Silent Men, Minimal Heat and Spooky Cows

Not very much has been happening around here, as is customary on the peninsula in January and early February.  In a few weeks–incredibly, mysteriously–the buds and shoots of spring will stretch out in undeniable greenness, but right now the place is still mostly battened down.  So I'm going to go back to my first winter in Kerry for the next few posts.

Smerwick Harbour and the Three Sisters  I moved from my apartment on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to West Kerry in late December 1997.  After a month living in a friend's loft bedroom, I rented my own place, a four-bedroom farmhouse in Lateve Menagh.  The house sat in a grove of trees on a steep hillside, with views that swept down over rocky fields to Smerwick Harbor and the Three Sisters.  Lindbergh flew over the Three Sisters, and the Dingle Peninsula, on his way to Paris in 1927.  I liked to imagine that plane suddenly appearing over those low peaks on a late May evening, the pilot on his way to triumph, the farmers at this far western edge of Europe the first to know.

My farm house, which cost me £70 a week (I'd been paying $800/month for my two-bedroom apartment in D.C.) was an Irish fantasy come true.  Sheep on the back hillside, cows lumbering by the front door twice daily for the milking, a standing stone two fields down, those incredible views out to the Atlantic–tick, tick and tick, all the boxes.  My landlords, Nora and Pat, were friendly and helpful.  They'd lived in the U.S. for 17 years (and had, extremely coincidentally, a sister living in the tiny Connecticut town next to the tiny Connecticut town in which I grew up) so were tolerant of Americans suddenly star struck by rural Ireland.  All was well. 

I overlooked a few things.  The house had no central heating.  Having never lived in a house with no central heating, I didn't quite understand what that meant.  I nodded when the landlords pointed out the storage heaters, which switch on at night when the rates are low, and slowly release their stored warmth during the day.  That sounded practical.  

Or could be, when they were operational.  They'd been newly installed (one in the upstairs hallway; one in the downstairs hallway) and an electrician had to perform some final operation to make them work.  He was due any day.

The kitchen was, well, a shed–a concrete addition with a sloping iron roof, tacked onto the back of the house.  It was cold in there.  The small electric stove was adequate for the minimal cooking I did at the time.  I remember nothing about the refrigerator.  In fact, there is much about that kitchen I seem to have blocked out.  One thing I remember vividly.  When I came back to the house at night, and turned on the kitchen light, I'd be greeted by an array of Kerry slugs glued to the walls at various heights.  I'd switch the light off.  They were never there in the morning.  I didn't spend a lot of time in the kitchen.

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With no central heating and non-working storage heaters, the fireplaces in the two large sitting rooms on either side of the entrance hallway became a focal point.  I knew how to make fires.  I'd have fires all winter long in D.C., ordering cords of wood from those door-to-door guys in hunting caps from West Virginia.  I love an open fire.  In Ireland, however, there is not a lot of wood.  Not anymore.  Once, this peninsula was covered with forest.  I'm not sure what happened to it.  Some blame Cromwell.  They say he cut the woods down so the Irish fighters couldn't use them as cover for sniping.  Sounds a bit draconian.  But then, Cromwell in Ireland was pretty draconian.

Lacking wood, the Irish use peat and coal to fuel the necessary fire.  I was directed to The Black Cat inBlack cat Ballyferriter (An Cat Dubh) for supplies: a couple bags of coal and turf, £15 for the lot.  They would deliver.  As there are no street names or numbers here, I described the location of my house.  "Oh, Scanlan's," they said and assured me they knew where it was.  This seemed unlikely, but later that afternoon an open-bed truck pulled into the driveway and two friendly men of minimal words deposited the bags of coal and turf outside the back door to the kitchen.  Later, my landlord Pat arrived with a homemade wooden coal bin, and helped me unload the coal into it. 

I set up my fire the way I'd set up log fires at home.  Some paper, some kindling, then the coal.  I lit the paper.  The paper lit the kindling.  A cozy warm flaring ensued.  Followed shortly by a flickering, a dimming and an extinction.  Hmmmm.  More paper.  I stuffed it into the open spaces around the coal, arranged a few more sticks of kindling at awkward angles, and lit again.  Again the hopeful flame; again the rapid flareout.  

And thus the battle began.  Coal is not like wood.  It doesn't really want to burn.  It was happy enough, thanks, buried deep in the earth, compressed, contemplating the eons, before being rudely excavated and forced into action.  I used up entire boxes of matches.  I sat on the sofa playing sad songs on the guitar as my only source of heat flared and fizzled, over and over.  One evening Nora arrived to see how I was getting on. She looked at me, then at the heap of smoldering nonflammable mess in the fireplace.  "You need firelighters," she said.  "I'll bring you some."  

Firelighters.  The missing link.  Packaged bars of chemically soaked flammability, which, when placed carefully beneath the paper and kindling, stay lit long enough to ignite the coal.  Firelighters.  Roaring fires ensued.

A few nights after learning the secret of fire, I heard a knock at the door.  I opened it to find a good-looking red-haired man in his twenties standing on the doorstep, toolbox in hand.  He ducked his chin and walked past me into the hallway.  "Electrician?" I asked as he passed.  Another chin duck seemed to confirm this.  He headed for the storage heater.  I let him at it.  

Pat arrived the next day, to attach a plug to a clock radio I'd bought (not noticing it had no plug. I mean, who sells electrical goods without plugs?).  "So Aidan came by last night?" he queried.  "Is that who that was?" I said, "he didn't exactly give his name.  Cute though."  "He'd make a good husband," continued Pat, in that deadpan Kerry way.  "Might be a bit young for me," I countered.  "Aw, what does that matter?" replied Pat, reasonably, I thought.  "And I think he's engaged," I continued.  "But he's not married yet!" said Pat.  I admired this practical attitude.  Yes, a man who could fix my storage heaters and wire my house.  Certainly an idea not to be dismissed.

To be continued… Next, those cows