“Irish Vignettes,”

A Memoir by Joanne Pateman

Danny Mcgillicuddy laid a peat fire every evening at my friend’s house in Waterville, County Kerry, Ireland. Waterville is on a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, so in October a warm fire to cozy around is welcome after being out in the elements. He was like a leprechaun or an invisible spirit, coming in ghostlike to do his job and then disappearing. Peat is cut from bogs in the earth in brick-size blocks. They are then arranged in a pyramid like wood logs to make a blaze. There is much craft involved. A peat fire is earth, one step before it turns into coal, and has a distinctive smell and essence. It gives off a deep heat, as if burning part of the earth, because you are. Irish soil is precious to all Irishmen.

My Irish-American friend Gail and her husband had bought the house in Waterville earlier last year after a two-year battle with cancer that she won. She was renovating her kitchen and decorating and freshening things up. We took her into Cahersiveen, the next town over from Waterville — I love saying Cahersiveen, it is such a mouthful. Cahersiveen. Cahersiveen. Gail was looking to buy a new fridge. Irish refrigerators do not come with an icemaker, just a small freezer where you can put plastic trays to make ice cubes, but no instant ice that Americans favor.

She solved it by buying a larger fridge with no freezer and a smaller, under-the-counter freezer for ice trays and ice cream. Mission accomplished.

Being good guests, we went to the liquor store and stocked up on 12 bottles of wine for the house. The proprietor, tall and good-looking with a ruddy face framed by short white hair and matching white eyebrows, was helpful in our selections. I mentioned to the wine merchant that in the States we got 15 percent off if we bought a case. After what seemed like an interminably long pause, he said, “You could have a 13th bottle free.” I thought that was fine.

As soon as we sat down in the pub, the couple facing us turned off the TV behind us that they had been watching. “It’s fine,” we said. They answered, “No problem.”

“Do you come here often?” the woman asked, as we were about to order the fish stew special. “Just arrived today for a few days.” The woman, a doctor from Cork, said they come most weekends to their cottage in Waterville. I immediately thought it might be like the Hamptons, a retreat to a more rural, natural place. “I love to walk the beach,” the doctor said when I asked what they did in Waterville.

“Riding the bus is such a nice way to see Dublin. You can ride along the Liffey,” she offered when I said we would be going on to visit Dublin for the first time. “Cheers,” we both said as we toasted each other with our glasses of white wine, and they left for their walk along the beach in the pouring rain.

While we were out looking at real estate, we drove by David Higgins’s house where he happened to be washing his car in his green Wellie boots. “Joanne, how are you?” he said as I poked my head from the car window. I hadn’t been to Waterville in seven years and he remembered me! It was as if I had seen him yesterday. It was the best compliment I could have received. Seven years vanished like an Irish mist after a rainbow. “David, so good to see you.”

David is a professional golfer and plays on the European tour. He invited us into his beautiful house and even showed off his man cave where he had a practice net set up and golf posters and a TV playing golf tournaments. Years ago he gave lessons to us, part of a women’s golf outing one of the owners of the course had arranged. We had a clinic every morning, played 18 holes in the afternoon, and went drinking with the caddies every night. I had recurring nightmares of my head as a bowling ball careening down a lane, knocking down empty green bottles of chardonnay. But we all had a grand time. David had good memories too. He reminded me of our chipping lesson when he taught me to chip with a 7-iron.

After a delicious dinner at the Point, a fresh seafood restaurant opposite Valencia Island outside Waterville, we decided to return the next night. We couldn’t resist. The salmon was so good and so simply prepared, with potatoes two ways — crisply roasted and a potato salad with a creamy dressing.

On our return visit the restaurant was very quiet, with just one other couple in the cozy dining room. Bridie, the owner and wife of the chef, Michael, was enthusiastically telling us about her six children and all the good things that were happening in their lives — an engagement, a new baby on the way, and a good new job for another. I love hearing family stories and was happy for her. She told us their sixth child was born with Down syndrome. Even though a challenge, she turned out to be a joy for all the siblings who volunteered to take care of her instead of putting her in a special facility.

I ended up hanging out in the kitchen with Bridie and Michael, next to their black restaurant range listening to their life stories and telling a few of my own.

Still Life
Next stop the Curragh to visit my best golfing friend’s daughter, who recently moved to Ireland for a year with her husband and daughter. They were looking for an adventure. They rented a house that was part of a horse farm not far from the National Stud where famous racehorses are bred. Their house was difficult to find, even after throwing my body in front of an Irish postman’s truck to ask where the house was. He kindly drew us a map, and as we knew we were getting closer, we asked a neighbor who was pulling out of his driveway with a horse trailer attached behind. I described the family and he said, “Oh yes, she’s a looker, she can move in with me. They’re right across the road.” So, success at last. We arrived at the Gatehouse, Brown Shawn Stud Farm in the Curragh, in time for lunch.

Brown pears sat in a bowl on the windowsill like a still life out of a Cezanne painting. I observed the care Holly and Chip took in curating their new life in Ireland, creating little still lifes on the dining table set with a rough blue and white runner and a jelly jar of wild flowers. Chip prepared a curry stew with big chunky root vegetables, and Holly made two kinds of bread. Dessert was an apple-raspberry crisp with the raspberries picked by them. The raspberries were the size of small plums and super sweet. A dining table was put in the living room and we sat around the ubiquitous peat fire, warming our tired bones, fueled by the delicious stew.

Their 6-year-old daughter, Winter, is a friend of my grandson Cullen. They have play dates when he is in town.

“This is Patches,” she said, “my pony.”

She was learning to groom him in return for riding lessons. Winter was also learning Gaelic and sang us a song. And she was developing a charming Irish accent.

A date to meet a high school friend of my daughter’s who I hadn’t seen in 10 years proved serendipitous. “Jason, the last time I saw you was at Sophie’s wedding.” He suggested a classic pub called Kehoes in Dublin. He said, “You’ll find interesting looking characters, young and old.” We walked in. The older ones wore classic tweed jackets and the younger ones sported business attire and carried briefcases. The people sitting next to us struck up a conversation and we started talking about golf. Jason has his own media company and his Irish wife is a lawyer. They are both doing very well and travel all over Europe for holidays. It was interesting to see young professionals, peers of my daughter, and what their life was like on the other side of the pond. Jason recommended a couple of restaurants for pre-theater dinner before a show at the Abby Theatre. They walked us past O’Donohue’s where lively fiddlers and flutists and a guitar player were playing dum diddly Irish music as if on cue. We stopped to listen and tapped our feet to the beat.

Joanne Pateman received a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing from Southampton College. She has previously published fiction and “Guestwords” columns in The Star.