By Vincent J. Doherty
“Pull up a chair to the front of the fire and warm yourself,” was always the welcome in my Great Uncle James’s place.
Gathered around the hearth, supping strong tea or sometimes a glass of stout or something a bit stronger and enjoying a slice or two of soda bread, whoever had just dropped in to pass the time would mull over the vagaries of their crops and the ways of birds, beasts and neighbours in the ever-changing seasons, the ways of the world and how they would put it right and chuckle or shake their heads in disbelief at the daily doings, real or imagined, tragic or farcical of people thereabouts.
Sometimes we heard stories about something that somebody had heard on the wireless or discuss a letter from an uncle in New York or a cousin in Kilburn. Or we might ponder what the priest had given out from the altar the Sunday before. There was news about people coming into the world and about others leaving it.
There were reflections on unlikely happenings and stories about people who’d heard banshees or seen ghosts no further than a hedge or field away, tales that made the hair on this young boy’s hair stand on end.
Maybe in the course of an evening we would discuss the relative lives, characters and achievements of anybody from St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland, to ‘Half-hanged McNaught’ being hanged or about the night the Germans bombed Derry and the sky was lit up fourteen miles in our direction.
I remember Uncle James, a regular Saturday night filmgoer, looking at a picture of St. Patrick once and saying, “Didn’t he have a great beard, like Noel Purcell. I wonder if the two of them were related.”
Young James, my uncle’s middle-aged son, returning from his labours in their fields or one of the farms around about would position himself on the hab, a comfortable ashy place next to the fire.
Sometimes by the light of the flickering paraffin lamp and the flames from the burning peat he would read the ‘paper to us especially if there was a story in there about somebody or something we were acquainted with.