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Author: Alex

Stepping in to Spring in Connemara

Stepping in to Spring in Connemara

It was Friday last week when we found ourselves making the 5 hour trek to Connemara. We’d deliberated over the trip for a while because it was a fair jaunt to go for only two nights and since Andrew is a freak when it comes to devaluing his car he worried that his precious might suffer with the distance (is this a guy thing or what?!). What convinced us though was our desperate need for a change of scenery and there is truly nowhere else for scenery in Ireland but Connemara! So off we went with the car packed and lovingly checked over by Andrew (she gets treated nicer than me sometimes) with podcasts at the ready to keep us occupied while we made our way south west.

We had been invited down to Connemara by Ireland’s Blue Book who I had worked with before when I had visited their beautiful Castle Grove property back in February. They have a collection of 54 historical houses, castles and manors scattered across the most romantic locations in Ireland and they had asked us to visit Rosleague Manor House, a pink ivy-clad piece of gorgeousness found just outside Letterfrack on the banks of Ballinakill Bay.

Before our trip we tried to plan for all sorts of weather since Connemara is well known for it’s unpredictable climate. You might as well forget any sort of forecast checking because it seems to change every hour and you kind of just have to roll with the punches be it rain, hail or sunshine. We hadn’t our hopes set very high coming in to Co. Galway that evening since the wind was howling through every gap in the car and the rain was lashing against the windows making the mountains look like sad brown smudges. Andrew wasn’t too impressed after having driven half the day but I had this doggedly annoying positivity that we might get a glimmer of sunshine, even a pocket of blue sky would make it all worthwhile!

We finally arrived at the manor just after sunset (or at least we thought so since we hadn’t seen the sun since we left Fermanagh) and were met by Mark at reception, a third generation owner and member of the Foyle family who took over the house 50 years ago back in 1968. Mark is incredibly warm and seeing how knackered we were from the drive, took us off to our room and organised a table for us to eat once we’d rested our bones for a minute or two.

The room wasn’t so much like a bedroom but more like a small apartment (my university flat was definitely smaller) with beautiful French windows that opened up to a private patio overlooking the bay. I looked at the huge bed and wanted to collapse in it immediately because who doesn’t need to sleep at least one night of their lives in a curtained bed?? But we had dinner to eat first so we dragged ourselves to the dining room which, to our sweet relief, was surprisingly casual given the surroundings.

We settled back and ordered some French wine before tucking in to some local dishes. The manor restaurant takes advantage of the landscape surrounding them so all their dishes include the freshest ingredients from the doorstep. I went for the monkfish and Andrew opted for the Connemara lamb rack which we practically inhaled after a day on the road. Feeling very relaxed after a few glasses we went all the way and ordered desserts; creme brûlée for him (always if it’s on the menu) and for me a chocolate piece of deliciousness that I can’t remember the name of (it sounded French!) along with caramel ice cream – YUM!

We trotted off to bed after we licked our plates and pretty much passed out as soon as our heavy heads hit the freshly plumped pillows. Having fallen asleep so early, I woke up just after sunrise much to Andrew’s annoyance. I think his least favourite trait of mine is the fact I wake up early when we’re supposed to be on our “holidays” while he wants to savour the lie-in as much as possible. My argument is I find quiet mornings to myself the biggest luxury of a holiday and when I woke up to see the sun beaming through the curtains I couldn’t contain myself!

To give the man some peace I threw on some clothes, grabbed my camera and opened the french doors to explore the grounds of the house. I found a garden path that took me down to the bay and followed it as the golden light of sunrise bathed everything around me. When I reached the water it was like glass, the mountains reflecting like a mirror. I was dumbstruck for a few minutes as I tried my best to soak every second in because I had it all to myself and that felt so special.

I watched the mist rolling across the far side of the bay for a while and kept walking along the beach to take a few photos. I was wearing pumps (rookie) and nearly lost them a few times in the beach which technically was more bogland in parts. I did as best I could to walk around but suddenly came to a stream that was pouring in the bay which was blocking my path. I was determined to see more of the view and I must have been still been half asleep because I just walked on through the stream like a complete eejit asking for a good dose of pneumonia!

It wasn’t so much cold as physically painful but I continued on because I’m a nutcase and tried to convince myself that this is what real photographers do. Or at least people with half a brain anyway. Wiggling my toes to bring them back to life I walked on round the bay and stood for about an hour in complete quiet, listening to the soft sounds of Connemara and smiling up at the blue skies that looked to be staying for the day. It’s times like this that I’m glad I’m a morning person.

Eventually I realised I needed to head back and get a hot shower to warm my wee hooves and after that I tucked in to breakfast which consisted of the following: 2 x croissants, granola with yogurt and berries, local salmon with scrambled eggs, local apple juice and lots of tea. While I was making my way through my feast (while Andrew was still tucked up in bed) I noticed that the same staff were serving me as the night before. Over the course of the two days the people who worked there became so familiar it was as if I joined a small family in this beautiful big house. They would chat away to us, filling us in on local favourites and where we should head off to. Even the guests became familiar (and as the hotel is dog-friendly, their pets too!), with one particular German couple being my favourites. Later that evening I would walk past them on the front lawn where they had parked themselves facing the harbour with a beer to watch the sun go down. They called out to me, “We are like a couple from the 1930’s!” as they both laughed together. My heart fell to pieces.

The rest of the weekend was spent exploring the beaches and roads of the countryside while we thanked our stars for the change in weather. Connemara truly shines when the clouds decide to part. l mean literally shines as the brown landscape dazzles gold in the sunlight. The colours that were muted on our arrival became saturated and I understood why so many poets and artists and writers have used this land as their muse. It awakes the dreamer, the wild restless soul seeking for something to make them feel alive. At the very least it made me feel so lucky to be able to call this island home and to have the bed at Rosleague to sleep in after a day of adventure.

I would massively recommend using Rosleague as your Connemara base if you ever find yourself tempted by an escape to the wild Atlantic coastline. I can genuinely say that we’ll definitely be back again and I can only hope that we have the sheer luck to have blue skies the next time too!

I’ll be posting more photos of our trip including all the secret and no-so-secret beaches we managed to squeeze in one day but for now enjoy some of our memories from Rosleague and the grounds we explored while we were there.

Local Favourites: Newtownards

Local Favourites: Newtownards

After the last big chill of St. Patrick’s weekend, Spring has decided to grace us with her presence here in Ireland – finally! The days are suddenly a wee bit longer, a wee bit warmer and a wee bit sweeter. Maybe we can all stop talking about how freezing that winter was now?!

We had the Monday off after Paddy’s Day and after waking up to snow in Dublin the day before, our expectations were fairly low for weather at home in Belfast. You can imagine my giddy surprise then when I saw actual sun-rays beaming through the curtains the next morning; I could even hear birds singing outside! Andrew wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as I was about the glorious day that stretched ahead of us as he tends to be fairly melodramatic in the mornings. He even purchased a black-out eye mask recently for his delicate peepers and wears ear plugs so the kids next door don’t wake him up – not exactly a morning kind of guy (and a guy who will get a major shock when he becomes a Dad one day).

After he managed to peel himself from the scratcher I immediately told him we were headed for an adventure in the spring sunshine (he is so lucky to have me, I know). I knew he wouldn’t have wanted to head too far but lucky for us there are tonnes of pretty spots within quick driving distance of Belfast.

I chose to heads towards Newtownards which is about 15 minutes from Belfast and sits at the very northern tip of Strangford Lough. It’s a town I’ve enjoyed getting to know a little more and the area around it is full of places to explore, some of which are fairly unknown to those living in the city up the road.

I’ve listed a few of my favourite locations in the area for food, photography and views to help entice you towards the Lough. It’s definitely a place worth venturing to now the brighter days are among us, even just to catch a glimpse of an Irish golden sunset melting in to the Mourne mountains on the other side of the water.

Scrabo Tower

The tower is an imposing presence above Newtownards and can be seen from pretty much everywhere in the North Down area. This means that there are killer views the lough and on a good day you can even spy Scotland in the distance if you squint hard enough!

The hill is a bit of a steep climb so your thighs won’t thank you but you can rest them at one of the picnic stops on the way. You can actually wander inside the tower during the summer months to learn a bit more about it’s history too but mostly I like to admire it from outside where the wind isn’t blowing and the sun is shining.

Mahee Island

About a 5 minute drive outside of Newtownards lies Mahee Island, an island connected to the mainland by a tiny wee road that seems to lead to hundreds of wee islands. There is something very secretive about these islands, most of them are privately owned so you can’t be too nosy but Mahee Island itself is welcome to tourists and is perfect for getting to know a completely different side of Co. Down.

There are castle ruins to explore, empty beaches to stroll on and clear blue waters to canoe your way through to get a better view of all the islands. There’s even a wetland centre too which showcases the huge variety of wildlife in the area too. It’s definitely a hidden gem on the banks of the Lough and a perfect place to take the bikes out to if we’re ever blessed with a good day.

Haptik

Do you know those cafés you visit for the first time that make you think to yourself: I would love to run a place like this? Well Haptik is one of those places. We ate there for the first time recently and as soon as we walked in I knew I would be back many times.

The industrial décor was right up my street (anyone who follows me on Instagram will see this in my stories!) but the food was what impressed us most. The menu had an Australian brunch feel to it with Andrew practically licking the smashed avocado off his plate. Johnny (who runs the place along with his wife) was super friendly and told us they do monthly supper clubs too so I’m now following them on Facebook to make sure I can book on to the next one!

The best surprise of all though was upstairs where they have an ongoing art exhibition and amazing children’s shop call Wu Concept. It’s the perfect place to pick up a gift for a wee one or just to go and feel extremely broody (which was what I did).

Mount Stewart

Mount Stewart is a National Trust favourite and a popular summer destination epecially among families. The gardens come to life in the warmer months with a lake to stroll around away from the crowds.

The house is now open for tours too if you’re feeling particularly aristocratic with events running throughout the year too. I tend to visit the house in the late afternoon because it has the perfect sunset view over the water which is always the perfect way to end a day of adventure.

How Has Grief Changed You?

How Has Grief Changed You?

Grief is not an easy topic to write about for many obvious reasons but mostly because it’s so deeply personal that I feel that by sharing my own experiences I am exposing the very rawest corner of my soul, the part that is covered in scars and afraid of being hurt again. Suffering extreme loss is unfortunately something that most of us will experience and so I also feel a sense of selfishness too when I talk about my own grief; how dare I have the audacity to write about my own woes when so many are going through the same thing?

Except there are times when I must write about it because the words and memories are bubbling up within me when I am missing her more than ever. Losing my sister undoubtedly changed who I was and how I viewed the world from the second I let her go. I was suddenly left with an unbearable amount of questions about life that few were able to answer so I was forced to learn on my own, attempting to overcome the emotional roadblocks that would come shattering down at any moment.

When we lost Amy the process of saying goodbye to her was like an out of body experience, as if a part of me was watching down and thinking: is this actually happening? I was standing by her hospital bed watching the life slowly slip out of her but my mind felt confused; her hands were warm, her chest was rising, surely she wasn’t dying? It was an incomprehensible moment when I was left searching for the final words I wanted to whisper in her ear because words alone weren’t enough to encapsulate the love I had for her. How could I articulate how grateful I was to share a wonderful childhood with her? Or how angry I was that I wouldn’t have her for the rest of my adult life?

Suffering the loss of someone we don’t want to live without is an evolving rollercoaster of lessons that can last a lifetime; I continue to learn things about myself because of the grief I carry around in my heart every day. Some lessons can be dark and painful, mostly arriving in the depths of night when I am racked with worry and the grief washes over me in tidal waves. These moments are when I am at my lowest, targeting the weaknesses within me and dredging up the fear I battle to suppress in the light of day. For those that are grieving, bedtime can resemble the nightmares of our childhood and are when we feel most vulnerable because it’s when we feel most alone.

For me I am not only coping with the loss of Amy but I continue to feel robbed of the life I had before. Family celebrations, dinners and gatherings were never to be the same again and after she passed I was acutely aware that my role in the family had changed too. I am the eldest and I felt more responsible than ever for my youngest sister because I wanted her to still feel like I was going to be enough for her, that we would be OK just the two of us instead of the three we had grown up as. I also put more effort in to making my parents proud because I wanted them to feel like they’d done a good job, that they were still good parents despite everything.

While I would give anything to have Amy back, losing her taught me wonderful lessons too. My capacity for love and joy. My sense of adventure in even the simplest of moments. How aware I am when I see something beautiful. I have had to adjust to missing her every day but it has become threaded in to the very fabric of who I am, woven scars covering the cracks. I won’t get over the heartbreak but at the very least I can utilise it in some way to make life a little easier to bear.

The most significant change of all though has probably been how gentle I am with myself now during moments when my confidence is low. I no longer waste time beating myself down since this doesn’t accomplish anything other than helplessness. By practicing self-kindness I am allowing more room in my heart for the good things which is a bittersweet lesson I am very grateful for.

Grief has certainly changed me and it will continue to do so as I carry it over life’s hurdles but along with grief I will always have Amy. After all, she will always be my little sister and that relationship will never change.

Can you tell me about your own grief experience and how it has changed you? I would love to know x

Beer Pairing and Four Poster Beds at Castle Grove House

Beer Pairing and Four Poster Beds at Castle Grove House

The snow is falling incessantly outside my bedroom window this morning, tiny flakes tapping at the glass to remind me how much things can change in a matter of days. Only a week ago Andrew and I were on our way to Donegal for the night, arriving at Castle Grove House under blue skies and bright sunlight that only fed false promises of Spring. Oh to feel just a wee bit of heat again!

We had been invited to Castle Grove by Ireland’s Blue Book as part of a beer-pairing night the hotel were hosting in their award-winning restaurant (with local brewery Kinnegar’s providing all the pairings!). This was one of the first events I have ever been invited to as a blogger so I was unashamedly very excited about being there! It’s no secret that Andrew and I are lovers of Donegal since we usually visit the county every few months so we were never going to turn down a chance to spend a night in digs on the north coast, especially when there were craft beers involved!

Neither myself or Andrew had been to Castle Grove before and as we pulled in to the beautiful country lane that took us to the banks of Lough Swilly where the house is nestled, it felt as if we had crossed in to a different era completely. The manor house sits proudly as it would have done when it was first built in 1695 except the Grove family have been and gone and now the Sweeney’s are holding the fort and welcoming in fresh faces in to their home.

Inside it felt like not much had changed either; fires were crackling in grand fireplaces in numerous rooms downstairs, beautiful antiques decorated corners that I am sure had heard plenty of stories and old paintings hung on the walls above the sweeping staircase that led to the bedrooms upstairs, all of which were named after Irish literary legends (we were in the Jonathan Swift room which was just a bit fitting what with his connection to our hometown of Armagh!).

The room itself was not just a room but more like a suite straight out of Downtown Abbey equipped with a four poster bed and a cabinet full of crystal I was too terrified to touch. There were parts of the suite that were a wee bit dated (the bathroom for example looked like it hadn’t been updated in a few years) so lovers of modern finishes may not feel quite at home here. Personally I loved the quirky charm especially the bed since I had never slept in something that was so like the bed of every princess story I had ever read.

Though what struck me most about the house was it’s warmth. Everything about Castle Grove exudes the feeling of being so welcome, of being looked after and mollycoddled the minute you step through the door. Irene Sweeney, the manager and figurehead of the house, could always be found mingling with guests, tending to the fire and ensuring that everyone’e needs were met. She was genuinely delighted to have people coming to visit her wee part of the world and hosting events like the beer-pairing night was a way for her to showcase the house and everything Donegal has to offer.

Which as it turns out, is a lot. The beer pairing event delivered more than we were expecting, each course having been meticulously curated by Chef Brady and the head of Kinnegar Brewery, Rick LeVert. The Donegal oysters specifically were a sensation for me (Andrew is still sitting on the fence when it comes to oysters) and the dessert was practically licked off the plate. Each beer was introduced by Rick allowing us to understand why the flavours on our plate were designed around the flavours in our glass. It was obvious that great care had went in to the night which, judging by the hum of contentment around room, was a complete success.

I practically had to roll myself out of the dining room after we finally finished eating, only having enough energy for a few moments by the fire before collapsing in my fairytale bed. Next thing I knew it was morning which I welcomed by opening the shutters of my sash windows half-expecting cartoon birds to flutter around my head. We woke up slowly leaving just enough time to meet in the dining room for breakfast (are we the only one’s who leave it until the last 10 minutes?) which was the obligatory full Irish breakfast and lots of tea.

The sun was streaming in and not wanting to miss another moment of Donegal fresh air, we said our thankful goodbyes to Irene and the staff after a quick stroll around the grounds. We were told to make a beeline for Portsalon where we could find blue flag beaches empty of crowds (and in true Donegal style it over-delivered). We drank in the salty air and when the Atlantic winds settled for just a moment we could feel the head of the late-February sun on our backs, a sensation I can barely remember feeling now it’s snowing outside!

Not wanting to end things with Donegal just yet, we took a drive to Glenveagh Castle (so I could play princess just a little longer) which surprisingly neither of us had visited before. It’s actually younger than Castle Grove but looks like it’s been hidden on the lough for centuries longer. There’s a great trail for walkers and cyclists from the visitor centre to the castle but for those with little time or patience (or unruly kids) can hop on the minibus which saves a fair amount of time.

The views are incredible once you reach the castle with Scot’s Pine trees decorating the edge of the lake, providing plenty of magical forest walks. There are beautiful gardens to stroll in too which I can only imagine are even more outstanding in the summer. The views reminded me of Connemara, another essential destination in Ireland where Glenveagh Castle could be compared to Kylemore Abbey as a diamond in the midst of a wild landscape.

There is a real rawness to Donegal that I think has percolated to the people who live there. The people are as open as the land and the sea that batters it’s north and west so it’s only natural to feel yourself open up once your feet are on the ground there. For me there is a collective sigh from my mind and body when I’m Donegal, I release everything I’ve been holding within me and I feel instantly lighter, more open. It’s no wonder I felt so welcome by everyone at Castle Grove, it’s doors are open like the people inside, happy to invite anyone in need of a warm meal and cosy bed or even just a drop of tea by the fire.

Winter Escape to Zell am Zee: 5 Tips for Planning a Couple’s Ski Trip

Winter Escape to Zell am Zee: 5 Tips for Planning a Couple’s Ski Trip

My first morning in Zell am See went a little like this: the sunlight filtering in through the curtains woke me up early and the cool alpine air coming from the open window made me burrow myself in to the duvet for just a minute more. Braving the cold, I opened the door to the balcony with a cup of tea clasped in my hands to keep me warm. The mountains towered above me and I wondered at how quiet it was. When I listened a little harder I started to make out the sounds of the mountain; snow falling off the trees, the sounds of skis on the virgin snow as early risers were taking on the first slope of the day and the mountain streams making their way to the lake below.

I watched the mist from the lake slowly snake it’s way up the valley towards us. I looked up to the sky to see if more snow was to come but all I could see were blue skies with the snow glistening in the sunshine and I thought to myself: now this is a winter escape!

Andrew and I had been planning on going on a ski trip to Austria since our first one in France with another couple two years ago. We both love the mountains but after failing to gather friends to go away on a group trip (the older we get the more difficult it is to get people to commit to dates which is wholly depressing but completely understandable of course), we wondered if we could go on our own and still have the same kind of fun. Ski trips are usually associated with a big group of people, lots of après-ski shenanigans and racing down the slopes so I was a bit apprehensive about going away as a couple; would we have as much fun on our own??

Turns out I had nothing to worry about. We had a blast as we have done on every holiday we’ve taken together but this one felt really special. Everything felt so much more relaxed because we were able to move at our own pace. We could take as many slopes as we liked (or as little), we weren’t having to constantly wait for others to join us at the gondolas or spend hours deliberating about what side of the mountain to hit next. We were super-competitive and downloaded apps to record speeds and distances of the day which we argued at length about over beers in the afternoon. It completely changed my attitude to a ski holiday and I will never hesitate to book another for just the two of us again, it might just be the best way to ski!

If you have ever contemplated taking a winter break with your partner to the mountains, then I urge you, to DO IT. After all, where else would you go with the person who makes you feel on top of the world?

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5 Tips for Planning a Couple’s Ski Trip

1 Make it FUN

Andrew and I are fairly competitive and on the first day of our trip we downloaded the Snoww app which tracks all your data from your day on the mountain e.g. top speeds, distances, runs, altitudes. After every run we would check our speeds on the gondola taking us back up the mountain, teasing the slowest of the pair and wondering how much distance we would cover that day. It forced us to be a bit braver which made it so much more fun but it also allowed us to keep track of each other when we got lost or wanted to check where the other was too. Would definitely recommend downloading it, especially the more competitive couples!

2 Pick a romantic destination

We had toyed around with a few destinations but once I saw pictures of Zell am See I knew we had to go. The town sits on the edge of Lake Zell with the Austrian Alps circling above. At night, the town is a dream to walk around with narrow streets lit up with lights and music in the air, perfect for strolling hand in hand after a day on the slopes. During the day there’s a beautiful walk to take down by the lake to take in the mountains around you that will make you feel truly tiny! If you decide to visit Zell am See, I’d recommend a walk by the river before the sun goes down followed by a dinner at Deins & Meins. Once your belly is full, walk through the snow to The Gin House to finish the night with some cocktails and a good game of Stump.

3 Give each other space

While cruising down the slopes together was really good craic, there were times when one of us had more energy than the other (usually Andrew having more energy!) and so it was nice to be able to go off on our own and do own thing for a bit. One of my favourite parts of the day was heading back to the Daxer Hotel, having a bit of cake with my tea on the balcony and then heading down to the sauna for an hour on my own – bliss!

4 Plan a Day Trip

While I enjoyed every single moment on those mountains, I was ready to come back down to earth and explore a bit of the area around us. Luckily our flight home from Salzburg (very handily about an hour and a half from Zell am See) was in the evening so it meant we had most of the day to explore the city before the holiday ended. We got the train from Zell am See which was an incredible way to see the countryside; I sat with my nose to the window while Andrew slept! The snow was falling thick and fast when we arrived so we hopped in a taxi to the Old Town to have brunch at Café Tomaselli where Mozart apparently drank his coffee! It was beautiful and I inhaled as many pastries as possible before we wrapped up again and headed towards the Hohensalzburg Fortress. We took the funicular up to the fortress where we had views over the city which was a complete winter wonderland. The snow continued to fall as we walked through the streets of the Old Town and back to the train station to pick up our bags and head home. It was a really romantic way to end the trip and relax a little before heading back to the grind of normal life at home.

5 Be Patient & Considerate

Of course this tip is relevant for couples no matter where they’re going but specifically to choosing a ski destination, you should be considerate of your partner’s abilities and whether they board or ski before making a decision. We chose Zell am See because it offered a diverse range of options for both boarders and skiers (Andrew boards and I ski) which meant that we both felt challenged and never bored. We’re both intermediates which made it easier too but sometimes one partner might be a bit more advanced than the other so you should take this in to consideration too.

We were really happy with Zell am See and felt like there were enough black/expert runs to satisfy us on the days when our confidence was up and we wanted to push ourselves. It was an advantage that we were on the same experience level because we knew what slopes we were capable of and when one of us needed a bit more encouraging the other would be the cheerleader which saved many an argument!

Local Favourites: Linen Hall Library, Belfast

Local Favourites: Linen Hall Library, Belfast

When I enter a library I think I get the same feeling that many religious people might feel when they enter a beautiful church or cathedral. There’s a sense of calm that envelopes me and I almost feel like every cell in my body relaxes, as if I’ve arrived home. Being from the land of saints and scholars means that a love of literature is in my blood and to my luck I live on an island littered with beautiful libraries to explore, many on my very own doorstep!

 

With Valentine’s Day looming I thought it was apt that I visit the place that housed the oldest love stories in my city, the Linen Hall library. It was my first time visiting last Saturday and I almost missed the entrance entirely it was so neatly tucked between modern retail chains. Originally the library was located across Donegal Square where the City Hall now sits and while it’s current residence is a little more understated, it is still one of the most beautiful buildings in Belfast.

Founded in 1788, the library is the oldest in the city and is the last subscribing library in Northern Ireland. Inside there are beautiful desks with antique bankers lamp for the members to read their latest literary find as well as cosy chairs in different nooks and crannies for those who want to hide away from the city. You can people watch from the old stained glass windows that let the natural light flood in and spy on the folk sprawled on the grass outside City Hall.

The library was initially founded by the Belfast Reading Society but in 1792, the library became the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge whose aim was to ‘improve the mind and excite a spirit of general enquiry’, an ethos that has managed to live on and ensure the library’s survival despite attempts to crackdown on such free thinking throughout Belfast’s troubled past.

 

Their collection is impressive with the oldest book dating back to 1490 (De Avina written by Eastern physician Avicenna) but it’s their collection of Irish culture and politics that is truly remarkable. In fact, the first librarian was Thomas Russell, a founding member of the United Irishmen and a close friend of Wolfe Tone. The importance of maintaining and preserving Irish culture and her language lives on with weekly gatherings held each Saturday morning for Gaels to meet and speak in their mother tongue.

 

To find such a peaceful sanctuary in the chaos of a busy city is a rarity and one that should be cherished and protected. Thankfully the library has been able to move with the times and hosts a range of exhibitions and events all year giving more reason to return again, even if it’s just to find a quiet place to enjoy a cup of tea in the quaint café.

With free admission there is really no excuse not to visit this urban refuge. I know I’ll be back for sure, most likely on a rainy day when I can curl up on one of the armchairs and read while looking out at this ever-changing city.

All photos were taken by Marianne from Perfect Opening Line, a true local talent who I couldn’t recommend more! 

Surviving February: 6 Actions to Take When You’re Ready to Make a Change

Surviving February: 6 Actions to Take When You’re Ready to Make a Change

Hello friends. It’s been two weeks too long since I’ve visited this wee corner of my life and while it wasn’t something I had intended on doing, it just felt right to ease myself in to 2018 rather than going in guns blazing. I feel like January is the month for ideas but February is the month to start actioning them. January is a time to give our dreams the wiggle room to grow, to ruminate on those thoughts that have been niggling in the back of our minds, slowly pushing to the forefront so we can give them our full attention. It’s a time for reflection, reflecting on where we are and where we want to be. Mostly, it’s a time to spend dark evenings curled up by the fire with empty pages spread out before us to capture all the wild and messy daydreams that tumble from our sleepy brains. Those blank spaces can provide us with more energy during the winter months than any fire can.

Most of our fantasies may be fantastical in the darkness of winter, most may never see the light of Spring but there might be just one that could slip through the cracks. One good idea is enough to eclipse all others and while it might take a little longer to see the idea become more than just that, there is nothing quite like the feeling of that lightbulb moment. So while I might have been a little absent on the blog, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about the words I write here and the content that I share. I’ve been mulling and mulling about where I would like to see this space go, how I can push myself further creatively and go beyond writing as a hobby. The winter nights are for nothing but for imagining a fresh start in the Spring, am I right?

Now that we’re in February we would be forgiven for thinking that Spring is on our doorstep but sometimes the shortest month can feel like the longest. What’s good is that we still have time to plan ahead and start making sense of the scattering of possibilities that have been swimming in our head all winter. There is still a whole month of stillness left before Spring arrives and our bodies bend towards the sun and in to distraction. So I’m telling you to utilise these last dark hours and use the opportunity to focus on what you truly want for the rest of your year because you’re capable of anything and now is the moment to push yourself further.

Is there an idea that you have been secretly coveting? Do you get butterflies when you think about it but quickly convince yourself that it’s not possible before getting too carried away? Let February be the month of shutting the fearful voices out and embracing the butterflies. Let it be the month for ACTION. The best ideas are those that make you feel sick to your stomach and if it’s all you can think about then the scariest possibility would be to deny yourself the chance to step in to the light of a new opportunity.

Of course this is all easier said than done and it you would be perfectly understood for crawling under the covers until the bluebells start showing their wee heads but you would only be doing your dreams a disservice. Choose to surround yourself with positive reinforcements that will only encourage you further. In case you’re in need of a little inspiration, I’ve listed some of the actions I take when I need help in making a step towards a change. Right now I have a notebook of scribbles that might turn in to something and that in itself is pretty exciting. Let’s go February.

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6 Actions To Take When You’re Read to Make a Change

Listen

Podcasts are all the rage right now of course and one that I keep going back to for guidance when I need it most is Hashtag Authentic by Sara Tasker. It’s a podcast mainly aimed at creatives but there is a huge range of topics that are incredibly useful depending on where you feel you need the most direction. Another great one is Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert (she of Eat, Pray, Love fame) which is a friggin’ joy to listen to in a bath on a winter’s night. I find myself just roaring out in unison with Elizabeth and her guests and feel ready to take on the world after an episode. Right after I dry my hair and moisturise of course.

Watch

‘In to the Wild’ is a movie I re-watch during the moments when I’m in need of a good kick up the ass. It never fails to bring a bit more perspective to any tough choice I’m currently having to make. Also the soundtrack is off the charts (Eddie Vedder you absolute LEGEND).

Read

There are enough motivational books out there to shake an insecure stick at but you don’t always have to stroll to the self-help aisle in order to feel inspired. One of my favourite books that I can rely on for some self-reflection is Walden by Henry Thoreau which I first read while I was in Africa for the first time. It was the reason why I fell in love with the natural world (second was David Attenborough) but mostly it engrained in me a sense that we have more power over our choices in life than we give ourselves credit for, one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned. If you’ve already read Walden then anything written by Brené Brown is sheer inspirational gold dust. The woman is a motivational wizard. 

Do

While February can still invoke the temptation to hibernate and stay under the covers, the ever-so-slightly brighter mornings and evenings are the perfect encouragement to brave the fresh air and start wakening yourself up again. At some point this month try and take yourself on one of your favourite walks alone, preferably somewhere that’s close to any water source be it a river, lake, sea or puddle (NB: puddles may not encourage that much inspiration). Leave the headphones behind so you’re not creating a barrier between yourself and the world around you. Walk at your own pace, listen out for new sounds that you would normally ignore and look for signs of Spring. While focusing on your surroundings you’ll be surprised at the amount of new ideas that will pop in to your head and those moments of clarity will embolden you further when making decisions that might have seemed scarier while sitting at home.

Write/Draw

Some people are good with their words and others need the visuals in order to map out their plans. I’m a bit of both so when it comes to the blog, I have a notebook full of potential blog posts, ideal locations for photos, people who I would love to interview. These notes could be a list broken down in to categories (just call me Monica Gellar) and others are mapped as a brain storm with offshoots when my head is buzzing with too many thoughts that I need to see the bigger picture. These notes can sometimes be a load of nonsense but it is such a good feeling to see my ideas streaming from my pen and trying to put them all together.

Attend

If you’re planning on making a leap or big decision then you need all the encouragement you can get from peers who have made the jump before you. Networking is a Generation Z term that has been beaten to death but making connections with people who are in your field or are related to the choice you’re about to making is more rewarding than any other action I’ve listed above. Finding your tribe (that’s right, I said it) can be tricky but there are resources out there to help you find it. I’ve found Instagram to be a huge source of inspiration and I have created friendships (both online and offline) that have helped made this blog what it is. It’s how I found out about the Assembly Gatherings, a seasonal event run by Mel Wiggins that acts as a haven for creative women seeking inspiration. It’s where I found my tribe (said it again) and it’s an environment in which I can connect with like-minded women, bounce ideas off them and bask in encouraging words. By immersing ourselves in knowledge through gatherings, workshops or classes we are dipping our toes further in to our own potential. Want to start a blog? Connect with other bloggers. Want to start your own business? Search for similar local small businesses and find out how they did it. Allow yourself to be guided by those who you believe are on the path you want to be on and get climbing.

The First Recipe I Ever Learned

The First Recipe I Ever Learned

It was on a street in Edinburgh in 2007 that I realised I was finally an adult, a proper grown up. My Mum had just managed to release me from a tearful embrace that in hindsight represented a monumental shift in our relationship. She had dropped me off at my university halls that morning and helped me carry boxes that contained everything I had cherished from home, unpacking and making my bed while I excitedly introduced myself to all my new roommates. Suddenly I wasn’t her baby anymore and I could see my whole childhood flash before her as she began to mourn the chapter of her life as my Mum. I can still remember how tightly she held me and now that I’m older, I realise how difficult it must have been for her to let go and trust that she did a good enough job raising me. I stood on the kerb and waved goodbye for as long as I had to until I skipped off, oblivious to how massive that moment was for both of us.

We were lucky growing up with the mother we have. She was always there to cook us dinner each evening, to help us with our homework and to tuck us in at night. Our meals were never anything hugely fancy, just the typical Irish dinners with about four different recipes in rotation (I haven’t been able to eat a fish finger in about 15 years).

Before leaving for university I had written down a recipe in my notebook in the hope that I wouldn’t completely starve. It was for minced meat, gravy, potatoes and carrots, a dinner most Irish kids would have been reared on and it was just about the only think I cooked in my first semester in between the mass of take away food and snacks (I had a tin underneath my bed filled with treats and after a night out I would wake up with one hand still in the tin!).

Sadly, there’s only so much mince a girl can eat and thankfully that Christmas my sister Amy bought me my very first cookbook. The book was ‘Home Cooking’ by Rachel Allen and it instantly became my bible because it was filled with recipes that reminded me of home. Anytime I felt a little homesick, all I had to do was open those flour-stained pages and cook something that resembled my Mum’s dinner. The recipes were not always executed well (I couldn’t tell you how many pans I ruined) but there was one that I managed to get comfortable with and remains my go-to comfort dish to do this day. It’s a recipe for a chicken casserole with cheesy herb dumplings and it is so yummy and so cosy that it’s impossible to ever have leftovers. It’s the ultimate winter crowd-pleaser because it just takes everyone back to their childhood, to those meals their Mums and Dads used to make for them while their legs were still swinging underneath the kitchen table.

This was the first recipe I was able to own and I remember cooking it for my Mum and sisters when I came back home for the holidays. It was (still is) a running joke in the family that I was a bit of a scatter brain and it was a miracle to them that I was suddenly able to cook and fend for myself. Eventually I learned other recipes too and even started using exotic ingredients that we definitely didn’t eat when growing up (asparagus, who dis?). I could see the relief my Mum had when she knew that I might actually be OK, that I wouldn’t develop scurvy on a Pot Noodle diet and that I would be nourishing myself with at least a few vegetables.

Now that I’m approaching 30 my Mum might even say that I’m a better cook than her (it’s a close one). I might be a little more adventurous or experimental but to me, no one can make mince and spuds like my own Mum.


Rachel Allen’s Chicken Casserole with Cheesy Herb Dumplings

I’ve tweaked the recipe slightly over the years but by and large it remains the same.

Ingredients

  • 4 chicken breasts
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 350 g unsliced rindless streaky bacon, cut into 12cm
  • 1/2 large onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 large carrots, cut into 2cm slices on the diagonal
  • 700 ml chicken or vegetable stock
  • a few sprigs fresh thyme

For the cheesy herb dumplings

  • 350 g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 300 ml buttermilk or soured milk
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped dried mixed herbs, such as parsley thyme, rosemary or chives
  • 25 g cheddar cheese, finely grated

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4. Cut the chicken breasts in half and season them well with salt and pepper.

2. Pour the olive oil into a large casserole dish on a high heat, add the bacon and fry quickly for 12 minutes or until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Add the chicken in batches and sear on each side until golden, and remove. Add the onion and carrots and fry for 2 or 3 minutes or until golden.

3. Return the bacon and chicken to the dish, pour on the stock, add the thyme and season with salt and pepper. Bring slowly to the boil, cover with a tight-fitting lid and bake in the oven for 20 minutes.

4. For the dumplings, sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt into a large bowl add the herbs, mix, then make a well in the centre. Pour in most of the buttermilk or soured milk (leaving about 50ml in the measuring jug). Using one hand with your fingers outstretched like a claw, bring the flour and liquid together, adding a little more buttermilk if necessary. Don’t knead the mixture or it will become too heavy. The dough should be soft but not too wet and sticky.

5. Tip the dough onto a floured work surface and bring together. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out to about 2cm thick. With a scone cutter or cup stamp out 10 to 12 dumplings, or divide the dough into 10 to 12 small balls.

6. Remove the casserole dish from the oven and turn the heat up to 230C/gas 8. Arrange the dumplings on top, leaving a slight gap between them to allow for spreading. Scatter with the cheese. Return to the oven, uncovered, for 10 minutes, reduce the heat to 200C/Gas 6 and cook for a further 20 minutes until the dumplings are crisp and golden and the chicken is cooked through.

 

What Not To Worry About #46

What Not To Worry About #46

Hello fellow Monday heads. I hope this week is starting out exactly how you wanted it to, with a brain full of plans and a body that wants to play ball. These January mornings have been rough on the old motivation for this gal. Last night I went to bed with the best of intentions for my Monday but instead I woke up and subconsciously talked myself in to pressing snooze half a dozen times before I leaped out of bed in a mad panic. It’s Blue Monday alright.

January is a weird time of year for the mind, isn’t it? There’s all this pressure to reflect and better ourselves but the wildness of the outside can permeate within us, wreaking havoc while we’re in the midst of pursuing calm. The best thing we can do during this month of chaos is to practice a little self-kindness. Forget the constant need for improvement and just welcome the little moments of progress you manage to accomplish despite all that’s stacked against you.

For me, the pressure has been finding the moments to take photographs that I can share along with the words I write. It’s easy to hide away while the rain lashes outside and it’s too cold to even think about trailing about about looking for a pretty landscape. The weekend past was so dull and miserable I couldn’t summon the energy, I just wanted to stay inside catching up with friends and family over copious amounts of tea. Which is exactly what I did! No guilt trips. None.

The wind is still howling outside as I type this (slowly since I had meant to have this posted hours ago) so the wild weather doesn’t look to be dissipating anytime soon. I still have good intentions for tomorrow; a quick 10 minute meditation before breakfast, actually completing my to-do list (or even just half of it), reading my book. And if the morning rolls in and I’ve realised I didn’t start the way I had intended to then I will just try again. There is always another chance to try again, right?

And here are a few more things I’m not worrying about this week…

Compliment receiving etiquette – because the balance between being gracious and arrogant is an oh-s0-fine-line for me that I just want to roll up in to an awkward ball. Setting up a Compliment Club like Joy the Baker sounds like the way forward and might also make life a little bit cheerier.

Driving in the lashing rain at night time – driving from Dungannon to Belfast in the pouring rain on Sunday was a white-knuckled ride for sure. I used to suffer from panic attacks when driving on the motorway once upon a time but I’m a fairly confident driver now except in the rain when I find my hand going to the top of my head as a comfort like it did circa 2006.

Not starting yet another diet – I am CRAP at diets so have just tried to slowly introduce more fruit as a snack rather than resorting to half a packet of hob nobs. This article made me a feel a little better though.

Not using public transport – I work about a 10 minute drive away from my office and because Northern Irish public transport isn’t too reliable, I shamefully drive the distance most days. Public transport is such a novelty to me though and reading these stories made me smile.

Annoying habits – the joys of being in a long term relationship means that you get to know all the wee quirks your partner has, weird as they may be. Andrew for example likes to put his (freezing cold) feet up against me in bed to warm them up which will result in a row on a nightly basis. My weird one is that I will never fully finish a meal – no matter what it is I will always leave a few bites left. Reading the comments of this piece had me laughing out loud at my desk because I identified with so many!!

Have a great week pals! 

 

Do You Journal?

Do You Journal?

I tend to start the year the same way without fail. Each January I am determined that this will be the year I finally organise my thoughts and that the only way I can execute this goal is by spending a small fortune on a beautiful journal that will surely encourage me to use it each day. Crisp white pages present the possibility of a ‘new me’, a more grown-up and sensible me that is just waiting for the opportunity to show herself. Except this plan doesn’t seem to last for more than a few weeks. Not long in to February I will find myself leaving it in the car or on the shelf at home gathering dust while the ‘new me’ retreated back for another year. Maybe next year, eh?

During my January purge I found about a half dozen barely used diaries in my bedside table drawer left abandoned and forgotten. Bare pages became more frequent as Spring arrived acting as a stark reminder of just how crap I am at sticking to my goals. But this year I made a decision. I decided that this year I would boycott Paperchase and invest in a journal that would encourage me to use it each day. Instead of blank pages I wanted my imagination to be coaxed with motivational prompts and to really make me think rather than make me clam up and draw a mental blank. My problem in the past has been that I wasn’t sure where to begin. Should I just jot down a few things that happened that day? Should I write about my worries or my dreams? There were too many options that I ended up not being able to commit to any.

With this in mind I set out to look for a journal that would bring a little light in to each day. I didn’t want too many blank pages that would pressurise me in to filling it with utter shite and I wanted help with committing to the goals I never seem to stick to. I ended up settling on ‘Happy – The Journal‘ curated by Fearne Cotton, a beautifully coloured journal filled with thoughts and ideas, mindful tasks to complete and daily prompts on what to focus on each day. It’s exactly the kind of journal I need and I have been carrying it in my handbag each day, itching to see what my task for the day will be. I know it’s early days and I don’t want to appear naive but I really think this might be the year I actually use a journal for an entire year! It’s turned in to a daily ritual that I am cherishing and definitely brings in the light I was searching for.

There are so many different ways to release our thoughts in to a journal; a few lines can be enough or the words can begin tumbling from our pen so that a few lines can quickly turn in to an essay of dreams. If you struggle like me to commit to your journalling then I’ve got some ideas for how you can best use that beautiful (and expensive) bit of stationery you bought yet again. Feel free to use them and let me know: how will you be using your journal this year? 

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Gratitude Journal

A simple idea where you can jot down a few things that made you feel grateful for that day. Your choices can be small (having a quiet moment in work with a good cup of tea) or big (that your body was able to carry you on your run) but they will no doubt help you to appreciate the life you have.

Dream Journal

Ever woke up and thought, “I am not well in the head to be dreaming that kind of craziness”? Yeh, me too. Keeping a journal by your bed and writing down your dreams is not just a good way to get a little insight in to your thoughts but is also a mindful way to begin your day. And might help you make sense of those dreams that make you question your sanity!

Kindness Journal

Noting down daily kindnesses is a fantastic way to check in with ourselves and how we choose to live. By keeping track of the kindnesses we have experienced as well as ideas for how to be kind to others we are encouraging a social conscience. Being good to others makes us feel good and by journalling these actions we are reminding ourselves of the good things in life.

Bullet Journal

Bullet journals can be as simple or as detailed as you like, there are no limits but I have seen people use them in the most beautiful ways, like this one. It’s an excellent way to track goals so if you’re in need of a journal to help you see improvements then this could be the way to go.

Travel Journal

Rather than committing yourself to a daily journal, how about just keeping a journal for different trips you take throughout the year? I’ve kept a journal for the last few holidays I’ve been on and I find I enjoy looking back on them far more than any photo album. It’s a great way to keep a record of funny stories, special moments or details that would normally be forgotten after returning home. You will never regret keeping one.