A letter to my granddaughter

[When I travelled to China a little over two years ago to meet my grandson Dermot Gao O’Neill for the first time, I wrote him a letter before I met him in person. Now I am making a similar journey via Dubai to Sydney to meet my first grand daughter Caitlyn who was born to my daughter Claire and her husband Mike on 7th April. It feels really important to say these things to her before I am overwhelmed by the scent of her and the feel of her in my arms. So from the distorted reality that is air travel and with the benefit of Emirates On Air wi-fi, here goes. Maybe someday you will read it to her Claire and maybe some day she will read it herself.]

A tough winter's day at the beach for Claire and Ciatlyn
A tough winter’s day at the “office” for Claire and Caitlyn

Dear Caitlyn Alice, daughter of my daughter, my very own Katy Bee,
The tracking map on my A380 says the time to our destination in Sydney is 7 hrs 34 minutes so in about 10 hours time I hope to meet you for the first time. Every day for the past 4 and a half weeks I have studied your photos, a new one most days, trying to guess at your emerging personality. I look at photos taken of Dermot when he was your tender age and see in him the glimpses of the fun-loving two year old he has grown into with buckets of personality and charm.
Am I right in thinking you will be a girl with attitude? A slightly quizzical way of looking at life, taking it seriously but taking it all in? Do I already detect an independence of spirit despite this being the most dependent time of your life? I hope so Caitlyn because being a girl is not easy, not even when you are born in the 21st century to a loving family with a strong Mum and Dad who will do everything they can to prepare you for your life ahead.
You come from a long line of strong women Katy, just take a look at your mother whom you’ve spent every waking moment with since you were born and whose moods and moments you must have got to know in the 9 months you spent in her womb as she grappled with tough challenges at work and strode the hills with us in Tasmania last December, walking for 6 hours with you in her belly making your presence felt. Look at your maternal great grandmother, my own Mum, who is still enjoying life to the full, relishing travel and still learning something new every day.
You are named for your great grandmother Alice, your grandad’s Mum. Now there was a strong woman if ever there was one, a woman of ferocious intelligence who reared 10 children in Ireland when times were much tougher than they are now. She would like that you are her namesake I think and have things she would have wanted to say to you given half a chance. But Alice is also the name of my Mum’s Mum, my beloved Nan who I remember for her glorious mix of fun and silliness and her relationship with her gaggle of sisters. I spent a lot of time with my Nan who was young enough to pass for my mother when she collected me from school and it only seems like yesterday that I was just old enough to run down the road from my school to her bungalow in Wexford and feast on “jelly and cornflour” before heading home to my Mam, Dad and brothers for dinner. And of course your other granny, your Nain, an accomplished woman in her own right, will be able to teach you all about your Welsh legacy.
I’ve never had a sister Katy, I’ve never had the easy bond of friendship with other girls that I see between my sisters in law, your granddad’s sisters. I only had one daughter, your Mum. Perhaps that is why I thrived in a so-called man’s world and why my relationship with my Mum and your Mum are so important to me. Perhaps that’s why I feel so in awe and almost trepidation as I count down the hours and minutes until we meet. Will we two get the chance to have a special granny granddaughter relationship? Will we manage to conquer the distance between us in space, time and life experiences to build something wonderful that will stand the test of time just like my memories of my own two grannies are strong nearly 60 years later.
Believe me there are so many things I will want to share with you as you grow, so many warnings I will want to give, so many times I will want to say “stand up, get out there and be strong”, “hold on to your sense of yourself”, “don’t loose your essential self”, “don’t let the battering ram of life’s experience divert you from the course you choose for yourself”. And I will say “just look at your own mother – her spirit and resilience, her sense of fun and adventure, her core of values and strong sense of responsibility and respect for others”. And on the days when you two clash, as you inevitably will, but only for a short while, think of the little girl I remember tentatively taking her first scared steps into the tame sea off the Irish coast when not much older than Dermot is now who I watched in awe swim for several miles in the shark-infested waters off the New South Wales Coast. For your mother wont always be right, just nearly always.
Australian, Welsh, Irish. You are of me but not of me Caitlyn Alice. You have been born into a far more equal society than I first knew. And yet I’m not convinced how deep those societal changes go. You will still face all the baggage that society imposes on girls, the expectations and risks that all young women face, the inevitable guilt you will feel as you juggle your gender and your need to nurture and care with your desire to achieve just like the boys. So here’s my first tip – practice on the cat. Because if you can tame the tiger within him and win his affection it wont be a bad start in winning friends and influencing people.
May you always be beautiful but may your beauty come from within so that you remind us to avoid the girly labels and also see whatever cheeky, cheerful or serious side of you emerges. Wear pink if you like it but also purples and reds and blues and whatever strong colours take your fancy. And grey, we already think grey suits you. Read lots and lots of books. Get to know your heritage – three nations now – through songs and stories. Read “boy” stories as well as “girl” stories and identify with the lead character in both. And make up your own stories – re-write the traditional fairly tales and nursery rhymes if the girls in them sound too pliable to you or there are too many wicked witches for your liking, Your Mum was walking miles from the age of two, the age your cousin Dermot is now. The buggy relinquished “I’ll do it myself” was her favourite phrase. Get out there and walk those beautiful beaches and mountains of New South Wales for you are privileged that your Mum has given birth to you in such a beautiful place.
Form your own belief system as you grow. It wont be identical to your Mum or Dad’s or mine, or your half-Chinese cousin now growing up in Ireland. But it will be shaped by all those influences including the powerful ethical core in your Mum and Dad. Have a mind of your own but one that listens to the wisdom of the elders and never takes for granted the strides women have made in less than 100 years towards greater freedom. And never forget the many baby girls born at the same time as you who wont be lucky enough to experience such freedom.
Make a point of loving life, the good times and the bad. Relish each new experience, Get the joy out of the small things starting now, that strange whirly thing over your cot, that furry fella that likes to snuggle near your toes and invade your space, the sound of your mother’s voice, the look of pure love on your father’s face – because that’s a whole other story. Father – daughter relationships are a special kind of magic. Embrace the enthusiasm for life and the zest that I can vouch for being handed down by the four generations of women on my side alone because I can still remember sitting on the arm of my own great grandmother’s chair brushing her hair and her excitement at her first trips in a motor car when she was already in her 80s.
Stay safe little one, for the world is a scary place especially for girls. So never let the sense of adventure I hope you will have get in the way of a grounded common sense that keeps you on guard for hidden dangers.
And finally Katy Bee, busy bee that you will inevitably be, leave just a teeny weeny bit of space in your busy life to get to know me, even if we have to do it mostly by FaceTime at first. It will mean a lot to us both some day. That’s all I can guarantee.
With all the love a heart can muster
Your Granny Julie
10 May 2015

Two years on… a blog post about Blogging

Chillin' in Alghero, Sardina
Chillin’ in Alghero, Sardina

As I write I am sitting on the balcony of a little apartment in a residential part of Alghero in Sardinia. The sounds of families at their evening meals echo around the courtyard below, the clatter of cutlery and tables being set, towels being beaten off balconies and hung out to dry, the bells of several churches pealing the Angelus in a strange kind of harmony, the more distant sound of mopeds and traffic and children playing football in a playground. The tantalising smell of pork sizzling on a grill wafts through an open window.
It is August down time. I’ve just spent several days without access to wifi  or a mobile phone signal and I’ve been reflecting on how I accidentally became a blogger and why I might continue.
It’s just over two years since I started writing this blog. The inspiration, apart from a growing fascination with Chinese food and culture, was the news that my son Shane and his wife Shan were expecting a baby in Beijing who was bound to cement our Irish and Chinese families together. At the same time my daughter Claire and her Welsh husband Mike were settling in Australia. Our lives were set to get that bit more interesting, complicated and global.
Since then the blog and life has evolved in ways I hadn’t expected. The gleam of a dream that was #BabyShananigans is now our 18 month old grandson Dermot, a cheeky, cheerful, engaging life force all of his own who has managed to captivate all of our hearts. Shane and Shan held their Irish wedding and Dermot’s Christening in Wexford last December attended by our own and Shan’s extended family, most of whom who had not ventured outside China before. Meanwhile Claire and Mike have got Australian citizenship and found a beautiful home near Sydney.
We have all become citizens of the world with long-haul travel now part of our life blood, some part of us always looking forward to the next trip and recalling longingly the last, getting used to communicating by FaceTime, marvelling at each improvement in signal quality and broadband speed and how, despite my fears, you really can build a relationship with a toddler over thousands of miles of distance.
And my “encore” career with a variety of projects that keeps growing, now includes an attempt to set up an Ireland China Institute within the Institute for International and European Affairs. China and its people have crept under my skin alongside a growing admiration for its food, culture and language.
My project to learn from Shan how to cook authentic Chinese dishes has gradually morphed into a broader, haphazard exploration of Chinese cuisine, occasional cookery demonstrations with my friend Robert Jacob and baby steps towards learning the language. Shan’s friend and bridesmaid Wei Wei, who writes her own blog My Chinese Kitchen is now my teacher of both the language and Chinese cooking here in Dublin.
Just over a year ago I acquired a Big Green Egg because it resembled a traditional Chinese clay oven and might solve my dilemma of how to cater for Christmas dinner and Twelve Days of Christmas for Shan’s extended Chinese family. This “not just a barbecue” smoker, roaster, grill, pizza oven, kamado oven all in one unleashed a creative surge and I’ve discovered even more about the joy of experimenting with recipes and preparing ingredients  – long slow cooking and pizzas on my Egg, fast stir-fries in my wok and sometimes a combination of both. I’ve even tried a Chinese take on pizzas.
I continue to write about travel in Italy, China and Australia, often wishing that I could write mid-experience but knowing I must put such thoughts to one side so that I can live the moment and not just be an observer. Sometimes that means I’ve a series of half drafted blog posts and little time to complete them. But the very act of recalling the experience later to write about it helps cement the memories in my mind.
Italy was my first love long before China snuck under my skin but I’ve got used to the idea that I have no hope of Italian relatives now that I have Chinese and Welsh ones. Instead I have surreptitiously “adopted” my friend and Italian teacher Solange and her Irish twin sons who have a gorgeous mix of  Argentinian and Romanian blood in them too. They are my Italian “family” in more ways than one and the resonance between Chinese, Irish and Italian families are strong.
Once in a while I will review a restaurant. I could happily spend a lot of my time reviewing the fruits of my favourite hobby – finding interesting places to eat out – but there are others who do that much better than me and I rapidly run out of superlatives. Still, when I find a gem or a local treasure, I cant resist writing about it.
And from time to time I write about family or rather what it is like to be a long distance granny and the mother to two children that live on the opposite side of the world. Sometimes those pieces feel like the best bits of writing I do, straight from the heart, written in one sitting, effortlessly. There is always a risk that writing like that will paint an artificial picture of an idyllic family life. That’s not the case of course. Every family has it’s share of tragedies, traumas and day to day tensions. But for me these pieces are a release valve for the overwhelming experience of becoming a grandparent, a love for which nothing – not even being a parent – quite prepares you, and also for the realisation that your relationship with your children can deepen and strengthen as they become adults, even when they live on the other side of the world.
So to mark the second anniversary of the blog I did a bit of reorganising of its contents to make the posts you are interested in easier to find. Most of the feedback I get on the comes via Twitter and I know, for instance, that some of you who follow Shananigans never cook any of the recipes but enjoy the underlying stories, the glimpses of Chinese family life and the tales of travel to exotic places. Blog posts that are mainly about family, travel or food reviews now have their own categories.
Other readers have their favourite Chinese recipes that they cook again and again. These are now grouped, by main ingredient, in the “Recipes” section of the blog which is sub-divided into Chinese recipes, those for the Big Green Egg and Irish or fusion recipes that don’t fit neatly into either of the other categories. I’ve put in a “Menu Plans” section too because I’m always looking for ideas for how to put various recipes together into a manageable meal.
There is a growing band of BBQ enthusiasts here in Ireland and abroad who go straight for the latest Big Green Egg recipe which is why I have grouped those together. Indeed those of us who purchased our Eggs from A Room Outside in Limerick are rapidly forming our own little support group sharing tips and recipes and fun. Barbecuing is not just for the boys!
Recently I added a list of my favourite blogs to the home page, blogs that I follow and return to again and again because I love the way they are written and they suck me into the writer’s world. I will add to this slowly over time.
I have sometimes thought of taking a hiatus in blogging, a pause to regroup as life gets so busy. But then a germ of an idea pops into my head and I feel the need to write there and then. So my posts have become a little more sporadic but still emerge, as if with a mind of their own, about three or four times each month. Right now I have half written posts about Hong Kong, Sardinia, Big Green Egg essentials, some new recipes from Wei Wei and a few new recipes of my own. Any day now I will finish some of them off.
Over the last two years I have made many new friends through the blog, friends who I feel I know very well through their reaction to what I write even though in some cases we haven’t even met. Thank you for your responses and encouragement that meet the need of every writer, even us amateurs, to be heard and to feel that sometimes a small something of what we write has a ripple effect out into the lives of others and an echoing resonance that connects us all around the world.

Twilight Zone

Somewhere in the skies over Asia I hover suspended between worlds. Around me the cabin lights are dim, just an occasional splash of moving colour from tiny seat-back tv screens. The flight is half empty and passengers are sprawled full length across rows of seats, dozing fitfully. Earphones, emitting soothing classical music, mask the throb of jet engines. An occasional jolt of turbulence reminds me that I am airborne and high above the Indian Ocean. Thoughts drift inevitably and nervously to the tragic passengers on flight MH 370.  What did they know of their fate? What will we ever know? Enough never to take long-haul air travel for granted again, or to fasten a safety belt at take-off without offering a blessing for them and their families.
Somewhere in Beijing my son Shane tosses and turns, sleeping lightly in anticipation of his parent’s arrival. Shan pulls the duvet over her head hoping for a brief Saturday morning lie-in. My little grandson plays in his cot, babbling away to himself and wondering if he dares wake MaMa and DaDa up just yet. He senses a mood of excitement in the air, a rush of apartment cleaning yesterday, a particular spring in his Dad’s step, a giddiness in the FaceTime call with his Nai Nai and Ye Ye who were in some noisy busy place with what looked like very big birds in the background. But hey he’s living in the moment and that toy just out of reach is much more important right now. Maybe it is time to call DaDa.

"My current favourite toy"
“My current favourite toy”

Somewhere in Sydney my daughter Claire stretches and rises to an Autumn Saturday morning and contemplates the Chinese feast she is planning for a group of her friends this evening, a house warming in her and Mike’s beautiful new home. But first perhaps there is time for a brisk walk at Clovelley Beach and to find the ingredients for Peking Duck and Hoisin Sauce made the way her Mum likes it.
Claire's new kitchen
Claire’s new kitchen

Somewhere in Austria my Mum settles down for a night’s sleep, reliving her day of sight-seeing with my brother and his wife, marvelling at the things she has seen that she never expected to see in her life-time and wishing my Dad was there to share the adventure.
A "selfie" from my Mum in Innsbruck
A “selfie” from my Mum in Innsbruck

Somewhere, sometimes it is good to pause and reflect and to savour the moment and the anticipation.
After the excitement of Shananigans’ Christmas and Shane and Shan’s wedding it has been a hectic 14 weeks since we last spent time with our little Chinese family.
In our weekly FaceTime calls we can spot the changes in Dermot. Gone is the crawling baby who quickly found every danger spot in our house, to be replaced by a little boy with a new haircut toddling around on two feet and finding a whole new level of treasures now within his reach. His infectious personality and fun-loving spirit emerge more distinctly with every passing week. And as for his love of food, well he didn’t lick it off the stones.
"Ooh these Pig's Elbows are good"
“Ooh these Pig’s Elbows are good”

He knows us now on FaceTime, getting giddy whenever he hears the sound of an incoming call and waiting with restless impatience when Shane or Shan try to connect with us. He is just beginning to say his first words in Mandarin. We have silly games we play during our iPad chats as he dips in and out of the conversation, wandering off when he gets bored with grown-up talk.
But I still can’t imagine the feel of him, the squidgy hugs, the life-force of the three-dimensional him. Each time I get back to him it’s the same but different – the same joyous tug at the heart-strings coupled with the need to get to know the newness of him all over again, the same nervousness about how he will react – wide-eyed maybe, perhaps even a bit scared – to seeing us in the flesh but knowing that it will be ok, even if it takes a while. There are bonds that can’t be broken.
Busy work schedules haven’t left much time for cooking, blogging or reading in recent weeks. You have been very patient kind readers as I can see from Google Analytics that, despite that, you continue to dip in and out of the blog every day. I intend to rectify my lapses over the next week or two by reporting on our nine day visit to Beijing and our latest adventures in China. Watch out for tweets from me @julieon with the hashtag #NaiNaiVisit and posts on Shananigans Facebook Page too.
I’m also hoping to read more about China and by Chinese writers while I’m here. I’ve just finished Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li who grew up in Beijing and moved to the United States in 1996 and I can highly recommend it. It weaves between the present day and 1990s China in a haunting tale of the ties that bind with striking insights into the way of life and mindset of Beijingers.
I can’t rival Des Bishop – and by the way if you haven’t watched Des Bishop – Breaking China you simply must, you will find the first three episodes on RTE Player – he captures the essence of Beijing and the Chinese in his own inimitable style. But let’s see if we can have some fun, new experiences and good food over the next nine days as well as some much needed Nai Nai time, with Ye Ye getting a look in too.
So sit back, fasten your seat belts and enjoy the ride.

Saying goodbye to the Gao O'Neills… for now

One step closer to running amok
One step closer to running amok

(written on 20th January, 2014)
I’m writing this through misty eyes while Dermot potters around finding the most dangerous thing in the room to play with and Shane and Shan try to whittle down their wedding photos to those to be included in their album. Their difficulty choosing photos echoes mine as I sift  the memories of the past five magical weeks.
Tomorrow it’s officially over. Tomorrow Shane, Shan and Dermot return to China to celebrate the Chinese New Year with Shan’s family in Urumqi, the first time the Gao clan will all be together for Spring Festival for many, many moons.
Tomorrow I will gather up the scattered toys around my house and return them to their rightful owners along with the borrowed travel cot. I will straighten out Claire’s room which has recently become First Auntie’s room, then Dermot’s and will soon become Jodie’s again as my niece returns to university this week and to lodging with us. I will put the last of 14 sets of bed clothes on to wash, make up the spare room bed and the house will return to normal or what used to be normal before Dermot infused it with his cheery presence. That’s tomorrow.
But for today I just want to live in the moment with us still under one roof and to absorb some of the memories of a time that will surely become legend in our family history.
Where to start? Shane, Shan and Dermot’s arrival at Dublin Airport on 15th December – a sleepy, lost-looking little boy “making strange” and bewildered after his long journey who quickly made our house his home. An evening in Duncannon on the 20th, quiet time for my Mum with her only great grand child and a splendid dinner for the six of us at Aldridge Lodge.
Taking a shine to Joanne at Aldridge Lodge
Taking a shine to Joanne at Aldridge Lodge

The arrival of Shan’s family on the day before Christmas Eve, our house suddenly overwhelmed on a stormy night, as the group unravelled out of a people carrier with noise and baggage and laughter, most of them meeting their newest family member for the first time, and sitting down immediately to home-cooked Chinese food before taking off again to make it to Duncannon before midnight.
Welcome to Ireland Gao clan
Welcome to Ireland Gao clan

The unexpected appearance of our daughter Claire and Mike later that same evening, bringing forward their flight from Manchester for fear of being caught by the gales on Christmas Eve – a third dash to the airport in a week. More smiles and tears of joyous welcome and the unexpected opportunity to sit and chat before joining the crowd in Duncannon the next day.
Christmas Eve, chaotic, wind sweeping cartons of drinking glasses out of our hands and shattering them to tiny pieces in a Wexford car park. Peking style duck and rack of lamb served  to 18 from the Big Green Egg alongside Claire’s signature meatballs, Claire and Mike getting used to the scale of our newly extended family.
A tiny Santa on Christmas morning melting all our hearts. The rare sight of 5 Christmas stockings lined up on the fireplace, my off-spring and their families under one roof for a few brief days. Christmas Mass in Star of the Sea, Claire emotional at returning to the Church in which she married and recalling the sad and happy events since her and Mike’s special day.
Exchanging gifts with the Gaos under the tree – their first ever celebration of Christmas – followed by a walk for them at Hook Head and Duncannon beach and, later, dinner with turkey cooked to moist perfection on the Big Green Egg. Blessed by a mild, calm day between the wild storms I didn’t even get wet in the cooking.
"Ooh I like this Christmas lark"
“Ooh I like this Christmas lark”

A right Shananigans of a Christmas
A right Shananigans of a Christmas

Christmas at the seaside
Christmas Day at Hook Head and Duncannon

Getting in the Christmas spirit
Getting in the Christmas spirit

A Stephen’s Day walk to The Local at Dunbrody and Mike’s first experience of the Wren Boys, a relaxed day followed by all the last minute wedding preparations and the fun of cooking 8 pizzas on the Big Green Egg – Second Auntie proving to be a dab hand at putting the pizzas together.
The 28th of December, Shan and Shane’s wedding day  and Dermot’s Christening Day in Wexford – ah what a day. From start to finish it was special and the sun even shone for us, only the second break in the wild weather over Christmas. Too special to slip into the middle of a blogpost I gave it one of its own.
Then back to Duncannon to prepare a barbecue for 30 including Shan & Shane’s friends who had travelled from Beijing, a task made considerably easier thanks to Eunice Power, who left me salads, confit duck noodles and homemade beef burgers after the wedding, and Shan’s bridesmaid Wei Wei who turned the left over noodles into a sizzling and spicy Chinese feast.
A frenetic, frazzled morning on Monday 30th, packing up Duncannon and rushing to get Claire and Mike back to Dublin Airport and onwards to Australia. Cue tears and sad goodbyes tinged with happiness at how good the two of them are together and the precious time they had with their new godson Dermot and with Shane and Shan. Returning home slightly nervous at the prospect of 14 of us including our Chinese in-laws under one roof in Shankill for a week but rescued from cooking duties that night by my friend Ann who had made a huge beef casserole to welcome our guests back from Duncannon.
A New Year’s Eve buffet with bling, dumplings made by a super-efficient Chinese production line and a final celebratory dinner at China Sichuan and Chinese tea ceremony at home rounded off Shan’s family’s visit and we saw them off two weeks ago, delighted with their Irish holiday.
Gao Feng shares the art of making pu'er tea
Gao Feng shares the art of making pu’er tea

Goodbye Gao clan
Goodbye Gao clan

Since then it has been quieter but a very precious time with Shane, Shan and Dermot. Time to get to know his moods and moments throughout the day, loosing my rookie Nai Nai status and getting confident minding him on my own, introducing him to the ducks and swings at Stephen’s Green, watching him grow in stature and confidence, acquire his first pair of shoes and move to standing and walking with one finger support. His first steps can’t be long away.
Jammin' with Dad
Jammin’ with Dad

"Ooh Granddad what big hands you have!"
“Ooh Granddad what big hands you have!”

Today, our last full day, I took Dermot off on his own for a Nai Nai adventure. On a beautiful sunny day we walked in Phoenix Park and I introduced him to Aras An Uacthtarain, a symbol of one half of his identity. We had lunch together in the Visitor Centre and we spoke about things that matter, him in baby talk, me in words he won’t remember.
Long after Dermot has been reabsorbed into his Chinese world, long after this house has been returned to a state of order as if the tide came in and washed away the evidence of his being here, long after the border of his tiny finger prints around the coffee table is no more, I will remember this day. I will hold it close to my heart like a little precious gem, as precious as Dermot is and always will be. In the words of my current favourite children’s book “I love you to the moon… and back.”
So that’s it. A job done. A plan fulfilled to the letter. A sense of achievement tinged with sadness that it’s all over and an ache at the prospect of missing watching Dermot grow over the coming months.
Meltdown moments during  the Christmas period (or what my friends call my “choppy choppy” moments) – five (but I’m not revealing them!). Precious memories – uncountable.
Safe journey home little family. I think it’s time to plan a trip to China.
A walk in the Phoenix Park
A walk in the Phoenix Park

Shan, Shane & Dermot's Special Day – 28th December 2013

Christmas is over. We’ve packed the last box of decorations into the attic. Claire and Mike have arrived back in Sydney where they are grappling with jet-lag and a welcome return to summer heat. Shan’s family are in an icy Beijing en route to Xinjiang Province for the Chinese New Year. Shane, Shan and Dermot will follow them there in a few weeks time.
It’s a time for getting the house back in order after playing host to 17 under one roof and for reminiscing on a memorable few weeks before taking on the challenges of a new year It’s a time for duvet days if an 11 month old grandson and a work schedule jostling for attention would allow.
Of all the special days of Shananigans Christmas, the 28th December – the day of Shan and Shane’s wedding and Dermot’s christening – stands out. For me that day was the culmination of over six months of planning with them long distance to create a unique celebration of Chinese and Irish traditions. As Shane pointed out in his speech, I even let them have their own way from time to time. Mind you he also thanked Shan for letting him have the fairytale wedding he always dreamed of…
We couldn’t have been luckier with the  group of people who worked so hard with us to make the day a success. They included our very special priest friend Fr. Aodhan Marken who conducted the service at Crossabeg Church, Margaret Caulfield and her parents at Slaney Manor, Ingrid at Slaney Flowers, my sister-in-law Ann Marie Corcoran who sang at the wedding and her brother Patrick Clancy who along with his band Some Like it Hot provided the music, my sister-in-law Colette McKenny who made the wedding cake, our friend Tiedong Yang who helped with interpretation for Shan’s family, my brother Jim and his wife Maria whose unofficial duties included chauffeur and Christian and Dearbhala from Brown Sugar who transformed a number of us women for the day.
I found two of the most important contributors to the success of the day through Twitter. Eunice Power was superb, not just her sublime food that catered for both Chinese and Irish tastes but her personal warmth and efficiency and her fabulous front of house service led by the unflappable Grace O’Callaghan. Paul Sherwood took the official photos and his relaxed, professional style made easy going of what can sometimes be the boring part of the wedding for the couple themselves.
Paul took over 300 photos capturing precious moments throughout the day. The photos below were taken by him except for the one of Shane waiting at the altar, the one of them cutting the cake and the two of Shan in her red dress later in the evening.
Paul took a better official photo of the cake cutting but I love the quirky one caught by a friend and included here. It is Chinese tradition for the bride to wear red during her wedding and Shan changed for their first dance which was to “One” by U2, the song to which she and Shane had their first kiss.
Shane’s best man was his close friend Oisin who he went to visit in China 7 years ago, a life-altering journey for both of them. Shan’s bridesmaid Wei Wei is Oisin’s wife. Her brother Gao Feng “gave her away”. Dermot’s godparents are our daughter Claire and her husband Mike. Lucky Dermot.
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
2013-12-30 10.37.16
Frist Dance
One by U2
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
I hope the photos give you a little glimpse of a very special day. I know I’m totally biased but wasn’t Shan a gorgeous bride and don’t they make a lovely couple, not to mention our much-loved grandson Dermot.
After the magic, normal service will resume shortly at Shananigans.


A Buffet with Bling and Chinese Dumplings – the perfect start to 2014

Sometimes life has a way of turning full circle.
Last New Year’s Day I remember remarking on the beautiful morning in Duncannon and the start of a “shiny new year”. Within three days we had lost Derry’s mother and within a few weeks his younger sister Deirdre. Both deaths were unexpected. Suddenly the new year didn’t seem so shiny any more. But you get through things and you get on with it and baby Dermot arrived on the 5th of February to brighten all our loves (that should have read “lives” but the slip seems somehow appropriate). And the year ended on a high note with a true Shananigans of a Christmas, followed by Shan and Shane’s wedding and Dermot’s Christening on 28th December.
I’ve so much to write. So many moments and emotions to absorb after the whirlwind of the last few weeks since Shane, Shan and Dermot arrived on 15th December – a bewildered small child plucked out of his familiar Beijing apartment and plunged into the confusing sights and sounds of an Irish Christmas who quickly made our home his own – followed a week later by nine of Shan’s Chinese family and my daughter and her husband from Australia.
But I’m going to start near the end, back in Shankill, after Claire and her husband Mike had been and gone, leaving behind the imprint of their infectious personalities, after the intensity of the Christmas celebrations.
Truth be told I’ve never liked New Year’s Eve much. I always feel as if I am clinging on for those last few hours to the dying year, to the memories of those loved and lost in the year gone by and with a sense of foreboding about what the coming year may hold. This year I was determined it would be different. It was the first time our Chinese in-laws had celebrated a western new year and it was our own unique Gathering to end a year of Gatherings. I wanted to see it out in style.
Robert Jacob provided my inspiration – a New Year’s Eve buffet with bling. I had attended his course at Donnybrook Fair Cookery School in December. I saw how he put it all together in three to four hours. I had blogged about the menu in my post on the Twelve Days of Shananigans Christmas and, despite being tired after a two weeks of non-stop entertaining, I was determined to deliver.
Well 8 hours of preparation later, including a minor pastry crisis, several phone calls to Robert and accepting his offer to make the gold-dusted Chocolate Log for me, I served  up the full buffet up to our enthusiastic guests including our close friends from across the road. Our Chinese in-laws loved the food and how it was presented. They described it as like a painting – that’s what happens when your teacher is a former fashion designer. There were many warm speeches during the meal marking the extraordinary two weeks we have shared together and suddenly it was nearly midnight.
Preparing and serving the meal left me little time to be maudlin but on the stroke of midnight our thoughts were with Derry’s Mum whom we had spoken to at that moment last year. During the conversation she had proposed 28th December to my Mum as the date for Shane and Shan’s wedding, saying that as the elders of the family they should get to decide these things. Well she did and it had felt good to honour her plan last week.
My thoughts were also with my own Dad. New Year’s Eve 1999, when every household in Ireland had been given a Millennium candle, was also our first in Duncannon and, as we lit that candle to mark the turning of the century, all of us present including my Mum and Dad, my brothers and our children, signed the little note that came with it. Every year since then I have lit that candle for a few minutes for all our loved ones including those that have passed away and those now living far from home. This year my new Chinese extended family and our friends all wrote on the card to mark what surely has been our most extraordinary year end of the century.
That New Year’s Eve meal was the second last culinary challenge of Shananigans Christmas. The last was to be on Thursday night when I planned to make dumplings for us all, mirroring the Chinese New Year tradition and also their association of dumplings with family members parting on a journey – a reminder of how family wrap around you wherever you are in the world.
I got as far as making my two favourite fillings – lamb with butternut squash and cumin and vegetarian which I had learned in Black Sesame Kitchen cookery school in Beijing – and a batch of homemade Chilli Oil as taught to me by Hutong Cuisine.  I was about to start the dumpling dough when my visitors tumbled into the house, windswept and rain-spattered from their sight-seeing and shopping trip to Dublin city centre, in a frenzy of discarded wet shoes and coats, shopping bags and retrieved slippers.
Within minutes my kitchen had been taken over and become a super-efficient Chinese production line. Clearly in charge Da Gu (first auntie) set about making her own pork and Chinese cabbage filling with added zing from ground star anise and cousin Jing Jing made an enormous batch of dough using every scrap of dumpling flour in the house. Xiao Gu (second auntie), Shan, her sister in law Shui Mei, cousin Wei Wei and little Xuan Xuan made the dumpling in relays – cutting out ropes of dough and rolling out the circular wrappers, the younger in-laws filling and folding them until every surface in the kitchen, every platter and cutting board I possess was covered with dumplings just as I always imagined a Chinese kitchen on New Year’s eve.
Even Gao Feng – Shan’s brother – was drafted in to cream garlic to go with the black vinegar and chilli oil condiments. I was redundant in my own kitchen and relegated to the happy role of observer. Dumplings made, it was time to cook them in batches, boiled and pot-sticker style, and platter after platter appeared at the dining table. It is amazing how many dumplings you can eat at one sitting without noticing.
It quickly became obvious that we had enough dumplings to feed a small army. And so, after a brief stint in the freezer, the dozens of left-overs travelled with us to Ardee yesterday evening where we marked the first anniversary of the passing of a very special lady, my mother-in-law Alice O’Neill.
Dumplings for remembrance and family and the ties that bind.
Below are some photos of  those two very special evenings in our home and the recipe for Da Gu’s pork and cabbage filling.
Happy New Year to you all and thank you for following my tales and learning experiences in the year gone by.
By the way for those of you who would like to learn more about Chinese cooking, my teacher turned friend Robert Jacob and I are collaborating in a Discover China Class at Donnybrook Fair Cookery School on the evening of 16th January at 7 pm. You can book places here. Shane, Shan and Shan’s bridesmaid Wei Wei who is a fabulous Chinese cook will join us for an evening of good food and conversation. I’m hoping that Marie McKenna, who has reproduced nearly every recipe on this blog, will be there too.

New Year's Eve Spread
New Year’s Eve spread

Just some of our New Year's Eve guests
Just some of our New Year’s Eve guests

Tian of crab and gas[acho
Tian of crab and gazpacho

Smoked haddock and gruyere quiche
Smoked haddock and gruyere quiche

Attempting to sit down to dinner
Attempting to sit down to dinner

A very glamourous production line
January 1st –  a cheerful production line led by Da Gu

First and Second Aunties make the filling
First and Second Aunties – Da Gu and Xiao Gu make the pork filling

Jing Jing kneads the dough
Jing Jing kneads the dough

Xiao Gu and Jing Jong - good team work
Xiao Gu and Jing Jing – good team work

Rolling out the wrappers
Rolling out the wrappers

Yes, that looks perfect
Yes, that looks perfect

Xuan Xuan wrapping dumplings
Xuan Xuan fills the dumplings

Pure concentration of a 6 year old
The pure concentration of a 6 year old Chinese cook

Cousin Wei Wei can wrap dumplings perfectly too
Cousin Wei Wei can wrap dumplings perfectly too

Dumplings on every surface
Dumplings on every surface

Every cook deserves her reward - the spicier "ma" the better in Xuan Xuan's case
Every cook deserves her reward – the spicier “ma” the better in Xuan Xuan’s case

Da Gu’s Pork and Cabbage Dumpling Filling
This is not a precise recipe. it is the way Da Gu has always made her filling and the trick is to get the right balance of pork, vegetables and seasoning and to use the warm oil to get the sloppy consistency of a thick batter.
Da Gu recommends using ground star anise with pork (she ground it in my pestle and mortar) and ground sichuan peppercorns with beef and lamb.

  • 500g minced pork
  • A thumb of ginger finely minced
  • 2 medium leeks, white part only, finely minced
  • 1 to 2 tbs of soy sauce
  • 1 tsp of ground star anise
  • One head of Chinese cabbage, finely chopped and squeezed very hard to remove excess liquid
  • About 100 ml of vegetable oil heated to moderate and allowed cool slightly.


  1. Mix the pork, ginger leek, soy sauce and star anise.
  2. In a separate blow add the hot oil to the cabbage.
  3. Mix this well with the meat mixture and season with salt to taste – only add the salt after the oil to avoid drawing more liquid from the cabbage.

PS. The next post will be photos Shan and Shane’s Wedding and Dermot’s Christening

Twelve days of Christmas to be savoured

I always wanted to cook for a crowd at Christmas. With just two children in our household, the day was sometimes on the quiet side and I would glance with envy across the road to where our neighbours had uproarious parties until the early hours – charades and karaoke – while we dozed in front of the fire, sleeping off enough food to feed a cast of thousands. I used to feel tempted to rush out into the streets to rustle up a crowd but the most I ever served for dinner was six and one year it was just the two of us. I still produced the full Christmas dinner but it just didn’t seem quite right.
Well this year my dream looks set to come true in more ways than one. Santa is to make a return visit to our house for the first time in over 20 years, to do the needful for our little grandson’s first Christmas. Dermot, now aged 10 months, is arriving next Sunday from Beijing with his Mum and Dad, but that’s only the start of it. The following weekend eight of his Chinese aunties uncles and cousins and his Chinese Nai Nai join us to celebrate Christmas, Shane and Shan’s wedding and Dermot’s christening. And as if that’s not enough, our daughter Claire and  her Welsh husband Mike, who have just acquired Australian citizenship, will arrive on Christmas Eve, Claire’s first time home for Christmas Day since she emigrated to Sydney six years ago.
But it’s not just a matter of cooking for Christmas Day. For most of Twelve Days of Christmas I will need to put together a meal for 18 people or more and make sure everyone has somewhere to lay their head at night. My excitement is building to fever pitch and planning has reached a nearly obsessive level as I make my lists and check them at least twice so that I can be well-prepared and able to join in the fun. As it’s Shan’s family’s first trip outside China we want to give them a real taste of an Irish Christmas and wedding but with a few touches that might make them feel a bit more at home.
So here’s the plan so far.
Day 1 – 23rd December – Chinese welcome buffet in Shankill
Shan’s relatives will arrive in the early evening, tired from their long-haul journey and we will have a Chinese meal ready for them before they transfer to Duncannon in Wexford – Beer Duck, Gong Bao Chicken, Braised Pork and a nice selection of vegetable dishes to ease them into the newness of Ireland.
Day 2 – Christmas Eve in Duncannon

Roast duck coming along nicely on the BGE
Roast duck coming along nicely on the BGE

Peking Style Duck barbecued on the Big Green Egg and served with all the trimmings followed by Adam Perry Lang barbecued rack of lamb – our Chinese in-laws are from Xinjiang Province and love their lamb – served with girdled marinated courgettes.
APL Rack of Lamb from the BGE
APL Rack of Lamb from the BGE

Oh and maybe some Jamie’s Italian Meatballs because it has been our family tradition for Claire to cook these on Christmas Eve whenever she is at home. She will be on the meatball detail.
Day 3 – traditional Christmas Day dinner
Christmas in October
Turkey on the Big Green Egg

The works, but cooked 0n the Big Green Egg. I’ve had a practice run at cooking this for 17 in October and know I can pull it off if nothing goes wrong. Here’s the menu.
Day 4 – Lá le Stiofain
Cook will be on strike but there will be lots of leftovers and perhaps we can rustle up the turkey version of  Bang Bang Chicken I never got to make last year.
Day 5 – Pizzas on the Big Green Egg
Xinjiang Lamb
I figure if Shan’s MaMa could teach me how to make dumplings, I can return the favour by showing our visitors how to make pizza dough using Birra Moretti. Some of the pizzas we will bake on the Big Green Egg are  in these blog posts – Lamb and Aubergine Pizza with a nod in the direction of the Old Silk Road with more typical italian toppings here.
Day 6 – Wedding Day
The 28th December, is Shane and Shan’s wedding day so the cook gets the day off , we all head for my hometown Wexford town to be joined by a much wider group of family and friends. Eunice Power will do the cooking in a unique Irish/ Asian fusion feast. Yeah!
Day 7 – Morning After BBQ
Xinjiang Street Food
Shane and Shan’s friends from Beijing will be descending on an unsuspecting Duncannon and we will put together a casual BBQ including some typical Chinese street food to feed them all up before they adjourn to a local hostelry. The Big Green Egg and our old gas barbecue will be on the go all day. Cook will attempt to stay awake.
Day 8 – A Great Big Stew
This is the day we all return to Dublin so that our Chinese guests can sample some of the treasures of our capital city and environs. It’s also the day Claire and Mike will leave to visit Mike’s family in the UK. A VERY kind friend has volunteered to make a very large stew for me that day which we will serve with lots of vegetables and mash.
Day 9 – New Year’s Eve Buffet
Unfortunately Robert won't be there to cook it!
A splendid NYE feast – unfortunately Robert won’t be there to cook it!

I was a bit stuck for ideas as to how best to celebrate ringing in the new year so I used up my Rewarding Times voucher for Donnybrook Fair Cookery School yesterday and learned from my good friend Robert Jacob how to put together a New Year’s Eve buffet with bling. Sorted! Now all I have to do is cook it.
Day 10 – New Year’s Day Dumplings
(Possibly) my most perfect dumpling ever
(Possibly) my most perfect dumpling ever

We will greet the New Year in the manner familiar to our Chinese guests by making jiaozi. I’m hoping my guests will get stuck in when they come home from sight seeing and we can have a dumpling party. Lots of recipes for fillings are here.
Day 11 – Hotpot
Lot’s of coming and going planned for this day with a few side trips from Dublin so the meal will have to be easy to prepare – I’m thinking of variations on the hotpot I prepared for Claire’s friends last year.
The following day our visitors will spend the night in Kilkenny enjoying the hospitality of the Pembroke Kilkenny and an Italian meal at Rinuccinis. That day is also the first anniversary of my mother in law’s sad passing so it will be important for us to take some time out from the celebrations. It’s hard to believe that it’s nearly a year since I wrote this grief-numbed post about her – In Memory of Alice.
Day 12 – A Farewell Banquet at China Sichuan
Our guests return to Dublin to pack for their long trip back to Beijing, Shanghai and Urumqi. What better way to end their visit than with a farewell meal at China Sichuan Dublin. I’ve no doubt that Kevin Hui and his team will give them the send off they deserve with a unique Irish take on the tastes of home.  Shane, Shan and Dermot get to stay on in Ireland for another few weeks so we will have time to re-group with them and absorb the memories of what promises to be a most extraordinary Christmas.
Table Talk at Donnybrook Fair
Now about that New Year’s Eve buffet, well Robert Jacob’s class yesterday was an inspiration and great fun too. He has a lovely, relaxed teaching style and it wasn’t just the food but his ideas for presentation that made this class special. Thanks to him my party menu will go something like this:

Cherry Red Gazpacho with Prawns


Maple Syrup and Mustard Glazed Wexford Ham

Smoked Haddock Leek and Gruyere Tart

Stilton Tart

Winter Pear and Goat’s Cheese Salad

Crab Salad with Goatsbridge Trout Caviar

Remoulade of Celeriac and Green Apples

 Carrot and Broccoli Salad


Blingy Chocolate Chestnut Log

Peach and Raspberry Mock Trifle

That was a lot learnt in a four hour class. The chefs at Donnybrook Fair Cookery School including Niall Murphy and Robert put on a great selection of courses and they have lots of interesting guest chefs and food writers too. I want to attend them all!

In fact Robert and I are collaborating on a Discover China evening on 18th January. It will be Part 1 of their new Table Talk series. I will talk about Chinese food, he will cook recipes from the blog and dinner will be served afterwards. The honeymoon couple Shane and Shan will still be in Ireland so they will come along to share some of their insights and reminiscences about the food of Shan’s homeland. it would be lovely to see some of you there.

You can find out more about the classes here on DonnybrookFair.ie. It’s a great website for last minute Christmas gift vouchers for the food lover in your life.

Enjoy the run up to Christmas lovely readers. I will pop in from time to time to report on progress and the inevitable mishaps.

A bit of bling to welcome 2014
A bit of bling planned to welcome 2014

It's hard to say goodbye

Shane, Shan and Dermot
Shane, Shan and Dermot

What can I tell you about my grandson who was 9 months old this week …
That he has the most infectious giggle and finds the adults around him hilarious.
That he loves to play nai nai hugs, careering around his Beijing apartment at break neck speed in his inappropriately named “walker”.
That he loves his books – My First Gruffalo and This is Not My Panda – especially the soft furry bits.
That his first word was “yeah” uttered at loud volume and accompanied by a cheerful yell, his second  “bao bao“, the Chinese word for hug and his third “ba ba“, the Chinese for Dad.
That he never sits still for a moment, preferring to pull himself up to standing on any surface he can find, even an arm or leg will do or cliff-hanging on the edge of the kitchen table with three fingers.
Hanging man appears at dinner table!
Can I have some too please!

That he loves his food (family trait that) and really wants what we are having unless it’s spicy in which case he is most put out. Duck and noodles are his favourites and dragon fruit and watermelon. It’s in the genes.
"This feeding himself is really going well!"says his gu gu Claire
“This feeding himself is really going well!”says his gu gu Claire

That he hasn’t yet learned that in this world there isn’t always someone there to catch you when you fall and it is wiser to fall forward and save yourself rather than backwards into empty space.
That his smile would light up a continent and you could lose yourself in his dimples.
A goodbye smile for his nai nai
A goodbye smile for his nai nai

That his world so far is full of people he loves and trusts – his mamma, baba, two nai nai and a ye ye and gu gu at the other end of a Skype line.
That his world is full of wonder and fun.
That he is a budding guitarist if bashing a plastic guitar off any surface that he can find to set it playing it’s three repetitive tunes counts – no wonder parents are never the ones to buy noisy toys for their kids.
Yes that’s what I learned about Dermot in the two special weeks I shared with him, in his world in Beijing with Shan, Shane and his Chinese nai nai. And every parent and grand parent will know that, while every child is special, there is none quite so special as the baby in your life right now.
I’m back now in the transit lounge of Dubai airport reflecting on all the new things I discovered in those two weeks – about Dermot, about China, about Chinese food. I have a notebook full of new recipes and insights gleaned from this visit to share. Every time I go there I feel I understand China and its culture that little bit better but it’s like scratching the surface. When the time comes to leave I realise what a vast amount I have still to learn before I truly “get” it, if I ever will.
One day last week I took myself out to a local, western style cafe, Twosome on Jiang Tai Xi Lu, for a fix of coffee and “space”, the European in me briefly overwhelmed by China. An old Carole King song “Far Away” was playing on the stereo and the line “Doesn’t anybody stay in one place any more” caught me at the back of the throat.
It’s the lot of our generation of mammies and grannies to be torn between continents – my daughter Claire and her husband in Australia, my family and friends in Ireland, my son and his wee family in Beijing. And yet I know how lucky I am to be able to travel to them and have them home fairly often.
Just for these few moments I want to sit here between all those worlds, listening to the sounds of morning prayer, with that feeling of appreciation mixed with longing.
Missing you already Dermot
Missing you already Dermot

Normal service, including some great new recipes, will resume shortly.

Yesterday we moved apartment

This is a guest post from my son Shane. He wrote it a few weeks ago on the day he, Shan, Dermot and MaMa moved apartment. I hope you enjoy it.

Yesterday we moved apartment.

It is a normal, everyday event that has had a surprising affect on me. Certainly, as our son Dermot continues to grow and explore at a phenomenal rate, the members of our new family of three generations are all ecstatic to be moving into a bigger place, where everyone will finally have some personal space and room to breathe. For me though it has been a transition of mixed emotions. I feel a little stress, but luckily I found that CBD pain relief cream reduced oxidative stress and prevented heart damage in diabetic mice with heart disease, that’s why I decided to search the Best CBD companies to find the one for me.

Luckily the moving and shipping  through the international movers itself has been relatively painless. We were able to hire top professional mover Las Vegas and they did an excellent job helping us move our things from our old apartment. We’ve taken over the apartment right next door, which is owned by a very good friend of ours, Saul. By complete coincidence or kismet, he bought his 21st floor apartment just two months after I started renting a few metres away.

Aside from the parks, alfresco dining and general family atmosphere, having a good friend as a neighbour and a growing little community of friends who live nearby has been a large part of the reason I’ve stayed firmly grounded in the upper eastside of Beijing for so long. It isn’t the suburbs, but it feels like a town. This is even truer since Dermot was born. Now we are part of the Chinese community of families and my son is a minor celebrity as the only mixed race child in their group. By day a congregation of grannies gather with their grandchildren in the shade of our building or on the benches next to the fishpond. When I arrive home in the evening, I’m greeted warmly by all of them as Mama passes Dermot to me and he gives me some much needed, very public affection.

For my wife Shan and me, leaving this area when our lease was up simply wasn’t an option. Now that Saul has migrated back home to Miami, he has agreed to rent us his wonderfully furnished apartment at a good price, knowing we would take good care of it and it of us. The only think he asked us to do was to find more plumbing services in Manassas as he was not satisfied with the plumbing service he used to have before.

The apartment I have left behind has been my home for 4 ½ years. That’s longer than any one place I have lived in with the exception of the house where I grew up. It is also the first place I ever lived alone, which I enjoyed immensely. After a couple of years, it became the first home I shared with my then-girlfriend-now-wife, her mother and her cat. It was on one knee on the dusty floor of this apartment that I asked Shan to marry me.

This home, a 98sqm, two-bedroom flat with a large couch, big TV, and panoramic views of the northeasterly outskirts of an ever-sprawling Beijing city, was a real find for me back in ‘09. It isn’t a glamorous apartment by any stretch. It has its quirks; the showerhead that only goes up to my chin, the comically small clogged kitchen, which we had to get fixed by a sewer cleanup in dallas company, the boiler that needs operating on every six months (but with a valid Boiler Cover on it), windows that let in leaks during heavy rain. But I preferred to think that it simply had character and it was mine.

The view from our old apartment
“The view from our old apartment.” – Shane

The transition from bachelor pad to family home was as swift as an oncoming train. What started out as a toothbrush next to the sink quickly turned into a vast array of perfumes and eyeliners and creams, spreading out to the rest of the home in the form of trinkets and potted plants, wardrobes and cupboards full to the brim with dresses and shoes… you know how this goes and I’m not bitter. I have one cupboard and I’m grateful for it.

Shan’s Mum, my Beijing Mama, came to live with us during the last months of Shan’s pregnancy and has been with us ever since. This is a normal Chinese custom and not as difficult to adjust to as you or even I might have imagined. She’s an amazing source of support to us and of love to Dermot. She didn’t bring with her quite so many worldly possessions as my darling wife but instead a sense of humour and infectious positive energy, a love of cooking and watching us enjoy her food, and a driving frugal streak to help us save money wherever possible.

Nothing gets wasted in our house.

Old t-shirts are cut up and find new life as cloths and bibs for our son. Ripped jean pockets are mended using odd socks. Leftovers from dinner are saved religiously for the following breakfast. Empty buckets are kept in the shower, filled as we wait for the water to come to heat, then used to mop floors and flush the toilet. It’s pretty impressive diligence and I’m happy to tow the line, although between Mama’s disdain for waste of any kind and Shan’s background in the sustainable energy sector, I may be the only man alive who is regularly given out to for remembering to flush the toilet (you know, when it isn’t absolutely necessary).

Despite the many cultural and fundamental differences rooted in gaps of geography and generation, we have grown into each other’s lives nicely over time and life has been good.

A little more recently we did some probing on the internet and read more about toys, and added to the mix of household clutter; a baby’s crib, endless amounts of toys, bottles and tiny socks, and – my personal favourite – the walker little Dermot uses to crash around the living room trying to grab and chew anything we’re silly enough to leave within tiny-arm’s reach.

Dermot in his walker
“I love moving!” Dermot

I feel like I’ve lived here for a lifetime.

Putting these memories away in boxes, painstakingly trying to distinguish between junk and nostalgia and shoving it all out the door has been a sobering experience. I sit here now in a living room whose life for me has ended, enjoying the quiet minutes that remain before I hand back the keys and walk away. Around me all is stripped and bare and clean as the day I first walked through the door. It’s quite strange looking at the Fire Table that you bought from here, resting in your back garden covered in a fresh blanket of snow.

As empty as the day I arrived
“As bare as the day I arrived.” – Shane

This apartment is where we took our son Dermot home from the hospital through the snow and ice of Beijing’s bitter-sweet spring. This is where my son has lived for his entire short life.

"This is where I learned to sit up."
“This is where I learned to sit up.” – Dermot

Looking at it through his eyes, as I always try to these days, he chased us around in his walker, watching with excitement and awe, as we methodically deconstructed his whole world. Giants carrying wardrobes away like mountains, paintings plucked from the wall like the moon from the sky. Unsurprisingly it left him a little addled but now, at last, we have a real home, and our little man has his own bedroom, his own bed.

Baby' s room
Baby’ s room

Getting him to use the bed is another matter altogether. At 6 ½ months – ever more eager to crawl around, roll around, kick and shout – it is time for us to wean him away from the comfort of sleeping with Mummy and Daddy. Unfortunately, as any parent will likely tell you, there is only one way to do this and it isn’t pretty. You have to put him into his own bed, alone, and simply let him cry it out until he sleeps. Rinse, repeat, until he gets used to it. This can take days or weeks.

Dermot's new bed
“I like my new bed… I think.” – Dermot

For the whole week leading up to the move, I led the charge with regular unprompted bouts of “From Sunday, he’s in his own bed! It’ll be hard, but no matter what we have to stick it out!”

It turns out that when it comes to the angst of my son I work much better in theory than practice. After about four minutes of the most heartbreaking wailing I have ever heard, I buckled and tried to pick him up. My hands were slapped away – and I was sent away – by my dear wife. From then on she waited it out alone, whispering soothing words to our son, patting him gently on the belly, until eventually he calmed down and drifted to sleep. Some things just need a mother’s touch.

As Shan and Dermot faced a brave new world together, I sat next door in the old apartment, having a last supper with Mama. It became clear she too was in exile, although hers was self-imposed. She admitted she would stay in the old apartment for the night, knowing in her heart she wouldn’t be able to handle hearing Dermot’s howling without rushing in to rescue him.

We really need to toughen up.

My own mother was texting me from Ireland throughout this ordeal, with words of humour and wisdom built from raising me and my sister. She offered this fantastically fitting quote from “The Happiness Project”, a book which I have yet to read:

“The days are long, but the years are short.”

Ain’t that the truth.

In the end, our bundle of joy slept well through most of the night. He awoke bright and oh so early the next day, seemingly undaunted by his new bed and his new home.

And so now we start anew together, sorting through the boxes of trimmed down clutter, decorating our walls the same but different, finding new homes for our belongings within our new home, and building fresh memories that will feed our souls for another lifetime.

Dermot on mid-Autumn day
Dermot this week on mid-Autumn day

By Shane O’Neill

Eighteen days of Dermot – Relished

Goodbye to Shane, Shan and Dermot and safe journey back to the welcoming arms of MaMa.
Goodbye to baby chairs and travel cots and car seats and rattles and noisy toys and all the paraphernalia needed to play host to a four month old baby.
Goodbye to the constant stream of visitors – young friends like modern magi with their  gifts, chatter and wisdom.
Goodbye to conversation and the strumming of guitars drifting from the garden on rare balmy June evenings, to food served as it should be – communally, on platters, for sharing – hot from the BBQ or sizzling from the wok, to catering for an ever changing crowd.
Goodbye to the infectious sound of giggles from the kitchen downstairs as your Grandad Ye Ye teaches you a new game or soars you through the air like an airplane.
And to my own sacred moments, walking the bedroom floor to soothe you while your parents have a rare night out, feeling the unexpected weight of a buggy as I push you around Shanganagh park and show you a glimpse of the Irish sea, reading you your first nursery rhymes, proudly strolling through Stephen’s Green to introduce you to the ducks, a novice Nai Nai on the loose, holding your gaze.and rapt concentration  as you clutch my fingers and wrist from your car seat…
Singing with you each morning and waltzing to the strains of Tiny Dancer, marvelling at how in a little over two weeks your  legs have strengthened, your body lengthened, your attention span and field of vision increased, you’re even more inquisitive and the sounds you make are words in a language known only to you.
That’s what I forgot about babies, how quickly they change, but nothing, nothing in this life had prepared me for the rush of love that goes with being a grandparent.
So goodbye for now to special encounters and unforgettable moments – you  learning to play “clap hands” with your great granny Tai Tai, puzzled as your feet touch the ticklish grass of Irish ground for the first time, meeting countless O’Neill and Corcoran relatives, frowning initially and then relaxing as if to say “I have you now”…
Well Dermot, you certainly have us –  in the palms of your tiny hands…

Safe home little one agus go n’eiridh on bóthar leat. May the ancestors you didn’t get to meet – your great granny Alice and your great Grandads Seamus and Sean mind you on your way.
Relish BBQ
Every special time has its own soundtrack or, in my case a cookery book that keeps me company along the way.
For Dermot’s first visit to Ireland it has been my copy of Rozanne Stevens  Relish BBQ book which is already dog-eared and spattered with splashes of marinade from the grill.
I’ve cooked 8 or 9 full dishes from it so far, each one a winner. If you buy just one cookbook this summer make it this one. It’s packed with recipes with Rozanne’s unique  “ish” factor from around the world and is available from Rozanne’s website or in most good bookshops.
I’ve adapted her sticky marinade/ basting sauce below slightly to make it even more Chinesish by substituting Shaoxing rice wine for dry sherry. I made it using homemade chilli jam from the recipe given to me by Tom Walsh chef at Samphire @ The Waterside, Donabate but a bottle of sweet chilli sauce will also do the trick. It’s great with pork ribs and chicken and is already one of my favourite sauces along with homemade chilli jam and chilli oil. My Mum took home the left-over sauce from Duncannon on Sunday and has discovered it works well in the oven too basted over pork ribs that have been simmered in boiling water for 10 minutes then drained.
Thanks Rozanne for helping make our celebration meals special.
Rozanne’s Chinese Sticky Marinade and Basting Sauce


  • 8 cloves of garlic, crushed or finely chopped
  • 2 thumb sized pieces of ginger, grated or finely chopped
  • 250 g dark brown sugar
  • 200 g honey
  • 250 ml hoisin sauce
  • 250 ml Shaoxing rice wine (or pale dry sherry)
  • 200 ml light soy sauce
  • 200 ml Tom Chef’s Chilli Jam (or sweet chilli sauce)
  • 50 ml groundnut oil (or sunflower oil)
  • 2 tbs Chinese five spice powder


  1. Mix all the ingredients together in a pot and simmer, covered on gentle heat for 10 minutes.
  2. Use as a marinade for pork or chicken and to baste chicken wings, sausages and vegetables on the barbecue.