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Wicklow Hills, Ireland in winter.

Sláinte: A Winter's Tale

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Wicklow Hills, Ireland in winter.

Just because I live in Los Angeles doesn’t mean I’m an Angeleno. Natives here love that it’s sunny and quasi-summer all year long. Not me. Locals think I’m crazy.  

Crazy like a fox, I say. When it’s cold, you can put on a sweater. When it’s hot, you’re out of luck. 

I pine for seasons. Some of my dearest memories carry me back to the winters of my Philadelphia youth. Sure, it was cold, but all that frigid air was outside. Inside our row house it was warm, except in the upstairs back bedroom that faced north and had only brick, plaster and uninsulated storm windows separating it from the cold. When the thermometer dropped below 20°F, which was often, a thin sheet of ice would form on the inside of the glass even though two radiators were located just inches below.

Until I lobbied for larger quarters more suitable for a teenager than my cozy little girl inner sanctum, the back room was our junk room. Everything that outlived its function ended up there, including a big Art Deco bed that had been replaced by my parents’ more fashionable Hollywood twin set. And there I spent many a dark winter day, propped against pillows, snuggled up in blankets, and transported to the marvelous worlds found inside books.

I now know that it was an Irish thing. Both my parents were readers, but Dad was the real bookworm, and a fine seanachie to boot. On Tuesday evenings, when Mom met with her Sodality Group to recite the rosary, he told me stories and recited poetry, and every Friday night we hiked to the spot on the Avenue where the bookmobile parked, and we loaded up on reading material. He would pick out one hefty tome, and I would select a dozen or more children’s books.

Once I had read every compilation of fairy tales in the Philadelphia Library system, Dad decided I was ready for some Irish mythology. For Christmas 1956, he gave me a copy of The King of Ireland’s Son, which he had read when he was just a wee fellow shortly after the book was first published in 1916.

Immediately on opening the green and richly gold embossed cover I was swept away by narratives from the vast wealth of Irish oral tradition: The Story of the Young Cuckoo; When the King of Cats Came to King Conal’s Dominion; The Sword of Light; The Adventures of Gilly of the Goatskin; The Town of the Red Castle; The King of the Land of Mist. Best of all were the adventures experienced by the King of Ireland’s eldest son as he journeyed far and wide, “his hound at his heel, his hawk on his wrist, a brave steed to carry him wither he list, and the blue sky over him” in his search to find and win Fedelma, the Enchanter’s Daughter.

The author of The King of Ireland’s Son, Padraic Colum, was also a poet, novelist, dramatist, and avid collector of Irish folklore and folk songs. Every fan of Irish music is surely familiar with She Moved Through the Fair, which Colum collected in Donegal and published in 1909, and which was made famous by Van Morrison and The Chieftains in the 1988 recording Irish Heartbeat

Born in 1881, Colum was an avid reader and a regular visitor to the National Library of Ireland in Dublin where he met and became good friends with prominent Irish thinkers and writers, among them Lady Gregory, W.B.Yeats, and James Joyce. One of his earliest writings, an anti-enlistment play titled The Saxon Shillin’ (1902), was awarded a prize by Cumann na nGaedhael, forerunner of the Sinn Féin political party. He was among the founders of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where his plays Broken Sail (1903) and The Land (1905) were two of the theatre’s first public successes.

Fiercely Irish, Colum was a member of Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League), an organization founded in 1893 for the purpose of keeping the Irish language spoken in Ireland. It was his interest in Gaelic that led to the writing of The King of Ireland’s Son. After a folktale he had translated from Gaelic was published by the New York Tribune, Colum met a Hungarian illustrator named Willy Pogany who suggested they collaborate on a children’s book incorporating several Irish folktales into a long epic story.

The King of Ireland’s Son has been reprinted numerous times, but it is the original version with Pogany’s illustrations that is most coveted. The book was so popular that it launched Colum’s long contract with Macmillan Publishers, covering folklore subject matter that ranged from Ireland to the Hawaiian Islands.

Little did I know at the tender age of ten that Padraic Colum was also a leading figure of the Celtic Revival. Encompassing all forms of artistic expression and bridging the 19th and 20th centuries, the Irish Celtic Revival movement encouraged the creation of work based on traditional Irish art and cultural expression, especially myth, legend and folklore. Interest in and adherence to its mission spread internationally wherever Irish emigrants driven by the famines of the 19th century had settled.

One thing I knew full well, however, even at such a young age. The King of Ireland’s Son was one of the best books I had ever buried my nose in. The first time, I read it by myself, snuggled up in the ‘back’ bedroom with a plate of Christmas Ginger Cookies and Irish Almond Tea Cakes balanced precariously on the mattress beside me. Oblivious to the winter winds blowing outside the window, I ranged in imagination up, over and across the hills of the Emerald Isle in the company of a colorful host of frolicking fairies and fearsome feys.

In March, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, Dad and I read it together, with me reading the narrative and him putting on a thick Irish brogue for all the speaking lines – high-pitched and squeaking for the creature characters, low and growling for the villains, melodiously sweet for the maidens, and in his own dear voice for the heroes.

Throughout my childhood, I read The King of Ireland’s Son again and again and again. As Dad aged into his twilight years, hardly a visit passed that he did not beam at me, blue eyes twinkling, a delighted smile creasing his cheeks, and say: “How about that King of Ireland’s Son – the best book you ever read – eh?” Yes, it was, Dad. It most certainly was. And a fine, fine way to pass a cold winter’s day. Sláinte!

Christmas Ginger Cookies
(personal recipe)
    1     beaten egg
    3⁄4     cup sugar
    3⁄4     cup shortening
    1⁄3     cup molasses
    2     cups flour
    1     teaspoon cinnamon
    2 1⁄2     teaspoons baking soda
    1     teaspoon powdered ginger
    1⁄4     teaspoon salt
        Granulated sugar in a bowl

In a large bowl, stir together egg, sugar, shortening and molasses. Beat well to combine. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, cinnamon, baking soda, ginger and salt. Add flour mixture to egg mixture, and stir until completely combined. Refrigerate dough for 3 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Using a teaspoon as a scoop, shape dough into 1-inch balls. Roll each ball in granulated sugar and place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet 3 inches apart. Bake for approximately 10 minutes, or until cookies have acquired cracks across their tops. Remove cookie sheets from oven, and let cool for 5 minutes. Transfer cookies to wire racks until they are completely cool. Store in an airtight container. Makes approximately 50 cookies. Note: Keep dough refrigerated between batches.

Irish Almond Tea Cakes
(personal recipe)
    6     large egg whites, room temperature
    2 1⁄2     cups almond meal
    3⁄4     cup granulated sugar
    1⁄3     cup flour
    1⁄4     teaspoon salt
        pinch of nutmeg
    1 1⁄2     tablespoons light corn syrup
    1     stick plus 7 tablespoons unsalted butter
    1     cup plump dried currants
    1 1⁄2     tablespoons dark rum

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter as many mini-muffin pans as you have (recipe makes 48 teacakes) or line tins with paper mini-muffin cups.

With a whisk, beat the egg whites in a bowl just to break them up. Add the almonds, sugar, flour, salt, nutmeg, and corn syrup and stir until batter is smooth.

Melt butter in a small saucepan until it just comes to a boil. Add the hot butter to the batter and whisk it in gently but thoroughly. Stir in the currants and rum. Spoon approximately 1 tablespoon of batter into each mini-muffin cup.

Bake 18-20 minutes, rotating the pans at the midway point, until the cakes are puffed and golden – a knife inserted into the center should come away clean. Remove tins from the oven and let the cakes rest in the tins for about 2 minutes, then turn them out onto racks to cool to room temperature. Cakes will keep in a covered container for 4-5 days. Wrapped airtight in plastic wrap they can be frozen for up to 2 months.
 

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