“The fire was nice and bright and on one of the side-tables were four very big barmbracks. These barmbracks seemed uncut; but if you went closer you would see that they had been cut into long thick even slices and were ready to be handed round at tea…”

“….Lizzie Fleming said Maria was sure to get the ring and, though Fleming had said that for so many Hallow Eves, Maria had to laugh and say she didn’t want any ring or man either; and when she laughed her grey-green eyes sparkled with disappointed shyness and the tip of her nose nearly met the tip of her chin.”

                                                           —from the short story Clayby James Joyce.

I’ve had a hunger on me for a slice of barmbrack, a yeast bread made with dried fruit plumped up overnight in hot tea, traditionally eaten around Halloween at home in Ireland. I made it this fine October Sunday with the help of my mother-in-law who is a far better baker than I.

Typically, a ring is hidden in the dough and whoever finds it in their slice is said to be wed within the year. Other fortunes you might find in a traditional brack are:


  • The Thimble: for which you will stay a spinster.
  • A Button: meaning you’ll always be a bachelor.
  • A bean or a piece of rag: Penury and misfortune for you.
  • The coin: Riches coming to you.
  • The stick: an unhappy, quarrelsome marriage (the stick symbolizes what the husband would beat the wife with but we can assume the fortune has evolved along gender parity lines to keep up with the times, not that I’m advocating wives beating their husbands either mind).


Sliced thick and slathered in salted butter, beside the fire with a cup of tea on a bright, if chilly, day—there’s nothing like it . I didn’t get the coin but I’m content. And I didn’t dress up this year for Halloween either. Sure amn’t I grand as I am?

The Coin

The Ring and the ButtonThe Thimble


Romantic Ireland’s Dead and Gone.

September 1913

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone?
For men were born to pray and save:
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Yet they were of a different kind,
The names that stilled your childish play,
They have gone about the world like wind,
But little time had they to pray
For whom the hangman’s rope was spun,
And what, God help us, could they save?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide;
For this that all that blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died,
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Yet could we turn the years again,
And call those exiles as they were
In all their loneliness and pain,
You’d cry, ‘Some woman’s yellow hair
Has maddened every mother’s son’:
They weighed so lightly what they gave.
But let them be, they’re dead and gone,
They’re with O’Leary in the grave.

WB Yeats

Yeats’ poem was published on this day a century ago in The Irish Times newspaper and its power and meaning have not diminished with the years.

The scorn he spits upon the country’s ugly materialism – and cultural-spiritual poverty – resonates today. Its elegiac refrain is well known by most Irish people and, in the recent recession, has been cited in the most bitter and sorry of tones.

Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone.

I’ve whispered it myself. When words have failed me, and I have failed them.

(I don’t know what to say of empty shop-fronts and ghost neighbourhoods, so many suicides and fields of abandoned horses. I don’t know what to say. As much as I loved my time at home this summer, I was saddened and troubled by the weariness and hardness I saw on so many people’s faces.)

Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone.

Poetry is proof. These lines act as a witness to reality; when you cannot believe your own eyes, they corroborate the story, say what you know and can’t say any better.

Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone. It’s with O’Leary in the grave. But who the fuck’s O’Leary?

I tell you now I didn’t know. Or, if I ever did at some point, had casually forgotten. I wonder if half the people who’ve invoked his name through the lines of the poem could tell you who the man was or what he stood – or fell – for. It’s a sad state of affairs when, with no heroes of your own to mourn, an ancient stranger’s name will do. As well him as another. (There are no others). Tragically, the best known O’Leary in today’s Ireland is the one fumbling in his greasy, no-frills airline, till. But nobody’s going to Paris or Faro, no. It’s back to the building-sites, down the down under mines. Brothers, sisters, friends: going about the world like wind.

Was it for this the wild geese spread the grey wing upon every tide?

Poetry is pretty, deceptive. The wild geese, the grey wing. Alliteration lures me to an enchanted place, wild, idyllic, free: romantic.

But sound and meaning are not the same thing. Beautiful words can be used to describe terrible things. The wild geese were those Irish men who went away to serve as soldiers in wars that weren’t their own. Blood was shed. What kind of romance is this? What kind of Ireland is being mourned here?

Yeats’ poem is compelling and I find myself nodding in agreement of feeling. And yet, ultimately, I don’t know what exactly he is saying is dead and gone or if I quite understand his vision of the romantic. I know that something has been lost, that something is broken in the country. One hundred long years later, much remains the same and the Ireland in this old poem seems familiar to me. But, while poetry can comfort and console, I want words that move towards a solution, rather than wallowing in lamentation for a world that never existed.

I can’t imagine what Ireland will look like in another hundred years. I can only hope that we find new words and better heroes and – as lovely as it is – that this poem will lose its truth in time and we can lay ourselves to rest.

Stream And Sun At Glendalough

I’m at home in Ireland for the month of August.

Early this week, I walked part of The Wicklow Way with Ian and my brother and sister. We wound our way from Dublin to Glendalough – a 6th century monastic settlement in a glacial valley – and lingered a day longer. It was so lovely.

Stream and Sun at Glendalough

This is a poem by William Butler Yeats, written there.

Stream and Sun at Glendalough

Through intricate motions ran
Stream and gliding sun
And all my heart seemed gay:
Some stupid thing that I had done
Made my attention stray.

Repentance keeps my heart impure;
But what am I that dare
Fancy that I can
Better conduct myself or have more
Sense than a common man?

What motion of the sun or stream
Or eyelid shot the gleam
That pierced my body through?
What made me live like these that seem
Self-born, born anew?

Monastic City, Glendalough