Tuesday, 23 December 2014

A Visit From Airy Fox

These slid down very nicely in Connemara
Picture by Airy.
Off to the Airy-port this morning to drop back off our house guest of the last few days, our good friend whom I will call, for the purposes of this blog, The Airy Fox, or 'Airy' for short. This visit was one of a string of drops for Airy who had come to us from one set of friends and was heading home to some family for the big day, then off to visit our other chum, Mazy in Kent and on and on. We had the pleasure of her company  from Saturday lunchtime round to today lunchtime and we thoroughly enjoy the chance to do 'host'; especially Liz loves the chance to do 'hospitality', bedroom, facilities, food, drinks.

Towser relaxes at 'tay'. Picture by Airy.
We both love the chance to show a newcomer this place, the livestock and garden and the local environs; we have the lovely scenic area of Connemara on our doorstep and two nice towns and lots of pubs in easy range. Obviously, if you are coming to 'the Wesht' in December then you should expect a bit of rain and the forecast promised that Saturday would be dry but that the rest of the stay would feature that local speciality 'soft days'. Roscommon does a type of rain which we never really saw in Kent, a heavy drizzle which falls on windless days. It is not "lashing down" or raining in any way which you'd call 'heavy rain' drumming on the roof or bouncing off the road, but it is quietly, insidiously, quickly and thoroughly wetting. Nothing we could do, of course, but get on with things where the soft day did not matter.

Another 'Airy' pic - fooling around at the 'Quiet Man' statue
in Cong village in Connemara. 
We try to be very relaxing hosts. We are happiest if the guest feels completely at home and not obliged to "do stuff" all the time. If they want to relax, do nothing, and read books then that is fine by us. 'Port in a Storm' is the effect we are aiming for, so no insistence on entertainment, busy-busy, worrying that people might be bored and certainly no forcing anyone to play Charades or what ever. Horrors! So, by mutual consent we settled on a little nip out to see a Craft fair / Farmer's Market on the Saturday afternoon, a trundle round Connemara on Sunday and a visit to Strokestown Park house and National Famine Museum on the Monday.

Airy's 'clever' camera can do these sepia
'monochrome' effects. This one she called
"Cosy Evening'
The Craft Fair went down OK and we found a nice pint of Guinness at Val's Bar just across the road. We came home to get fires going at both ends of the house so that we were all cosy for a lovely meal, drinks and chatting. Good food was a definite part of this visit; on Saturday we'd had home made soup and bread for lunch and supper was a lovely chicken curry, chickpea and pepper dip, carrot salad and a dessert of clafoutis. The Connemara mission suffered a bit from the all-day rain; with the low cloud shrouding the tops of the impressive mountains, so that full scale scenic photography was out. However, Airy loved the bits she could see - glimpses of hill side, impressive roadside outcrops, heather, swollen torrential streams and waterfalls and we were all amazed by the light.

Sticky toffee (date) pudding. The pudding rose so well that
there was no room in the dish for the sticky sauce, so Liz
served it separately. 
The cloud layer must have been a thin one and transparent enough that an intense light powered the oranges, russets and 'straw' colours of the Autumn vegetation to such a degree that you could believe that they were lit from beneath like an old fashioned colour-slide (transparency). It accentuated, too, the blackness of the lough water which was getting quite a 'chop' from the wind and had 'white horses' on its waves. You wouldn't have been able to do any of this justice with the camera, but we all agreed that we need to bring another chum of ours (Helbel) out there, who does weaving with a very sophisticated loom, and would definitely enjoy the combination of vibrant russet and orange, grey and darker colours.

Chilling with (l to r) Towser, Deefer and Poppy
The Strokestown Hall and Famine Museum were a real find - we'd not been before and we did not know what to expect from this famine-era "big house" not lived in since the 1980's and now owned by a transport company (the lorries are parked out of sight!) and also given to events like the current "Victorian Christmas Experience" (yoiks!). We did not time our visit very well as we arrived at the Museum with only 40 minutes to spare before the afternoon's guided tour of the house (after which we'd need to dash home before dark - this was Winter Solstice, the shortest day, dark by 16:30).

Langoustines or "Dublin Bay Prawns" if you prefer.
We had to whizz through the Museum a bit and didn't do it justice. It was fascinating if a bit 'awkward' learning more about the Famine while running into our own extravaganza of food and drink, Christmas! I am also a bit wary of reporting on anything to do with the Museum and the Famine, being a Brit, and a newcomer to these shores myself, but I will try to give you a flavour. The family who owned the house during the Famine were not the best landlords and were much hated in the village; one of them actually got himself assassinated, they used to sound a coach-horn as they were loading into their coach and horses, and the villagers had to run for cover back into their houses because the Pakenham/Mahons did not want to see the 'peasants' as they drove out of their gate in all their finery.

A fried breakfast for the final morning
of the visit.
The local Catholic leaders managed to build 2 new church buildings during the worst years and had 3-day parties to celebrate them being completed and opened, while thousands died in the streets and village of hunger. The Family kept copious records and accounts of estate transactions at the time, rents collected and defaulted, evictions, wages paid to Estate workers (including many Irish, obviously) and the winners and losers, and this excellent archive of documents has survived through to today, hence the siting of the National Famine Museum in that estate. Historians in the present day do a lot of hours researching this treasure and what they publish can make uncomfortable reading - the accepted truths, the good guys and bad guys do not always turn out to be those expected. We will definitely be returning to the museum when we have more time.

Exhibit A.
The "Victorian Christmas Experience" was all gone away and packed up (mercifully) when we arrived (it must have been a Saturday or morning-only thing). Santa's "car" (an ancient Talbot) was parked in the rain, his sleigh was vacant and a few sorry beads of fake (soluble) snow were being washed into the drains by the drizzle. We had an excellent guided tour of the house to ourselves by 'John' who had an easy, amusing manner and a fund of well practised knowledge. The house is full of the original furniture, toys and equipment, threadbare carpets and time-worn wall coverings which was used by the last resident, Olive (88) as she slowly went broke, selling off the original (priceless) paintings and replacing them with fakes and copies which try (and fail) to cover the darker patches where the original frames had protected the walls from sunlight. The feature which caught our attentions most was undoubtedly the huge 'galleried' kitchen


with its bread ovens, spit roasters and smokers. Apparently the 'toffs' did not want to actually speak to the servants, so they'd come to the gallery and lower menus and recipes down on a string to the staff working below, or simply bring the guests to come and watch the work like some kind of spectator-sport! This (kitchen) had been boxed in (luckily without being ripped out!) by the end so that the old lady had only one servant and a tiny kitchen built within the old galleried room. It is worth a look and we will be back to that one too. Mazy will love it,

Well, all good things must come to an end, and we had to feed Airy our 'traditional' last breakfast before taking her to the airport and bidding her farewell. Guests always seem to enjoy our 'fries' and they feel well set up for avoiding airline fodder and the long wait till they can get to a proper kitchen again. I hope she won't mind me saying she was a real joy to 'have'. Thank you, Airy. We meant it when we said you could have stayed Christmas if you'd fancied it and you will be most welcome back when you come back; perhaps we will pick a less rainy day to try Connemara, next time!

A nice Stilton at last!
Meanwhile, just one complaint about Christmas. We like a good Stilton in this house and at Christmas we are happy to pay the extra and buy one of those ceramic lidded 'jars' which hold the cheese, sometimes under a white wax airtight plug; you lift the plug to let the air at the (white) cheese and allow the blue veining to develop at room temperature, in time for Christmas. Lidl supermarket's "Long Clawson" brand seemed just the ticket; I was sure I could remember Long Clawson as being a reliable, good quality name. Apparently not. What they call 'Stilton' is not a hard cheese at all, but a Stilton flavoured soft spread, as if the cheese has been whisked or beaten, creamed or abused some other way to make it spread-able and softer than baby food! I feel there should be a regulation making sure that this gets described as 'creamed' or some-such. Luckily, I was bemoaning this fact on Facebook and not one but two of our friends happen to live within a stone's throw of REAL Stilton country, home of "Cropwell Bishop Creamery" and other proper manufacturers of good cheese. One of these (Thank you, Sarah) offered to rescue us from cheesy hell by posting us a pot of the good stuff and this duly arrived, safe and sound this (Tuesday) morning courtesy of Ireland's wonderful postal system, 'An Post'.

Well, this is likely the last post I write before the big day, so please all my readers have a brilliant and memorable Christmas. Good Luck, Now.

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