Monday, 17 March 2008

Let Us Raise a Pint of Guinness

and toast the Irish!

I've never lived in a place which went in (or all out) for St. Patrick's Day. As I child, I remember St. Patrick's Day chiefly for that quaint trickster ritual that said that anyone not wearing green was liable to get pinched. Since I didn't go in much for pinching, or being pinched, this is hardly the stuff of of sweet nostalgia.

Despite the fact that I don't like parades or beer very much, I've always had a secret, low-grade desire to be in Boston, New York City, Chicago or San Francisco on March 17. Despite the fact that the weather will probably be foul. There is just something about Irish revelry -- something about that crazy, beautiful, tragic culture -- that gets to me.

I was 21 the first time I went to Ireland. My friend Neisha and I, two little Texas girls from Tyler and Temple, lit out for Dublin on a foggy, frosty winter's day. After a long journey from London involving various trains and a pitching ferry, we arrived in the dark, early hours of morning. Rather inexplicably, there was a delicious smell of roasting coffee in the air. In my memory, we went straight to a pub and ordered an Irish coffee; but I may be collapsing the time frame a bit. I had just finished Richard Ellmann's biography of W.B. Yeats, and I was primed to see poetry all around me. One night, on a rather meandering walk -- I think that we may have been lost -- we came to a bridge: in the inky, oily water below was a bevy of pristine swans. It was like something out of a dream. It immediately reminded me of Yeats's poem "The Wild Swans at Coole" -- in which the speaker contrasts the always vigorous, vital beauty of nature with his own weary heart. Of course, we knew nothing about this sort of melancholy: for us, the world was still fresh and new.

(I interrupt these memories to bring you the following soundtrack: I am listening to Sinead O'Connor's Irish album, "Sean-Nos Nu." My very favorite song, "My Lagan Love," is playing now. It is deeply stirring; the kind of song I can, and have, listened to over and over. Rush out and get this now if you have even the slightest interest in Irish music!)

How could I not love Ireland? It is an evergreen land with an ancient and continuous literary culture. If writers and musicians are the people you most want to keep company with, you are bound to be drawn to √Čire.

When I couldn't sleep last night, I lay awake -- not counting sheep -- but counting Irish poets. After considerable deliberation, I bring you my top ten Irish heroes/heroines:

W.B. Yeats
James Joyce
Oscar Wilde
Edna O' Brien
Roddy Doyle
The Chieftans
Van Morrison
Frances Black
Sinead O'Connor

I am always willing to debate the merits of this list -- but not to subtract from, only to add to. Let me know if I've neglected to mention your favorite Irish poet -- and I use "poet" in the most encompassing sense.

This past summer I returned to Ireland -- with my family, this time, and to the country, not the city. We visited the western coastal land, last stop before you bang up against North America: County Kerry, where so many village names begin with "K." Killarney; Killorglin; Kenmare. We were staying with some Irish friends, and their extended family, and thus were introduced to the Irish concept of "crack" (or craic). From what I could gather, "good crack" is an expression for having a good time, with lots of loud, witty banter. It may also include, as we discovered one late wine-soaked evening, dirty jokes. Apparently, the "Kerry man" is the same figure of sport in Ireland as an Aggie is in Texas. As with Aggie jokes, there are endless Kerry man jokes -- in which our hero is revealed to be foolish, credulous and bumbling. Thus it is proved that the sources of humor are universal.

Brown soda bread seems to be the stuff of life in Kerry. Everywhere we went, we ate it; and that was fine with me, as it was absolutely delicious. Not long ago, I came across "The Ballymaloe Bread Book" and I was thrilled to think that I would be able to produce this delicious bread in England. Even better, as I perused the recipe, was the apparent simplicity of the recipe. Most soda breads seem to need just four ingredients: flour, salt, soda and sour milk. (Truly a peasant food!) Another bonus is that soda bread doesn't need to rise; you just do a quick mix and throw it into a hot oven.

Feeling full of the Irish spirit, I decided to make some brown soda bread this morning. I thought that I could share the recipe with you and, well, the overall triumph of it all. Unfortunately, my soda bread -- while attractive enough, in a rustic way -- was about as dense and damp as uncut turf. I wondered if, like peat, it would slowly burn. The few bites I tasted were strong and salty -- and still lie, leaden, in my stomach. Little JC and I feed some to the chickens this afternoon, when we were taking a break from the hard work of learning to read. The chickens -- usually totally indiscriminate eaters -- were a little dubious, I think; but they may have just been concentrating on chewing, swallowing and digesting. The worst thing about this loaf is that it weighs exactly 3.8 pounds. I know, because I weighed it. That is a lot of flour, and what with the price of wheat going up I just don't know if I can afford to feed my chickens so well. I won't blame Ballymaloe, though; I should have known better than to use extra-strong whole wheat bread flour -- just because it happened to be what I had on hand.

Refusing to accept defeat -- and because I still needed some bread to go with our bean and ham soup (tonight's dinner) -- I tackled a different, smaller loaf. I had much better results with this one. My official taster, who has eaten soda bread at her Irish friend's house many times, says this one is as close to authentic as a non-Irish person is likely to achieve.

Here's the real Irish deal:

450g/1 lb plain white (unbleached) flour
1 level teaspoon salt
1 level teaspoon soda (mash any lumps out)
400ml/14 fl oz buttermilk, approximately (I used all of mine in the first attempt, so I added a lemon's juice to the amount of milk called for; about 15 minutes will curdle it plenty)

  1. Fully preheat the oven to 230c/450f.
  2. Sift the flour, salt and soda into a large, wide mixing bowl.
  3. Make a well in the center. Add most of the milk. Using one hand, with fingers open and stiff, mix together, working in a full circle from the outside in. Work as quickly and "lightly" as possible. (I'm sure this vital step is where the Irish, who learned it at their mammy's knee, get separated out from the rest of us. But no doubt we can improve!)
  4. Try not to overmix the dough; you want something softish, but not too wet and sticky.
  5. When dough has come together, turn it out onto a floured work surface. You will now find it necessary to wash and dry your hands.
  6. Flour your clean hands, and gently mold your dough into a round about 2 inches high.
  7. This is the fun part! Place your dough round on a floured baking sheet. With a sharp knife, cut a deep cross in the dough -- all the way to the sides. Then prick the four triangles with the knife. According to Irish folklore, this will let the fairies out!
  8. Bake in the hot oven for 10 minutes; then turn the oven down to 200c/400f and cook for approximately 25 minutes. When the bread is cooked it will sound hollow when tapped.
  9. And it really does!

This is quick bread -- perfect for working parents, or people who have been in the potato fields all day. It takes about 5 minutes to mix, and 35 minutes to cook. It tastes homemade and simple, in the nicest possible way.

So, you may now bake your own soda bread and toast to the Irish -- who have given so much to the world of literature and music. Or you may just pour yourself a whisky; I'm sure they will appreciate that gesture, too.


Brave Sir Robin Hussein said...

I've got a corned beef in the slow cooker. . . this bread might just be the go with.

As for the list . . .

Can we squeeze in Martin McDonagh?

As for swans, Leda and the Swan made such an impact on me, I've always found them a bit terrifying.

Happy St. Patrick's day!!!!

Anne said...

I love, love, love James Joyce.

I have never tried soda bread. It's going on the to-make list.

BSRH - corned beef... yum!!

Bee said...

Brave Sir,

Yes, we can definitely put Martin on the list! I needed someone more of our time on the literary side -- just to keep in fresh. (Also, 11 is my lucky number!) I have never seen any of his work, although I've read lots about him. Just lately, he seems to have transitioned into movies. His latest, set in Bruges with fellow Irishman Colin Farrell, opened the Sundance Film Festival this year. Check out this complimentary review at

I just reread Leda and the Swan -- a poem that I remember teaching at Rice. The language is so sensuous and brutal both; it is pretty terrifying. Swans are actually quite vicious -- even though Zeus should get the rap in this particular case -- but they are beautiful at a distance.

I wonder what inspired that poem? It has often been read as a metaphor for other (political and emotional) examples of domination. One of his most beautifully crafted poems, I think.


Yes, Joyce was a truly brilliant mind. I am intrigued by his wife, Nora Barnacle, too. I read a biography of her, years ago, that was fascinating. She was from Galway -- and the thinking is that she had a wild, almost feral joy/energy that Joyce liked to channel . . . kind of like William Wordsworth did with his sister Dorothy. (Did you read my post about that?)

Brave Sir Robin said...

I am intrigued by his wife, Nora Barnacle, too.

Theirs is an interesting love story..

Brave Sir Robin said...

Bee -

I think you will find this post interesting, (and entertaining)

Bee said...

How did you find that?

And yes, the Irish have many reasons to hate the English.

My Irish friend, Jennifer, says that the amount of hassle an Irish passport provokes in Heathrow is more than enough reason to despise England . . . and that's just the small stuff.

I wonder what the song is saying? (I don't recognize the tune.)

Anne said...

I was pleasantly surprised by In Bruges. I didn't expect to enjoy it nearly as much as I did.

I don't know much about Joyce's wife, and shall have to do some reading up on her. I did enjoy your post on William and Dorothy Wordsworth! I actually meant to comment on it, as your theory about unemotional men and strongly emotional women really struck a chord with me (it applies perfectly to my relationship with The Suitor).

k said...

did you know KC has one of the country's biggest parades? but it rained yesterday and i wimped out.

good list of irish poets. isn't daniel day-lewis' dad the former irish poet laureate?

Bee said...


As I write these words, the lyric "Everything's up-to-date in Kansas City . . ." sings in my head! I have never ever known anyone from K City, and I tend to forget what a cool town it is what with its steak and jazz/blues history. You are clearly a very hip chick -- and I want to know how you know so much about all of the lastest UK girl singers? Don't tell me they are singing on America's Top 40!

I did not know that KC had a big parade -- thanks for filling me in!

Day-Lewis update: Daniel's father, Cecil was actually the English Poet Laureate (although he was indeed Irish). I am a treasure trove of Day-Lewis info; I can fill you in on the whole family if you wish. Plus, I want you to put D D-L on your "Foxy" list -- but not his latest; I like his vintage "Hawkeye" role in "Last of the Mohicans" best. But just if you decide to go back to the classics . . . long hair and a loin cloth was such a good luck for him.

Anne said...

We watched Last of the Mohicans in middle school (or maybe high school, one of the two). Everyone, including the teacher (this being an all-girls school), was sighing over Daniel Day-Lewis. Very entertaining.