Been reading Thomas Cahill's "How the Irish saved civilization" which, I am amazed to see, came out almost twenty years ago (1995). It is written with great verve and style, probably the only difficult part being a couple of pages of Plato which is a quotation and, while Cahill must take responsibility for including it, is not his own writing which sparkles and entertains. The guy in the Oxfam bookstore who served me as I paid my £2 for what was a pristine (and probably unread) copy said he had personally just ordered it online....
The subject matter was certainly not unknown in 'the land of saints and scholars' (or the modern 'land of feints and skullers'), and occasionally elsewhere, before Cahill's book; that Irish monks and learned men and women of the early Christian era in Ireland were instrumental in saving or helping save learning, and in particular both sacred and secular books, at the time of the 'dark ages' after the fall of the roaming, Roman empire. What Cahill does is set both the European and Irish scenes, provide some detail, and make it into a grand claim.
It does have some justification. But 'civilisation' needs qualified very significantly. In terms of manuscripts he is really only talking about preserving Roman ones. However the Irish missionary outreach, starting with Columbanus, brings back to Britain and the European mainland the Christianity and the varied learning which had been lost following the loss of the so-called 'pax romana', or should that be 'terror romana'. So as well as saving books they exported learning, and hundreds of scholars came to Ireland to study, and not just monks. Amazingly, Cahill gets by without once mentioning the role which Islamic scholars had in saving, and reclaiming, other ancient learning (a definite cultural blunder I would have thought). And the idea that 'civilisation' was only European and a product of the Roman empire is so culturally specific as to be simplistic, and not an area which he analyses or dissects in any detail.
Nevertheless, Thomas Cahill tells a rollicking good history story with a great anecdotal style which it would be difficult not to enjoy. It could perhaps be subtitled "How a man of Irish cultural origin wrote a book with a grand and somewhat farfetched claim about Ireland saving civilisation which nevertheless has some truth in it".
One fascinating part is where he draws a similarity between Irish characteristics in medieval and ancient times with today (page 150), quoting later-to-be-martyred (in 1581) English Jesuit Edmund Campion about the Irish: "The people are thus inclined: religious, franke, amorous, irefull, sufferable of paines infinite, very glorious, many sorcerers, excellent horsemen, delighted with warres, great almes-givers, [sur]passing in hospitalitie.....They are sharpe-witted, lovers of learning, capable of any studie whereunto they bend themselves, constant in travaile, adventurous, intractable, kinde-hearted, secret in displeasure." Something there all right even if you don't go for the full package. Sorcery? Some people seem good at it. But since Ireland has made remarkable strides in culinary departments over the last decades then perhaps saucery could be added today.
Speaking of civilisation, and Ireland, I recently watched the video 'Treasure from the Bog' (shown on RTE in 2010) concerning the Faddan More Psalter found in the eponymous bog in Co Tipp. The psalter is dated to about 800 CE/AD and, while some page remains were fragmentary, one whole page was preserved almost intact. The conservators involved in Dublin had to work it out as they went along as a vellum book (or strictly speaking codex as it wasn't bound as a book) surviving in an Irish bog was a unique find. It is now on display in the National Museum in Dublin.
But what made the find extra extra special was that not only was the leather cover in Egyptian Coptic style but the cover was lined with papyrus, previously unknown in Ireland. Was this practical evidence of links between the (Egyptian) Coptic Christian church – revered by the Irish church for its monastic tradition of the 'Desert fathers' – and Ireland? I was surprised the programme didn't mention that the 'Celtic cross' can be identical to the Coptic one, and the Copts (of whom there is a small worshipping community in Dublin) claim the Celtic cross as coming from them. But the jury is still out on whether direct links Ireland/Egypt at this time are fallacious fantasies or fantastic facts.
When my children were small, I went on an evening course on homoeopathy and also bought a couple of books on the topic. I suppose my thinking was about taking responsibility for my family's health and wanting to be able to do what I could to deal with minor ailments and have a knowledge of homoeopathic 'first aid'.
Homoeopathy is based on the principles of 'like curing like', what causes the same symptoms endured through illness being the way to cure it, this is about triggering the body's own defence systems. But it is done in such a diluted form that its presence is miniscule or even nothing of the original substance may be present. Homoeopathic 'Arsen. Alb.' – white arsenic – is thus totally safe. Interestingly, the more a substance is diluted the stronger is its healing effect reputed to be. The problem is in the diagnosis as remedies varied according to all sorts of factors including, for example, what caused a cold to develop. Finding the right remedy was difficult.
I never knew the effectiveness of my remedies. Homoeopathy depends in theory on the 'memory' of water, that a substance immersed and shaken in the water, and increasingly diluted, still retains an effect. As well as tinctures in water and alcohol, the typical homoeopathic remedy is a sucrose tablet which involved being made with the diluted water that the substance concerned. Were successes I saw due to natural healing processes unrelated to the homoeopathy or were these helped by homoeopathy? Success with tickly coughs (Calc Carb – chalk) could have been due to the sucrose tablet and not the homoeopathic remedy.
I only gave homoeopathy once 'in extremis'. I gave ground up Arnica and Carbo Veg (carbonised vegetable matter) to a man who was unconscious after nearly drowning. He recovered fast and was able to socialise that evening. He had gone swimming in a place he had been warned not to swim, got into difficulties, and was at the point of giving up when a wave or the current brought him back to shore where he collapsed (which is when I came across him being tended by a couple of colleagues). Did the homoeopathy help? Or a tiny bit of ground up sucrose? I don't know. Ironically the man in question was the head of his country's police rescue service. Fortunately he lived to be able to tell the tale.
Recent scientific research has found that homoeopathy is no more effective than a placebo (non-active ingredient given to some participants as part of 'blind' testing or otherwise). So what do I think? And would I still use it? For me it is an interesting case of having to review my position in the light of new evidence.
I don't doubt the scientific reliability of the studies in question which showed this alternative therapy as no more effective than using a placebo. I suppose I retain a creative ambiguity. If I continue to use it on occasion, am I potentially utilising a placebo effect? And can it have a placebo effect if I am very unsure of its efficacy? Ah, caught on the horns of belief and disbelief.
Would I recommend homoeopathy to others these days? Probably not. Though the homoeopathic approach, of taking a full patient (in two senses – both noun and adjective!) history I would certainly recommend – treating the 'whole person' as in the homoeopathic 'constitutional remedy' for some, particularly underlying, disorders. This is about understanding the whole person which seems to me to be pretty sensible, something a modern GP certainly has little time to do.
Given the fact that I have some knowledge of homoeopathy, and access to books on the topic, I would continue to use it on occasion, though I would be more inclined to herbalism (and homoeopathic creams, e.g. arnica for bruising – very effective, are actually herbal, not diluted). It's not that I have a particular distrust of conventional, western medicine, which I certainly use. I know this cannot do everything and has its own issues. I still look for ways of feeling some control over health issues for myself and family. The internet may be the bane of some doctors' lives but it also enables patients to ask some of the questions they might otherwise never have thought of asking; a little knowledge can be dangerous, it can also be the path to greater knowledge and understanding.
In the light of modern research into homoeopathy, it is possible, even probable, that it will decline, it's presence being, as it were, further diluted until nothing is left of it. Do I regret going to that class years ago and learning about it? No, certainly not. Do I want to continue to take some responsibility for my health and my family's health? Certainly. But I would hesitate these days to suggest to a friend an obvious homoeopathic remedy for an ailment which I might have done heretofore. Maybe like doesn't cure like, certainly in the diluted form of homoeopathy. That's the way it looks anyway.
Art of the Troubles
I dropped in for a couple of hours to The Art of the Troubles exhibition in the Ulster Museum, Belfast, which runs to 7th September. I hope to return over the summer to study a selection of the pieces in more detail – you do need a couple of hours at least to do it justice. One possibility would be to do the complete tour, go for lunch or a coffee, and come back for another while to study the pieces you are most interested in. In this piece I only refer to a selection of pieces which 'caught my eye'. There is some material online in relation to the artists involved.
There is a minimal amount of sculpture, some collage and mixed media work, and one video showing, but it is mainly painting and photography, and there are no textiles or cartoons. It was however fascinating to see a take, by Ursula Burke, on an 11th night (11th July) bonfire in parian porcelain! It makes for an amazing contrast of delicacy and tribalism. I didn't actually know that as many artists, especially ones from Britain, had dealt with Northern Ireland, so that alone made it very interesting.
What communicated best in terms of message? I think the slightly tweaked reality of two paintings of Omagh by Robert Prisema (2010) in almost photo-realistic style, 'before' and 'after' the Omagh Bomb of 1998 is a powerful evocation of the tragedy that occurred there. Or there is the surreal twist given by someone like John Kindness in his 'Monkey Town Besieged by Dogs' pictures (chalk on sandpaper, 1985) where in one the monkeys are burning a toy dog on a bonfire – the actions are Norn Iron at its 'cultural' worst but the protagonists are monkeys and dogs. Siobhán Hapaska's 'Cease firing on all fronts' is difficult to comprehend but shows a teacher writing the title on a blackboard in front of a primary school class; is it the juxtaposition of violence and vulnerability?
There are two pieces featuring 'real' doors; a burnt community centre door and prison doors. Joseph McWilliam's "Community Door", 1976, is a real firebomb damaged door from Alliance Avenue Resource Centre which he had an involvement with. Rainbow coloured steps look like they continue behind the damaged and as a result partly see-through door to become flames. It is an interesting juxtaposition of the rainbow, a symbol of hope and various other things (and not yet used at this time, 1976, as a gay symbol), and destroying fire. Rita Duff's 'Six prison doors' stood together, with delicate glass droplets hanging inside with a blood red interior, hints at all sorts of things including both violence and vulnerability.
On entering you meet first a Louis le Brocquy piece and an F E McWilliam sculpture, two of the big figures in the recent Irish art world, respectively Southern and Northern. Louis le Brocquy's 'Distant Image' (1970) is small but powerful – and you wonder, is the face fully human, it seems to embody violence and hatred. F E McWilliam's 1974 sculpture 'Woman in a bomb Blast', in contrast, shows a woman literally being blown away but you don't see her face, it is covered with material which has been blown on top of her, and you wonder – what state is her face going to be in now?
Of contemporary resonance is Graham Gingles' 1991 mixed media piece 'The Man Who Hated Flags'; the flags themselves are rusty, and you wonder whether there are deliberate images on them, and if so what they are. Of older rather than contemporary resonance (in the Troubles) is the 'Gap of Danger – An Bhearna Bhaoil' piece from 1988 by Locky Morris which is comprised of eight bin lids (used as a warning sound when banged, early in the Troubles); the rusty binlids have silhouettes of people in a line and look or feel like African tribal war shields. Paul Seawright's photos of murder scenes, or the location of dumped bodies, hint at terror and violence which cannot be fully portrayed because it is too brutal, too impossible to describe.
Sean Hillen's photomontage of the extraordinary from Northern Ireland imposed on scenes from elsewhere (London) makes a contrast of different worlds. But Anthony Haughey's photo of police and army on patrol near Drumcree. Portadown in 2006 is a relaxed one – yes, there are guns, but there seems no prospect of immediate violence. Jack Pakenham's 'Peace Talks 1992' shows grotesque scenes surrounding talking at a table where one party holds a knife; how is 'peace' going to be arrived at in this situation?
Some portray 'ordinary' life during the Troubles. Brendan Ellis' "Year in Black Taxis January-December 1989' shows portraits of groups of people in the back of black taxis; just human beings of different kinds travelling. Rita Duffy's distinctive style in 'Security Barrier', 1983, shows more ordinary human beings frisking, or being frisked, at the security barrier near Belfast City Hall – an ordinary scene of human life in the Troubles but carvings on the City Hall itself show violence and upset. Gerry Gleason's 'Birdcage' asks whether you should feel protected or imprisoned by 'security'. I didn't really get Marie Barett's "Bishop and the F-11's', 1983 where the description indicates a global implication of the Troubles and things in Northern Ireland.
A previously 'censored' piece by Conrad Atkinson, 'Silver liberties, a souvenir of a wonderful year', 1978, was removed from the Museum that year when part of a travelling exhibition, at the instigation of some staff and trustees. It includes the colours of the Irish tricolour in the background to the pieces, and shows the Bloody Sunday victims as well as other scenes of violence.
The exhibition is overall an impressive range of Troubles-related material communicating many different things. I could speak about more though some that I haven't mentioned here didn't communicate much to me. As the Troubles recede, but the fact of division in Northern Ireland does not, material like this is especially important for communicating what it was like. It was like many things, and there were many different experiences.
What would I like to see exhibited next? I think cartoons of the Troubles which would draw in and communicate, from 'Bill and Ben, the IRA men' in UDA cartoons, through Cormac's pro-republican drawings, British army cartoonists, and on to a ton of prejudice and condescension, and on occasions considerable insight, exhibited in regular newspaper and magazine cartoons both in Ireland and around the world.
V & V (4): In the fast lane
Continuing our look at veggie and vegan food, I thought a look might be good at what is 'quick', 'fast' food at home. Some people complain that vegetarian cookery is slow but the reality is any recipe that you're not familiar with can be very slow, and if you're doing a Denis Cotter (Cafe Paradiso) recipe which as just part of it demands a couple of spoonfuls of Chermoula olive oil seasoning which itself takes half an hour to make, well, then it is bound to be slow (but probably wonderful). So, what can you whip up fast that is nutritious and delicious?
Pasta, spaghetti or noodles can be very fast but it's what you do along with them is crucial. I used to make my own pesto but the audience (family) reaction was no different to buying it so I save the time, and indeed money, in making my own and buy it. But then I try to add different things to it – diced fried tofu, olives (stoned, i.e. stones removed), dried tomatoes (reconstituted), frozen peas (heated), fried onion, tinned corn, diced paneer, whatever. You can make a herb or cheese sauce quite quickly. Or a speedy dhal, like I was talking about the last time – split peas that have been soaked take only a few minutes in a pressure cooker. Even cheesy noodles have their place (grated cheese in cooked noodles). My 'Friday special' (not every Friday) is a simple dhal with noodles and a stir fry.
You can make 'instant' pizzas with naan bread. I would tend to sauté the onions and other ingredients (pepper, mushrooms) apart from tomatoes which I would only add before you grill the naan. Tomato puree optional on the base. If you use cheese you grate that on, if vegan you could use a yeast extract (dry flakes like Engevita) for added flavour and nutrition.
Salads, particularly in the summer, can be a main course. Again you're going to have to think what to put in them to make it interesting beyond your rocket or lettuce or whatever base you are using. Plenty of herbs and different mixtures work well, and a variety of oils and vinegars or Ume plum seasoning (this is quite salty but handy in that it doesn't make salad greens wilt like vinegar). You can also add toasted sunflower seeds, or croutons (small pieces of fried bread, I flavour them with curry and a very small amount of salt) for crunch, and diced fried tofu or feta cheese for protein. A great sauce for a salad, not fast but it can be done beforehand, is to dry fry or grill an aubergine until it is cooked inside – you do it whole – and then liquidise the insides and add a bit of black pepper and some mayonnaise, just a little, and stir together well. You could do a nutritious green salad and a potato salad (again with leftover potatoes) and you've a meal.
A well developed spice and dried herb drawer – as well as a fresh herb garden which can be in a couple of tubs in a back yard – can add wonders, and the fresh herbs save you a packet. What herbs would I recommend? Well, we have a few varieties of chives, including garlic chives, Welsh onions which are great (stems like big scallions but you leave the bulb to sprout more), sage, rosemary, a couple of different thymes, fennel, lovage, tarragon, mint and parsley (lots!). I don't grow coriander because in our garden it always goes to seed before getting useable. Basil I grow indoors because the slugs like it as much as us. Sometimes I might only use one herb in a salad or dish, sometimes several. I may deal with spices another time but experimentation is the name of the game, and tasting as you go.
The secret to a speedy nutritious meal can be in what you have 'leftover' in the fridge. 'Leftover' should be a misnomer because you can plan, for example, to cook twice as much rice as you need for a meal so that you have cooked rice to steam or turn into a risotto in a couple of days time. I use brown basmati – brown because it's much more nutritious than white, and basmati because I find it holds itself together better than other rice if you add too much water (in a pressure cooker) or overcook it. A risotto can have anything in it, I would even add diced banana if my family would let me (they don't), or raisins/sultanas. But I would always start with onions or leeks. Leftover potato diced into small pieces can be good. But if I'm doing a bean dish I would usually do twice as much as I need for one meal and either freeze the rest or keep it in the fridge for a few days – but use it with a different combination of other foods the second time.
A million and one things can be done with eggs, if you eat them. You can put a poached or fried egg on your instant naan pizza. You can hard-boil them and throw them in a curry sauce, or, and this is old fashioned, dice cold hardboiled eggs in a salad. Scrambled egg with some interesting herbs in it can be delicious. Quiches and flans, with a pastry base and vegetables in egg-and-whatever, can be fast if you are speedy at making pastry; if you're keeping some to eat cold or reheat, try not to overcook it or it may go very dry.
It may not be soup weather at the moment but a good thick soup made with leftovers, and some nice bread, can also be a meal in itself. When does a stew turn into a soup? There may not be too much distinction. If you have leftover dhal then you have the base of a great soup; sauté onions and whatever veg you want, add the leftover dhal and herbs and flavourings, and liquidise or not according to your taste.
So, some days a meal may take an hour or more to prepare, on others it should be doable in half an hour, as with most of the suggestions above. But as with all cooking just consider the nutritional balance so you are getting the protein and other things you need......and if you're a veggie of any kind and you're not getting enough vegetables then there has to be something wrong!
Best country in the world
So what did you make of 'the best country in the world' appellation for Ireland which came during June in the "Good Country Index" which ranks countries according to their overall contribution to humanity using 35 separate indicators across seven categories. These indicators are from the United Nations, the World Bank and other international institutions. Fascinating but a bit OTT is what I thought and I'll tell you why.
Given that Ireland has been slow to act on global warming and building sustainable, non-polluting power sources, and climate change is the biggest threat to the world today – certainly only one among many but by far the largest – I wonder how it could come top in overall contribution to the world. Of course it depends on the weighting. Ireland came 45th in the 'Planet and Climate' category but as there are seven categories overall it did rather better there, and each of these categories was given equal weighting. Whereas I would argue that its planetary collision-course should drag it right down. I'm not quite sure how Ireland managed to come first in the 'Prosperity and Equality' section – the country is banjaxed by the banks with huge cuts in services to needy and vulnerable people, and equality in terms of income is nothing to write home about. Then there are issues to do with Ireland's tax status for multinationals which harms the global South (see news item from DDCI this issue - Ed).
Again, I am not sure why Ireland came 33rd in the 'International peace and security' category - is it judged to be doing things right, wrong or both? But given that the country that came first in this was Egypt, a military dominated and hugely repressive country which is busy condemning hundreds of people to death in mass trials ,and imprisoning journalists, I think that being well down the list might actually be good! In fact this first place for Egypt brings a massive question mark about the whole exercise, even if the top marks are for lack of external military involvement rather than anything internal. There is also the issue to be considered of Ireland giving the USA carte blanche to use Shannon airport – Irish neutrality flushed down the Shannon river.
Or maybe in Ireland we are just the best at blagging and blarney.
- - - -
So, on to the holliers, I hope you get a good break over the summer to recharge the batteries. Most years I quote the immortal words of Christy Moore, in 'Lisdoonvarna', where in two lines he gives what is arguably the finest definition of holidays:
"When summer comes around each year,
They come here and we go there."
Whatever, the summer disappears mighty fast, so it will only be a hop, skip and a jump before I'm with you again in September. Until then, enjoy yourself, and I hope the batteries get a good recharging and the sun shines on you, Billy.
is Billy King? A long, long time ago, in a more
innocent age (just talking about myself you understand),
there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train'
and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor
has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write
a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able
to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor
around with you).
Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman
pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little
about horses even if someone with a similar name is
found astride them on gable ends around certain parts
of Norn Iron).