You are currently browsing the monthly archive for February 2011.

Last night as I lay dreaming of the pleasant days gone by,

My mind being bent on rambling, to Erin’s Isle I did fly.

I stepped on board a vision and sailed out with a will,

‘Till I gladly came to anchor at the Cross of Spancil Hill…

This is the opening of an extraordinary poem written by a man named Michael Considine. In 1870 Michael left his home at the crossroads called Spancil Hill, a few miles outside Ennis in County Clare, seeking his fortune in America with the intention of bringing his sweetheart, Mary McNamara, to join him as soon as he was able. Sadly, in 1873 at the age of 23, Michael fell ill in California and died before seeing Mary or his home in Clare again. But, this being the story of an Irishman, it ends with a poem – which of course was eventually turned into a haunting ballad. While he was ill, and perhaps knowing he was dying, Michael wrote this poem and before he passed away, posted it to John, his six-year-old nephew back in Spancil Hill. The original version of the song Spancil Hill, traces back to the late 1930’s to early ’40s and a local man named Robbie McMahon, who was given the original text by a relative of Michael Considine.

I stumbled upon a brilliant version of Spancil Hill on youtube a few days ago, while cruising for music to get me through the winter doldrums of my Chicago suburb. Here the Irish folk legend and balladeer, Christy Moore joins with Shane MacGowan, the phenomenal, albeit tooth-challenged, talent of Celtic Rock and Punk renown, to give a beautiful rendition of the musical version of Considine’s heart-rending poem, which tells the story of the yearning for home, wherever that might be.


I have lived in and around Chicago my entire life and have seen all sorts of blizzards. Before this week, the three biggest would probably be during the winters of 1967, 1979 and 1999. Like everyone else around here I experienced the collective excitement, dread and finally, back-breaking cleanup of those Chicago blizzards. One thing I’ve always noticed, is that Chicagoans are at their best during blizzards, and the bigger the better! They smile more and have an upbeat tone to their voices as they commiserate with their fellow blizzard survivors. Yes, we complain and some even threaten to move to a more temperate climate. But the complaining is usually accompanied by smiling faces and twinkling eyes, and the threats are rarely carried out, at least not until advanced age and tired bodies demand a move.

Chicago children enjoying the Blizzard of 1967, photo from the Chicago Tribune archive

Along with the collective experience, like everyone else I have my own, personal memories about each blizzard and my situation at the time. Going back to The Chicago Blizzard of 1967, my memories revolve around school snow days, a 10-year-old’s dream! Back then I lived with my parents and sister in an unincorporated area just a couple blocks from Chicago’s city limits, and I don’t think our neighborhood was as quick to get the roads cleared as the city probably was. With that storm I have no memory of holding a shovel in my hands, but vivid memories of hours at play building snowmen, tunnels and igloos and sliding down a snow drift, which covered the southern wall of our house and was at least 8 feet tall – according to my recollection anyway! I also have a picture in my mind of my mother pulling a sled down the street heading for a small local grocery store to restock our refrigerator with essentials. This memory alone tells me that our street was not yet clear enough to drive upon even a day or so after the snow had already stopped falling.

During The Chicago Blizzard of 1979 I was a newlywed living in an apartment on Chicago’s South Side. At the time I worked downtown and traveled home from work on the Archer bus and then switched to the Kedzie Avenue bus that took me a block from our apartment. The main routes in Chicago must have been kept pretty clear because I made it home to within a block of my apartment but then remember walking that last block down sidewalks that had not yet been shoveled, the snow already coming up to my knees and still falling in large flakes heavily from the sky. I was young enough and newly married enough to think the experience was romantic and cozy and that feeling was only amplified as I entered my lovely, cozy apartment – with its oak floors and beautiful oak cove molding and French doors leading from the living room to the bedroom – and I was greeted by the scent of a delicious dinner, simmering in our trusty Crock Pot! That was probably one of the tastiest meals of my life.

The Chicago Blizzard of 1999 was another story. I was a recent widow that winter. In fact, it was the first winter following the death of my husband, that very November. Alone with an 11-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son and only two shovels between us, I have to admit that this was not a blizzard of twinkling eyes and upbeat Chicago-style commiserating over the weather. It was a blizzard of sadness, fatigue and exasperation. A blizzard of sore arms heaving shovels-full of snow over my head to the top of ever-growing mountains of snow that bordered our driveway. Perhaps getting through The Blizzard of 1999 made me stronger and gave me the confidence I needed to move forward, but it’s not a memory I like to revisit.

This is not a toy car, it's Declan's work vehicle in the driveway this morning hours before the snow ended.

Yesterday and this morning we were hit with The Chicago Blizzard of 2011 and Thundersnow! Lucky for us, a few years ago, during the first winter my Irish husband experienced in the great Midwest, Declan made the decision that he could not live here without a snow blower! Since then the snow clean up has been more manageable and, though still hard work, less back-breaking. So this recent blizzard was for us, mostly a matter of waiting for the wind to calm down enough to allow Declan to get out there with the snow blower. This morning between the two of us – him with the machine and me with a shovel getting to the spots the machine can’t reach – we managed to have about two feet of snow cleared from our driveway, along with the driveway of an ailing neighbor, in roughly four hours. And as usual, the snow clearing was accompanied by Chicago-style twinkling-eyed commiseration about the blizzard with a neighbor or two!

Still in my pajamas under the coat!

However, last night’s storm gave me an experience I’ve never had in all my years of Chicago snow and blizzards. Last night in the thick of the storm, with gale force winds blowing straight from the North turning violently into tornado-like swirls of snow, I saw a bright flash of light! At first I thought my worst fear had come into being and a power line had fallen. But a few seconds later, after hearing a loud clap of thunder, I realized that in the middle of this raging blizzard we were getting thunder and lightning! So last night, The Chicago Blizzard of 2011 managed to surprise this somewhat jaded snow storm veteran, by giving me my first experience with Thundersnow! Yet another unique blizzard memory.

Snow Day 2011, Eoin and his friends in about 2 ft. of snow!

Brigid of Kildare, courtesy teabagsinfusion.blogspot

As we hunker down in Chicago awaiting what we’ve been warned will be a blizzard bringing anywhere from 1 and 2 feet of snow by tomorrow afternoon, let’s remember it’s the first day of Spring – according to the Celtic Calendar anyway! Lá Fhéile Bríde, St. Brigid’s Day, falls on the 1st of February and is the Christian replacement for the pagan festival of Imbolc, which honored the goddess Brigid, and celebrated the official beginning of the growing and lambing season.

St. Brigid, a contemporary of St. Patrick and often called “Mary of the Gaels” is still a popular saint in Ireland. There was a time when people believed that she walked the earth on her feast day, in the company of her white, red-eared cow, bestowing blessings upon people and livestock. The tradition was for families to welcome her by leaving an oaten cake and some butter on the outside window sill – along with some corn for her cow. People would also tie ribbons, bits of cloth or handkerchiefs on tree limbs or clothes lines, to be blessed by St. Brigid as she passed their way. This blessed remnant of cloth, called “St. Brigid’s Mantle”, was once thought to have special healing powers. I doubt that many people these days follow this particular tradition, except perhaps in the spirit of celebration and acknowledgment of Ireland’s historic past. However, I do believe young school children still practice the tradition of weaving St. Brigid’s Crosses from rushes to bring home for their parents to hang upon the wall in place of the cross they made the year before. Another practice that may still be followed today by some in Ireland, as well as a few Irish-Americans, would be the preparation of certain dishes traditionally eaten on St. Brigid’s Feast Day. These would be the afore-mentioned Oaten Cakes, as well as Boxty and, my choice for the day, Colcannon. Yes, I am going to try my hand at this traditional Irish dish today, as I watch the snow quietly piling up around my Midwestern Illinois home. There would be no point in attempting to create a St. Brigid’s Cross from rushes, because even if I knew what a rush looked like, it would probably be buried beneath several inches of snow in this place so far from St. Brigid’s country or any sign of Spring!

Colcannon (serves 6)

1 1/4 pounds Kale or green Cabbage

2 cups water

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 1/4 pounds peeled and quartered potatoes

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 cup cleaned and chopped leeks, white part only

1 cup milk

Pinch of ground mace

Salt and ground pepper to taste

1/2 cup melted butter

Simmer kale or cabbage in 2 cups water and oil for 10 minutes, then drain, and chop fine. Boil potatoes and water, simmer until tender. Simmer the leeks in milk for ten minutes, until tender. Drain and puree the potatoes. Add leeks and their milk and the cooked kale, stir together. Stir in mace, salt and pepper. Mound on a plate and pour on the melted butter. Garnish with parsley. – Recipe courtesy, where you will also find recipes for Boxty and Oaten Cakes.

My store-bought St. Brigid's Cross.



Join 47 other followers

Daily Archive Calendar

February 2011
« Jan   Mar »