Sunday, 10 September 2017

Rex

The old farmer down the lane got a new dog and wanted rid of his old dog, Rex. He told us that Rex was ‘no bloody good’ and he was going to shoot him. We said that Rex was a fine, friendly dog. The old farmer insisted Rex was ‘no bloody good’, but said he would give him to us if we wanted him. We thought for a while. Now Rex the farm dog is our dog.

The old farmer kept Rex chained up for most of the day. Sometimes Rex would be loose and would often walk with us when we went down to the bottom of the lane and back. Sometimes he would come all the way up to our house and then stay around in our garden until dusk, when I would walk him back to the farm.

Rex always seemed hungry. We made a point of giving him food whenever we could because we thought that the old farmer wasn’t feeding him properly. This situation got worse when the new dog arrived. Rex was displaced from his spot in the yard and shut away somewhere each evening. He seemed hungrier and thinner; the new dog was being given most of the food.

We bought Rex a large wooden kennel and put it under the bay window at the front of the house. We were told that we would have to keep him chained up for a while before he got used to his new surroundings. I got a long chain, twenty five feet, which was tethered beside the kennel. He could run onto the lawn and go as far as the front door.

The first night Rex refused to go into the kennel and slept on the doormat inside the front porch. He howled during the small hours. The next day I tried to coax him into the kennel with food, but he still refused to enter it. That night he again slept on the doormat and howled. The next morning T stroked him and sang, ‘How much is that Doggie in the Window?’ for him. He enjoyed it.

I quizzed several local dog owners about why he wouldn’t go into the kennel. The first said that he was bound to go in, just give him time. The other said perhaps he was scared of it because he had been locked up in a small dark space. This seemed most likely, and probably happened after he was displaced by the new dog at the farm.

The third night he again slept on the doormat but didn’t howl. Rex seems to have rapidly got used to us and his new home. He is only 18 months old and seems eager to learn. We take him on walks on a lead as, whilst at the farm, he developed a bad habit of chasing cars. When a car comes by we make him sit and when he tries to leap up and chase it we say firmly no and push him back down to sitting. After the car has gone and he remains sitting we give him a treat.

Yesterday, I let him off the chain and he happily ran around our large garden and didn’t try to run back to the farm. He went into our neighbour’s garden, but came back when called. I patted him on the head enthusiastically. His head was wet and sticky. He had been rolling in fox shit. Ah, the joys of dog ownership.


Sunday, 3 September 2017

Revisiting Donegal

To mark the end of summer we headed to Dunfanaghy for a short break. T was keen to revisit places where she had holidayed as a child. And my first holiday after moving to NI nineteen years ago had been a cycle-tour of Donegal. The weather forecast was for rain, but we struck it lucky. On each day of our trip the sun shone brightly, the sea sparkled and the hills gleamed. Whilst there was the occasional rain shower too, they soon passed and the sunshine was restored.

We stayed at The Mill in Dunfanaghy, an award-winning restaurant with well appointed rooms. It was formerly a flax mill and then the home and studio of Frank Eggington, who painted acclaimed watercolours of Donegal. The Mill is run by the grand-daughter of the artist and her husband is the head chef. Paintings line the walls throughout, many by Frank Eggington himself, alongside collections of oriental pottery. Our room looked out over a reed-lined lake towards Muckish.

Building on a succession of awards for its food and hospitality, The Mill won the prize of best restaurant in Ulster this year. It offers a six-course menu. You relax in armchairs in the lounge and make your selections, appetite whetted by home-smoked olives and a small glass of gazpacho. For my starter I had goat from Horn Head on a bed of finely chopped bacon and potatoes. After a sorbet, my main was local lamb, served three different ways: a chop, a steak and a croquette, garnished with samphire and kale. My dessert was lemon tart with lime sorbet coated with meringue. Afterwards we struggled back to the lounge for coffee and petit-fours. And after a sound sleep we went  down to an indulgent breakfast, with home-made carragheen, preserves, stewed fruits and breads, followed by the best fry I have ever tasted, with organic meats, duck eggs and home-made potato bread.

No wonder The Mill has won so many awards, every course of each meal was extremely well prepared and presented. After such luxurious repasts we needed to be active. On the first day we went to Ards Friary and walked around the coast and into the Forest Park. It is a very unspoilt peninsula: just sea, sandy beaches, rocky outcrops and trees. Across Sheephaven Bay you could see the long strand of Tramore and the developments around Downings.

On the second day I went cycling, as T searched for the old haunts from her childhood. She drove me to Creeslough and I cycled to Carrigart then across the new bridge onto the Fanad and around the coast to Fanad Head. As I arrived a rainstorm began, just as it had nineteen years before, and I ended up sheltering under the same trees. After half an hour it cleared. I then returned via Milford and around Mulroy Bay back to Creeslough. I had forgotten how hilly the roads of Donegal are. I had climbed to the top of Slieve Donard in the 52 miles I covered. By the end I was so tired that I had to rest on the bed before I was able to summon the energy to go down for the evening meal.

On the third day we went sightseeing. T delightedly showed me the places she had visited the day before. We drove and walked around Horn Head, got fantastic views out to Tory Island, climbed to the battlements of Doe Castle, had lunch in McNutt’s Cafe at Downings and went walking on Tramore Strand. After we did the Atlantic Drive and then went over the new bridge to Fanad, ending up at the lighthouse. As the sun began to slide down towards the shining sea we had to set off for our return journey. We had packed plenty into our break and we were pretty tired. But it was good to know that all these riches were only three and a half hours drive from our house. And the past was not such a far country.



Monday, 28 August 2017

Tour of Meath

This sounds like a cycle race. But it was a tour that T and I just did by car. We were exploring ancient sites chosen by Peter Harbison, the former head of the National Museum of Ireland. I was given a copy of his guide book ‘Monuments of Ireland’ as a going away present from my job in England when I left to join Queen’s. The book was given to me by Des, a young colleague from Mayo, and it has been by far the best and most used present I received.

That was in December 1997, during those almost twenty years I have travelled through every county of this island by bicycle searching out the ancient sites he picked out as the most interesting. It has been a process of exploration as many of these ancient sites are difficult to find. They are often in fields surrounded by cattle, behind new bungalows and rarely signposted. You need a good OS map to find most of the sites in the guide and even then some still remained undiscovered.

The Irish approach to antiquity appears to be benign neglect. The ruins are usually left alone and rarely exploited by the heritage industry. I am all for this. I can’t stand interpretative centres with their mock ups and models, as you often get in England, I want to experience the real thing.

We started in Ardee. This is the only town I know with three castles on the main street. They are tower houses. The sort that you got a government grant to help build in medieval times. You find these throughout the Pale. Then we went on to Cruicetown, which was a settlement built by the de Crys family around 1200. They were Normans. All that remains is a ruined church in the middle of a field of cattle with later family tombs in it. We picnicked there using a large flat tomb as a table. Interestingly, over centuries the spelling of the family name changes to Cruise. So is this quiet site now in danger of being overrun by Scientologists and film fans?

The next stop was Kells, which had a large monastery founded by monks from Iona who were fleeing the Vikings. The Book of Kells was said to have been written there in the 9th Century. But the monastery was raided repeatedly by the Vikings and the Irish and burnt and the Book stolen. All that remains of this is a large round tower and four high crosses, most of which are in a dilapidated state.

Travelling back in time, we went on to the Hill of Ward. This is a splendid isolated hill with earthworks. It was said to have been founded by Lug and dedicated to the sacred fire. For thousands of years there were gatherings here to celebrate the passing of autumn and the beginning of winter. In ancient times, all the men of Ireland were called to take part. This was the feast of Samhain, which has been sort of transposed into Halloween. From the top of the hill you can clearly see Slieve Gullion and the Wicklow mountains.

We spent a good while at Trim, the town with the greatest concentration of ancient sites in Meath. It has the largest and best preserved Norman castle in Ireland, which featured in Braveheart (this Australian-Scottish epic was all filmed in Ireland)). Along a lovely riverside path beside the Boyne is a huge 12th century monastic settlement, as well as remnants of a 14th century abbey, town walls and tower.

Then we followed the Boyne up to Bective Abbey, a well preserved Cistercian monastery with a fine cloister. We ended up at Duleek at the remains of an Augustinian priory, where the youth of the town were hanging out, smoking dope and having pizza delivered. They sat on a large flat tombstone and ate their repast. We repaired to the restaurant next door, which happened to be in an old church. It had been a grand day out that had ranged over many centuries, a salutary lesson in learning from the past and living for today.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

FODMAP

I’ve begun a diet. I’m not trying to lose weight but to improve my digestion. Over the past year in particular I’ve been getting symptoms of bloating, cramping, wind and diarrhoea. I don’t have these uncomfortable symptoms all of the time, they seem to flare up intermittently and unpredictably. T, who had previously suffered from IBS, did some research into my problems and came up with the FODMAP diet. I’ve tried it for a week and there has been a marked improvement.

The diet originates from research done at Monash University in Australia. They looked at the chemical structures of food and its absorption through the digestive system. They found that some foods were very poorly absorbed and the residues of these foods became fermented by the bacteria present in your gut, producing the bad symptoms. They then classified different foods by how absorbable they were. The FODMAP diet has been tried and tested over the past decade and is now recommended by the NHS.

For the past week I’ve been eating only foods that are relatively easily absorbable and doing my best to avoid those that are not. The FODMAP chart is quite odd. The badly absorbed vegetables include onion and garlic (two foods that I already instinctively avoided) but also peas, mushrooms and cauliflower. The easily absorbed fruit includes bananas and grapes but not raisins and sultanas as their chemical structure is changed by the drying process. You have to keep checking the list. I keep a copy in my pocket

I reckon that my flare-ups could easily have been associated with eating foods from the poorly absorbed list. It’s particularly difficult where processed foods are concerned as you have to scan a long list of ingredients. Indeed many of the sweeteners used in low-calorie foods and drinks are on the avoid list. The research also suggested that having bowel surgery (which I had a year ago) was likely to increase the irritability of your bowel.

The recommendation is that you eat only foods that are easily absorbable for at least four weeks to see if your symptoms improve. After that you can try and reintroduce foods from the poorly absorbed list as some people can tolerate some of these, but you should only do this one food at a time.

I’ve found that my symptoms have improved after only one week. Yesterday I went for a long bike ride. Previously all my long bike rides had left me with bloating and cramps in the latter stages. I changed my Kit-Kats and Snickers for nut and cereal bars and ate only dark chocolate. I also took some cheese and oatcakes. I kept the bananas. I was delighted that I managed a round trip of 65 miles through Co Meath without any gut problems. 


Sunday, 6 August 2017

Of Mice and Mother-in-Laws

Les Dawson built a comedy career around a series of mother-in-law jokes. A notorious one goes: ‘I can always tell when my mother-in-law is coming to stay, the mice come out and throw themselves onto the traps.’ It was the day before T’s mother was due to stay with us. T suddenly screamed. I rushed from my study to see what was happening. T was in the corridor, one hand to her mouth, the other pointing. Streaking past me along the corridor was a mouse.

The mouse ran into the front room.

We pursued it and closed the door behind us.

‘Now we’ve got it’, I said.

The mouse was lying low.

I slowly moved an armchair and peeked behind it.

T screamed again.

The mouse ran out, along the skirting board and behind the TV unit.

I strode forward, trying to flush it out.

The mouse stayed under cover.

T handed me an umbrella.

I looked quizzically at her.

‘You can bash it’, she said.

The mouse must have heard. It ran across the room and past the fireplace.

T screamed piercingly.

The mouse was behind us at the closed door. It was small and brown and desperately trying to find a way out.

I glanced at the crooked handle of the umbrella and back to the mouse. I didn’t want to kill it.

‘Can we catch it?’, I said.

We scanned the room, there was nothing to hand that would work.

The mouse was running backwards and forwards along the base of the door.

Resignedly, I grasped the umbrella.

The mouse stopped halfway along the door and began to squirm under. It’s rear legs and tail wriggled, then it disappeared.

I snatched open the door and peered along the corridor.

The mouse was nowhere to be seen.

We called him Usain and put down traps. It was the first mouse I had seen in the house for years. The next day T’s mother arrived. The visit went well. Each morning we checked the traps but Usain hadn’t thrown himself onto any of them. In Cyril’s continuing absence, we also thought about putting a poster on the front door: Cat Wanted, Enquire Within.




Sunday, 30 July 2017

Anniversary Days Out

The pattern of this summer seems to be set: good weather for a couple of days followed by three or more bad. We check the forecasts regularly and are primed to make the most of the good days. We have even become adroit at snatching the couple of hours of good sunshine that can appear amidst a rainy and windy day. We have also passed an auspicious milestone: our four-year anniversary.

The sun shone strongly on our anniversary day and we drove south to tour Co Louth. We started in Dromiskin which has the remains of a 5th century monastery with fine round tower and oddly a stone Viking longship which was built 5 years ago: commemorating both the monks and their raiders. We had a picnic lunch at the coast and went rockpooling and then paddling. Later we went to Monasterboice and saw the high crosses and round tower and then to Mellifont abbey. T had never been to either place and was very impressed. We rounded off the day with a trip to a Lebanese restaurant in Drogheda, reputedly the best in Co Louth. The food tasted fine but we both had bad guts after.

I’ve been keeping up my regular cycling. I drove down to Duleek, just beyond Drogheda and did a tour of scenic Co Meath. I rode past Tara and down the Boyne valley to Bective Abbey, another Cistercian monastery with plenty of its structure remaining beautifully situated beside the river. I had a snack lunch sitting on the monastery steps, entirely alone until a teenage girl in skimpy shorts and a bikini top came and lay down on the grass just a few feet away.

I rode on to Trim, a lovely heritage town with the largest Norman castle in Ireland (used in Braveheart) a medieval gate and monastery. Then back to Duleek through mostly quiet roads. It was a lovely day out and at 50 miles, my longest ride so far this year. I felt fine throughout with no gut problems and only got a bit tired in the last five miles. I’ve ridden over 100 miles in each of the past three weeks so I’m feeling cycling fit at present. I’m sleeping pretty well and have mostly stopped worrying about the impending surgery.

We also had a day out at the John Hewitt Summer School. This has a special place in our hearts as it was where we first met. After an excellent early evening meal at the Castle Tower restaurant we enjoyed Garrett Carr’s multimedia presentation of his Borderlands book and the exceptional poetry of Mark Doty. The Market Place Theatre during this week is somewhere you are bound to meet old friends and have the opportunity to make new ones.

I’m absolutely delighted I met T there four years ago. My life has changed so much for the good since then. The challenges that come along (such as my two recent cancer recurrences) are so much more easily faced together. A loving relationship makes all the difference.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Our Days Out

We inhabit an island with unpredictable weather. T’s mother says that there is only one rule for living here: when the sun shines drop everything and go out. On our staycation we have been doing our best to follow her advice. Our two long sunny days out were good in the main, but with an unexpected twist. And it is bucketing down as I write this.

Monday promised to be a hot day with unbroken sunshine. T arranged to meet a pal of hers in Belfast for lunch and some shopping. I took the bike down to Castlebellingham in Co Louth and followed the coast road south. My bike computer showed 80 degrees F with a cooling breeze coming off the sea. I stopped at Termonfeckin for lunch. It sounded like a place out of Father Ted, but the cafe brought me a good bowl of soup and bread. When cycling with my herniated diaphragm and restricted stomach, I know I need to eat foods that are easily digested.

I headed on into Drogheda, a pretty undistinguished place apart from one medieval gate. Turning inland I lost the sea breeze, the sun got hotter and the hills began. By the time I got to Mellifont Abbey, the remains of the first Cistercian monastery in Ireland, I was feeling rough. The lunch had disagreed with me, my stomach was inflating with wind and was depressing my left lung. I was overheating. I tried to drink more but it wouldn’t go down.

From there it was a lumpy 15 miles back to the car. I struggled up the hills, very salty sweat running into my eyes. The bike computer showed 92 F, the highest I had seen on this island. As I cycled on, via Monasterboice, I began to have irrational thoughts, almost delusions. I saw myself standing by the side of the road watching me inch my way up the hill in bottom gear. It felt a little like when I was cycling in Sri Lanka around ten years ago and I got a touch of heat stroke.

I managed to keep on going and thankfully reached the car. It was 6pm and still 80F. Despite the bad guts, depressed lung and dehydration, I had just completed my longest ride this year: 46 miles. I rested for a while; then drove home very slowly. T was already home and tended me caringly. I lay on the bed and drank rehydration salts. Enormous farts began and continued all through the night. I didn’t sleep much. Although I am accustomed to the sun, my face, arms and legs felt sore. The next morning I had the runs. My light lunch in Termonfeckin had indeed proved costly.

By midday I was starting to perk up and T was keen to go out into the clear blue afternoon. ‘It’s boiling’, she said. Unlike the day before, I packed a hat. We did a tour of Lecale by car, starting off at the stone circle in Ballynoe, which is the largest in NI and has a lovely holloway down to it. Unfortunately over recent years it has become festooned with hippy tat; ribbons, wool, bits of shiny metal dangle beside your head as you make your way there. Thankfully we were alone at the stones themselves.

We drove on through Killough and Ardglass, which was a major medieval port and a holiday resort for early Victorians, with a ladies’ bathing house in the harbour. At Kilclief Bay we had a picnic, went paddling and spotted small flatfish and a hermit crab in rock pools. After ice cream at Strangford we walked to Audley’s Castle and around the coast to Castle Ward.

Two grand days out in warm sunshine before four days forecast with unseasonable wind and rain. Mammy T had indeed been right.