Monday, 31 December 2012

Happy New Year

  As the sun sets on another year, we look ahead with  hope in our hearts. We see the light amid the darkness of mid winter.

              Is it time for diving right in with those New Year resolutions and making a splash?

Or is it better to swim with crowd, just leaving small ripples in our wake?
Only the coming year will tell and we'll know the answer in twelve months time.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

The Year That Was

Memories of Budapest
It's that time of the year when our thoughts drift back over  the twelve months gone by, weighing up the good and the bad, the high points and the lows. We've been reviewing it at work too, looking at the back issues, and, if truth be told, it's a depressing exercise in Ireland.  The country is still in the grips of recession. Our young people, and not so young, are emigrating, and many are suffering economic hardship. But, amid all the sad stories of cutbacks to our health services, of suicides and unemployment, there is, I think, a glimmer of hope.
For the first time since the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, we've  had some good news stories to write this year, with a number of job annoucements for our town. I remember how excited we were when the news broke that Paypal was locating in Dundalk.  It wasn't just that the jobs being created (many of which didn't go to local people anyway) but the fact that we finally had good news for the front page. We don't like being harbingers of doom all the time.
Looking back on the year, we will also remember the terrible weather which blighted our summer, brought misery to those holidaying at  home and destroyed the crops.  Even the Euro Championships failed to lift our spirits as Ireland crashed out although the fans did us proud.
 It was so wet, that for days I simply didn't lift my camera and abandoned my Photo A Day project over on Pbase.
Summer visitor
Aside from our family holiday to Budapest, a city we loved despite the June heatwave and where I got to meet a gracious Pbase friend and her husband,  the things I remember best about the year were moments spent with family and friends.  There was a big family together across the Irish Sea for the mother-in-law's 80th birthday early in the year, a day trip with two of my closest friends  made memorable by unexpectedly warm weather at the end of March, and I treasure the time I spent catching up with an old friend who came home from the United States during the summer. When she walked into my kitchen and began helping me cook dinner, the miles and years vanished and it was as if she had never left.

Family gathering

A Summer of disappointment

2012 was also the year I started blogging, got over my fear of asking people if I could take their photograph, began baking, took the initiative to organise a local walk for World Wide Photo Walk Day, and perhaps most importantly,  the year our son discovered  his talent and delight in art.

Portrait of the artist as a young man

World Wide Photo Walk

Friday, 28 December 2012

Post-Christmas Hibernation

It's these days that I like best. The days after Christmas when the pressure is off and there's no excuse for not relaxing. The big dinner has been cooked, the cards sent, the gifts exchanged, so there's nothing left to do but to slow down, take it easy, and chill  out.  It's time for long chats on the phone, for watching films, for reading, and, for some, studying. It's the perfect time, in many ways, for hibernating.
The January sales, which nowadays start on St Stephen's Day, no longer tempt me.  I don't need new clothes, and if I do, I can always pick them up at a discounted price in TK Maxx at any time of the year.  Our house is furnished and decorated, and Santa brought me a new lens, so I have no reason to go shopping.
The sunshine of recent days gave way to grey skies and rain, so apart from walking the dog, I didn't
venture out today.  I took my seat in front of the warm stove, read, chatted, and hatched a plan that dinner would consist of whatever we could find in the freezer. A fine plan which worked well.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Merry Christmas Everyone

I love Christmas. I always have done so. I remember as a little girl, lying in the cold darkness of the winter night,  listening, willing myself to hear sleigh bells and the clatter of reindeer hooves on the roof.  I always fell asleep too soon but in the morning I'd find my presents at the bottom of my bed.  I remember too going to Christmas mass with my parents, sitting upstairs in the gallery of the small country church, listening to the carols which seemed to me to echo the singing of angels. (Yes, we did have a good choir!)
While I no longer believe in fairytales, I still love Christmas.  I love the idea of a festival to brighten
the darkest days of the year. I love the decorations, the cards we send to friends, the exchanging of gifts with those we love, the family traditions,  the feeling of goodwill to all. I love putting up the decorations, remembering the stories of where and when they were purchased, blending family recipes to create our own Christmas dinner, getting out the old china and best table cloth.
I'm not naive enough to think that everyone enjoys Christmas.  For many people it's a time of sadness, a reminder of empty places around the table, of loved ones who won't be joining the celebrations.  For others,  it's a struggle to meet the expectations which our materialistic society have foisted on this mid-winter festival.
I hope everyone has had an enjoyable and peaceful Christmas with those they love.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Far From The Madding Crowds

Today I wanted to escape from the madness which surrounds the build up to Christmas.

I wanted nothing of packed shops, thronging crowds and the ringing of tills.
I had braved the supermarkets yesterday  so the cupboards are full, and I just have to buy a few last minute fresh groceries tomorrow.
Today I wanted to take time out with himself. I wanted to leave the world of commercialism behind, to walk along the shores of Carlingford Lough, through the narrow village streets, and to sit outside  drinking hot chocolate with the dog. That is what we did and it was good.
The village, normally busy with day trippers, was quiet and Paul Henry clouds hovered above The Mournes.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Who Will Guard Our Children?

I wish there were angels. I really do. Guardian angels who could wrap bullet proof wings around frightened children in schools in America, on the streets of Syria, in the fields of Afghanistan. Angels which could comfort bullied schoolgirls, confused young men, and bring solace to heart-broken parents.
Instead of angels we have earthly guardians: police men and women, first responders and dedicated teachers prepared to lay down their lives for others.
But we need more than that. We need leaders, politicians and law makers who will put the interests of their people first. Who will take on the vested interests, be  it arms manufacturers, gun enthusiasts, or clashing warlords.
On this side of the Atlantic it seems incredible that there isn't a universal  clamour for the introduction of stricter gun controls.
Reading reports of the terrible tragedy in Newtown, it struck me as strange how  the prospect of a gun attack on a school is almost taken for granted. The school, in an idyllic peaceful community, had a 'lock down' plan for what to do should such an event happen, just as schools here have fire drills.
 I couldn't believe some of the comments being made on Facebook - rather than calling for a ban on firearms, people were saying that teachers should be armed so they could shoot an intruder. Owning  guns didn't save Adam Lanza's mother but allowed  her troubled son to kill  her and then go  and slaughter twenty little children and their teachers.
Of course,  curbing or restricting gun ownership will be a difficult proposition in America where many closely guard their 'right to bear arms'.  While some will argue the historical context for this, lots of other nations have been born out of bloodshed but without their citizens having such a fixation with guns.
Others make the point that criminals will always get their hands on guns and this is true. But they generally don't go around shooting schoolchildren, students  or cinema goers. That  seems to be the preserve of troubled young men who have been able to get easy access to guns  in order to live out their dark fantasies.  Some commentators have made the point that mental health services need to be improved but in most cases the perpetrators of these horrific atrocities don't seem to have come to anyone's attention  until it is too late.
We have, thankfully, strict gun controls in Ireland. Yes, the paramilitaries did have guns during The Troubles and yes, criminal gangs have them today. But generally speaking, most people don't  have access to guns.  Farmers are the one sector of the community, apart from members of gun clubs, who can legally hold firearms, and sadly, disputes over land or family arguments are sometimes settled with
tragic consequences, which to me proves that access to guns makes violent killings more likely.
Here in Ireland, we another problem which is robbing families of young lives. There  has been a worrying increase in the suicide rate among our young people, not  just among young men but
recently among teenage girls.  One Donegal family is reeling after their two daughters, aged 13 and 15, took their own lives within weeks of one and other.
Little children, their families and communities, shouldn't have to suffer because societies can't face up to reality of  bullying, unemployment, alcohol abuse and mental  illness.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Local is Lovely

I always buy some Christmas gifts at craft fairs but this year I decided to make a conscious effort to do  most of my shopping locally and to buy Irish produced goods.
It's not too hard. There are lots of wonderful Irish craft and food producers which means I can pick up gifts to suit most people.  Buying Irish and buying local makes sense. The money stays in the economy,
the craft and food producers get a much needed boost and hopefully they, in turn, will spend their
money locally. If enough people do the same it might make the difference between shops staying open or closing,  between people staying at home or emigrating.
I was particularly motivated to spurn some high street stories which  are selling items designed to look as though they were hand made, even though they are, of course, mass produced.  At least one UK chain has   'A Mend and Make Do' range which is very pretty and spot on trend, harkening back to another era when money was scarce and people made their own gifts.  Many of the items  are not dissimilar to ones I've seen in Etsy stores, so rather than handing over my cash there and then, I resolved to spent it at craft fairs instead.

A visit to the annual craft fair in Carlingford last weekend proved particularly enjoyable and fruitful.
Despite the cold, damp day, plenty of people had made the journey to the fair, and more  importantly, were buying.

Since I'm planning on baking some foodie gifts myself, I ignored the food stalls, but bought some beautiful handmade Christmas decorations and gifts.

There is also a new shop in  Carlingford, Molly May's, which stocks very nice Irish made soaps, shampoos, handcreams, and candles.

Yesterday I ventured out to Ravensdale Country Market and got some more decorations made by the talented Vivianne of 'Gifts From The Heart'. This was supposed to be a gift but I like it so much that I've decided to keep it.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Just Some Musings

I've been laid low this past week. Nothing serious. Just seasonal sniffles and shivers and a strange exhaustion which left me fit to do nothing. Believing rest to be the best cure, I took to my bed, missed the company Christmas party, missed work and missed not being able to blog as there were a couple of things on my mind.
Thanks to modern technology I was able to follow Wednesday's budget from the warmth of my sickbed. It was pretty much as anticipated, yet another austerity budget. But there were a couple of nasty surprises.  The cuts to the children's allowance, increases to student fees and car tax and the introduction of a property tax had all been well flagged.  But a €1 increase in a bottle of wine caused consternation among the Twitterati, especially as it's going to cause more pain on those buying a budget bottle as a weekend treat rather than the fat cats scoffing expensive vintages.
 I even had a little whine myself, because the previous day I had stood in the wine section of Tesco, contemplating what wines I could stock up on for Christmas from the special offers. But I wasn't feeling well, certainly not up to making an important decision like that, so I walked away.  My indecision has cost me all of €6 which is pretty insignificant in the overall scheme of how much worse off we, and the rest country, is going to be for the foreseeable future.
Half price bargains won't be so cheap
A much nastier Budget shock was cutting the allowance with carers get for respite care. As it is, carers get a pittance for looking after family members who are often profoundly disabled or ill, thus saving the State a fortune by caring for them at home.  While  it may well be a labour of love for these parents, siblings or children, it's also an exhausting task, leaving them with little time to devote to themselves or other family members. The respite allowance allowed them to get some spare time to recharge their batteries and do the things the rest of us take for granted. Cutting  it will have a series impact on their own health and those they look after. As this is the one issue (apart from the wine) which has caused the most outrage, let's hope people power will lead the government to have a re-think.

In other news, we've been trying to cut the cost of our heating bill by lighting the stove in the kitchen during the day.  It's much more economical to burn the logs which we bought from a local supplier than to be switching  on the central heating. And it's much cosier too.

Hot Dog Fudge Enjoys The Heat
I managed to write the first of my Christmas cards, or at least those which have to be sent abroad.  Now I just have to buy stamps and post them.  While emails, texts and Facebook greetings have made a lot of other correspondence a thing of the past, it's still nice to send and receive Christmas cards.
One Task Done

Monday, 3 December 2012

Real Ireland?

As an occasional photo blogger,  I am conscious of the image I want to portray of Ireland or at least this small corner of it.  I am proud of our beautiful countryside, our rich heritage and culture, and I seek out images which  reflect this. 
But occasionally, this urge to post only picture perfect photos jars with reality and I question my self-censorship.
There is an Ireland which doesn't quite fit with the romantic images found in glossy travel magazines or the current marketing campaigns aimed at attracting visitors to 'The Gathering' next year. What is the real Ireland? What lies beyond the thatched cottages, the crumbling castles, the brightly painted pubs and the ubiquitous sheep?

The abandoned farmhouses which dot the countryside might look quite picturesque but they often tell a story of emigration, lonely bachelor farmers, family feuds or a simple lack of appreciation for the vernacular architecture.
Photographers are often drawn to scenes of dereliction and decay but I can't imagine this appearing on a Bord Failte poster.

The demise of the Celtic Tiger and the construction boom has left vast tracts of unfinished housing estates across the county, often in the most unlikely of places such as small villages which suddenly and un-realistically found themselves within the capital's computer belt.

Our town centres are dying,  not just due to the recession, but because our planning laws allowed the construction of shopping centres and out of town retail parks even though we should have learned a lesson from what happened across the water in the UK decades previously.
And there are those  who don't appreciate the beauty of our countryside and are unwilling or unable to pay bin collection charges,  not caring where their rubbish ends up.
Of course I know I'm going to feel unpatriotic when I push the publish button so it's a case of taking a deep breath and thinking 'publish and be damned.'