” 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

Roses are red or purple or pink

There are few people in the world who don’t like roses and even if they don’t grow them can admire them for their beauty, the stunning colours or the heavenly scent.

As a child I became aware of roses from an early age. I noticed them of course in my mothers garden where she had roses planted climbing over a wooden pergola in the back garden and growing against a wall where she could see them from the kitchen sink. 

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One of my mother’s climbing roses
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A slip I took of one of my mother’s climbing roses

As a child I loved the velvety softness of the petals and would sit with my nose stuck in the rose bud trying to capture the scent. Once while staying with my Aunt and Uncle I caught sight of her glorious red blooms. Intoxicated by their beauty and scent I came up with a cunning plan to make my very own rose perfume. I got a cup and a wooden spoon and pulled as many petals as I could off the gorgeous red blooms. I put them in the cup with some water and was industriously bashing them as hard as I could when the window opened to reveal my aunt Mamie who was absolutely furious. I was only about 6 so I only remember her anger not the words. In fact I was quite indignant as I thought it was rather clever of me. Years later when she died one of the things I made sure to bring with me was that red rose. As luck would have it the root broke as I dug it up but I decided to plant it anyway remembering Margarets advice that “ everything want to live dear”

I didn’t give it any special treatment except a bit of compost and a good water. I did plant it in full sun so to my delight over time it started to bloom.

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My aunt Mary’s ( Maimie ) red rose 50y years old

The scent is still glorious and with this years sun it has put on more flowers than ever before. I don’t even know what variety it is as its probably over 50 years old at this stage but its one of my favourites in the garden.

 

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A perfect bloom on my aunt’s rose in my garden

Below are some of the other roses in the garden this year, many of which came from my Dad’s collection and others which I planted myself or took slips of. I find the dark pink carpet rose to be the best of all for colour and repeat blooming. The top photo is of a rose Constance Spry that never bloomed for me until I wound it around some semi circular supports and now although it only blooms once during the summer its so worth it for its fragrance and the abundance of blooms.

 

Most of the roses below are either ones I grew from slips or came from my Dad’s garden so I don’t have a lot of the names. I do love the second one with the fabulous name Jude the Obscure, highly scented and with numerous blooms its one of my newest additions and its already a favourite. The second last one is unusual with its crimson and white stripes and although its a one hit wonder I think its worth it. A Bourbon rose called Variegata di Bologna its been around since 1909 when it was introduced in Italy. The vibrant orange was a slip from one of my father’s roses. Although I don’t know the names of a lot of them I don’t really mind as they all hold memories for me and bring such joy during their blooming season.

 

 

 

 

Jasmine and the fairy garden

To me a garden has always had the ability to transport me to another world. I have memories of my childhood playing in the far reaches of our garden and imagining myself miles from home. Climbing under a hedge to get into the next field was always more exciting than using the gate. Scaling the huge Ash tree at the end of the garden to sit on a rough plank nailed there by my older brother was my very own Mount Everest. At one end of the garden was a wild area full of rhododendron, keria and periwinkle.The name periwinkle for me used to conjure up all sorts of magic and In there I could and did imagine I was in a jungle battling my way to safety. Our swing was at the edge of the big field at the back of the house and in summer precariously close to a large clump of stinging nettles. As I soared higher and higher on my swing I would imagine all sorts of horrific fates if I should happen to let go and land in the nettles. I never did though it was fun scaring myself with my  daydreaming. We built babyhouses as we called them, with the dried out stems of the previous years native hogweed. We would weave them into a makeshift wall and throw a jumper over the top and although you couldn’t even sit up it was a lot of fun. These memories are in the far recesses of my brain and are rarely brought to the surface. Recently however some very  good friends of our family visited our garden and brought their 3 year old Grandaughter Jasmine. We’ve had many friends and family visit over the years but to see her reaction just brought me back to both my childhood and my sons younger years. She sprinted around the garden looking  into every nook and cranny, she ran up the path in the woodland and disappeared along the path that nowadays only Lily the dog explores.

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Jasmine running at full tilt in search of pixies

She peered into bushes and skipped across the lawns, she exclaimed at plants and flowers and gathered treasure in her tiny perfect hands. When my son met her she piped up with the utmost confidence, I love this garden. Sean who had just being trying to dissuade a 4 year old boy from pulling the heads off all my muscari and not to throw stones was utterly enchanted.”Why is that?” he asked of his tiny friend.” Cos its full of pixies and fairies” she said as if this was completly natural. With that she skipped off with her Nan in hot pursuit who had barely time to say “she just loves it here she thinks its a fairy garden.” What a thrill I got from Jasmine’s face. When she stopped for a minutes rest I asked what she had in her hand, “Treasure” was her breathy response.” Can I see” I enquired. Her tiny little fist opened to reveal its treasure, a few pieces of the purple chip gravel that we use everywhere around the garden, acres of it, but to Jasmine a tot whose imagination has no boundaries it was treasure. I winked at Carol and said if you really want to show her treasure I have some coloured marbles in a dish at the back of the barn.

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Glass marbles or fairy treasure

Off she went chattering away and came back with more treasure, this time in the form of bright blue, red and green glass marbles the flat kind you put in the end of a vase of flowers to hold the stems upright. To her however it was treasure and she brought it home, put some of it carefully in a box and buried it in the garden. For me she left a treasure too, a memory sparked of my own days of youthful flights of fancy, memories of my son playing in the dark forest at the back of the garden and a new look at my garden as a world of endless possibitites if you only have the imagination. 

 

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Jasmine running across the lawn

 

The Poet’s Daffodil (Narcissus Poeticus)

This lovely daffodil is still blooming in the woodland corner of the garden and its early June. Naturalized  throughout much of the Eastern part of the United states it is grown widely in Holland and France for its fragrance.

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Poeticus daffodil

It is also known as pheasant’s eye which is self explanitory once you see it. I had heard about this daffodil and was surprised and delighted to see it on sale last autumn in Lidl. So I threw a few bags in on top the groceries and went home to plant some in the woodland. There was no sign of them for ages but I did know that they were a later blooming daffodil. I decided to research them a bit and what an interesting story a simple bulb can have.

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Also known as Pheasant’s eye daffodil I have them planted in amongst the ferns

They are one of the ancient daffodils appearing in botanical writings as early as the 4th century BC.  Virgil has written about a daffodil that many historians think was Narcissus poeticus  though there are a few others in contention for that honour such as tazetta. It has also featured in some of the Greek and Roman legends. The most famous one of these is the legend of Narcissus who was punished for his vanity by the Goddess of vengeance Nemesis. This I found interesting from a language point of view as the words narcissist and nemesis are a common part of our speech today.

Depending on whether its Greek or Roman Mythology the one theme is that Narcissus was so beautiful everyone fell in love with him though he however rejected all his suiters . One day he stopped by a stream to drink and saw his reflection and fell entranced with his reflection. He remained at the pool unable to eat or drink until he pined away and died.  In the Greek version it was a young man Ameinias who fell in love with him. Narcissus rejected him but gave him a sword which he used to kill himself on Narcisuss doorstep. As he died he pleaded with the Gods to punish Narcissus for his cruelty.

In the version by Ovid the wood nymph Echo fell in love with Narcissus but did not dare to approach him. When she finally did he rejected her and she faded away until nothing was left of her but an echo. This part of the story is similar as the Goddess of vengeance Nemesis is said to have punished him by making him become obsessed with his own reflection in a pool and when he died  turned him into a daffodil that historians believe could be Narcissus Poeticus.

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In the woodland

Another legend is of gentle Peresphone who while gathering daffodils with her friends was captured and brought to live in the Underworld by Hades. This in turn led to the custom of decorating graves with these flowers. These myths and legends are fascinating and certainly deserve a more in depth study than I have given them here. But I digress, so back to daffodil Poeticus.

Poeticus daffodils are also very heavily scented and are used as a base for many of the modern perfumes. The narcissus essential oil made from these daffodils are used as one of the main ingredients in 11% of modern perfumes. The oil is said to smell of Jasmine and Hyacinth.  Like all daffodil bulbs they are poisonous if eaten and  narcissus poeticus even more so causing vomiting and irritation if ingested.

So what I initially thought to be just a humble daffodil has in fact a fascinating history.

If you know any poets wouldn’t they be a lovely gift.

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This bee seems attracted by the heady scent

 

Uncle John’s Champagne Rhubarb

In a corner of my garden I have a rhubarb patch, not any ordinary rhubarb but champagne rhubarb and rhubarb with a history. 

When I was a little girl we visited my Uncle John and Aunt Mamie in Ashbourne numerous times every week . They were my mothers unmarried brother and sister and were like an extra set of parents to us. I loved their garden and like many of their generation they gardened from necessity as well as for the love of it. My Uncle tended mostly to fruit and vegetables and my aunt to the roses and flower beds. They had plum and pear trees and numerous apple varieties.He had gooseberries, loganberries, blackcurrants and raspberries and many a summer I was pressed into service picking fruit so my aunt could make jams and chutneys. At the very top of the garden in a very carefully tended plot the rhubarb grew. Uncle John would spend hours up there taking care of it, watering it in dry weather and hauling huge wheelbarrows of manure home from the nearby cattle mart where he worked.” Its a wet thing rhubarb “ he would pronounce and then he would extol the virtues of feeding it with manure. He would start in October by covering the rhubarb stools with manure and sometimes a little straw. Over winter he would soak manure in big vats of water placed carefully beside the rhubarb and in Spring he would slosh the muddy smelly water around the base of the rhubarb patch. Occasionally he would force some early rhubarb for Easter under a large bucket but mostly he would let nature take its course and wait for it to grow into long strong stems the most gorgeous shade of red. I always enjoyed pulling it as it felt very satisfying to feel it pull with a sucking sound from the base of the plant. He explained how to pull it low down to ensure it didn’t break off and would also point out that this kept the plant producing more stems of the delicious vegetable. Rhubarb is often wrongly considered a fruit as it is mainly used as a dessert or in jams but technically its a vegetable ( yes I know botany is weird). He would tell me that the parent or grandparent of his rhubarb had come from the Champagne region of France as a gift for the Bishop of Dublin.It  had been planted and flourished in the garden of the Bishops Palace in Drumcondra in the 1940’s. Uncle John’s cousins lived in Coldwinter in Finglas which back in those days was in the country. This part of the rhubarbs history is somewhat hazy as I seem to remember that one of the family worked in Drumcondra and acquired a few stools of the prized rhubarb which was then passed on to Uncle John. He of course set about making a rhubarb patch to be proud of and my memory of it is of this huge area with about 30 large clumps of rhubarb growing away happily in the top corner of a field. We had rhubarb jam, rhubarb tarts and rhubarb crumble, all mouthwateringly delicous as both my aunt and mother were wonderful cooks. My aunt would sell it at the gate with a handmade sign “Rhubarb for sale” and along with fresh eggs they often did quite well. In later years the local Supervalu discovered it and would buy as much as they  could produce to make their rhubarb tarts for the bakery.  When my Uncle went to live in a nursing home his house was sold to help pay his fees and I knew the chances were that the rhubarb would be ploughed into the ground . Before the sale I dug up as many of the stools as I could and dragged them to my car. On instruction from my Uncle I choose a site which had very rich soil as it had been used to dump all the old straw from the cow sheds. The earth was dark and full of earthworms so I figured it would be happy here. Now 15 years later I carry on his tradition and manure the rhubarb in late winter and water it well when the weather is dry.

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During a rare dry spell we had to water

I pull it and give to my friends who also have their own memories of homemade rhubarb tart. I make 2 jams, rhubarb and strawberry and rhubarb and ginger and try to make at least one  rhubarb crumble with grated orange. I freeze the excess and sometimes wonder what I can do with it all. An interesting side note is that the leaves are actually poisonous and during WW2 English soldiers died in France after eating the leaves rather than the stems.

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The Rhubarb is thriving here

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We actually have Uncle John’s raspberries too but that’s another story
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John ( Left ) as a young boy with his siblings including my mother as a baby  circa 1926
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John as a young man
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My favourite photo of Uncle John and my son. The affection was entirely mutual.

Dawn walks with Dad

In memory of  Mickey Kenny 28/07/1928-09/05/2013

About five years after I left home I moved back briefly between jobs. I was running a craft shop I’d opened in the village and was enjoying living back with my parents as an adult. For a year I rose early and went for many dawn walks with my Father. We walked in Winter when it was barely light, in Spring when the early morning mists would shroud the lanes and hedgerows in mystery, in summer with the full heat of the sun lighting up the fresh green growth and in autumn when fog and rain could still not hide the vibrant colours of the changing leaves. For Dad every season had its own beauty. He would shake his head and express wonder that people in Ireland always moaned about the weather. We live in the most temperate climate he would say, no extremes of heat or cold,no extended drought, no hurricanes, no earthquakes, no volcanos, very little snow and most of the time a nice balmy 15 degrees.  He would always carry a walking stick and would point out cobwebs with raindrops, a birds nest woven perfectly into a hedge, thick soft moss on an ancient stone or the cracked bark on a gnarly tree . He had a quick mind and a vast knowledge and interest in local history. He knew where old  holy wells still existed and would talk at length about old customs and folklore. Long before he died I would think with regret that much of what was in that wonderful mind would disappear with him. I tried to listen and learn but am aware I only retain a fraction of what he knew. He did however instill in me a love and awareness of where we live and the beauty all around us. He also ignited an interest and a respect for our history for what went before. He never left Ireland, never went on a “foreign holiday “ and my much travelled mother gave up trying and went off with her brother and sister instead. I had the travel bug from a young age and would come home after various trips to extol the virtues of France or New York or Australia and he would listen with intense interest and look at the photos and would make insightful observations. One year I rang him while on a motorbike tour of Spain. We had spent the day driving through Valencia and I commented on the wonderful smell in the air. Dad immediately said oh yes that would be because the orange blossom is in flower now in Spain. For a man who never physically left Ireland I think he travelled more in in his mind that I ever did

.Every morning we would set out, him with his walking stick and dog at his heels and me trying to keep up both physically and mentally.

Sometimes we would only cross the road and go down the lane across from our house. When we were only at the head of the lane he would tell me about the croppies who were killed on this spot , then further down in the fields we would walk across the walls of a sunken house he called the 4 windows. In another field on the other side of the village he told me the earth under our feet was a rich vein of potters clay discovered hundreds of year before but never mined. Nearby he walked into a field and found an old thorn tree and said yes I think this is the site of St. Seachnall’s well. We returned one afternoon and dug out the earth pushed in by years of cattle walking the land. We uncovered the round well with the kneeling stone still intact. He told me it had been a well since pagan times as had many of the holy wells in Ireland. When Christianity came they just slapped a Saints name on as they were wise enough not to risk giving up access to the water. He said it would have been rich in sulphur and therefore would have been considered to have healing properties. We would walk the Hill of Tara when no one else was awake or mad enough to be out in middle of winter for a stroll. We walked to the stone of Destiny, we gazed into the mound of the hostages and we stood at the head of the banqueting hall and he asked me to imagine it in its heyday with the High King seated at the top and everyone else in descending order of their rank seated accordingly. We visited the sloping trenches one summer morning and lay down under a tree where he promptly fell asleep. I lay there listening to bees buzzing lazily above my head, the dog panting in the heat and my Dad snoring gently beside me and thought This, This is a perfect moment. We went to his farm in Drumree where we would walk across the fields and he would proudly tell me he’d never put fertilizer on the land and that was why it was full of not just grass but wild herbs. He’d hand me a leaf of wild sorrel and I learned to love its bitter taste, he’d pull vetches from the ditch and open the little pods to reveal tiny ripe black peas which despite their tiny size were full of flavour. We’d walk to his far field where there was an unusual mound that he’d shown to a local archaeologist . We’d walk home along the lane and he’d tell me that those ditches were dug as  famine relief work and when I’m gone they’ll be bulldozed out of here. He showed me where the land undulated gently and explained that they were the old potato ridges from the famine times which were never ploughed out . We’d stroll home along the lane in Spring and the primroses were so cheerful and sweet pushing their little heads up through long grass and moss. These he’d pick in big clumps to bring home to my mother and despite also pulling some of the grass they were always received with a laugh and an exclamation of oh you DO love me as she’d plant a kiss on his blushing cheek. We climbed down into ditches and up the other side because he wanted to show me the old mass path where during penal times people would go cross country to hear mass. We walked and talked and examined nature up close and personal.We often surprised pheasants or a fox and saw lots of hares and rabbits out for their early  morning constitutional. We saw the seasons change and he would exclaim at the delights that each one would bring. Unfurling leaves with bright new green or  primroses and violets in Spring, the lush growth of grass in summer, the gorgeous colours of autumn and the quiet calm beauty of winter. We would visit the old graveyard in the village and he’d point out my ancestors on both sides of the family and the holly tree his father had planted under which he and his family were buried. He would say with a grin “ I’ll be going in there someday too” and I’d push him and say “ah go on Dad not for a while yet”. We’d visit Trevit graveyard and he’d wander from stone to stone telling me stories of the different families buried there. His father had been the local postman and had a great knowledge of the graveyards. In those days if you died overseas it was common to be brought home for burial and it was my Grandad who often told the undertaker where the family plot was. He told a story of an unusual stone with a mermaid on it. How the family had taken the family crest of a mermaid when they were saved from drowning off the West of Ireland by one  who guided them safely to shore.

We would drive to Lough Crew near Oldcastle and climb the hill to the megalithic passage tombs where the view and sense of history were breathtaking. I listened to tales of the Hags chair and ancient art. Once we even walked from one peak to another cross country which took us hours. Crossing some farmland I was anxious we were trespassing until a farmer came out and hailed my father as an old friend and they chatted about cattle prices and local gossip before we continued on our way.

Before it was fashionable we went mushroom picking or foraging as they call it now. Dad would pick a long piece of grass with a strong stem and a thick seed head. We would then scour the fields for the little white treasures with me crowing with delight if I found them before he did. He would show me how to push the hard dry stem of the grass through the soft stem of the mushroom and that way we could carry numerous stems each hanging with up to 10 mushrooms. On some occasions he would be known to gather the edges of a none too clean hanky to bring them home. He just ignored the lecture he would then get from my mother. I had grown up with these stories and these images but that year of dawn walks cemented them in my mind. In this day of technology we have the world at our fingertips, the touch of a button and we can see all the wonders of the world through virtual travel. I also have been lucky enough to have travelled the world and have seen at first hand many wonderful things. However to me nothing compares to those memories of being at one with nature and at ease in the company of my father on those early morning walks..

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Mickey brings a group on the mass path walk.
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Mickey Kenny 1928-2013
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Feeding the donkeys with his Grandchildren
At Moynalty Steam threshing
At Moynalty Steam threshing

This weekend its all about Tulips

When you think of raiding and looting in history what springs to mind ?

Ancient relics perhaps ? Maybe hoards of precious gems and gold or rare art. How about Tulips anyone ?

Yes Tulips which are now available everywhere from  garden centres to your local Supermarket were once so highly sought after that gardens were pilfered and raided for these prized bulbs.

 Originally from the Ottoman Empire these bulbs are now synonomous with Holland. They were introduced to the Dutch in the 1600’s and immediately became popular. When a virus caused unusual flame type colouring but didn’t kill the bulb their popularity soared even higher and demand went through the roof. Families lives were wrecked as trading in tulips became so popular that when Tulip Mania took hold it caused one of the first economic bubbles. Bulbs became so sought after that the prices soared and by the the mid 1600’s people were offering their houses in exchange for bulbs. Deals were struck in what would eventually be known as futures trading as they were buying the bulbs and not the flowers themselves. Eventually the bulbs became so incredibly expensive that even speculators couldn’t afford to buy them and demand disappeared overnight ruining many families. ( In early 1637 a single bulb of the rare Semper Augustus could fetch enough to buy a substantial house on the canal in Amsterdam or feed a few families for years. Despite the crash and loss of income the Dutch luckily retained their interest and love of tulips. They continued to breed and sell these gorgeous flowers thankfully at a price that everyone can afford. Every year huge there are huge tulips fairs all over Holland and magnificent displays of every species and colour of tulip imaginable. Turkey too has its own tulip gardens which are breathtaking in their colour and sheer size. Many of the famous gardens in the UK such as Wisley and Sissinghurst have wonderful tulips displays and plant hundreds of thousands of these bulbs every year. The Tulip is Hollands national flower and rightly so as it is one of the main exporters of these  spectacular bulbs . Tulips became so popular they featured in paintings and had festivals dedicated to them. To us gardeners I think its the sheer exuberance and variety of colours that bring us such joy. They bloom at a time of year when we are all tired of winter and drab skys and they herald in the summer with all its garden pleasures to come. 

Semper Augustus Tulip
Semper Augustus Tulip

When growing these garden delights the main thing to remember is they originated in Turkey where its mainly dry winter or summer. Tulips don’t like to have wet feet so try to plant them where there’s good drainage.  Most huge gardens open to the public replant tulips every autumn in their thousands as many types especially the doubles don’t do well in following years. I thinks thats such hard work so in future am going to plant the non repeat tulips in pots and just enjoy them for their brief but glorious reign from April to May.

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A gorgeous striped parrot tulip which did not come back this year

Then the worker bees of the tulip world such as all the  Darwin Hybrids will go in the beds so I don’t have to disturb everything each  autumn. Nothing annoys me more than putting a spade through a perfectly good bulb I forgot was there and as I also have snowdrops and other bulbs I want something that is perennial. For Tulips that come back reliably I’m continuing to plant a few favourites. Spring Green is a gorgeous white with a green stripe, Ballerina is a gorgeous orange, Appledorn is a great Darwin Hybrid which  comes in shades of red, yellow and an mix of the two colours. I haven’t tried it yet but believe Princess Irene is a reliable and gorgeous orange . Plant in November in a sunny position and plant as deeply as you can.

 

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Tulip Mount Tacoma with the more perennial Spring Green behind
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Tulip Appledorn panted with bluebells under some Silver Birch
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Extremely reliable Darwin Hybrid Tulip . I’ve had these Appledorn tulips for years 
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Cheerful tulip Little red riding hood in a pot

 

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Tulip Ballerina .Another perennial Tulip

Bear Hunt

When my son was small we would often go off for the day on ” adventures.” We loved the book We’re  going on a bear hunt and one of our favourite places to go was to what every local calls” the Monks in Collon”.

We were introduced to it by my friend Sinead and we would all head off together the 3 kids in tow. Such a simple thing really as we were only heading up the road but to children it must have seemed vast. While driving we would chant the words from the book and there was a real sense of anticipation and excitement.  As you go  in the gate there’s a picture perfect  waterfall on the left. Then you drive up under the canopy of trees and you feel like you’re deep in a forest. We’d park the car and the kids would tumble out and race ahead of us to the maze. In April it was always full of primroses and bluebells and the odd nettle to sting unsuspecting ankles. The kids would scramble out of the car  and rush through this wilderness and search for each other or sometimes seek out the chocolates we’d hide along the way. We would hear them shrieking with laughter and wonder. To them this simple maze must have seemed enormous  and when finally we would all  meet in the centre we used to feel  we’d been on our very own great adventure. Never found any bears though !

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The waterfall at the entrance
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The drive up
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Entrance to the maze
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Primroses line the edge of the maze
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The tree in the centre of the maze

After that we’d stroll up to the giant trees beside the little graveyard and the kids would marvel at how the trees had grown so huge that they had touched the ground and almost re grown from where they lay. They would climb along the trunks and being kids not worry about adult fears like the sap staining their clothes or the bark scratching their knees. To them it was whatever they wanted it to be and to hear the peals of  laughter as they played hide and seek was such a joy.

Kids paradise

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Natures climbing frame
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This was the scratchy one
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This tree is like a giant snake

A few times when we had someone for first communion we would go up to the little shop the monks have and buy some memento. The children loved it and picked out rosary beads and mini statues of the Child of Prague and miraculous medals. It was extra special if the monk would have them blessed and I hope those keepsakes will be discovered some day and trigger the memory of a happy carefree day .

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Looks like a giant May altar

I know I’m sometimes very nostalgic and this is mostly because I’m lucky enough to have some wonderful memories of childhood myself which I think help form the adult you later become. Good memories are like a safety blanket and can comfort us in times of need and make us feel secure in our place in the world. I like to think that these few hours out will stand to my son and his pals as happy childhood memories.

So you are now wondering what the heck has this got to do with gardening? If you’ve read this far” bear” with me ( dadum I’m here all week folks ! )  I tend to see the world through the lens of gardening so imagine my delight when I was told that you could buy plants in the Melifont Abbey gardens. Bear hunts AND plants what a great combination.

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I buy most of my greenhouse vegetables there as they sell some great tomato varieties such as Shirley and Tumbler. I also get cucumber, courgette and peppers. In the past I got herbs such as parsley  and tarragon and last year managed to grab a few sungold tomato plants. They also sell some nice perennial plants and sometimes there’s barely room for me in the car when I’ve filled it with lavender, geums, aquilegia and ferns. Every time I turn in the gate I’m reminded of those earlier times and I’m grateful it’s there and so accessible. With a carload of plants and precious memories who could ask for more.

 

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