Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas with my Great Grandfather.

My Great Grandfather, Charles Hawkins, was born the year of the Famine.  Sadly, despite the title of this blog, I never met him much less spent Christmas in his presence.  I sat at my grandmother's knee and at my mother's, it was there that I heard about Christmas long ago. 
Pappy, as he was known, ran away to sea at a young age. After rounding the Horn in horendous conditions under the command of a cruel Captain he and a fellow seaman jumped ship in Valparaiso.  Now I must jump some years.  Pappy was a brilliant man and a wonderful artist.  He joined the Irish Lights and during his long career he was stationed, eventually as Principal Keeper, on some of Ireland's wildest and most remote Lights.  He painted prolifically, magnificent oils and water-colours of the sea and it's ships.
Pappy was stationed at the end of his career at the little lighthouse on the East pier in Howth, a quiet fishing village accessed by tram and train in those long-ago days.  He was a devout man and loved Christmas.  Granny loved to tell me about the wonderful Christmas Eves when he would gather his wife and his children on Christmas Eve for prayers....then, by the rosy glow of oil lamp and roaring fire the Great man would pour a small glass of sherry or port for the adults and older children as a hush of expectancy filled the room.
Pappy would settle in his favourite chair with his family all around him and he would open his well-worn copy of Charles Dicken's 'A Christmas Carol'.  As the family listened, enthralled, he read aloud the entire story.  Granny told me it was a wonderful experience which stayed with her all her long life.
Pappy retired and the family, those still living at home, remained in Howth.  Howth Castle was then the home of Lord Howth.  The gardens and parklands of Howth Castle were planted out abundantly and the woodlands boasted massive Holly bushes.  Lord Howth was fond of Pappy and told him to come and go as he pleased and to pick as much Holly and festive greenery as he wished.  Granny married and went to live in Clontarf, 7 or so miles down the coast from Howth.  At Christmas Pappy would go into the grounds of the Castle and, before gathering any for his own house, he would gather and tie a massive sheaf of ruby-berried Holly branches.  Then, elderly though he was, he would hoist the festive bundle onto his shoulders and would walk, by choice, beside his beloved sea along the Clontarf road finally arriving at Castle Ave with the wherewithall for Granny to festoon the bungalow.  I often drive along that road, it has changed of course but it still follows the sea between Howth and Clontarf.  I never fail to imagine the old man with his full head of white hair and a sprightly step bearing his load of deep green, red-berried treasure to make his daughter's and his grandchildren's Christmas just that little bit more special.
How I wish I could have knelt at his knee in the warm glow of the fire, the lifesaving beam sweeping the rocks and waves outside, and to have heard his rich, deep voice begin....."Marley was dead to begin with...."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Blue Plastic Bucket

If you were to visit my house and wished to use the bathroom I'd probably direct you down the corridor to the ''Children's Wing''  Shower-room.  The phrase ''Children's Wing'' has a story all its own.

You might notice a small sky-blue/turquoise bucket on the floor.  Nothing significant to notice.  It's just a plastic sand-bucket a small child might have at the sea-side.  These days it serves to hold a can of aerosol, and some bathroom odds and ends.  As I said, nothing significant, nothing remarkable........perhaps you've been in that room and not even noticed it.

It was June 2007, after battling bone cancer for 15 years Joy was thrilled to be in Fethard, her favourite place on earth.  She was very thin, somewhat frail but I remember that she laughed so much that summer, just threw her all into what were to be her last months among us.

That year we spent time in Fethard for parts of June, July, August, September and October.  It was the year of the Elephants, it was also the year of the Blue Bucket.  When we take up residence in the Bungalow each year the first thing I do is go to the local shop and buy a big bunch of flowers, I add foliage and wild flowers to these and we're ''home''.   In the absence of vases I use the coffee pot, cut-down drinks bottles, anything.  that year, as I wandered around Dillons Londis I spotted a tower of colourful buckets beside a stack of spades and boogie-boards.  I took a yellow one in one hand and a blue one in the other, closed my eyes and liked what my mind saw......the blue bucket sitting on the mantle with flowers spilling out all around it.  I brought my bucket back to the house where it served its puropse holding a succession of lilies, honeysuckle, dog-daisies and poppies.

We left Fethard in the middle of July and I brought my bucket home.  Three weeks later we returned to the Bungalow and Bucket came too.  That summer was beautiful, yes it did rain but we were blessed with days of sunshine.  How often we do things, experience things, not knowing that it's to be the last time.

Joy was always first into the water with us young ones.  She loved bracing the rollers on Pettis and enjoyed walking through the water all the way along the beaches.  We think life will stay the same.  That summer, 2007 Joy made it down to the beach a couple of times.  On Duncannon we could just drive onto the beach.  Sadly the majestic Atlantic beaches, our favourites....Pettis and Sandeel were just impossible for her.  One beautiful day that August, Juliet was also with us, Mum and I took Joy to Grange beach.  She managed the slope slowly with her stick and leaning on Juliet's shoulder.  We made ''camp'' at the bottom of the slope ann mum and Joy sat in their chairs while Juliet and I threw ourselves into the sparkling sea.  I swam out a bit and, looking back to shore, saw the tiny figure of Joy sitting happily, holding up the childs umbrella she used to shade her delicate skin from the sun.  I treaded water and waved.  I can still see her as she waved back at me, something in her wave made me know she was smiling, smiling wistfully.  I came in and dropping down beside her told her how lovely the water was.  Her feet were swelling in the heat and from her illness and I so wanted her to be able to dip them in the sea.  I grabbed the blue bucket and brought it down to the waves.  I went back and forward pouring the cool, refreshing sea-water down her shins as she closed her eyes in bliss.

The tide was almost fully in and I saw some children running, squealing from the water.  There were jelly-fish  and small crabs everywhere.  This sometimes happens at high tide in the evening.  I grabbed Blue Bucket and ran into the sea and managed to scoop two small sapphire blue jelly-fish into the brimming bucket.  They swam round and round the bucket like little jets, filling up, puffing up then scooting forward.  It was beautiful and I had to share the moment.  Mum had gone for a paddle, Juliet was sun-bathing and I held the bucket on Joy's lap.  She gazed in at the lovely water-dance taking place.  It was a special, precious few moments.  Because of Blue Bucket I was able to bring the sea to my beloved Aunt.  Soon the crabs were everywhere and all the children ran to safety.  I grabbed Old Bluey and somehow managed to dive head down and eventually I caught a small crab and, delight of delights, a hermit-crab in my hand.  I slipped them into the bucket and ran to show them to Joy.  As she watched them her merry smile turned wistful and she asked me to pour some more water on her feet.  I put the crabs back into the water and gave Joy what was to become her last feel of the mighty sea on her limbs.

We returned to Fethard twice more, packing so much happiness and so many memories into the days.  Joy was never happier.  Bluey was always there....either holding flowers or being used to carry things.

On October 18th we returned to Fethard.  Mum, Joy, their friend Ida and me. There was a big party planned in nearby Horetown House for my Mum's 80th birthday.  Joy had been busy for weeks planning this treat for her sister.

On Friday night just before going to bed Joy went over the seating-plan with me........the following morning at shortly after 7am Joy layback into my arms where I was sitting on her bed, gave one short breath, closed her eyes and died.  I washed her hair for the last time before laying her on a snow-white pillow where family and friends could come to say their farewells....Blue Bucket carried the water I used to rince the shampoo from her lovely head.

Next time you see something somewhere.  Something insignificent, unremarkable......you never know what stories it could tell.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


The other day we disturbed a Tortoishell butterfly which had just gone into hibernation in some curtains.   We have them all over the house during winter and we usually know where they are and have no need to disturb them.  About two years ago one of these beautiful creatures had taken up residence in my en-suite.  I came and went, bathing etc without causing so much as a flicker of her prayer-like wings.  One cold, cold day I put the heater on for a good hour before having a bath.  When I came into the bathroom to light my candles and soak in the warm water I noticed that my butterfly was awke and fluttering about.....the heat of the room had confused her sleep.  I wash my hair when I bathe so the bubbles come at the end of the bath,  I was sitting, singing to myself and scooped up a handful of water to splash over my shoulder when the beautiful, delicate creature fluttered down onto my hand.  I sat quiet as a statue and just gazed, enraptured as she moved on to the edge of my little finger and began to drink from the small well of water in my hand.....putting out her long proboscus and curling it back up time after time.  The water grew cold but I didn't care because what was happening was so beautiful, so extraordinary I didn't want it to end.  After a time she flew off my hand but landed again on my shoulder and 'licked' the water from my skin....it was so gentle I could barely feel it.  Every time I see a Tortoishell butterfly I think back to the beautiful moments when one drank from my hand.  I doubt this will ever happen again........but I was blessed.  The smallest wonder can make any day special and you would be surprised how sudenly you cna be ''surprised by joy''

Sunday, October 3, 2010

All Creatures Great and Small

I was 15.  It was August, late August way back when summers shimmered and fed us with their glow.

There is a hotel in Foulksmills, Co. Wexford.  Horetown House.  Some of you may know it now.  It is a sumptuously appointed 4*, overly priced place......though very beautiful.  Ah, but I jumped through time, so let me take you back to an idyllic time which I was so very blessed to know.   Horetown House was owned by the Young family, Theo, Vera and their 3 sons and 1 daughter.  We discovered it whilst in Fethard where a tantalising poster hung in the Post Office.  It offered Pony Trekking for all abilities and all ages. I already loved horses and had done a little riding.  We teen-agers squeeled with delight and begged and cajoled until mothers and fathers packed us into cars and made the journey past the honeysuckle hedgerows.  Mum had gone to the Village phone box and turned the handle (do you remember those?) the operator put her through to Horetown and she booked a lesson and trekk for 5 of us.  Foulkmills, especially then, was a small, pretty village dominated by a beautiful water-mill, still in use.  There were tall trees and glorious wild flowers everywhere.  Horetown House is set about a mile outside the village.  We drove through the gates, and entered a huge hall hung with trophy heads shot (remember this was another age) by the previous owner, a Major Laken.  Theo was a farmer and his wife, Vera ran the hotel.  It was a house which embraced you as soon as you entered, a little run-down but oh so wonderful.  Theo with the help of his son Robert ran the Trekking Centre.  This is a story in itself but I must skip from 13 to 15 in a few words.  It became my second home.  Vera welcomed young people from around the world to stay in 'lesser' accomodation at the top of the house.  One could go for a week, full board, all day riding for half price if we were prepared to muck-out, groom and help in the kitchen.  Everyone loved Horetown and, in the evening elderly couples with no interest in horses, various tourists and a bunch of boys and girls, boots left at the front door, lounging in Jodhpurs, would gather after dinner and sing along with Vera playing the piano. Then before bed-time, as the evening star was coming out, a huge trolly was wheeled into the Drawing Room laden with tea, hot-chocolate, biscuits, cake and buns. It was during one of these magical ''Special'' weeks, that I was left with memories which could never be repeated.  I was in Horetown with my friend Sally.  We had been allocated a pony each.  We were completely in charge of our pony.  After a hearty breakfast we'd wander down the dusty lane to the stable-yard, past vast blossoming hedges and tall trees on one side, and pasture/parkland on the other.  Mucking out and grooming done, we'd be in the saddle all day either having lessons, riding out or just messing about.....riding down to the local shop, tethering our ponies to the petrol pumps, then returning lazily swaying, one hand on the reins the other gripping a large ice-cream.   After supper, as the sun was burning with that last, low intensity of an August evening, we would take the ponies out for a last, glorious half hour.  In those days the milking was done by hand in Horetown, we drank greedily of frothy, unpasteurised milk.....none of us the worse.  At evening milking-time, and this is the memory of memories, we'd unburden the horses of their saddles and swing ourselves back up on the hot, sweating animals.  Sometimes we'd lean forward along their necks, bury our noses in their manes and just hug them.  I can still remember the sweat from the flanks soaking into my jodphurs, and with my face buried in the musky neck, I felt as though my pony and I were one.  Then, on Robert's 'command' we'd (usually 4 or 5 of us) ride bareback down the winding lane to the ''Flesh'' field where the milk-laden cows would be waiting with bees buzzing around their heads.  We would then herd the cows back up the lane into the byre in the stable yard.  Horses, ponies seen to we then went into the byre and, if we wished, we would help with the milking.  How can I ever describe those day-ends.  Sitting on a milking stool breathing in the sweet cow smell with only the buzzing of bees, the chewing of hay and the ''swish-swosh'' of milk into the pail breaking the silence.  I could have stayed there for ever, with my head resting on the warm flank of a placid cow as I watched the milk I was drawing, fill the bucket held between my knees, with creamy, frothy milk.  After the cows made their swaying, lazy way back down the dusty lane to the ''Flesh'' field.  We would make our way back up past the Parkland on one side and the tall trees and flowering bushes on the other.  We would climb the steps between the colums to the front door, pull off our boots, lay them neatly in a row and, tired but oh so happy, we'd follow the sound of the piano and the smell of the log fire, through the big, square hall with its flagstones and trophy-heads, into the Drawing Room and sing our hearts out.

Monday, September 20, 2010

This ''tale'' has been so often on my mind the I need to share it. I even wrote about in a journal which Mum, Joy and I used to write in Fethard.

Circuses.....How do you view them? Well, a circus came to Fethard in July 07. Joy's last Summer, a glorious summer, one that never once whispered of death or loss. Joy, my aunt and best-friend humoured me and we went to the circus together. It was held in a field outside the village and Joy, though so ill was so very happy. we laughed at the clowns and wondered at the girls standing on the prancing and cantering horses. Then (controversially, I suppose) came two female Asian Elephants. They did their tricks and I was in 7th heaven to feel the swish of air as they passed. During the interval the Ring Master asked (gesturing at the young children!) if anyone would like to sit on one of the female elephants and have their picture taken. Oh, it is to my shame that I do believe I actually knocked little children aside....so great was my desire to be in such close contact with Maiai the elephant. Now, leave it there for the real dream is yet to come....................The day after the Circus Mum, Joy and I passed the field outside the village where the caravans and animals were ''resting'', I literally ran from the car and, finding the 2 elephants grazing in the field, I slipped under the flimsy bailing string and called to the two ''girls''. Something told me I was safe, I can't explain it. There is no explanation. What followed is something I never expected, nor will ever forget. In a field in tiny Fethard-on-Sea, I stood while two beautiful elephants came to me and caressed me with their trunks. I stayed there for at least 5 minutes stroking these immense, beautiful creatures who seemed to be gathering me into a glorious embrace. It was the year of the seal, the year of the elephants and the year of losing Joy. Ah, but what a year. God gives the most unexpected gifts when we least expect them. If I feel sad or weary or just 'fed-up' I can now conjure up the memory of being embraced by two of God's most amazing creatures.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Bouquet of Thoughts

I love flowers. They give me so much joy. There are so many flowers we don't even really see or notice. In the spring the trees begin to flower and I sometimes lie in a tattered old hammock slung between two trees in the front garden and gaze up at the wonderful green blossoms of the sycamore tree, they are almost incandescent....especially in the moonlight. When we were young we used to pick off the flowers of the common Fuchsia, just at the flower base and suck the nectar out. I suppose that was my first experience of ''eating flowers''. Eating flowers, ah there's a wonder. In spring I love to bake cakes and scatter primroses and violets over the top; then in summer rose-petals, nasturtiums, lavender, calendula even daisies turn a meal into a dream-feast. Imagine a hot bee-laden summer day. A garden with spreading trees. In your mind, place a table (rough and rustic as you like) beneath the shade of the leaves. Find an old white sheet to spread on top then scatter the whole thing with petals.....every colour of the rain-bow. Then find a large, rusty metal container or a simple jam-jar and cram full with the bounty of the hedgerows, honey-suckle, goldenrod, cow-parsley, poppies, dog-daisies and pretty grasses. Hang jam-jars with tea-lights from the trees and place some on the table......wait until dusk and enjoy your own Midsummer Night's Dream. I once made rose-petal ice-cream, it was heavenly and often I use lavender instead of (or with) rosemary when roasting meat. Scatter the bright orange or lemon-yellow petals of calendula over new potatoes or stuff nasturtium flowers with cream-cheese. I would encourage everyone to host or just to enjoy with a friend or loved one, a ''Flower Feast'' by moonlight. You will never forget it and it will gladden your heart for years to come. ''A loaf of bread, a glass of wine and thou, beneath me, singing in the wilderness, and wilderness were paradise e'now'' (Omar Khayyam) All that and flowers too.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I have a small pink notebook. I randomly write stuff in it, addresses, quotes, scriptures etc. There is no rhyme nor reason as to where anything might be found so I have to scrabble through the whole thing to find anything. The other day I was frantically searching for a phone number when a photo fell out on my lap. It was a grainy picture of my left arm reaching out to a seal. I had taken the picture myself....the only one I have....to remind me of a beautiful friendship I enjoyed for a whole summer. One sparkling summer day in July '07 some of us set out from Kilmore Quay for the Great Saltee Island, more about that some other time. Our glorious day ended and we waded out to the waiting boat to take us back to the main-land Juliet sat on the port-side gunwale and I on the starboard....we dangled our feet in the sea as we sped through the waves. I spotted a seal following us and I dangled my hand into the water, what happened next will always thrill my heart. I felt a pair of strong jaws take my hand, but gently. I hadn't intended trying to touch the wild creature but he had other ideas. As Kilmore Quay came into sight the seal continued, swimming alongside, ''holding'' my hand. I was enchanted. There were in fact two of them but my seal was obviously very old, seaweed growing down the centre of his back and a cataract on one eye. I fell in love. We came and went to Fethard that summer and often returned to Kilmore Quay, I always brought some fish with me and I would wade into the water at the slip-way. Sure enough my seal always came and gently accepted the proffered fish. He would then roll over and let me rub his tummy, then as silently as he came he would slip back into the waters of the harbour. Seals are wild and can be dangerous, ironically our friendship took place under a large sign which read. ''Do Not Touch or Feed The Seals''. I would become so engrossed in our play that I hardly noticed the crowds of tourists watching and filming the ''Strange Irish Seal Woman''. My last visit to the Quay was in late September and when I looked into my seal's old, sad eyes I knew I would never see him again. The following year the younger seal was there, alone. I feel blessed and privileged to have experienced this love. I often think about it and wonder, ''why me?'', then I hug myself and thank God. When life seems fraught, sad or difficult I either wander out to the garden and the fields or dig deep into the well of beautiful memories such as this. Have a lovely day.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

First day of my Blog. It's late and all is silent outside. Thanks to everyone for lovely comments and messages. Outside the kitchen window a "Fairy Ring" has sprung up, large brown toadstools, not quite a circle. It's wonderful to look at. Just above it a large bramble bush is bowed down with rich, ripening blackberries. As we all go to sleep tonight some blossoms will close their petals as we close our eye-lids. As we dream the animals of the night will go about their business, their wonderful, bright eyes seeing through the blanket of night. Tomorrow, God sparing us, there will be other wonders to discover. Haws and seeds a-plenty for the birds and the harvest safely home. I hope you will visit me tomorrow and see what we can find. God Bless.
On the first morning, monday the 5th, it was raining in Fethard. The horses in Cox's field were whinnying and the huge colony of rooks were holding a noisy ''parliament'' in the tall oaks. At the front of the house a pair of grey doves were huddled, hugging in a very small weeping-birch. Blackbirds foraged in the shrubbery bed, running in and out between the plants while the wood-pigeons sat forlornly on the roof. We took the car as far as Wellington Bridge, where the Owen Duff winds through a rush-lined bed. The tide was full and the small white egrets and grey herons were fishing. On one side of the road there was peace, the river, the rushes and fields fading into the misting rain. On the other side of the road cars, 4x4s, tractors and trucks lined the busy country road outside Wallace's Store and supermarket. We finished our shopping and made out way back to the house just as the sun broke through. I looked out the kitchen windows and saw that the back-lawn was made out of butterflies!! Well, almost. Hundreds of bright dandelions had pushed up through the cut grass and almost every one was playing host to a Tortoiseshell butterfly. They flitted and rose like crimson clouds, changed places and settled again. It was so beautiful. Outside the doves and pigeons were drinking from the rain-gutters. It was a though nature had settled in joy over the house and garden, just as the sun shone. I praised God.

The Beginning

This is my Blog for all my friends who love the birds, beasts, flowers and wonders all around. It is also for me. It's my place to record all the wonderful things, big and small that we sometimes take for granted. It's a blustery Autumn day and this is where I'm beginning.