Friday, May 28, 2010

Double Chocolate Chip Muffins - why weren't exams like this in my day!

I want to share this lovely double chocolate chip recipe with you as it was the practical element of teen daughter's home economics exam in school today. She has been perfecting it over the past two days with practice runs at home, and as she isn't keen on them herself, the results have been happily consumed by visitors and given to friends. She's not under huge pressure as these are school exams, not the State Junior Cert which she'll sit next year so this is all part of the syllabus for that nerve-wracking event, the first of the two major state exams in Ireland.

Today I took a dozen of the muffins to work for colleagues to share at the tea break - and while tempting to do so I didn't pass them off as my own, but duly credited the creator. She had to bring all the ingredients to school today, and the practical exam makes up 20% of her marks in home ec. I don't know the origin of the recipe as it's a scruffy dog-eared photocopy, with no identifying title. They are very light and airy, often unusual in muffins which can be very stodgy and heavy, and they are very more-ish.

I was very lucky to get real American chocolate chips some weeks ago from a lovely patient who gets them from a friend in the States. The real thing - here all you can get are small packets that barely do a single batch of cookies or muffins. So that was a lovely gift to get, and they are dark plain chocolate looking like Hershey's Kisses - I used to get those in Bangladesh back in the late '70s when we went to movie nights at the American Center - a place I first tasted Pringles so there are a lot of firsts associated with my time in Dhaka (not least that it's where I first met hubby Jan!)

Enough reminiscing. I am still embedded with strawberries and jam making every evening - as there are about two pounds of the fruit being picked every evening, which ripen fully over the next 24 hours, I have to keep the ball rolling and there are way too many to eat or use for desserts I am making jam - this will be used on cakes and Ice cream and rice pud over the coming months as well as just plain old jam on bread! I have started the great give-away too which benefits friends and neighbours who enjoy my strawberry glut as much as I do.

Double Chocolatete Chip Muffins

Handy Tip: This quantity makes a dozen standard size muffins - use muffin cases rather than cupcake/fairy cake cases as they are slightly bigger, although the latter will do fine if you prefer smaller muffins.

  1. 9oz/255g self-raising flour (or plain flour with 2 teaspoons baking powder)
  2. half-teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (bread soda)
  3. half-teaspoon salt
  4. 4-6oz/110-170g white sugar
  5. 3-5 tablespoons/45-75g unsweetened cocoa powder
  6. 3oz/85g dark chocolate chips
  7. 1 egg
  8. 250ml milk
  9. 1 teaspoon vanilla essence (or use vanilla sugar*)
  10. 3oz/85g soft/melted butter
Optional - more choc chips, chopped nuts or dessicated coconut for topping

  1. Preheat oven 190-200 deg. Centigrade/375-400 deg. Fahrenheit
  2. Sift together flour, cocoa, salt, soda bicarb, baking powder (if using plain flour)
  3. Add sugar
  4. Add chocolate chips
  5. Beat egg, add milk and melted butter
  6. Add vanilla essence if not using vanilla sugar
  7. Pour wet ingredients into dry and stir to combine with wooden spoon
  8. Batter should be lumpy
  9. Fill muffin cases three-quarters full
  10. Sprinkle top with chosen topping
  11. Bake for 20-25 mins until tops spring back when gently pressed
When baked, cool on wire rack

Variations on a theme

  • Cherry Chocolate - add 3-4 oz/85-110g chopped glacé cherries (yummy!) to mix
  • Hazlenut/Walnut/Brazil/Macadamia/Pecan Chocolate - add 2oz/60g chopped nuts to dry mix
  • Mocha Chocolate - add 250ml strong black coffee - cooled - instead of milk
  • Orange Chocolate - add 1 teaspoon finely grated orange rind to wet ingredients
Iced/Frosted Muffins - Mix the following for the icing/frosting
  1. 1 tablespoon (15ml) of each of the following
  2. Hot melted butter
  3. Unsweetened cocoa powder
  4. Hot water
  5. 4oz/110g icing sugar
  6. half-teaspoon vanilla essence
This icing thickens as it cools - thin with more water if needed before coating muffins

Enjoy the muffins with the essential cuppa tea and a relaxing book or favourite telly programme - I'm thinking Desperate Housewives, Gray's Anatomy, Supernanny (so you can feel smug that your kids were never that bad!) or Wife Swap (for exactly the same reasons as Supernanny, adding/substituting hubby/partner for kids!). Now you know what my late night viewing consists of, it seems that standards decline in inverse proportion to the lateness of the hour. My guilty secret, I can justify it if I'm knitting at the same time - how can it possibly be time-wasting then. And we all need down-time, so I won't make any apologies for my relaxation strategies!

The photos are a selection of the finished muffins - a little goes a long way as the chocolate is so rich. The ingredients are also pictured.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Summer and Strawberries - Jam in a Heatwave

The heatwave we've all dreamt of has finally arrived and we are holding our collective breath that if we get complacent it'll be whipped away, Celtic Tiger-style, bringing us down to earth with a bang as the sunshine bubble bursts. We've had so much comeuppance with the pay cuts and the economic freefall in the past year that we hardly dare hope for good times any more, or we'll be put right back in our box again. That's how Irish Catholic guilt works, and it takes more than a sunny day or two to purge that baggage! So carpe diem is the way to go, each day as it comes and enjoy like there's no tomorrow. For me that doesn't translate into a buzz of activity, rather the opposite where indolence and relaxation become paramount.

Today was a near-perfect Sunday, with the Sunday gossip, interviews and newspaper reviews on the Marian Finucane show (although it was the excellent Rachael English standing in for Marian) and a lone brunch on the patio - of our home-grown fresh strawberries and cream on pancakes with maple syrup, and delicious double muesli with yogurt and more strawberries and grapes, all washed down with the ubiquitous cuppa tea and a glass of (Super-Valu) summer fruits drink on the side. I finished yesterday's Irish Times as I haven't been to the shops for the Sunday Times yet, and I read a few more chapters of our online Bloggers' Book Club book for this month - Let the Great World Spin by the terrific Irish/US-based Colum McCann.

Basking in glorious sunshine, I felt really at ease and relaxed. Why alone, you may ask? Teen daughter upstairs doing her homework, and youngest son off playing cricket with the Lismore team in Cork, where he'll be joined by his oldest brother who lives there and also plays for Lismore. Middle son is still in Dublin finishing his MA studies, and hubby Jan is off on a mega-cycle of 120km along the Copper Coast to Bunmahon and back. So I haven't been abandoned, just home (almost) alone by choice. I will mooch down to the shop for the paper, and drop by the Farmers' Market for some great samosas from Pie in the Sky, a new foodie stall by Maeve Geoghegan, whose imaginative dips and salsas and lemonades have to be tasted to be believed.

I've picked about four pounds of strawberries from our polytunnel in the past three days, and have made jam from half of them, as there are too many to eat them all with cream, or on pancakes, or with yogurt in the breakfast muesli - as I did today!

This jam recipe is simplicity itself, and I use special Jam Sugar if I have it, or normal white sugar otherwise. Normal sugar works fine but takes a bit longer to set to just beyond runny.

(I hate stiff jam, and it's perfect when it's not drippy or runny but it doesn't have to pass the upside-down jar test - that's when you hold the cooled jam jar upside down it doesn't move!)

Strawberry Jam


  1. 1 pound/500g of sugar to each pound/500g of strawberries
  2. 1-2 tablespoons lemon juice per pound/500g of fruit
  3. Water to cover base of pan
  1. Hull and rinse the ripe strawberries
  2. Put in pan with lemon juice and water

  3. Cover and bring to boil, then simmer until fruit is soft

  4. Add sugar and stir to dissolve - uncovered

  5. Bring to boil and reduce heat

  6. Boil gently for 10-15 mins until setting point reached - when jam wrinkles on a cold plate when tilted

  7. Skim off scum as it forms

  8. Pour into warmed glass jars

Handy Tips: Warming the jars in the oven is best, as it sterilises them and ensures they won't break when you pour in the hot jam. Put jars in a cold oven and turn on to a medium heat -150 degrees Centigrade/300 degrees Fahrenheit - for 10 mins.

After you fill the jam jars, seal immediately with metal caps - preferably with the vacuum seal in the lid centre that you will hear pop as the jam cools.

Warning! Setting point can be reached quite fast with Jam Sugar so don't go too far from the kitchen or get lost in an absorbing book or some trash TV show!

Enjoy the jam with fresh-baked bread and butter, or indulge with scones and cream, or on pancakes with cream. This jam will keep for a year but it's unlikely to last that long as it will be finished by Christmas - if you're anything like me - unless you've made a huge stash.

I know some people make sugar-free jam but I find that this 50:50 mix works fine to make a deliciously sweet jam - the lemon offsets any excessive sweetness - and it preserves it perfectly - they don't call jams preserves for nothing!

The photos - from the top:

  • My perfect brunch on the patio
  • The view of the garden today
  • Lismore Farmers' Market on the Castle Avenue
  • Pie in the Sky stall
  • Strawberry bed in the polytunnel
  • From Strawberry to Jam - various stages

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Double-take Birthday Cakes - Supersized and Minimized

I promised I'd post the recipe for the birthday cake I made for hubby Jan's big birthday celebration recently, which I wrote about here.

So here it is - it's simply a very big Victoria sponge cake with butter icing - lots of it. It went down a treat at the party, people seemed genuinely surprised that I'd made it which made me wonder if baking is really going out of style.

There are lots of specialist bakeries now which do amazing things with photos in edible icing on top of the cakes, or cartoon characters, but I guess they rely on the technology of edible teeshirt-printing equivalence.

I still prefer the home-made cakes to the shop-bought ones as the home-made variety have more substance and can have a fair bit of style as well - at least that's what I was aiming for, and I hope I achieved it to some extent.

Here goes - not for the fainthearted and have plenty of ingredients in stock - and at least a day to prepare and bake unless you have a couple of roasting tins and a large oven. I don't, so I made one cake at a time, and baked them individually in the same roasting tin, lined with baking parchment. I made three large cakes but only used two and a half - I kept the other half for a small cake on the actual birthday which was the Saturday after Thursday's party. You can see both cakes - little and large - in this post.

Prepare a sturdy cake board if you don't have one - I cut some strong cardboard from boxes that housed some garden chairs from Lidl, and stuck two big squares together with packing tape and covered them with tinfoil/aluminium foil. The cake board will have to carry a few kilos of finished cake!

Ingredients (for each cake)
  1. 500gm/1lb Self-Raising Flour (or plain flour and 5 teaspoons baking powder)
  2. 500gm/1lb Vanilla Sugar (I use normal white/caster sugar kept in a Kilner jar with some vanilla pods - the best flavour and beats concentrated vanilla essence hands down. If you use essence, get natural vanilla)
  3. 500gm/1lb Butter, softened
  4. 8 Eggs
  5. 4-5 tablespoons hot water
  1. Pre-heat oven to 189 degrees Centigrade/350 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. Place all the ingredients in a large bowl.
  3. Using a hand-held electric mixer, mix all the ingredients to a soft dropping consistency.
  4. (You can be purist about this and cream the butter and sugar before adding the eggs and flour slowly - I find the one-step method worked fine and didn't curdle on me. I like short cuts!)
  5. Spoon the mix into a large square or rectangular tin - a roasting tin is ideal - lined with Baking Parchment (Waxed paper).
  6. Bake in the centre of the pre-heated oven for 30-40 minutes until well risen and golden brown, and firm in the centre - test with a skewer or knitting needle in the middle, which should come out dry.
  7. Cool in tin for 10 minutes, then carefully lift out by wax paper and leave to cool on a wire rack.
  8. Bake two or three of these cakes, then when completely cool, prepare to decorate to your liking.
Butter Icing /Frosting
  1. 1.5kg/3lbs Icing Sugar
  2. 750gms/1.5 lbs Butter, softened
  3. 1 tablespoon Lemon Juice to tone down the sweetness, if liked
Icing Variations:
  • Cocoa powder - if making Chocolate Icing.
  • Food Colouring - if making coloured icing
  • Instant Coffee dissolved in a little hot water - if making Coffee Icing
  • Orange juice and zest - if making Orange Icing
Beat the butter in large bowl, then sieve in the sugar and continue beating until smooth and creamy, and add lemon juice or any preferred flavourings/colouring.

  1. Place one cake upside down on foil cake board, and cut another cake to square if off if you like a square cake. Otherwise a rectangle is fine.
  2. Spread with Strawberry Jam.
  3. Spread stiff whipped cream on the jam.
  4. Place the second cake on top of the cream - right side up.
  5. Spread butter icing over top and sides of cake.
  6. Decorate as wished - I used Chocolate icing for piping and writing, and 70% chocolate buttons/chips to decorate border.

Handy Tip

I used a piping syringe and nozzle to pipe the top decorations and then another nozzle for the continuous border around the cake sides near the board.
For the writing I didn't have a fine writing nozzle - lost in the mists of time and the kitchens of Africa or Asia - and I improvised with a freezer bag - put the icing into the bag, a few tablespoons is enough for writing a few words like I did - and snip a very small bit off the corner so you can squeeze a small trail of the icing through and guide it for writing whatever you wish.
No need for fancy sets, I know you can make greaseproof piping bags, but this was handier as I think you need nozzles for the greaseproof paper bags.

Enjoy the end product - I did enjoy making it, the guests loved it and then we had a small cream sponge cake with the leftovers for the birthday itself, which had a candle per decade!

It keeps well for a few days, once in an airtight tin or wrapped in greaseproof paper.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Birthday Celebration - and a Cake Challenge!

Last week we celebrated a significant birthday for hubby Jan in a local hotel, Ballyrafter House Hotel in Lismore, which is the perfect venue for a family and friends gathering such as this. We had planned it for some months and it wasn't a surprise as all his family from Holland were coming to Ireland for a holiday the week of the birthday to celebrate it. As they were going back on a Saturday, we decided to have the party on the Thursday night. Not the best night for a party, but it was the best option, as we had our trip to the Ring of Kerry (which I already wrote about here) on the Tuesday, and they had other local sightseeing trips in the Cork/Waterford area on the other days, as well as spending time hanging out at our place for the odd barbecue.

The party was lovely, and attended by our good friends from the area as well as the family. We had lovely buffet food, sandwiches and finger food - vol-au-vents and stuffed mushrooms, prawns in filo pastry, sausages, chicken and wedges - which was served around 10.30pm, and then we had the cake and Jan blew out his candles - to spare his lungs we got numbered candles rather than a large number of individual ones - we could have had problems lighting so many besides! The cake was my only contribution to the catering, and I was justifiably proud of it as I hadn't made a huge cake like this before, or even a large birthday cake since the days of the kids' parties, when style over substance was the golden rule. I relied heavily on a wonderful book, my Party Cakes bible by Jane Asher (the Yummy Mummy of the 1980s turned actress - or vice versa, not sure - and still going strong if I see her website!) and her decorated marvels graced many a party table in Tanzania and Laos and Ireland throughout the past 27 years. Now it was a chance to get creative in a slightly more restrained and tasteful fashion with a proper grown-up cake. I kept it simple - a golden rule when doing something a bit unfamiliar in the kitchen - and it worked a treat. Understated and tasteful - as well as tasty - and everyone concurred and loved it, which was endorsement enough for me! The proprietor asked me "Did you make that cake yourself?" which I could take as a compliment or otherwise - if she was surprised should I be offended? Anyway I took it as a compliment - albeit slightly backhanded - is it such a surprise that I could make something impressive?

We had a great night, with music by Billy and Liam, a duo guitar-keyboard combo from Lismore who play a wide range of music and get people out on the floor - teenagers excepted who were too cool for school to dance. They played a mix of country, pop, rock, trad, and even rolled out some Dubliners for the Dutch visitors. One of our friends, Noreen, did a Hornpipe Irish dance for the guests, and she wowed them with her energy and perfect foot-tapping - true Riverdance style, ramrod stiff arms-at-side style. So it was a good night with craic and camaraderie, and it was lovely to see our friends and family all enjoying the evening. Jan made a short thank you speech in Schouwse, his Dutch dialect from the island Schouwen-Duiveland in Zeeland, which is quite different from Dutch and which I think I can follow pretty well though I balk at talking it. Dutch is challenge enough for me!

We were home by about 2a.m. which was not a late night but as the next day was a work day for a lot of the guests we didn't expect it to be a late night. Jan opened his pressies when we got home, and he got some lovely things, and some hilarious cards - all about the mind over matter of being 60! I think you're as young as you feel (or as the woman you feel, depending on the card you read and your point of view!) and he's a very young 60-year old - anyone who can cycle 100km on a Sunday afternoon can't be too over the hill - and he's already signed up for this year's Seán Kelly Tour.

Here are some of the photos - I will post the cake recipe separately if anyone is interested, as it is all proportion and cutting to shape - and is very manageable but you would need to work on if over two days.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Gratitude Award - Beyond my Blog Centenary Post

As I have just written my 100th post on our trip round the Ring of Kerry, this is a timely post - a sort of reverse Room 101, for the good things in life which I'm grateful for, not the "worst things in the world" to paraphrase Orwell in "1984".

I got tagged a few days ago by Treasa over at Irish Mammy on the Run (something I think all Irish Mammies are good at!) with this Gratitude Award - for which accolade thanks a lot - not sure if I should be flattered or not as it makes me think which right now seems like a bit of hard work.

I have to list 5 things I am grateful for and pass it on to 5 others to select their 5 things to be grateful for.

1. My Family - I am grateful for my lovely family - hubby and four children, our daughter-in-law-to-be and our lovely grandchild Sofia. They bring me so much joy and happiness, and we always seem to come through difficult times by having an attitude of optimism. When my beloved mother died two months ago I dreaded the future without her but I have got great strength in my family and friends, and can look back in gratitude for her long loving life and her influence on me and the whole family, which I know was strong and lasting, despite her declining health in the recent years, they all knew her in her good years and she was vocal in imparting her values and moral standards on us all.

2. My life abroad and its legacy - I spent nearly 20 years working in development in remote parts of Asia and Africa and was so lucky to experience things others can only dream of - living among the local communities in amazing places off any tourist map, following the footsteps of Stanly and Livingstone, and the chance to see these countries from a different perspective by living there over years, not weeks.

3. My career - I am so glad I chose nursing as a career - back in the day when it was up there with being a nun on the scale of worthiness in Irish eyes, and it was a vocation for angels of mercy - yet I never really bought into that shtick, as I got far too much out of it to be so sanctimonious; I acknowledge the buzz I get from helping others and being a good nurse. It offered great variety and was a career to take anywhere, and there was always work to be had, regardless of recession or the state of the economy. There are endless options and I love that I chose Public Health now, in my sunset years (workwise!) as it is a nice regular number with lots of professional autonomy, with free weekends and no night duty an added bonus.

4. My Home Town -Lismore - where I grew up and where I now live - I went full circle here, having left at 17 determined never to return to this dull dump - I was going to go out and see the world - which I did, to a point - and I returned after 30 years of wandering about with roots put down wherever our family were posted by our various aid agencies, and where we made a home regardless of how transient. Home was definitely a state of mind, as it varied from extreme basic bush living with no running water or electricity to the lap of luxury in capital cities - and I know which I'd choose if we were masters of our destiny.

5. My hobbies and interests - I am lucky to have inherited some of the skills of my grandfather who was a master tailor - even though I am nowhere near his level, I love sewing and dressmaking, and will try to make pretty much anything crafty. I love knitting and have taken it up in recent years after a gap of nearly 20 years. I love reading, writing and blogging, and cannot imagine how life would be without the gift of books, but it would surely be impoverished. I love life and try to keep a positive outlook on everything, seeing the good rather than the bad is much easier, even though I am always up for a good gossip as long as it doesn't do anyone any harm. I am certainly not a sanctimonious goody two-shoes or a little miss perfect!

I'm back at work after a hectic week of visitors, birthday partying and holiday from work - work was never this mad and seems almost like a sanctuary now! I am not complaining before you start thinking "ungrateful moron" or some such. I am blessed with lots of energy, which backfired a few years ago when the doctor discovered during a routine overhaul bloods that my thyroid was in overdrive, which explained the wonderful svelte figure I'd acquired while eating like the proverbial horse. She put paid to it in jig time with an upwardly mobile dose of Carbimazole. I gained about 10 kg in a year and even though I am now totally cured and euthyroid I am struggling to shed even half that amount to get back to my old size 12 (UK - that's 40 to all you Continental Europeans out there, and beyond that I haven't a clue).

I have to select five blogging friends to pass on this award to - I don't do many awards and won't pass it to anyone who's opted out of tagging and awards, but there are plenty of you who would be glad to post your top five gratitude things, I hope. This was fun and not too arduous.

I will tag the following five bloggers - and ask you each to please pass it onto five others when you post your list.

Catherine @ -
Marilyn @ -
Ann @ -
Edie @ -
Susan C @ -

Many thanks for taking part in this fun meme - I look forward to reading your lists!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Relations and the Ring of Kerry: Day Trip with a Difference

We have had visitors for the past week when thirteen of hubby Jan's family came from Holland for a week's holidays. We had a lovely time, as I took the week off work, and we made sure they made the best use of the short time they had by planning a day trip for everyone as well as being their personal trip advisor for local sightseeing. The Vee, Fota Wildlife Park, the Jameson Experience and Blarney Castle were all taken on board, as well as our own Lismore Castle gardens, and they thoroughly enjoyed these trips.

On Tuesday we hired a minibus and took off to see Co. Kerry, and to do the famous Ring of Kerry tour, which is a 112mile circuit around the Iveragh Peninsula, starting and ending in Killarney in our case. The roads are very narrow and twisty and they have instituted a one-way system for coaches and buses who must go anti-clockwise around the ring, or they are liable to have a standoff that could get nasty! There is no way two buses would pass each other on some stretches of the roads, and one would have to blink first and reverse.

We went from home to collect the family who were staying in Redbarn holiday cottages development outside Youghal in Co. Cork. This is a relic of the Celtic Tiger years, where similar developments sprouted like weeds all over the country, and many are now getting a bit run down and shabby looking as they are lying idle. My memories of Redbarn are of the eponymous dance hall of my teenage years - one of the original "Ballroom of Romance" halls where Ireland's young and not-so-young decamped every weekend to dance the night away in alcohol-free zones to the live Showband music of the era. All gone now, Redbarn's capacity was over 2000 punters, and sadly it burnt down (not on a dance night thankfully) in 1977. That was around the end of the Showband era, and disco became king thereafter.

We arrived in Killorglin, home of the famous goat-themed Puck Fair, around 11a.m. and stopped for coffee, and then continued on around the Ring road, passing Cahirsiveen and Valentia Island where you can get a boat to Skellig Michael, one of the ancient monastic hermitages of Ireland which is a world heritage site, and is a day trip in itself. We had lots of stops on the way and took plenty of photos, and even though I'd been round the Ring of Kerry a few times in my younger years, it was over 30 years since I'd been there and enjoyed it immensely. The day was overcast but dry, something good in Irish weather terms.

We stopped for lunch in Sneem, home of one of Ireland's Presidents, Cearbhaill Ó Dálaigh, and while I found monuments to a wrestler I'd never heard of (but the bus driver knew of him) and Charles de Gaulle (who only visited on a holiday) I didn't see any of the former President, though it's there somewhere. He should be remembered there, even though he controversially resigned after the then Minister for Defence Paddy Donegan called him a "a thundering disgrace" when he wanted to refer proposed anti-terrorist legislation to the Supreme Court to test its consititutionality.

We had a delicious lunch in a little restaurant in Sneem, the Stone House, run by an Irish woman married to a Dutchman (like me!), a serendipitous encounter. The seafood was fresh, yummy, very reasonably priced and we didn't have to wait forever. After lunch we went back to Killarney via Moll's Gap and the Black Valley, famous for being the last place in Ireland to get mains electricity in 1976. We enjoyed Lady's View lookout over the famous Lakes of Killarney, and went home via Macroom and Cork where we dropped off Shayne and Sofia. She had been a wonderful traveller, not a whimper all day as she either slept in her car seat, or enjoyed all the attention she got from everyone.

It was good to see the enthusiasm among the visitors (who all live below sea level in Holland's Polder country in Schouwen-Duiveland in Zeeland) for the nosebleed-inducing panoramas they experienced on the Ring tour. In the time-honoured tradition of the annual essays on "What I did on my Holidays" from our childhood schooldays - "we all went home tired but happy" after a memorable day in one of Ireland's premier beauty spots.

The photos show some of the day - people and scenes - and the group family photo (William is missing from this one, as he is in college doing finals)
  • Map showing Ring of Kerry/Iveragh Peninsula
  • Sofia and me in Killorglin
  • King of Puck Fair statue, Killorglin
  • Group photo of family - Dutch and Irish
  • Road sign on Ring of Kerry
  • Teenagers climbing the rocky mountain near Waterville
  • Overlooking Dingle Bay near Cahirsiveen
  • Postcard of Sneem
  • The Stone House Restaurant/B&B
  • The Black Valley
  • Lakes of Killarney

Monday, May 3, 2010

Of Barbecues and Book Clubs: Bloggers' May 2010 Review - Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

I am running late in posting this review which should have gone live about a day ago - so let me start by apologising to my fellow book club bloggers* (especially sorry Lily!)who've been checking in on Sunday May 2nd. My excuses might sound trite but they are merely that we have thirteen members of hubby's family visiting from Holland for the week as he reaches a significant birthday which we will celebrate on Thursday with a party in a local establishment of repute. There may even be a post about it if we come through it with our dignity intact!

I am enjoying being on holidays from work for the next week, and hosting our guests with all the hospitality we can muster. They are staying in a nearby town in holiday bungalows. We had a great barbecue yesterday with hubby cooking for 22 people and us all ducking and diving between the thundershowers. After the family arrived we had lunch on the patio where I had a chance to showcase my domestic goddess skills. We had freshly baked buttered scones with strawberry jam and whipped cream, which went down a treat, hot apple tart and cream, and a variety of fairy cakes, from coconut to hundreds and thousands on icing to cherry buns. Today when they called in we had simpler fare - plain madeira and cherry madeira cakes with lashings of tea (which the Dutch drink black) and real coffee (as opposed to instant). I hope I can sustain the variety for the week, in between baking the birthday cake and deciding on a decorative theme.

But I digress. First and foremost this post is supposed to be about Brooklyn - a wonderfully evocative yet bleak book that I read some months ago. I'd read the reviews back when the book came out and they were mixed - I remembered reading that it went down a treat in Ireland and America but it failed to make much impact in the UK. I think this is because the theme of emigration has a particularly Irish emotional resonance, and I think that this nuance is absent in the UK, where migration tended tobe either outward to the colonies, and inward migration was inherently self-serving. This is best portrayed with the West Indian immigrants of the Windrush who were brought in to serve the Empire in its dying days. I think Andrea Levy wrote brilliantly about that era in Small Island, and Colm Tóibín writes equally evocatively about the same era but in the Irish-American context.

Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey, who somewhat reluctantly emigrates from Wexford for Brooklyn in the 1960s, leaving her older sister Rose and mother behind. She comes across as extremely passive and lets things happen to her, imposed by those stronger than herself, or so it seems on first glance. Her position as a shop assistant, and her boarding with the ghastly Mrs. Kehoe is secured through contact with a local priest home on holidays from New York, who promises to take care of Eilis. I remember feeling distinctly uncomfortable when I read that, as from today's perspective the prospect of being beholden or under a compliment to the priest could have undertones of the abuse of power. Thankfully my fears were unfounded but the relationship with the priest seemed almost unreal and you wondered why he would go to such ends to take care of her. Perhaps it's the times we are in that we can't attribute a good deed to a member of the clergy without suspecting an ulterior motive. Maybe he was just a decent man.

Eilis's departure from home was sad and the sea crossing to New York was graphically written and spared nothing for readers of a delicate disposition in its description of its awfulness for steerage class passengers. Rose dies unexpectedly and Eilis returns to Wexford for the funeral. A dilemma develops as her brothers go to England to look for work, and she has fallen in love in New York with Tony from an Italian family with ambitions to develop a building empire - echoes of Charming Billy by Alice McDermott here - does she abandon her widowed mother to return to her Tony - is she really in love or was it an illusion? It's almost because it seems like the right thing to do at the time, to escape from the loneliness she felt so far from home in a society where she wasn't fully accepted by her peers in the boarding house or at work.

She seems to drift through life and comes across as a suppressed woman who daren't let emotions surface or they could become uncontrollable. All the women in the book were strong women who had to be in control and despite Eilis's apparent passivity it was an armour against revealing her true emotions and desires. I thought the book was written with sparse narrative but this fitted the theme of leaving a lot unsaid - as was fitting to the era when everything was concealed and true feelings were subsumed in convention dictated by church and state - two things that in Ireland were interchangeable. This was the era where the State bowed - literally - to Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and sought his approval for any and every government proposal that might impact on the privacy of the family home. The doomed Mother and Child Bill of Noel Browne encapsulated that insularity and fear of progress, and seems incredible from today's perspective.

I wrote a review of Brooklyn for Rosita Boland's inaugural Irish Times Book Club, and a snippet of it was in the Saturday Weekend supplement - much to my egotistical delight as it isn't every day I get to see my name in print in such a hallowed place - and this is what I wrote in the online review:

"It’s a great idea to have a bookclub online like this - I am in a bookclub locally which is great - we did Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship and loved it unanimously, but as we have a rule not to repeat authors (as it is so tempting to repeat favourites) Brooklyn won’t get read by our club. I just finished our local library copy. I loved the flow of the language, languid and very evocative of what I imagine life in Wexford must have been like in the 50s or 60s (I was a child in the 60s so I can vaguely relate to it) but I haven’t ever been to Brooklyn so can’t relate there.

I felt he drew a vivid picture of the life of the Irish emigrant there and the claustrophobia that prevailed in Eilís’s life at the boarding house and in her job. I don’t know if the character of Eilís was really credible and she irritated me a lot with her passivity. Her relationship with Tony seemed so doomed to failure in the long term - I would love to revisit them a decade or two down the line. Shades of Charming Billy in the beach scenes, a book we read in our book club which seriously divided opinion - does the emigrant fare better in an Irish ghetto or by integrating?

I read all of Tóibín’s books except The Master and loved them; this one was a bit too stereotypical. Glad I’m not the only one here thinking Rose and Miss Fortini might have been closet Lesbians. Won’t say more as there are enough Spoiler Alerts already in the above comments!

I look forward to the book club progression and best of luck with it - thanks Rosita for starting it up."

That's about it - you get opinions from right now and a few months ago, and I think they reflect my feelings about Brooklyn accurately enough. It's a dynamic process, responding to and reviewing a book, as every day can bring a different reaction, depending on the mood and a variety of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. That's why I try to write reviews from the heart in a stream of consciousness fashion instead of systematically, with quotes and the book beside me, and as my kids say, WYSIWYG*- a snapshot of what the book evokes in me at this moment. I hope it encourages you to read Brooklyn, as it is one that stays with you for a long time, and evokes a place I've never been to as clearly in mind pictures as if I had lived there beside Eilis. Surely an accomplishment for any author, particularly one as skillful as Colm Tóibín.

*What You See Is What You Get

PS: Over at Lily's Blog you will see links to all the other members of the Bloggers' Book Club, as she is the moderator - and I hope you will get to read all their reviews too. It's not nice to write into a void - so comments and feedback will be very welcome!

The Photos below the Brooklyn cover are to give a flavour of our Dutch weekend -
  • Me in my Dutch domestic goddess kit
  • Hubby Jan tasteful in the Dutch colours and me - BBQ time
  • Lunch on the patio - with lots of home baking
  • BBQ between the showers