By Monica Martin
It was November. Our kitchen glowed with warmth from the old black range. Its surface shone from the liberal application of black lead and elbow grease. The kettle sang and hissed quietly; tea would be needed later. From the oven came the tantalising odour of apple tart.
Although it is now over sixty years ago, the night remains clear in my mind.
Mother took up her place in the most comfortable chair in the place. This was her right and privilege as the head of the house. She kept a boarding house and because of her generous table and good natured personality business was always ticking over quietly.
The céilíers arrived one by one. First around the door was Maggie. She walked two miles from the country to the céilí in our house. She knew that the company would be good and the supper generous.
“Oh, that’s a cold one,” she said, drawing close to the welcoming fire. “We might have snow!”
Hard on Maggie’s heels came the others. Mrs. McGovern arrived, filling the doorway, she was a big lady. Her face always wore a cheerful look, even though life was far from kind to her.
The rest trickled in, one after another. All glad to be in a friendly, warm atmosphere.
Last of all, Florence O’Shea from next door made her entrance. Florence differred in that she believed herself to be a person of consequence, socially a cut above the others. So she settled primly into her chair, ankles crossed.
Florence believed herself to be a good, decent woman, and indeed she was. But her nose remained just defiantly a little up-turned. This wasn’t her scene, she believed, though if the truth was told, she was more at home than she even realised.
The rain fell outside and the wind blew. In the distance the sea moaned. But the fire burned brightly and even when the lights flickered and went out, no one minded.
The store of candles was produced and soon the kitchen was glowing softly in candlelight. It was a special place, snug and warm and safe.
Then a knock came to the door. This was unusual. Nobody ever knocked! The door was opened and on the threshold stood a man! There he stood, tall and commanding, yet somehow vulnerable at the same time.
“Ladies, may I come in?” He peered through the doorway. The ladies were speechless, but Mother responded, “Sir, if you have a good heart and bear no ill, you are welcome here.”
He looked at her in quiet calm, “Do you begrudge it to me or do you bestow your welcome on me?”
Mother, feeling like a lady in a melodrama, replied, “It is of course bestowed. Please come in sir, you are letting in a draught.”
The man, whom they all recognised, was Bob Devitt, a man of the roads, reputed to have been a spoilt priest. Steam rose from his greatcoat and his heavy matted hair was plastered to his head with rain. Drops fell from his bearded face. He was a sad sight indeed. He shed his coat and took the seat offered to him.
And so the fire was built up and our new friend was given food and drink in plenty. When his hunger and thirst had been quenched my Mother spoke.
“Have you a store of songs in your head, Bob Devitt?”
“Indeed I have Ma’am, and I’ll give you one now.”
So Bob began to sing to his soon enraptured audience. He had a pure tenor voice and his song was full of sorrow and pathos.
“There’s a glen in old Tirconnell, there’s a cottage in the glen..”
Tears welled in the ladies’ eyes as Bob’s words reminded them of the twin curses of emigration and consumption which had ravaged the land in their lifetime.
More tea and apple tart restored the good humour and fortified the visitors for their journey home. A bed was made up beside the range for Bob to sleep in dry comfort.
I accompanied my mother to the door to bid goodbye to her friends.
“Whist,” said Maggie.
A low murmur came from the kitchen.
“‘Tis Bob,” Maggie had her ear to the door, “talking to the angels.”
The front door was opened, the rain had eased but the above the roar of the sea and the sighing of the wind a long mournful cry rooted us to the spot.
“That’s surely the keen of the Banshee, God save us all.” Mrs. McGovern hastily blessed herself. “A soul will go to heaven tonight.”
Mrs. McGovern’s prophecy proved to be accurate if somewhat premature, for it was not until the week before Christmas that the news reached us that Bob Devitt had gone to sing for the angels.