All is quiet today and the sky is bright above my Chicago suburb. No more sounds of plows in the streets as they try to keep up with a blizzard that dumped over a foot of snow on us. No more scraping of shovels or drone of snowblowers going up and down driveways every couple of hours.

Chicago man with snowblower, AP/Daily Herald, Bob Chwedyk

Chicago man with snowblower, AP/Daily Herald, Bob Chwedyk

The snow has stopped and the streets and driveways are as clear as they’re going to get. But with this storm’s one-two punch a brutal cold has settled in that explains the silence. As I type this it is -16 degrees Fahrenheit outside (negative 26.6 ºC)! And this does not tell the story of our windchill, which is much colder and describes how the air actually feels as these brutal temperatures, in the form of wind, hit your body. I haven’t heard a car pass by on the street for hours because those who can, are staying inside their homes. The local schools are closed and even my husband’s employer told him to stay home today, a phenomenon in itself! The birds are silent as though trying to go unnoticed by this biting cold and the squirrels that live in the two trees on my parkway are nowhere in sight. Hopefully, they’re snuggled up close together keeping as warm as possible. We only venture outside to walk our dog, who we dress in a coat with a turtleneck sweater underneath. Even wearing this get-up, he comes back inside shivering, feet frozen and  tiny snowballs clinging to his fuzzy fur. Seán is a Bichon Frise and not made for this weather.

Meanwhile, it is about 50 degrees Fahrenheit in Ireland. But, a milder temperature does not mean that Mother Nature is taking it easy on them. Lashing rain and 120 km/h winds have wreaked havoc with damaging waves and floods along the coast and across the country from storms that have come repeatedly since before Christmas.

The River Shannon floods Kilbaha Bay on the Loop Head Peninsula, photo courtesy Carsten Krieger Photography

The River Shannon floods Kilbaha Bay on the Loop Head Peninsula, photo courtesy Carsten Krieger Photography

Tides rise and huge waves explode against the shores of the Loop Head Peninsula and all along the coastline taking down sections of stone walls, washing over roads and flooding promenades. The howl of gale-force wind and the thunder of 40 – 60 foot waves would be invigorating and exciting to witness if it were not so destructive. I imagine the local people snug inside their homes having battened down the hatches, hoping for the best and afraid to venture out to see the damage each time it quiets down between storms.

Storm damage in Kilbaha, photo courtesy Carsten Krieger Photography

Storm damage in Carrigaholt on the Loop Head Peninsula, photo courtesy Carsten Krieger Photography

My house on the Loop Head Peninsula just outside Kilkee is inland enough that the waves themselves can’t reach it, but with wind like that and the lashing rain, I am preoccupied with concern for its wellbeing. A huge weight lifted  from my shoulders when we received an email from the local man who checks on the house for us. Reading the words, “You’ll be glad to know that Teach de Búrca stands proud with no damage done to it or any of the outbuildings,” was such a great relief that I felt a surge of optimism and a special warmth for my little Irish house as it continued to brave the storms.

So here I am surrounded by snow and cold so dangerous that I won’t be leaving the house today – not even for my mocha! The cabinet doors under the kitchen sink are open to allow heat to surround and protect the pipes from freezing as are the doors around water pipes in the basement. Curtains drawn and blinds closed through the night in an attempt to keep out drafts, are now open to allow the sun to magnify some heat through the windows. The furnace is on overtime doing its best to keep us warm, so far so good. I am here and I know what is happening and what I need to do. But since I’m not in my County Clare cottage, I can’t see for myself if all is well after each storm so I am haunted by phantom sounds of crashing waves, howling wind and the rattling of my red half-door.

Lahinch, Co. Clare Promenade photo taken by photographer/surfer George Karbus courtesy breakingnews.ie

Atlantic waves appear to swallow the promenade in Lahinch, Co. Clare, photo taken by photographer/surfer George Karbus courtesy breakingnews.ie

I’ve played a Damien Dempsey CD repeatedly throughout the holidays. In fact, it has been more the theme of my holiday season than the usual collection of Christmas CDs I unpack with the ornaments every year. My favorite track is, “School Days Over”. This version of the song is sung in a gritty, workingman’s voice that makes it easy to imagine a boy, barely a man, being called to work and facing the hard reality of his life. Although the song was written by Ewan MacColl and depicts the mines in England, Scotland and Wales, Dempsey sings it in a style that is unquestionably Irish. The lilt at the end of several lines throughout the song, tells us that the hard life of the laborer was as much a part of Irish culture as the more romantic and cozy things that resonate when we think of Ireland, like music in the pubs and strong, milky tea with brown bread.

Far from the streets of Dublin and the boreens of Loop Head, I woke up this morning to piles of snow on the ground and more falling from the sky. The Chicago area has been hammered by snow that seems to have been incessantly falling in varying degrees for nearly 48 hours. Declan was up early this morning with the snow blower and I with a shovel, trying to get a head start on the snow in the driveway, on the steps and in the dog’s pen in the backyard. After the shoveling and in spite of blizzard conditions, I still managed to drive to Elijah’s, my favorite coffee shop, for my morning mocha. It would take more than treacherous roads to keep me from my morning ritual of mocha, book reading and the occasional enjoyable interruptions of friendly banter with a couple of my favorite baristas and a few of the other regular customers who, like me, come in every morning.

It could have been the fiddle music playing on the speakers at Elijah’s this morning, or maybe just my obsessive Damien Dempsey exposure recently, but I spent the slow, white-knuckled drive home singing “School Days Over”. My weak imitation of Dempsey’s version of the song passed the time happily for me but didn’t bode well for Eoin when I arrived home. Seeing him still in his pajamas and playing on his iPad with all that snow piling up outside, I began singing my own, off the cuff, version of “School Days Over” urging him out the door to shovel the snow accumulating once again in the driveway. Lucky for Eoin it’s 2014, and aside from family chores, child labor laws are in place. His bit of shoveling didn’t take too long and was followed up by an hour or so of sledding with his friends on the little hill at the end of our street!

Come on then Eoin, it’s time to go.

Time to be shoveling all that snow…

Slug, Snail and Hurley

Slug, Snail and Hurley

A slug and a snail went riding on a hurley
one was rather pretty, the other fat and burly.

“Slug” asked Snail, “d’ ye loik hangin’ out wit me,
while dis lad has nuttin’ else to do, and no TV?”

Slug said nothing, just sighed and felt sublime
as he gazed around proudly at his trails of slime.

I tore Eoin away from his dazzling new Christmas iPad Mini with Retina Display so that he could reacquaint himself with his little buddies from County Clare and to see what he thought of the poem I wrote to go with the photo. He laughed after I explained what ‘sublime’ meant and read Snail’s comment with the Dublin accent I was trying to convey. (Although this was a West Clare snail, I settled for an approximation of a Dub accent I’m more familiar with.)

Eoin looked a bit wistful for a moment, remembering how he had amused himself at our cozy cottage in Clare by putting the snail and the slug on his hurley to see if they would race, or fight, or even react to each other.  This is the sort of thing a boy does when he is planted in the middle of the bog for two summer months with no TV and no iPad. After a moment Eoin trotted off, returning to the iPad and whatever game he most recently downloaded with his iTunes gift card… as I sat wistfully longing for a cottage in the bog with no television nor iPad in sight.

slugsnailEoin

Bodhran by Gaga Nielsen courtesy The Pure Drop

Bodhran by Gaga Nielsen

Growing up on the far South Side of Chicago, surrounded by a vast assortment of Irish names like O’Donnell, Murphy and Burke, and Irish faces of fair-complexion with freckles and sparkling blue eyes, I never felt very Irish. Although I had an Irish grandmother, I also had a Greek last name, a German mother and dark brown eyes. My somewhat olive skin didn’t go well with the Kelly Green Rugby shirts and Aran sweaters of Chicago St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. And for the most part, the Irish music I heard in my youth, which would move many Irish-Americans to tears, didn’t do a thing for me. In my opinion songs like “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” though fun to sing along with, were corny and dripping with sentiment that was not helped by the fake Irish accents with which they were often sung.

Then one day in the 1990’s, I opened a Sinéad O’Connor cd and everything changed. On track two of this pop/rock cd there was a song called, I am Stretched on Your Grave, which I later discovered was based upon an English translation of a 17th century Irish Gaelic poem. The track began with a drum rhythm and Sinéad’s haunting, Celtic voice and led unexpectedly to what I thought at the time was a taste of pure Irish fiddle and drum heaven! As I listened, I danced around an imaginary bonfire in my mind and plugged into a power in that music that felt ancient and tribal. This song opened the door for me to a type of Irish music I had never been exposed to before. My new passion led me to the Irish Folk Music section of my beloved Border’s Bookstore and resulted in an extensive collection of Irish Traditional Music cd’s. Over time I bought dozens of cd’s, many filled with ballads rendered in a language that spoke to me, even though I didn’t understand a word of it, and haunting melodies played with fiddles, whistles and the stirring beat of the Irish drum, the bodhran, a name I couldn’t pronounce at the time. As I drove my family crazy with this newfound musical passion, I slowly became connected through music to a land, a people and a culture that I was only slightly connected to by way of genetics.

The rest is history. This blog, my West Clare cottage, my Irish last name – my youngest son – the little Irishman with a name I couldn’t have pronounced even a year before his birth, all exist to some extent because of that one Sinéad O’Connor song and the countless bodhran, fiddle and tin whistle tunes and ballads that followed. I still can’t wear Kelly Green, and Aran Sweaters really do not suit me. But not only do I now feel Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, like the rest of the City of Chicago, I am also connected to Ireland in a way that goes far beyond genetics. And today my two older children, whom I once drove crazy with my Irish Music cd’s, have a bond to Ireland as well!

On February 28th, President Obama declared March, 2013 Irish-American Heritage Month. Perhaps his Moneygall, Ireland DNA is what drove him to do it. Or, his experience visiting that country where he only recently discovered his family connections. Or, maybe it was just good old-fashioned politics where it never hurts to nod to the millions of Americans with Irish blood coursing through their veins! I would say it was probably a combination of all the above. Whatever his reasons, I am sure that most Americans will be happy to heed his call this St. Patrick’s Day!

“… NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim March 2013 as Irish-American Heritage Month. I call upon all Americans to observe this month with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs.”

I have found another reason to like the Irish people and it happened in a pub.

After Eoin’s tin whistle class on Wednesday night we wandered over to a nearby pub to hear his teacher performing traditional Irish music on the concertina, accompanied by his sister playing the harp. I ordered a hot whiskey for myself and a Rock Shandy (1/2 Club Orange and 1/2 Club Lemon) for Eoin and we joined the small group of people in the pub for the music. A television on the wall, albeit with the sound turned off, kept Eoin happy with a dose of the Olympics he has been so sorely missing due to the absence of a tv in our cottage. As for me, the lovely music and relaxed banter with the pub owner and the musicians between tunes, was a perfect way to wind down the day!

At some point the subject of crime came up and someone in the room quipped about how insignificant matters are reported on the local radio station as though they are of great importance, such as the recovery of a missing dog or a truck stalled and blocking a road in a town of only a handful of houses. I mentioned that they’re lucky that such small things are worth reporting here because in Chicago there is enough crime to report about to keep the small things well off the news!

When someone then mentioned how relatively low the crime rate is in this part of the country, I blurted out my usual superstition, “Knock on wood!” No sooner did the phrase escape my mouth than every person within earshot immediately and instinctively – reached over, in front of, beside, or even behind themselves and knocked on whatever wood furniture or molding was closest to them! Then everyone continued on with the conversation without missing a beat. It was so unusual to us that even Eoin remarked during the journey home, “Mom, did you see how everyone knocked on wood when you told them to?” These are my kind of people!

Having made it back to the Kilrush Farmer’s Market, I made a point to bring my camera along and was happy to find that the chickens I was so delighted to see there a couple of weeks ago were back! And, although I again controlled the urge to buy a hen, I came a bit closer this time and bought some fresh eggs from a boy who appeared to be about the same age as Eoin. As professional and businesslike as this young man was, he was still a boy, and I watched as he eagerly pushed forward a particular half-dozen carton, which he seemed to favor, trying to sell it to an elderly man who was ahead of me at the stand. I noticed that the carton contained an oddly shaped egg prominently perched at one end. However, the man didn’t acknowledge the boy’s hints and instead took the carton closest to him. When my turn came I couldn’t resist the boy’s enthusiasm for this particular half-dozen. He inched the carton toward me and though he didn’t guarantee it, he told me that the oddly shaped egg might contain a double-yolk! He said this with the bright-eyed enthusiasm of a child who is not yet bored with the subject of double-yolk fresh eggs, in spite of having to sell eggs at a farmer’s market stand – and probably help gather them in the morning.

Well, as I had promised Eoin earlier in the day, for dinner that evening I made him a bit of an Irish breakfast of eggs and black and white pudding. Of course we had to use the egg with the potential double-yolk and as I got ready to crack it open Eoin stood watching hopefully – and with the same enthusiasm that his peer exhibited when selling it to me. Unfortunately, all this anticipation was rewarded with only a single yolk.

Sometimes an oddly shaped egg is just an oddly shaped egg!

The picturesque Carrigaholt Post Office.

With a birthday card to mail, I decided to take advantage of a mild, if still overcast day, earlier this week and chose to drive a bit into the Loop Head Peninsula to the small fishing village of Carrigaholt, thinking that Eoin could go seashell hunting on the Shannon shoreline that lies within view of the picturesque Carrigaholt Post Office and the attached Dolphinwatch office. While Eoin wandered down to collect shells, I went ahead to post my card. Having already made the acquaintance of the amiable postman, we exchanged greetings as he processed my card. Looking around I saw a few people mulling about, mugs in hand browsing the large selection of books, pamphlets and odds and ends that surround the small, crowded room with the service window. I asked if he had fired up the espresso machine that he hadn’t plugged in last year due to the thin crowds of people. He said no, but that he was serving herbal tea. So, never one to resist an opportunity to turn an otherwise humdrum errand into a pleasurable experience, I requested a cup of peppermint tea and spent some moments of leisure sitting at one of the tables in front of the lovely stone building, surrounded by pots of flowers, sipping tea and listening to the cool jazz emanating from outdoor speakers. Meanwhile, Eoin enjoyed searching for a 10-year-old’s treasures along the quiet shore of the River Shannon. I call that a win-win situation!

If you look across the bay into the distance, between the flower-pot on the blue bench and the green post box, you can see the ruin of Carrigaholt Castle, built around 1480 by the quarrelsome McMahons, and full of the ghosts of a very colorful and violent history. I thought how strange, all these centuries later, that I was sitting there within sight of those empty windows, peacefully enjoying peppermint tea from a flowery mug, cool jazz filling the air.

When we arrived home tonight I turned off the car and we sat parked in front of the house listening to this beautiful song playing on the radio, while gazing out across the misty bog just as the grey of the day was darkening into night. It always amazes me just how perfectly Irish music fits with the Irish landscape.

Yes, we had another day of what has been the punch line of the summer, “forty shades of green replaced by Fifty Shades of Grey!” However, fast becoming an expert at trying to make the best of the challenging weather situation, this afternoon I purchased tickets to a show staged at the Cultúrlann Sweeney Theatre that resides in the newly renovated library in Kilkee. Tonight, Crack’d Spoon Theatre Company performed “Curtains Up”, a family friendly variety show, that was a delightful mix of comedy, dance and live music featuring local children, teenagers and adults. The comedy provided hearty laughs – and a few eye-rolls, the talented, and sometimes quite nervous, children were darling, the adult performances were very professional and the live music was an unexpected treat tonight following Willie Clancy Week. Some of the night’s highlights were; two young boys dressed as chimney sweeps performing an exuberant sean-nós broom dance; a Monty Python-esque town doctor comedy skit; two excellent male singers performing a “Simon and Garfunkel” tune; traditional Irish music performers playing and singing several Irish classics; a hilarious, quite large, older man dressed as a ballerina performing with a group of tiny, adorable little girl ballerinas, who seemed to take his presence for granted as just part of their group; and two “cleaning lady” comediennes who punctuated the acts with their banter and short spurts of set changing followed by numerous breaks for tea! All in all a great way for a mom and her 10-year-old son to spend yet another rainy Kilkee evening! This local black box theater is a great discovery that I hope we get to enjoy a lot more of in the future.

I also must mention something that I have observed at every performance I’ve attended in County Clare. This is the particularly charming practice of offering as refreshment, fresh brewed tea in ceramic mugs or, as they did tonight, in ceramic teacups with saucers! This was even done in the large venue for the concerts in Miltown Malbay last week. In that instance at one point the emcee of the show politely asked that people who have finished their tea, “please pass your cups down to the end of the rows so that they may be collected.” I love this civilized, homey touch and I hope it is never replaced with the usual disposable cups that are the norm everywhere else!

My “Willie Clancy” chair!

Musicians, singers, dancers and Irish traditional music fans, like me, have come to Ireland from all over the world to enjoy Willie Clancy Week. An 40ú Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, the Willie Clancy 40th Summer School, a.k.a. Willie Clancy Week or the Willie Clancy Festival takes place annually in the town of Miltown Malbay. Not only is this Ireland’s largest traditional music summer school, but it offers a week of recitals, céilithe (traditional dances), lectures and exhibitions, all open to the public. It is basically an intensive, week-long celebration of  traditional Irish music and culture. Lucky for us, Miltown Malbay is just a half hour from our cottage so today Eoin and I made our first, of what I hope to be a few, trips to the festival. Not only was this a feast of Irish traditional music, punctuated by the most Irish language speaking I’ve ever heard while here, but it was a treat just to see so many people of all ages with musical instruments strapped to their backs or carried in their arms and even children, with their instruments of choice, busking along the main street!

On the way back to the car, which I had parked “Irish style” (half on top of the footpath) a distance from the center of town, we were enticed into a used-book store by a Roald Dahl book displayed in the window. Eoin has discovered this irreverent and hilarious children’s book author since we’ve been in Kilkee this summer and was just telling me this very day how he hoped to get more of his books. We ended up purchasing three books, much to Eoin’s delight. However, much to my delight, there was a wooden chair for sale in the back room of the shop, hand painted and antiqued by a woman from Feakle in County Clare. This was the chair I had pictured at my kitchen table for the past three years and, at the fair price they were asking, I couldn’t resist bringing it home! Therefore, to anyone who attended the Willie Clancy Festival today confused by the sight of a woman carrying a green, painted wooden chair above her head through the dense crowd, you see – there is a perfectly reasonable explanation!

Below are a few photos we took at the Willie Clancy Fest. If you would like to see a photo of me carrying a green chair above my head down a crowded sidewalk, I’m sorry, but we didn’t take one. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if one exists in someone else’s camera!

A child busking at the fest.

My Kilrush Farmer’s Market treasures.

Bipolar West Clare awoke in a manic state this morning – dry, mild and bright! At least it did here in the Kilkee region. After a couple of weeks living with its depressive state, which had me feeling a bit like a character in a John B. Keane tale, this change of mood was overdue and very welcome. Also, as far as I am aware the fine weather today was not predicted, so it came as a very pleasant surprise. In the words of a local business owner, “Where did this come from?!”

The Nevsail Hut at the beach.

This morning, while Eoin was occupied in the Atlantic at Nevsail Watersports Camp, I enjoyed the beginning of this dry, mild day with a trip to the nearby town of Kilrush. After a leisurely breakfast of coffee and a scone at my favorite Kilrush hangout, The Potter’s Hand Café, I followed up with a visit to the farmer’s market in the square. Much to my surprise, not only did this market have the usual stalls selling such things as fresh produce, gorgeous flowers, homemade jams and local cheeses, it also had a vendor selling live chickens! After making my purchases, no chickens included, I took my time walking back to the car enjoying the warmth of the sun and imagining myself, produce and beautiful bouquet in hand, strolling through a village in the south of France!

After collecting Eoin at the end of Nevsail (where a seagull ate his lunch – but that’s another story!) we headed over to Diamond Rocks where I took a walk along the cliffs as Eoin, carrying his net and bucket, enjoyed the mild breeze and sun while searching the Pollock Holes for sea creatures.

Eoin inspecting his treasures.

Unlike last night, the only thunder I heard today was the sound of white, foamy waves pounding against the sun-warmed rocks beneath the cliffs. The cliff walk was a dazzling sight with the bright sun shining down from a sky of blue, highlighting a show of wild grasses in every shade of green sprinkled with tiny wildflowers of purple, yellow and white. This vibrant scene practically took my breath away after so many rainy days of muted colors under grey skies. And standing atop the highest cliff looking across Intrinsic Bay, with the warmth of the sun allowing me to finally remove my sweater for the first time in many days, there was no reason to imagine I was anywhere other than the west of Ireland!

As I write this it is after ten o’clock in the evening. The sky is still clear, the air is still mild and I hear the peaceful sound of cattle lowing in a nearby field – perhaps asking each other, “Where did this come from?!”

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