The phone rang three times before ten in the morning. Then Michael and Gráinne dropped round. It was Michael’s sixtieth birthday party that evening and Dad had planted a silver birch in his garden before he woke up. Next Sean Ahern rang the doorbell. Nora popped her head in to tell us that Tom Hallinan up the road had just died. Kay-next-door arrived, still sick with ‘flu, followed by Pat and her daughter Michelle. She brought photos of New Year’s Eve, when our faces were shiny and our lips stained with mulled wine. Donal Lynch phoned to ask which kind of John Rocha Waterford Crystal glasses he should buy for Michael’s birthday. Sean and Mary Meegan were just passing and decided to stop for coffee at Hanleys.
We boiled and boiled the kettle, served up pots of tea and the odd coffee. (Coffee is still a treat for town.) My family makes tea too weak for anyone else’s taste, but generally they don’t complain, except to ask for the last cup poured. Pat takes sugar in his tea, the only one the road, and we always forget to set it out for him. There are plates of Christmas cake and chocolate-biscuit cake, and my mother makes a fry. The English habit of putting out tea without a bolstering biscuit or cake is considered fierce mean here.
This is how my parents’ live on Saturday morning, and for most of their long teachers’ holidays. Their Ireland is a breezy drop-in culture, where visits are short, frequent, and unannounced. All is dropped for the cup of tea. In the summer they have barbecues with the neighbours that last long after the sun goes down at 10.30, and in the mornings they cycle out to Adare for coffee with Kay and whoever else wants to go.
The talk is of birds and gentle slaggings. Bird tables are the Sky Sports channel of my father’s friends. They spend hours customizing feeders and lugging out bags of peanuts and balls of fat, then watching the welfare tits, goldfinches, robins, and blackbirds bob at the offerings. Sean Ahern has persuaded a rare and handsome brambling finch to dine at his table in Patrickswell, and he crows about this to Dad at every chance. “I’m going to have to ask you for a subvention of 47 cents a day to support your birds, Sean,” he says. “They’re all coming over to my table these days, and I can’t afford to be keeping them in birdseed. Jesus, my brambling finch has a fierce appetite.” Dad blames me and my mother for neglecting the birdseed when he was off skiing with the school last week. I blame Kay’s cat, who stalks our garden.
They tell stories in rounds, prompting them out again for new arrivals.
“Tell Dervala the one about Pat’s uncle taking the ferry, John,” says Sinéad, and John settles himself for a good _scéal_. He works for the national forestry association, Coillte, and has an anthropologist’s eye for the mountainy men on the back roads of Clare. Half the stories at our kitchen table start with noting the county the main character is from, a key to the motivations to follow. I am rusty on the psychological significance of being from Termonfeckin, Co. Louth versus Knocknagashel, Co. Kerry, but even I know of the bachelor hill farmers of Clare.
“This lad now, he’d lived on the side of a hill up the far end of Clare all his life,” says John. “Way out beyond Inagh, on the road to Miltown Malbay. He was eighty seven years old, and he’d never left Clare County. I’d say he’d gone to Ennis, twenty miles down the road, maybe twice in his life. His sister was ninety-three when she went to Ennis for the first time, and she died the next day.”
“That kind of travel would kill you,” we agree.
“So one day the nephews decide that for a change they’ll take their few cows to the mart in Tarbert, across in Kerry, rather than the local one. They’ll hop across the Shannon estuary on the Killimer-Tarbert car ferry for a bit of a day out. And the ould fella decides he wants to go. Never in his life left the county before, mind. So they go to collect him, and he’s been up since six in the morning, all excited about his big travel. And they motor down an hour and half to the ferry, and they drive on, and twenty minutes later they’re across the river in Tarbert. The mart is a big success, they get better prices than they were expecting, and the ould lad is having the time of his life, taking it all in. They get to the pub and he says, ‘Lads, lads, ye’re after taking me out, so I’m buying this round.’ Grand so, they say, three pints it is so. And off he goes up to the bar, and the pints are drawn, and the pints are settling. And the barman says, ‘Where are you from, sir?’ ‘I’m from Ireland,’ says your man, in all seriousness, ‘Just over for the day.'”
There is great warmth here against the filthy January weather that has kept us indoors for five days now. The faces in the kitchen change as often as the skies. My parents have deposited in a bank of friendship for twenty or thirty years and that investment cushions against knocks. When you are sick here, or your house burns down, things get done for you quietly. In all seasons, tools and recipes, bottles of wine and children, are passed around as needed, and if your arthritis has flared up my father, or someone else, will dig your garden. Everyone gives their time: conducting a choir, staffing the Credit Union, visiting friends’ sick parents, teaching new widows to drive. It is a gift economy where time and effort are valued more than Tiffany’s boxes.