by Barbara J. Euser
Venturing in Ireland: Quest for the Modern Celtic Soul is the product of a writers’ workshop held in County Cork, Ireland during the summer of 2007. Our group consisted of a dozen writers, instructors and contributing editors Linda Watanabe McFerrin and Joanna Biggar, and workshop organizers Connie Burke and myself. We were all inspired by the people we met and the places we visited in this complex and enchanting isle. As Linda McFerrin said, the anthology reads almost like a novel, as people, places and experiences intertwine from one essay to the next.
For ten days we stayed at the Bellevue Bed and Breakfast in Myrtleville, owned and operated by Benny and Gaby Neff. They sent us out in the morning fortified with exceptionally full Irish breakfasts and welcomed us home at night, sometimes with dinner, other times with spiritual sustenance of music and song.
We were assisted in our quest by a number of people and organizations whom I would like to thank: Ambassador Margaret Hennessey; Lorraine O’Brien; and the Irish Tourism Board that provided support, including our visits to Charles Fort and Desmond Castle, Kinsale; Mizen Head Visitor Centre; Lismore Castle Estate; Lismore Heritage Centre; Cobh Heritage Museum (The Queenstown Project); Crosshaven House; Cork City Gaol and Cork City Museum.
Irish writers in particular captured our attention. We met with poet Desmond O’Grady, whom Nobel prize winner Seamus Heaney called “one of the senior figures in Irish literary life, exemplary in the way he committed himself over the decades to the vocation of poetry.” Alice Taylor, celebrated memoirist, welcomed us into her home. Writers known and unknown from the Cork City Gaol chilled and inspired us with their haunting texts. The anonymous author of the ninth century poem about a writer and his cat made us smile.
Music surrounded us in Ireland and features in a number of the essays. I was particularly impressed with the accessibility of music: in pubs we visited, everyone seemed to participate and we were welcomed to add our voices to the chorus.
In addition to today’s inhabitants of Ireland, we encountered the legacy of Irish emigrants. The tradition of the American Wake, held for emigrants who might never return home, resonated with me. My father left his native Netherlands at the age of twenty-four, younger than my elder daughter is today, to emigrate to the United States. He was the oldest of six brothers. He might have eventually taken over the family farm, but he sought greater opportunities. When he left, his mother cried, fearing she would never see him again. She never did. She suffered a fatal stroke two years after his departure.
It is the intricately woven tapestry of emotion and practicality, magic and mysticism, heartache and song that defines Ireland. I hope these pages will draw you into the richness of Ireland as you join us in our quest for the modern Celtic soul.
by Maureen Wheeler
Ireland, land of soft rain, green grass, poets, writers, strong drink, and even stronger women. Enough of the clichés, Ireland and the Irish have been stereotyped to death, ever since the first talking pictures when American actors thought they could speak with an Irish accent.
However in June this year at least one cliché was true, an invasion of strong women from all over the world stormed Cork, oh and they were writers and poets, so maybe the clichés work. The Writer’s Workshop brought all the women [and one man] whose stories appear in this book together. To eat, drink, play and work, and in the spaces between be soothed by the soft accents, baffled by Irish humour and encouraged to drink the black brew, Guinness (sure it’s good for what ails ye).
The stories recount each writer’s own special response to this special island, to each other, their lives and loves far away and the delicious feeling of liberty and fellowship which comes from being able to take time out of the everyday and enter into a magical realm, where friendship is celebrated through exploration, discovery and the creation of stories.
Stories tell us a lot, about ourselves, about a place, and of course about the writer, and these writers have wonderful stories to tell. I am proud they chose my homeland for their unique gathering and even prouder that the resulting book demonstrates the power of place in inspiring imaginations and nurturing creative souls.
Barbara J. Euser
The Irish Tongue
Irish Comfort Food
High Mass at the Spaniard Inn
The Garden Isle
A Culinary Trinity
Laurie McAndish King
The Holy Ground
Barbara J. Euser
Dancing the Irish Polka
Le Coeur de Cork
The Drummer’s Heart
Mahler in Hi-B
Laurie McAndish King
The Nuns, the Stones and the Spirits
A. Roland Holst
Connecting to Green Roots
The Perfect Quote
Searching for Bracken’s Pub
Barbara J. Euser
All Aboard in Cork Harbor
Linda Watanabe McFerrin
Kathleen, Daughter of Houlahan
A Moving Benedict-ion
A Pub Story
Ann Kathleen Ure
Celtic Tiger, Prairie Dog
About the Contributors
About the Editors
Le Coeur de Cork
by Lenny Karpman
Brian holds court on a rectangular stone slab throne on Patrick St. in Cork’s City Center. I ask him for directions to the English Market. “Are you wanting to have some lunch there or to look into the heart of Cork?” He places his right fist over his left chest and heart. My notepad and camera have given me away. I place my fist, as well, over my heart and answer, “Lub dub.” As a food writer, I always go to markets first. I hope that this market will be my window into the very essence, the heart of Cork, its customs, history, culture, especially its people. His words resonate. Maybe I’ll find lunch as well, while searching for only-in-Cork comestibles. Perhaps I’ll also find in “New Cork” a microcosm of the new Ireland.
He flashes me a smile twice as wide as mine, but with half the teeth. A breeze catches his scraggly white hair. It stands up like a dandelion puff. His cheeks are purple, nose bulbous, and chin so small it looks like an upper Adam’s apple. He directs me to the back entrance off an alley. “Slán,” he says. “Go in good health.”
As I cross the threshold into the market, I am awestruck by this architecturally stunning modern antique. Inside the grand hall, red, yellow, green and gold colors shine in light that diffuses through the leaded glass ceiling, not at all how I envision a 1788 vintage market. It is pristine and odorless except for wafting fragrances near the flower stand. It is nothing like the original Babel of wagons and carts under canvas, reputedly smelling from dead flesh and rotting produce. I was deceived by the alleyway leading to the entrance. It is gloomy, gray, dirty and old. The market arches have alternating black and white capstones radiating above hoary brick like a mosque in Southern Spain.
I walk to a relic waterless fountain, oxidized blue-gray with age in the center of the hall and turn a slow three-sixty with my eyes feasting in every direction. “Excuse me, Sister,” I say as my dervish movements propel me into one of three Catholic nuns in gray habit, taking long purposeful strides across the concourse.
In the distant past, the market was exclusively Protestant. No Catholic merchants, customers, and surely no nuns were allowed. The market sat in the midst of affluent Protestant homes on an island in the Lee River. Gates on the two bridges were locked at night, the Irish market for Catholics residing outside the gates. The island market was therefore called English. The wealthy clientele bought offal, organ meats from cows, pigs and sheep, to feed their servants and pets. Today there are no gates on the bridges. People of all sizes, colors, religions and ethnicities flow around me as one.
A fellow browser sees the collision. Patrick, as old as Brian, shorter and round as a turnip, chuckles “You were run into by the Church, were you? You got to look out for all of them these days. Everyone is in such a hurry. Not me and Peetey. We need to watch where we lean or sit, out of the way of them. This here is Peetey. We sailed together when we were lads.” Peetey is skinny and stooped, barely five feet tall, wrinkled as a prune, and has nicotine-yellow fingers. The market is smoke-free. They both are wearing tattered navy-blue jackets. Patrick’s has buttons. Patrick tells me about the fire in the eighties and how they saved the fountain, reused the timbers and recast the wrought iron stanchions and filigree. An influx of local artisans, a balcony restaurant, and imported foods caused the site to evolve even further. But, to my eyes, the predominant change has been the arrival of new residents from Poland, Lithuania, Nigeria, China, Japan.
Patrick points down the aisle to the left. “Be sure and try some of our new Cork cheese down the way.” Peetey flips a forty-year-old Zippo lighter over and over between his fingers like a gambler with a poker chip. It’s the signal. Peetey needs to go outside for a smoke. They shake my hand with gusto, smile their asymmetric smiles, and amble slowly toward the Spanish arches.
Dutifully, I head for the cheese. There used to be only a single cheese-seller and he had just one cheese, a large round of Emmenthaler. It was so expensive that buyers were few. As a result, the end cut was always dry and hard. It was part of the purchase.
A knowledgeable young man named Tim offers me local cheese wisdom and tastes. I purchase several small pieces. Of two dozen local cheeses, these are my favorites:
Carrigaline—smoked or herb & garlic rounds,
Cashel Blue—milder and less salty than European blues,
Durrus—an award winning delicate farmers’ cheese made from raw cow’s milk (not recommended for first trimester expectant mothers),
Local Vintage Cheddar—bargain rectangles,
Gubeen—cow’s milk rind cheese with flavor akin to French Rebochon and
Killian Brie—silky soft and runny with no hint of the sour over-ripe flavor that accompanies French cheeses, aged excessively to reach comparable texture.
I speculate aloud that a nice spicy kielbasa might go well with the last of my small cheese purchases. Another shopper, Waclav, who moved to Cork from Krakow, overhears my mumbling. “The kielbasa here is too much fat and garlic. Try Czech spicy.” After English, Polish is the second most common language these days. Adjacent to the cheeses at On the Pig’s Back, lean and lovely young Maria is grilling sausages. “I can have one ready for you in five minutes if you like.”
I like. She dresses it with sweet red relish. Waclav is right. It is great, balanced flavor and enough bite to warm my lips. Maria smiles with justified pride.
Under the arch, I sit with my sausage and a strong cup of coffee. Cork’s new gentry parade past. Table mate Irene, with blue tinted white page-boy from another generation, is as chatty and friendly as Brian and Patrick. She tells me that these days housewives, babes in tow, have gone to the suburbs and their supermarkets. “They used to stop by Kay O’Connell’s for a piece of battleboard, mackerel, or herring and a bit of the gossip. They won’t get better value or variety than here,” she says emphatically. She enumerates—and I record—all the types of food that are unique to Cork.
Battleboard is salted ling cod, once a staple, now a rarity. I head for Kay’s, but Kay is gone. Her sons run the place now, pleasant, efficient, modern businessmen, moving politely but quickly among the customers, far too busy to swap gossip. They sell lobster, oysters, mussels, monk fish, razor clams, plaice, hake, salmon, black cod and a little battleboard tucked in a corner.
I notice an Asian woman, artfully made up, who wears a crimson and gold scarf that shines like a beacon among the ubiquitous brown, black, gray and navy native garb.
As I arrive at the vegetable stand, an old woman clad in long black coat and gray scarf walks up beside me. “Hello Mary,” the clerk, Judy, sings out. Mary can’t hear very well. Her worn purse, sensible shoes and weathered shopping bag are black. Surrounded by fruits from North Africa and the Caribbean, Mary eyes only local apples. Puzzled, she inspects a row of designer lettuces. Judy answers a tinny rendition of Handel’s Messiah on her cell phone and turns away. Mary points to a small purple head of radicchio and asks me if it’s cabbage. “It’s a kind of bitter lettuce,” I answer. She chooses butter lettuce, two carrots, a small head of spring cabbage and four potatoes, the same choices that she has made “for fifty years,” Judy whispers, off the phone. She says so many old folks are rigid culinary traditionalists, just like Mary.
Atop Irene’s only-in-Cork food list is drisheen, sheep’s blood pudding made with an herb called tansy. I’ve never heard of tansy. Neither has Judy. She points across at a butcher who sells drisheen and might know about tansy.
Undaunted, I head there. Drisheen, he tells me, is lighter in color than black pig’s blood pudding, a mixture of sheep and cow blood, seasoned with the mystery herb. It is packed into tubes of inverted sheep intestine, boiled, split open, sliced into rounds, and usually added to sweet and fork-tender tripe, simmered in milk with onions for hours. He is shy and asks to remain anonymous. Barely forty, far too young to know these tales first hand, he regales me with old market stories for an hour, mostly about the times when there were several drisheen makers. Now there is one. His heart is with tradition and his elders. In his meat case sit logs of local spiced beef, another Cork special on Irene’s list. Brined in water and stout, the beef is rolled in a mélange of thirty-two spices. I ask which thirty-two. “I’d tell you if I knew them, but if I did, I’d be a millionaire.” We sample and speculate together that among them are ginger, nutmeg, salt, cinnamon, allspice, white pepper and thyme. He tells me “Paul Murphy might know more of the spices, but he’s left for the golf course.” He shows me bodice and skirt. Bodice is pig’s rib cage that has been cured and salted. Homemakers boil it. Skirt is diaphragm, simmered in brown sauce with kidneys, Cork’s answer to steak and kidney pie. But I’m still looking for tansy. The shy butcher points me toward Mr. Bell’s two oriental food stores with wide selections of herbs and imported products from Bulgaria, China, Greece, Japan, Korea, Poland, Turkey. Very impressive inventory. No tansy.
The clerk at Mr. Bell’s suggests a visit to Tom, an award-winning butcher, another kindly and well-informed man. Though he has one offering from my list, curbeen, or boiled pigs feet, he can’t enlighten me on tansy, and suggests visiting Patricia, the all-knowing queen of tripe at O’Reilly’s next to the front door. She is as sweet and informal as a long lost friend. She hasn’t tasted tansy, but she describes it as looking like wild thyme with yellow button flowers, in her neighbor’s yard. Tansy mythology implies that it is good for arthritis and keeps away flies.
Three hours after the Czech sausage, my belly rumbles. One last list item before lunch, buttered eggs. The clerk at Moynihan’s doesn’t know much about them except they cost less than half a Euro more a dozen than ordinary eggs and only older folks buy them. He calls his boss, Thomas, out of the back room to explain. “It was the sailors,” he smiles. “No refrigeration at sea and they didn’t want rotten eggs. Nowadays, people buy them for nostalgia.” A thin coat of butter seals the pores. Airtight, the eggs stay “fresh” longer.
A few feet away, the stairway climbs to the Farmgate Café on the balcony overlooking the market. Time to try tripe, onions and drisheen. It’s supposed to be a morning-after cure.
The hostess seats me at a cramped table for four in the crowd, across from two twenty-something women from Dublin smartly accessorized and next to an older woman dressed more formally, married to a local Corkonian. The Dubliners are sleeveless. The woman on my right has a lace hanky in her sleeve. They order upscale salads and diet coke. She, a scone and tea. The pair glance at their watches frequently and laugh nervously. She smiles patiently. Rachmaninoff plays over the din.
My tripe and drisheen comes. Tender and bland, drisheen has the consistency of softly scrambled eggs. I can’t taste tansy, or any other herb, for that matter. Tansy, it seems, remains an ingredient because of tradition. Drisheen is neither foul nor memorable. The proper matron on my right pronounces “My husband loves it, but he loves all things unique to Cork.” Across the table, the mod pair grimace.
Back outside, it starts to rain. Harried mothers with chubby kids race for McDonalds. I see Brian under an awning, talking with a young Rastafarian in rainbow colors. I wave. He raises his fist to his chest and calls out “Loob doob.”