Mindfulness through Irish eyes

Rose Martin looks at a range of books for reading and for giving as gifts over the holiday season, including Fiann Ó Nualláin’s latest work on mindfulness wrapped in the very practical Irish tradition of the seanfhocail

The very many of you who read Fiann Ó Nualláin’s work every week will know of his commonsense, irreverence, soulfulness, honestly and above all, humour. And while his stock in trade on these pages is usually about matters of the soil, he manages to insinuate all of the above and more into what may appear on the surface to be a simple guiding narrative on gardens, but which is usually a little nutshell of wisdom on life, the universe and everything.

So we know he can plant, we know he can design, (Bloom Gold Medals to prove it boy!), we know he can use medicinal herbs to heal, as the last couple of books show, and we know that his obsession is ethnobotany and the crossover between culture and cultivation and all points in between.

Now, Fiann’s moving on, or moving deeper into that healing, spiritual approach with his latest book and again, he’s blurring the lines by bringing old Irish language proverbs into a meditation on mindfulness and spiritual wellbeing - while using 52 sayings as the introduction to each chapter.

The chapters themselves are a mix of the introspective and the dynamic — the way of Zen wrapped up in a very Celtic and Christian mystic robe. An Irish way to take what’s other and bring it into our own culture

With Fiann, you don’t thankfully, get any barmy-Swami nonsense, and he has a down-to-earth appreciation of those things that move the air around us and within us, they we can call by many different names, but to which he’s giving an Irish identity and using that which is familiar to us, to teach and to allow us to heal ourselves.

Because for all of the buzzwords and talk of mindfulness, the book is all about common sense and respect. Respect for the self, the other and the universe and a simple, but structured approach to dealing with feelings— and channeling those feelings into a physical and mental wellness.

I imagine a young Fiann, from his introduction, doing his Karate in the parish hall and taking a byroad into Buddhist culture and the idea of meditation, enlightenment, karma and all the rest, via the act of balancing mind and body as a boy.

It taught him discipline, he says, and application, but also taught him a way of blending the good parts of Catholicism with the awareness and intuition of Eastern philosophy.

I’m not usually one for this sort of book — mention mindfulness and I’ll run a mile, ( I get it, but the first rule of Fight Club is not to talk about Fight Club, right?) but I just randomly opened different chapters and they answered a question I didn’t even know I was asking. Now that’s some skill — snaring the sceptic? He’s best left to explain himself:

“Think of it like this: a river is water, a glacier is water and rain is also water. You may perceive and interact with each one differently, but they are all water nonetheless.

...Mindfulness is you knowing that you are water, and being aware that today — or in this now — you are also a river, rain or glacier.”

And in the introduction he explains that the book is his opportunity to use kensho or ‘seeing essence’ as it’s described by Zen masters.

“In my case, this means looking into my cultural heritage – the seanfhocail. In doing so I invite you to walk a little with me, for it is a pathway to mindfulness and to psychological wellbeing and spiritual awareness.“

And he doesn’t pull his punches — there’s no softly-softly approach with the this exercise on page 87. Fiann can take a robust attitude to taking control of one’s life — in this instance he uses the old proverb: ‘An gad is giorra don scornaigh is ceart a scaoileadh’ — or ‘One should first of all loosen the knot that is nearer the throat’ to explain how to remove the impact of negative people.

“It may be an overbearing mother, a bullying sibling, a distant father, a horrible neighbour, a work colleague, a frenemy — whatever. Picture that person as a hologram before you, vibrant and alive, but not corporeal — this is not their physical body; this is the symbolic manifestation of their psychic hooks in you.

“Now walk through them. Do it in your mind’s eye or physically take those steps forward. You will see that they could not hold you back — the hologram manifestation has no resistance, no grip, no power to stop you. You have all the control.

“Walk through them again, but this time, as you do, they will lose a bit of their integrity, lessen in colour, diminish in solidity. They are hollow. Feel your solid body. As it easily cuts through the shape in front of you, it breaks the hologram’s hold over you.

“You can walk through it one more time and blow it to dust. Don’t be afraid of that. Show no mercy with negativity. Now kill it off. Disintegrate the negative energy and know you have done good.”

Yes,well, beats the annual Christmas row, I suppose. Well worth the money, go out and buy this book for a friend, or more importantly, for yourself.

A Sense of Home: Eat, Make, Sleep, Live: by Helen James Hachette €23 approx.

There was a very snide filleting of Helen James’ book in a Sunday paper recently, on foot of its nomination for one of the many categories in the Bord Gais book awards.

So I’m here to tell you that this is a great book and if you have a best friend who’s homey, likes to cook, preserve, grow, decorate, has kids, loves to entertain, (but on a small, unshowy scale) then this book is a great present for him or her.

I like Helen James— I’ve loved the stuff she’s designed for Dunne’s in her Considered range, very practical, well-priced and rather cleanly designed so I was well disposed to the book anyway. (I bought a dough scraper with a lovely wooden handle for less than a tenner a few years ago in Dunne’s and I’m still mourning it’s loss in a house move. Bless the designer who makes an ergonomic, wood and steel dough scraper.)

And she also comes across as a really nice person — the kind who will eat cake and drink strong tea with you and not say, “I’m fine actually, I’m off sugar and would you have Earl Gray?” She tells us about her parents, their backgrounds and her grandparents and about her time in New Yord and how she learned to cook in her twenties and she even kicks off early in the book with Wabi-Sabi - the appreciation of things, as the antique fraternity would say, in the paint, or just as they are. Tumbledown sheds, (a bit like Diarmuid Gavin’s inventor’s shed at Chelsea 2016), battered furniture that tells a tale, a hotpotch of just letting it be — finding beauty in the ugly, old and even the banal— but mostly in nature and found objects.

And that’s just one chapter in a book that’s a gentle and easy ramble through all of the major points of interior design, but without the flash or ego— and a peaceful progression into the creation and keeping of a warm and welcoming home.

So we have essential oils along with the essentials of lighting, the use of candles and smudging, (this was sneered at by the male Sunday, columnist, but anyone who has used sage to freshen a room will understand — rosemary is really good too and James uses Peruvian, Palo Santo wood).

Sound, sense and the tactile quality of materials in the home are considered, while flavour is conjured by food, for which James provides evocative descriptions. Along with recipes, she includes the ideal measurements for a kitchen, as well as blends for home-made cleansers, drinks to help you sleep and essential oils to help you relax or wake you up. Then, there’s home-made bread, chocolate cakes, tomato sauce, lemon and black olive chicken, geranium infused sorbet, tumeric and ginger lemonade and sweet potato and potato, herbed salt crisps.

I could go on but you get the drift — it’s a great book and a compendium of how-to make, do, design and create that special refuge. James can do it, is seems, with her eyes closed. Marvellous book.

The Red Thread - Nordic Design; Published by Phaidon, hardback, €55.

Thumping great volumes make for thumping great presents and top of the list for a mid-century modernist who likes design that’s not preserved in aspic, should be The Red Thread by Oak Publishing and Phaidon.

The quality of the publication is superb and is a discerning book for the aesthete in your life who has everything - including the time to read. Heavy as this book is, it’s a flicker— the most important element is design and imagery.

Beautiful photography fulfils the brief, style is a visual thing and you can’t convey the decadence of a Hans Wegner Flag Halyard Chair draped in Mongolian sheepskin in words alone. And there’s a huge domestic range, from buckets to cutlery, to children’s toys to glassware, fabric and more. The is the domestic life, Nordic Style by a publishing group which celebrate its culture and habitat. The title comes from a Swedish expression, den roda traden, (the red thread) used to describe the connection between all things — the heart of the matter, or the strings of life. So too, the designs shown here convey true heart — a consistent level of clean, simple, but evolving design which has seen the Far North become the pre-eminent arbiter of domestic and commercial taste in this century and in the last. There are plenty of up to date pieces here — it’s not all classic, swingeingly expensive mid-century stuff, and there are old classics too whose ubiquity hasn’t been mined yet.

Among 200 objects and illustrations, luminaries like Alvar Aalto, Verner Panton, Tapio Wirkkala and Arne Jacobsen sit alongside iconic brands such as Georg Jensen, IKEA; Marimekko; Skagerak and more. Contributions from contemporary designers including Ingegerd Råman and Andreas Engesvik feature amongst anonymously-designed objects and brand new work from up-and-coming designers. You can get a taste of Nordic design at your local Tiger and Sostrene Grene— particularly the latter’s 70’s-inspired tea pots at just €17.

The Red Thread is authored by Copenhagen-base, Oak Publishing who produce the biannual, Oak – The Nordic Journal

How to Grow: Vegetables, Fruit, Flowers by Hollie Newton, Orion €23 approx

This is one of the best gardening books I’ve read this year— it’s direct, fun, infectious, utterly practical and best of all — - it’s for beginner. In fact, the cover describes it as, ‘a guide for gardeners who can’t garden yet’. Young, fresh and vibrant, Hollie uses her own garden to show just how easy it is to grown everything in a small patch and for little money. Then, the clever girl shows you how to cook everything too. A gem — give it to a starter-outer and an green enthusiast.

The Salad Garden by Joy Larkcom Frances Lincoln; €18

This is one for any self-respecting gardener or foodie. The doyenne of sustainable and organic self-sufficiency, Joy lives and writes in West Cork and this is a reprint of the 30-year old edition. That’s how good it is — buy now.


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