Sunday 25 February 2018

The Gathering reminds me of American visitors of yesteryear


THROUGHOUT 2013 we are being encouraged to open our arms to family and friends around the world to call them home for the Gathering. This is a smart mass-tourism event intended to inject revenue into our blighted economy and to showcase and sell brand Ireland, its people, traditions, heritage, sporting calendar and cultural events, including our "fighting spirit and the uniquely Irish sense of fun".

Events are taking place all across the country, all year long.

And here in Sligo in May, for example, there are plans to have 2013 people climb the iconic Benbulben Mountain as part of a choreographed aerial photographed message inspired by the poetry of WB Yeats. The climb is to be the centrepiece of a three-day festival of heritage, history, music and coastal walking.

Whenever I think of gatherings of friends, relatives and extended family I immediately think of the American relations who came ' home on holiday' every summer. I loved the happy and expansive atmosphere these welcome guests brought to our farmhouse on the mountain.

It's true of course that these family gatherings put my mother under ferocious pressure to find enough beds and bedding, to get in extra groceries to keep everyone fed and comfortable, and above all to supply the Americans with enough hot water.

There was no emersion then, just the back boiler heated by the coal burning range, which meant that my mother had to keep the fire in the kitchen revved up in the summer months.

And even when she got the temperature up, the heavy demand caused airlocks, or else the big tank fed from the spring well ran low. A quick cat-lick was all we had time for, as the uncles' new wives in particular spent hours at a stretch in the bathroom, finally emerging from thick drifts of steam dazzlingly made-up and fragrant.

These gatherings also coincided with the hay saving in which the relatives took up pitchforks and hay rakes and joined us in the meadows as much to get in touch with their memories of the harvest as to ease our workload. And their work was often undone in a flash with American cousins knocking the newly built haycocks by jumping up on them. Despite which my father still found time to take the young ones fishing with simple hazel poles and lines; expeditions to the river that they remember now as grown ups with their own families.

Every night there was a party in the kitchen where enormous cartons of soft pack, duty-free Kent cigarettes were passed around along with American whiskey in American-style shot glasses while a visiting uncle dusted off the accordion left behind from his days in the parish drum and fife band as my grandfather joined him on the fiddle.

We were giving our guests first-hand saturation in all things Irish without being the slightest bit conscious of the act. And looking through the family photos that my relatives brought with them this cultural exchange became a two-way affair, as I grew more familiar with the Manhattan skyline and the neighbourhoods of Long Island and Rockaway than I did with any streetscape or building in Dublin at the time. Then when my American relatives offloaded the coins in their wallets to make room for our native pounds, shillings and pence I got to grasp nickels and quarters and dimes and the meaning of 'two-bit punks' slapped around by Humphrey Bogart.

And to help our American cousins settle in amongst us, all kinds of exotic bribes were imported into our daily meals, including meatball and spaghetti suppers, Philadelphia cream cheese and Jelly sandwiches, Ritz crackers, peanut butter, Hellmann's real mayonnaise. For breakfast I was supposed to eat porridge, but despite the constant warnings from my mother, I couldn't keep my hands off the visitors' stash of Cornflakes. And the 'sodas' that arrived in our house by the caseload turned out to be the real thing, in authentic corrugated glass Coca Cola bottles.

Then with the holiday almost over the Americans went souvenir shopping for gifts that epitomise now the economic and cultural values of Ireland in those years: from the cut-glass ornaments of Waterford Crystal to the Galtee sausages and bacon, the Donegal Linen and tweeds, the Crolly Dolls and knitted Aran gansies, and tea towels printed with corny proverbs and recipes for Irish Coffee and Irish Stew the likes of which we'd never tasted.

Nobody in our house had a passport. And when it came time to wave our relations off at Shannon to see them board, their Aer Lingus shamrock liveried passenger plane looked to us like they were being treated to the very heights of special treatment and luxury.

For as long as the Americans were home on holiday we were on holiday in our own home. But when their plane took off we finally had to go back to our regular workaday lives. Or almost, for these gatherings had left us subtly changed. Our tastes had been broadened, and our understanding, respect and fondness deepened for these friends and relations from abroad: a meeting of lives offering the host as much as the visitor an unexpected and unquantifiable enrichment.

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