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Not My Finest Hour

April 23rd, 2017

Of all the burning issues which you might think that I should really care about, it turns out that cycling is the one I’d die in a ditch for. I’m pretty surprised but as the discussion becomes more polarised, I find myself reading all kinds of things and snorting at the ignorance of people who disagree with me. I have become, perhaps annoyingly, evangelical about the joys of cycling; the exercise, the reliability, the handiness. I used to accept people parking in the cycle lanes and on the pavement as a fact of life but, increasingly, I am irritated by behaviour I used to ignore as inevitable. All this is to set the scene for the following little vignette.

One morning the boys and I were cycling to school. From our house to the nearby park, they cycled on the pavement [which is legal for children]. When we got to the short (very quiet) one way street leading to the park, there were vans blocking the pavement on either side of the road and I said to the boys to come off the pavement and cycle on the road but be very careful as it was one way against us. Out they came and a workman came across the road with a long pole which he was loading on to one of the vans and nearly took Daniel’s eye out. He immediately started shouting at me that it was a one-way street, which, of course, it was and he wasn’t checking both ways. We both got a shock although no damage was done. I was annoyed and I said, “We wouldn’t have been on the road if your vans hadn’t blocked both pavements”. We had a vigourous exchange of views for some time. When I caught up with the boys in the park, they were both a bit shocked. “Angry Mama,” said Michael, “why were you so mean to that man who was only trying to do his job?” I was a bit mortified. “How do you think I should have handled it?” I asked him. “I don’t know, I’m only 11” he said.

I spent all day thinking about it and what I should have done differently. If he had apologised, I would have immediately apologised myself but it was the fact that he was so aggressive and so self-righteous really got to me. I brought it up again at dinner. The boys had tired of the subject. “I’m reflecting on how I could have handled that better,” I said. “You’ve reflected already, now you’re dwelling,” said Dan.

I’m still dwelling. What should I have done?

Easter Round Up

April 19th, 2017

I took the boys to Cork for a couple of days before Easter. They spent a lot of time in front of the television although we did fit in the obligatory trip to Charles Fort in Kinsale. The needs of my elderly relatives are ever-expanding; my poor sister was out of commission [hold out for another post on this] and my brother was holding the fort with a ratio of 1:3 able bodied to infirm so I was there to try to even up the numbers. The boys absolutely loved it but I did feel a bit guilty as well as flattened from dealing with doctors and pharmacists and hospitals and the public health system and home help and finding the kind of chorizo my father likes. It gave me a whole new appreciation for my sister and brother; and I already appreciated them, really. So, not super relaxing.

We came back to Dublin on the Saturday before Easter as Daniel was scheduled to sing in the choir for the Easter vigil. It’s very beautiful. First the church is in darkness and then everyone in the church lights a candle. As we walked up to mass, Daniel reminisced fondly about how one of his fellow choristers managed to set his own eyebrows on fire the previous year. The service was indeed beautiful and particularly the music but it was very, very long. We eventually stumbled out at 10.50.

Before going home, the choristers all picked up an Easter egg. We were chatting to A, one of Daniel’s fellow choristers whose family is from India. A had already been on a three day retreat and was bracing himself for the Indian mass (Syro-Malabar for the intellectuals following along in the smart seats) the following day. Michael was horrified. Mr. Waffle almost asked A what religion he was. Then he remembered, oh no, of course, he is catholic, just much, much more devout than us. Our local church has an Indian and an African mass as well as other masses and it is unfortunate that in our patterns of worship we are (inadvertently, I assure you) replicating South African era apartheid conditions. Except for brave souls like young A and his family who cover several masses with unfailing devotion.

My parents-in-law came to us for lunch on Easter Sunday and we spoke to herself in France. She was holed up in the French exchange’s aunt’s château in Le Havre (location, location, location) along with 39 of the extended family and other exchanges including, a boy from Canada, a boy from Germany and two children from South Korea. I have still not got to the bottom of who in the extended French family is learning Korean. Games were facilitated by herself translating from French for the Canadian and the German (who spoke English) and the German translating for the South Koreans who spoke German but not much French or English. I confess myself utterly baffled by the set up. The Princess was very impressed by the four storey over basement château where she got lost several times and where the room for shoes was as big as her bedroom (which, you know, is a largish double). She also ate her own weight in chocolate and worked it all off on the trampoline.

On Monday, Mr. Waffle, the boys and I went into town for some organised fun. Some of this was pretty good. There was was graffiti:

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and art:

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and science:

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Then we went for lunch in town and all was well. We should have gone home then. Instead we went to Dublin Castle where Daniel saw a theatre thing he didn’t much care for and Michael wandered off to try the pottery making:

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Sadly, they then saw the printmaking and Michael, in particular, wanted to do it. The result was super and the people were really nice but, oh Lord, 40 minutes in a queue when everyone was getting tired and crabby was not a happy time.

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And then we had to cycle home which no one was particularly enthused about at that point. My mother’s motto is “Always leave when you’re enjoying yourself most”. My father always characterised this as rather puritanical but I think she has a point.

And then, yesterday, herself came home. We were very pleased to have her back. Her brothers are coping.

How was your own Easter?

14

April 17th, 2017

The Princess was 14 on April 12.

She wasn’t here, she was off on her French exchange in Paris. She’s only getting back tomorrow. It was her first birthday away from home. She seems to have had a lovely, lovely time. The French exchange’s mother is my friend who I lived with in Brussels for two years and who did more than anyone ever to improve my French by correcting me when I made mistakes (ideal French exchange mother material, you have to concede). Mr. Waffle and I attended my friend’s wedding in Normandy with herself, a 3 week old baby, in tow. So, we’ve known each other a long time and it is very pleasing to be exchanging our daughters. They pulled out all the stops and I am slightly dreading having their daughter E back in the summer as entertainment standards are high. Still we have a couple of months to plan.

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My daughter is a very independent 14 year old. She was away for a week at mid-term, away for 10 days now at Easter and is going away for three weeks in the summer. And she is on committees and teams and seems to be very engaged in all kinds of things. I rely on her school’s twitter account for details of her activities – she refers to it as a fifth columnist. When I did a traineeship in the European Commission nearly 25 years ago, there was a very bright, very competent, fiercely independent English girl who was one of our cohort. She was a friend of a friend and I remember my friend telling me that this girl had essentially left home at 15 winning scholarship after scholarship and entirely paying her own way for everything. It seemed, in some ways, a bit sad to me and the memory has stayed with me. Honestly, at one level, I feel that if herself had to leave home in the morning, she would be perfectly able to do so. I know the job of parents is to prepare children to live happy lives on their own but I’m a bit worried we may have peaked too early here.

School is going well for her. She’s always been very academic so that helps. But she has thrown herself into the “clubs and socs” end of things and is always staying late to do activities at school. As she cycles in and out, she’s very independent and we’ll often get a text message saying something like, “I’m not dead, I have just gone to [friend’s] house. Home later.” And that’s fine. She’s sensible and she’s reliable. And she seems to be doing fine socially though, of course, you can never really know.

She still reads everything and lots of it. Her interests are eclectic. She is fascinated by Jewish religious laws. She’s read a lot on this one. Apparently the rabbinical courts have turned their attention to what happens if a weasel takes bread from the house [the details on why this might be bad elude me] and she likes their attention to detail. She has me tormented on Catholicism and the rules which apply.  I have the shakiest grasp on this myself; this is not helped by her constantly trying to poke holes in my limited knowledge. I blame the internet for giving her the impression that the Catholic church is anti-science. The Church has many, many faults but that is not one of them.

She and her brothers are generally either at war or in a state of uneasy truce. I am hoping this will pass. They sometimes get on pretty well but that is mostly when they are jointly torturing Mr. Waffle and me and I am not sure that we are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for sibling harmony.

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Instagram and snapchat are her social media of choice. She can leave email lying ignored for days but a snapchat question generally gets a (laconic) response. Can I just say that I hate using snapchat and it leaves me feeling old and baffled. This is what I get for being over 25, I suppose. Last autumn my brother and sister bought her a snazzy new phone. Prior to this, she had only been able to access social media through the school iPad which was deeply unsatisfactory for reasons I didn’t entirely understand. Our rule had always been no electronic devices in the bedroom but we dropped the ball here and since she already had her iPad in her room (for homework and – not authorised – watching Netflix) we just let her take the phone there too. We were only brought to our senses by the shared outrage and indignation of her brothers who are only allowed 20 minutes computer time per day. We said her phone had to stay downstairs. She was outraged. We survived it.

She still loves animals. She loves our cat. She desperately wants a dog. She is even fearless with the neighbour’s hens.

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She is a terrific cook. She continues to use her powers for good and makes a range of cakes and buns for local consumption. She also makes great risotto.

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Her room is a fastness and woe betide any family member who crosses its threshold. It was very tidy there for a while last summer under the influence of Marie Kondo but standards have slipped a bit since August 2016. Still reasonably good though as I have promised to just march in there and start tidying up, if it gets too messy.

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I don’t want to tempt fate here but all in all, things are very good. She’s happy, she’s settled in school, she has friends, she has lots of interests and things are going her way. There was a while last year when she was, I think, a bit miserable (based on a reading of signs, omens, portents, not any actual information shared, you understand), but that seems to have passed. She and I go out together a bit, to the cinema or to cafés and it is pleasant. I feel like time is racing away. They always say that children grow up very fast but this has not been my experience to date. Now, suddenly though, it’s like the end of the race is in sight and I’m not sure I am ready to stop running.

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Reading

March 23rd, 2017

Pomegranate Soup” by Marsha Mehran

This was a bit twee for me but I can see why it was a success. It’s about three Iranian sisters who flee the revolution and set up a café in the west of Ireland. The Iranian author was briefly married to an Irish man and died very tragically in the west of Ireland which gives the basically feel good story added poignancy.

“The Glorious Heresies” by Lisa McInerney

This work of literary fiction is set in Cork and has been very well reviewed. The author uses language very inventively and definitely has talent. Unfortunately, I hate this kind of thing. It’s all very gloomy – it doesn’t end well for anyone. It’s set in the most hopeless, despairing of environments and it feels like there’s no hope at all, ever. Also the language fizzes and sometimes, I don’t like fizzing language. I can see why it did well but not one for me.

The Yellow Dog” by Georges Simenon

My father gave this to me, he said that I might like it as it was set in Concarneau in Brittany where I have been on holidays a bit in recent years. In fact, the Concarneau of 90 odd years ago is pretty different from the very touristy town we have today. However, I mildly enjoyed the story which was reminiscent of Agatha Christie type detective offerings and might try another Simenon. Happily, if I like them, there are plenty of them.

Casting off” and “All Change” both by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The last of the Cazelet books about an upper middle class English extended family between the late 1930s and the 1950s. Gutted to have finished them. What a fantastic series of books. I might give it a couple of years and go back and read the lot again.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

A bit twee – an epistolatory novel about how a group of people in Guernsey got through the occupation during the second world war. It did make me want to visit Guernsey though.

The Trespasser” by Tana French

I think Tana French is incapable of writing a bad novel but I thought this one was not quite as good as her other detective novels. The sense of place which is so wonderfully brought out in her other novels isn’t quite as clear in this one and it’s just a bit less good. Still very, very good though.

Hillbilly Elegy” by JD Vance

This apparently explains Trump’s America. The author grew up poor in the rust belt and became middle class; he works like a translator, explaining his former life to the middle classes. Although he does refer to some research, it is basically a well-written autobiographical book. I am not convinced that I understand Trump’s America any better but my view that it is particularly unpleasant to be poor in the US is confirmed.

The Hungry Grass” by Richard Power

Originally released in 1969 – the year I was born – this book takes an inside look at the clergy in rural Ireland and the changes that are coming from the point of view of a cranky priest. It didn’t do it for me. I did learn the expression “the hungry grass” though, apparently it’s a spot where someone who died in the famine was buried/died and if you walk over it you will always be hungry.

Knights of the Borrowed Dark” by Dave Rudden

Daniel and Michael have been at me to read this. They’ve seen the author live twice in the library and they loved this book. I’m not above reading children’s books at all but I was a bit put off by the cover and description. I am delighted the boys persisted. What an excellent book. Great plot but also a really wonderful, inventive, clever writer. He writes beautifully. I will definitely read the next installment (due out shortly) and I would love to see the author write a book for grown-ups.

Postcards from the Edge” by Carrie Fisher

I thought that this was a slightly fictionalised account of Carrie Fisher’s relationship with her mother but it’s not. It’s funny in places but basically episodic and inconclusive. I suppose it does give an insight into what it was like to be famous in Hollywood in the 80s if that’s your thing. Not mine.

The Closed Door and Other Stories” by Dorothy Whipple

Dorothy Whipple is great, short stories are great. Win, win, really although a certain amount of female misery seems to be par for the course for Ms. Whipple.

The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Drama, intrigue and romance with a happy ending from the woman who gave the world “A Little Princess” what’s not to love? Not as good as “A Little Princess” though.

Crossing the Border

March 22nd, 2017

The forecast for Saturday was much better than the forecast for Friday. So that you can avoid the suspense which we enjoyed, I’ll tell you now, it lied.

We went halfway up Slieve Donard. The mountain, I am sure, looms impressively most of the time but on Saturday morning it was pretty much invisible in the fog/cloud cover. We went up by the mountain stream which was actually lovely and pretty dry under the trees considering how hard it was raining. I forgot my phone so we only have our memories and the much less satisfactory photos I took on my daughter’s phone. It was nice, you’ll have to trust me here. Michael continued to complain of a headache and pointed out that I was making him climb a mountain with possible concussion. Think of that as the bass note on which the musical arrangement of the weekend was built. We spent some time as we climbed talking about “The Famous Five”. “I was always Anne,” I sighed “because my name was Anne and my friend wanted to be George and she was older.” “You could have been one of the boys,” herself pointed out. “It never occurred to me,” I said. She was shocked to the core of her being. We distributed the characters to each family member based on his/her characteristics. In the new dispensation, I got to be Timmy the dog. I am not sure that this is an improvement on Anne, to be honest.

Herself beguiled the walk by plying us with questions on what would happen if one stateless person killed another stateless person on a lilo that drifted into international waters. I am not really sure but I do feel that she has a future in setting examination papers. I was vividly and unhappily reminded of my summer examinations in 1988. At the end of the woods, we gave up and turned back. It was just miserable. In fairness to them the children were remarkably cheerful. We had started out with a promise that we would go to Maud’s for lunch and the library across the road after and that seemed to keep them going. Magic Maud’s did the trick again and the library had different stock from our local one and although Michael couldn’t read properly because the words were blurry (concussion, allegedly), they were all quite pleased. I walked back to the house to get my phone as I was utterly bereft without it. Don’t judge. Mr. Waffle said that he had parked us poised for take off and we would not be passing the house. For a place with, essentially, only two streets, it is surprisingly easy to get trapped forever in the one ways of Newcastle, so rather than risk driving, I strolled back. It wasn’t very far and I got to check out the local shops (traditional) and pass Schloss Lidl which has mild entertainment value.

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Happily, at the house, there was a man loading the tank with oil. He had a very strong northern accent and, being from the opposite end of the country, I had no idea what he was asking me but I nodded enthusiastically and it must have worked because that evening the heat was restored.

Fortified and slightly dried out, we drove out to Silent Valley. Mr. Waffle navigated and the sun almost came out and there were beautiful views. “Look, look,” I said to the children. “I have one question,” said Michael gloomily, “Why did we let Timmy the dog drive the car?” Woof.

Silent Valley is where they built the reservoir for Belfast in the 20s and it is a bit creepy in its manicured beauty. It stopped raining for a good while which made a welcome change.

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After this, we explored what the children had been looking forward to all day. The women in the tourist office had told us about a “magic road”. It’s one of those roads where it feels like you are going uphill but you are in fact going downhill. It is true. The road looked uphill and it definitely felt like we were sliding uphill but, obviously, we weren’t. We were fascinated. It’s a slip road, just after Spelga Dam leading to a closed gate if you are ever in the area, well worth a look. Not unknown either, there was a car there experimenting when we arrived and a minibus patiently waited for us to finish our experimentation and bring down the only tourists we saw during our trip.

After that highlight, it was back to our newly toasty house. Had it been fine the next day, I might have been tempted to stay a bit longer but it was lashing again on Sunday so we decided to head back to Dublin. It was Mr. Waffle’s birthday and we gave him some token offerings and then headed off to Dublin. On the way, as it was his birthday, we gave him a chance to inspect one of the old border crossings.

Observe the difference in tarmac types and the change in hard shoulder markings.

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That’s it at the moment but, of course, the newspapers are full of how Brexit may bring back a hard border. We all stood and stared at it for a bit, except for Michael who thought we were nuts and stayed in the car. A woman was parked across the road and got out of her car and came across to us. It turned out she was a photographer for a Swedish paper and they were doing an article on Brexit and Northern Ireland. She asked if she could take some photos of the kids looking at the tarmac – seemed less than fascinating but we said fine. We could be big in Sweden in the next couple of weeks.

We were back in Dublin by lunchtime and poor Mr. Waffle sloped off to the office for the remainder of his birthday. Alas. Overall though, despite an inauspicious beginning another successful trip to Northern Ireland. If you haven’t been there, you should go it is delightful. Yes really.

Consistently Underrated*

March 20th, 2017

As part of my ongoing love affair with Northern Ireland I booked us into an Airbnb in Newcastle, Co. Down for St. Patrick’s weekend. This was a matter of much bitterness as Michael was due to have his end of term drama show that weekend; Daniel wanted to go to Gamercon; I had promised Michael that we would go to the parade in Dublin this year (I had, but I had forgotten, I am but human); herself had to appear weird to her schoolmates by not being able to go to the parade like everyone else and going to Northern Ireland instead; and Mr. Waffle had to fly out to a meeting on the Monday morning. So not the advance enthusiasm that I had been hoping for.

The drive up on Thursday night was tetchy – I had been hoping to get out of the office early but a variety of bank holiday weekend deadlines conspired to make me stay until 5.30. Google maps told me it was only 99kms to Newcastle from Dublin. Unbeknownst to me, Google maps changes from kilometres to miles automatically when you are travelling to a destination that operates in miles. Let me tell you, 99 miles is quite a bit further than 99kms. Also I had booked us in to a pizza restaurant in Newcastle for 8 and, although they were very accommodating, Mr. Waffle did not relish ringing them to tell them we would be late. Our Airbnb hostess was very obliging though (first experience of booking – would definitely recommend it, surprisingly pain free) and said she would turn up with the keys whenever we arrived which she did.

The house was absolutely fine – not beautiful but central, good value and lots of room for the five of us. The temperature was set to what my friend from the North calls “Ulster Granny” and that’s the way I like it. We awoke on St. Patrick’s Day to driving rain. We walked into mass in the town. The catholic church is quite spectacularly ugly. “They have a place like that in Liverpool,” said Mr. Waffle, “they call it Paddy’s Wigwam.” I sniggered and herself said I was the victim of internalised racism so there you go. Mass was extraordinary. They had Irish dancers (not a feature of mass in general), the flag of the local GAA club was laid on the altar and the first and second readings were both in Irish as well as a good sprinkling of the hymns. Utterly baffling to a majority of the local population, I imagine, as they don’t generally study Irish in school and there is only so much night classes can do (Conradh na Gaeilge were having a collection outside the church, presumably for more of the same). It was strange. The kind of gear that is very standard for St. Patrick’s day in the South like green, white and orange ribbons in girls’ hair is, of course, utterly different in the North. I seem to remember sporting ribbons of this nature myself in Cork in the 70s – my mother was a big fan of the large ribbon – but it meant nothing more than St. Patrick’s Day. Flags in the North are, of course, a completely different matter.

We went to the playground after mass and looked at the mountains of Mourne sweeping down to the sea.

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There was a great claw sculpture which provided some harmless entertainment.

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Michael fell off the climbing frame in the playground onto his head and was deeply unhappy and, possibly, concussed. We went for tea. In what can only be called a stroke of genius on my part, I asked a local with two small children where he would recommend for this. He recommended “Café Maud’s”. The outside was, frankly, unprepossessing but within lay everything that a family with three damp children (one possibly concussed) might require. It was the business. Suitably fortified, we went to the tourist office. I had already rung them earlier in the morning to check whether they were open. When I went in, one of the women behind the desk said to the other, “I think this must be the lady who called me this morning.” I confirmed that I was. I don’t think that they are overwhelmed with tourists – I didn’t hear a single non-local accent while we were there except for the Turkish owner of the pizzeria (I asked him about parades in Newcastle and he was baffled but the locals sitting beside us scooted up to us and saying “I couldn’t help overhearing your question..” gave us the lowdown) and the Polish waitress in Maud’s – and I suppose that might be why they are particularly nice to them. The women in the tourist office got out the range of brochures and started talking about various options including Irish dancing. “Mmm,” said I, “I had some of that already at mass this morning.” The older lady behind the counter said, “I was there too, wasn’t it the oddest thing?” Mr. Waffle who had been at the far end of the premises drifted up to hear us exchanging very satisfactory animadversions on the morning’s service. “How,” he hissed, “did you end up talking about mass? Did you bring it up?”

Given that it was still lashing, we decided to take the advice of the women in the tourist office and go in to Downpatrick for the parade. We stopped off on the way to have a look at Dundrum castle which we had to ourselves and which is far, far more impressive than you might think from looking at my photos.

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We decided to take advantage of the municipal park and ride in Downpatrick. Frankly, this was a bit unnecessary but, never mind, we got to marvel anew at the infrastructure in the North. Not only did they supply a park and ride for a small town but there were half a dozen portaloos in the car park. I can only commend Northern Ireland’s dedication to clean and plentiful public toilets and note that her citizens must get a rude awakening when they travel south of the border.

On the way into the town we passed a very depressed and damp bouncy castle which the kids were quite keen to try out but we resisted. I have seldom seen something less appealing.

Mine eyes have seen the abomination of desolation:
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We had lunch in the town. We went to the St. Patrick’s exhibition which the children found mildly entertaining. There was this rather sad sign in the shop:

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It appeared to be completely ignored by the local teenagers who were all wrapped in tricolours.

We actually managed to miss the parade as the children went to a free F1 experience which was undoubtedly the highlight of their day.

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Herself got to experience again Northern Ireland’s contribution to the ice cream world of which she is very fond. Yes, indeed, it was time for the Pear Picking Porky (as you can probably tell, she enjoyed posing for this photo, ahem):

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Then it was off to the county museum (formerly prison) for organised fun which Daniel actually really enjoyed – storytelling and performances – and the others thought was not bad. It was a small little museum but for a local small town offering, really pretty good, I thought. They had a display of postcards for the day that was in it:
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There was an elderly gentleman with a carousel and he, Michael and herself had a lengthy conversation on Roman emperors. It was odd but they all seemed to enjoy it. We went to the gift shop and the boys bought a wooden sword and shield and a game involving knocking over cardboard cut-outs with rubber bands. The man in the shop gave us 20% off and threw in a free book on early Christianity in Co. Down. Again, I think they are unused to tourists.

The boys and I went to visit St. Patrick’s grave up at the cathedral. He shares a grave with Bridget and Columbanus and I noticed that the Knights of Columbanus has left a wreath in case their lad might have felt left out.

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Herself poses with hexagonal Penfold postbox – very rare – a range of signposts and Downpatrick Cathedral. Yes, this is how we get our kicks, your point?

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Sadly, when we got back to our Airbnb, the heating had gone down, cue much frantic texting and an early night. On the definite plus side, herself and Daniel made dinner while their aged parents and possibly concussed brother relaxed in the, definitely chilly, front room.

People, this is only day 1, we stayed until Sunday. Stay tuned.

*An American economist said Northern Ireland was underrated on his blog recently. I thought it was true.

Musical Interlude

March 14th, 2017

Daniel and herself sing in the church choir and due to the unstinting efforts of their wonderful choir mistress, the choir has improved enormously.

I stay behind after mass to watch rehearsals and, increasingly, it has become a real pleasure. I love the fact that we have a really diverse group with children whose parents are from the Philippines, India, Brazil and China as well as Cork, obviously. And they sound amazing. A couple of weeks ago, we had some new joiners. Their mother is a professional opera singer and she stayed to join part of the rehearsal. It was quite breathtakingly beautiful to listen to her singing with the choir. Somehow rendered even more impressive as her youngest child, a toddler, utterly indifferent to his mother’s soaring voice, tugged determinedly at her skirt throughout in an unavailing effort to get her to leave the church.

Last week, herself sang solo at an enormous venue (1,000 seater- every seat filled with doting relatives on this occasion) as part of a school choirs outing. I firmly believe that the church choir played a huge role in giving her the skill and confidence to do it. I must say, though that while she’s a very confident public performer, she was quite tense in the days leading up to her performance. It all passed off peacefully and even her brothers were impressed.


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