Picture a young man in his mid-twenties raised in England now living in America on a work assignment in England spending a month in a red brick facility in County Meath Ireland. It’s 1981. The last night of his all too brief sojourn in Ireland – as it was then called – was truly memorable involving most of the old people in this rural area getting together in the local pub to sing, ostensibly for the benefit of this young foreign visitor. So this is an account of various memories in and around that event.
First, a little background about how Ireland looked through this young man’s eyes. He had been raised in England and had attended posh schools like Harrow – which tormented illustrious luminaries like Lord Byron and Sir Winston Churchill as much as this particular young man. His last year at Harrow whilst studying for an A-level in History, he spent long hours in the largest private library in England poking through lots of extracurricular albeit tangential material, one volume of which he found tucked away somewhere providing statistics about the Irish Potato Famine.*** In this tome he learned that the typical diet for an Irish working class family featured potatoes every day and meat just once a week, usually bacon or chicken, so that when the potato blight struck millions starved (and New England soon gained a population that would provide them with more indentured slaves as well as police officers a few generations later).
The young man felt that learning how the Irish only ate meat once a week was a significant thing to know and he built a whole theory of ‘real history’ around it, a theory which posited that nearly all the official history he had been learning in the Cambridge History of England whose many volumes he had been studying for years was little better than glorified bunkum. All these endless chapters on Kings and Queens and Talleyrand and the Duke of Wellington – like today’s inordinate coverage afforded Presidents, NFL quarterbacks and comic book heroes – kept ignoring how real human beings actually lived in those times, how they saw their own contemporary reality. Ever since this flash of insight in the darkened reading areas of the Vaughan Library in Harrow-on-the-Hill, the young man felt he had great insight into and close affinity with the Irish people so he was most eager to spend a month there to reconnect with these hitherto unmet soul mates.
Needless to say, such deluded notions soon faded once he actually arrived but the sense of affinity remained throughout his time there and indeed to this day though probably this has less to do with any spark of insight triggered by the Potato Famine statistics and more to do with a spontaneous love for this very old and refreshingly mischievous though historically battered people whose IQ’s consistently score above nearly all other ethnic groups world wide.
The title of this piece is ‘A Night to Remember.’ Truth be told, not much of that night is remembered, though a description soon follows. But there are other scattered memories of this brief time in Ireland which form the experiential backdrop of how significant this night felt at the time, memories and impressions which shall now be shared in no particular order.
The food: the cuisine was nothing to write home about but the ingredients were extraordinary. Despite having lived years each in upper class London, at a chateau in France in the Loir et Cher and in Florence never had he tasted such nourishing-feeling sausages, butter, cream, eggs, bacon, bread, potatoes and vegetables. It was like everything was twice as dense as anything else he had ever tasted. And this was still back in the days when produce in rural France, for example, where he spent two years in the early 1970’s, was a cut above most produce in upscale West End London which itself was above most of the rest of the country. But the produce in Ireland was like nothing he had ever tasted before and made a deep impression. In this regard, breakfasts were the main meal of the day. (This internet photograph does not do the subject matter justice!)
The countryside: it is said that Ireland is the ‘seventh step to heaven.’ Perhaps this is because especially when cloudy overhead it seems like you can almost reach up and touch them, the sky feels so close. Indeed, it feels like you are living up high with the gods even though most of the country is barely above sea level and pretty much everywhere you go on this ancient island there is a salt tang in the air. This sense of being up high with the gods somehow complements the exceptional variety and vividness of green prevalent throughout the country. This sojourn took place in already cold December but everywhere he went he was met with almost psychedelic intensities of no end of different shades and textures of exceptionally vivid green; to exaggerate only a little, it was a little like living inside a van Gogh study of a cow pasture.
The people: the people he met on trains and in shops were crude, often unfriendly and charmingly obnoxious. The women were Catholic and reserved with a single foreign man – unusually so compared with other young women of their age in nearby European countries – whilst the men were brash, daring, provocative, amusing with nearly everything coming out of their mouths some combination of irreverent, insulting and witty – the cruder variety boasting about lewd conquests with young ladies and begging him to tell similarly lewd stories in return. He can still remember looking into their wild Irish bright blue eyes and being laughed at merrily, being challenged to see life as a dream and not be so bloody uptight about everything. It was both discomfiting and refreshing at the same time.
His most intimate encounter with an actual Irish person was with Dixie, the caretaker of the Netterville Institute owned by an American millionaire couple – whose guest this young man was. Netterville is a slightly ugly Victorian-era red brick construction next to a far older stone church in ruins, purposed as a Home for Battered Women. The next door neighbours, a family whose last name was, most inappropriately, Pigeon, were extremely hostile since they were about to seize the property which hadn’t been used for eighteen years when the millionaires purchased it – another two years and it would have been theirs by law. So they were always pacing around in the fields nearby glaring at the occupants with an evil eye. Our young man became proficient at seating himself in the main downstairs rooms in places where their glares could not penetrate!
Dixie had a slight limp and seemed the sort of man who had been an officer’s wartime batman, comfortable with service without being either obsequious or arrogant. He instantly cottoned on to what little Harrow remained in the young man and played a servant-like part and they got on very well. Dixie would occasionally come in after he had finished his superlative breakfasts and do the dishes for example, and also took care that a housekeeper came in to clean the floors once in a while. They didn’t talk much though he was delighted to provide little pointers of things to see in the area; but the young man was there on a working holiday finishing up a personal project which required quiet time alone so that’s mainly what he did. The twenty bedroom institutional building was large and cold with only a few rooms being in use for the single guest and generally uncomfortable so after a couple of weeks he found himself driving an hour or so to Dublin to quaff a few pints and take in the city buzz.
After several weeks of these many and varied impressions it was Dixie who came up with the idea of throwing a farewell party for this foreign visitor who basically knew no-one nearby. One day he mentioned in passing that the old folks in the area used to get together every Saturday night to sing traditional songs in English and Gaelic but since the advent of the television a decade or so earlier – they being about thirty years behind the times – the young people were no longer getting together in the local taverns like they used to and so the tradition was dying out and the songs were not being passed on.
“When’s the next time you’ll be getting together for one?”
“Well, Dixie said, we could put on one for you if you like. It’d be a good excuse for us to do it. Would you like that before you leave?”
“I surely would, but I’m behind on my project and have to finish up by Saturday evening before I leave and can’t do it before then.”
“Saturday evening it is then; you can meet us down there at the pub at seven o’clock.”
Unfortunately it took until eleven o’clock to be done at which point the young man drove down to the pub expecting them all to be in full throat already and nine sheets to the wind and no harm done, he could just blend right in hopefully. But no: they had been waiting, some patiently but others with mounting ire. Dixie made a polite, deferential speech about this visitor to the Netterville Institute – which no doubt further irritated those already so stoked – but those formalities dispensed with cheerful smiles broke out all around and they all got down to business: singing and drinking. Our young hero was served a Guinness which in Ireland is a truly superb beverage many grades better in quality than what is found in other countries for reasons they have never been able to determine but which of course is because only in Eire do the gods and spirits of that island permeate every ingredient and process that go into its making and consumption. Then, laying an elbow on the polished bar pretending to be an important, mature person worthy of their attention (which he was most certainly not on either count!), in his recently purchased Harris tweed bright green jacket with professorial looking elbow patches, he turned towards the forty or fifty souls eagerly facing him. And instantly realized that something special was about to go down.
A truly ancient old man slowly stepped forward in front of the naturally formed semicircle and in both English and Gaelic introduced the name and history of the song he was about to perform. He started in a subdued fashion with an old man’s feeble, wavering voice as if singing from far away and long ago but as he sang his spirit strengthened and then the entire assembly joined in, first softly and then with increasing volume. By the end of that song there was nary a dry eye to be seen for all were moistened with Irish tears of joy and sadness perfectly blended. Then many different songs ensued: ballads, bawdy, martial, ancient, modern, comic, deeply touching and so forth.
The young man found himself deeply moved, not only that they had waited for him before beginning what later transpired to be a clearly magical night for all but also because he was being given a deeply intimate and ‘real’ transmission into a world that used to be vivid and vibrant for all there assembled but was now sadly fading into the past making the whole experience poignantly bitter sweet. Although the songs were mainly in English with only a few in Gaelic, altogether it was like witnessing the passing of a sense of shared culture and community with those assembled knowing their time was now ending, their culture now fading, that their children and grandchildren would not share such things together as they had done. So along with lamenting such passing they were also celebrating that they could still come together and share what was still bright, luminous, precious and heart-warming for them in the present.
You could hear a pin drop, as is said, when that elder first stepped forth. The Irish have one of the keenest ingrained sense of drama and story in the world so everyone there had waited for this moment which would not have been the same had not the pretext for the gathering – hailing and farewelling a young foreigner staying at the Big House – been honored in some sort of formal way.
Although it was indeed ‘A Night to Remember’ and although he will never forget how deeply touched he was to be present at such a gathering with such depth and beauty of direct human to human transmission, the young man honestly cannot remember a single detail of what transpired that night after old man started the singing. Everything went straight to heaven, as it were, and cannot be recalled on this plane today. Truly, Eire is the seventh step to Heaven!
He can recall, however, that it was not until dawn was breaking that he returned to the Netterville Institute and it was a hard trip to Dublin later that day to catch the flight to London where even Chelsea looked wan and drab in comparison to the luminous heartfelt brilliance of the faces turned towards him in song at that local tavern in County Meath.
Postscript: Here follow a few photographs from Google Maps of two special places near Netterville Institute, one about a hundred yards from the main house and the other, called New Grange, about five hundred yards away and clearly visible from many of the rooms in the Institute. Both of these national landmarks have been greatly improved since that time when they were both little more than unmarked mounds.
Perhaps more could have been woven into this article about their presence in the area, but if so it would mainly have been to point out that perhaps the vividness of the green, the vibrant density and flavour of the local foods, the strong heavenly presence in the skies and the pagan human realm mischief in so many locals’ eyes and speech are all reflections of the still present spirits of those long-forgotten ancestors even though no obvious signs and feelings remain as ghosts or demons or whatever.
we hear you speaking
in forgotten tongues carried by
long silent winds
*** Gabriel Rosenstock sent this link to a book writing the revisionist history of the Famine which was actually a forced genocide perpetrated by British Army in situ: https://www.amazon.com/Ireland-1845-1850-Perfect-Holocaust-Perfect/dp/0989610616
“This book, alone, provides the covered-up facts of 1845-1850 Ireland. There was no famine in the ordinary sense of that word. It was genocide perpetrated by more than half of Britain’s army (67 regiments of its 130 regiments total). They removed, at gunpoint, Ireland’s abundant meats, livestock, and food crops to the ports for export; thus starving the people. The book’s colored map shows the locations of lengthy deployments of each of the sixty-seven regiments while they removed livestock, meats, flour, oatmeal, and other food crops to the ports for export. The same map names the locations of some 180 of the resultant mass graves. The Perfect Holocaust is an achievement of the first magnitude and would be obligatory reading in a free Ireland – Tomás Mac Síomóin, Ph.D.”
A parting gift. Thankfully, they are still singing in Eire – at least in Derry!