A childhood filled with culture, country-living and travel, influenced by a visionary Irish father and artistic, German mother gave me an unfettered mind, open to seeing the beauty and possibilities in the most insignificant things, to exploring how to improve my surroundings, to placing importance on home-cooking, on reading, on arts and crafts, friendship and on the people, stories and objects of the past.
I remember Sunday walks with my Dad down overgrown laneways, exploring derelict cottages, panning for treasure in bubbling streams. Dad would quote Shakespeare or the poetry of Keats or Shelley, always something appropriate to the place or circumstance. Uncovering an overgrown well at the side of a narrow laneway, webs intricately crocheted across its opening, it was the poem June by Francis Ledwidge,
‘Tanned face of June, the nomad gipsy laughs,
Above her widespread wares. The while she tells
The farmers’ fortunes in the fields, and quaffs
The water from the spider-peopled wells.’
We lived right in the heart of the Boyne Valley, a place rich in history and celebrated in legend. The countryside was our playground - in summer pulling each other off haystacks, in autumn walking the fields looking for mushrooms or blackberries. We could wander into the famous passage tombs at Newgrange, long before the advent of interpretive centres, or knock on an old man’s door at Dowth and get the key that opened the gate into the field where the lessor-known (and now no longer accessible) passage tombs sat beneath an incongruous mound. I remember climbing down a black iron ladder into the low, narrow passages, feeling the chill and inhaling the smell of damp earth.
I remember my mother always creating - baking, cooking, drawing, painting, restoring an old antique cupboard or lovingly cutting the alphabet out of cardboard, painting the letters different colours and sticking them around my bedroom walls. I recall how she loved rearranging rooms. We would go to school and return home to a living room that bore little resemblance to the one that we had left that morning. For her, life was about constantly trying different things, whether recipes, decor or interests but central to this was the desire to create a happy and interesting home.
We were lucky that our German grandfather retired to the shores of Lake Maggiore in Italy so several weeks of every summer were spent there, a glamorous, exciting world away from the slow, gentle pace of Ireland. Italy at that time, the 1970s and 80s, felt like a flamboyant uncle as compared with the shy, embarrassed schoolgirl that was Ireland. Chatter was louder there, gestures bigger, clothes more colourful, cars faster, smells more pungent and the sun shone brighter. Italy whistled while Ireland whispered.
Both places with their individual styles formed mine.