Berlinale, The Berlin Film Festival

Berlinale Booking, Potsdamer PlatzYes, it is a First World Problem, but how is one supposed to get on with one’s life when one has to book tickets for the Berlin Film Festival?


The Berlinale as it is known, is currently running in this most edgy and ordinary, well-behaved and anarchic, enormously exciting sociable city.  Now in its 64th year (older, my dears, even than CORK!) the Berlinale takes place just after Sundance, just before Dublin and ahead of Cannes. Its budget is €21m., €6.5M of which is provided by the Federal Government Committee for Culture and The Media. There are some 400 films on view from about 124 countries, with 816 films for sale in the European Marketplace. Last year, 303,077 tickets were sold and there were half a million theatre visits.


Berlin is to film what the entry which comes 2nd in the Eurovision Song Contest is to middle of the road popular music. Many a crowd-pleasing, slightly off-the-wall film has launched here, ‘foreign’ films are the order of the day, the Retrospective category throws up all kinds of old gems one never got round to seeing and the Shorts are like tasting all humankind’s desiring, her fears, her humour and the beauties of the world in a few bites. There is a Culinary category dedicated to …… food…..and then one goes out to eat.  Berlin is one of the best, most varied and most affordable cities in the world for food and everybody is always eating – and often drinking –  whether on the train platform or in the street huddled up in the blankets provided at sidewalk cafés and restaurants, in grungy clubs or outside vans and snackaramas under grimy archways.   The exterior, interior or size of a restaurant is no indicator of gastronomic quality.


Each film on the Berlinale programme is shown several times, there are venues all over the city, which is which is four times the size of Paris. One can go to three locations – Potsdamer Platz is the most popular – and queue up for a.very.long.time. to buy tickets (no block booking, so you can’t buy for pals or profit) or you can book 2 tickets per show on-line in advance, subject to little icons which invariably show red ‘X’s through them for exactly the show, date, venue and time you wanted. That is, if the programme page loads at all.   Just now, Sunday morning before going out to brunch (another Berlin institution) with friends bombarding me by text, my mind is boggled, my head is aching and I’m feeling frustrated to the point of the screaming hab-dabs…The website is down, probably through overuse.  Last year, the site got over 17million page views.


So that’s Berlin, and there are movies I want to see which I will have to forego. However, all is not lost…….next week, I go to Dublin, in the middle of the Jameson International Dublin Film Festival, which opens this Friday, 14th.  JDIFF and the Berlinale have very few showings in common – I thought there would be more – except “Calvary” (dir.John McDonagh 2013, Ireland) and “The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared”(Sweden.) “The Grand Budapest Hotel” which premiered in Berlin I can see within weeks at the CineLaudon in St Jorioz (the best cinema in the entire world) for 5e instead of 20e here.


The programme for Berlin is vast, that for Dublin much more manageable, much more accessible and frankly, I prefer the line-up for the latter.  Berlin this year has a lot of very dark films, difficult films, tense thrillers – not my faves – and sex (the full 5 hour version of “Nymphomaniac” [no thanks, I'd rather go shopping.])  This is the current trend in cinema, according to a friend, the Director of the Danish Producers Association.


So I’ll be back first thing in the morning to try the website again for tickets. I have had the coveted lanyard denoting accreditation at festivals from Banff in Alberta to Cannes and La Rochelle in France and through 4 decades in Cork but in Berlin, I scavenge for what I can get, and pay the price……that’s why it’s a First World problem.

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Cargoes, the Spree

This morning in Berlin I had to get the dressing on my poorsorearm changed (metal plate and 5 screws were removed in an operation in France last week from the wrist broken 17 months ago.) The medical practice is a five minute walk from our apartment across the Elsenbruecke over the Spree River.


A lot of heavy materials are transported through the huge city, not by road, but by barge along the curves of the meandering river.  Last week, an ice-breaker was used to forge a channel for the shipping traffic to pass through; now the intense cold is over and there are only a few stray ice floes on the dark waters, many of them carrying mussel shells where the birds have used the floes as a picnic table. The sculpture “Molecule Man” by American Jonathan Borofsky stands in the water between Elsenbruecke and Oberbaumbruecke, now known as “The Media Spree” district near the intersection of the three districts of Kreuzberg, Alt-Treptow and Friedrichshain.  The three 30 metre high figures are said to denote the rivalry between the districts, which were merged in 2001. A very beautiful double-deck bridge and one of the city’s landmarks, the Oberbaum Bridge has featured in films such as “Run Lola Run” and “The Bourne Conspiracy” and was from where Liam Neeson and his car went flying in “Unknown.”  Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg used to be divided by the Berlin Wall and the bridge is now a symbol of Berlin’s unity.


Characterised by a high number of immigrants, traditionally Kreuzberg had a strong counterculture, while the number of non-German citizens in Friedrichshain is much lower and the average age is older. Both boroughs are now dealing with the consequences of gentrification and every summer they let rip at each other with tomatoes from either side of the Oberbaume Bridge in an anarchic “vegetable fight.”


As I crossed Elsenbrucke this morning, a double coal barge was puttering along the river, and brought to mind John Mansefield’s poem “Cargoes”


“Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.


Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.


Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.”


…..and then on to the doctor’s rooms, in a building dedicated to medical care of varying kinds, with a pharmacy on the ground floor.   This is what it looks like:

flower medical centreI just love Berlin.

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Today is the feast of Saint Veronica. She is remembered because as a witness on the side of the road, she felt pity for a condemned man forced to carry a cross through Jerusalem to the hill at Calvary where he would be impaled upon it, to die. She offered the man her veil to wipe his blood and sweat stained face.  When the man – who was Jesus – handed it back, it was imprinted with his agony.


Fabrics and textiles and towels are important part of the the story of Christianity, and an important part of the ritual of most religions….. if not all. We talk of the ‘man made landscape.’  Though men made the mills, fabrics are the ‘woman made landscape’ (Adam delves, but Eve must spin.)


Towels are worthy of poetry!


“What purpose have they but to rub
skin dry by being drawn behind
the back two-handed down
the showered spine or fluffed
between the thighs and elsewhere?
Yardgoods lack what towels
proffer in sheer, plump tuft.
Wadded after use and flung
in hampers to be washed, they clump
like the tired laundry of men
who sweat for a living.
Spun dry
or spreadeagled to the sun,
they teach us what renewal means.
Touch them when they’re stacked or racked,
and what you’re touching is abundance
in waiting.
Imprinted with the names
of Hilton or the Ritz, they daub
with equal deft the brows
of bandits or the breasts of queens.
What else did Pilate reach for
when he washed his hands of Christ
before the multitudes?
when retired to the afterlife of rags,
they still can buff the grills
of Chryslers, Fallingwater’s windows
or important shoes.
small, it seems they have
their part to play.
But then,
en route from use to uselessness,
it’s no small asset ever
to be always good at something.”


“Towels” by Samuel Hazo from The Song of the Horse. © Autumn House Press, 2008.

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Lá Fhéile Bríde, the Feast Day of St Brigid

This morning’s Facebook post:

“Lá Fhéile Bríde.  Traditionally in Ireland, the day to cut the first furrow.  Brigid was some Biddy….patron of women, farm animals, children and artists, artisans and poetry.  Along with Queen Maeve, she is one of our first feted feminists, famous most of all for getting the better of a chieftain who said she could have as much land for her building plans as her cloak would cover, so she spread out her cloak…..which continued to expand until it covered many acres….and for her hospitality. My sister, always mindful, bought this St Brigid’s Cross on the street in Cork from Travellers who had made it from rushes in the traditional way, and it arrived yesterday, just in time to protect us, our house and our crops for spring.”



Photo: Lá Fhéile Bríde. Traditionally in Ireland, the day to cut the first furrow. Brigid was some Biddy … patron of women, farm animals, children and artists, artisans and poetry. Along with Queen Maeve, she is one of our first feted feminists, famous most of all for getting the better of a chieftain who said she could have as much land for her building plans as her cloak would cover, so she spread out her cloak…..which continued to expand until it covered many acres….and for her hospitality. My sister, always mindful, bought the St Brigid's Cross on the street in Cork from Travellers who had made it from rushes in the traditional way, and it arrived yesterday, just in time to protect us, our house and our crops for spring.




There followed a veritable salon of discussion from friends – from the Saint’s namesakes, artists and poets and writers and a reference to Irish Girl Guides leaders in Crumlin Childrens’ Hospital teaching young patients to make St Brigid’s Crosses with straws in lieu of reeds – and several relating to the dreadful weather many of you are experiencing. (In the French Alps we are in cold and calm with blue skies) but Serbia is deep, deep in snow, parts of Britain are inundated, there are red alert warnings again tonight for 11 departments in France – particularly the very badly hit west coast and especially Finistere. Rome and Florence are under water….and Sochi is green.



If the sea is raging where you are tonight, while it is still her feast day,  you might try invoking Brigid’s assistance. Calling on the sea not to break its bounds is an important part of this this ritual, the recipe for which I found on a site by  a Danielle Ní Dhighe (who demands the drag along rights) and © 1997.  Don’t know if Danielle made it up herself, or if it is part of an ancient Imbolg ritual…… If you want to bring it up to date and make it sound less flakey,  substitute “porridge” for “oats” “glass” for “chalice or drinking horn” “saucepan” for “cauldron”.
Materials: Cloths, ale, oats, bread, milk, a chalice or drinking horn, several bowls or cauldrons, three candles, salt water, a cooking cauldron or stove.
Before the ritual, you might want to go outside and look about, calling those who would attend the ceremony with you in frith [sic: faith?] and heartfelt friendship with the Gods.
Say: “Come those who wish to come; stay those who wish to stay; and fare those who wish to fare.”
Begin the ritual by invoking the Three Realms.
Sprinkle salt water around the ritual area and ask that the Sea not burst its bounds.
Turn to face the world and ask that the Land not open to swallow you.
Light incense and ask that the Sky not fall upon you.
Say: “Now I’m lighting Sacred Fire” and light three candles.
Say: “Land Spirits, draw close and hallow and hold this hall. What we have been given we have prepared and return to you. Accept our offerings this night.” Pour milk into a cauldron or bowl.
Say: “Ancestors, Fathers and Mothers of us all, draw close and hallow and hold this hall. What we have been given we have prepared and return to you. Accept our offerings this night.” Place the bread on the altar.
Say: “Tonight we prepare for the visitation of Bríde. She comes tonight to bring us tidings for the rest of this year. We are gathered here to honor the Goddess of Poetry, Healing, and Smithcraft. She is daughter of the Dagda, guardian of our hearth and home, an inspiration to poets and a healing Goddess who hangs Her cloak on the rays of the sun.”
Start a flame beneath the cooking cauldron. If you’re cooking the oats on the stove, light a candle instead.
Say: “As I kindle the flame upon my hearth, I pray that the flame of Bríde may burn in my soul, and the souls of all I meet. I pray that no envy and malice, no hatred or fear, may smother the flame. I pray that indifference and apathy, comtempt and pride, may not pour like cold water on the flame. Instead, may the spark of Bríde light the love in my soul, that it may burn brightly through the day. And may I warm those that are lonely, whose hearts are cold and lifeless, so that all may know the comfort of Bríde’s love.”
Boil the oats in the cooking cauldron or on the stove. When finished, say: “Bríde, come to visit us, to inspire us, to heal us, to prosper us, to bless us with good luck. We offer these humble oats to you.” Pour the oats into a bowl or cauldron.
Pour the ale into a chalice or drinking horn. Say: “May this ale be filled with the brightest blessings of Bríde.”
Drink from the chalice. Pour the excess into a cauldron and lightly sprinkle it over everyone present with a branch.
Place the bread, milk, oats, and leftover ale outdoors, somewhere appropriate for offerings.
Tie the cloths from a pole or a tree overnight. In the morning, untie them and use them as you will, for they have been blessed by Bríde.


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Return of the iBlog: The Museum of Fascinating Articles



Hello, I’m back. I’m not presuming you missed me, but in a way, I missed me. Remember the old buses, which had an open platform where the conductor stood and a pole to grip as you boarded or alighted?  In the past while my world has been moving very fast, and I have been running to catch up with it. I feel as though I am chasing an open-backed bus, hanging on to the pole in order to stay on at all. This fast-moving world, with its limited attention span only allows for pictograms, text-speak or captions (BBBRRR!! to denote cold weather) or Facebook LOLs. I have succumbed to the latter, but feeling diluted, am returning to more considered considerations.


That last paragraph is all about the first person singular. How boring. That is one of the reasons this singular person is returning to the Bloggosphere; there is so much wonderfully interesting stuff out there, outside of the Id and Ego, which, as a writer, one positively aches to share. Let me begin by re-posting one of the first pieces I wrote here a couple of years ago, which got lost in the WordPress jungle. It is not by bread alone we live, but by Fascinating Articles.


william-haefeli-i-m-cutting-articles-out-of-the-newspaper-while-we-still-can-new-yorker-cartoonWhen travelling on the Cork-Dublin train to visit her sisters in Dublin or journalistic colleagues at the Irish Press office on Burgh Quay, my mother would catch up with reading newspapers, particularly the features-rich British Sundays. She was known to accost strangers seated near her on the train, regardless of age or gender, pushing a folded paper across the table and pronouncing “Fascinating article, you should read it.”  When her fellow passenger cast an eye across the page, nodded and resumed looking out the window, she would stab the headline with her forefinger and say “No, you must read it now!”


“Fascinatingarticle” has become a byword in our family for anything interesting in any medium and I have inherited the compulsion to cut and keep and pass on fascinatingarticles. No newspaper can ever be thrown out unless I have gone through it, cut out anything relevant and stacked it for filing. A visiting friend opened a hinged foot-rest by a sofa in our living room and discovered it full of newspapers – American, English, Irish, Swiss, Canadian, Singaporean – some going back to 1997. At their raised eyebrow, which implied that the contents should be ditched forthwith and pronto I slammed the box shut protesting “No, no, I haven’t gone through them yet”.


The papers ….and then some….had come with us to France when we moved from Ireland in 2000-2007-ish and been partly responsible for the extra charges incurred when our removal van was stopped at the Weigh Station in Liverpool docks and 13 boxes of books removed into storage by Her Magesty’s Customs, to be collected and delivered later as they were deemed too heavy for one trip.


I am not the only one burdened with enthusiasm for well-presented information and particularly the urge to store it for future reference or pass it on. I am the woman in the New Yorker cartoon, brandishing a scissors over a newspaper spread out on a kitchen table telling her bemused husband “I’m taking articles out of the newspaper while we still can”….or the woman surrounded by piles of paper, in the centre of which she is just visible, cheerfully saying “I’m working on my piling.” In an interview with Studs Terkel a few years back …..well maybe it was a decade….the celebrated broadcaster who was then maybe 88 years old, said he couldn’t die yet because he hadn’t finished his filing. I often wonder if he had it all organized before he was filed away himself in October 2008.


We all have our preoccupations and some have tamed their hoards of knowledge. I know just two people who have the confidence in technology and the discipline to destroy hard copies of printed articles. An entomologist of my acquaintance – a world authority on bird strikes by trade and a twitcher by inclination – reads everything ever written about ticks, fleas and aviation, plus international bird spotting figures, scanning the original print and storing the pieces electronically. Not long after he returned from his sojourn in Washington for the Irish national broadcaster RTE, I asked journalist Mark Little how he stored all the news and historical references he might want from both sides of the Atlantic.  “I don’t keep files any more” he replied “all the information one needs is on the Internet.”


My mother died aged 90 in 2006 but I still have a yellow A4 folder with her handwritten label, dated 1/8/88 which reads “Shreds and Patches: Hardy, Swift, Bloomsbury, Flann O”Brien etc. plus some basic recipes”  Looking at it now on my desk, I cannot but re-use the folder and have added “Barbarossa+Pirates. Les Insoumises. New Natural Fibres” (all but Hardy would probably approve of their new page-mates, though given his agricultural roots, even he might find the one on ‘new natural fibres’ a fascinatingarticle) Yes, I too could have a scanner – in fact there’s probably one in the house already, but I just don’t know what it looks like, not to mind how to turn it on. But then I wouldn’t have the paper….the lovely paper, yellow and velvety with age. And besides, you can’t swat flies with a laptop.


But maybe I should give in, give up and scan. Not only are we ourselves fascinated to the point of obsession with collecting and keeping pieces of paper, but also, like all addicts somewhat embarrassed and repelled by our own compulsion, we are also fascinated and repelled by stories of other hoarders.  “Homer and Langley” by E L Doctorow is a fictional re-telling of the true story of the upper-middle class Manhattan brothers Homer and Langley Collyer whose decaying bodies were found in 1947 buried in their New York  brownstone home under over one hundred tons of trash, mainly countless stacks of newspapers which had ….”like some slow flow of lava, brimmed out of Langley’s study.”


“Grey Gardens” the 1975 Maysles brothers’ documentary on the two Edith Beales – mother and daughter who were aunt and cousin to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – became a cult film over the years and the story has been adapted for television and as a musical. The Beales were wealthy socialites but their story ends in their threatened eviction by the health department from”Grey Gardens” their dilapidated, cluttered East Hampton mansion because of their inability to ever clean up, ever throw anything out……


The Edith Beales had cats. Lots of cats. I don’t do cat food tins, but I sure do paper. Overcome, inundated, swamped and asphysixiated by paper, I told my daughter that I had vowed to rid myself of the cuttings and cuttings, the notes and notices, poems and patterns and photographs, doodles and drawings which were bogging me down. But how does one throw out the entrance ticket to the New York World Trade Centre viewing roof?…. the Time magazine with Barack Obama on the cover as Man of the Year?…. the signed photograph of Danny La Rue?…. the advice on growing tiger lilies?


But then, why keep them? Possible answers are genetic programming or original sin (which could be one and the same thing.)  “I wish I had a museum” I wailed “so I could arrange and display all the pictures and the stories that excite me for everyone to see and enjoy. I’d call it ‘The Museum of Fascinatingarticles.’ ”  “There is already such a thing” said my wise daughter “but it’s not called ‘The Museum of Fascinatingarticles’ it’s called ‘The Internet.’

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Alice Munro and The Diamond Earrings


pic: Peter Morrison AP Photos

pic: Peter Morrison AP Photos

Some time ago in Dubai, Himself bought me a pair of diamond earrings.  Simple studs which – like the eyes of the Yellow Rose of Texas ‘sparkled like the dew,’ I put ‘em on and hardly wore any others for the past 15 years.  However, at the start of the summer, preparing to swim in our French Alpine lake, the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic off the Canadian Maritimes and Maine, I decided to put the ubiquitous sparklers away and enjoy the big, colourful fun jewellery of the season.


En route between bathroom and bedroom when I was on my way out somewhere, the diamond earrings got put on top of an upstairs landing bookcase.  I thought I heard a pin drop and felt it was an earring falling on the floor, but a rudimentary scan and a hand scooped under the bookcase dredged up nothing but the usual flotsam, jetsam and general detritus that finds its way around the feet of furniture.  I checked the jewellery box and saw a twinkle, so I ran out the door and forgot about the studs.


Time passed, summer scorched, visitors came and went, many a time and oft I traipsed past the bookcase carrying cases for holiday trips; half-finished coffee cups made rings on its surface.  I (semi) regularly vacuumed and steam-cleaned the upstairs floors, dusted the bookcase, even measured it for possible remodelling.   Meanwhile, I was wearing all kinds of everything in my three earlobe piercings; steel, brass and base metal, enamel, Bakelite, plastic, silver and gold, turquoise and aquamarine, emeralds and moonstones, jade and jasper, garnet, lapis, opal, coral, quartz and tigers-eye, sea glass and sapphire and caribou antler, jet and pearl. Then one day recently, I got a kinda hankering for the classy ease of the diamonds.


There was only one stud in the box.


In the past weeks I have pondered this, felt a bit désole but mostly cross with myself for not keeping my resolve always to check the innards of the Dyson’s cylinder before binning its contents, always to heed when I hear over the vacuum’s whoosh, a little ‘ping’ hit the sides of the dust bowl.  I sighed for lost possessions, but mostly for fear of telling Himself I’d lost a diamond. I even pondered a sneaky dishonest cowardly plan to get a zircon fitted in a similar gold claw setting by my friendly Orchard Road jeweller the next time we’re in Singapore. I said nothing to no one and suffered the gnaw.


Yesterday on the announcement that Alice Munro had won the Nobel Prize for Literature,   Daughter Lucy wrote that she was going to renew her acquaintance with the Laureate’s works. As I have many books written by women called Alice….Walker, Hoffman, Munro and Toklas…..and tend to mix them up (I’m thinking of re-naming our local reading group ‘ABC – the Alzheimers Book Club’) I went to find what Munros I owned. I pulled out ‘The Beggar’s Maid’, ‘Lives of Girls and Women’ ‘The Love of a Good Woman’ and ‘Open Secrets’ and in clearing the space, the tops of the tomes on the shelf below were revealed.  There, its post snugly held by the hard-bound pages of Jocasta Innes’ “Trade Secrets” – a book on decorative paint finishes – subtly shone a little pin point of light.


Thank you Alice Munro, thank you Lucy, for finding my tiny faceted metastable allotrope of carbon. Because of you, I am freed from a (First World) sense of loss, guilt and regret and am restored to my quotidian state of ataraxia.


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Ireland Professor of Poetry


President of Ireland MIchael D.Higgins with Paula Meehan. (pix: Irish Times)

President of Ireland MIchael D.Higgins with Paula Meehan. (pix: Irish Times)


At a ceremony in in Trinity College Dublin on Friday, President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins named Paula Meehan as Ireland Professor of Poetry 2013.  It is a huge honour. Paula Meehan is a very small woman with a voice that reaches deep and far, and which she ensures touches those for whom poetry is a rare thing. The three year post, attached for one year each to TCD, University College Dublin and Queens University Belfast, was established in 1998 as a permanent way to mark the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Seamus Heaney in 1995.  Paula Meehan is only the second woman – the other was Nuala Ni Dhomhaill – to be so honoured over that time.


In October 1994, in my weekly column in the Cork Examiner newspaper, I wrote a piece the editors titled “A Teacher Can be Master of a Child’s Destiny.” Our children were younger then and a new academic year had begun. Talking of a little one who had just begun infant school and with all the experience of two weeks education “HATED” “Roly Poly” I wrote:


“In the years to come ‘Roly Poly’ may be forgotten, but somewhere along the line, some influence will point the direction of this young life.  Most likely, this influence will come from a teacher.  It’s a hugely responsible job, teaching, because no teacher knows which of their causal words, gestures, kindnesses, encouragements, contradictions, put-downs or spiteful punishments will be the catalyst which will be the ruination of a child, the demolition of their confidence, or will constitute their salvation.


Recently a friend offered to lend me a book of poems.  She was holding it closely to her bosom and I could see that it was an emotional and almost physical wrench for her to part with it, even for a week, but she did still want to share the experience, so I grabbed the paperback from her unwilling hand and ran before she changed her mind.


The book was ‘The Man Who Was Marked by Winter’ by Paula Meehan.  Before   sitting down to devour it slowly, I turned the pages, tasting each poem, until I was stopped in mid-trawl when two short lines evoked a major part of my childhood.


In the Poem ‘Ard Fheis’ (the annual convention of an Irish political party) Paula Meehan is painting the scene at the meeting, the way the fug of cigarette smoke cast the light from the high windows, when suddenly the light and the drone of the speakers’ voices brings her back to her school days:  ‘…..and all this talk of the people, of who we are/of what we need, is robbed of meaning/becomes a sub-melody, sonic undertow/a room of children chanting off/by heart a verse.  I’m nine or ten/the Central Model School/Miss Shannon beats out the metre/with her stick.’


Miss Shannon in the Central Model School made a poet – and what a poet – of Paula Meehan!




When I myself was nine or ten, that same Miss Shannon would sit at our family fireside and recount stories of her pupils in the Central Model Girls School in Gardiner Street in Dublin. They were mostly poor and underprivileged, they had no ambition other than “The Sewing.”


When, as soon as was legally possible, they left school, most of her pupils would go to  work in “the Sewing,” the textile industry sweat shops of the inner city.  Miss Shannon tired to teach them love of language, rhyme and reason in grammar and punctuation. Mindful of what they might miss in life, Miss Shannon tried desperately to give them some beauty from literature and nature.  In our garden at Orchard Corner we found abandoned birds’ nests for her to bring to the city children who had never run in a field.  No wonder she taught them poems by heart, beating out the metre with her stick, she was hurrying to give the girls as much as she could in the short time of learning they had.


Evelyn Shannon was my sister The Elder’s Godmother, and so close was she to our family that we all called her “Godma.”  Of course it got shortened, in the way of all Cork names, to “God” and I remember the consternation in a neighbour’s house when I told them “I’ve got to go now, God is waiting for me at the gate.”

















A maiden lady with a strong leonine head and a beautiful mane of white hair, every Christmas when she came down from Dublin to stay with us for the holiday, we would bring The Blue Stone to the station when my mother collected Godma from the train.  The Blue Stone was magic and while in Cork, she kept it in her handbag, then on leaving it was entrusted again to one of us children – The Keeper of the Blue Stone – to hold ‘till her return.


"The Quiet Kipper" a narrative poem written for us by Godma after my mother complained that her quiet afternoon was disturbed by an unexpected visit from Eoin "The Pope" Mahony

“The Quiet Kipper” a narrative poem written for us by Godma after my mother complained that her quiet afternoon was disturbed by an unexpected visit from Eoin “The Pope” Mahony

The faceted marble-sized blue glass bead would be taken from Godma’s bag and rubbed for stories, and like magic, they materialized.  Stories about childhood in Ballyshannon, about Will o’the Wisps on the Bog of Allen, about mad dogs in the country and mad people in the city; stories from her travels about white horses, monasteries perched high amongst the hills…..she would turn the most ordinary tale into magic.


Evelyn Shannon was born in Donegal in 1905 and lived in Ballyshannon.  Her mother was a teacher and her father a policeman.  She went to the Mercy Convent in Enniskillen where she was first imbued with a love of literature, then on to St Louis’ in Monaghan and then to train as a teacher in Carysfort College in Dublin.


Though it was almost unheard of for a new teacher to become principal, she was made Head Mistress of the school in Esker in the Bog of Allen straight out of college.  She had to live over a pub and was so alert to the talk below that she once wrote a 58 page letter to her lifelong friend Peg Hayes in Dublin, all about the visit of the inspector to the school, and the wireless (radio) being put in.


After a number of years in the Bog of Allen, Evelyn Shannon managed go get into University College Dublin as a night student to do an Arts Degree. At the time, UCD did not recognize Primary teachers’ qualifications, they were looked upon as second class citizens and were not allowed to do an Honours degree.  When her papers were being corrected, the examiner enquired why Evelyn Shannon was not in the Honours class and managed to organize for her to take a year away from her school work to do a Masters in literature.


She returned to teaching and finally to the Model School, where she was Principal. She lived in rooms in Rathmines, up many flights of stairs at the top of a tall house on Palmerstown Road.   A very religious woman, highly intelligent and deeply read, Godma was eccentric and terribly impractical, with no sense of direction, yet she travelled abroad alone each summer, visiting galleries, museums, historic places all over Europe. I have a picture postcard of ‘A Peasant Wedding’ she sent my mother after a trip to Cork thanking her for ‘those lovely days in the world of Orchard Corner at Eastertide. It was wonderful; maybe Brueghel’s rejoicing peasants will express what I mean.’


In the garden at Orchard Corner with Lucy, another generation of children she enthralled

In the garden at Orchard Corner with Lucy, another generation of children she enthralled

Evelyn Shannon retired in 1970 and died suffering Alzheimers Disease in a nursing home in Malahide in the late ‘eighties.  No longer recognizing her friends or communicating with anyone, she died unsung, with no chance for a memorial or gathering of those who loved her or whose lives she touched.


To be immortalized in poetry is the most fitting tribute to a teacher who created wonderment and opened doors that might otherwise have remained forever shut.” (ends.)


I later sent a copy of that article to Paula Meehan and have kept the letter she wrote me in return….I hope she will forgive my quoting parts:  “…..I found it very moving and a bit disturbing – I suppose this latter feeling comes from the realization of the mystery that was the life of a woman I knew as ‘Miss Shannon.’  She was definitely outside the run of your usual teacher: she was tough (we called her Shannonballs sometimes) she had a ferocious passion for learning, and she was a spellbinding storyteller.  I have a personal debt to her because she fed me books nonstop and taught me the rudiments of Latin and gave me at a very early age a sense of language as a historical force.  She also taught me the need to protect myself fictionally – one vivid memory I have is of getting three on each hand for using the word ‘Damn’ in an essay.  I was describing my mother’s efforts to get me up in the morning and in her frustration roaring at me ‘Damn you, Paula, you’ll be late for school.’ This was, according to Miss Shannon, blasphemy and there’s no way my mother would have said such a thing.  She was right!  ‘Fuck you, Paula’ is what my Ma said, she being no pleasanter than myself in the mornings.  So I got a strong sense of the ironies of the truth.  Miss Shannon was a very important figure in my life, a fact I appreciate more as time passes.”


And now Paula Meehan is the Ireland Professor of Poetry and I couldn’t be more happy and chuffed had I been awarded the Chair myself.  There are many reasons: firstly Paula Meehan is a poet of real worth, secondly, she’s a woman and a dotey pet and thirdly she is purposely carrying on the legacy of our beloved Godma, Miss Evelyn Shannon.  Accepting the honour in TCD on Friday, Paula Meehan said “One of the great draws of this for me is that I get to work with the different students in the different universities.  I’ll be continuing the work I’ve always done, teaching the craft of poetry – I don’t think you can teach the art of poetry – and standing up for poetry.”





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An Italian Wedding… Bomboniere and God Particles


Conor and Caterina after their marriage at the Basilica Santuario dei Ss Vittore e Corona in Feltre. The floral arrangements are pots of  basil the bride's father grows in the family garden in the old town walls.

Conor and Caterina after their marriage at the Basilica Santuario dei Ss Vittore e Corona in Feltre. The floral arrangements are pots of basil the bride’s father grows in the family garden in the old town walls.

This is a tale of sugared almonds….but be warned that sugared almonds, like shooting stars can have long tails. (A ‘shooting star’ is the visible path of a meteoroid as it becomes a meteor on entering the earth’s atmosphere).


At the end of August our family set off on a pilgrimage from Ireland, France, Vienna and Spain for Feltre in Northern Italy, an hour and a half from Venice. We were stepping gaily for the wedding of Conor, son of sister The Elder Olivia.  Not just the family travelled to the glorious Medieval town of 200,000 souls at the foot of the Dolomites, home of the bride, Caterina, but dozens of the couple’s friends; a critical mass of physicists from Scotland and England the US, New Zealand, Switzerland, Sweden, Italy, France, Germany, Korea, China and the wider world. Both Conor and Caterina have PhDs in physics; they met at CERN on the Franco-Swiss border in Geneva where they, and many of their friends, still work.  (CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, home of the Large Hedron Collider and birthplace of the World Wide Web.)



There were many beautiful aspects to Cate and Conor’s wedding, the greatest being the love affair between the Irish man and the Italian woman and the big-hearted joy with which each family greeted and joined the other. It was a very modern, informal wedding of tradition. One Italian wedding tradition is the offering of ‘bomboniere’ as a gift to guests at the end of the feast. A bomboniere is a favour of five almonds, usually presented decoratively in boxes or light fabric bags, to signify five wishes for the bride and groom: health, wealth, happiness, fertility and longevity.




Caterina’s bomboniere were presented on a table scattered with tiny garden roses, in a bowl for all to dip in and share, in little paper cones and in ingenious origami tricorn envelope type boxes tied with ribbon and decorated with a perfect pale pink fabric rose, into which was a stitched, double folded diamond gauze pocket holding the sweets. Also in each box was a folded half hexagon with a little printed sticker and 2 handwritten notes.  The note on one side was the name of bride and groom and the date of the wedding, the other, above a printed sticker of “’Rheticus’ the Associazione Astronomica Feltrina” read “Grazie per aver sostenuto con noi” (thanks for supporting us.) Each cone, box and note was embossed with the couple’s initials, a double “C” .




The roses on the bomboniere boxes were so perfect, I took mine up and sniffed it. I am only one sixteenth Italian, so I first read the sticker inside as the ‘Association GASTRONOMICA Feltrina’ and so thought the favours were produced by the local food co-op….until I went to the Rheticus website, and saw stars. Bomboniere can be bought ready made; they are expensive, not just for the sugar coated almond sweets but for the intense work involved in producing and filling the containers.


This is the story of the Feltre bomboniers: Says Cate: “’Reticus’ is the local amateur astronomers association. Their founder is partly responsible for sending me in the direction of studying physics (I was into astrophysics when I started university.) Since it’s through physics that I met Conor and because they organize amazing evenings of stargazing and beautiful conferences in their planetarium in a little town in the mountains –  all self funded –  we decided to pay homage to them by donating whatever money we saved, by making the bomboniere by hand.”










Cate’s mother Patrizia made the boxes and the half hexagon notelets, her aunt Silvana cut and sewed the gauze bags. Signora Luciana, who has been Cate’s babysitter since she was a child and who helps the family with housekeeping, made the roses by hand. The material used by the artist Signora Luciana are waste scraps from the swimwear factory in which her daughter works (Feltre is within the ambit of the Italian fashion manufacturing area.) Every year, she and her friends make hundreds of these roses as decoration for the procession in the town in honour of the Virgin Mary. The embossing was done with a stamp which was a gift from Aunt Silvana…to be used for books and stationary for years to come.


Then, when MOG (Mother of the Groom, sister Olivia, and her two best friends, Conor’s honorary aunties Cathy and Lucinda) arrived a few days before the wedding, they helped fill the containers with the notes and the almond sweets.




Women at work on the family dining table. pic by Conor


It was a good day for the roses. Pic by Conor


















In their daily lives the bride and groom are part of a team who win international acclaim for their work on ‘finding the God Particle’.  Quietly at home, unfeted, the women close to Cate’s heart can make a particle of God from some almonds, gauze interlining, ribbon, paper, support for a local astronomical club and the scraps from a swimwear factory floor.


Cathy, Silvania, Patrizia,Lucinda and Olivia...Senora L   was too shy for the picture...

Cathy, Silvana, Patrizia,Lucinda and Olivia…Sigora Luciana was too modest to go in the picture…



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Life Imitates Art


This is not artifice.  Just some vegetables from the garden, put on the first plate to hand after picking. The cake stand….for such it is…. just happens to be on the dining table in front of a chair on which a damp towel is airing, (for it is Autumn, the flocks of brightly plumed visitors have flown away twittering their trip advisories, and it is raining.)  The towel design – from L.L.Bean many, many, moons ago – is based on that of the Hudson Bay Company Point Blanket.



I sat to supper at the top of the table and fork raised above a green zuccchini, beheld a live still-life. By squash and tomatoes do we still live, but also by wool. In 18th and 19th century North America – particularly Canada – First Nation peoples and the Hudson Bay Company traded beaver pelts for Point Blankets.   The blankets had distinctive colour bars of green, red and yellow on a white background, plus indigo bands of different widths woven into the wool to denote the blanket’s worth.   It is often erroneously thought that the indigo bands indicated the number of pelts necessary for a trade; in fact they marked the weight of the fabric, so that the blanket would not have to be opened out to determine its size.


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Not Quite a Towering Inferno, Dublin in Horse Show Week




I had an assignation in Dublin – well two actually, but we won’t talk about that – so I flew in yesterday, Tuesday, at noon. It is August, it is Horseshow Week and Bewleys in Ballsbridge was full, the daughter had chosen this week to head down to Lough Ine and there was a bus strike, so I booked the ‘DT’ Hotel (used to be the is not just for alcoholics, it stands for “Double Tree by Hilton”which it will become later in the year, when the renovations are finished) off Leeson Street, hired a car and set off out to the Bay Area.


Got the hair done after my assignations (well you’d be wrecked like) and it was not my usual stylist.  “To be honest” he said “I’m gay like, and if you’re anyway good looking, Perth is brutal”  (I didn’t really understand why the first two statements are linked to it, but to be honest, I like totally agree like with the third statement.)


Came back to the hotel last night, parked around the back, went to my room on the 6th floor, stepped out of my shoes and clothing without hanging or folding or getting ready for the morrow. Rummaged in my overnight bag and littered every surface with phones and chargers, A GPS with its associated cables, books, magazines, wool and crochet  hooks (work in progress) and (even more) footwear, took a few ‘phone calls and fell gratefully asleep in my honourable bed.


At 5.20 an alarm began to scream….. It stopped, I swore quietly and turned over, but off it went again and this time, with serious intent. I pulled on a dress and opened the door. It was eerie. The hallway was full of scantily clad figures, all moving quickly and quietly in one direction. “Is this for real?” I asked a guy with a pack on his back, he shrugged and carried on.  I reckoned it was. I stepped onto -rather than into- shoes, scooped up my jewelry, passport, phone and laptop and joined the fast moving flow in the hallway and down 6 flights of stairs. Nobody spoke, it was almost totally silent, there was nobody to guide us, we were as lemmings heading for a cliff. Staff at the front desk carried on about whatever business they were engaged in as we flooded out the wide open doors into the Dublin dawn.


The DT Hotel has 501 guest rooms and last night it was full, many of the rooms sleeping 2 or 3 people or families. The Dublin Fire Brigade was already there, and more trucks pulled up, along with police and an ambulance and we were moved out to the gates and onto the road as the Pompiers donned breathing apparatus, unrolled their hoses and headed into the seven-storey building.


There were no sirens, no shouts, it wasn’t scary and people were good humoured, there was laughter and banter and lots of “well at least it’s not raining” the Irish optimist’s answer to everything. Two women holding babies looked stressed and a young girl on crutches distressed, two hobbling older people leaned on their partners and a family who looked Malaysian were in disarray, though the mother had made sure her head was covered in a scarf.…. one of their children, in pyjama bottoms, limped on one shoe….his brothers carried their sneakers. There were some people in nothing but bathrobes, they had left their rooms in their bare feet and three women of older middle age in shiny slips of scanty nightdresses giggled at themselves. It was a beautiful warm morning, the Guards (police) were in short shirt sleeves, it was not a bad time to be out in your chemise. It is well known that I have a thing for Pompiers, so with 5 units of the Dublin Fire Brigade plus back-up and forensics, this little nightmare was turning into a hi-viz fantasy of the barely clad, black-boots and breathing apparatus.



I got talking to Mario, a young Croatian man, in Ireland for a few weeks working for Ericcson and we whiled away a half an hour as the sun came up.   I realized I had left the bedroom without my camera, but everyone was snapping ‘photos good-oh with their phones. I had also forgotten to take my car key, so if we were evacuees for much longer, or the hotel did go up in flames, I couldn’t return the rental car or get on my flight home at 11 a.m.


Breakfast was supposed to have begun at 6 and it was 6.30 before the fire brigade rolled up their hoses and prepared to leave and we all trooped back to our rooms. Had the chefs also been standing outside instead of slaving over my Full Irish Breakfast?


Obviously some acid had leaked into the workings of a ‘fridge in a room on the 6th floor and had set off the alarms. “Thanks very much” I said to every fireman I passed on the way in: “Ah sure you’re grand” they replied. “We checked all the rooms and there was nothing, but we found 4 horses and we had to lead them down the stairs because the lifts were out……”  Mario, my new Croatian friend, believed the helmeted wag.


At breakfast 2 hours later, the staff were obsequious in the extreme….and the breakfast was great. The dining room was full and also quiet, as though everyone was tired, everyone was conscious of having shared a common experience in the early morning without our underwear. In came guys and gals in polo shirts and the tightest, whitest breeches, worthy of the cover of Jilly Cooper’s “Riders” rotund gentlemen in nifty gold buttoned blazers and red rosettes, lean leathery men in puffa jackets, county women in tweeds with yellow rosettes, sun-kissed adolescent girls in t-shirts looking apprehensive. They were the show jumpers, the dressage specialists, stable staff, eager young competitors, judges of fetlock and leaders of Connemara ponies.


It was the first morning of the Horse Show, down the road in Ballsbridge at the Royal Dublin Society, an enormously important week in the equine, sporting, social, agricultural and tourist life of Ireland and a fillip for the economy of Dublin. I would love to have stayed for the spectacle, the smell, the flutter and flap of flags, the fast bloodstock, the beautiful manes and hats, and the clack and tumble of hooves hitting wooden bars, but a ride was out of the question and I just about got out of town with my life.

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