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‘Pinch me’ Moments in Madeira

It has been a heavy time, news wise, lately but sometimes you have to focus on the good memories.


Yes, there was a lot to fill our television screens lately – and make jaws drop and hearts stop on sofas.

I’ve never been to Notre Dame but the thought of a cathedral as ancient as that going up in flames was saddening but the fact that no one died was some kind of relief.

The death in Derry was much worse and continues to be a concern – time for big prayers for wise and steady leadership in and for this country.

The recent bus crash in Madeira was horrifying also – 29 German visitors to the island losing their lives. Maybe it has stuck in my mind because I once had the privilege of visiting Madeira and I remember the roads and the bends and the steepness. Given the steep terrain it is a tribute to the drivers there that very few accidents have happened over the years.

Madeira, an island owned by Portugal is visited by around one million tourists each year and when you are there it is a case of constantly looking either uphill or downhill for there are very few level areas on it. Driving there demands a real head for heights and a steady hand. Drivers often are more like thrill seekers than chaffeurs given the kind of terrain they have to negotiate! That’s not to take away from the joy of visiting this special place, however.  I got the opportunity of going there, at two days’ notice, in 2011. Another journalist couldn’t make it at the last minute so I got the call at noon on a Friday and by 9.30 a.m. on the Sunday I was in the departures lounge in Dublin Airport heading for Madeira’s capital, Funchal, for five days, courtesy of Concorde Travel.  What a joy that was. This is what I wrote about Madeira when I came back:


It was five days of firsts – my first time in Madeira, the Portugese-owned ‘pearl of the Atlantic’, my first time to experience volcanic landscape, to see banana trees and sugar cane growing and to see dolphins close up.  It was also my first experience of being so high up on land that I could actually look down on the clouds. Memorable moments also included eating octopus and, to top it off, toboganning down a 5km slope in a basket! Read more

road in forest
road in forest


I’ve been on the road a lot lately and, seeing so many roadworks and roundabouts on such trips, something my father used to say kept coming into my head.

“Isn’t it amazing what the combination of man, money and machinery can do?”

That was from a person who’d been involved in road-building himself in the 1950’s and who watched the Wicklow landscape changers of N11 and M11 develop over the years – ditches cut away, yellow dumpers climbing brown hills and the grey cement of bridges appearing on the horizon of newly-minted thoroughfares.

Close-up of a construction site excavator

Our route from Tinahely to Dun Laoighre on family visits in the 1960s, for example, changed from crossing the Dargle bridge and taking the beautifully-named (but very windy) Lucky Brook road to heading straight for the turn off into Cabinteely in the 1970s.

But motorways are now taking over from their dual-carriageway precursors. Wexford is full of almost-open by-passes at the moment – New Ross, Enniscorthy – with new roads appearing out of what once were fields, red cones in rows signaling almost finished routes and road signs awaiting the removal of grey paint to direct us to the new short-cut locations.   Read more

St Patrick – and more – on my mind

It’s a very different kind of St Patrick’s weekend this year. Because of what happened last year it’ll always have an extra resonance now

One day – one special day and certainly a welcome national break in the middle of the week – that’s what St Patrick’s Day was in our neck of the woods years ago. It wasn’t a long weekend bloated by excess on any front really. A cake with green icing was often made in our house and shamrock for your school lapel was found for the day before, of course, if you were lucky enough to find some of the ‘little clover’ after what could be long looking. Statements like ‘that’s only clover, you eejit!’ spring to mind… Read more



 I heard an interesting story about how a couple met over the weekend. These ‘how it happened’ stories are always enjoyable. I was talking to my godmother who is 94 about a neighbour of ours around the same age and how that woman – S – had met her husband who was from UK. I had wondered how they’d crossed paths given that people didn’t travel much in those days. It was all because of red flannel, she said.  I know – intriguing!

There was a shortage of it after the Second World War in England apparently but ‘it could be got’, my godmother said, here in Ireland.  It was in demand particularly for people with arthritis, she said, providing warmth for dodgy knees and lower backs. Anyway, our neighbour, then in her 20s, and from County Wicklow, was a nanny across the water and had been home visiting her family where she heard that a farming neighbour’s sister in the UK was bad with arthritis and needed some red flannel in the worst way. Read more


Well, it’s done!  An ebook collection of poetry and prose – Freewheeling Up The Hill – has now gone live on Amazon and it’s a huge buzz to have another book up there to accompany Deny Me Not and Restless Spirit. It is also a bit nerve-racking putting new work out into the world but pens-crossed the reaction won’t be too bad:)  My thanks to Ewa Neumann for designing a wonderful cover (that’s me on the bike!) and to Denis Collins for a bit of editorial assistance en route.  If you’re wondering about the title I hope I explain it below in what is the book’s introduction.  I’m recording an audio version soon – I have the throat lozenges ready – and a print version will also be available on Amazon shortly also, all going well. In the meantime thank you all for your support and interest in my scribbles and I hope that you find something that appeals to you in Freewheeling Up The Hill.  Read more

Cappucino Addiction

Most of us remember where we were when big events happened. I’m not old enough to remember JFK being shot but I do remember where I was when 9/11 occurred. I had been in a house near New Ross interviewing a man about rural planning issues and having said goodbye to him I drove further up the narrow road to turn round before heading home. I was stopped in my tracks minutes later, however, by the man I’d just interviewed standing at his gateway, arms flailing, beckoning me to come back in. What on earth had happened, I wondered, as I got out of the car again. “Look!” he said and there on the television screen was the image of one, then two aeroplanes hitting the Twin Towers. The two of us stood there in shock. His nephew had been trying to get through to him during the interview to tell him to turn on his TV… Read more

Porridge Ponderings

Porridge ponderings


Isn’t it gas how childhood experience can put one off a particular food for decades?

For me it happened with porridge. I couldn’t stand the stuff. Made on water. Salt added. Yuk! No matter where I was – home or away – the last thing I’d gravitate towards was that oaty repast. Teens, 20s, 30s, 40s even – I still gave it the un-glad eye.

You’re probably wondering why, given that it is a wholesome food and one that reared a nation. Yes, isn’t it full of down-to-earth goodness that nutritionally speaking, knocks the socks off all sugary cereals and toasty pretenders? Read more

Where’s the beef?


 All this talk about us having to cut back on beef to save the planet made me think of burgers and summer and the grá we Irish have for this American, now Irish, favourite.

Every August Monday we run a parish fund-raiser and every year a burger stall is a welcome part of the mix. My job for the last couple of years has been organizing the accompaniments table – the lettuce and ketchup and mayonnaise and whatever you’re having yourself to dress said burgers. Read more

Making A Difference at Christmas

It’s always good to hear about people who are going out of their way to help others – especially at Christmas.

I was delighted to interview these three farmers – Francis, Clive and Victor who are making a difference in their localities in Donegal, Wicklow and Tipperary. 

The article is in the Irish Farmers Journal – the Irish Country Living supplement – now. 

I hope you enjoy reading it. 

Happy Christmas




Last Friday night, December 7th, was a big night for me – and possibly for someone who died 45 years ago – my grand-aunt Ess, short for Esther.

She was remembered in style, at least, when a radio essay that tells her story was included in the collection of 50 audio clips chosen to represent 50 years of the RTE Radio 1’s music and musings programme, Sunday Miscellany.

The special radio festival, programme-recording and Listening Lounge event was held in the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar from December 7-9 where the public could attend a recording of one of five special Sunday Miscellany50 programmes or simply drop in to see scripts, letters and memorabilia from the programme’s past half-century and sit on benches to listen to the recorded voices of the 50 selected writers, some like Maeve Binchy, Seamus Heaney and Nuala O’Faolain now deceased, reading their 3-minute scripts. The topics varied from St Patrick’s Day in Abu Dhabi to schooldays to the forty foot to a baby buffalo in London to inland waterways and hurler’s seats.  

It was a huge delight to have Aunt Ess’s story included in that list because her story represented those of many Irish single women, I believe, who spent their time on the circumference of relatives’ lives, working hard as carers in a home that was never theirs, perhaps never having a job in the big wide world and who never had their own fireside, so to speak.  

The essay was first broadcast in August 2009 and while the audio clip is no longer available online the text is below if you’d like to read it.

It was also published in the Sunday Miscellany 2008-2011 Anthology.

She didn’t look like a woman who needed a corset.

Stick thin and almost ninety she wrapped the salmon coloured foundation garment round her body, fastening the hooks and eyes with great difficulty because of her arthritic hands.

Was it more out of habit than need that she wore it at that stage, the steel stays providing some kind of definition and restriction that she was comfortable with?

Whatever the reason, she wore it into old age.

Dressing was quite a ritual – interlock underwear then corset and slip and one by one, the thick lisle stockings held up with bands of elastic, then the pink blouse and the gun-barrel grey skirt with the concertina pleats that was hitched high under her chest. 

Next the navy cardigan and then it was the turn of her hair – long and fine and white and twisted into some kind of bun with what looked like a pipe cleaner then a black velvet hair band added as a final touch. 

With shoes and glasses on and stick in hand she was finally ready, at around eleven a.m., to make the six yard trek to the kitchen in search of liveliness and heat.

We called her Aunt Ess, that’s E double ‘s’, never Essie as visitors did and definitely not Esther, the name she was baptized in Kilpipe church in 1881. Somehow names didn’t stay stretched out in those days of land wars and civil war and world wars on the double.

She became Ess, one of six tall, angular and sallow-skinned sisters – Elizabeth, Mary Ann, Suzanna, Sarah Jane, Esther and Matilda who, over time, became Lizzie, Mynie, Anna, Jane, Ess and Tilly.

She was a grand-aunt, of course, but life was also too short for that kind of appendage.

Aunt Ess was seventy-nine when I was born and I was thirteen when she died on the 10th of April, 1973 and it was early morning and the cows were being milked and I had to do a maths test and I didn’t care what answer ‘pie r squared’ gave me that day.

She was the sister who stayed at home.  The 1911 census shows her living in the house in Loggan, near Gorey, County Wexford, aged 29, with her father then aged 80 and her younger brother Thomas, my grandfather, who was then 20.

One of thirteen children, she’d been the one to mind him after their mother died when he was only nine.

The second youngest girl, I wonder exactly why she was the one who remained behind to keep the brown bread made.

Why didn’t she fly the coop and make a home for herself in somewhere like New Zealand or Canada or Dublin like her sisters did?

Did she make that decision because she was a natural born homemaker or were fear of change and a sense of duty the psychological stays that kept her within the radius of home and gave her life the definition that she needed?

In later years, she went to live with my grandparents where she helped out in the house and saw their children and some of their grandchildren grow.

My childhood memories of Aunt Ess are mostly of a silent, background presence. 

In her old age and deafness she didn’t move or talk a lot but mostly sat on the bench beside the fire, on frosty days jigging her leg up and down as if to shake the pain out of it or, on better days, dandling the baby in the house on her good knee and singing in her now creaky voice:

          Jobby, jobby, little horse, how many miles to Dublin?

          Three score and ten, sir, to bring me back again, sir.

Thirty years she’d been crippled with arthritis and I can see her hands still, knuckles knobbled by the joint damage and the skin mottled with age.

Thinking of her, and all the other elderly aunts who lived in our locality, I don’t think their lives could have been that easy – single sisters living on the circumference of relatives’ lives, women who probably knew no regular income until they got the pension but who, in their day, were major picker uppers of domestic slack in homes around the country.

Rumour has it that Aunt Ess’s tongue wasn’t always quiet but even if it was sharp on occasion was that sharpness born of disappointment at the straw she’d drawn in life, not to mention the frustration of immobility and pain from an early age?

I wonder, too, if she ever dreamed of marrying and rocking her own children to sleep. 

There are no stories of romance for Aunt Ess that I know of but she was young once and human and could have harboured such desires.

There aren’t that many photographs of her but in those we have she often looks a bit sad or downcast or slightly startled in the light of the lens.

There’s one photograph that’s different, though. She is in her 40s and wearing a check-patterned apron over a dress and standing in front of the whitewashed house in the Milland. 

It’s a warm working day and wisps of hair have escaped from her bun and she is smiling broadly, her eyes crinkled up and her teeth joyfully on show.

I don’t know who made her laugh that day or who took the photograph but I’m glad that someone did for, in that one photograph, my aunt Ess’s face is a face transformed.



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