Ireland my heart, my dreams, my hope       

Ireland my heart ,my dreams , my hope

Maureen Ryan

My grandmother had her own special smell and my grandfather too . She had a sweet , sickly smell and he smelled of ‘Gold Flake ‘ tobacco, especially in his warm tweed jacket that he wore coming in and out of the farm every day. His strong well - made hat had evidently lasted a long time as it’s greasy rim moulded to his head and his thick dry hair . He called her’ Annie ‘ but I don’t remember her calling him ‘Michael ‘ or ‘ Mick’ as he was known .

Mick stood straight and strong , resonating with the ground below like a giant leading the Earth . Annie always wore a  pinny  so she could wipe her hands on it when she quietly made the soda bread every day . One plain and one with sultanas in.

The turf fire continued to warm and welcome even when they had gone out to ‘see to ‘ the cows and the chickens . Sometimes , when I woke and came downstairs to the empty house there was an egg boiling in an enamel cup , pushed into the fire and although the back door was open , I knew I was safe and not alone

We were allowed to go off all day . I could take grandma’s bike and my brother Michael had grandad’s. “You’d better be back before dark”. Grandma would say. But we always left it to the last minute. Racing back in the dusk with the bats starting to swoop , Michael would tease “ They’ll get stuck in your hair ! ” , “ They’ll get stuck in your hair ! “. Faster and faster we’d cycle , not wanting to get into trouble when we got back . But also a bit scared of the dark catching up with us .

One day we were out when a huge storm broke ; thunder and lightning competing around us . We stood under a tree looking up when the sky opened letting out an overfill of rain that ran off the end of my nose  into my mouth. We were soaked through . We continued a little way walking  and taking in a wide , whitewashed , thatched cottage that was quite far in from the road  ... It was bigger  than our grandparents ‘ . We wanted to get out of the storm but really we were intrigued by it . As we approached the door opened showing kind faces and it was too late to change our minds.

Their fire was bigger than our grandparents’ too and the warmth felt so good . They said we should take off our clothes to dry and we wrapped up in blankets . I was comforted in kindness and with the hot tea , bread and lovely jam they gave us . I wanted to trust the whole world after this .

When we returned , I don’t think we got into trouble for going there. We might have been praised ? But I wasn’t listening . I wasn’t concerned . In my head , I was still in the adventure . I loved ‘ our world ‘ even if she always found out what we did ... good or bad ( well in her eyes ) .

She found out I’d kissed a boy in a haystack . She found out I’d used a swear word I’d heard like a pirate / bandit , when I bought the important marshmallow - biscuits from a little house , that ran a shop from it . We’d ridden quite far away  that day , repeating the game that delighted my friends . But the word had got round as usual ,  ( the same network who helped each other to ‘ bring in the hay ‘  and share some of their slaughtered meat . )

I was actually ashamed of my behaviour - I’d got carried away and meant no harm. But it was wrong . My grandmother was mortified . She feared for me and I didn’t know why . Feeling guilty for an innocent kiss ? It was confusing for a fairytale princess.

There came a day when my brother and cousins first whispered to each other , then ran ; ran as fast as they could across the fields. I followed until the breath had run out of me. I couldn’t catch up . I stood shocked listening to them laughing , and my chest hollowed realising I was unable to be with them .

I had made my own friends . Not Maisie with a lazy eye (the nice friend that was chosen for me at the introduction tea around the nice tablecloth). I hadn’t chosen her but it was uncomfortable not to be nice !

Dark - haired Kathleen’s generous smile brought me out to play . Her family always shared their boiled potatoes with me on an old , greyish cloth with the hot skin peelings still left on it . We made a shop in one of their outbuildings . The pleasure of empty packages and a broom was tremendous ! And it would be just how we left it , whenever we wanted to go there .

My other friend Betty o’ Donoghue , came from a long walk away . I never went in her house . She would come to meet me on the bridge near my grandma’s to play , or really , just talk . I saw things moving in her hair . It fascinated me . And she never washed the mud off her . I liked that .

In the evenings , when  I was little enough , I sat on grandad’s lap . Grandma sat next to the fire . They didn’t have comfy chairs or sofas just wooden ones with flattened , knitted cushions on . There was a small , formal sofa in the tiny sitting room with a tempting revolving bookcase . And  whisky , for when the priest came . Stairs went up from the kitchen to the two tiny bedrooms above . I slept with grandma and her false teeth next to us , on the cabinet . Michael slept with Mick when our parents were there .

Annie was in her own little world with her hearing aid , turning away quietly to the fire . I was too busy to understand ,dipping a greasy comb in and out of a cup of water to comb and flatten grandad’s hair , and using one of her hair grips to finish.

He sang opera and songs from the church choir around the house or made funny squeaking noises like a cheeky monkey . I loved his cheek . I loved his emotional tenor voice . But I didn’t look round for him at mass . Just listened .

All the men gathered along the road outside church , before mass . All the women went into church first  , with the children . Everyone looked so different  . So clean and dressed up .... grandad extraordinary in his pale , pink shirt and no wellies . We’d all shared the same water in the tin bath in front of the fire the night before . I had to wear white gloves and a hat with my dress from an aunt in America . That’s where the grown - up children went in those days . England, America , Australia . But why ? It was perfect here !

Mick Riordan’s cry ran across the fields and up to the town when his youngest son left for Australia . I can imagine him sitting out the back on the pink - painted chair , gazing . The chair was still there when I went back as an adult . But there were only 3 legs left on it .

I got very angry with grandad one year . Every morning  , I could here the pigs cutely snorting when grandma poured the hot , sloppy , ‘ pigs porridge  ‘ into the big trough  . They lived in a little house just below my window and  looked so cute with their snouts covered in food.

One day a big , roaring truck pulled up right next to the pig - pen  .  Suddenly , murderously cruel squeals filled my ears . “ Something terrible must be happening ! “ But by the time I got  near , all the pigs were locked tight in the truck , squealing and frightened . Everyone was ignoring me. I kept thumping my grandad until grandma took me upstairs and tried to explain . There was no consoling me . The pig - pen was silent .

Very soon after , grandma told me if I scrubbed out the pig - pen , I could use it for my playhouse  . I filled the noisy tin bucket with water and transformed the mini house , ready for my friends to make it ours. We laid branches of the soft pine that grew everywhere on the floor and sat on our beautiful carpet .

Nor did I connect the pig hung up outside , with the pigs that had been under my window . In fact , I fell straight into the busy excitement of the neighbours who arrived to sit around and help skilfully chop , perfect pieces of meat . Grandma and friends worked hard scraping the pigs intestines out , ready to fill with the black - pudding mixture made  with the buckets of  pigs blood I proudly carried over . It felt so good being a necessary part of the team . And then I ate the slaughtered meat .

All done in the same room as you cook , sit quietly near the fire , go into labour or maybe even give birth on the same kitchen table .

Maureen Ryan (c)  2021