Wednesday 18 October 2017

Lay of the Land: The fiery focal point of an Irish family home

Stock image
Stock image

Fiona O'Connell

When it comes to the best time to start lighting a fire after summer, there seems to be two kinds of country folk: those who say we are only halfway through September (implying that we are a long way yet from hugging the hearth), and there's the other lot who, like closet cigarette smokers, use any dip in temperatures all year round as an excuse to stoke things up.

I belong to the second camp, for a real fire is surely the cosiest compensation for dreary days and damp weather. The smell of turf in the air is one of the things that I always loved about life beyond the ironically named 'Big Smoke'.

The smell of turf used to hit my nose as soon as I stepped off the bus, back when I visited this country town before deciding to up sticks and move here altogether. Maybe it reminds me of schoolday summers in the Connemara Gaeltacht, where the air seemed permanently scented with that sweet aroma.

Of course, not everyone in the country favours a real fire. Many don't want the hassle of lugging in logs or sacks of coal, not to mention the daily chore of cleaning out the ashes. Making a fire is undoubtedly more demanding than flicking a switch for instant heat.

Yet the hearth was once the hub of the Irish home. And despite these technological times, a real fire still has a hypnotic hold.

Maybe that's because the origin of the word 'focus' comes from a hearth or fireplace in the original Latin. So it's no wonder that the hearth was where the family not only worked but also socialised, gathering there in the evenings to discuss the day's news or swap songs and stories. Everyone shifted up to accommodate neighbours and friends who dropped by, the circle effortlessly expanding.

So imagine the confusion for Irish folk who travelled to foreign shores, where they found the tables turned - quite literally. For while we traditionally viewed the table as a place of employment (whether to eat or for some other activity) many European countries considered the table to be the social centre. Pity poor 18th-century Paddy imprisoned in his chair, trying to be polite by not glancing longingly at the fire going to waste in the background.

At least he could console himself with the knowledge that a fire would still be burning when he got home. For a fire was never allowed go out, being kept alive under the ashes to be revived first thing in the morning. Making all the more poignant a story about an old lady who moved into a new-build. For despite its conveniences and comforts, she nevertheless lamented that the fire, which had burned for 330 years in her old homestead, was now extinguished forever.

The fascination that I feel for a real fire means I've never fully warmed to sophisticated heating systems. Despite the fabulous fakes that give the illusion without the effort, dirt or danger, these placebos leave me cold.

For if home is where the heart is, what good is a house that lacks a hearth?

Sunday Independent

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