Thursday, September 19, 2013

Fairy Grass, Nostalgia Reflections and Fine Food in Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare, Ireland

Sometimes they say one can travel a long way as it were to arrive at the same place. This thought came back to my wife and I when we revisited the magical ‘Fairy Grass’ Tea Room in Ballyvaughan last weekend. The informative menu explains that the name Fear Gorta refers to a kind of fairy grass found in the Burren area of County Clare which supposedly if stood upon causes severe hunger, hence the more exact translation ‘The Hungry Grass’. However, just in case this unfortunate affliction should befall you while trekking along the lovely guided Walks around the Village of Ballyvaughan, I feel that you should first take the wise precaution of dropping into the The Hungry Grass Tea Room and feasting the eyes and taste buds on the great food served there. Indeed, as my wife and I sat there last weekend, we enjoyed a selection of wonderful home cooked treats in the sun room looking out on a garden filled with wild flowers and odd shaped limestone’s rocks, and my wife reminded me that we first visited this lovely tea room over 30 years ago soon after our first child was born. In fact we carried her in a wicker basket which the owner kindly allowed us to set down beside our table as we ate our delicious food. Although we of course have visited this eatery several times since, for some reason we felt particularly nostalgic last weekend. Perhaps it was the realisation that despite so many years having passed since our first visit and so many things having occurred both in our own lives and indeed in the world in general, these lovely Tea Rooms retain all the character and quality of food so evident on our original visit. So I would like to recommend that anyone visiting the lovely Ballyvaughaun Village in County Clare should take time out to park facing the sea and drop in for a taste of this magical ‘fairy food’ sensation. And you know you don’t even have to bring baby along to instigate your own love affair with this place. If I have one little quibble with this oasis of fine food, it is the name given to the site on Twitter. The follower link of @TeaGardenRooms does not at all do credit to the magic inherent in the actual Tea Room name at the actual location. For me at least, it will always be ‘An Fear Gorta’, which is much more aligned to fairy feasts and heritage lore alike. Finally, I see from inside photos that Steven Spielberg, the famous film director, was so enchanted by the place and its food that he almost missed his flight home to the United States. A case a ‘Close Encounter of the Food Kind’ perhaps. I am posting a few photos taken in Ballyvaughan on our visit to whet the appetite both for Ballyvaughaun in general and An Fear Gorta in particular. All comments and musings welcome!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Sicily:Where the Landscape yields a dazzling dialogue with the Baroque and the Beautiful

I think it was the Nobel Prize winning Italian poet Salvatore Quasimodo who was quoted as follows: “The poet finds day and starts a diary that is lethal to the inert. The dark landscape yields a dialogue” On a recent visit to the south east of Sicily, I had occasion to visit the town of Modica where Salvatore Quasimodo was born and having noticed a commemorative plaque there on the house where he lived, I decided to read up about the poet on my return. The quotation referred to above stuck a special cord with me for although in a different context, I feel that the bright but certainly not dark landscape of south east Sicily does indeed yield a wonderful visual dialogue with the visitor. As the UNESCO plaque in a central square of Scicli informs us, at least eight towns in the region were completed rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1693. Many of the larger civic buildings and churches were constructed in a dominant Baroque style and perhaps because of the relative lack of resources in this poor area of southern Italy, they are not characterised by the excessive decoration and arrogant style of some of the Baroque impositions elsewhere in Italy. In fact, each of the towns that I visited had a unique character and offered a rich cultural experience to the visitor. Although many of these towns are perhaps more popular in the public eye in recent times as settings for the television series Inspector Montalbano, it would be a shame if they were only visited for this reason. In reality, the landscape of the towns themselves, their food restaurants and indeed even the settings used as background to the Montalbano series all offer an opportunity for great enjoyment. However, on the basis that a picture says more than a thousand words, I am posting a few pictures taken in these towns to whet the appetite as it were. They may not quite represent a visual diary of the type alluded to by the famous poet by they at least illustrate some of the many attractions in this region. One final thing that puzzled me is whether the journey by foot from Ragusa New Town to Ragusa Ibla should be classified as a walk or a climb. Whichever, it is certainly a stairway to Heaven! As to the great taste of the local cuisine, I’m afraid that you will have to sample that for yourselves.

Monday, August 13, 2012

It’s A Colm-ity: Blogs logged in Book Form.

I fully realise that this is the era of the instant messages of social media accessed through I-Pads and I-Phones on such sites as Twitter and Facebook with the content usually very quickly assimilated and just as quickly forgotten. To give more tangible expression to ones views than is possible within the constraints of the 140 character message, some people like me have used the Blogger web site as a means of exploring some meditations and musings and also to post some photos linked to such thoughts. So far my little series of sketches, rhythm verse and photo montages have exceeded 160 in number with the result that even I myself have some difficulty in readily accessing them. I often thought of attempting to print some of them and save these in a ring binder but my small black and white printer strained even to adequately execute a sample print of a recent blog.

Hence my total surprise and elation when my two daughters presented me with a hard copy book of my ‘col(u)mns and musings’ aptly titled “It’s a Colm-ity” for my last birthday. The hard cover book was I’m told printed and bound in hard back in the USA and posted to Ireland. So far the run of books does not exceed four in number but once YouTube and Kindle get wind of this new publishing sensation, the sky is surely the limit. The book contains not only the blogs themselves finely printed but also beautifully realised colour photographs that accompanied the original blog entries. In this respect, I was particularly happy to see that the front book sketch of yours truly was carried out by my young grandson who took great pains to explain to me that it showed all the wrinkles on my brow, hair in my ears and ‘sad’ attempt at a ‘Balotelli’ haircut! Posterity worthy indeed!

I would like to thank all those who contributed to this fine production and I only refrain from naming them here because of a desire to protect their privacy. Let me just therefore thank (M & M my two lovely daughters) and grandson (S) for their kindness, consideration and treasured gift. They indeed have made an old ‘vain scribbler’ very happy and I am therefore posting this blog my way of gratitude to them.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Magic Messi,Easter Bunnies and Botox Blues!

“Why do old people have hair growing in their nose and their ears” my young grandson asked as we sat together on the front seat of the bus on our way back to Dublin. As I struggled to find a satisfactory answer to this conundrum I was assailed by further interesting questions such as why does your hair stand on end when you get up in the morning, why do you have so much hair on your knuckles and so little on your head and my most appreciated observation, why do you have all those lines across your forehead? While I became steadily perplexed in endeavouring to find suitable answers without causing an outburst of merriment among the other attentive bus passengers, my ever considerate grandson leaned towards me and quietly assured me that I need not worry as I could get Botox treatment for my furrowed brow. He even produced a sketch next day to illustrate the range of facial problems that I had to contend with. Vanity thy name is definitely Youth!

My grandson had elected to spend one of his Easter holiday weeks with my wife and me in Galway. Of course he was a welcome and indeed treasured guest. During the week we explored many areas of Connemara together and even climbed Mamean Mountain without difficulty except to pause for him to collect a number of both large and small stones to bring back to his Mum in Dublin. At home he spent time playing games on the computer and avidly watched espn classic soccer matches on TV while filling in his Match Attax cards in his album. However, his favourite past time which was announced with a fanfare almost every hour was a challenge to me to beat him at soccer in the garden. Thus I invariably lumbered around the tarmac area trying vainly with waving hands and heavy feet to try and restrict the little lithe footballer to a reasonable score in matches he won with ease. He proclaimed loudly that he was a Barcelona fan and that Messi was his idol and set out to show me that the magic swagger associated with that footballing genius were not confined to the Nou Camp. He succeeded with great style and was soon running rings around me and leaving me complaining about stretched sinews, sore limbs and pulled muscles! Thus my days of imagined footballing process were shown to be as real as the full shock of hair I still considered to be on my head.

My wife and I were entertained my our little visitor’s innocent sense of fun and wonderful joy of life all week and indeed our house had a most welcome shot of social energy which put the family focus back with a ‘jolt’ in our home. When he left with me for Dublin we were very sad to see him go but I was greatly encouraged by the social spectacle which I witnessed the day after his arrival home. His mother and father had arranged an Easter treasure hunt and our little visitor and his younger brother were dressed as Easter bunnies along with their parents who had Paper Mache ears, tassel tails and painted faces as they attempted to retrieve various eggs from hidden locations with the aid of a hand painted map. To some serious people this whole enterprise would seem a little unwise if not entirely mad but to me it represented the wonderful imaginative cultivation of youthful spirit. Thus, when I viewed on the following days, the many funny and outlandish photo memories of the days events I could not but be proud of parents and children alike. A chip of the old block, I fondly hope!

Note: The names of my grandsons and their parents have been omitted from this blog to protect their privacy.

The Easter Bunny statue is from YESFLOWERS Galway shop window!

All comments and musings welcome!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Mamean, Magic Walks and Nancy Sinatra's Boots in Galway

I have to say that global warming is most likely to blame and especially this unseasonal sunny warm weather that has bathed Galway in continuous bright sunshine for over a week now. It is a simple fact that we are unused to such seasonal largesse from our normally ‘changeable’ climate at this time of year and this has lead some people to act a bit like lemmings and head off in a mad rush into the wild countryside of Connemara to take advantage of these ‘fair’ days.

Perhaps this is why without any particular rhyme or reason that I myself headed into the wild and lovely Maamturk Mountains yesterday to capitalise on the beauty of the wonderful scenery. My special destination was Mamean, or the ‘Pass of the Birds’, which is an ancient pilgrimage site associated with St. Patrick in the centre of this mountain scenery. It can be reached via a small side road from the main Clifden Road near Recess in County Galway. It is indeed a wild and wonderful place of unspoilt beauty with a view of the twelve Bens of Connemara behind you and the Maam and Inagh Valleys in the foreground. It is a landscape of wild rugged hills, glinting quartzite rocky outcrops and pebble pilgrimage paths with only a few sheep and cows to disturb the silence. It is said that St. Patrick preached here and it was a holy site for centuries. However, during the 19th century the pilgrimage ‘faithful’ became more associated with raucous dancing, fist fights and drunkenness linked to the consumption of Poitin (illicit homebrew whiskey) than any religious fervour and the pilgrimage was abandoned for many years. However, at the end of the last century it was renewed and although its main celebration coincides with the more famous event on Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo, some 30 miles away, it is now very popular. The extent of the local attachment to it is manifested in the little Chapel built to honour St Patrick with its fine stained glass windows beside the cave where St Patrick is said to have slept and also by the Stone Statue of the saint with a sheep at his feet. I must confess that I was enthralled by the beauty of the landscape and only saw three other people there during my visit. Indeed the only traffic jam on the nearby minor road was provided by the lovely local sheep. It is worth noting though that when I stopped on the way to Lough Inagh later in the day to take a photo of a small donkey in the wild setting, he put his head in through the front window of the car and refused to remove it. I had to get out the other side and literally push him away. Heehaw!

Despite the marvellous setting of the Pilgrimage path it is an arduous trek for those of weak limb or general fragile health disposition, and I was pleased to find an old timber ‘staff’ in the bog which assisted my descent. In fact, because of my lack of experience of such walks, I was wearing heavy shoes which I had considered suitable for the climb but proved like heavy weights on my feet in the hot weather. Thus, as I trudged back I was reminded of the words of the old Nancy Sinatra song:

“These boots are made for walking and that is what they’ll do,
One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you”

Finally I remembered walking to Mamean with my wife some years ago and I think that I may inadvertently have lost a small part of my soul while climbing there. Thankfully, yesterday after the wonderful sun baked exhilarating walk I think I found it again.
For those who would like to experience this Walk or indeed others in a similar striking landscape, may I recommend that you consult ‘The Western Way’ and ‘Strolling Connemara sites' on the web.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Renaissance Man says Yes He Can! Cheers Mr. Obama

Eureka! I have at last found the ultimate answer to our modern life strife
When an absence of purpose and fulfilment can permeate ones very life
But it’s really no secret for the solution does not need a savvy soothsayer
So there is no need for wringing of your hands or even gasps of despair.

History often repeats itself you may recall in textbooks having often read
But unfortunately learning from it does not gain much social kudos instead
We are advised to concentrate on an ever specialised and refined life role
And can miss out on any positive world experience if we end up on the dole.

As an antidote many indulge in dull electronic trivia and banal social media
And some have recourse to drugs for reasons not requiring an encyclopaedia
So it is evident to all that trouble and personal strife has now come to the fore
But do not think us especially different, for man has faced this problem before.

In the Middle Ages artists were also prone to such exhortations of hocus pocus
But they found a solution in a broadening of their human sphere of mental focus
Thus Da Vinci was a great painter and an inventor of strange concepts appealing
And Michelangelo was the world’s finest sculptor and painter of the Sistine ceiling

In this manner these famous Renaissance Artists established their skills and their fame
For they needed to broaden their artistic scope if they were to keep ahead of the game,
So I have decided to broaden my own interests to embrace artistic skill and pure invention
And in this way I intend to dazzle my family and friends and hope to keep their attention.

From now on I will proudly proclaim to all ‘Yes I can’ like the President Barack Obama
And will forge a new spiritual renewal the likes of which characterise the great Dali Lama
My head is already teeming with wild artistic ideas which I can soon hopefully espouse
But to start off I shall in a simple way first apply myself to making a new hen house

But wait, where are the timber laths and nails which are essential for my creative work
Surely Michelangelo did not proceed without basic tools and so I’m being driven berserk
As a result my creative instincts are now stymied and I alas sit forlorn on my garret floor
And if I make too much fuss my family will ridicule my efforts and even call me a bore.

Thus the motto of this verse is Renaissance Artistic fervour is laudable and true to tell
But without proper tools and good equipment available, you might as well rot in hell
So perhaps its really best to reign in my own creative efforts at this Yuletide time of year
And simply to drink a fine toast to all and to offer my fond Twitter Friends good cheer!

Note: This is a purely fictional verse written for amusement only.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Artistic Antagonisms, Anghiari And a Sweet Room in Hell.

The battle of Anghiari is now more famous because of a lost masterpiece by Leonardo Da Vinci than any perception of the historic significance of the battle itself which took place between the competing forces of the city states of Milan and Florence in mid 1440. The actual painting has being lost for centuries due both to its method of execution and indeed political changes affecting Florence itself over the intervening centuries. However, the sketches which remain and the copy executed by Pieter Paul Rubens depict in stunning graphic detail the ferocity of the struggle between men and horses which characterised the battle and the visceral energy expounded by the participants. To a modern sensibility this may seem like a profound comment of the horrific intensity of human warfare but it was in fact commissioned in the 16th century to actually celebrate it from the perspective of the supposed glory of Florence.

I visited the pretty hillside town of Anghiari some years ago while on holiday in Arezzo and had seen the Leonardo sketches of the battle in a small local museum. However, I had no idea at that time that this work was the subject of a major competition in Florence pitting the then perceived greatest artists of the time directly against each other in producing paintings to adorn the Great Council Hall of the city until I read the wonderful book ‘The Lost Battles’ by Jonathan Jones. In this book he expertly analyses and explains the forces, both artistic, social and political that shaped the work of both Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti in approaching their respective commissions within not only Florence but other key city states such as Milan and Rome at that time. It also introduces us to the personalities and political intrigues of key medieval figures such as Savonarola, Lorenzo de Medici, Machiavelli and Pope Julius among others who not only influenced but sometimes dictated the scope of the work being undertaken by both artists. In fact the Great Council of Florence deliberately encouraged and fostered the competitive ‘duel’ between these artists not only to encourage them to try harder to achieve artistic excellence but also as a symbolic expression of their power base and control of the local populace. Indeed, such was the intensity of the bitterness and rivalry actually forged between these two famous artists that Michelangelo himself wrote a verse in the margin of one of his drawings for the competition referring to the ‘dolce stanza nell’ inferno’-‘a sweet room in hell’.

The Lost Battles book captures in a realistic and profound way the level of intrigue and rivalry which gave rise to the social milieu within which both Leonardo and Michelangelo had to curry favour in order to work at all and the acute strains which developed between each artist as they sought to outmanoeuvre the other. In fact, it is interesting to note despite our own expressed ‘level field’ attitude to modern competitive commissions that such forces are all too evidently at work in the Arts today.

A final interesting aside to this historic perspective is the row, reported in the Irish Times of 4/12/2011, which has broken out among Italian Art experts over the decision to drill a hole through the great painting by Vasari which currently adorns the Great Hall of Florence but which it is thought may hide the lost painting of the Battle of Anghiari behind it. Once again in a small illustration that history repeats itself, the social, political and artist forces within and without the artistic establishment are at ‘war’ over this painting. For my own part, I feel that the artistic vision encapsulated within the sketches and reproductions should encourage us to reflect on the intensity of Leonardo’s vision rather than attempt to uncover small parts of a painting which even at the time of its execution was quickly falling into disrepair.

I would highly recommend Jonathan Jones fine book to anyone with a shred of interest in the forces which mould artistic endeavour and those great artists who give it tangible expression for the enjoyment of present and future generations.