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Sr. Bernardine- photo by John Kelly courtesy of "The Clare Champion"

I just love seeing nuns… sort of like I love touring old churches – even though I’m not particularly fond of actually attending church! There is something ‘Old World’ about the sight of these entities and something enticing about ancient tradition, either religious or not. Being around devout people and spiritual places can transport a person out of the routine of modern life.

There are a group of nuns who make part of their living in my town running espresso stands in our local library and train depot. This particular order of nuns dress from head to toe, in a habit that makes these very young women seem like apparitions from Medieval Europe. When my son was between apartments and back home with us for a month last summer, I think buying his morning coffee from the nuns at the train station was a highlight of his day because it took him outside of the morning rush hour and gave him the feeling, for a brief time each morning, that he was coming into contact with a different world. And I must admit to purchasing a few mochas at the library just for the opportunity to interact with these “strange” creatures. My curiosity and slight fascination with nuns, probably springs from the fact that I am not a Roman Catholic, therefore I have minimal experience with them or knowledge about them, and carry no nun-related baggage. In any case, this photograph of Sister Bernardine Meskell, mother abbess of the Poor Clare Monastery in Ennis, grabbed my attention while I was glancing through The Clare Champion newspaper online yesterday. Happily, the article attached to the photo gave me an excuse to include the photo here!

The Clare Champion is a County Clare newspaper, which I have linked to my desktop, so that I may browse through it now and then to see what is going on in the Rose Cottage neck of the woods. Most of the articles in the paper are not very interesting to me at the moment, since I am not attuned to the local issues. However, now and then a photo or article will entice me to read past the title, which is what happened when I beheld Sister Bernardine standing there with her umbrella and jolly smile! The purpose of the article was to announce the launching of an interesting new book entitled, Salty Faces and Ferocious Appetites – A tapestry of stories from a Seaside School, written to mark the founding, 80 years ago, of St. Joseph’s Secondary School in County Clare’s Spanish Point. The reason for the Sister’s prominence in the article is that she not only was a student of the school from 1958 to 1963, but the book’s title comes from a story she relates within the book about her years as a boarder at St. Joseph’s. The article, for the most part, quotes her story. Sister Bernardine begins,

“The sea was magic… I particularly loved the rough winter waves and those walks by the White Strand or down the Racecourse Road coming back with salty faces and ferocious appetites. A winding trail of maroon with a hint of blue regularly moved with the coast road. I still cherish the memory of those school walks. Water always held something special for me, even the rain. During the school term in Spanish Point there was plenty of both sea and rain.”

Following this enchanting beginning to Sister Bernardine’s story, the article goes on to give her recollections, described in vivid detail and with the same joyful tone as her smiling photograph portrays, about her experiences at the school, the friends she made there, the nuns who taught her and the story of what put her on the path of becoming a Poor Clare nun. Along with the reminiscences of Sister Bernardine, another 38 former pupils and teachers are featured in this book, which celebrates the many years of St. Joseph’s Secondary School. Salty Faces and Ferocious Appetites promises to not only paint a detailed picture of this one-time boarding school, but should also give interesting historical insight into a time past in County Clare, and in Irish education in general. Needless to say, this is a book I will be on a quest for, during my next trip to County Clare!

The Last of the Donkey Pilgrims from kevin-ohara.com

Several years ago I read a delightful memoir that took 25 years to write. Last of the Donkey Pilgrims, by Kevin O’Hara, tells the story of the author’s mad decision, as a young man, to trek around the entire coastline of Ireland, traveling on foot with his donkey named Missy, pulling a cart. Poor Kevin was on foot, in part, because he is a softhearted man who couldn’t bring himself to force this very stubborn, temperamental creature to carry him along with all his gear but also, because he wanted to make the trip in the span of a year and Missy would have none of it unless he walked beside her!

In 1979, Kevin O’Hara was a restless man, dealing with the emotional impact of the horrors he had witnessed during his time spent serving in Vietnam and looking for a way to move forward in his life.  An Irish-American who had a life-long loving relationship with the West of Ireland, his Irish granny and other relatives and friends there, he had a yearning to connect with the land of his roots in a way he felt he could only accomplish by traveling slowly, in the old style of donkey and cart, which by that time was a rarely seen spectacle. He knew the old ways of Ireland would soon be a thing of the past and wanted to experience the country and its people fully before the changes already taking place, were complete. Through Mr. O’Hara’s recollections of his adventure, we get a glimpse of a time now past in a land where doors would still open for a stranger with a story to tell.

The first few chapters describe the decision making process, preparation for the long, demanding trip – which included purchasing and learning how to care for Missy – and the bemused reaction of the locals to the idea of this American traveling with a donkey and cart around their country! However, for me the book really took off after Kevin bid Granny farewell and began the yearlong excursion with Missy along the highways and winding boreens, bóithríní, of Ireland. Once the trek begins, we are treated to the characters and scenery of an adventure, which was physically challenging, sometimes quite dangerous, very often hilarious and contained moments of spiritual insight. For the author, it became a life changing, character-building journey that brought joy back into his life. Readers are provided soulful and vivid descriptions of the passing countryside and its inhabitants from the viewpoint of a person enthralled with the land of his ancestry. A master storyteller, Mr. O’Hara’s often self-deprecating sense of humor, dry wit and vast appreciation of detail, provides wonderful anecdotes about the landscape, characters and the sometimes-awkward incidents, which occur along the way.

A favorite anecdote for me came from Kevin’s unusual opportunity to spend some time along the route with a group of Travelers, or Tinkers. This experience, along with the author’s interpretation, gives readers a rare glimpse into an often misunderstood and disparaged culture. Another gem in the book occurred during a late night hike ‘home’ from a pub through a rural field, were he stumbled (almost literally) upon an elderly woman laying in the grass, gazing up at the night sky and praying the rosary by using the stars as rosary beads, the way she was taught by her parents as a small child many years past. That chance meeting, followed by her send off of, “Slán abhaile agus oíche mhaith”, safe home and good night, was haunting and magical. Along with these incidents and many others, an important and poignant thread throughout Kevin’s journey was his evolving relationship with Missy, his donkey, which begins a bit shaky, but grows much deeper as they develop a mutual bond of coexistence and reliance upon each other. All in all, Kevin O’Hara comes across, as a very sensitive, spiritual man who brings these events, and characters to life in a way that stayed with me long after the book was finished.

A Lucky Irish Lad

I am very happy to learn that Kevin O’Hara’s second book, A Lucky Irish Lad, is due to be released this month and can now be ordered through Amazon. To experience a bit of Mr. O’Hara’s wonderful storytelling talents go to his website at,  http://www.kevin-ohara.com/ If you click on “Events” you will be provided with audio of the author telling four wonderful stories from his childhood.

Currently, I am reading a memoir written by Karen Armstrong, an ex-nun. The title, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of the Darkness, gives a pretty good idea of the mood of the book and of the writer’s struggle to come to terms with her difficult time spent in a convent and the years of readjustment that followed her decision to leave. Over all, it is a very interesting, well written, but somewhat depressing memoir. Normally, I would find this to be a perfectly acceptable and engrossing book to read. However, it is hard to relate to the life of a highly intellectual, angst filled ex-nun when I am currently being haunted by the group of likable, eccentric friends I very recently met in the fictional town of Ballybucklebo in 1960’s Northern Ireland.

"An Irish Country Doctor" from us.macmillan.com

My interest in Ireland, has led me to read many books about the country, both fiction and non-fiction. During my frequent visits to the local Borders bookstore, I have on numerous occasions, come across a particular book that both attracted and repelled me since it was first released in 2004. Patrick Taylor’s An Irish Country Doctor promised an escape into an Irish countryside of the past, while at the same time threatened to be one of those ‘didley-yah’ books full of exaggerated “Oirishness” that promote a fantasy of a quaint Ireland that either no longer exists, or never really existed in the first place. Often these books are full of stereotypes that are insulting to the Irish people and can be so corny that they make me cringe. So, over the years I have held this particular book in my hand, looked at the cover design with it’s painting of an idyllic Irish countryside, read the description of the story… and set it down for fear it was another of the many books out there trying to cash in on the Irish-American love of the fantasy of  a quaint Ireland and its quaint inhabitants.

Well, sometime in December, I was between books and looking for some light, easy reading to get me through the bustle and stress of the Christmas holiday season. Just back from Ireland, having closed on Rose Cottage, I decided to “chance my arm” on Patrick Taylor’s book. The upside of owning an Amazon Kindle, is that the purchase of a book is as easy as the click of a button, so within a minute of deciding to read An Irish Country Doctor, it was in my hand.

An Irish Country Doctor, tells the tale of a young man, Dr. Barry Laverty who, fresh out of medical school in Belfast in the mid 1960’s, moves to the fictional little village of Ballybucklebo in Northern Ireland, to fill the spot of assistant in the small rural practice of Dr. Fingal O’Reilly. As you can guess, the story is chock-full of interesting and eccentric characters not the least of which is Kinky Kincaid, the doctor’s housekeeper, who hails from County Cork, and is not only an excellent cook (and provides many of her recipes at the back of the book) but she is also fey… a bit psychic. As you might expect the writing is full of Northern Ireland and Cork colloquialisms and even peppered with a few Irish words and phrases for your enjoyment! Dr. O’Reilly, Himself, is a bit of a curmudgeon who has learned over the years, how to deal best with the characters in the town, while never sacrificing excellent, 1960’s ‘modern’ medical care. Due to the era and the rural location in Ireland, Dr. O’Reilly enjoys a lofty standing in the community that would no longer be granted to the town doctor, but provides an interesting background for the story. An Irish Country Doctor is a bit of a romp through an Ireland that no longer exists with a group of quirky, likable characters who manage to come to life through the simple narrative. And best of all, Patrick Taylor manages to tell his story without resorting to the kinds of Irish stereotypes and gimmicks I was so sure I would find in this book. There are no major plot twists here, no feelings of impending doom or even a lot of excitement and anticipation that would make a person want to skip ahead to see what happens. But this book creates a strong visual impression and provides characters that get under the skin and seem real. While reading I kept getting the feeling that these people, especially Dr. O’Reilly and Kinky, were just outside my field of vision and, though I could not actually see their faces, if I were to just look over my shoulder quickly enough, I would catch a glimpse of them. By the end of the book I truly did feel as though I had taken a pleasant, little holiday in the town of Ballybucklebo, and was sad the holiday had come to an end.

However, much to my delight, during the six years that I had been picking up and putting down Patrick Taylor’s book, he had been busy writing three… count them THREE… sequels! Well, the last book is more of a prequel, which focuses upon the housekeeper, Kinky’s, youth in County Cork and explores her mystical visionary gifts that are only touched upon in the first three books. With the help of my ‘magic’ Kindle, it was an easy matter of purchasing and reading one book after the other in sequence providing me with a marathon immersion into the 20th century Northern Ireland town of Ballybucklebo and eventually, Kinky’s childhood home of Béal na mBláth in County Cork.

This is not heavy reading, or even exciting reading. But if you’re looking for a pleasant escape during these cold, often dreary winter days, into a fictional place in Ireland and want to make friends with some likable, and a couple not so likable, characters, I recommend these books… as long as you are prepared to share your home for a time with a group of ‘ghosts’ who make it quite difficult to move on to deeper more serious reading!

For more information on the books, An Irish Country Doctor, An Irish Country Village, An Irish Country Christmas and An Irish Country Girl, as well as a bit of the interesting background of the author, Patrick Taylor, who happens to be a doctor himself, check out his website at: http://patricktaylor.ca/index.html

…and for an added treat, when you are browsing the website, go to the Home Page and click on the link in the blue text that says “Celtic singing” and enjoy the lovely voice of his daughter singing the Irish tunes, “My Lagan Love” and “Bonny Portmore”!

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