Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Delights of "Keepsake" by Paula Leyden

I am a massive fan of Paula Leyden’s wonderful books for kids. I absolutely loved The Butterfly Heart and The Sleeping Baobab Tree, both award-winning middle grade books set in Zambia, so I was really keen to read Keepsake when I received a copy in the post from Little Island. (I've tried to avoid any spoilers.)

The cover art for Keepsake by Olivia Golden is smashing and I can’t stop looking at it! 

Keepsake is a younger middle grade story set in a small town in Ireland. The story focuses on two kids, Johnny and Ella, and their love of a horse named Storm. Ella has been visiting the horse when she first encounters Johnny.  Storm, though well cared for and kept in a fenced-in field, is wrongly taken one night by “the pound man”. The children only have a few days to save Storm before he will be killed. Johnny and Ella are aided by Ella’s grandmother, Orla. This high-stakes plot drives the story, touching on the racism experienced by Travellers in Ireland, but it never gets too heavy. I love a good horse story, and this one does not disappoint.

Sometimes an adult voice creeps into the third-person narrative just a little, but overall, the story is told from the children’s alternating points of view. We come to understand why Johnny is initially wary around Ella and his family is sure nothing can be done to save Storm. I love the way Paula describes Ella’s special sensitivity to the people closest to her. It’s an interesting and fresh way to describe Ella’s gift. We also have to wait patiently, along with Ella, to find out what Orla’s secret is.

I felt a bit impatient with the early part of the book, but then I realized that I was feeling what Johnny and Ella are feeling. They are anxious to DO something to help Storm, and it’s not until further along in the story that they, along with Orla, are finally able to take action. Paula has written this very cleverly so that we really feel their helplessness and frustration. The last third of the book moves at a brisk but not rushed pace, with secrets revealed, events resolved, and lives sorted. I closed the book feeling thoroughly satisfied and pleased with the way everything worked out. Paula threw in a few small surprises, though I had correctly guessed at one of them.

What really made the story shine for me was the personal details woven into the book. I love that Ella is recording Orla’s stories, and we get to “hear” some of those stories. (I wish I had done more of that with my own family.) Johnny’s grandmother has died recently, and he’s really missing her, which adds extra meaning to his love of Storm and his desperation to get the horse back. Ella longs to ride a horse and have her dad come home. These kids have known loss and longing, and it helps to cement their friendship.

I’m also still drooling a bit for some of Orla’s pancakes. They do sound rather tasty.

You can find out more about Paula Leyden and her books at http://thebutterflyheart.net.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

My Cousin Victor

My (2nd) cousin Victor died yesterday morning (January 11, 2017) at the respectable age of 92. To me, he was an intelligent, kind, and funny man, who was very welcoming when I first visited Ireland and when I later moved here.

During his career, Victor was a man of some influence in Ireland and Northern Ireland. I don’t have all the details, but here’s what was on Wikipedia:
The Very Reverend Victor Gilbert Benjamin Griffin (Dean Griffin), (born 24 May 1924, Carnew, County Wicklow), died January 11, 2017, Limavady, Northern Ireland) was a Church of Ireland (Anglican) priest, theologian and author.
Victor was educated at Kilkenny College and Trinity College, Dublin, where he was elected a scholar and awarded the Luce, Bernard, Wray, and Macren prizes for philosophy and metaphysical studies.
He was ordained in 1948. He held curacies at St Augustine's in Derry then at Christ Church, in the same city. He became Rector of Christ Church in 1957, serving until 1969. He was also Prebendery of Howth in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin (1962-1968) then Dean from 1969 until 1991.
As the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, he met with people like former Irish President Mary Robinson, someone I admire. His autobiography is a bit of a who’s who of Irish politics and church, and he had surprisingly liberal views on some topics.

Photo: Mrs. Jane Ewart-Biggs, widow of the British Ambassador Christopher Ewart-Biggs, with her children and Dean Victor Griffin and on right Assistant Garda Commissioner Eamonn Doherty at the Funeral Service held in St. Patrick's Cathedral for the ambassador, circa 1976. From Getty Images

Victor was a great storyteller, whether he was relating some interesting facts or spinning a tale. When my brother David and I visited Ireland in June 2000, Victor gave us a private tour around St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Marsh’s Library (oldest library in Ireland). He told us his wife Daphne was so popular that when people came to visit, they came to see her, not him. Sadly, Daphne died just two years before we visited Ireland, so I didn’t get to meet her. She was my dad’s cousin and the link to some of our family in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Photo: From left, the Very Reverend Victor Stacey (Dean of St Patrick’s), Canon Paul Willoughby, the Very Reverend Victor Griffin (former Dean of St Patrick’s) and Canon Bob Reed (Precentor of St Patrick’s) in 2014. From Church of Ireland Diocese of Cork, Cloyne, and Ross

Victor had strong views on many topics, but he very much believed in a pluralistic society, so he annoyed both Catholics and Protestants in equal measure. I found this Irish Times article that explains a bit more: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/religion-and-beliefs/a-pluralist-protestant-1.1626876

Photo: Victor Griffin in 2013 (see link to Irish Times article above)

When I moved to Ireland in 2005, Victor was the only family member I knew. Though he lived in Limavady, he went down to Dublin regularly. I made two trips to his home. The first time was not long after I moved to Ireland. His housekeeper left a nice lunch for us, and after a very pleasant afternoon together, I had to catch the bus back to Belfast. Victor kept offering me all kinds of food, biscuits, crackers, a tin of ham, to take with me. The second time was with my American cousin Victoria in May 2009. I’ve met a few other cousins since my first visit to Ireland, and it’s nice to have a bit of family “nearby”.

Photo: Cousins Victoria, Victor, and Colleen in Limavady in 2009

Victor was the author of several books and pamphlets including:
  • Anglican and Irish: What We Believe
  • Mark of Protest
  • Enough Religion to Make Us Hate
  • A short catechism of basic Church teaching (2007)


He lived in retirement in Limavady, County Derry, Northern Ireland until his death in 2017.

Random fact: Limavady is most famous for the tune "Londonderry Air" collected by Jane Ross in the mid-19th century from a local fiddle player. The tune was later (ca. 1913) used for the song "Danny Boy". Between the 12th and 17th centuries, the area was ruled by the O'Cahan clan. "Danny Boy" is taken from a melody composed by O'Cahan bard Rory Dall O'Cahan. The original version concerns the passing of the Chief Cooey-na-Gall whose death brought an end to a long line of O'Cahan chiefs in Northern Ireland.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Christmas)

In Ireland, Nollaig Bheag takes place on January 6 and signals the end of Christmas and a break from the hard labor of the season for Irish women. I didn’t know this but in the old Julian calendar Christmas day used to be celebrated on the 6th of January until they switched to the Gregorian calendar.
“Little Christmas is also called Women's Christmas (Nollaig na mBan), and sometimes Women's Little Christmas. The tradition, still very strong in Cork and Kerry, is so called because of the Irish men taking on all the household duties for the day. Most women hold parties or go out to celebrate the day with their friends, sisters, mothers, and aunts. Bars and restaurants serve mostly women and girls on this night. Children often buy presents for their mothers and grandmothers.”
Little Christmas is the one day of the year where the Irish mammies get to put their feet up and the men folk do all the chores and cooking? Hah! I'd like to see that!! Irish mammies rule, that's for sure.
For the less cynical, here is a lovely blog post of one Irishwoman’s memories of this tradition: http://wisewebwoman.blogspot.com/2009/01/nollaig-na-mban-womens-christmas.html
My female friends and I do celebrate this day, either at someone's house or at a restaurant or bar. As a modern tradition, it's great fun to have a girls' night to dress up, eat, laugh, and socialize. No boys aloud, though we sometimes break that rule. Of course, you can do this any day of the year these days, but Women's Christmas is still something special in Ireland.
(I originally wrote this for an internal work blog about living in Ireland, so apologies for not crediting the quote and photo.)