As Saint Patrick’s Day approaches, I wax nostalgic again….
I’ve written before about my Irish heritage–that being from my paternal Grandfather, and I’ve spoken of my Catholic School education. What I haven’t mentioned is that I got more exposure to my Irish heritage at school than at home. Because nuns are from Ireland. All of them. Seriously.
I mean there are nuns from other countries, to be sure, but the number has got to be statistically insignificant. If any one race of people could get to Heaven based solely on the number of priests and nuns being produced from its collective loins, it would be the Irish.
At Incarnate Word for example, there was Sister Mary Martha O-Gara, my Elementary and High School Principal. She has this faint Irish accent, and a calm fierceness about her that warns you not to push her buttons. Don’t tell her I said so, but she’s really just a sweetheart, and everyone knows it.
Then there are Sisters Christina, Marian, and Margaret Patrice Bradley. They are Sisters. AND they are sisters. They are all as sweet as clover and as kind as you could ever meet. A trio of more quiet, unflustered ladies you’ve never met. And they’d have to be, what with all of the toddlers and pre-K babies they have taught over the years.
Then there were Sisters Catherine, Colette, and Maria Elizabeth Brehony. Again, they were sisters and Sisters. Colette was my Junior High Principal. Sister Catherine was a teacher in High School, but I was never in one of her classes. She knew who I was, though, by my Irish pug nose. She once told me that with my pug nose, I could only be a Gough or a Hoge.
There was Sister Noreen Begley, who taught Junior High English with an Irish accent. Also, Sisters Camelia Herlihy, Kathleen McDonagh, and Agnes Marie Tengler–whose brother was a priest.
Sister Raphael Bartosch taught third grade, and made jams and jellies from the grape vines and mesquite beans that grew on the convent grounds. I sometimes got to help her in her garden, picking fruit.
Sister Genevieve housesat for my family when we went out-of-town. Including when my parents went out-of-town, but I stayed home. How could I have a party with a nun in the house? EXACTLY! My parents were pure genius!
But hands down, my all time favorite nuns were Sister William Francis Garcia, and Sister Denise Cassidy.
Sister William Francis was not Irish, but since I am talking about my favorite nuns, I have to mention her. She was a short, round, jolly little lady with the cutest giggle. She taught the first grade for many years, teaching both me AND my son. She collected bells. Porcelain bells, brass bells, crystal bells, silver bells. If she could pick them up and ring them, people gave them to her. When we heard the tinkling of her bell, we knew it was time to come in from recess, get in our seats, or quiet down in the classroom. If we failed to respond to the bell, we might next hear from The Pink Lady. The pink lady was a pink ruler she used to dispense her brand of discipline. It didn’t really hurt, but it did the job. At a rummage sale fundraiser when I was in second grade, she bought my old Raggedy Ann and Andy thermos, and she carried her coffee in it every morning until she quit teaching a few years back. It’s been 39 years since she taught me, but I’ve always loved her, and looked forward to events back home where I got to see her. She left us last year, and got her wings. I still cry when I think of it. I’ll miss her always.
Sister Denise was my elementary school principal, and my Spelling Bee mentor. Me and my best friend, Melanie Shouse would meet in her office after school to learn words like woebegoneness, and zucchetto. Yes, they’re words. Trust me.
One time, in sixth grade, Melanie showed up to get her list of spelling words to study, and Sister wasn’t there yet. Melanie wanted to go get the list from her desk, but the office was locked. Good Catholic girl that she was, Melanie took a letter opener from the secretary’s desk, and attempted breaking and entering into Sister’s office. The letter opener broke off in the key hole. BUSTED! I never knew about that until I reconnected with Melanie several years ago, and we laughed and reminisced about our elementary years. Naughty kids break in to steal computers. Catholic girls break in to get spelling lists. She sent her love to Sister, who I saw a few weeks later at a school fundraiser. Sister was delighted to hear from her, and we laughed about the breaking and entering. Sadly, Melanie died a short time later of breast cancer, but she will be remembered with laughter and levity by the Sisters of The Incarnate Word, and me.
I can hear all of them, collectively, saying things such as “faith ‘n begorrah” (by my faith in God), “you better be behavin’ yourself, Las, or I’ll be hittin’ you over the head with my Shillelagh..” AND “you’ll be wearin’ the green shoes…..” You must say these with your thickest Irish brogue.
Since I am a good Irish Catholic girl, I leave you all with a proper Irish blessing….(We wrote the book on those, you know):
An Irish Blessing
May God give you…
For every storm, a rainbow,
For every tear, a smile,
For every care, a promise,
And a blessing in each trial.
For every problem life sends,
A faithful friend to share,
For every sigh, a sweet song,
And an answer for each prayer.
If you wish to warm your cockles on a traditional Irish meal, try this one… A hearty Guinness Stew, served with a quick Brown Soda Bread, and Apple Amber for dessert.
One of the most quintessentially Irish dishes around, this is traditionally made with lamb. If lamb is not readily available, or your family doesn’t do lamb, beef or even venison make fine substitutes. I used rainbow baby carrots.
- 2 T fat (oil or shortening)
- 4 lbs lamb or beef stew meat
- 2 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 quart water
- 1 1/2 pounds any combination of carrots, parsnips and turnips
- 4 cloves chopped garlic
- 1 cup peeled pearl onions
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
- 2 cups beef or lamb stock
- 1 bottle Guinness Extra Stout
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon dijon mustard
- mashed potatoes or colcannon, for serving
Heat fat over high heat in a cast iron or other heavy dutch oven. Toss meat with salt and pepper, and brown thoroughly in hot fat. Add water, onion, thyme and garlic, cover, and reduce heat to medium. Simmer for 30 minutes. Remove lid and allow most of the water to cook off. Add remaining vegetables, stock, and beer. Cover and allow to simmer over low heat for 1 hour. Gently stir in tomato paste and mustard. Cook with lid removed until the sauce is reduced and thick. Place a large ladle of stew into a bowl, and top with a big heap of mashed potatoes or colcannon (recipe HERE).
Brown Soda Bread
Soda bread is an Irish standard. Whether white or brown variety, it is a quick way to put a hearty bread on the table, as it does not involve yeast or rising time. It is rather like a large biscuit or scone–very crusty on the outside, while dense and moist on the inside. Perfect for serving with a hearty stew.
- 3 cups whole wheat flour
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 2 oz cold butter
- 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
- 1 tablespoon honey or molasses
Combine flours, salt and baking soda in a large bowl. Using your fingers, break and rub the butter into the flour mixture until it is the size of peas. make a well in the center of the dry mixture, and pour in the buttermilk and honey. Use a fork to stir the dough together until a stiff dough forms. Knead it a few times in the bowl until it all comes together. Place into a greased cast iron skillet or cake pan, and pat into a round loaf about 3 inches thick. Use a sharp knife to cut a cross in the top. Bake at 425* for 40 minutes. Remove from oven, and cover with a damp tea towel to cool for 10 minutes. Slice into thick slices and serve with plenty of fresh, soft butter.
Irish Amber is a lesser known Irish dessert. And that’s a shame. Think of it as a crustless applesauce pie, topped with meringue. More contemporary versions do call for baking it in a pie crust, but I like the traditional version, without. Plus, ’tis healthier that way.
- 4 green apples, peeled and grated
- 1/3 cup granulated (white) sugar (or equivalent sweetener of choice)
- 2 tablespoon water
- 2 tablespoon lemon juice
- pinch of salt
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- 4 eggs, separated
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Place apples, sugar, water, juice and spices into a saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until the apple has broken down into mostly a puree. Some texture can remain. Allow to cool for 20 minutes.
Beat egg yolks in a small bowl. Beat into apple mixture, and pour into 4 individual ramekins or into a baked 8″ pie shell. Bake at 350* for 20 minutes.
Beat egg whites with remaining sugar until stiff peaks form. Spoon onto hot apple mixture, and return to oven to brown, for about 15 minutes. Allow to cool before serving warm.