Cotton Wool Clouds!

As I sit on the terrace at home it’s a delight to feel the warmth of the sun on my face; a warm breeze touches my skin like a feather cooling me down. Indeed it is one of those rare days when the breeze is a welcoming encounter.

I hear the sound of the ocean against the rocks and the cries of laughter that come floating in the wind from the beach below. The sound of the sea is soothing. While I love to travel, well, today I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else; Ireland is paradise when the sky is blue and ‘cotton-wool’ clouds populace the horizon.

Peace and tranquillity… such bliss. Umm, the bliss is short-lived! The mood is broken! The thundering sound of a plane overhead; I open my eyes and catch the Brittany Ferries on its southbound course… you all know where this story is heading… Ah! Where is that plane going? And what about the holiday makers in the ferry… My imagination is quick to deviate itself from the pleasures of sitting on my terrace to travelling…

Falling asleep in a faraway place, aware of the pleasures that tomorrow will bring, feelings of freedom exploring new places and people, days of discovery fill my imagination. Visiting a foreign city, or distant coastal places, there’s delight in creating narratives of my own as I stroll through the streets sharing my thoughts about art, culture and architecture with my husband. But don’t forget that the ordinary is rich and wonderful. Join the journey of discovering the mundane experiences of new places; Be-in-their-world.

Allowing my feet to take me to where they want to go. Going with the flow, following my instinct, detecting the places where locals go, immersing myself into mundane activities. But, I also very much like to go where the visitors go, checking out interesting spots that showcase the geography, history, and indeed art of the places I visit.  

 I must say that living on the coast entices me to appreciate city escapes; discovering the flurry of activity that city life brings knowing that I’ll return to my quiet haven.  

Weaving together the cultural fabric of places through food, wine, art, architecture, and other elements of distinctiveness that make these places what they are and the people who they are. Threads woven together creating narratives that endeavour to reveal the secrets of such locations. Places mean different things to different people. Sharing experiences can open up new ways of seeing the world around us; and in so doing, entice the visitor to create narratives of their own.

Travelling and writing experiences are, for me, intertwined. I observe the places where my feet take me, be-there; then my feet surrender to my hands. Such encounters, using all my senses, are transferred to the blank page; my hands take over, gliding along its smooth surface. Both pen and page unite to create and archive my memories.

Ireland’s Misty Shores

What is it that gives us the urge to travel? I’ve never actually dwelled on the question. Being Irish there is almost a taken-for-granted attitude that everyone will, one day, leave this island for pastures new be it long-term or short-term.  We tend to delight in constant mobility. The notion of ‘itchy feet’ comes to mind.  

It’s our genetic make-up that seems to ‘encourage’ us to embrace life beyond our shores. I don’t think we’re the type of individuals who think that faraway hills look greener – that would be difficult given that Ireland is ‘The Emerald Isle’! – But rather, we’re inquisitive about life elsewhere.  

Our damp climate can be one of the reasons why many Irish people decide to move away, usually to warmer places; embracing the outdoor lifestyle. Yet, despite some of the inconveniences that push us abroad, there are those of us who return.

While I appreciate the sun and living in warm climates, I would miss the ‘ole Irish mist’, the stormy seas washing up on our shores.

A few years ago, my husband and I paid a visit to a friend in Nice; it was early December. The weather was so warm that I spent the majority of the time in shorts and short sleeves. I went swimming almost every day. It was delightful. Coffee at a beach-side terrace, picnics on the beach, spending time à flâner – strolling – through the streets of Vieux-Nice… The warmth of the sun on my face, no lack of vitamin D here!

I marvelled at the outdoor lifestyle; I could see myself immersing into life in the south of France.  That particular winter in Ireland, well, in Cork anyway, it had rained for 80 consecutive days.  I can hear some of you exclaiming: “What! Is that possible?” Indeed it is!

About a week after our return to Cork, I was strolling along the beach one morning – as I often do –when sea mist began to envelope me. Despite it being winter the day was mild – it’s not unusual to have mild winters in Ireland, especially on the south coast. I stood motionless, taking it all in, and the feeling was one of gratification. I thought “this is why I would miss Ireland”. Indeed, I love the sunshine and warmth but I also appreciate the sea mist that brings a certain sense of ‘otherworldliness’ to a place.

For those of you living in ‘mostly-hot-and-sunny climes’ do come visit Ireland; maybe you too can appreciate the mild mist falling around you – creating a feeling of enchantment. These mist-filled days are so propitious to having a bowl of homemade soup accompanied by brown soda bread – homemade of course – beside a blazing open fire in one of the many traditional Irish pubs. It’s an ideal time to chat with locals and listen to traditional Irish music. Come explore this ‘Island of Saints and Scholars’; from Dublin, its capital, to Cork, the People’s Republic also known as the Rebel County, stopping off at Ireland’s Ancient East, not forgetting to meander through West Cork and all the pathways of discovery as you journey on the Wild Atlantic Way, taking in the scenery of the west and north of Ireland– there is something for everyone. And if you enjoy walking then don’t forget to pack your hiking boots to experience the myriad of breath-taking trails.

Experience our Celtic heritage, our identity steeped in local folklore. Irish people tend to be rooted to their culture, however, have an innate sense of travel ‘in the blood’. You’d find an Irish person in every part of the world. We tend to adapt easily, yet, we bring with us the expression of who we are through our cultural heritage, be it music, sport, or language.

During your Irish adventure you are sure to hear a number of locals discuss the weather conditions; we are recognised for our inherent attachment to the meteorological forecast. Expressions such as, ‘soft day, thank God’ usually heard on a mild but dampish day! Come visit and be part of the experience; explore the dramatic maritime landscapes of our seaboards.

Atlantic Irish Mist

For me, a place can never be neutral; landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes…we are shaped by whatever ‘-scape’ surrounds and envelopes us. We come to mirror our environment so to speak.  Have you ever thought about ‘place’ in a profound and philosophical sense?

A rugged terrain appears to characterise its people as tough and hardy; never fearful of getting their hands dirty or their feet muddy.

Coastal in habitants tend to never take for granted the mysterious element that is the sea – calm or chaotic – it will always take its quota of lives.

Lament of a rugged landscape or calamitous sea can be read on the faces and bodies of those working the land or heading out into the vast ocean.

Have you ever felt the scent of the sea waft under your nostrils when you’re journeying through the coast? I’d like to hear about your experiences. ‘Tasting’ a place, literally and metaphorically, is about using our senses to imbue ourselves with the sense of place.

The coast and the sea are important to me. As I sit, I watch the grey clouds travel across ‘an already grey sky’, from the south-west, bringing with them rain from the Atlantic. As they sweep across the sky, Atlantic mist is forming, creating a curtain or rather a blind that closes down on the sea, and thus, shutting out the horizon.

The coast is busy with cargo ships ‘ebbing and flowing’ as the pilot boat transports the local maritime pilots to and from awaiting vessels, each containing specific freight. It’s amusing to guess the size of the boat, from where it came and its onward journey once it leaves the Port of Cork.

The curtain continues to sweep across the bay. I never tire of this view or any sea view for that matter. It is ever-changing; no two days are the same. The curtain draws back, the blind swings up; the clouds are a much lighter shade, yet still no sun in sight, but I don’t mind. That is the beauty of coastal Ireland.

By the way, if you get a chance to view an Irish TV programme called Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland, it is really worth watch. The presenter, John Creedon, explores the true meaning behind some of Ireland’s most unusual and famous place names; each episode is a journey of discovery as John surveys and strides across the island of Ireland for lost meanings in everyday place names. It’s a 3-part series on Sundays at 18h30 for one hour on RTÉ One. You can view it online: http://www.rte.ie/player. Check out my review…

The Lure of the Pen…

Upon hearing or seeing an airplane do you ever wonder where it’s going, well I do, rather a lot to be honest. The night before last, I heard one overhead. It is a wet, windy but balmy night, I cannot sleep. As I lie in bed words converge in my mind, strings of sentences link together. I decide to get up. I try not to make a sound as my spouse is sleeping soundly. I go to the living area; it is 2h20 am. I switch on the lamp at my desk, I open one of my many notebooks – I love notebooks – I begin to write; all this commotion because I heard a plane over 2 hours ago!

The sound of the plane, what an excuse for not sleeping! However, a delightful excuse for getting up and writing. It’s a strange ‘thing’ to write; the pen is an extension of my hand. I prefer the feeling of holding a pen and, as such, allowing it to glide along the page, word after word, rather like a stream of consciousness, so much more visceral than staring at a blank screen. Ah, but of course where would I be without the ‘ole screen’… once I’ve jotted down a few paragraphs I enjoy, nonetheless, the sound of my fingers tapping on the keypad.  The encounter of the traditional pen and paper with the modern keypad and screen reveals the complexity of contemporary lives.

Getting back to the plane! I imagine its destination. Who are the passengers seated beside one another, exchanging stories about their lives for the duration of the flight, perhaps never to cross paths again. Maybe there is an individual going to the bedside of an ill family member or to the funeral of a close friend or relative and who does not wish to make conversation.  Families going on holidays; children excited at the thought of building sandcastles at the beach in some unknown sunny coastal place – what an adventure for them.

Couples heading off on their dream honeymoon looking forward to the prospect of basking in the sun or strolling about the ramparts of some medieval castle.

Perhaps there is someone travelling for business rather than pleasure. Anxious about the presentation that lies ahead; the words , the sentences, the paragraphs going around in the head over and over so much so that it becomes a series of mumbo jumbo! Or another could be reading an important report, the focal point for an imminent meeting.

Together in a confined space, sharing stories about their world, their destination – a place that is unknown for some, a place to explore, a new adventure. Maybe a place that another is returning to for the umpteenth time, a place that holds little or no secrets, although I find that difficult to believe. Places are full of secrets, streets and buildings that have seen and heard the joys and sorrows of those who have passed though them…

Really, it is time for bed, even though I don’t feel tired; sleep will come now that I’ve written these few words… Good night!

I wrote this post last night but didn’t upload it until morning!

Celtic Cousins

While I am quite at home anywhere in coastal France, I must admit that Brittany holds a special place in my heart. From early adolescence, my native Castletownbere began twinning with Locmiquelic, a coastal town in the Morbihan, south Brittany. Morbihan (Mor Bihan) means ‘Petite Mer’ – ‘Little Sea’ in Breton. Every other year a delegation from Locmiquelic would visit our native West Cork fishing port. For over twenty years our family greeted between two to four guests for one week. When it was our turn to set sail for Brittany, the people of Locmiquelic would play host to their Irish guests. It was then that I felt a strong connection with France and especially with Brittany. There was an air of familiarity – Celtic Cousins so to speak. Since then, I’ve always felt comfortable in this north-westerly part of the Hexagone – a moniker the French give to their country.

In the summer of 2014 I immersed myself in the fishing port of Le Guilvinec, Finistère (south Brittany) for the purpose of my research. It was my first time visiting this coastal community and I must say that there is ‘something’ about coastal Brittany that makes me feel right at home. What strikes me is the winding coast road that meanders from the auction hall to the beach. It is delightful for any swimmer to have such a splendid beach just at the edge of the town. I frequently walked the coast road; there is something so enthralling about the sea. Whether calm or calamitous, the sea has the ability to ‘draw’ you in to its world. I admire the houses that stand tall along this road with their spectacular views. It’s my favourite part of the town. The sound of the sea is so soothing.

Going to the boulangerie, most mornings, for the baguette; getting to know local residents though various associations and participating in various events, meeting people in the streets, having the banter… There’s a sort of mutual understanding between people from Celtic regions; a Celtic language, musical traditions, and in a way being rather similar in manner. Our perspectives, our ways of seeing and being in the world as Celts, intertwining traditions and modernity.

Brittany was an independent duchy; however, there were many turbulent years during which the Breton Duchy defended its territory against the Romans, Vikings, English and the French. The Duchy came to an end upon the death of Francis II in 1488. His daughter Anne inherited the Duchy. In addition to ‘keeping the peace’, a lack of political stability and financial resources engendered the marriage between Anne de Bretagne and the King of France, Charles VIII. The Ducal crown became united with the French crown in 1532. Following the French Revolution, and as a result of the various republican forms of French government since 1792, the duchy was replaced by the French system of departments. Of course its history is a lot more complicated but that tale is for another day… 

While centuries have passed, Bretons continue to defend their Celtic roots; never giving up the ‘battle’ – which at first was political especially during the mid-twentieth century but has, in recent decades, become a cultural one. I have observed, during my many trips there, and having lived there for three years in the early 2000s, contemporary Bretons are at ease and confident with their Breton identity – with who they are. Bretons are recognised for their force de caractère – strength of character. A Breton fisher once told me that “Le fait d’être Breton est ancré en nous, c’est régional, je me sens enraciné dans l’héritage Celtique” – “The fact of being Breton is anchored within us, it is regional, I feel rooted to the Celtic heritage”. There is a sense of belonging to a collective. During my fieldwork, I become conscious that Bretons tend to experience a stronger affiliation with people from other Celtic regions, such as Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Galicia, among others rather than those from other French areas. Identity is complex. Everyone experiences it differently and constructs rather distinct meanings to how sense of identity is to them.

A Breath of Fresh Air…

I enjoy an early-morning walk; before breakfast, especially during the summer time. I actually don’t do it very often as I usually go for my daily walk at around 11 am but relish this early-morning activity.

When both my sister and I are spending a few days at our parents’ we always delight in our early morning activity, usually around 7h30 am. We fill a backpack with our bottles of water, a banana each and sometimes our Mom’s homemade spelt scones with our Dad’s homemade blackberry and apple jam. Delicious!

Always delighted to accompany us is my sister’s German Shepherd. Our usual walk is to the local strand which takes about 20 minutes. Then, we sit on a bench and have our ‘pre-breakfast’ and Darcy has his bowl of water. Depending on the weather we sit enjoying our time; mornings are always so tranquil. There is a certain peace about the place. We sit, watching and listening to the ebb and flow of the tide. Sometimes there are courageous swimmers and fishers out checking their pots. We wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Arriving ‘home’ we sit down to second breakfast and a good strong cup of ‘real’ coffee. There is something innately therapeutic about the sea, especially the ebb and flow of the tides that mirror, so to speak, the comings and goings of everyday life. It’s good to appreciate and be aware of the small and simple things in life that fill our minds with memories, shared between two sisters.

Next time you find yourself on the coast, find a bench or anything that presents itself in the guise of a seat, and feel your ‘being’ in nature. Be part of the maritime landscape. Breathe in the briny sea air. Perhaps bring a yoga mat or even go for a swim; just 15 minutes of activity, as regular as possible, to increase your flexibility, strength, improve your health, relieve stress and possibly change your life. Once you start it becomes second nature…

Bordeaux and its link to Ireland

My husband and I visited Bordeaux back in end of August 2018. Although I lived in France for over a decade during the 90s, I must admit that I had never visited this port city. I was aware of its many links with Ireland which heightened my feelings towards the place; I wanted to find out more… So our trip was one of discovery for me. I wanted to immerse myself in the city’s maritime heritage.

Bordeaux is geographically located on the bend of the River Garonne; its proximity to the Atlantic seaboard influenced its historical and contemporary trade links. However, despite it having been one of the greatest ports in Europe, the city turned its back on the sea towards the end of the 20th century; however, this has changed in recent years. This makes me think of Ireland’s maritime past. Prior to the 19th century, Ireland was influenced by the increasing number of foreign fleets around its coastal waters and, thus, fostered the development of shipbuilding in a number of coastal towns. Two decades into the 20th century coastal communities around Ireland became marginalised.

Back to Bordeaux! Finding myself in this port city conjured up images of merchant ships steering their course up the River Garonne during Medieval times through to the Early Modern Period. I imagined labourers unloading various commodities, exchanges occurring between merchants from diverse places… Links between Ireland and Bordeaux date back to the end of the 17th century when Ireland was fraught with conflict. Irish families fled Ireland and sought exile in France; they would become known as “The Wild Geese”. Irish families played an important role in developing viticulture in Bordeaux. Some of the region’s most prestigious ‘chateaux’ still bear Irish names.

An interesting little place, for me at least, is the Musée du Vin et du Négoce – Museum of the Wine Trade – 41 rue Borie. The visit takes about one hour followed by wine tasting.  The actual building was built around 1720 for Francis Burke, an Irish wine merchant; this element gave the visit a different perspective.  

Another must is the Cité du Vin – City of Wine. If you appreciate contemporary architecture as well as wine then this is the place to be. It is fascinating; however, give yourself plenty of time to delve into the history of wine and this region that is synonymous with fine wine.

There are many landmarks dotted around Bordeaux with Irish connections. The Chapelle des Irlandais – Irish Chapel – is located at number 17, place Pey Berland and the Collège des Irlandais – Irish College – is housed at 3 bis, rue du Hâ. Street names such as, rue Mac Carthy, rue O’Reilly are woven into the fabric of this splendid port city that is Bordeaux. These place names are a constant reminder of the legacy left there by the Irish.

There is plenty to see and do in Bordeaux. In addition to some great wines, there is an abundance of quirky restaurants and cafés. So why not indulge in a visit to this port city next time you’re planning a holiday…