Ceiliúradh – Celebration

Sit back while I tell you a story. It’s not about China or food for once. It’s about something that runs deep within all of us – our sense of identity.
In 1994 I was a civil servant. Part of my job involved working with women’s groups and trying to find ways of tackling the problem of domestic violence against women. I got to know wonderful, strong women in representative and community groups all over the country. Some of them thought it would be good for me to meet with women in the disadvantaged Catholic communities in Belfast. At that time a ceasefire was underway and an unexpected consequence was an increase in violence against women in the communities from which the terrorists came. These women were working with their  colleagues in the south to try and identify the root causes of this upsurge in violence and to harness the energies of the women and men in more positive ways.
I spent some time meeting women in the Falls Road and other Catholic areas as they told me of their stories and struggles and the efforts they were making to reach out to women’s groups in Protestant working class areas who were facing similar challenges. This was a courageous strategy at the time. The fragile peace was far from stable and they risked the wrath of their menfolk and the wider community if their efforts to build bridges became known.
Two of the women took me in their car through a network of back streets across the Peace Line to meet women working in community groups on the Shankill Road, women struggling with the same challenges of deprivation and disconnection and the violence that permeated their lives. The Protestant women spoke to me with openness and passion about the problems in their community and the risks they were taking to build common ground. Their fears proved well-founded. One of the groups I met had their premises burnt out a short time later for fraternising with Catholics.
Those women, Protestant and Catholic, were ahead of their time. Long before their men found ways of accommodating one another they were quietly building understanding and empathy and getting to know one another’s hopes and dreams. They are the unsung heroes of the Northern Ireland Peace Process.
One thing led to another and through my new friends I met Jackie, a community worker who was trying to establish a men’s group on the Shankill Road to engage the men who found themselves at a loose end as a result of the cessation of violence. Like many an Irish woman who grew up in the south I was struggling to fully understand what the conflict was all about and wondering could the ceasefire hold.
One day he asked me if I was sure I really wanted to get an insight into the men’s thinking. I nodded a cautious assent. He took me high above the Shankill Road to a spot in Glencairn where Ulster Defence Association men gathered. The atmosphere was hostile. I was nervous. They were wary of a woman from the Republic who was most likely a Catholic (and I was unsure which of those three characteristics was the most problematic from their perspective). After an uneasy start they began to open up and talk, really talk… about the importance to them of flags and emblems, about the significance of the first world war in their history and how they felt it was ignored in the south, about their fears about their culture being absorbed in a nationalist Irish State, about their resentment of what they saw as the unfair treatment of the Protestant working class, decimated by the loss of jobs in traditional industries such as ship-building.
When the time came for me to leave, one of them appeared from a back room and placed a gun in my hands. In an attempt at levity he said “here, tell your boss it’s the first instalment of the consignment”. My boss at the time was Dick Spring the then Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and a leading player in the tentative peace process. I sincerely hope that that gun, with my finger prints on it, has long since been decommissioned along with all the other weapons of that troubled time.
I came down from that eerie spot and fell into the Palace Bar in Belfast to meet friends for a pint, shaken by the experience but with the beginnings of understanding of how far we all had to travel on these islands to build reconciliation. The tinkle of glasses, the lights of the city jolted me back into normality but I never forgot those encounters.
I thought of those women and men the other evening when I sat in the Albert Hall and witnessed Ceiliúradh – Celebration an evening of music, spoken word and dance lovingly curated by Philip King on the occasion of the State Visit of the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins to Britain. I thought of them and a lump welled up in my throat as Amhrán na Bhfiann and God Save the Queen rang out in succession in that august building and, in my minds eye, I saw the Tricolour and the Union Jack hanging proudly side by side on the streets of Windsor. As I listened to the words of writer Joe O’Connor I thought of all those people who have found themselves dislocated or dispossessed be they Irish emigrants in London or natives of Belfast caught, as they saw it, on the wrong side of the divide.
I thought of my great aunts Bella and Sheila who went to London to earn their living in the early 1950s and came back to sepia-coloured Wexford every summer with suitcases of exotic clothes and shoes from shops we could only dream of. I remembered my first trip to London on the mail boat with my Mum and Dad in the early 1960s and the novelty of triangular cartons of milk from dispensing machines in the Underground and seats in the “gods” at the London Palladium. I reflected on my mother and her family’s obvious regard for the royal family and all things British, tuning into ITV Wales and the BBC for preference, while my Dad’s father’s who fought in the War of Independence, spent time in Brixton prison and then fought his fellow countrymen in the Civil War, had photos of Michael Collins on his wall.
I spared a special thought for David Irvine leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, a former Ulster Volunteer Force member who became convinced of the importance of peace. I had flashbacks to an evening I spent with him in The Four Provinces pub in Washington at the time of the White House Economic Conference in May 1995 when he told me his life story and what drove him to want a better Northern Ireland for all. I wished he had lived to witness this evening along side John Major, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.
I watched the obvious delight of Princess Michael of Kent at the evenings entertainment and as the members of the Irish Defence Forces Pipe Band and the Band of the Irish Guards rang out “The Minstrel Boy” in unison the hairs stood on the back of my neck. The tears welled up once more when Olivia O’Leary spoke of recognising the small part we Irish and British will always be of one another noting “It’s official, we’re allowed to like the British now” only to return again at the grand finale – the voices of the choir from the Irish Community in London raised as one in “The Parting Glass”.
As we gathered our belongings to leave, the Irish man beside me who has lived in London for twenty years wanted to know where I was from in Ireland, as in exactly where I was from, right down to the parish. Despite his years in London he was Irish to the core but this week he felt as if he truly belonged in his adopted city.
I wonder now about the women I met in the Falls Road and the Shankill and the men I met in Glencairn all those years ago. I hope the intervening years have been good to them.
They can be justly proud of the part they played in bringing about peace and making our Ceiliúradh – our celebration -possible 20 years later. We have travelled so far on a pathway to peace and reconciliation, proud of our separate identities and appreciating what we have in common. Let the journey continue.

“Ar scath a chéile a mhairimíd. The shadow of the past has become the shelter of the present.” 

President Michael D. Higgins, April, 2014

5,000 people who care about Ireland under one roof
5,000 people who care about Ireland under one roof

A flash of the Tri-colour at the Royal Albert Hall
A flash of the Tri-colour at the Royal Albert Hall

President and Mrs Higgins with their royal highnesses Prince and Princess Michael of Kent
President and Mrs Higgins with their Royal Highnesses Prince and Princess Michael of Kent

Anticipation at the Royal Albert Hall
Anticipation at the Royal Albert Hall

You can watch Ceiliúradh – a Celebration on the RTE Player wherever you are in the world at this link.

Barbecue Joe comes to Cloughjordan House

It’s strange the way good things happen. On Friday afternoon last, a quiet weekend in prospect, I dropped into The Corkscrew on Chatham Row and spotted that signed copies of Neven Maguire’s MacNean Restaurant Cookbook were on special offer for €15. I hopped on Twitter to broadcast this good news – this great cookbook includes lots of the recipes that feature in Neven’s latest series on RTE in which he makes his more complex dishes accessible and gives you the confidence that you can recreate them at home. At that price his book is a steal and includes recommendations for wines to match the recipes which you can pick up at The Corkscrew. But I digress…
I don’t usually visit Twitter at that time on a Friday afternoon but skimming through my time line I spotted a tweet from @sarahbakercooks with a competition for a free cancellation place at a barbecue class at Cloughjordan House the following day. Now I’ve been meaning to visit that cookery school for some time so the prospect of a barbecue course, just as I need inspiration to get going on my Big Green Egg for the summer season – was enough to make me willing to drop everything and re-arrange my weekend. And so when Sarah tweeted later that evening that I had won the place I did just that and headed off at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning to North Tipperary. Derry came along to take the photos.

"Hmm is any of that for me?"
“Hmm is any of that for me?”

The course was given by Brendan of BBQ Joe who specialises in low ‘n slow cooking. Ireland being such a small place it turned out that I had met Brendan once before when he was restaurant manager at Sheen Falls in Kenmare. He has now re-invented himself and caters for weddings and other large events, cooking the best of Irish produce on his own custom built charcoal grills, smokers and pits. Watch out for him later this year when he barbecues on a grand scale for visiting american footballers and their fans.
I was delighted when we arrived to discover that he would be cooking on a Grill Dome. This Kamado style ceramic barbecue is very similar in concept and performance to the Big Green Egg so I felt right at home. I remain devoted to my Egg but it’s great to know that there are alternative products on the market that fulfil a similar function.
This was Brendan’s first cookery demo and I loved his relaxed and informal style as he shared his passion for barbecuing and the tips and insights he has picked up as he builds up his business. He has travelled widely to study techniques in places as different as Texas, Turkey and Georgia.  He works alongside professional chefs but brings his own un-cheffy and intuitive approach to producing tasty food for sharing.
Picking up a tip or two
Picking up a tip or two from a master

Brendan took some time at the beginning of the class to talk about different types of charcoal fuel and ways of lighting your barbecue – a “weed burner” has been added to my wish list as a result. He confirmed that it’s important to use the best quality lump wood charcoal you can get hold of – the heavier and denser the better. I’ve been using Big Green Egg Organic Lump Charcoal and Big K Restaurant Charcoal with good results. Both are available for delivery from A Room Outside in Limerick. Brendan also encourages the use of local wood shavings as a way of adding flavour – a handful of oak wood shavings or left over wood chips from whiskey barrels from your local distillery can work wonders. My next door neighbour in Duncannon left me in a bag of oak wood shavings  recently which I will now put to good use.
Then he spent some time on the basics of putting together a good BBQ Rub and BBQ Sauce as well as how to prepare a Charcoal Salt which is a nifty way of adding a little delicate charcoal flavour to your meats.
Micro-planing a little charcoal into the salt
Micro-planing a little charcoal into the salt

First up in the cooking, Brendan showed us how to prepare pulled pork – that quintessential barbecue dish beloved of Texans. While it cooked away low and slow, and Brendan explained the internal temperature “plateau” at around 70 degrees c which scares the wits out of most wannabe BBQ chefs the first time we encounter it, he produced one he prepared earlier (as all good cookery teachers do!) and showed us how to serve it in buns mixed with barbecue sauce and layered with a fresh crisp coleslaw including fennel and some paprika mayonnaise. That was our brunch – or breakfast in my case.
Pulled pork in a bun
Pulled pork in a bun

The edge taken off our appetite we went on to prepare rib eye steaks on the bone, each about 6 cms thick. We seasoned them simply with charcoal salt, cooked them over high direct heat, flipping them often and rested them on a board dressing of oil, parsley, pepper, garlic and chilli. The trick here lay in the quality of the well-aged steak and simple seasonings that allowed the flavour of the meat to come through.
Now that's what I call a steak
Now that’s what I call a steak

Or three..
Or three..

All dressed up and ready to serve
All dressed up and ready to serve

We tried out a few other dishes to prove the point that barbecues don’t have to be all about expensive meats. A pork bomb made with minced pork and stuffed with sauerkraut and wrapped in a bacon lattice held its shape beautifully and worked well with barbecue sauce.
Unwrapping the pork bomb
Unwrapping the pork bomb for the BBQ

Easing the pork onto the BBQ
Easing the pork bomb onto the BBQ

Pork bomb stuffed with sauerkraut
Done – pork bomb stuffed with sauerkraut

Chicken koftas made with thigh meat were glazed with pomegranate molasses and served with a satay sauce and some tzatziki.
Rustling up a satay sauce
Rustling up a satay sauce

Prawns and chorizo made an eye catching kebab needing little more than lime juice and zest to dress them.
Prawns and chorizo ready to cook
Prawns and chorizo ready to cook

Salmon was cooked skinless on a buttered tray and drizzled with flavoured honey and red pepper corns or lime to add a little flavour.
Salmon two ways
Salmon two ways

In barbecues the focus is firmly on the protein with side dishes playing a supporting role but we prepared portobello mushrooms with a filling of baba ganoush made from barbecued aubergine which would keep many a vegetarian happy. It can be teamed with haloumi cheese and roasted peppers for a more filling vegetarian option.
Aubergines roasting around the pork for baba ganoush
Aubergines roasting around the pork for baba ganoush

Portobello mushrooms on the grill extender
Portobello mushrooms on the grill extender

Side dishes were designed to add colour and we made a mango salsa and feta and watermelon salad that provided a light and refreshing contrast to the main event.
Mango salsa
Mango salsa

All through the day Brendan shared great tips such as using half an onion on a fork dipped in rapeseed oil, star anise, bay leaf and peppercorns as a “brush” for your grill, using apple juice and cider vinegar as a spray to moisten your meat, oiling the barbecue not the meat, cleaning your griddle with a wedge of lime, making board dressings… all of these will stay with me as I experiment in the coming months and try to develop my own personal style. “Taste and correct” will become my BBQ mantra. He taught us how to make the best use of space on the grill and sequence our dishes so that we got the maximum value from our charcoal.
As the day wore on and we got chatting to the other participants on the course, I was chuffed to discover that Greg from the nearby eco-village in Cloughjordan had used my recipe for turkey on the Big Green Egg to prepare Christmas dinner for his family and friends and it had worked for him too. Sometimes when you write a food blog you wonder if anyone out there is reading it and it’s so lovely to meet someone who has stumbled on it when googling for a recipe. Thank you Greg for making my day.
Cloughjordan House Cookery School is a very pleasant space in which to work for and is particularly popular as a venue for transition and fifth year students  where cooking is combined with gathering fresh produce from the community farm. The main house is 400 years old and also offers bed and breakfast and a wedding venue. Some of the participants in the course had stayed over the night before and I look forward to returning for a more leisurely visit and a taste of Sarah and Peter’s hospitality.
Thank you Sarah and Peter of Cloughjordan House Cookery School and  Brendan of BBQ Joe for a great day out and lots of inspiration to which I hope to give a Chinese twist in weeks to come.
Meanwhile to whet your appetite here’s Brendan’s basic recipe for BBQ Sauce which can be adapted to personal taste. For instance you can spice it up with chilli powder if you wish
BBQ Joe’s Sauce

  • 2 cans tomatoes
  • 20ml worcestershire sauce
  • 45g castor sugar
  • 50g treacle
  • 1 tsp dijon mustard
  • 30g barbecue rub (use your personal favourite)
  • ½ tin of pineapple drained
  • 150ml apple cider vinegar
  • 160 ml water

Combine all ingredients in a pot. Bring to a simmer over gentle heat to ensure the sugar has dissolved. Blitz with a hand blender to a smooth consistency.