Each week this column sprouts up from my experiences with gardening and nature, health, herbs and food and on occasion I crowbar in a little bit of Irish history and culture.
They are the topics that fire my brain. Every year at this time my colleagues and I take a break from our normal columns and look at recommending some books for the Christmas stocking. So it won’t come as a surprise that all of the above are the themes of my book picks.
I was involved in a road traffic accident in my 20s that left me with chronic pain for well over a decade. I had read somewhere that chanteuse Marlene Dietrich, who was in such chronic pain that she needed to be wrapped in tight bandages and fed relief in the dressing room, then guided slowly and patiently to the backstage supported by two helpers and then as good as carried into the wings, effing and blinding all the way.
However, as soon as her introduction was made and the band struck up those first bars of her opening number, she leaped like a leopard into the limelight, high kicking, arms drumming, hips strutting, head flying back and forward, razzle-dazzling the audience to a frenzy of applause, as if not nothing was wrong and convincing them that she was half her age or younger. She called it Doctor Theatre.
I suppose it’s that thing that you love doing that just keeps you going — cures you of not doing. So I had always loved gardening and I threw myself into it, minus the high kicks and head flicks. Anyway, I found great comfort in it — the distraction of tasks and the endorphins of achievement and nature participation, and I also found meditation and what would become known as ‘mindfulness’, very helpful in regaining control.
It was a long process but other than the backache of overdoing it and the heartache of underdoing it, I am pretty much pain-free today.
I must have spoken about this on radio or in an interview somewhere along the way as I regularly get asked at garden talks about pain management. So for the first pick I would like to look at, is a book that I wish I had found way back when.
Pain-free Life by Andrea Hayes (Mercier press).
Andrea’s book is her story of her struggle to overcome misdiagnosis and ongoing chronic pain and her honesty and sharing is powerful, but within it is also a ladder to climb out of similar circumstances and a way to develop an empowered self that is more equipped to bring your mindset and your body out of pain.
And it is a guide to how you can find your own wellness, your inner strengths and strategies for effective pain management.
As a herbalist and wellbeing advisor, I can grow/ list anti-inflammatory foods and I can grow/list pain relief herbs to help — all working on your brain chemistry as well as body receptors to circumvent pain perception, but I will always say faith is the key — if you believe in the medicine it will work. If lighting a church candle does it then light a candle; if ‘om mani padme hum’ does it, then chant. Your mind boosts the medicine, you mind is medicine.
Andrea explores the power of the mind and how we can take control, there are practical plans and there is the spirit of hope too. It is a genuine holistic approach that will help you or somebody you love who battles with pain and needs the tools to overcome it. Such a positive read.
The Breathing Burren by Gordon D’Arcy (Collins press)
I am a huge fan of our native natural history and in particular I have a grá for the Burren. In fact, above where I type is a buckled shelf full of books about it.
It’s quite possible that my obituary may be “he died under the weight of the Burren he loved”. Of course I would rather it was under the woman I loved, but time will tell.
So my second pick brings the Burren to life in a wonderful way – by someone who genuinely loves the place. It’s not an academic tome although thoroughly informative — it’s a love story — in that each section is a note to the charms of the place.
We are gifted a hymn to the dawn chorus, one to the unique butterflies, to the fabulous orchids, to old goats, to the turloughs, to the raw brutality of place; the raw beauty of place, to the people who live there, to those who visit, a heartfelt rejoicing of theliving majesty of it all.
You will enjoy D’Arcys unique perspectives of the place as he shares in stories and memories, facts and fables and amazingly beautiful illustrations.
I grew up with Dusty Springfield records playing in the background. I still listen to her today and am proud that such an amazing voice is of Irish heritage but I was reminded in this book that just before she died, she requested her ashes be scattered at the cliffs of Moher and that a dolphin that appeared shortly after, was named Dusty in tribute by the locals.
That’s the sort of thing you want to find. The human story in the place too. The book is full of them.
The Extra Room by Diarmuid Gavin (Gill Books)
Staying outdoors, my next pick is a book by another of our great talents — Diarmuid Gavin. In it Diarmuid shares his expertise on how you can make the best of the space you have, how to take your garden and transform it into your personal oasis.
We should be thinking of the garden as another room, as a place to inhabit, to live in, to be enriched by. For those who don’t want the good life self-sufficiency but the good life through a high aesthetic space to relax or socialise in, this is the guide.
On one level it’s a manual for the design process, a step by step how-to, but it is filled with inspirational ideas too, and some really lovely notes on great plants to help you populate your garden with colour and fragrance.
There are case studies that might give you a dizzy second of status anxiety, but it will teach you how to outdo the Jones’s — if you are so inclined, or just make a kickass space for your own soul to shine in.
The extra room helps you step into nature, make the garden a part of your home, not just an add on. It’s as simple as this — creating a garden and being in it, will improve the quality of your life.
Val’s Kitchen — by Valerie O’Connor, (O’Brien Press)
My garden is my larder— full of raised beds for veg, some fruits in fans and cordons — and also my medicine cabinet with herbs and phytochemically-rich specimens.
I love to GIY, but boy do I love to plate it up. There are a few buckling shelves in the kitchen filled with cookbooks, and I love to experiment. However, you want to get it right when family or friends come over and that’s where my fourth pick comes in — Val’s kitchen.
Yes that Val, she who writes an amazing column for this paper — full of inspiration and recipes. So if you are a regular you have probably already run out and bought this or have her brilliant ‘Bread on the Table’ at home. I am a fan of real food and I am a fan of real easy and what Val delivers is a collection of stunning, hearty recipes that deliver flavour and health without panic or fuss.
Be you expert or novice cook or just wish you could do better, there are treats within these pages that will delight.
From the comfort of baked apples (that hand over heart I have in the oven right now), to the Cuban chicken rice that would almost lure me out my life- long vegetarianism — there are the chef tricks Val has accrued over the years and the flare for flavours she masters.
Her photography of each dish is mouthwatering but when you make it, whichever one, via her flawless steps, you will fall in love with your own kitchen again.
You may have noticed that all these books are from Irish publishing houses and by Irish authors (I don’t think Diarmuid got the OBE and went to the dark side yet). That selection is deliberate — it’s not ultra-nationalism on my part (despite OBE jokes) it’s just that I like to support our indigenous industries and talents.
Okay, I write too, so am a part of it, and one day it might support me, but it’s also that at this time of year the shelves of bookshops are groaning with the same boring types and it is displacing real talent.
Historopedia by Fatti and John burke (Gill books).
I’ve been out and about the last few weeks knowing this day was coming, and honestly I couldn’t find one I would want to read let alone ask you to go part with your hard-earned money.
However, each of the books here (and one or two in Val’s list — one in particular, you know the one), can enrich your life or tickle your fancy. And they show our talents off, which is a good thing to have about the house and introduce the up-and-coming generations too. We are a talent-rich people. Lets celebrate it.
My last pick is all about Ireland and in a way all about the up-and-coming generations as well as the ones gone before — Historopedia by Fatti and John Burke (Gill books).
A big picture book of interesting and fun facts and inspirational. I knew it was an Irish person who invented the submarine but did you know we also invented ejector seats, colour photography and chocolate milk?
I love a bit of new knowledge and this book is a mix of what we learned in school and what we should have learnt in school. It starts with dinosaurs and brings us on a journey through the major historic moments and the people associated to our musicians, poets and artists, to the items of our culture from brogues to tractors, from Bosco to Sudocreme (think it, don’t say it) and I just love it. It is a real treat for any age.
Everyone I know is getting a copy. The perfect antidote/balance to phone upgrades and bad fashion choices.
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