My memory of a typical Sunday in Clonfert, a tiny Irish village where my granny lives.
| I awake one Sunday morning, in the spare bedroom of my grandmother’s house in Clonfert, County Galway.
I try to focus my eyes and get my bearings. Looking around the room, I see crucifixes, paintings of Padre Pio, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and an aged black-and-white photo of my parents on their wedding day. I feel like a stranger in their midst. An agnostic, Aussie impostor.
“Are ye getting up at all? I thought you were dead athin' in the bed.” I hear my Granny holler.
“Yep, Granny, I’m up,” I mumble and roll on to my side. The combination of heavy blankets, concaved mattress and winter chill, conspire to keep me in bed as long as possible.
I hear the radio click on from the kitchen, its volume turned to the limit. The tinny sound from the speaker blasts out country ballads, the odd hornpipe reel, community announcements for the day’s hurling showdowns and the week’s obituaries. I hear drawers rattling open, dishes banging, cutlery clanking and wooden chairs being dragged across the stone floor to the kitchen table.
Granny’s making breakfast before heading off to mass. It’s time to get up.
Determined to make the most of my short stay, I lift myself inelegantly out of the lumpy bed. I smile inwardly, glad of the chance to stay one more time at my grandmother’s house; to take in the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and feel of a world so different to mine.
I slip quietly in to the church, dipping my fingers into the holy water fountain and make the sign of the cross. I feel like a fraud; these rare occasions of attending mass at St Brendan’s in Clonfert are the only times I go to church these days. My guilty feelings are intensified by the heady smell of incense, which always makes me nauseous.
My grandmother, Molly Ryan, is sitting up the front to the left of the altar with the other women. The clicking of teeth as throat lozenges are sucked and the occasional honk of a blowing nose are the only interruptions to the service.
The famous statue of Our Lady of Clonfert smiles benevolently from behind her glass case, reassuring the parishioners of her eternal devotion. They say she bled when she was cut from the hollow of a tree where she was hidden during the English invasion. I stare back at her flat, impartial gaze and know a part of me wishes the legend were true - we share the same blood, the same history. But mainly I feel like a tourist.
After mass, everyone huddles around outside, chatting, smoking, laughing, making plans for the day. A hurling match to watch, a dinner to prepare, flowers to lay at a graveside or a neighbour to visit.
Arriving back at Molly Ryan’s from mass, my job is to get the tea made. Granny puts a few more sods of turf on the fire, while I get the teapot ready. Sunday is generally a big day for visitors.
Looking around her little homestead, what strikes me most is the settle-bed. Maybe as old as the house itself, the settle-bed is probably the most uncomfortable piece of furniture you can imagine. Think of a wooden coffin as a seat, with a high wooden back and a ledge that juts out at neck height, demanding the sitter hunch forward slightly. The seat has no curves to accommodate the spine, no cushioned seats or armrests for the weary sitter.
The seat itself can be unlatched and opened, revealing a storage space for heavy blankets. Or it can be used as a bed, as the name suggests. Simply stuff your blankets and sheets into the wooden sarcophagus and Bob’s your Uncle, or in my mother’s family’s case, Sonny was the uncle and this was his bed.
No one sleeps there now. These days it’s solely for the purpose of perching guests on. Visitors and well-wishers balance their cup of tea and ham sandwich on their lap, shifting their numb buttocks every so often.
Above the settle-bed, an altar window is carved into the wall: a little grotto. In it stands a statue of the Virgin Mary and plastic roses in little porcelain vases. Next to the grotto is the sacred heart lamp; a red light that illuminates the house, indicating the way to the loo in the pitch-black dead of night. But still, you’ll always manage to stump your toe on the settle-bed.
You can see one these settle-beds on display in the antiquities section of the Dublin Museum. Or at my grandmother’s house in Clonfert.
“Did ye hear about yer one above in Galway? She’s five childer to five different fellas and goes off to discos in mini-shkirts when she should be at home. Ah, isn’t shocking. No wonder the weather’s so bad.”
Molly hunches forward in the brown, cushioned armchair next to the settle-bed, commenting on the news from the week’s papers. Her worry about the ever decreasing morals of the world is contradicted, seconds later, by a ‘dirty’ joke she heard somewhere that usually involves a canoodling couple, Viagra and a priest.
She warms her legs by the range; an old turf burning stove which doubles as the central heating system and sometime underwear dryer. The armchair where I sit, as I flick through old newspapers and listen to the slightly out-of-tune sound of the radio as it plays popular Irish country tunes, is wedged in between the long table, the settle-bed and the press. The press is a cross between a pantry and a cupboard, where Molly stores her linen and special-occasion-only good biscuits.
My late grandfather, Dan, could always be found in this chair, reading his paper, smoking his Players’ cigarettes and flicking the ash into the turf box, stubbing out the cigarette between thumb and middle finger. He would sit, peaceful and observant while my grandmother would fuss and bother and comment on the TV news and the newsreaders short skirts and flashy jewellery and notice that Mary Rourke across the road still had her washing on the line when it looked like rain.
Molly’s great, leathered hands reach into the fire, sparks licking her fingers, as she arranges the turf sods for maximum burn. Keeping the fire going is a regular task in the winter. The kettle should be hot, ready to make tea at all times.
If the turf bag is running low, Molly will put on her overcoat and scarf and shuffle out to the turf shed. She can hold two or three big lumps of turf or briquettes in each hand. The older she gets, the less she carries, but someone will always call to visit to make sure she has enough and that the range is always hot.
After mass on Sundays, Molly gets a lot of visitors. Not a vacant seat in the house. Settle-bed at full capacity. Tea coming out your ears. Maybe even the good biscuits.
With milk running low, Granny sends me on an errand to Egan’s shop to get a few ‘messages’. The wind is whipping, bitterly cold. Rain clouds loom heavy.
I yank off the scarf Granny insisted I wear, undoing the double knot that’s cutting into my neck. I’m wearing Granny’s thick, double-breasted coat and carrying a plastic bag and a shopping list she insist I bring with me, even though I know it says “1/2 pound ham, milk (two pints), bottle 7UP, white loaf.”
I pass the Four Roads, an intersection with signs that tell you where other places are. There is no sign to let you know you’re actually in Clonfert. In fact, you could drive straight through this village and never even know you were there.
One road goes from east to west, Banagher to Ballinasloe, the other from north to south, Eyrecourt to Clonfert Cathedral. The land surrounding this intersection is flat farming land, laced with fields, stone walls and overgrown hedges.
My mother says The Four Roads was a place in her youth where they would hang out in the long summer evenings. “We’d go up to Egan’s shop and get an ice cream if we had enough pennies to scrape together and we’d all have a lick. We’d sit under the chestnut trees and mess around. When we were older we’d go to dances and the fellas would say ‘meet you at the Four Roads’ and give us a lift.”
She remembers when part of their daily chore was to walk to the pump to fetch water. They’d stop to chat to passers by. Talking about nothing and everything, about this one and that one.
My mother laughs and tells me what a boring life it sounds like. Knitting in the evenings, making patchwork quilts, drinking tea and eating jam and bread with “ramblers” who would come and visit in the long winter evenings and men coming to the house after mass on a Sunday to buy the finest hand-made hurling sticks in the region from Dan's barn.
These days, when there’s no roar of cars hurtling down the long, flat roads, the stillness and the silence echo the unchanged landscape. Vivid greens, flat horizons dotted with trees, sheep, cows and small white houses.
Egan’s shop is closed for a couple of hours every lunch time, and only open for a few minutes after mass on a Sunday, so the old men can buy their cigarettes and newspapers and the kids can buy their cans of pop and Tayto crisps.
The shop is the front of Brian Egan’s house and behind the counter he stores the usual: tea bags, tins of beans, assorted biscuits, bags of sugar. Brian, bearded and softly spoken, wants to hear how the family are getting on in Australia. Talk about the hurling, the tourists and the old days.
At Egan’s shop, news is shared, gossip exchanged, ailments discussed.
I make my leave when I see the first few fat drops of rain spatter the window. On the way back to Granny’s, head down, shoulders hunched against the cold rain, I breathe in lungfuls of chilled, clean air. Even the manure in the fields smells clean. Over the ditches I see the sheep huddle together against the rain. I hear a cow low in protest at my passing. Staring at me with big doe eyes, its huge head hanging over the gate.
I pull the scarf out of my pocket and slip it back over my head, deciding to forego fashion for head protection. A car slows and signals hello or “how ya?” as they say here, with a raised index finger. Even if the driver doesn’t recognise me, my very unfamiliarity makes me known as someone from abroad.
“Who’s that young one?”
“Must be one of Mary’s childer over from Australia.”
“Oh, she must be staying at Molly’s.”
“Ah, yes, of course. Sure, isn’t that Molly’s scarf she has on her head?”
Sunday evening, Molly gets out the card table. All in for a game of “lives”. Two euro each. She draws the curtains and makes sure the front door is closed. “Sure, what if the priest passed and saw us heathens playing cards on a holy day.” The card games last well into the night, as we drink tea and 7UP and keep the fire going.
Molly Ryan has lived in this house since the day she was married. Before that she lived just down the road with her childhood family. She and Dan were play-mates as children, then sweethearts, and eventually husband and wife. Clonfert is not just her home, it’s her universe.
She sits at the long table and looks out the front window with deep, glassy blue eyes, heavy under her age-worn brow. My mother calls this window “Mam’s little window on the world.” The world is Clonfert. She watches the occasional car pass by, seasons come and go, visitors arrive and then leave. And come again.