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…

Food for Thought: Food as an Important Part of Our Cultural Identity

There are many ‘things’ that connect people to their sense of identity. Personally, I think food establishes a strong link to identity as it is part of one’s culture. If you ask any French or Italian person they will wholeheartedly agree. Food is where memories are made; smells floating in the air, sizzling and chopping sounds, touch of different produce, sight of a delightful plate, and finally the taste… need I say more! Well, as a matter of fact I will…  

When I travel it is not just about escaping the often damp and wet Irish weather, but rather exploring new places and the people that bring meaning to these very places. For me food is an integral part of the voyage. I am passionate about food as it is part of our identity. I appreciate the awakening of my taste buds with new flavours and sharing such sensorial experiences with others, especially my husband who is also passionate about food.

So next time you decide to indulge in a trip to Paris, endeavour to sip your espresso at a ‘real’ Parisian cafe rather than at one of the globally standardised coffee shops! In Italy, bite into an authentic pizza – Margherita is basic but best! – the typical Neapolitan pizza. If you enjoy a great feed of fresh fish especially cod then off to Portugal where they prepare cod in a thousand ways.

Embrace the local culinary identity. Travelling is an adventure that should encompass the taste buds so bring the experience into your plate.

But let’s not forget we have great quality produce in Ireland and especially here in Cork! Both city and county have interesting food markets where local excellence is a trade mark. Yet, despite these resources, Ireland is not recognised for its culinary identity; and consequently, we, Irish, tend to belittle the food distinctiveness of our country. However have you ever asked yourself why we export so much of our produce; why so many foreigners appreciate our Milleens Cheese, produced in Eyeries, West Cork, or Union Hall Smoked Fish, or Clonakilty Black pudding, or our dairy products such as our best butter produced from grass-fed cows… the list is endless. I’m not talking about intensive farming; I’m encouraging you to think about local food at its best. We are fortunate enough to have a rich natural food resource on our doorstep, that is, seafood. Seafood was appreciated by our ancestors, by coastal and inland dwellers alike and would have been a regular part of their diet.  So next time someone makes a comment about our lack of culinary identity, think about our salted ling traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve or our infamous Bacon & Cabbage, and all the new ways in which we can use our local quality produce to embrace traditional food with a contemporary twist. Our senses of identity are created and shaped through our engagement in practices that connect us to particular places. So what are ye waiting for? Go shopping, get your pots and pans out and start experimenting…

I’ve attached a link to an article in the Irish Times; enjoy the read: https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/food-and-drink/bastille-day-the-french-mostly-know-nothing-about-irish-food-and-cooking-1.3946642

Quality NOT Quantity

Food waste is the scourge of 21st-century society. However, it is up to each one of us, as individuals, to make conscious decisions about the food we eat and, therefore, the food we buy. We could begin to considerably reduce food waste and consequently food shortage. Being mindful about food waste is one of the many solutions to feeding the world’s population. There is enough food for all of us we just need to think about how we eat. We have the power to change the society in which we live, we are society. Governments and multinational food companies respond to what we, society, the people, want. We set the trends and the multinationals follow; their number one priority is to make money.

We have never been so educated to make informed decisions; information is at our finger tips…literally! Be an ‘ingredient reader’; indeed it takes time in the beginning but practice makes perfect and in no time it will become second-nature. Be aware of the food you’re buying and where it comes from.

Buy local, eat local. Don’t be afraid to make a stand. Be part of positive change. Show your family and friends and especially your children that we all have the power to change.

Be aware of seasons as that is when food is at its best. Remember, what food you put in your mouth is who you are. You have one body, one life, one shot at it. Life is a theatre performance not a film with multiple ‘takes and cuts’!

I recall my early 20s living in Paris, admiring the food stalls at weekly markets or at the greengrocer’s. They were so vibrantly colourful. I always bought French produce and when it was not possible I bought food imported from neighbouring countries. It was always about reducing food miles and supporting local.

Eating better means eating less and spending less and less waste. It also means an even food-distribution for all of us. Buying local means eating fresh produce which is healthier and tastier because it’s seasonal! Support local food growers, fishers and farmers.

Reducing food waste starts at home. It is rather simple; check the ‘larder’ before you go grocery shopping. Make a shopping list and stick to it! Think local to reduce food miles.

So… buy local, eat fresh, and reduce waste & food miles. Be an actor of positive change.

Let’s ‘clean-up’ our act!

It’s great to know that Irish fishers are involved in cleaning-up our seas and oceans. Goodness knows fishers get bad press; and of course, people tend to put all fishers in the one basket. Or as an Irish fisherman once said to me “they’re being tarred with the same brush”.  Many of Ireland’s fishers are involved in the ‘Fishing for litter’ scheme; collecting plastic and other waste from the sea without any incentive but just wanting a better marine environment. I am proud, we all should be, that Irish fishers are involved in such a scheme that can only benefit all of us.

We must realise that we are all more or less guilty of polluting our seas whether directly or indirectly. Just think about all those micro-plastics found in your everyday products. Think about it next time you use your favourite cleansing lotion, or when you brush your teeth. We all have choices to make and we all have the power to choose what is best for us and our planet. Make the planet a better place to be and, especially, think about ‘cleaning-up our act’ for future generations; it is really worthwhile.

We do not require any extraordinary means. Suffice to make positive changes on a personal level.  Next time you’re taking a stroll along the beach pick-up a piece of litter and bin it. Making positive changes as individuals leads to collective transformations.

Ask yourself what kind of a planet do you wish to bestow on the next generation?

A little bit of “Nice” history…

I recently spent a week in Nice; it’s my second time there. I like to go there during the off-peak season as it’s much quieter and there’s more of a ‘local’ vibe about the place. That said, the city is always dappled with both national and international visitors. Anyway, as I strolled through Nice’s old district I could almost feel a sense of Italy; an identity that remains connected to its Italian origins. It must be said that during the course of most its history Nice would swing between French and Italian dominance. You only need to raise your head to appreciate the names over the shop-fronts. The myriad of restaurants, cafés and other various establishments possess an ambience imbued with “all things” Italian. By the way, for anyone wishing to taste some good pasta I’d recommend La Favola, in Nice’s old quarter.

The Greek seafarers who established and settled in Marseille were those who founded Nice approximately three centuries BCE. The city was probably named in honour of a victory over a neighbouring colony – Nikē is the Greek goddess of victory. After the Greeks the Romans arrived in the first century CE and settled in the mountainous area behind Nice. By the tenth century, Nice was ruled by the counts of Provence when the House of Savoy of Northern Italy, who ruled from Turin, took over in the 13th century. It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that Nice would experience French occupation on several occasions. However, it wasn’t until 1861 when Napoleon III signed the Treaty of Turin that Nice definitively became part of France.

Sandwiched between the Alps and the Mediterranean – entre terre et mer – between land and sea, Nice enjoys an advantageous geographic situation. During the latter half of the 19th century the British aristocracy descended on Nice during the winter season to enjoy its douceur – mild – climate. The favourable climate of Nice and its hinterland continue to attract visitors from the world over. I hope I’ve given you a “taste” of Nice!

What’s in a Name?

Back to my surname, that brings me to Baltimore, metaphorically, of course. I’d like to mention a book that i’m reading at the moment; it’s by Des Ekin, author of Stolen Village, a book that brings to light that sack of Baltimore, an intriguing story that occurred in 1631.

Back to the task in hand, the book I’m reading at the moment is Ireland’s Pirate Trail, the very name puts a smile on my face as my mom always says that the O’Driscolls were pirates; and, so they were, she is right in saying that but as a youngster it really wasn’t my ideal image of my ancestors!

Exploring our past is a great way to understanding our present, and who we are, and as such why we are…

My grandfather was a fish merchant and traded with France. My dad and his brothers were fishermen as were many of my cousins. Collectively, the family have an innate relationship with the sea and coastal environment. It’s in the blood as we say, we have salt in our veins.

You recall the sense of place I discussed in another post, an attachment that people establish with specific places, well for me, as long as I’m on the coast is what’s the most vital to me. Of course I have a strong connection to West Cork but just being able to see and feel the sea no matter where I find myself…

During my research in both Brittany and West Cork, many of the interviews and conversations held with locals highlight the importance of being in a coastal environment rather than being somewhere specific.

Thanks for joining me!

Women in Coastal Communities

Strength of Character

During my research I became fascinated by the lives of earlier women living in coastal communities. Fortunately, there are authors, predominantly female, who have written extensively about women in coastal places in both historical and contemporary contexts. The literature, in terms of the past, reveals that these women remained steadfast to their way of life; managing house and children, theses hardworking women also performed tasks for their fisher-spouses mending nets, gutting fish and selling the catch.

Darlene Abreu-Ferreira (2012) tells us that women were known to have held key trading positions in 17th-century Portugal. They were active fish traders and agents who didn’t necessarily depend on the male population; they had a strong sense of independence.

Although many women from European coastal regions gained independence through fish work, the fish wives of Amsterdam stood out from their European counterparts as they enjoyed a certain wealth. Denise Van der Heuvel (2012) informs us that the fish wives assisted their husbands in selling the catch at various markets. They also held their own stalls independent of their spouses and succeeded in juggling motherhood and work.

In other countries, such as France, some women fished in small boats or accompanied their husbands; and in Ireland many went kelp fishing which necessitated a great deal of physical strength and stamina.

At a time when travel was regarded with suspicion and trepidation, people were reluctant to journey much further than their local hinterland. However, in 19th-century UK during the herring fishery, women in coastal communities left their homes to work gutting and filleting fish. These dirty and tedious chores most men were unwilling to do. That said, the jobs provided young girls and women with a sense of freedom and independence that was rarely experienced by their inland cousins.

Traversing the Atlantic Ocean to 18th-century Newfoundland women processed fish and replaced the traditional male ‘shore crews’. Willeen Keough (2012) recounts how they gutted, washed and salted fish; and not unlike their European counterparts, they too juggled physical labour of the fishery with childcare and household responsibilities. They were known to be full-time participants in the family business in which they held equal share. And to be fair, the wider fishing communities acknowledged the value of their work, regarding them as vital, skilled workers on the fishery.

Unfortunately, due to profound changes within society, the patriarchal characteristic of the ‘civilised’ population steered its course into coastal communities and, as a result, into the fishing industry. The discourses of the time were turned towards the male ‘breadwinner’. Nevertheless, the majority of fishing families remained resilient to these changes by establishing joint maritime households, the type that I observed during my fieldwork in both Ireland and Brittany (France).

There was a large quantity of women involved in maritime trade. These women should be remembered for their strength of character and for their input into the local economies in which they engaged regardless of marital status. These independent women developed their own life courses. They managed and organised their work both within and outside the home that very much resonates with the lives of contemporary women. Assertive for their era, these women should be regarded as role models to empower subsequent generations. They have left a great legacy that could inspire present-day women.