Cal and Soda Bread

“Sometimes he wished he knew more languages to curse himself more thoroughly.” – Cal

Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal is a book about coming of age. Set during the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’, it follows the life of nineteen-year old Catholic Cal who is reluctantly part of a branch of the Provisional IRA. He is unemployed, a fact that seems to have an all-encompassing effect on his involvement in the Provos. He lives on a Protestant neighbourhood with his father, Shamie, who works at the local abattoir.

As the conflict worsens, Cal and Shamie receive threats from local youths concerning their presence on the estate and Cal is even attacked on one occasion. He ends up working as a farm hand for a wealthy local Protestant family and falling in love with Marcella. The estate is something of a safe haven for Cal because he can disappear and pretend to achieve some semblance of a normal existence there.

There is a palpable build-up of tension throughout the novel and Cal is perpetually haunted by a sense of guilt for a crime he committed, but which the reader only pieces together as the novel unfolds. Despite the intensity of the setting and subject-matter, there are moments of humour in Cal, particularly in the depictions of teenaged awkwardness. However, throughout the narrative the reader must come to terms with the tragedy of the lives of those who endure times of violence and war.

I read Cal while going through a phase of baking and eating soda bread (or brown bread, as they call it in Ireland). There’s nothing like the smell and taste of freshly baked bread, and the great thing about this variety is that you don’t need to use yeast to make it. I was experimental with the recipe and it may not be to everyone’s liking but I found it tasted particularly delicious hot from the oven with a trickling of runny honey.

Soda Bread


450g wholemeal flour

50g oats

a fistful of sunflower seeds

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tsp salt

420 ml buttermilk


Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. Place the mixture on a baking tray and score a cross in the top. Put in an oven preheated to 200°C and leave to bake for half an hour. When the loaf is golden brown remove it from the oven and transfer it to a wire wrack to cool.


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