Memories Of Secret Coves, Hidden Steps and Pirate Queens

On the hill of Howth in north County Dublin a secret pirate cove awaits would-be explorers, daring enough to descend one hundred and ninety-nine steps carved out of the sheer cliff face.

In my post today, I once again hope to take you off the beaten path, and help you discover some of Ireland’s hidden treasures.

199 Steps In Howth

When I was a little girl growing up in Dublin, my grand aunt loved weekend outings with all my cousins in tow. One of our favorite hang outs was on the beach at the bottom of the “199 steps” in Howth.

My cliff stair collage above shows how these stone steps are carved out of the cliff, winding their way from the shore to Howth summit.

Looking Towards the Bailey Lighthouse Howth

This is Grace O’Malley territory. The famous Irish pirate queen visited Howth on many occasions.

My grandaunt loved to tell us this very cove was where Grace O’Malley always came ashore in Howth. Considering Grace O’Malley, or Granuaile in Irish (pronounced Graw-nea-wale) lived between the years 1530 and 1603, the truth of this tall tale may never be known.

Undeterred my grandaunt relayed stories of pirates working by torch light to hack and cut 199 steps from the rocky cliff face, to allow their pirate queen ascend to Howth’s summit undetected by the English.

Looking Down At the Cove Below 199 Steps in Howth

We loved to wind our way along the cliff path in search of the first step to this secret pirate cove. We looked down from on high dreaming of Grace’s lost treasure, just waiting behind some rock for our eager eyes to find.

Steps Leading to a Hidden Beach in Howth

Last summer I rediscovered these secret steps with my children.

Once I told them of potential pirate treasure, the made quick work of navigating the treacherous steps.

Grace O'Malley's Secret Cove in Howth

A sense of mystery and magic awaits on the rocky shore below.

Barnacle covered rock

You can easily imagine the pirate queen herself standing on top of this barnacle covered rock issuing orders to her crew of Mayo men.

A Strange Rock on an Irish Shore

This strange rock has not shifted since I was a little girl.

I imagined a big, strong pirate flung the smaller red rock across the beach with such force that it lodged into the larger boulder.

I’m certain there’s a perfectly sound geological explanation for this rock formation, but let’s face it, nothing beats a good pirate story.

Ireland's Shoreline - Rocky Beaches

This is no sandy beach. Shoes are definitely required for pebble covered shores…..

Seaweed Covered Rocks

……. and seaweed strewn rocks.

Searching for Pirate's Treasure

My kiddos were convinced Grace O’Malley’s treasure lay beneath the large rocks at the base of these cliffs. I spent hours as a child climbing those very rocks. In four decades they don’t seem to have budged even an inch.

The Beach Below 199 Steps in Howth

A small row boat could easily have been maneuvered close to the rocky shore at this very point, allowing the brave Grace reach dry land. 

O’Malley’s connections to Howth are not just part of my late grandaunt’s vivid imagination.

In 1576 Grace O’Malley tried to call upon Lord Howth at his castle only to be informed the family was at dinner and she was not a welcome guest.

 

Dublin Ferry From the Beach in Howth

This rejection did not sit well with the bold Grace. The Lord of Howth soon felt the full brunt of this pirate queen’s wrath, when she abducted his grandson and heir.

The terms of the child’s release included a promise from Lord Howth to keep the gates of his castle open to unexpected visitors, and to always set an extra place at every meal.

This pledge is still honored at Howth Castle to this very day, with an extra place setting laid at table.  I wonder if Grace’s ghost ever inspects the distance between the knife and fork.

This ferry passed as we roamed the shoreline, following in the wake of pirate vessels from years gone by. What a day, imagining ghosts and pirates roaming around searching for treasure.

199 Steps in Howth

And so, after an energetic day playing on a secret pirate cove in Howth, the long trek upward and homeward began. There are no cable cars or lifts to take treasure hunters back to the cliff top. The only way home is to shift one foot after the other until all 199 steps are finally surmounted.

For anyone interested in a stiff climb to a secret (or not-so-secret anymore) cove, access to the 199 steps lies on the left hand side of the cliff as you walk out the headland towards the Bailey Lighthouse. That’s all the information I’m willing to part with, and if you can’t find it, perhaps you’ll find the way on an old pirate treasure map.

Wishing you all happy trails, discovering your very own hidden Ireland.

 

Slán agus beannacht leat!

(Goodbye and blessings)

 

 

Irish American Mom

 

Irish Cottage Kitchens Of Days Gone By

In traditional Irish cottages of days gone by, the kitchen was the central hub, witnessing the busy comings and goings of daily life. The turf-burning hearth was the focal point.

I have lovely, peaceful memories of my own granny’s kitchen. When I was a very young child a black kettle was constantly boiling, hanging from a pot hook over the open flames.

I remember the day the old hook was removed to make way for a brand new stove. I was only five or six years old at the time, but even then I knew this great change marked the end of an era.

Irish Cottage Kitchens of Days Gone By

In Granny’s kitchen the cuckoo clock chimed on the hour and half hour. Willow pattern plates stood proudly on the shelves of her dresser.

A red light burned beneath a picture of the Sacred Heart. An oil cloth covered a large oak table surrounded by old straight back chairs, some with wicker seats.

I wrote the following short poem to commemorate the loving memories I hold in my heart of Granny’s cottage kitchen.

 

Return In Thought

by Mairéad Geary

 

Return in thought
To granny’s cottage kitchen,
The dresser
Neatly stacked
With blue and white delph,
Ready and waiting
To supply
Endless cups of tea,
With currant cake
Slathered in creamy butter,
And sweet, red jam.

 

Irish Dresser

Return in thought,
To the scrubbed oak table,
Surrounded
By rickety, wicker chairs,
Ready and waiting,
To support,
Friendly players of forty-five,
Drinking tea and whiskey,
Pennies and shillings,
Neatly stacked ,
To wile away the hours.

 

Table In An Irish Parlour

Return in thought,
To flickering flames,
And turf sod fires,
Blackened pothooks,
Ready and waiting,
To support,
Boiling kettles.
Sweet soda breads,
Baking slowly
In the cast iron
Bastible.

 

An Irish Hearth
Return in thought
To well worn wash boards,
The rhythmic routine
Of clothes lines,
Ready and waiting,
To support,
The daily toil,
Of laundry.
White shirts,
And colored frocks,
Fluttering outside the window.

 

An Old Irish Washboard

Now let your thoughts stray
As summer breezes,
Swell those old
Lace curtains,
Ready and willing,
To transport,
The spirits,
Of our ancestors,
Back to the hearth and home,
That once,
They loved so well.

 

Lace Curtains In An Irish Cottage Window

Slán agus beannacht leat!

(Goodbye and blessings)

 

Irish American Mom

Lingering Irish Twilight

Twilight is a mystical time, especially during summertime in Ireland. The sun struggles to set on the western ocean horizon, casting supernatural light across the waves and land. Here twilight is not measured in minutes or hours, but by magical, timeless moments.

Sunset and Twilight In Ireland

For most readers the word ‘twilight’ conjures up images of vampires and Stephanie Meyer’s saga. Not for me. Twilight reminds me of Ireland, where magical half-light lingers. 

American twilight is different, shorter and more business like, except I suppose in Alaska. In Kentucky, the sun heads for the horizon and achieves its goal in spectacular fashion.  Here in America we even praise the “twilight’s last gleaming” in our National Anthem.

In Ireland, the summer sun takes a little more time to finally set, lingering on the verge of the horizon, shedding mysterious half-light across ocean swells and patchwork fields.

Apparently Ireland is further from the equator than the lower 48 US states, lengthening Irish twilight hours in summer.

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The slow setting Irish summer sun creates a time when the faeries, the gatekeepers of the Celtic Otherworld, can spirit humans away to a land beyond time.

William Butler Yeats was inspired by twilight’s mystical light. His book The Celtic Twilight is a collection of Irish folklore. Here Celtic queens visit humble housewives, dead warriors spring to life, and blind storytellers share the secrets of our mythical past. This is Irish folk art at its finest. Yeats helped ensure these ancient tales would persist in the perpetual twilight of folk history.

When I was a little girl, my grandaunt Nan loved to read poetry. On the wall of her living room she had framed the following verse by Yeats. I read it over and over again as a little girl, enthralled by the magic of his words.

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He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven

W.B. Yeats

 

“Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

 

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James Joyce also used his talented pen to describe the beautiful colors of Irish twilight.

Chamber Music

by James Joyce

 

“The twilight turns from amethyst

To deep and deeper blue,

The lamp fills with a pale green glow

The trees of the avenue.”

Howth sunset

 There are a few words in the Irish language that refer to this time of day.

“Coimheascair” (pronounced kwiv ashkur) refers to twilight, but it also means struggle. Was the word applied to the end of day to highlight the struggle between sunlight and moon light? I like the poetic origins of this connection.

“Clapsholas” (pronounced clop hullus) means “last light”.

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Another word is “idirsholas” (pronounced idur hullus) meaning “between light”, or “idir an dá sholas ” (pronounced idur on daw hullus) meaning between the two lights.  Once again, beautifully poetic.

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The Donegal poet Cathal Sharkey writes of this time of day in the Gaelic Language. Here is a little excerpt of his lyrical, descriptive verse.

 

Níl Aon Ní

le Cathal O Searcaigh

 

“Níl aon ní, aon ní, a stór

níos suaimhní ná clapsholas smólaigh

i gCaiseal na gCorr,”

 

There is nothing, nothing, my love

More tranquil than a twilight of thrushes  starlings

In Caiseal na gCorr (pronounced Cashel na Gur)

 

This is my best effort at translating these beautiful words – any Gaelic scholars out there, please feel free to assist with the correct meaning in the comment section.  It’s many years since I studied Irish in school.

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And so, I hope these few thoughts about my fond recollections of Irish twilights will help you end your day on a positive note.  No matter how hard your day may be, I hope twilight is a reminder of all the wonders of life that lie ahead.

Slán agus beannacht leat!

(Goodbye and blessings)

Irish American Mom

 

Snowdrops And Daffodils And Flowers Of The Spring

The first sight of Irish snowdrops in early spring brings hope of warmer days ahead. I love these little, dainty flowers.  They truly lift my spirits after the dark days of winter.

Snowdrops

Snowdrops

Ireland’s snowdrop crop of 2014 has already bloomed.  Tiny flowers, as white as pearls, sway on green-hooked stems, shaped like St. Patrick’s crozier. Daffodils dance in the winds, and crocuses bring color to dormant flower beds.

Crocuses

Crocuses

For those of us who grew up in Ireland in the 1970′s “snowdrops and daffodils” were an important part of our sing along repertoire.  Ireland’s first Eurovision Song Contest winner, Dana, was loved by Irish school children. Her winning song brought springtime to mind:

“Snowdrops and daffodils,

Early morning dew…..

….. All kinds of everything

Remind me of you.”

 

Daffodils

Daffodils

Snowdrops and primroses featured in Ireland’s folk songs. One of the most haunting songs of my childhood is “The Old Bog Road.” These sad lyrics tell the story of an Irish immigrant to New York, yearning for his homeland. This verse brings a tear to my eye:

“My mother died last springtide, when Ireland’s fields were green:

The neighbours said her waking was the finest ever seen.

There were snowdrops and primroses piled up beside her bed,

And Ferns Church was crowded when the funeral Mass was said,

But there was I on Broadway, with building bricks for load,

When they carried out her coffin from the Old Bog Road.”

 

Primroses

Primroses

Listening to my father recite these lines led me to assume the snowdrop is a native Irish plant. I included a description of snowdrops in my historical novel, set in Ireland in the 1840′s. I decided however I better do some snowdrop research to ensure historical accuracy. I soon discovered there probably weren’t many snowdrops to be found in Ireland at the time of the Famine.

What I thought is an-ever-so-Irish plant actually originated in not-so-snowy Turkey. Reluctantly, I deleted my lovely snowdrop descriptions from my novel.

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And so I asked the question, how did these precious little flowers find their way across 2000 miles to thrive in the cold, damp soils of my homeland?

Back in 1874 a Victorian botanist, Henry Elwes, collected the plant in Izmir. Before leaving Turkey he established a system for bulb collection and transportation to the British Isles. Millions of snowdrops have been exported ever since.

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Snowdrops and daffodils flourish in Ireland, probably because Irish gardeners find them poetically beautiful. Springtime bulbs are planted with care in autumn, with an eager eye kept on the dark soils of winter, watching and waiting for the first spiky green stems of spring to appear.

Daffodil Close-up

And once in full bloom we know brighter days are on the way. Here’s hoping sunny spring days will arrive very soon in North America.

 

 

Slán agus beannacht leat!

(Goodbye and blessings)

Irish American Mom

Irish Cottage Windows

Nostalgic images of Irish cottage windows adorn postcards, calendars, placemats, mugs and numerous other mementos created to help tourists remember their days spent in the Emerald Isle.

Some claim this image is overused and just plain touristy, but for me it is synonymous with my homeland.

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Simple, small wooden windows often sport old black kettles. Red geraniums are striking, when highlighted by whitewashed walls.

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This summer I often paused to photograph cottage windows. My children just could not understand my interest in windows.

“Hurry up, Mom,” was a frequent instruction from my kids, who grew impatient with my constant dilly dallying, and car halting maneuvers to snapshot old windows that caught my fancy. In years to come I hope they’ll understand their mother’s fascination with Irish cottages and windows.

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Whenever I see a lace curtained window, I smile.  Simple, yet beautiful, these windows are fitting symbols of our rural heritage.

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Irish cottages usually boasted less than six small windows, and often only two or three.

The size and number of windows in a house were limited to avoid the dreaded ‘window tax’.  From 1799 until 1851 more than six windows in a house resulted in a window tax being levied on the homeowner. As a result cottages were built with as few windows as possible.

Cottage interiors were often smokey and dark. The window tax was often called the ‘typhus tax’ because of respiratory problems caused by poor ventilation.

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The general rule was that the front door of the cottage should face south.  Northerly winds are colder than southerly breezes.  Elemental considerations dictated the door free rear wall should face north.

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Cottage windows were small compared to the vast glass panes of today. The main reason for this, was to retain heat in the winter and to keep cool in the summer.  Cottages truly were an Irishman’s cave.

Glass was also expensive. Economy dictated use of the smallest possible amount of glass.

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Cottage walls were much thicker than today’s home structures. This design feature helped support the roof and beams.  Thick walls meant deep window recesses, just perfect for flower displays.

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Deep window ledges were also perfect for displaying statues, the Infant of Prague, being a favored window fixture.

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And of course, flowers adorned cottage windows in abundance, and still do, to this very day.

Every Irish cottage is slightly different, each seeming to boast a unique personality.  And behind these windows family stories of love and loss evolved…. if only windows could talk.

 

Slán agus beannacht leat!

(Goodbye and blessings)

Irish American Mom