Strenuous endeavours

It's by now a tradition in our house on Saint Patrick's Day to watch together a film with an Irish theme. Usually the day offers an annual excuse to watch Walt Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People - a film that always seemed to be playing locally when I was growing up.

But this year nostalgia demanded something different, something more in tune with the sensibilities of these pandemic times. The choice was John Huston's last film The Dead portraying the last story in James Joyce's Dubliners set in 1904 on January 6 - the feast of the Epiphany. 

The film starring Anjelica Huston, the director's daughter, and Donal McCann was made in 1987 but I first saw it when it was released on VHS, replacing it years later when that platform gave way to DVD.

It would have been lovely if subtitles had been incorporated because some of the language is so beautiful. Not to worry though as the Penguin Modern Classic edition of the book has been a constant companion through various house moves and even more bookshelves. 

The 1972 edition, its cover depicting a detail of The Illuminated Town by Jack B Yeats (brother of William B), is showing some yellowing of pages but this somehow felt in keeping with ageing and the passing of time.  Having watched the film last night I took the opportunity to read the text again this morning. 

In the story the character Gabriel Conroy makes an after-dinner speech in which he laments the disappearance of more "spacious days" and departed loved ones. He reflects that there are many sad memories on our way through life but nonetheless we must continue our work among the living:

"We have all of us living duties and living afflictions which claim, and rightly claim,
our strenuous endeavours".

Joyce writing in 1914 could have been penning a memento vivere - remember you must live - for his time and ours. 

As the guests take their leave, there is a wonderfully described staircase moment, superbly conveyed in the film, around the rendition of a song, The Lass of Aughrim. 

This releases a flood of emotions in our two main characters, bitter regret, jealousy, passion and its absence, culminating in a sharp realisation of the human condition, that connection between the living and the dead.

My DVD film and book will continue our journey together. Granted it might be more poignant to watch and read on Epiphany evenings.

If not there's always Saint Patrick's Day.

Deckled edges

After initially feeling they were "unfinished" I've been learning about the paper process for deckle edged books. Now, I rather like them.

Dog ears on the other hand still get my deckles up.

Dark Mourne

A long stroll along an almost deserted beach at the National Trust's Murlough Reserve near Dundrum, County Down. With just a handful of cars in the parking area and passing only a few people on the 600m boardwalk down to the shore, we guessed correctly that the beach would be fairly empty. This really was social distancing.

Buttoned up against the chill and facing the breeze from the sea it wasn't long before blood came rushing to warm the cheeks. No need for an anti-virus mask here. We took deep lungfuls of the fresh salt air and immediately felt the benefit.

The sand was washed smooth with no previous steps before us and the sea seemed to have deposited various qualities of shingle and stone in lovely gradations. A perfect case study for a school geography trip and a salutary lesson in the organising power of nature. Here and there shells dotted the sand, washed ashore or perhaps dropped by feeding gulls. They lay with their scalloped grooves and ridges upward, the anticipated delicacy downward, reminiscent of dropped, buttered toast.

We walked until a stream crossed the beach and turned back towards Newcastle, surmounted by the lovely Mournes, a scissored silhouette against a brightening sky. Donard will be cold today, we agreed.  

Then silent reflective thoughts.

How often has this untampered scene been viewed before by people long since gone? And recollected or imagined in the tunes of the songsters who extolled its beauty and missed its presence. This beach has been crowded at other times with families and picnics. Long, bright, summer days. Not now though when our talk is of R-rate, regulations and restrictions. 

Sadness for those whose longings have been cut short.

Dark Mourne.


The driveway is full of them.  Leaves. They gather against the walls that frame the length of the driveway and road outside the house. Each car that passes flurries them up to find a new resting place or flattens them into the tarmac where they stick unbudging, resistant to all but the heaviest-duty bristle brush.

The leaves that have made our property their home don't come from our trees which are mainly evergreen. They hail from a deciduous domain, from elsewhere but seasons and wind have no knowledge of borders and so there is the annual autumnal task of collection and disposal. If the leaves were from a book it would be a multi-parter as the task of collection is repeated often until the last leaves leave their branches.

A leaf-blower to get my own back was a useful purchase. It enables me to blow them quickly into heaped mounds for later lifting. An old neighbour with country ways once advised me not to waste my time trying to brush them into such piles. Leave it to the wind, he advised, and when it calms down the leaves will have formed themselves into settled piles.

He was right. Working with nature. 

The piles are light to the touch and often the brittle leaves break and turn to dust. Their lightness is also a challenge though. Four big scoops with large plastic garden hands fill the barrow. A fifth would lose the precarious balance and leaves would fall off the barrow leaving a new deposit to brush.

No, better to take it gently and often. The piles cannot be left too long as stronger winds will disperse them again and supplement them with fresh fall. So the task is repeated, weekly and they are transposed to that out of the way spot in the garden where leaves can be left to crumble and compost.

The driveway relieved at last. 

Road book and press cutting

How many times over the years have we flicked through this old family heirloom roadbook? The AA Illustrated Road Book of Ireland.

This edition was published in 1970 and was often consulted on trips round the country. We loved its line drawings, its Irish place names and short but nonetheless helpful references. Later versions have better maps and descriptions but this one is the one with character and cachet.

Cachet? A word that denotes quality and distinction. Yes the book meets those criteria but drop the -t and
there is also cache, a word that refers to something hidden or concealed and the book has something to reveal there too.


Recently as part of a national heritage festival we had been discussing Holy Wells in Ireland. One that was mentioned was the Rock of Doon. Not having been there the conversation turned to - Well where exactly is it? It's north of Letterkenny, a few miles from Kilmacrenan in County Donegal. 
Well, we've been there quite a few times but never at the well. So naturally, we would look it up. Internet browser? Not this time. Where else to go to but the old book?

Kilmacrennan. There it was along with its map details and gazetteer entry and a press cutting. 
What? An article from a newspaper with words by a J.J. Toolett and a drawing by Gordon McKnight.
How long had that been in there? Who had put it there? 

How many times we have looked through that 50 year old book, brought it with us on travels and yet somehow failed to see that cutting from years gone by.  Extraordinary that it should come to light to inform our discussions.  Heirloom and heritage.

The obvious next steps are to find out more information on the Rock of Doon and to make the journey - should that be pilgrimage? - with the road book and press cutting. 

There will also be a reflection on that simple act of scissoring out an article and placing it for safe keeping in a treasured book.