Let them eat well-mixed cake!

A chilly afternoon, we’d be coming home from school raw-cheeked with the cold. Pushing the back door open, into our tiny kitchen… and the smell of Christmas cooking! My mother, in a flitter, would hoosh us out of the way. She’d look flushed, exhausted from vigorous stirring – you must ‘get plenty of air in, keeps it from sinking’. Better again if the mixture hadn’t already gone into the oven. We could lick the wooden spoon before the wash-up. Or scrape leftovers from the bowl. My mother would write a note on a tab torn off a cornflakes box: a list of times from start to expected finish, with reminders of regular checks in between. She’d tape this across the cooker switch, lest my father turn it off in a fit of safety consciousness. If it was windy, she’d worry a power-cut might sabotage her baking. She needn’t have fretted, her cakes were always perfect. They still are.


I’m not a fan of tradition. It’s often laden with nostalgia, heavy as lardy pudding. A whiff of conservatism hangs around it, coated in an oversweet ideal of the past. Much as I love my mother’s Christmas cake, I couldn’t imagine myself as an heiress to her recipe. Apart from the fact that the culinary arts aren’t my strongest suit, the concept of perpetuating a ‘typical Irish Christmas’ has never appealed to me. Especially since I entered into an intercultural relationship, not long after leaving the nest. My husband and I would’ve felt awkward, foisting ourselves annually on my parents for the big event. Plus my mother had enough hassle, trying to put up with my younger siblings. So, although the drift towards the homestead (in the hope of decent food and freebie lodgings) has become quite a phenomenon in Ireland, I couldn’t act the ‘kidult’. Instead, I knew I’d have to create my own version of Christmas. And that meant learning how to cook.


Fortunately, I discovered that while it sounds – and tastes – impressive, the making of a Christmas cake is well within the capability of domestic dummies. The skills it involves are fairly basic. All you do is weigh out copious quantities of dried fruit, throw in chopped almonds and glacé cherries, then steep these ingredients overnight in brandy. The next day add butter, sugar, flour etc., whisk a couple of eggs and apply brute force in the mixing. Be generous with the booze and you can’t go wrong. The tipsier the cake, the happier the guests – though it mightn’t be advisable to drive immediately after a slice of mine! Top with marzipan, white icing and some cute decorations, et voilà…

bosna 2010 143

Novelty can also whet the appetite. My seasonal cuisine has gone down a treat as far away as Bosnia and Japan. Changes of location can lead to improvisation. Dates, now a trendy addition recommended by TV chefs, served as a substitute for sultanas in Sarajevo. My notion of nutmeg was confined to the ground contents of a spice jar until I had to buy a ‘real’ one in Baščaršija. Milling it myself, using a contraption borrowed from my mother-in-law, its piquancy was memorable.


As were many other aspects of Christmas in Bosnia. Going to midnight mass with my Muslim brother-in-law in the hush of feathery snowfall was soul-searing. Less mainstream than in Ireland, Sarajevo’s Yuletide was stripped of commercial glitz. Perhaps that allowed its pure magic to seep through. Trees draped in fairy lights can transcend divisions based on ethnicity and creed. Whether for Christmas or New Year, or both, a jelka brightens the bleakness of winter. And Deda Mraz / Santa Claus is a cross-cultural kind of bloke. Our kids are among the luckiest in the world because he calls twice to our house! Not only does the sleigh stop here on Christmas Eve but, following a garbled rendition of Auld Lang Syne, ‘Grandfather Frost’ drops back from Bosnia with more gifts.


Celebrations bring out the best in cultures. They capture the joy that unites human beings. But such harmony isn’t easy to sustain. Differences don’t vanish, nor does the need for negotiation. Thoughts of the holiday season are soon obscured by clouds of everyday problems. Yet I wish the spirit of our Irish-Bosnian Christmas could somehow last. After the turkey-and-no-ham dinner (with vegetarian options) has been devoured. When the chocolates at the bottom of the tin have disappeared and there’s not a crumb of cake left…

In a few short weeks our jelka will lie discarded, shedding needles, on the porch. How to hold on to its zest? Maybe that’s a personal challenge for 2014. Until then, as my daughters are writing in cards to their friends:

Sretan Božić / Merry Christmas!

And, as this is probably my final blog of 2013:

Sretna Nova Godina / Happy New Year!

CC6 - Copy


‘Dealing with’ the past?

Our past is a lasso. We think we’re out of its reach. Then it’s coiling at our feet, tripping us up again. Like bungee rope, elastic in its stretch, it loops and twists. Ties knots around us, dangles us in its grasp. We’ve each got our own leash, an individual tale. But strands of our personal histories wind into those of others. Mesh to form the fabric of a certain place or time. Often these threads are coarse, the patterns they weave alarming.


They lengthen into tapestries, warped by battles, with a weft of pain. Societies are wrapped in them. Conflict-haunted regions wear them as armour and shrouds. They might flaunt a bright new mantle – a voguish statement piece – but their undergarments are blood-stained. A frayed past rips the present. So would it not be better to cut fresh cloth? To draw a line, snip along it and start over? Recent suggestions made by Northern Ireland’s Attorney General seemed to point in that direction. They met with outcry, most poignantly from people for whom ‘The Troubles’ haven’t ended. Fifteen years of peace can’t erase their agony. Many are still seeking the barest solace of ‘justice’. The search for truths continues in a long-memoried country.

Three decades of everyday murder leave open weals. The final third of the twentieth century doesn’t seem to be ready for the archives. Charting Ireland’s chronology, it feels like only yesterday when news of ambushes and explosions were breakfast staples on Radio Ulster. Another ‘tit-for-tat’ killing, snipers, informers, allegations of collusion… You knew your good fortune if you got up to tea and toast (coffee was a Christmas luxury) and the semblance of normality. Maybe after the odd night’s interrupted sleep. ‘Did you hear the helicopter?’ was a familiar morning greeting. But, if you trundled on relatively unaffected, you were among the lucky ones. This was a place where people were assassinated, caught in cross-fire… and sometimes ‘disappeared’.


We used to play on the beach where a woman’s remains were found. Over thirty years since her abduction. A widow from Belfast, torn from her ten children. The paramilitaries excelled at wrecking young lives. Oblivious, we paddled at the water’s edge, spread a tartan rug and picnicked in the dunes. Recollections of these summer outings charred when the shore revealed it secrets. Our seaside haven became infamous, somewhere to avoid. Other sinister landmarks were impossible to ignore. The spot on the road into town where two policemen were shot… Passing, you tried to not to think of it. Instead, through the car window, you noticed lilac blooming in the hedgerows, signs translating to Irish as you crossed an unmarked border. Life amid the hillocks was watched from look-out towers. They peered down on an apprehensive hinterland.

Today the army has gone. Despite the persistence of ‘dissidents’, the threat of violence in this area has receded. Apart from an occasional ‘security alert’, things are quiet. The hurt inflicted here is historical. But it’s still too real for the victims, for each family that has suffered loss or injury. It feels disrespectful to forget. Though how should we recall? It’s a question that must be asked. Not just in Northern Ireland…


Multiply the casualties by thousands. Go back to the war in Bosnia, which ended with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement eighteen years ago. The state created by that accord is yet to come to terms with the trauma of its birth. Fear and hatred linger, mourning is juxtaposed with denial. On the surface, it seems that ordinary life has returned, bringing its own myriad of challenges. But, below the earth, the scattered bones are stirring. Another gruesome find was made this autumn. The mass grave uncovered at Tomašica, near the town of Prijedor, is likely to prove Bosnia’s largest. Already, it has yielded the bodies of over 400 missing villagers. Hundreds more await identification. The world has paid scarce attention to this excavation. Fleeting mentions in the media have faded. The tragedy is being reduced to bygones. Because that’s how it’s regarded by most, except those closest to the children, women and men who were slain. Just a site to enter on a mappa mundi of war-crimes, alongside Srebrenica and other massacres… A terrible addition – but there have been many since the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Bosnia. Plotting genocide is an unfinished project.


Stop. Remember. Learn. Perhaps these are the only words which make any sense when pondering troubled pasts. Yet, unless they’re spoken or penned by a survivor, they seem hollow. I deliberate hard about writing on such themes. Is it simply hopping on the bandwagon of shallow commentary? Or does coming from a strife-filled place and stumbling into love for another mean I can’t stay mute? Maybe it’s better to risk sounding an empty echo than to say nothing. Especially when those who may have been ‘in the know’ are shamelessly vocal. People who couldn’t have been as unaware as they might claim, those who downplay heinous acts perpetrated in the name of their erstwhile ‘cause’. And some of them are public representatives.

It’s a tempting wish, though… to separate history from the here-and-now. Too many conflicts have been fanned by reminders of former injustice and offence. But facing the past, rather than running away from it, fosters the possibility of dialogue. It can combine old yarns whose colours mightn’t appear complementary and use them to repair gaping tears. Stitching together damaged people, mending scarred locations. Recognising anguish isn’t bound by any statute of limitations.

Useful links:

The Disappeared: Hidden story of Northern Ireland Troubles (relating to a BBC/RTE documentary broadcast in early November):



Irish media coverage of the discovery of the Tomašica mass grave in Bosnia:

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/video-hundreds-of-bodies-found-at-bosnia-mass-grave-1.1580680 (includes video)


In memory of Jean McConville and all other victims of conflict in Northern Ireland and Bosnia and Herzegovina