Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Irish and The Vikings


Anyone who has been to Dublin and seen tourists in a semi-submersible truck with plastic Norse helmets on probably realises that Dublin was at one time a Viking town. Following several decades of hit-and-run raids across Ireland, the Vikings established Dublin as a base in 842. Thence it developed into an important settlement that was the seat of a Viking King for over a hundred years. However, the first encounters between the Irish and the Vikings did not take place on this island or anywhere nearby.

These first encounters took place on islands in the North Atlantic where Irish monks had first travelled in small boats during the 6th, 7th and 8th Centuries to establish hermitages. These monks were followers of Brendan, Columba and Aidan, who voyaged increasingly far in search of wild places to practice their monasticism. Where better to find a life of solitude and spiritual dedication, akin to that of John the Baptist, than remote islands far to the North of the British Isles? Monastic records from the 9th Century describe the actual voyages of Irish hermits to the Outer Hebrides, Orkney, Shetland, Iceland and The Faeroes (which they reached in the late 8th Century).

On these wild and windswept islands the monks encountered the stone dwellings and ceremonial structures of Neolithic farmers, abandoned 3000 years earlier. It seems very likely that the hermits would have used these dwellings situated at the shore for shelter. Indeed the stone ‘beehive huts’ that monks constructed on Skellig Michael in the 8th Century bear a very strong resemblance to the Neolithic stone dwellings recently discovered under sand-dunes at Skara Brae in Orkney and Jarlshof in Shetland.

But the monks were not alone for very long. In the latter part of the 8th Century, Viking raiding parties travelled to these northerly islands in search of treasure and territory. They did not find rich pickings amongst the hermits and moved on to better targets, such as the monastic settlements at Lindisfarne and Iona and then the mainland of Britain and Ireland.

However, I imagine the Vikings were impressed by the seafaring abilities of the monks who had travelled far across stormy seas in primitive craft, much smaller and flimsier than their longboats, and by the sheer hardiness of the hermits. In the Norse language a hermit is papi and this place-name recurs across the many remote islands that the hermits inhabited: Papey near Iceland, Papa Stour in the Shetlands, Papa Westray in the Orkneys and Pabbey in the Outer Hebrides.

Their cohabitation didn’t last long; for the hermits chose to leave, or were driven out from, their wild islands. But the monks do appear to have had a lasting influence on the pagan Vikings, who shortly after began to convert to Christianity. Over the next hundred years, their trading empire spread from Greenland to Central Asia and Christianity became the established religion amongst the Norse. Viking Kings then took part in the First Crusade.
 

 

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Papay and the Mainland


Last week I clambered into a 5000 year old burial chamber, visited an ornate chapel made by Italian prisoners of war and watched seals playing in pristine blue waters. Where was I? Orkney.

I had long intended to visit this archipelago of seventy islands to the north of John O Groats, and recently I found a special reason to go. A long lost pal got in touch, Patrick my best mate at primary school, who I last saw aged nine, was now living in Orkney. T and I took a plane to Glasgow and another to Kirkwall, then we took the inter-island plane to Papa Westray. This is the furthest North West of all the Orkney Islands and is known to the locals as Papay.

The inter-island plane seats just eight and you sit right behind the pilot. The twin propellers make a real row and you can see all the instruments flickering and twitching. We travelled low across the sea, moving from island to island (most small and uninhabited) until we reached Papay, which is six miles long and just one mile wide. We touched down on a strip in the middle of a field and rumbled to a halt. Collecting our bags from the side of the plane, we walked to the terminal building (the size of a garage) and out into a narrow stone-walled country lane. Some seventy people live on Papay, spread out in smallholdings, but there is a shop, post office, nurse, primary school and volunteer fire station.

 
I recognised Patrick straight away, his features hadn't changed at all. It was just great catching up with him. Despite the long absence, we found that we were still great pals. He has retired to a bungalow on seven acres of land with sheep, ducks and chickens. He took us on some fantastic walks, to see the oldest known house in Northern Europe (inhabited 5,500 years ago) a drystone igloo amidst sand-dunes, and some fantastic wildlife – seals, migratory geese and hen harriers. Throughout, the weather smiled on us.

With reluctance we got back on the little plane for the two minute flight to the adjoining island of Westray (the shortest scheduled flight in the world) and then back to Kirkwall. For two days we travelled around the Mainland, as the main island is called. The Italian Chapel was a real highlight, built by Italian prisoners of war, it is an ornate slice of Rome created from a Nissen Hut. A phenomenal work of devotion, the chapel was made by the prisoners in their time away from building the Churchill Barriers (a submarine defence between the islands to protect Scapa Flow).

My favourite place was the complex of Neolithic sites at Stenness, a small promontory between two lochs, that was very important 5000 years ago. It holds the great chambered cairn of Maes Howe, built to interr human remains in a central chamber down a passageway that is lit by the sun on the shortest day of the year. Nearby are the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, circles of huge standing stones, built 1000 years before Stonehenge. These are powerful spiritual places that have always held an attraction, this can be seen in the runic inscriptions made by Viking visitors to the many pictures taken by more recent travellers. They still stir the soul.  


Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Ebola, Concern and the Scare


On Saturday I met with a man who had recently returned from working in Sierra Leone and Liberia to counter the Ebola outbreak. The meeting was calm and we didn’t wear face masks. He was Dominic MacSorley, Head of Concern Worldwide, and he was reporting to the Board on the work that Concern was doing on the ground in the Ebola-hit region.

Dominic explained that it was safe to be in this area as long as you observed the strict protocols: face masks, no touching, frequent washing and regular monitoring of your own temperature. He told us of the vital work that Concern was doing - scaling up education and community health work in a country where there is only one doctor for every 30,000 people and supervising the safe burial of Ebola victims. This latter task being of great importance as the World Health Organisation estimates that two thirds of new Ebola cases can be traced to unsafe burial practices. In West Africa, as in many cultures, it is normal to touch the deceased as you pay your respects. Concern is now responsible for health education and the safe burial of Ebola victims in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone.

Dominic also told us of the reactions he had received since he had returned from Freetown. As per usual after an overseas trip, he was undertaking media appearances in Ireland to publicise the work of Concern. During one radio phone in Kerry he was told he was a danger to the public and should leave the county immediately. The Make-up Department of RTE had also refused to prepare him for a television interview, being afraid to touch him with pad and brush.

These reactions returned me some twenty five years to the height of the AIDS crisis, when similar stigmatisation of victims occurred. Ebola like HIV is a virus transmitted only by body fluids, so safe practices are required to protect against this transmission. Ebola like HIV is an animal virus that has transmuted to humans. Ebola is apparently common in fruit bats and is believed to have travelled to humans via monkeys (the monkeys ate the infected bats and humans ate the infected monkeys).

But Dominic wasn’t an Ebola victim, he had merely travelled to the area to help plan and co-ordinate the response to the outbreak. And he had been checked thoroughly before he was allowed to leave Freetown. Although still within the 21 day incubation period, he had been taking his own temperature each day and had no symptoms. I left the Board meeting proud of the work that Concern has been doing in West Africa and concerned about how easily moral panics become aroused.  
 
 

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Scum-bag in Sri Lanka


I went on my first long-haul cycle tour in 2005. My destination was Sri Lanka and I joined a CTC group that toured this beautiful tropical island, the size of Ireland, for three weeks. Exploring a developing country by bicycle is a great experience, because travelling alongside local people as they go about their daily lives allows you to become really immersed in the culture.

Sri Lanka has lush tropical forests and fruit plantations on the coastal plains. The land then rises through rubber plantations, then tea plantations, to mountains of over 8,000 ft at the centre of the island where root vegetables are grown in terraces. We had plenty of long hilly days cycling in warm sunshine (25-30 degrees C) but these were interrupted by regular stops. I loved to drink green king coconuts, these were often piled up for sale at the side of the road by a child who would chop the top off one with a machete to reveal the nectar within. Or I would pause for my favourite dessert, buffalo yoghurt topped with coconut treacle (caramelised coconut milk mixed with cane sugar) - absolutely delicious.

On one particularly long ascent the group became split up. Cycling on my own, I was joined by a young boy on a large battered black bike. He was perhaps seven years old and could just about reach the sit-up-and-beg handlebars with his arms above his head. He was wearing school uniform, a white shirt and blue shorts, and was barefoot. Although I was on a modern touring bike with thirty gears, I was finding it hard going up the hill. He looked like he was on his mother's old bike, which was fixed gear and rickety, yet he didn't seem to be too troubled by the slope.

We cycled side by side for a short while. I smiled at the young lad.

He grinned at me. 'Scum-bag' he said.

Startled, I stared across at him. He was smiling at me. 'Scum-bag' he said earnestly.

After all the warmth I had thus far experienced on my trip, I was shocked to be insulted in this way. I put on a spurt to try and distance myself from him. Turning my head, I saw the young lad some fifteen yards behind. He was swaying hard on his bike, straining to catch up. I pedalled on.

'Scum-bag.' There he was at my side again, smiling. I shook my head. 'Scum-bag' he grinned, his bike swaying and rattling as he leant on the pedals.

I pedalled harder, panting as the slope increased. The rattling of his bike slowly receded. I turned around to see him some twenty five yards back. 'Scum-bag' he shouted, slowing to a stop with an air of resignation.

That's got rid of the little bastard, I thought and continued riding for an hour until I met the group at the next rest stop. I sat down and related my strange tale to the tour leader, Peter. He laughed.

'It wasn't funny', I said.

Peter shook his head, grinning. 'He was probably asking you for a school pen,' he said, 'pens and paper are expensive here'.

I felt sheepish and sad. I wished there could have been time for me to go back and say sorry.

 
 
With thanks to Eunice Yates and her story of Lenny Kravitz in Japan, which reminded me of this.
 
 

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Bumblebees and Jam-making


It's been a bumper year for fruit. A mild March meant that bumblebee queen's came out of hibernation early, made nests and began their colonies. The queen is the only bumblebee that survives the Winter, she has a sac of stored sperm from males that died last Autumn and when the warmth of Spring arrives she begins a new brood, determining the sex of each of her offspring. The new workers, mostly females, emerge to collect nectar from the blossoming plants, pollinating them too. Our good early Spring was followed by a long, warm Summer and hedgerows and trees became filled with ripe fruit. The bees had done their work well.

Early in September, T and I picked ten pounds of blackberries in around an hour and left many more still ripening. Back home we combined our spoils with the same quantity of apples from my garden (another good crop despite the heavy pruning I gave the tree in January) and made jam. The recipe called for the same weight of sugar as fruit, but we couldn't countenance putting so much in. We decided to try half the weight of the fruit and poured in five kilos of sugar with added pectin. Even then it seemed a lot.

We had some problems boiling this thirty pounds of mixture. I had a huge pot, but it became too full and the jam mixture splashed out across the cooker, up the wall and onto my hands. I didn't realise you could get nasty burns from hot jam. So we split the mixture and boiled each hard for over ten minutes, my hands in oven gloves this time. The jam seemed to set okay when we tried it on a saucer, so we bottled it. The next day we opened a jar and found the jam was only semi-set, but with a great rich fruit (rather than sugary) flavour. I've been eating our blackberry and apple jam every day since on my toast.

Another of the good things about foraging and jam-making is that it enables your entrance into the local exchange economy. You give a pot of jam or a bag of apples to a neighbour, and at some future point you will receive in kind. Yesterday a neighbour brought me a big bag of damsons. Today I'm going to combine these with the blackberries that T and I picked a week or so ago on our latest foraging trip (and froze) and have another go at jam-making. I'll still only put in half the sugar, but this time I'll add the juice of a couple of lemons to help the jam set. I wonder what damson and blackberry jam tastes like?





Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Unexpected Call


A week ago I got an unexpected phone call. It was from the office of a bone cancer specialist at Musgrave Park Hospital. I needed to come in and see Mr Barr. I was given an appointment, it was for just five days ahead. As I put down the phone, I began to worry.

I knew the scan I'd had last month had shown up something strange - a lesion inside my left femur. I'd sent the report to my kidney specialist, who'd treated me for cancer in 2011, and he told me he was sending it on to a bone cancer specialist. It was good to see the NHS working so quickly, I told myself. But being called in by phone with just five days notice was suspiciously quick. Too quick. It could only mean one thing - bad news.

I looked up the lesion on the internet. These bone lesions were common and ninety percent of them were benign and untroublesome. The rest were sinister: early-stage chondrosarcomas. Oh dear, I thought, I'd done well over the past three and a half years but now my luck seemed to be running out. The five days to the appointment were interminable. I did my best to distract myself: easier in the day, almost impossible at night.

At last, I drove in to Musgrave Park and sat in the waiting room. The clinic nurse, a Sri Lankan, couldn't pronounce my surname and called out 'Mr Paul'. I stood up and she escorted me along the corridor to the small consulting room. I sat alone for a while, then a young man of Middle Eastern appearance came in accompanied by three pasty-faced teenagers. He introduced himself as Mr Barr's Senior Registrar and asked if I minded the medical students being there. Too wound up to speak, I shook my head. He told me to get on the couch and roll up my trouser leg. I complied and he conducted a thorough examination of my left knee, giving a running commentary to the students.

The Senior Registrar then fixed me in his gaze, 'I've looked at your scan,' he said.

I nodded.

'You have a lesion in your left femur,' he said, pointing to the spot.

I nodded again, trembling.

'It's nothing to worry about,' he said.

I heaved a large sigh, then grinned.

He smiled back, 'it's probably been there since childhood.'


Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Seamus Heaney at the BBC


Not only did we have a great day out in Magherafelt (and a splendid meal at Church Street) but I learnt a good deal about Seamus Heaney. T and I joined the On Home Ground Festival last Friday and caught up with Geraldine and Eugene Kielt, Maura Johnston, Marie-Louise Muir, James Kerr and Medbh McGuckian. Excellent readings and performances of course, but for me the most memorable was to see two of the many programmes that Seamus Heaney made for BBC NI, followed by a talk from Pat Loughrey, the ex-Controller of BBC NI, about Heaney's work for the BBC.

I only had a sketchy knowledge of Heaney's broadcasting work. I didn’t realise that he had begun working for the BBC in 1966, having been introduced by Philip Hobsbaun, the leader of the Belfast Group. At first Heaney worked only for the Schools Broadcasting Department, writing and narrating radio broadcasts for children on diverse topics such as language, mythology, landscape, poetry, childhood and farming practices.

In many ways this was a radical step for BBC NI, for here was a Catholic nationalist writing and narrating programmes at a time when such voices were not normally in positions of authority on the airwaves. Yet Heaney also had impeccable credentials, as a lecturer at Queen's and being published by Faber and Faber. Surprisingly, Heaney's early radio work passed off with very little comment in NI. Whereas, his later television work (a series of programmes in a similar vein to his radio work) provoked more reaction, being described by some as 'papist propaganda'.

Heaney was a gifted broadcaster. The films I saw were apparently simple, but with considerable depth. The first concerned the language of boundaries as Heaney roamed across the landscape of his childhood in South Derry. The second was set in Lough Erne and concerned pagan beliefs and the early Christian church. Heaney had a natural flair for engagement with both his subject and the audience - he informed, educated and entertained. As Pat Loughrey observed, his scripts were almost written in verse.

Well done to Marie-Louise Muir for putting together the excellent Festival programme at Laurel Villa. Many thanks to Geraldine and Eugene for their hospitality. It's a little over a year since Seamus' passing and only now are we becoming able to assess the extent of our loss. He was not just a great writer but also a great broadcaster (amongst other things) - all in all, a great communicator.