and I have many good memories of playing amongst the ruins of Slane Abbey. I would stand in front of the bell tower and gaze upwards to make myself dizzy then we would run around the ruins of the old college standing in cavernous fireplaces and look up at the sky. We would climb the bell tower ,the only light coming from a slit window halfway up and cling to the sides or the step above us in the winding stone spiral stairs until we got to the top. We would emerge blinking from the dark to the sunlight and gaze at the view. “You can see the whole country from up here ” my father would declare and on a clear day it certainly seemed as if you could.

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View from the Hill of Slane towards Tara.

 

 

Years later when I had my own child  we were lucky enough to move to Slane and have a view of my childhood haunt. I repeated the tradition of visiting the hill and playing amongst its ruins with him. There’s a fine statue of the man himself surveying the countryside which we would stop to admire.

 

We would hide Sean’s Peter rabbit and play hide and seek between the Church and the college. At Easter we hid tiny chocolate eggs in the many nooks and crevices in the broken walls and Sean and his pals would have their very own Easter egg hunt. We also made a game out of trying to find the many interesting features almost hidden in the stone walls.

 

There was the dragon, the watchful gargoyle, the shielded arm and a rosette. We don’t know the story behind them so we often just made one up. One such mark was one we thought of as the stone masons mark. I read about it first in the wonderful Ken Follett book “the pillars of the earth.” It mentions that a stone mason would often leave an image carved in stone sometimes even resembling his boss and hide the carving under where the large beams would go for the upper floor. I like to think the one above with my finger is one such mark. When we found them we’d stand briefly to admire and hear a little of the history then it was off again to play hide and seek in the old refectory, climb the stone steps or peer inside a chimney.

 

The Hill of Slane is closely associated with St.Patrick as he was said to have lit the Paschal fire here during the Spring Equinox. Tradition had it that no fire was to be lit during the pagan festival held on the nearby Hill Of Tara by the High King Loaghaire. However St.Patrick is said to have lit the fire of the true faith bringing Christianity to Ireland. The legend my father always told us is that King Laoghaire dispatched his troops to Slane to arrest St.Patrick just as he was making his way to Tara to convert the people. On meeting the troops he turned into a deer and walked past them and approached the Hill. Again legend has it that Laoighre would not convert but many of his followers did including one St.Erc who St.Patrick made first Bishop of Slane and whose grave is said to be in the cemetery of the Hill of Slane.

 

Last but not least in our family St.Patricks Day was always extra special as it was my mothers birthday. My very early memories were of going to mass with bunches of green shamrocks pinned to my parents coats and loud and gaudy St.Patricks day badges for us kids with the harp and tricolour featuring heavily. Sometimes we would go to the parade in Dublin where floats of all shapes and sizes would go by followed by marching bands from America no less, who  would all brave the inevitable freezing rain to march and twirl their batons high in the air. We would make my mothers birthday cake, a sponge decorated in the gaudiest green butter icing you ever saw and I would head to bed feeling in awe that all these celebrations were held in honour of my  Mothers birthday.

 

My Grandparents had lived in New York and married there in November 1916 and recently I uncovered a book of postcards sent to them during their 14 or so years living there. There were Valentines, Easter Cards a few Christmas cards and these St.Patricks Day cards all dating from 1907-1919.

 

 

Snowdrops in my Garden

I’m not an expert but I do love to garden and in the very early Spring I’m always impatient for something to grow ,for some bit of colour to show spring is on its way. Snowdrops hold a special place in my gardening heart for many reasons.

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My parents snowdrops under the silver birch

The first sight of them shyly poking their dainty heads up is such a welcome sight and varies from year to year depending on the weather. This year it was early January when I first noticed the tiny green shoots which made me smile and think winter is almost over. They seem to beckon us towards Spring despite the cold weather and general bleakness in the garden. I notice Snowdrops always seem to elicit a similar response in visitors to my garden, affection and nostalgia almost always followed by a story of where they remember them from their childhood. A faint regret is also common as many comment that they cannot get them to grow from bulbs and would love to do so. 

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Various snowdrops in the garden

They grow quite happily in my garden not seeming to care where I plant them. whether this is in full sun, along a path, under the trees or even along a hedge line where the Westerly winds fail to make any impact on their cheerful nodding heads.

Snowdrops are often a feature in old houses and graveyards and I have found are difficult to grow from the bulbs you can buy in autumn. I think this is because they don’t like to dry out so where possible try to buy some “ in the green”. This simply means that by March when the flowers have died off but the foliage is still lush buy some or beg some from a friend and plant them. Next year you will be rewarded with these delightful flowers which will happily multiply each year. 

 

In my garden I have a few different types of the common snowdrops. Rather than call them by their actual names ( which I think  are Galanthus nivalis Flora Pleno , Galanthus Nivalis and Galanthus Woronowii) I have named them after where they came from. The Flora Pleno are the “ Mullaghdillon snowdrops” as very soon after we moved here in December 2002 hundreds of these cheerful little flowers appeared at the back of the house. I was so delighted as one of my first aims was to try to get snowdrops to naturalise. They are a small double snowdrop which are wider than the single varieties and a lovely pure white with inner petals tipped in green. They are very robust with a light fragrance which only reveal their true beauty when you turn up the flower to show double petals like a tutu. 

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Snowdrops flora pleno with a hellebore

The Nivalis are what I call my Dunshaughlin snowdrops. These grew in my parents garden for over 50 years and every year I remember my mothers absolute delight and almost childlike wonder that they should reappear so faithfully. As I grew up they appeared everywhere in the garden in huge clumps under the hedges , under the roses and in airy drifts under the apple trees. I have a special affection for them as my father told me the story of how they came to acquire them . They spotted them growing around an abandoned farmhouse in Dunsany and decided one year they would be better off in their garden. They waited until the blooms died off in March and went to dig some up and transplant them. So yes back in the 1950’s my parents were snowdrop thieves. The Dunsany snowdrops rewarded this thievery by multiplying with abandon and became Dunshaughlin snowdrops. When we decided in 2014 they would be better off in OUR garden we filled an entire trailer with them and history repeated itself. I always regret not taking that photo of the trailer full to the brim with snowdrops but I shall show you a few of them now colonising my garden.

The Nivalis are much taller than the Flora Pleno with a single nodding head and are a heavenly white.

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Snowdrop nivalis

 

The last type of snowdrop Galanthus Woronowii is very pretty with its tiny flower and bright green leaves. These I call them the rescues. I have a habit of “rescuing plants “ that I see are bound for a skip and this was their destiny with their faded flowers and dying leaves. I have planted them in a corner of the woodland area of my garden,watered and fed them some seaweed powder and they now seem happy enough amongst the hellebores and crocus’s. 

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Snowdrop woronowii have a much deeper green wider leaf

The Snowdrop is that welcome sight alongside the other early bloomers such as winter aconites, hellebores and the tiny pink cyclamen coup. Don’t let their beauty and delicate appearance fool you as despite their size they are very tough and survive all that the cold Irish winters can throw at them. I look forward to them every year and shall continue to divide and spread them all around the garden.

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Snowdrops with cyclamen coum and hellebores

 

( Below is an excerpt from The Snowdrop by Hans Christian Anderson 1863)

And the Flower stirred and stretched itself within the thin rind which the water had softened from without, and the snow and the earth had warmed, and the Sunbeam had knocked at; and it shot forth under the snow with a greenish-white blossom on a green stalk, with narrow thick leaves, which seemed to want to protect it. The snow was cold, but was pierced by the Sunbeam, therefore it was easy to get through it, and now the Sunbeam came with greater strength than before.

“Welcome, welcome!” sang and sounded every ray, and the Flower lifted itself up over the snow into the brighter world. The Sunbeams caressed and kissed it, so that it opened altogether, white as snow, and ornamented with green stripes. It bent its head in joy and humility.

“Beautiful Flower!” said the Sunbeams, “how graceful and delicate you are! You are the first, you are the only one! You are our love! You are the bell that rings out for summer, beautiful summer, over country and town. All the snow will melt; the cold winds will be driven away; we shall rule; all will become green, and then you will have companions, syringas, laburnums, and roses; but you are the first, so graceful, so delicate!”

That was a great pleasure. It seemed as if the air were singing and sounding, as if rays of light were piercing through the leaves and the stalks of the Flower. There it stood, so delicate and so easily broken, and yet so strong in its young beauty; it stood there in its white dress with the green stripes, and made a summer.

 

” Twas the night before Christmas”

The ending of the famous much loved poem by Clement C Moore always makes me nostalgic as indeed does the opening line, ” Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house, not a creature was stirring not even a mouse….”

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Growing up my mother was mostly responsible for making Christmas magic for us. She had lived in New York for 6 years with her cousins and brought home a few American classics one being the famous book by Clement C. Moore. She read it to us every Christmas and I adored it especially as the photos in it had a particular charm.

 

 

I also particularly remember the excitement of putting up the tree. My Dad was the local butcher and would go to the market in Dublin to get Christmas trees to sell outside his shop. He’d pick out one for us and leave it on the lawn for a few days with my mother nagging him to get the stand and put it up. Then the inevitable task of taking out the lights and plugging them in to see if they worked. He’d replace a few bulbs if necessary and then the rest was up to us. Opening the box of decorations was always a revelation to me, like seeing old friends reappear and getting reacquainted . There was lots of tinsel old fashioned and tawdry but I loved it, the baubles in different sizes and colours some with no string that my mother had skilfully repaired using my Dads pipe cleaners!

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The 2 Christmas angels from my parents tree, one beautifully fixed with a pipe cleaner

Then there were the decorations themselves. My mother had lived in the States for 6 years and we have lots of cousins still living around the NJ and NY area so she had been sent some fancy decorations including a little red cabin with snow on the roof, a reindeer that once held chocolates, two little angels with bells and santa himself hiding in some bushes. She also got creative one year and made decorations from felt, an elephant, a star and a heart as I recall.

 

Every year as we dug them out of the box it gave me a warm fuzzy feeling of familiarity and ritual which was so comforting. The tree would be decorated and the crib put up with its little blue light turned on and the angel watching over it all and we would wait then for the magic of Christmas morning. Christmas Eve was my favourite day of all. The sense of anticipation, a feeling of excitement in the air, my mother busy preparing the stuffing and my Dad in the shop awash in turkeys, hams and good wishes for a Happy Christmas. The day was always the longest as when I was a child midnight mass was actually at midnight. The feeling of going outside and driving to mass when you should be in bed always lent it that extra frisson of excitement . Both my mother and I were in the choir and we would stand in the gallery and sing our hearts out. One year on  Christmas Eve a wonderful  Italian tenor joined the choir as he was visiting family locally and that was my first experience of opera like singing. It is a standout memory in my mind to this day as the entire church was silent as his voice soared above the crowd. That mass had a tragic ending we could never have foreseen as our priest collapsed into the vestry as the last hymn sounded and died. I always thought in a way he was lucky as he died in harness as they say and was accompanied by the sound of angels as the voice of Mr.Bondino rang throughout the church.

 

Now each Christmas I’ve done the same with my son putting up the tree and opening the boxes and exclaiming over the decorations of which there are so many I almost need another tree. I’m such a sucker for decorations and have bought some throughout the years in far flung places such as Sydney, Prague and California. In my early 20’s I visited the Christmas shops of Cape Cod in July and thought I’d died and gone to heaven stepping in from the sunshine to a winter wonderland.

 

My dear friend Beth then introduced me to Edwins near her home in Franklin,MA and she and her parents bought me some of the wonderful Dickens village and the Christmas carollers.. The year we got married our dog at the time chewed some of the Christmas carollers and they had to be returned to Edwins for ” surgery” to repair them. They  were returned to us with the admonishment to keep them away from the ” foookin dog” This being a very good imitation of what I called her when I found my poor figures chewed and lying in her bed. Now every year as I unpack them I smile with the memory of Mr.B  and his Irish accent.

 

Every Christmas since he was born Sean has received an ornament in his stocking and wherever possible I wrote the year on the base.

 

This was a lovely idea I stole from my sister in law who has done it for her boys with the intention that by the time they have a tree in their own home they’ll have a ready made ornament collection. I hope that in years to come he’ll have the joy of unpacking the decorations every Christmas and that it will trigger many happy memories of Christmas past.

 

So to everyone out there wishing you the best of the Christmas season and to quote Clement C. Moore

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Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night…

 

Harry Potter madness at Mullaghdillon

 

 

 

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Its October 30th and my son’s birthday so i’m indulging in some throwback photos and memories. I read Harry Potter along with my 7 year old nephew and couldn’t wait to read them to Sean. When Sean was 5 and a bit I couldn’t wait any longer so I started to read them to him, a chapter every night. It took almost 2 years to read the entire 7 books and it is a memory I will always cherish. We read the book first then watched the movie so it was a natural step to have a Harry Potter themed party for Sean’s 6th birthday as it falls on the day before Halloween, one of my favourite times of year. It was such a success we had to follow it with a second party for his 7th birthday with the theme of the Triwizard Tournament. For a non Harry Potter head like my long suffering husband it was a confusing experience but he met the challenge head on and made Quidditch hoops, Platform 9 and 3 quarters signs and even took on the roles of Dumbledore and Hagrid despite needing prompting and many cues. What an experience those 2 parties were. My good friends all joined in enthusiastically and played their parts as some of the other teachers and the 20 or so children aged 6 and 7 were the perfect age to just go with the flow and believe…

 

 

 

 

The first part was making the invitations which I printed on cream paper then stained with a used tea bag for that old look.The kids RSVP’d with great enthusiasm and the parents all told me they were intending to stay for the party. Being lucky ( or mad enough ) to live in an old house it lent itself very well to the whole Hogwarts vibe. When the kids arrived they all given robes, wands and cauldrons before being sorted into their houses in Hogwarts. The robes were all Penny’s black X large men’s Tee shirts cut up the middle to form a cape and decorated with glitter and stars by my wonderful friend Miriam.

Padraic made the wands from wooden dowels and I glued and sewed coloured material and gold thread on the handles.The little bell that comes on the Lindt reindeer came in handy for the bottom of the wands and plumbing washers added a hint of gold. The black cauldrons are available in any of the pound shops.

 

 

 

The sorting ceremony was simple thanks to Padraic and his walkie talkies. Sean already had been given a gift of a black sorting hat so Padraic put one walkie talkie into the hat and as I placed it on the childs head saying his name clearly, Padraic spoke into the walkie talkie and the kids loved the talking hat. I made badges by downloading images from the internet and laminating them. That part was a lot of fun.

 

 

 

The first year we had potions classes in the dungeon. I looked in my cupboard and used ordinary household items to make the ingredients for our class. We had mustard seeds as spiders eyes, cloves as bats toenails,cooked spaghetti in red food colouring as bloodworms, smelly anchovies and some blanket weed from the pond as the famed gillyweed of the novels.. The key ingredients of white vinegar coloured pink and blue as liquid rose and liquid sky and bread soda were for the big experiment. The great thing about 6 year olds is they just go with the flow and once you get the big wow they are happy to move quickly onto the next thing. This of course could have a disaster only for our very own Professor Snape played brilliantly by our friend Kieran who was the most convincing and entirely entertaining Professor Snape with a Cork accent.He kept the kids spellbound with dire warnings and sharp rebukes if they weren’t paying attention and they loved it.I think snivelling first years was his best insult. The kids had a goblet each and mixed spoonfuls of the ingredients with warnings from Snape that this one would have your enemies on the toilet for a week etc (nothing like a bit of toilet humour for a crowd of 6 year olds) The highlight was after Snape had poured the vinegar into each goblet and spooned in the bread soda and each child had their own explosion. The smell did linger in the basement for a few days ,mostly the vinegar and the anchovies but it was worth it.

 

 

We had a simple outdoor class with Professor Sprout aka Collette who donned her robe and marched the kids to the barn for herbology. I had planted lavender that year and had saved all the purple pots, purple being a colour most associated with magic. They all planted a hyacinth bulb to bring home ( and hopefully encourage the magic of gardening)

 

 

We had a treasure hunt in the garden with the children following clues to a library in the kitchen. Weeks of glueing pages of old books together and cutting out a square to make a book safe were worth it as each kid got to pick a book to take home with a torch and beads inside. I had great fun with the titles and the prep for this one. I went to my Dad’s friend who owns that wonderful little book shop on the hill of Tara and asked him for old books that I could destroy without it playing on my conscience . He managed to dig out lots of old hardbacks which were perfect for the job and they went down a treat .

 

We had divination class in the sitting room with Rachael as Professor Trelawney. She read the kids tea leaves and told fortunes and this was a huge hit.

 

 

 

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Fishing for stars in the pond

 

We had dementors chasing the kids, a dragon egg and spoon race, hunting for lost stars in the pond, quidditch on the lawn but the real highlight were the owls. I had been Oldbridge during the summer and met Brian from Newgrange Falconry. On a whim I called him to ask would he bring his owl to a party. With great enthusiasm and generosity he not only brought one but 3 owls and that became care of magical creatures class. Bartina the barn owl formally known as Barty  until one day they found ” he’d ” laid some eggs and they had to change his name. Hence my new owl in the garden is named in tribute to that great day. The kids all got to hold Bartina and she flew onto Sean’s arm for a few tasty treats. They also brought a snowy owl and an American eagle owl but just to look at. We were warned to put our cat inside as although she thought she was stalking the owl , he in fact was lining her up as prey

 

 

 

 

When the party concluded with the feast and the prize giving we had lots of exhausted adults and beaming children. They ate trolls fingers ( sausages) cockroach clusters ( rice crispy buns) jelly snakes and of course cake. For Sean’s 6th birthday I cut up a chocolate tray cake into the shape of a H for Hogwarts and and covered 4 ice cream cones in melted chocolate.I cut out the shapes for the Hogwarts crests and used Sean’s toy model anglia as the car in the whomping willow. The 7th birthday cake was a rather collapsed looking Hogwarts express but with red icing and oreo cookies you can cover a multitude of sins.

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Harry and his best pals Ron and Hermione
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Cake for year 1
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Cake for year 2

 

 

I printed off some certificates and gave each child a folder with a Journal and a quill which were actually just copies with a printed cover glued on and a bic biro ( green of course) with a feather stuck at the end. I included a student card which they  were allowed keep and the second year I found a template online for an origami  marauders map.

 

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Cathy being welcomed with a huge Smyths bag by the birthday boy

The broomsticks were made from the long stems of elderberry bushes and lots of twigs and masking tape. They went home vowing to come back to Hogwarts the next year.I must have spent months getting ready and Padraic would mutter obsessed as he observed the madness but I don’t regret a minute of it. The memories we made together are so precious and recently some of the now teenagers got together to watch the DVD my brother made of the whole thing and revelled in watching their 6 year old selves.  By year 3 I was out of ideas and we switched to a pirate party but that as the saying goes is another story…..

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my sister Cathy and I ready for Hogwarts

 

 

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Professors Trelawney, Dumbledore, McGonnagall and Snape aka Rachael,Padraic,Rosie and Kieran.

Blackberry picking

If one thing transports me to my childhood its picking blackberries. In fact its an image often used in books of children scrambling through the hedgerows, clothes, hands and mouths stained purple with the juice from the autumnal fruit. If you have had the experience of picking blackberries and eating them off the bush in the late summer sun its a memory that tends to stick with you as perfection. This is despite the reality of the brambles scratching your arms, nettles stinging your ankles and the fact that the biggest, juiciest blackberries are always too high to reach.  My memories are of my mother and I driving to Dunsany to my piano lessons and stopping on the return journey to gather up the berries for jam making.The car would be abandoned on the side of the road and we would pick as many as we could with me eating half of them. We also went through a phase of collecting  rose hips as there was a huge push on by Concern to gather them to send to Africa. I remember wondering how expensive it must be to send bags of heavy rose hips all the way to Africa and feeling awfully sorry if that was all they had to eat. It was years later when I reminded my mother about it that she laughed and told me they made a syrup from it as rose hips were very high in Vit C.  Adding to the hazy sense of happiness I remember from this time are the piano lessons with the wonderfully named Gypsy Murray. Her piano was in a small room stuffed with furniture and photographs and she taught me my scales and music pieces from the ages of 6 to 12, pieces that I can still play today despite forgetting anything  I learnt as an older child. But I digress from the blackberries.

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Large brambles growing in one of the ruined outbuildings
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A good haul of ripe blackberries

My mothers brother and sister lived together in Ashbourne and often sold produce at their gate, rhubarb,free range eggs, blackcurrants a few raspberries and occasionally a pot or 2 of homemade jam. I spent a lot of my summers there and would feel very important playing “shop” if there were any customers. I loved listening into the conversations too which would take place often times at the gates with my aunt in full flow and my Uncle nowhere to be seen as he was shy and would never get a word in edgeways.( You can guess which one I take after !)  They would discuss many topics always starting with the weather and how it affected the crops.They would proceed onto general comments on the state of the country and would apportion blame or credit wherever they felt it was due. The conversation would then dip into the real meat by going local and everyone’s antics and mini crimes, scandals and good news would be dissected and analysed to everyones satisfaction. Somewhere along this interaction money would disappear into my aunt’s pinny ( her apron ) and they would both hail each other and promise to see each other at mass on Sunday. I would then be admonished for asking the crass question of how much did you make and sent off to tell my Uncle it was time for his tea.

After tea Uncle John would whistle softly and ask would we go blackberrying. We would head off down the field in the evening sunshine and wrestle with briars and try to avoid the nettles to get at the luscious fruit. We would return home with pounds of fruit and I would fall into bed and sleep for Ireland.

My mother and aunt both made jam and would swap pots of it comparing notes and asking did you get a good set. My two jobs were to add the butter ( yes butter to the jam as it helps make it glossy and stop too much scum from forming according to their jam making wisdom ) and I would then get to put on the wax discs on top of the hot jam to prevent it from going mouldy in storage.

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Adding the sugar to the berries
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Putting the wax discs on the jam
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Testing for a good set
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Labels and lids finish the job

I grew up ,went to college, got a job and fulfilled a lifelong ambition of travelling but never forgot about my jam making. One year we had a craft fair where I worked and I decided to make jam. Uncle John was hauled into service collecting blackberries once more  and storing it in his freezer until I could come and collect it. I remember I made about 200 pots of jams, jellies and chutneys and sold every one of them. I also remember thinking this is very hard work for little return but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

For many years I forgot all about the simple pleasures of blackberry picking until we moved back to the country in 2002. I remember being so delighted the following summer to find blackberries everywhere along the lane beside our house. Our dogs at the time got used to the annual blackberry picking as on the return leg of my walk I would stop to collect as much as I could. Molly my little border collie would eat the lower berries off the bushes or wait patiently beside me until I gave her one.

These days I don’t even have to go down the lane as I allowed a very large briar to grow in one of the old buildings that now houses our hens. Now they peck at my ankles and demand I throw them a few berries as they luckily cannot reach them which leaves all the more for me and my jam making. Homemade jam seems to be well received as a gift so I’ll continue to make it and also enjoy the trip down memory lane.

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The blackberry brambles in the hen house
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A scramble for some of the ripe berries
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Sharing with the hens