Monthly Archives: July 2014

‘Next parish America’

Slea Head

The Blasket Islands from Slea Head.

IS there one single place that sums up Ireland?

Some people have their own, some may have one from a guidebook and others might think of a long gone location from their youth.

Most of us could easily list off a dozen contenders: the Ha’penny Bridge, the Giant’s Causeway, the mountains of Mourne, Shandon Church, the GPO, Croagh Patrick. You know the rest.

For me it’s tiny lay-by off a section of the crumbly R559 road, just past Ballyickeen, in Co Kerry. And as lay-bys go this one surely has one of the best rest-stop views in the world.

That’s because it sits atop Slea Head, the furthest point west in Ireland and the most western point of the European mainland.

The headland looks out over the Atlantic, west towards the windswept and now uninhabited Blasket Islands and south to Valentia and the Skellig Islands.

As my grandmother would say: “the next parish is America”.

I first visited this place as a toddler. Our family returned almost every summer of my childhood, travelling west from Tralee and picnicking past Dingle before reaching Slea Head.

One of my strongest memories of those years is my mother handing out ham and tomato sandwiches from the car boot, wrapped in tin foil, at the same spot we’d pull in at each year.

Over time my visits to Slea Head dropped off. I think I’ve been there once in the past 20 years, if that.

Slea Head for the first time. For one of us.

Slea Head for the first time. For one of us at least.

Until I returned last weekend.

I’d forgotten how the view looked, and felt.

I’ve been lucky enough to breath the air at the highest summit in Europe but I still think the draught off the Atlantic at Slea Head tops it.

As I stood there again last Saturday, on a rare fine day, it occurred me that this place is Ireland. Or as close as I’ll ever get to it in a single spot.

The sun, the mist, the rocks, the green, the sky, the sea, the place names (Ceann Sleibhe, Corca Dhuibhne, Dun Chaoin), the people who battled out a living here, buffeted on the edge of Europe, for centuries.

Some might call this concept ‘Mother Ireland‘. And this would be apt in my case.

Because Slea Head has always been a female place to me – my memories of visiting there are entwined with those of my mother and grandmother.

It was fitting then that when I travelled there last Saturday it was to show my wife Slea Head for the first time.

She’s not Irish by birth but she’s seen plenty of the country.

I doubt though, as she stood over the Atlantic, faced with the sweep from the Skelligs over the Blaskets to Dun Chaoin, if she’d ever seen anything as Irish as Slea Head.

Taking in the view, 1960. Pic: MJ Richardson

‘On the edge of Europe’. The rest-stop in 1960.
Pic: MJ Richardson

_____

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A tragedy, and a return to Hook Head

'A single cormorant kept a solitary vigil.'

‘A single cormorant kept a solitary vigil.’

FOR 1,500 years this was the sight that greeted the lighthouse keeper at Hook Head in Co Wexford.

Looking east from the headland he would see serrated cliffs slip into the Celtic Sea, with the Saltee Islands in the distance.

The view greeted 5th century Irish monks, the Elizabethan lighthouse keepers of the 1600s and the men of the Commissioners of Irish Lights, who took up duties at Hook Lighthouse in the mid-19th century.

Hook Lighthouse.

Hook Lighthouse.

It’s also a view that I’ve known since I was old enough to walk the precarious cliffs that stretch from lighthouse itself around to the nearby village of Slade.

Walking it this week, for the first time in a number of years, it was easy to see why those early monks lit warning fires on the peninsula to protect passing ships.

The knife-edged quartzite bluffs appear menacing, even on a benign July morning. The danger they pose, particularly in the all-too-prevalent fogs off the south coast, has ensured that a light has been kept at Hook Head ever since those first cliff-top fires.

This constant presence has also secured Hook the position of the world’s oldest working lighthouse – and it now attracts thousands of visitors each year. (This is not its only claim to fame. In 2011 Lonely Planet labelled the structure the world’s ‘flashiest lighthouse’.)

But unlike these visitors the lure of the area for me lies beyond the lighthouse. My family has history at Hook Head and it’s sited in this eastward view over the waters of the Celtic Sea.

Hook Lighthouse.

‘My family has history at Hook Head.’

This area of water is where my great-grandfather, Charles Cullen, was lost in July 1924, a crewman on the stricken steamer SS Lismore.

It went down 16 miles out, capsizing when its cargo shifted. Of the 16 men aboard, just one survived.

My great-grandfather went down with the ship, leaving a wife and family behind (my grandmother was 16 at the time). No trace of him, or any of the other 14 men who were lost on July 10, 1924, was ever found. (The wreck of the Lismore, or what remains of it, was later located – lying on the seabed 35 metres down.)

The wheel of the SS Lismore, displayed at James Kehoe's pub, Kilmore Quay, Co Wexford. Pic: Pat Looney

The wheel of the SS Lismore, displayed at James Kehoe’s pub, Kilmore Quay, Co Wexford.
Pic: Pat Looney

Charles Cullen’s name wasn’t mentioned much when I was young; time had moved on and the tragedy has passed into the family history.

But he came to mind this week when, on a visit to Wexford, my father and I decided to take the old family trip again, joining the rental cars and day tripping families at ‘the Hook’.

Walking away from the lighthouse and along the cliffs – almost 90 years to the day that my great-grandfather was lost – I wondered if this tragedy had somehow subconsciously drawn my family and I back to the area over the years.

After all, fishermen’s lore would suggest that his spirit could still linger out over the waters at Hook Head in the presence of the sea-birds – and on the morning of our hike a single cormorant (just visible in the main picture) kept a solitary vigil on a rock.

But truth be told I doubt many of my family believe or believed such superstitions. And yet, like the monks, the lighthouse keepers and now the tourists, we still return to Hook Head.

The SS Lismore. (Pic courtesy of Eimear Hogan)

The SS Lismore. Pic courtesy of Eimear Hogan

_____

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A shocking need for distraction

'Everyday robots on our phones'?

‘Everyday robots on our phones’?

I’d like to think that I wouldn’t do it, or that I’d at least be able to last longer than 15 minutes.

But the truth is that I’d be like the majority of men.

I’d trip the switch, give myself the electric shock and spend days afterwards wondering why I did it.

Luckily I didn’t take part in the experiment run by psychologists at Virginia and Harvard Universities, so I’ll never find out (nor do I plan to).

The test, details of which were published last week, was designed to find out why most of us find it difficult to simply sit and do nothing.

As part of their study the researchers picked 100 people and asked each of them to sit in a room and think. Just the subjects, the four walls and contents of their heads.

Left alone with just their thoughts two-thirds of the male subjects, and one-quarter of the female, felt so uncomfortable that they opted for the only distraction available: giving themselves with a mild electric shock.

Or as one of the scientists put it, somewhat depressingly: “Simply being alone with their thoughts was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid”.

'In the process of getting home.'

‘In the process of getting home.’

Like most people I’d like to think that I am one of those self-contained, focused, individuals who could sit in such a room and happily devised shopping lists or silently hum a tune, without zapping myself.

But could I? My morning commute, for example, sees me sit in an enclosed space for about 15  minutes. And I rarely do it without some distraction, either by way of my iPod or my phone.

I convince myself this time spent checking emails, reading news sites and scanning Twitter is productive. But I still do it on days when I’m not working, or even on vacation.

So perhaps it’s less duty and more distraction. (Something I’m also conscious of in my daily battle for silent time).

In timely coincidence the same day I read of the experiment my wife played me a song called Everyday Robots, written by Damon Albarn.

We are everyday robots on our phones
In the process of getting home
Looking like standing stones
Out there on our own

Which just about sums up the 18.53 from Connolly.

Mind you, I’d never have been aware of this mass distraction crisis unless I’d read of the room test. And where did I do that?

On my iPhone of course, standing on a train, during a 15 minute commute.

Sign me up for a shock therapy.

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

On a polenta pilgrimage

Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Over the years I’ve made a few pilgrimages to London.

A decade ago I spent a long afternoon chasing the spirit of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon at the famous Troubadour folk club in Earls Court.

A couple of years later I visited St Bride’s, the tiny journalists’ church on Fleet Street, where the ghosts of my trade lingered on, both in the pews of the church and in those of the nearby bars.

Another trip saw me sample the bitters in Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, following in the gloomy footsteps of Dr Johnson and Arthur Conan Doyle.

In the past my visits have been marked by music, history, London ales and, well, more history.

While I’ve eaten well in the city at times over the years I’d never, until last weekend, undertaken what I’d regard as a food pilgrimage.

And yet that’s what my wife and I found ourselves embarking as we walked through Soho last Saturday evening, to arrive at 21 Warwick Street.

This is the location of a restaurant called Nopi.

Plenty (sorry) has been written about Yotam Ottolenghi, Nopi’s co-owner, in recent years. A journalist turned pastry chef turned food icon, his London delis have attracted consistently good reviews since the first one opened in Notting Hill more than a decade ago.

He didn’t appear on my radar until I came across his 2011 TV series Jerusalem On A Plate and subsequently picked up the accompanying book, as well his earlier volume, Plenty.

There it was - the dish I'd craved a year ago. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

There it was – the dish I’d craved.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

After salivating over the books for a while my wife and I road tested some of the dishes, devised by Ottolenghi with his culinary partner Sami Tamimi.

Two in particular stood out: their puréed beet root with yoghurt and za’atar, and a mushroom and herb polenta.

Both were unlike anything I’d tasted before, in flavour (the za’atar) and texture (the polenta, served with Parmesan).

We immediately swore we’d visit one of their London establishments (a pledge I inscribed on our copy of Jerusalem); not least because, in the back of my mind (flipped past in their book or maybe from the series) I’d an image of a polenta chip dish there which looked incredible.

But then time passed and Ottolenghi slipped off our radar. We visited LA and Japan and the Ottolenghi’s salads were lost, smothered beneath a smorgasbord of Mexican, Californian and Japanese cuisine.

This was until a weekend trip to London came up and, with it, a reservation for dinner at the bar at Nopi.

And so we arrived last weekend to dine at the hub of the Ottolenghi phenomenon.

We took our seats and picked up the menu. There it was –  the dish I’d craved a year ago but hadn’t thought of since. Not just polenta chips but truffled polenta chips, by way of truffled aioli.

Cut a size up from the ubiquitous gastropub jenga chips, Nopi’s polenta variety combined a chip lighter than potato with a semolina-like exterior. The truffle sauce was served on the side.

It was all the glory of the Piedmont in one mouthful. Or four – as I proceeded to bogart the bowl.

The rest of the meal passed flavourfully – as we expected – but nothing hit the heights of the chips.

If Nopi was my first London food pilgrimage this was the grail. Get there, and get them.

All the glory of the Piedmont - polenta chips with truffle aoili at Nopi. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

All the glory of the Piedmont – polenta chips with truffle aoili at Nopi.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

_____

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,