Bunny and The Yellow Hammer

The Yellow Hammer was buried on Saturday.  That wasn't his real name.  His real name was Ivor and no-one had been able to explain to me why he became know as The Yellow Hammer.

  "Why is he called the Yellow Hammer?", I asked Sadie, a twenty-five year veteran of Roundwood who knew him when he was Ivor.

"He's called the Yellow Hammer because...he's just the Yellow Hammer.”, was her response.

I knew him better as the part-feral old man who 's way of getting around was to stand in front of oncoming cars, forcing them to stop and give him a lift.  He was never going far,  just to town or back, so he became a familiar, if slightly unexpected moving landmark on the short stretch of road that passed by our house.  He had reached a ripe old age, so there was no surprise to hear of his passing.   If there was any surprise, it was that it wasn't as a result of being run over on his way to get milk.

There are many stories about him, as you might expect about a man with such a bizarre name and lethal road etiquette.  A favourite of mine involves his interaction with a fellow Canadian named Bunny.  Stopping to avoid hitting him, she offered him a lift, as was expected in accordance with the local custom.  He strangely refused and she carried on, rightfully confused.  The next passing car was driven by another local, which he get in when offered.

"You won't believe it!",  exclaimed the Yellow Hammer, before he had even taken his seat.

"That Canadian woman just stopped and asked me if I wanted a ride*!  And there I was, just minding my own business, looking for a lift into town."

*(For non-Irish readers, a “ride”  means something else here…)

The Phone Call

I love my life here.  It’s a pretty magical existence, living in a 300 year old country estate, surrounded by nature and animals, my girls at my side, entertaining interesting guests from all over the world.  But, I do get homesick sometimes. I miss my family in Canada. Sometimes I wish I could just meet my father for a pint, tell him about my life.  About the tiny Mexican woman who stayed with us last week,  who’s job was risk assessment for NASA, or a cute story about one of the kids, but I am where I am and wouldn’t change it for the world.  You can’t have everything.

It was during one of my recent bouts of homesickness  that this story begins and it’s one that I couldn’t have made up if I tried.  It was the day the world learned of David Bowie’s death.  A sad one for myself and millions of others and I have no doubt that it effected some of them the same way it hit me.  I got me thinking about mortality, mine and that of those close to me, slowly leading my mind across the Atlantic to Canada and my parents.  If an extra-terrestrial rock star can be taken from us, none are safe.

When the sad news broke, I was in the kitchen with Khan, a 19 year old Berliner who had been staying with us for a few weeks.  I suggested that we should record a song in Bowie’s honour and we began exchanging ideas about what kind of song we should make.  One of the musical references he made, was to his “father’s Turkish rap crew”, a combination of words never uttered in my presence before.  We went online and sure enough there was his father, rapping in Turkish.  I tried for a moment to picture my father in Khan’s father’s crew, but because dad had wasted so many years being a judge, I was certain both his rapping skills and his command of the Turkish language would have been underdeveloped enough to prevente our fathers from busting rhymes together.

Then my phone rang.  It was my father’s number and considering the mortal theme running through my mind, I got a bad feeling.  I answered it and from the sound I was hearing, could only assume that his phone was in a tumble-dryer.  This was followed silence, then heavy breathing.

“Dad, can you hear me?”  No response, only distressed breathing.

“Hello…Can you hear me?”  Then I heard distant voices, that I thought at first were echoes of my own, repeating,

“Can you hear me? Hello, can you hear me?”

A feeling crept over me that something terrible had happened and he had called me to say good-bye, losing consciousness before he got the words out.  I was sure that I was listening to my father’s last breaths, the distant voices belonging to concerned bystanders trying to revive him.  Then the line went dead.


Finished work for the day, Justice Flynn left his chambers and made his way to the parking garage.  When he arrived at his car, he cursed under his breath at the idiot who had parked so close to his driver’s side that he couldn’t open his door.  Weighing his options, he decided that finding the offending car’s owner would take far too long and that this was a situation that called for “thinking outside the box”, a skill he used daily.

The plan was simple.  He would enter through the passenger’s door, lean across into the driver’s side, slowly ease out past the car blocking his door, then get out and walk around to the driver’s side.  Except, when he had taken up his position, he couldn’t properly get a grip on the steering wheel, a constraint he corrected by opening the drivers door, giving him the few inches he needed.

He called his wife to tell her that he’d be home in time for dinner, hung up the phone and started the car.  He put it in drive and stretched his left foot out to press down on the accelerator, quickly discovering that it didn’t posses the same subtlety that his right foot did, as the car shot forward.  In a panic, he stomped for the brake, missing it and fully flattening the accelerator.  The screeching tires propelled him forward, the sudden motion making him grip the steering wheel, turning it hard left, and into the wall in front of him.  The impact threw him forward, a flailing limb engaging the cruise control and hitting the speed dial for his son’s phone number in one fell swoop, before launching him out of the open driver’s door.  The vehicle continued forward, connecting with a pillar, which slammed the door shut.  Doors shut and engine on, the doors automatically locked and the car continued on, an eighty thousand dollar pinball, in a parking garage themed pinball machine.  Down the ramp it went, it’s course corrected by the walls it bounced off on it’s way through the security gate.

Dazed and confused, a nasty cut on his elbow but otherwise unharmed, Justice Flynn looked on in stunned silence as courthouse security guards surrounded his unstoppable driverless car, which continued to bounce from wall to pillar, like a short-circuiting robot.  The surreal scene made even stranger by the fact that the guards were shouting at the car, asking if it could hear them.

“Can you hear me?”, a voice from inside the car asked them back.

To prove to himself that he hadn’t sustained a head injury in the fall, he reasoned that the bluetooth function must still have been enabled on his phone, which would explain the conversation taking place between his car and the guards.  To test his theory, he reached inside his breast pocket, retrieved his phone and ended the call.  To his relief, the voice stopped. Now, if only his car would do the same.

Dog Days of an Irish Summer

One Sunday, in the not too distant past, we decided to take advantage of the rare confluence of sunshine and a day off, by going for a walk in the mountains.  It was unusually hot for May, or for any time in Ireland for that matter, so with great delight we headed towards Kinnitty Castle. Children in tow and dog in the boot,  we planned to stretch our legs on the grounds and then have dinner in the castle and let someone else do the dishes for a change.  We started out with a bounce in our step.   But it didn’t take too long before 23 degrees of Irish sun shortened our stride.  About ten minutes to be more precise.  But that’s all it took for our 6 and 7 year old daughters to begin their “go-slow” campaign, stopping to pick wildflowers every twenty paces.  Rococo, our energetic labrador, had  no such qualms with the elements.   She charged off into the woods, tail wagging and eyes bulging, as if she would never be taken on a walk again.  As it would happen, she was nearly right.

Focusing on the task of encouraging the girls to plod on as Hannah and I began to wilt ourselves, Rococo’s absence went unnoticed.   Until we heard a raspy wheezing noise behind us. We turned to see her slowly stagger towards us, eventually collapsing at our feet.  She didn’t look good.  Her tongue spilled out of her mouth and lay in the dirt covered in foam, her eyes were slits and she was panting uncontrollably.  I ran back to some other walkers,  who graciously donated a bottle of water which I administered to our distressed patient.  She could barely drink it.  When she finally finished it off, matters hadn’t improved.
 It was obvious that our concern had made it’s way down the ranks when our eldest, Amelie,  asked where we would bury Rococo if she died.  It was time to up the ante from “concern" to “panic”.  I ran on ahead, hoping to find a stream to cool her down.   At the same time I rang Pete Wederburn, Ireland’s favourite celebrity veterinarian, who’s number I happened to have in my phone.  He confirmed our panic and told me she was suffering  from hyperthermia, a potentially fatal situation.  It was essential that she be cooled down immediately.  At that very moment, I spotted a stream  at the bottom of a steep embankment through the woods.
“Great!”, said Pete.  “Now you’ll have to get her to the water as quickly as possible, but don’t let her walk.  You’ll have to carry her.”
And just like that, a plan came together.  I had tracked down expert advice, found a stream and now all I had to do now was carry 90 pounds of sweaty, slobbery, semi-conscious dog for the guts of a kilometre, then down a treacherous hill to the life-saving water.  This would turn out to be the hard part.  The small miracles of getting phone reception in the middle of the woods and stumbling upon a stream in a life or death situation apparently came with a cost- one I fully measured the moment I heaved Rococo up into my arms.  Big dogs don’t know how to be carried at the best of times.  But carrying a well fed, dazed lab was like carrying an oversized bean bag full of bowling balls that sporadically  lurched in one direction or another. I was in a constant state of trying not to drop her.
Realising immediately that there wasn’t a better, or even a good way to man-haul a dog, I began my staggering-heave-walk towards the stream.  At about the half-way mark, concern for Rococo began shifting towards her bearer and Hannah voiced her concern that I may have been closer to a heart attack than the dog.  By the time I had reached the top of the hill leading to the stream, my arms decided they had had enough and began shaking uncontrollably.  Rococo immediately fell out of them, completing the last part of the journey with gravity’s help.
Unfortunately, the malnourished stream wasn’t the answer.  Deep enough to submerge her paws, but not enough to lower her body temperature; we were still in trouble.  Then, a shout from atop yonder hill.
“I see a river!”, shouted Lucie, our 6 year old.  Sure enough, a hundred meters away flowed salvation.  Unable to carry her, we coaxed Rococo up and over the small ridge, nudging her toward the water.  When she finally realised what was in front of her, she didn’t need to be told twice and threw herself in.  The cooling effect was almost immediate.  Her eyes opened, she began lapping up water and her tail started wagging.   We let her linger until we were sure she was out of danger and then began picking our way out of the woods.
As we neared the castle,  we met a couple standing outside the stables.  Covered in muck and dog hair, I began explaining our ordeal and hoped that they might have a cool place for Rococo to recover while we had dinner.  I was just coming to the part of the re-telling that involved me carrying her to the stream, when Lucie ran up and interrupted.
“Are you talking about the time I saved Rococo’s life?”
Yes Lucie.  That’s how the story goes.  But not how it ends.
Yesterday, two months after the fact,  Lucie extracted herself from the giggling gaggle of  little guest girls she was playing with, tugged on my apron and said, “Daddy, do you remember the time you were carrying Rococo, when her tongue was hanging out of her mouth and stuff…and I went on the hill and said that I saw a river? “
“Yes, I remember Lucie.”, I replied.
“Well, I really didn’t see a river.  I just said it to make you happy.  And then, there WAS a river.  Do you remember that?”
Yes I do,  yes there was and you just made me more happy than you’ll ever know.
And THAT’S how it ends.

The Silence of the Lambs

I can't find the whisk.  Again.  In the past this would have been a problem, but I've learned not to react to these little provocations.  Because if it weren't the whisk, it would have been my favorite knife, or the really thin broken spatula that is essential for flipping crepes.

Things not being there when you need them, is a fact of life in this kitchen.

And being unsettled by facts is an exhausting way to go about life.

In the past, I blamed the misplacement of important kitchen tools on the staff, but I know they're really not to blame.  It's poor leadership on my part and a lack of important kitchen tools.   I repeat this over and over in my mind  whenever I need to distract myself from the rage monkey screaming for my attention, when the thing that I need isn't in the place it should be.

But we're not here to give out about the staff. There'll be plenty of time for that.  We're here to talk about lambs' tongues.  Let's be honest.  They're not pretty.  But with the right manipulation, they can be turned into the most delicious mystery meat you'll ever serve.

I've had the dubious pleasure of messing around with them a good bit for the last few months because my butcher gave me about a hundred of them.

Have you ever seen a vac-packed bag full of lambs' tongues?  It looks like a Geiger painting.  I had no idea what to do with them at first and then remembered that you can confit anything. So that's what I did.  The end result didn't look very appetizing, unless you think a severed tongue looks delicious. So I did a bit of "research" and found out that the outer membrane has to be peeled off.  I did that and it still looked like a severed tongue.

In it's natural state, I had very little chance of feeding it to Hannah and if she wouldn't eat it, I couldn't very well serve it to customers.*

So, I cut it into slices, threw them in a frying pan and decided not to tell her what we were having for dinner.  I put in some garlic, a splash of red wine and a ladle of lamb stock.  For good measure, I put in a couple of spoons of a blueberry reduction I had used the night before to serve with a more socially acceptable lamb part.  In their slender, tender, gooey reincarnation, the tongue slices looked a lot less tongue-y, if you squinted.

I heated up some horseradish mashed potatoes, also left over from the night before, flashed some asparagus in a pan and stacked them just so, the tongue on top.  I drizzled the remaining sauce over the lot and sprinkled  winter thyme and marjoram leaves from the herb garden to finish.  It looked pretty good.

I could tell when Hannah squinted, as she took her first bite, that she knew what I was up to. We both ignored the facts in front of us for a moment like two people who share a secret that neither should know.

I tasted mine and was delighted.  Surely it was safe to say the name of something so delicious.

"What do you think?", I asked.

"It's amazing.  It's so tender!"

I leaned in and said, "Did you know that you're eating…"

"Stop!", she interrupted.

"Don't tell me.  I don't need to know."

I bit my tongue.

She squinted at me and took another bite of the lamb's.

Some things are best left unsaid.

*Editor's note: No mystery meat has ever been fed to our guests, unless specifically requested.

Portrait of a Con Artist

The pair of portraits, hanging either side of the fireplace in the drawing room are of particular interest to visitors.  My great-great-great uncle Issacc and his wife Hannah.  It's in the subtlety of their expressions, which can change slightly in different light, or with the weather.  He has a look of smug self-assurance, a confidence in his eyes that comes with the burden of being in charge.  I can imagine it being the expression he wore as he made the fateful decision 163 years ago, to lead the 50 men in his charge into the ambush awaiting them in the Bestaan Uit valley, in the dying days of the first Boer war.   He survived, along with his communications officer, but 48 men died that morning, their bodies only recovered when the Boers surrendered six weeks later.  He received a purple cross for his bravery, but was given the nick-name "The Boer Runner", the label of cowardice which stuck with him for the rest of his life.

Opinion is fairly evenly divided about Hannah's likeness.  Some see a kind, caring face.  Others, the face of a bitter woman.  Knowing her story, I would have to side with the latter opinion.  She was only 18 when they married, he a 32 year old widower who would, very shortly after their joining, bring everlasting shame on the family name.  And so, Hannah, "the Runner's Wife", stares out from her picture frame, smirking at the cruelty of being immortalized beside the coward who defined her.

Actually, none of this is true.

I have no idea who these people are, but that wouldn't have made a very interesting story now, would it?

Bull Castle

After a busy patch a few years ago, Hannah and I came to the conclusion that we were possibly neglecting our kids.  We got to see them all day every day, but rarely when we weren't working.  Easy enough trap to fall into, working from home.  We immediately decided to do something about it, summoning Amelie and Lucie to inform them that we were starting a new family tradition and Family Day was born.

It was really designed as a marketing strategy towards the girls,  adding a sense of festivity and occasion to a walk in the mountain, or an afternoon in a cafe.   And that's mostly what we did, for family days had to be within a half an hour of home, in case we needed to get back quickly.

Feeling like the sheen was wearing off of our young tradition, i decided to spice it up a bit and found a ruined castle in a book by a local historian that was only twenty minutes from our house, near a shop that sold ice cream.  It was an adventure that wrote itself.

We arrived first at the ice-cream place, which meant that according to the book, we were a few kilometers past our destination.  We bought a bunch of Magnums and I decided we'd save then until we got to the castle, a decision that was immediately overturned by the unsyncronised, caucaphonous  jumping and pleading of my two girls.  Since kids don't do deferred gratification very well and I couldn't think of another way to make the noise stop, Magnums were handed out, unwrapped and devoured instantly.  I saved mine in my pocket because I knew it would taste better in a castle.

We spent the next 45 minutes driving up and down the same one kilometer stretch of road, looking for an impossibly small lane.

On what we decided would be our last pass along this tiny country road, we found it and the adventure was on.

The lane was just wide enough for a tractor and moving at a crawl.   We were able to avoid holes and puddles for a few hundred meters, but were forced to stop.  From here on it it would be by foot.  In front of us was a closed farm gate and a sea of mud about half a kilometer long, that I would have to navigate in runners.  Past that, no sign of a castle.  Thinking about it, the words of Paedar the ice cream man kept ringing in my ears,

"Now, you wouldn't make it without wellies."

Before I got a chance to query him further on this however, I was interrupted by  bouncing and begging children.  Since I was the driving force behind our day out and because there was no castle visible on the horizon, I was selected to do a reconnaissance  mission.  As gingerly as I could, I jumped the fence and hopped between dried patches of mud and the odd stone.  It was a slow process, but I managed to make it out of yelling distance from Hannah, so that when I shouted my assessment that we should abort the mission, she took it as her cue to advance with the children.

As I had now unintentionally committed my family to continue on this questionable quest, I decided I had better find a castle.  Thankfully, a few minutes later I did.  Through a small gap in the hedgerow I spotted our prize; a 60 foot tall crumbling beauty.

I carefully picked my way back and met up with with the girls, who weren't having such an easy time of it.  I grabbed Lucy's hand, Hannah took Amelie's and we squelched our way forward, stopping every few feet to rescue a small wellie, sucked into the mud.  After an eternity, we were only half way there.  And caked in mud.  I think it was around then that I promised Hannah she could pick the itinerary for our next day out.

But, we struggled on and eventually made it to the castle.  It was magnificent, just as it was described in the book.  We walked around it's front, gazing up at it's battlements and were met around the corner by what looked like four young bulls, staring at us from a distance.  These weren't mentioned in the book.  As they didn't seem to be moving, we carried on exploring the marvelous ruins until we realized that our dog Roccoco had decided to introduce herself.  I think the bulls may have taken this as a threat, or insult, as they began charging towards us, led by our bounding labrador.

As panic took hold, my first thought was, "I'm a bad parent."  The next thought was that we should hide in the castle.  After all, that was what they were designed for.  Once safely inside and with nowhere else to go, we tried to imagine what it would have been like when it was in it's full glory. Safer, certainly, as it would have had a door.

The bulls were also aware of this, and slowly started making their way in.

More contagious than laughter, fear began spreading through the ranks.   To show the girls that there was nothing to be afraid of, Hannah took them to see the bulls surrounding the entrance and they were terrifying.

Hearts pounding but with no sudden movements, we moved slowly towards the window behind us, which seemed to be the only option at this point.

Hannah hopped up first and I handed the girls one at  a time as the bulls continued to advance.  Genuinely shitting myself by the time it was my turn, I jumped up a little too eagerly, banging my head and dropping the now melted ice-cream at the hooves of the beasts.  The girls screamed, "You said we could share it!".   I didn't say that.

Ah, "Family Days".  May the best ones not always be in retrospect.


Lesser Spotted Ireland: Midlands magic in overlooked Laois, Harry McGee, The Irish Time – August 2015

Forage with Wild Food Mary, dine at the gorgeous 17th-century Roundwood House and discover a lost village in the Slieve Blooms: Laois is under-rated... Poor Laois. For many tourists it’s just a name on a blurry sign as they zip through on the M7, M8 and M9 motorways to destinations where there is the neon of the sea and the tinsel of mountains. When you flick through Lonely Planet, the portents are not good: “Little-visited Laois is often overlooked as drivers zoom past . . . ” is its sad introduction. Yep, it’s a county that just can’t compete with the Atlantic counties, or even with Kilkenny or Tipperary, in the “come hither” department. In fairness to Lonely Planet, if you persevere for a few more sentences, the guide book points out that there is an allure to Laois. A real hidden corner of Ireland, it says. Or, a prime candidate for Lesser Spotted Ireland, in Irish Times speak. Okay, any time I have sat down in January and plotted my summer holidays, Laois has never emerged at the top of the list. It might not be as dramatic as the rugged Macgillycuddy’s Reeks or the Skelligs or Aran or the Rock of Cashel. It might not jingle like Killarney or Tramore or Salthill or Strandhill. But this road less taken brought me to a more discreet and mildly magical place this summer.  Eye-pleasing house Five kilometres from the town of Mountrath, the first wonderful stop is unveiled in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom mountains. Down an avenue roofed with trees and dappled with sunshine lies Roundwood House, an eye-pleasing Georgian House dating from the 17th century. This Palladian villa is gorgeous inside, with high ceilings, great windows, authentic period pieces and architecture. The floorboards are like the deck of a galleon: ancient, well-trodden but comforting. A “don’t touch” museum it is not. It’s a guest house and restaurant, and part of the Hidden Ireland group. The house is old but the vibe is young. Its owners, Hannah and Paddy Flynn, have taken over the running of the house in the past few years from Hannah’s parents, who ran it for three decades. The atmosphere is relaxed, laid-back and mellow. If a particular beverage company did Airbnb, this is what it would look and feel like. It’s very much a fully lived-in family home. We have our four-year-old daughter, Sadhbh, with us. Within seconds she has struck up a friendship with the couple’s young daughters, Amelie (7) and Lucie (5), and over the next day the three explore every inch of the house and the amazing grounds of long-grassed meadows, with their broadleaf woodlands of oak, beech and ash. A serene rainless sky helps. For a child this is what a carefree summer’s day is all about. Animals abound: hens, ducks, geese, two dogs, and cattle in the surrounding fields. There used to be a peacock but he was not replaced; he made a cacophony of noise during the night that undid the spectacular daytime displays of feathers. There are other unexpected discoveries to be made in the woodlands and meadows. We meet Mary Bulfin, aka Wild Food Mary, a forager and chef, who acts as a guide on a novel journey. Mary is a fascinating guide, full of knowledge and information, with a lively disposition. We walk no more than 500m, through a woods, a field overgrown with grasses, a hedgerow, past an oak and through a rhododendron passage. But it involves a kind of epic journey that opens up a new micro-universe of grasses, nuts, flowers, plants and weeds, all either edible or medicinal. Armed with a small utility knife, which she uses like a machete, Mary gathers massive mushrooms, which turn a suspicious toxic blue immediately after being picked. “Are they poisonous?” we ask. “Not at all, but those ones over there are,” she says, pointing to an innocuous-looking group of mushrooms with pointy heads. And then there are the nettles, wild garlic, sloes, whin, St John’s wort and a host of other stuff. Earlier in the Slieve Blooms she picked fraughans – blueberries or bilberries that are native to this corner of Ireland – which have a wonderful tart, sweet taste. There was lots of information. Be careful picking wild garlic leaves: they often grow next to bluebells, whose leaves are similar but as poisonous as they are beautiful. That long, ground-hugging sticky weed you find in your back garden is highly edible, healthy and can be juiced. In times past it was bunched together and used as a kind of sieve. It would catch the impurities as goat’s milk was poured through it. Whin (furze or gorse) is edible. You can use it in salads or make wine or tea from it. Areal bonus of the excursion was that it provided the inspiration for dinner. Paddy is an excellent chef, and the meal he prepares that evening includes all that has been foraged. The blue mushrooms make a starter (we hesitate until Mary has taken her first bite). The garlic, fraughans and other plants all find their way into garnishes and dessert. Like a lot of the Hidden Ireland houses, dinner is a communal affair, with all the guests sitting around one table. You kind of fear it will be all awkward small talk, but it turns out to be very convivial. Walking the Slieve Blooms The next day I drive up into the heart of the Slieve Blooms, where I meet Gerry Hanlon, an amiable shopkeeper from Mountmellick and a stalwart of the local walking group. These mountains are not Ireland’s most vertical: the highest is about 500m and the tops tend to be round and a bit boggy compared with the more jagged mountains farther west. But in the context of the midlands they are dramatic, rising suddenly out of the bogs. Unusually for a hill walk, we begin at the summit point, work our way down to the lowest point and come up again. That is at the Ridge of Capard, a viewing point where you can see a vast panorama of the midland plains that takes in 12 counties. In the far distance, you can see the Wicklow mountains, the Comeraghs, Galtymore, and the Knockmealdowns 103km away. Here on the ridge, you can see the fruits of projects to open up the Slieve Blooms to recreational walkers: dozens of waymarked trails and boardwalks erected over the mushiest terrain. These trails criss-cross the range from more than half a dozen starting points, including Kinnitty in Co Offaly on the far side. The walk we partake in is about 12km, a variation on an Eco trail that skirts the river Barrow before rising through forest and meadows up the Ridge of Capard. On our descent, Hanlon and I stay off the roads and tracks and follow obscure – and sometimes very overgrown – pathways through the wonderful broadleaf forests (and some newer coniferous growth) of the former Capard estate. The trailhead for this walk is at Glenbarrow, which is a nice picnic spot. On this Saturday its ample car park is jammed: a good sign. The walk from Glenbarrow includes a broad path among elegant tall trees near the river. Soon, you come to a waterfall named Clamp Hole. From there the path follows steeper ground uphill as it rises above the river valley. We pass long-derelict stone quarries: what back-breaking toil must have been involved. We stay with the river for a while, walking up on wide flags of sandstone rocks that protrude above the water. The river’s water has eroded and smoothed the sandstone so much that it looks like the limestone flags of the Burren. And what do they look like? Holey Emmental cheese. Another remarkable sight is the Lost Village, the ruins of a settlement of houses near the remote hilltop, some of which were occupied until the early 20th century. The most extraordinary ruins are of what was once a prosperous stone farmhouse, which has become engulfed by the forest. Wild Food Mary’s tutorial the previous day has not been totally lost. Along the way, I spot some St. John’s wort, along with an impressive blackthorn bush and its sloes. I do not come across any fraughans, however. They are a little bit like Laois, those native berries: a little overlooked and elusive but well worth the effort of the search. https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/lesser-spotted-ireland-midlands-magic-in-overlooked-laois-1.2316089  

Irish Independent, January 12 2014

One of Ireland’s most unusual libraries is set to open this week – with the world being asked to decide what should be in its collection.

The Library of the History of Civilisation is the brainchild of Frank Kennan, who lives in Roundwood House, a remarkable Palladian villa nestled in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom mountains in Co Laois.

After a year long odyssey trying to step outside the maelstrom of everyday news to discover where the human race was headed, he has come up with around 700 books he believes sums up our journey so far.

The collection was helped by a “shocking number of opinions” from guests who come to stay at the house – saved from ruin by the Irish Georgian Society and taken over by Frank and his wife Rosemary in the 1980s.

“There was no one came into the drawing room and said they were a philosopher, but there were an enormous number of philosophers,” he said.

But now he wants to take it beyond the drawing room, and is asking the wider world to help determine the permanent collection.

Finishing touches are being put on a purpose-built library in one of the old grain stores at the rear of the historic house which will house the books.

The library attempts to map out what French philosopher Voltaire described as the steps by which men passed from barbarism to civilisation, according to Frank.

But he says years of reading and thinking about civilisation and what it meant led him to less than obvious choices for the project.

“It’s easy to say Newton, Einstein, Dante, Shakespeare, these are books we would all agree on, and the Bible and the Koran,” he said.

“But I think in looking in books, I had a sudden realisation that actually everything is involved in civilisation.

“So books on spices show us spices affected our history, and so did salt and pepper – in terms of trade routes, and taxes, and revolutions.”

Frank said there would be little serious argument about the first 300 or 400 books in the collection, but the remainder will constantly change as civilisation itself changes.

Some will become less important and others will become more so.

“The library doesn’t match most people’s ideas of a library. Books don’t usually get thrown out of a library,” he said.

The quest has left him optimistic about civilisation, he says, despite the chance the human race could “wreck it” with the bomb or climate change.

“I’ve become more optimistic the more I read, the more I think about it,” he said.

“An awful lot of people spend their time thinking the world is getting worse, or we’re facing incredible dangers or we’re going in all sorts of directions and none of them mean much.

“But if you know we are on an upward path, it would stop us worrying, stop journalists writing about the terribleness of the world and talking utter rubbish about the good old days.”

The library is to open this week, and the public is being invited to visit or get in touch to offer their opinion on what should be in – and out – of the collection.

They should expect to be challenged.

Women Take the Lead in the Big House Revival, Mary Leyland, The Irish Times, February, 2011

Their houses are big, historic and challenging – but they are determined to keep them open for business. Three young women explain why they've become the chatelaines of their family homes... FRANK and Rosemarie Kennan are so synonymous with Roundwood House in Co Laois that it’s easy to understand their daughter Hannah’s belief that when she went off to university she would never come back. But come back she has, with her two small children and husband, Paddy Flynn, the Galway musician, with whom, eventually, she plans to introduce art and musical events at this lovely house, built between 1738 and 1748, possibly by Francis Bindon. “The idea was that one of us would be involved when my parents wanted to retire, but by then all the rest of the family were on very definite career paths. Frank and Rosemarie insisted that when the time came we were to regard Roundwood simply as a property and nothing more – they didn’t want any of us to feel under pressure. If we did decide to take over, it was to be for the right reasons. It’s not the kind of thing you can do just to keep everyone happy. Paddy and I took about a year to think about it, we didn’t even say anything to anyone until we were sure.” Roundwood House and its remaining 18 acres of woodland and pasture passed through various hands, including those of the Georgian Society, before the Kennans decided to restore it both as a family home and a business 30 years ago. “I grew up with guests in the house, that’s always been the norm for me. But it’s a very special place, there’s a strong personal tie and it’s hard to regard it just as a business. My parents put every penny they had into restoring and refurbishing it, and now that they have moved out (to the coach-house) it’s still a family environment and our guests seem to like that.” There’s a lot to like at Roundwood House, from its double-height balconied hall to its restored outbuildings. After three years in charge of what is at times a hectic schedule, with five-course dinners prepared by herself and Paddy every evening of the season, 32-year old Hannah has the confidence to say that yes, they are in it for the long haul. https://www.irishtimes.com/business/commercial-property/women-take-the-lead-in-the-big-house-revival-1.562495