Moon Cakes and Barmbracks

Last week we celebrated the Chinese Autumn Festival and in a week or so we will celebrate the Irish equivalent – Halloween.  Food is important in both – it is time to enjoy the fruits of the harvest.

In the Chinese celebration the Moon Cake takes centre stage and in Ireland it is the barmbrack.

It China the family gather for a special meal, but they are also thinking of their ancestors, thanking them and praying for them.

In Ireland the latter part is dying out. Now scary ghosts replace the ancestors and youngsters would not look favourably on receiving a token of the harvest, such as an apple, in their trick-or-treat bag.

In Ireland everyone got a slice of the barmbrack in which might be a ring, a coin or a thimble. That would foretell whether they would marry, get rich or remain ever single.

The round moon cake symbolises completeness and togetherness in the family, living and deceased.  The emphasis is more on relationships than the individual —  sharing the work, the fruits and a sense of achievement by working together.

As you see from the photos, we celebrated in Maynooth and with the Chinese Catholic community in Dublin. And the moon cakes arrived in time.  

Explore another culture, it is not too late!

Most of the volunteers teaching English in China with Aitece are in their 40s and 50s. They thought they had missed out on a chance to live in an exotic culture and make a contribution to life there. Especially to young people, like Chinese third-level students.

You get a free apartment, salary and the chance to visit different parts of the country. In return you give time to the students by letting them practice and improve their English. It’s a contribution to international peace and cooperation.

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Why learn with China?


A recent comment from Albina in Korea asked, ‘Are you not exaggerating the importance of China in today’s world?’

I clarified my thoughts on that question when reading the introduction to ‘China and the Irish’ by its editor, Jerusha McCormack.

Her theme is our need to encounter ‘another’ in order to compare and understand ourselves. China might be a lot bigger than Ireland, and a long distance away, but the two peoples have important issues in common. By comparing how China is dealing with these questions, and using China as in a mirror, we can see ourselves more objectively.

What do the two countries have in common? Jerusha points out the following.

Both are struggling to clarify what it is to be Irish or Chinese in the world today. Both are escaping from an uncomfortable past, moving from a traditional to a post-modern world while trying to save something of their ancient heritage.

Today there are people from 150 countries, speaking 170 different languages, living in Ireland. China has a huge populations and 55 recognised minorities living within its borders so both face the challenge of bringing people together while recognising their differences.

So this blog is about investigating what we can learn from each other. But why China? For me the answer is that I have been there, was impressed and saw enough to know that the basic hopes and needs of both peoples are the same while the richness of their differences are a spur to innovative thinking.

Besides, China is already one of the most powerful countries in the world and can Ireland, one of the smallest, afford to ignore it? 

The Legion and Mao

A Chinese lady who came to Ireland recently told me that her grandfather had been missing from their home for most of her childhood.  The reason? He was imprisoned in 1951 because he had been president of her village branch of the Legion of Mary. Her family did not know if he was dead or alive until they heard indirectly from him in 1979. Because of the family relationship, her father was not allowed to study beyond primary school.

I asked her whether she knew the Legion of Mary had been founded in Dublin by a Dubliner, Frank Duff, 96 years ago? Also that the man who brought the Legion, an organisation  of lay Catholics who want to be involved in church activities, to China in 1948 was Fr Aiden McGrath, a Columban missionary and another Dubliner? She was not aware of that.

The Legion had been enthusiastically welcomed by young Chinese Catholics but, when the Communist government took over, it was labelled a ‘public enemy’ and steps taken to supress it. Fr McGrath was put in solitary confinement for three years and then expelled. The government’s views was that the Legion was a pro-active religious group in an atheistic country and its name included the provocative word ‘army ‘ (in Chinese it is translated as ‘The Army of Mary’).

Today the Legion might not be so strong in Ireland but there are said to be 10 million members around the world and if there are any in China today they are keeping their heads down.

Conor McWho and Rory who?

Recently when I mentioned the anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, one of my Chinese friends asked, ‘Who is Princess Diana?’ He has been studying in Ireland for the past two years but when I further remarked that an anniversary of Elvis Presley was also coming up he inquired, ‘Who is he?’

Maybe our world, and the people who mirror it for us, do not have such a planet-wide impact as we think.

Who are the most popular people in Ireland? According to Instagram they are Niall Horan, with 18.9 million hits, Conor McGregor with 11 million and Rory McIlroy with 1.2 million. After that they plunge to the hundreds of thousands of hits.

In China, according to the local version of Facebook, they are Xie Na (90 million hits), He Jiong, 84 million, Chen Kun, 81 million, and the next seven have an average of 70 million hits each.

It shows that both countries use social media a lot though there are no foreigner on either list.  Actually many young Chinese you meet may know about Conor McGregor, Rory McIlroy and even Niall Horan.  I sometimes think they do a bit of research about your home country before starting a conversation. But who here in Ireland knows Xie Na with her 90 million followers?

That might change. With its growing population, economy and political power China will soon be setting the trend for cultures and celebrities.

People will be talking about Lu Chen and you will be asking, ‘Who?’

Off to China!

On Sunday, Joe Deegan, volunteer teacher for China, took off on his journey to Chongqing via Hong Kong.

Joe’s departure was delayed due to stricter documentation demands by the Chinese Government but with the help of Aitece, Hong Kong, and Aitece people here, the delay was only for a few days.

Joe joins eight other Irish Aitece teachers in China (including May Crawley who arrived there last week)  who have found that going with a recognised group like Aitece helped them get through red tape and provides them with  contacts and security in China.

Remember, it is never too late to think of going yourself. See

A Bit of China Planted in Ireland

Ireland may not be the home of any Chinese pandas but it does have a collection of rare Chinese trees and they are not in Dublin but in an estate in Birr.

The 5th Earl of Rosse began what was to prove a lengthy family connection with China when, in 1908, he contacted a fellow Irishman, Augustine Henry, then working in western China for the Imperial Chinese Customs Service. Augustine had qualified a doctor and in 1881 was sent to Yichang to investigate plants used in Chinese medicine to see how the West could benefit from them. By 1885 he was sending back seeds to Kew Gardens in London for classification and soon became a world recognised expert on trees and China itself.

The Earl of Rosse benefitted from the contact and today over 40% of the trees in the magnificent Rosse gardens in Birr are from China, many of them with the title ‘Champion Tree.’

This interest in Chinese trees sparked off a three-generation relationship between the Earl’s family and China, with younger members going there to study and work.

However this close connection is not evident to the casual visitor at Birr Castle. The only clue is that the alternative language on the welcome signs is Chinese. Also one remote section of the garden is labelled ‘Yunnan’ (the province from which many of the trees came.)

A visit there may not spark off a lasting fascination with China for you but with Henry it all began with an interest in the medicinal value of plants and with the Earl it was the development of his own garden. In both cases it led to life-long learning and a personally enriching experience.

Poppies: Maynooth and China

In a belated effort to improve the horticultural scene in Maynooth we planted a bed of ‘Irish Wildflowers’ in early summer.  Among those that survived the process were some poppies, a surprise as I have not seem many of the once–common poppies in Irish fields.

Then one of my Chinese friends remarked that it is not allow to plant poppies in China – they were the source of the opium that brought so much misfortune on the Chinese people especially when Western powers forced them to open their markets to cheap foreign opium.

In the UK,  poppies are worn in remembrance of the senseless slaughter in World War l and have taken on a patriotic connotation. Maybe it is forgotten that England was one of the countries that forced poppy-derived opium on China less than a hundred years previous to that.

Back in Ireland, unaware of the sad histories, we may just lament the absence of poppies that once made our fields so colourful.

Korea Day In Dublin

Over 150 Korean, or Korea-related, people joined in the Korean ‘Independence Day’ Celebrations at Lucan Centre (a great place for an outing!) on Saturday last. The actual Day, commemorating the fact that Korea got its independence from Japan on the day World War ll ended (!5th August), happens to also be the Assumption of Mary, patroness of the Korean Catholic Church so a public holiday in Korea.

There was little mention of escalating tensions with North Korea, it has been part of Korean life for the past 70 years, but there was a typical Korean meal followed by communal ‘recreation’ – skipping, jegi chagi, dancing and singing.

Communal Spirit is something the Koreans can help revive in Ireland!

The Power of Language: Irish and Chinese

I am just back from West Connemara, famous for is lakes, boulders and, in summer, throngs of teenagers in the Gaeltacht practicing their Irish. We were near the house in Rosmuc build by Padraig  Pearse who said ‘a nation without a language is a nation without a soul’.

Moving around the area we met groups of students from Dublin, Tipperary and Cavan who greeted us with ‘Dia guit’ (‘God be with you’). Back home, if they ever greeted a stranger they would say, ‘Hi’ or even, ‘Maidin mhaith’. In the Gaeltacht they were learning more than a language, they were imbibing an attitude to life and people that was part of Irish culture.

The number of schools in Ireland teaching Chinese is increasing and the teachers are probably aware that a language cant be learnt properly without accepting the cultural attitudes it expresses and reinforces.  Those who succeed in learning Chinese may be surprised to encounter a view of life similar to that of the Gaelic-speaking people of Connemara. The greeting, ‘Did you have your meal yet?’ might not be exactly, ‘Dia Guit’ but it expresses the same sense of respect and personal concern.  One is based on an awareness of God in people and nature while the other comes from a sense that  bonding is part of our eternal human dna and the two may be very close to each other.

Not far from Rosmuc is the only 9-hole golf club in Ireland with a thatched- roof clubhouse. All the directions and signs are in Irish so the game is probably played in an Irish spirit. When you face off on the first tee into an Atlantic gale there will probably be someone there to wish you, ‘God be with you’, or maybe, ‘God help you.’