irish calf

Spring in the Irish countryside

One of the spring lambs

One of the spring lambs

Spring is here and this means lambs, calves, daffodils – and lots of ground to dig up in preparation for planting our vegetables. This is a wonderful time of year in the Irish countryside if you don’t mind a bit of hard work and gardening in the rain (or the hailstone, as I discovered last week).

My husband and I have tried planting as much as half an acre of vegetables in the past, all grown organically and managed by hand, but the amount of work involved was incredible and the crops return very little. With so much to look after, it’s really difficult to keep on top of the slugs, rooks, and rabbits, and so this year, we’re sticking with a few drills of potatoes and several raised beds – some in a field and one in the front garden – along with the tunnel.

rural irish garden

Shallots for planting

It’s still early, but so far we’ve got two decent drills of early potatoes sat, and this weekend we planted a bed of shallots. Next week, I’ll be able to plant some of the hardier seeds in the tunnel; lettuce, chillis, and purple beans to start, as well as various pak choi seeds I bought in Thailand.

I’ll wait a little longer for the herbs as they need lots of sun and I’m not convinced there’s enough just yet for them to grow properly. Our greenhouse (‘tunnel’) is built against a shed, so it doesn’t have 100% light – and this, we’ve discovered, means we have to amend the usual planting times for better results.

It’s such a lovely feeling having stuff planted – I love everything about it; the digging, manuring, watching things grow, planting out, weeding – and of course, eating! It’s a great way to get away from the computer, and let your head unwind. And every year, you learn something new.

Growing your own food is just wonderful and I can’t recommend it highly enough. You don’t even need to have a big space available – I’ve helped quite a few people grow their own veg in tiny spaces, including window boxes – so if it’s something you’re interested in but don’t know where to start, just shout!

You can also feel the stretch in the evenings now, which is a real treat when there are no streetlights nearby. This week, we’ve seen flowers burst open, a few pheasants, wild ducks and the first few ladybirds; the sun has been shining and the sea has been the most stunning turquoise imaginable. It all feels loaded with so much promise, it makes you glad to be alive.

Who else has that Spring feeling?

What does Spring mean to you?

irish calf

A young calf, just days old

 

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Brain splurge & a burning question…

It’s been quiet on the blogging front because it’s been hectic – so apologies to all.

Schull, West Cork

View from near my home

It ended up easier than I expected to adjust to the cold weather in Ireland after my Cambodia trip; partly because my husband is a great hunter gatherer and has us stockpiled with fuel for this winter and next, but also because – despite the constant hail stone – there have been plenty of blue skies. And everything feels easier when there’s a blue sky.

So, what have I been up to? Actually, quite a bit. In the last two weeks, I’ve completed and delivered the final edits of The Book of Learning (Nine Lives Trilogy Book 1), so next time I see it, it’ll be a proof copy (which means it’s almost a real book).

There’s been plenty of excitement while my cover was being designed – and bang! Now I have a cover! I absolutely love everything about it, and I’ll let you see it as soon as I can, I promise.

I’ve also been accepted on a three-week writers retreat in France later in the year, invited to participate in an exciting new Cork publication (more details to follow) and invited to speak on a panel in Cork on April 25th (again, more info later).

And, breathe…

When it comes to writing books, there’s no rest for the wicked. When you get signed up for a trilogy, there’s lots of work involved in kicking the first book into shape and then…you have to write Book 2! Aargh! Well, I’m happy to report, the day after Book 1 was delivered, I had a rest, then I glued my butt to the chair and started on Book 2.

Three days in and 8000 words have magically appeared on the page – and I’m delighted, because I was starting to get a little scared.

I always write my first drafts completely free form (I think Niamh Boyce uses this approach too, amongst others). Any planning kills the excitement for me and anyway, it’s the only time you get to play before the editing begins. I enjoy editing, but I like the freedom of the first draft. It’s exhilarating and I look forward to the exploration, watching the ideas form a story.

As everyone knows, writing doesn’t pay the bills, so the work front – I don’t include writing as work – has been hectic too. As well as my usual freelancing gigs, I’ve taken on more Reader Reports for the Inkwell Group, as well as Blogging and Beyond courses. I love both of these roles.

Editing or commenting on someone else’s work is useful for your own; it helps you to focus as you write, naturally avoiding mistakes you would make earlier in your career. And as we all need the support of other writers as we stumble our way along, it’s great to know you’re also helping by providing some support in return.

It’s also rewarding to watch people pick up on social media learn to love it, and then make it work for them. Blogging has opened many doors for me, and I hope it does the same for my students.

green fingered writer

The obligatory dog photo

But you’ll be pleased to know, it hasn’t all been work. We’ve managed to get our potatoes in the ground now – the ridges were waiting for ages but it was too wet – and I’ve been clearing other vegetable beds. In the hailstone. Which was pretty refreshing, actually.

There have been endless dog walks and library visits, and I’ve been watching a plethora of westerns (I love westerns) as well as enjoying some fantastic reads/rereads…

I was completely surprised by The Miniaturist and I’ve loved reconnecting with The General in the Piers Torday trilogy. And if, like me (and Barbara Scully, it seems) you’re obsessed with Antarctica, I’d highly recommend Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis.

The online world has been lots of fun lately too, with an incredible buzz and energy around the #YAie & MiddleGradeStrikeBack chats on twitter. There’s a thriving community of writers for children and Young Adults here, and it feels like there’s change – and plenty of excitement – in the air. I feel so pleased to be a part of it, and can’t wait to see how things develop. The World Book Day TeenFest tonight looks interesting – see you there?

And so, now I’ve finally managed to get the blog updated with a brain splurge of drivel that won’t matter to anyone but me, I’d better get back to it.

But I’ll leave you with my burning question…

Hands up, who loves westerns? 🙂

To be happy, look up!

West Cork sunsets, ireland

Glorious West Cork sunset taken from our front door

While walking around the local village, I’ve noticed a huge amount of people looking to the ground as they’re walking.

I’m not sure whether it’s shyness, sadness, confidence or an overloaded mind, but seeing as we live in such an idyllic spot, it’s certainly made me think. Why are people looking down instead of up? Is it a habit, an unconscious act or a lifestyle choice?

If people are always looking down, thinking inwardly, is it impacting their life in a negative way?

(Take a look at the photos on this page to see what people have been missing – they’re all natural, no filters).

Irish sunsets, West Cork

Another intriguing cloudscape

Another thing I’ve noticed is that people regularly walk while texting/tweeting/playing games on their mobile phone. Although we all multi task and have other concerns on our mind, I wonder – is this really necessary?

As you all know, I love the outdoors and spend plenty of time gardening, walking, running and cycling (with rowing recently added to the list). Part of the reason I moved to this gorgeous part of the world was to enjoy the beauty nature has to offer. And I honestly believe that part of the reason I’m so happy is because I connect with nature throughout the day, every day.

Irish sunsets, Irish skies

Moody, but such incredible beauty

Remember that feeling of joy as a kid when jumping in puddles, playing in mud, building sandcastles, picking wild flowers or collecting skeleton leaves?

Even living in an inner city suburb or council estate (like I did), these things were attractive, sought out and enjoyed.

If you find yourself asking the question, where did those days go? – guess what? They’re still here. That feeling doesn’t have to change. Go play!

And no matter how busy you are or how heavy your heart, please remember – to be happy, look up.

Farewell to summer…

As I watch the trees turn into glorious shades of amber, burgundy and golden brown, with a warm, glowing sun – I can’t help but feel that all is forgiven re the terrible summer (think gales, flash floods and frost).

So, to say farewell, here’s a few photo’s of the final few months of ‘summer’ in lovely West Cork.

A gentle summer breeze…

Our field turned into a pond (August, 30 minutes of rain)

Road turned into a river

Eels swimming up the road!

Driving rain (hence the floods)

Poor Bob insisted on her walk (hot bath followed)

All’s not lost: runner beans, leeks & sprouts doing well

Garlic crop: small but pungent

Meet Ozzy and Freckles – two very wild additions

How did your summer compare?

Festivals, Stations and Jellyfish Swarms

Mackerel skies and horses tails

Moor your boats and lower your sails

These portent-filled skies haven’t been a problem but the mist has, so the boat has been firmly tethered to the pier for the most of June/July. We’ve had a few fishing trips but the shrimp pots are still waiting to be shot and the mackerel has been as scarce as the sea jaunts. However, jellyfish are in abundance, filling the lobster pots and driving the locals mad with their promise of a warm summer that hasn’t yet arrived.

Jellyfish on the shore

On one of our sailing trips it looked like the surface of the sea was bubbling in the distance; on closer inspection, it was a vast swarm of white and purple common jellyfish. In thick layers, they filled a chunk of sea (about 20 square metres) right down to the sea bed – something I’ve only ever seen once during a lagoon visit in Montego Bay many years ago.

As for the mist, it’s slowed the vegetables right down and has left a depressing air over the land. It’s amazing how much you feel the weather here. In a city, you can still go to an art gallery or the cinema, and you can cut through or alongside buildings which offer some shelter from the elements. Here, you’re constantly open to nature’s whims. It’s wellies and woolly hats one minute, sunscreen and caps the next.

A friend of mine has decamped to the village from Dublin for a few months and is amazed at how differently the weather affects her day – and she’s right in the main street. We’re only two miles out but planning is almost impossible; if the weather is fine, you need to get out and tend to the crops or go fishing while you can. It makes life very unpredictable, unsettling at times. And winter when it’s meant to be summer leaves a bizarre taste all round.

Luckily, I decided to take a break from novel writing this month, donating some TLC to my garden and (theoretically) myself. As the cuckoo moved her morning song to 5am, I tried lowering my sails, filling the month with festival cheer and short term projects.

Perfect spot for a live writing event!

At the beginning of June I was at Writers’ Week in Listowel, shaking hands with Michael D. Higgins and chatting to the likes of Patrick deWitt and Germaine Greer. At the end of June, I was writing live stories with two other writers in Kent train station as part of the Midsummer Festival in Cork City. Somewhere in between I was weeding, pruning, side shooting, plant feeding and earthing up drills in an attempt to keep blight away and growth encouraged.

Working on the Ciudades Paralelas installation called Station meant trips to the city every weekend for rehearsals and then two further weekends of performances – a pleasant change during the muddle that is an unpredictable rural summer.

This area is usually known for better weather, but last year’s summer was non existent and this summer is seemingly following suit. Not that I’m complaining. Since visiting my father as a young girl and helping with his garden, living like this is all I’ve ever wanted to do. The visits were during school holidays and nothing extraordinary, but coming from Middlesbrough, an industrial town, they were a slice of heaven in my adolescent life.

I feel lucky every day to live in my own version of paradise, but feeling restless without a big project to grapple, I was pleased to get the chance to be away. They say a change is as good as a rest, but in truth, it’s been tiring. Since February, I’ve stayed in either Galway, Cork, Kerry or Dublin (a day’s travel in most cases) a total of 11 times for work and writing related events. And I’ve somehow written a new book in between as well.

Big (but still green) tomatoes

People think you take it easy when you live in the countryside but I’m finding the opposite to be true. It’s not the stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily do in a city that makes you busier (e.g. chopping firewood, fixing ditches, finding lost cattle, helping elderly bachelors with their farms), it’s the everyday basics. You have to work harder to socialise, to establish yourself in the community, to find work and then maintain a work/life balance.

It was difficult to let go of the novel-writing for the month and in many ways it was more stressful trying to do less. But I guess this is just conditioning. I’ve realised it takes longer than we think to allow ourselves to just be. I’m slowly getting better but I’ve a long way to go.

As we head further into July, the cuckoo has spread her wings and migrated to Africa. Like her, I’m ready to get going again. The sails need to be hoisted so I can focus on my next big project: editing two books simultaneously. I hope the sun arrives, bringing with it an abundant crop and a much-needed surge of energy. And a few mackerel (of the fish, not cloud variety) would be nice!

(Please note, this is a cross post with Krank.ie: an Irish news and current events magazine website.)

June in photos

Waiting for the tomatoes to ripen

Rain helps flowers bloom

Writers’ Week wore out my shoes!

Cutting grass for silage

Sea mist covers the land

Tiny runner bean, just growing

Crawford Gallery reading room (Cork)

Cow in mud after excess rain

Listowel – home of Writers’ Week

Skeleton of a 1940’s fishing boat

Shipwrecks, Beans and Bike-Powered Cinemas

April showers bring forth May flowers,
A wet and windy May fills the barns with corn and hay…

Our punt afloat at the pier

May was a crazy-busy month. We launched our punt (only two trips out and six pollock caught so far; it’s too early for mackerel) and planted out more vegetables. Then there was the local short film festival; Ireland’s only film festival in a village with no cinema. Think bike-powered films, talks with Mike Leigh in the church hall and a visit from the Mexican ambassador and you’ve got an idea of the hotch-potch that you come to expect from rural living. Not forgetting the writerly side, I also managed to complete a new Young Adult book for my agent to read and got long/shortlisted in a few competitions (you can read one of my flash fiction pieces here).

As the local saying above foretold, the plentiful showers of April did bring plenty of May flowers; we got our first lily, our new heather burst into purple blooms and our tomatoes and beans are thriving. We’re particularly delighted with the latter because last year, our tomatoes suffered from blight and so we didn’t get any fruit at all. Tomatoes aren’t too much work; they need feeding every three days (we’re using rose feed thanks to the good advice of the local garden centre) and the side shoots need to be removed regularly to keep the head flowering. You have to make sure they’re not over or under watered and then there’s the tickling (it helps pollinate them apparently). As you can imagine, it’s heartbreaking to spend months tending to crops, only to watch them all fail. Thankfully, everything is going smoothly so far.

Tomato flowers in the tunnel

Spending so much time in the garden (the weeding alone takes at least an hour a day), I’m amazed to learn how resilient plants actually are. The beans, cabbages, potatoes, beetroot, sprouts, leeks and onions have exploded, despite the lack of sun and continuing winds. The infamous heatwave forgot to reach us; when my Twitter feed was jammed with talk of ice creams and tans, I was struggling to see more than five metres ahead of me while launching a boat. But crops that I thought had died have sprung back into life; and somehow, this makes me feel renewed. I guess I’m experiencing what Mary Carbery described in her 19th century diary:

Isolation means a deeper love and sense not of possession, but of being a part of something essential.” (Jeremy Sandford, Mary Carbery’s West Cork Journal 1898-1901)

Although I’m not living as remotely as many, between the garden, the sea and writing, I’m living a rather isolated life. In fact, weeks can go by where the only other person I see is my husband. Although it’s an amazing way of living, watching nature, being so immersed in it, has also proved frustrating in many ways. Mainly because it shows up your own inadequacies. My biggest inadequacy is time related.

It’s not that I’m bad at managing time; if anything, I’m too good at it. You know that phrase: if you want something doing ask a busy person? Well, that’s me. I fit a ridiculous amount into every day. Which is great for achieving but I’ve discovered it’s not good for the soul. It’s tiring, and often things don’t work out how they’re meant to.

The boat launch highlights my point perfectly. My idea of launching a boat would be: figure out what’s needed, who’s needed, pick a date and time. Total time taken: an hour, max.

Out on the open sea

How it really works is: look out of window, hum and hah about weather conditions, have a cup of tea. Work out the tide times, wander down to the pier to take a look, hum and hah about being right, then back for a cup of tea. When the tide is coming in, return to the pier and sit. Hopefully someone will arrive. As people arrive haphazardly (“Joe might be over in half an hour; let’s wait and see…”), sit and chat about getting the boat in the water. Total time taken: whole day. Time taken to actually launch boat: fifteen minutes.

It’s certainly a lesson in patience, but one I need to learn. If we’d had it my way, launching the boat would have been just another tick off the day’s to-do list. But with my husband taking charge (well, muddling us through), it was an enjoyable experience which included a bit of banter, plenty of laughs and a more relaxed state of mind. Which, as a writer, is very difficult to achieve.

Wherever I go, whatever I do, whomever I talk to, my brain is constantly sourcing information which could trigger a new story idea/character/title/novel. Even when I don’t want it to. Especially when I don’t want it to! The moulding, editing, and shaping takes up so much time, the ideas/inspiration part infiltrates every other minute of my day. Frankly, it’s exhausting. Gardening, fishing boating – which all have a strong sense of belonging and purpose – help me to switch off, but I wonder…is it the same for all creative fields? How do other creative people cope?

In my first post for Krank.ie, I talked about the cuckoo. Well, she’s here: I heard her for the first time in the middle of the month and she hasn’t stopped singing yet. This morning, she was warbling away on the wire above our home. Maybe it’s the excitement of the shipwreck that was found off the coast of Schull, just metres from where we live?

A sunken ship may not seem like a big deal, but being coastal, piracy is ingrained in the local history. Most locals can name the majority of the nearby shipwrecks. People from Long Island used to wave lanterns to confuse passing ships, luring them onto the rocks to loot the ship. There are numerous legends about buried treasure beneath local land. So, of course, another find is a great cause for excitement. The bounty that’s been recovered so far consists of a crate of coconuts from the 1600s and there’s a temporary pause in operations due to lack of funding. But that hasn’t stopped people’s curiosity. Isn’t that wonderful?

Lettuce grown from seed

I love the fact that when something happens in a small community, everyone talks about it. In a city, you can often miss what’s going on right under your nose. When people talk in a rural setting, you not only hear the facts, you also hear the legends growing. Each version of the story alters a little and the ideas flourish. I mean that as fact, not a slight. It’s a beautiful part of the ingrained storytelling that still exists across Ireland. I feel so lucky to be here when something like this has happened; you feel almost transported back to the times of oral tradition.

As I’ve said before, rural living is not for everyone. But in a time of such uncertainty and economic distress, there’s worse things you could do than spend time amongst trees, vegetables and the sea to balance perspectives. For me, May has been a month of growing in so many ways. As for the corn and hay, we’ll have to wait and see. You can’t hurry nature.

(Note: This post was originally written for and published by Krank.ie – an excellent Irish news and current events magazine website. Take a peek at krank.ie here!)