Friday, March 27, 2015

It Only Takes Once--Book 1 of my Irish Village of Ballydara excerpt

I'm trying something new...sharing excerpts of my Village of Ballydara novels! Here's the opening of Book 1...

It Only Takes Once
Chapter One

The Sign

 The urge to contact an old boyfriend should be approached with extreme caution, I always say. Even if you’ve excellent reasons, any impulse with such potential for disaster on a grand scale should be either squashed immediately, or given due consideration: i.e., discussed exhaustively with your friends, whom you have bribed with cheap wine and equally cheap Cadbury’s to listen to you, and for your trouble, will give you their expert counsel.
In case the confab with friends regarding the ex sets off an uncharacteristic impulse to take action—Saturday night’s strategy session with Deirdre and Maggie ended with a rash, midnight phone call to America—you’ll want to be on the lookout for signs and portents that you’re on the right track.
I was saying exactly that to Deirdre six days later, in the back room of her mam’s shop, O’Donnell’s Books & Collectibles. “Though I was sure I’d get a sign before now. Especially here.”
After all, you’d think a shop stuffed with fairy-themed merchandise—that’s Irish fairies, mind—in tourist-jammed Temple Bar, smack in the middle of Dublin, Ireland, which is home to spiritual icons galore, would be a magnet for messages from the Other Side, the far corners of the world, or the Infinite.
“Signs,” scoffed Deirdre. As my fellow shop assistant, she could’ve been helping me sort through the tatty leftovers from her mam’s parish jumble sale, but she was busy Web surfing. “Maybe you’re meant to watch for the one saying the call was a waste of time.”
“No way,” I said, though I was starting to wonder. While I hardly expected a metaphysical memo to waft in, such as, Attn.: Aislin Moore, Congrats on the genius phone call, surely a teensy insight into my next move wasn’t too much to ask? I gazed balefully at yet another overflowing box, perched on a high shelf. “One more box to go. And the dustiest of the lot.”
“Sling it ’til Monday,” Deirdre said, clicking madly. “Mammy’ll never know.”
I sneezed. “I’m for that.” I swiped my hands on my jumper, then made the mistake of glancing at the box again. It seemed to droop toward me reproachfully. “Shag it all,” I muttered. On tiptoe, I grabbed one corner of the box and jerked it forward. “As if this crusty junk is worth anyth—” I yelped as something thunked me on the head and fell to the floor.
“What?” said Deirdre, eyes glued to the screen.
Rubbing the sore spot, I knelt to pick up the offending item, and almost fell over. “Oh, my God, this is it! The sign I’ve been waiting for.”
 Deirdre swiveled round. “A book.” She wrinkled her pretty nose. “You can’t wear it or eat it—what’s the use?”
“Don’t you see?” Trembling, I ran my fingers over the title, and lurched to my feet. “My fate is shagging sealed.” Deirdre still looked blank. “It’s a sign! Telling me to ring his mam again.”
“An old book told you that?” Deirdre said, incredulous. “The dust in here has addled your brains.”
Little Women is not just an ‘old book,’” and I hugged it to my chest, “it’s my favorite book of all time.” I’d read my dog-eared paperback a gazillion times, and watched all the film versions over and over. “So, I’ve got to keep trying to contact…you know. Him.” Spurred into action, I set the book down and pulled my rucksack from under the desk. “It’s the least I can do for—”
“Aislin, like I said Saturday, you are so going to regret this,” Deirdre said darkly.
“Bollocks.” Enjoying the novelty of being decisive, I dug out my mobile. “What’s the harm, to make sure she got my message? Maybe my phone numbers got a bit garbled.”  
Deirdre shook her head, her dark, glossy hair swinging round her shoulders. “So what if you meet up with him again, and he turns out to be a loser…or even a gobshite?”
“He’s not the sort,” I said without thinking.
“Well, people change. But have you considered your worst case scenario?”
“Like what?” Staring at my phone, I could feel my grand resolve weaken. I’d tons of reasons for contacting him—I’d even made a list. What was I waiting for?
“Like…our man could still be carrying the torch,” Deirdre said with a melodramatic air. “And in his undying passion for you, he jumps on the next flight to Dublin.”
“As if.” My stomach tightened at the very thought. “I can guarantee that the last time I saw him, he’d dumped whatever torch he ever had for me.” If he’d had one at all.
“Or what if he’s married, and his wife got all prickly about him hearing from an old girlfriend who looks like Nicole Kidman—”
“I so do not look like Nicole Kidman,” I interrupted, secretly pleased.
“Do too—well, okay, a younger Nicole, if she was a foot shorter, and had some body fat. And if she never used some decent product on her hair. Anyway, what if his wife cut him off in the bedroom! He’d be all cross, and there you’d be, starting off on the totally wrong foot.”
“Even if he’s married, it’s not like I’m trying to mess him about or anything. I’ll get his e-mail from his mam like I planned, chat him up online a bit, then throw out a few feelers.” I stared at the phone in my hand. “Easy-peasy,” I added bravely.
 For all my show of confidence, dread pooled in my middle. I was ready to postpone the call when Little Women caught my eye. Despite her rocky start, Meg March, my favorite character, had turned out to be the perfect mother. What would she do? I flipped up the lid of my mobile.
“You’re mad,” said Deirdre. “But if you’re so dead keen on doing this, you might as well ring the woman at breakfast, before she goes anywhere.” Deirdre had an amazing facility for time zone calculation. But no head for accounts. Go figure. “But you know, Ash, I don’t think I can watch this.” She gathered up her handbag and coat. “I’ve an errand to do.”
Which likely involved a visit to Brown Thomas. Phone in hand, I waved Deirdre off from the backroom doorway, amused despite myself at her circuitous route to the front door. Once outside, and safe from her mam’s detection, she dimpled at a man in a posh coat standing by the shop window. That’s Deirdre for you—she’d flirt with the corpse at a wake. Of course the man smiled back. Wishing that sometimes, my life could be as simple as Deirdre’s, I keyed in the number, glad she wasn’t here to see I knew it by heart. When I glanced back up, my thumb hovering over the keypad, she and the man were gone.
Well, for all I knew, he was the errand. But this was no time to dwell on Deirdre’s romantic adventures. I’d a job to do, though I lacked the Chardonnay-primed courage I’d had last weekend. And any minute now, Polly—indulgent boss and mother she might be—would notice both her shop assistants were AWOL. So, ignoring that sinking feeling, rather like a large stone sitting right behind your navel, I pressed the “on” key…

Friday, March 21, 2008

Slowing Down...the Irish Way

What’s one easy way to slow down your life?

Two words: BBC Television.

Let me back up. Today is the debut of my new blog focus: embracing the Slow Philosophy. It’s been a big passion of mine for over ten years. I used to think I was just quirky, in my wish to detach from media and technology, detox from popular culture and leave the rat race to the rats. Now, I discover that despite all my efforts not to be cool, my Slow way of life is actually "in."

Anyway, “The noise and jangle of American life,” as author Bill Holm so eloquently describes it, is the reason I began writing novels set in Ireland. Naturally, my Irish novels led to my Irish-themed blog. (See posts below.) But now, after writing a memoir about slowing down and living your passion(s), I find both my novels and my real life fit perfectly under the Slow lifestyle umbrella.

Although I’m sad to leave my Irish-related posts behind, today’s topic is both Irish and Slow: That is, if you want to slow down, there’s no better way than to watch a kinder, gentler BBC-TV series like “Ballykissangel.” This dramedy, set in rural Ireland, is the perfect antidote to most Americans’ rush-rush way of life. It’s got all the clich├ęs of Irish village life: a priest, a pub, and a bunch eccentric characters—as well as the creative use of sheep. But the stories are full of a unique and gentle wit, that seems to exemplify a sweeter, slower way of life.

There’s a real magic in slowing down. You can find me blogging about backyard farming, simplifying your life, and living the slow life in the country at!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Irish Goddesses

Celtic spirituality, especially the Irish, is alive and well.

In the U.S., anyway. I knew that February 1st marks the feast day of St. Brigit of Kildare, who, in the pantheon of Irish saints, comes in only second to St. Patrick. But I just learned from my favorite Druid, who lives in Oregon, that the beginning of February is also the time to celebrate the original Brigit—pagan Goddess Brighid. She made a regular holiday out of it—celebrating the Brigit/Brighid Mother energy with milk, eggs, and cheese, and lighting a candle to represent St. Brigit’s perpetual sacred fire. And here I thought the only Irish Goddesses we’d catch in America is when Celtic Woman goes on a Stateside tour!

My Druid gave me a Celtic Woman DVD for my birthday, and around our house, we watch it regularly. Often weekly. Who can resist these buxom Irish beauties, even if they lack the razzle-dazzle, much less the wild costumes, of your typical American pop divas, say, Beyonce or Madonna, or poor Britney, God help us. But I’ll take tradition anytime: when CW sings “Danny Boy,” my Irish grandma’s favorite tune, call me sentimental, but I have to run for a tissue.

And I understand they’ve got a new DVD out…Hint to Husband: it would make a great St. Patrick’s Day gift!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Baking Irish

I’m not exactly an adventuresome cook—I prefer to stick with a few dishes that get repeat requests, rather than tempt the cooking gods by trying out new stuff. But inspired by Morag Prunty’s Irish novel, Recipes for a Perfect Marriage, (see September 13 post), I decided to try something I’d never made before: Irish soda bread.

Problem: however tasty-sounding on the page, Prunty’s recipe lacked a certain precision. (When you’re trying something new, and the recipe calls for “enough buttermilk to make a soft dough,” and bake in a “hot oven,” you know you’re in trouble.) So recently, determined to make the real McCoy, I turned to Darina Allen, famed Irish chef and author of “Ballymaloe Cooking School Cookbook.” For one thing, she uses exact measurements and oven temperatures. For another, she’s definitely a purist, since her bread includes only four ingredients: flour, soda, salt, and buttermilk.

As much as I wanted to make the classic version of Irish soda bread, though, I stared at the recipe, dismayed. Darina’s seemed about as basic as, well, hardtack. (You know, the cracker-like rations sailors ate because they had a shelf life of several years. Without preservatives.) So I summoned up my Inner Creative Cook and threw in a few extra ingredients I’d seen in Prunty’s book: raisins, butter, and a spoon of honey. And getting into the spirit of the thing, I didn’t measure any of them.

In keeping with Darina’s classic, purist vision, I patted the dough into a round. Then wielding the sharpest knife I could find, I carved the traditional cross into the loaf, and slid it into the oven.

The result? A bit funny looking; the moistened raisins had incorporated too much moisture into the dough, creating surface pockmarks. So instead of the smooth round I’d seen at our local bakery around St. Patrick’s Day, my loaf looked like it had a terminal case of bread acne. But happily, my husband was unfazed by its less-than-stellar appearance, and cut into it eagerly. And though he has never passed judgment on my cooking, when I coaxed him for a critique, he ventured that it could be a bit sweeter. “But I can always spread some honey on it,” he added loyally. I was further cheered when he finished off the loaf in a few days (instead of sticking it in the back of the fridge and “pretending” he’d forgotten about it). Apparently, it had tasted better than it looked.

So, like any recipe you’re experimenting with, or heck, trying anything new in your life, my advice is, start with classic, go wild with a few extras, and don’t skimp on the sweetness. And when you’re making Irish soda bread, just before you slide your loaf into the oven, don’t forget Darina’s secret: after you’ve scored a cross in the dough, prick in each corner “to let the fairies out!”

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Recipes for a Perfect Wedding

I promised more about “Recipes for a Perfect Marriage,” by Morag Prunty…It’s the compelling story of two women, Irish-American Tressa, and her Irish grandma, Bernadine, struggling with their marriages. As much as I liked the book, I had a few issues with the two heroines. Both Tressa and Bernadine had a bit of what I’ll call the Scarlett O’Hara syndrome: not appreciating what’s right in front of you until it’s too late. In Scarlett’s case, that would of course be Rhett Butler. Similarly, Tressa and Bernadine were inclined to screw up their love relationships to the point you wanted to shake them.

Happily, Ms. Prunty created some terrific Irish-American secondary characters for a bit of comic relief. One was Gerry, a handyman with “waist-length gray hair and four teeth.” He reminded me a lot of a guy I met at my stepdaughter’s recent wedding in California: Will Quinn, from County Kildare. Will was the grizzled “frontman” of the Irish trio playing the reception. His most notable characteristics were, like Gerry’s, shaggy gray hair and crumbly teeth. Oh, and a sense of humor.

You’ll know, of course, the reputation of the Irish as rebels, right? Will asked us if we’d heard the one about two Irishmen marooned on an island.” We shook our heads. “Well,” said Will, “the first one asks, ‘Is there a government here?’ The second one says, ‘If there is, I’m against it.’”

In addition to joke telling, Will played the pennywhistle and accordion, and also did all the talking (the other two guys didn’t say a word all afternoon). Clearly, Will had more going for him than his ratty looks would suggest, because he brought three “groupies” with him: his gorgeous Mexican wife, Trini, and two heart-stoppingly beautiful young teenage daughters, Aoif and Bridgit. Competitive step-dancers, Aoif and Bridgit were decked out in full Irish dance regalia, dresses decorated in Celtic knots, sporting ghillies (shoes), not to mention uber-curly wigs—as the desired step-dance look involves hair that doesn’t occur in nature. They not only danced on stage, but provided backup for their dad on “Finnigan’s Wake.”

I’ll never forget the two fresh-faced young girls singing the chorus, “…A bottle of whiskey at his feet, and a bottle of port at his head.” If traditional Irish cheese makes the most memorable sandwiches, traditional Irish music, especially with the likes of Will Quinn and his family, creates an unforgettable wedding.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ode to Elizabeth Gilbert

I couldn’t write another post without paying homage to author Elizabeth Gilbert, whose fabulous memoir “Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia” inspired this blog. At least it inspired my blog title, “Eat, Pray, Angst” et cetera. But regarding all the confessing in my first post, I have another confession to make: I’m not a very angsty person. Even on a bad day, I'm more of a glass-half-full kind of girl. However, I once saw the famed Irish writer Edna O’Brien at a book event, and she made reference to the “vast, ancestral loneliness” of the Irish. Well, I figure there's lots of potential angst to tap into.

How about “Pray?” Well, Ms. Gilbert is far more open about her spirituality than I am. But, since this blog will also include occasional riffs on another passion of mine, growing your own food and eating local, praying might sneak into it. Like earlier this week, when the potato foliage in our garden started to turn yellow-black—a fungus, I think. I couldn’t help thinking of the Irish farmers during the potato blight some 160-odd years ago, and with fungicides not yet available, how many prayers must've been sent to the Almighty. In lieu of spraying my own potatoes, since we’re trying to grow organic, I sent oodles of positive vibes in their direction. We’ll see how well it works.

And finally, “Eat.” Sorry, no rapturous descriptions of Italian food a la Ms. Gilbert—we’re here to focus on Irish stuff—but as a devoted foodie, I'll probably chat a lot about eating. To that end, a great place to start eating Irish in America is with Ireland-made Dubliner cheese. Despite my goal of eating more local food, I can’t help myself: Dubliner makes sandwiches to die for. And you don't have to go to Ireland to get it either--only as far as your nearest Costco.

I found another great “eating Irish” resource in an unexpected place—a novel I just finished: “Recipes for a Perfect Marriage,” by Irish author Morag Prunty. While I’ll talk more about “Recipes” next time, I will say my favorite part was the author weaving authentic Irish recipes into the plot. However, "Recipes" is a novel, not a proper cookbook. The recipes are more, shall we say, approximate. Like the way you cook a dish you've made a dozen or even a hundred times--by feel and memory. I might give the Irish soda bread recipe a try, though—and we’ll see how it goes. Kind of like my potato patch.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Launch of "Eat, Pray, Angst"

I almost named this blog, “Drink, Pray, Angst…” But, confession time: to me, a pint of Guinness is more an object of curiosity than lust. And I didn’t want to turn off any fellow searchers, who, like me, would much rather have a chocolate bar than anything the least bit alcoholic—unless it’s one of those liqueur-filled chocolate truffles. As for my search across America—well, it’ll be more within a 100-mile radius of Seattle. And mostly virtual, rather than actual. But on to my point…

Here in America, people love Irish stories.

I think so, anyway. But if you want proof, look at what’s hot—well, at least very warm—in American culture these days. Celtic Woman, a quartet of Irish singers, is on a national tour. On Broadway, there’s “The Pirate Queen,” a musical brought to you by the makers of Le Miz and Riverdance, and the more literary offering, “Translations.” In film, the Irish musical “Once,” an indie favorite, recently cracked Entertainment Weekly’s Top Twenty. You’re a reader? How about Irish author Maeve Binchy’s “Whitethorn Woods,” on the New York Times bestseller list this spring? Then there’s the perennially popular folks like U2 and Frank McCourt. I could go on, but you get my drift.

From the earliest Irish immigration, the Irish have brought their culture with them—then proceeded to develop a huge fan base. It’s easy to see how—in “Booking Passage,” poet and author Thomas Lynch, says there are 40 million people of Irish descent in the U.S. alone. But the way Irish people and stories are so much a part of our cultural landscape, I don’t think it’s only Irish-Americans keeping the spirit going. Being a fan of any and all things Irish myself, I’ve set out on a quest to find both the high-profile and the more subtle Irish and Irish-American connections on this side of the pond.

I hope my search captures your imagination too. Feel free to share your own discoveries!