Housekeeping in Ireland

The first problem was getting to the house. The police did their best to stop us. Physically. To rush quickly to the scene of the crime, let me explain that we arrived in Ireland by ship from New York. We docked at Cobh and were met there by Mr. Kelly, our gardener-to-be, driving a rakish Morris Minor convertible which went with the place. My wife, small son, and seven pieces of baggage were somehow loaded into the back of the Morris, and we made off at a steady thirty miles an hour on the 147-mile journey from Cork to Oughterard in Connemara. Several hours later, as we shifted down to second gear to chug-a-lug up the small incline which led to Oughterard’s main street, our driver’s winedark features opened in a smile of delight. “By the holy,”said he. “I’ve done it. We’re nearly landed. Only three more miles and you’ll be at your house.”

At that point we were approaching a turn, rendered completely blind by the presence of a stone wall made of large irregular boulders. A small dark car rushed around this turn and attacked us head on. A splintering of head lamps, a crushing of fenders. All hands in our vehicle were thrown forward, receiving assorted minor bruises and cuts. A moment of shaken silence. Then, from the other car emerged a large Civic Guard (as policemen are called in Ireland). He was followed by a middle-aged lady, who was his wife, and a teen-aged girl, his daughter.

“Is anybody hurted?” he asked.

Our driver, bleeding from a cut forehead, also abandoned his vehicle. “No, nobody here is hurted, thanks be to God.”

“Thank God, nobody is hurted,” said both drivers in chorus.

They surveyed the damage. Our convertible had by far the worst of it. “Since nobody is hurted, then there’s no need for the police,” said the policeman in great relief. He turned to a file of bystanders who had materialized with the silent efficiency of a Greek chorus. “Two of you lads move my car now,” he said. He lent them a hand. His car was dragged from its compromising position on the wrong side of the road. There was a certain exchange of documents and license numbers, and then a handsome man in greasy overalls came strolling up the street to take charge of the damaged vehicles. “Nobody is hurted,” said he. “And all this is good for business.”

A Mr. Mickey Malloy arrived with his taxi to ferry us on the last leg of our journey. Everyone parted with a round of friendly handshakes. But, on the way home, Mr. Kelly mopped his bloody brow and said darkly, “I should have knuckled that bloody Guard.”

“Don’t you worry,” said Mr. Malloy. “Wasn’t it lucky for you it was a policeman you hit into? Sure, won’t you have no trouble finding witnesses against him?”

“You’re verra right, Mick,” said Mr. Kelly. “I hadn’t thought of that.” He brightened considerably. “Here we are now, sir,” he said to me. “This is your house. Cappagariff.”

Cappagariff. The name was lettered on an iron gate which opened into a quarter mile of graveled driveway. There were palm trees lining the driveway, and as we approached the house, we passed a large vegetable garden, a flower garden, and an expanse of wellgroomed lawns. The house itself was thatched; a long, white, single-story building with many sprawling wings and outbuildings. We had been told that it had eight bedrooms, but had not imagined it would be so large and grand. Certainly we had not expected wall-to-wall carpeting, furniniture covered in attractive Irish bainin cloth, shelves filled with good books, a record player, an Aga cooker, and a refrigerator. The view was as promised. The lawns stretched down to Lough Corrib, a spectacular lake with a view of forested headlands and distant wooded islands. By the lake was an elegant boathouse, complete with a boat which was powered by a big outboard motor. All of this, with the Morris and Mr. Kelly thrown in, would cost us exactly $250 a month. I began to understand why Ireland is newly popular with the better-heeled American and European visitors.

In fact, we had rented the house through American friends who bought it for $15,000 while on a summer vacation five years ago, made some improvements to the interior, and were dickering to sell it to a Dutch industrialist. In the two months we lived in it, it was bought by the Dutchman and promptly sold to another American couple, who planned to settle down there in retirement. Such brisk trading in Irish real estate is common because, as an auctioneer told me (and in Ireland the local auctioneer is the man who will find you your summer house), “Where else in the world can you still buy a big house on a grand site and run it well, without you being some class of a fillum star? Look around you, man. The roads arc leppin’ with Germans. Those Jerries know a bargain when they see it.”

It is true that West German businessmen are finding Lebensraum in rural Ireland. They come because land and living arc cheap, but there is a more compelling reason. Cead Mile Failte, say the Irish tourist posters, and this phrase, which means “a hundred thousand welcomes,” is, for once, not something dreamed up by a local chamber of commerce, but a simple truth of Irish life. For the Irish are infinitely curious about foreigners (even including the English). They are also infinitely garrulous and never too busy to say an hour-long hello. If French tourist publicity offers fine wines and food, and Britain woos with an offer of pomps and ceremonials, the Irish rightly retaliate with a promise of talk — outrageous, witty, nonstop talk on any subject under the rarely seen local sun.

We weren’t one day in Oughterard before our names and life histories were circulating among half a hundred people. “Would it be true now that you live in Greenwich Village?” asked the elderly baker as I purchased a loaf of homemade bread. “You know,” said he, “I used to drive a bus on Fourteenth Street.”

He refused payment for the bread. Similarly, the butcher showed a curious unwillingness to discuss payment for the leg of lamb. The lady in the grocery store handed over twenty dollars worth of groceries and waved away our pounds. “You’d be wanting to open an account,” they all said. “Sure, there’s no need to be paying out cash.”

And so, within twenty-four hours, we had established credit in five shops, and any further question of payment was deemed a lapse into vulgarity. “Ah, not to worry,” they said. “Now, what can we get you today?”

What we could get was wonderfully fresh meat, butter, and cream. Vegetables were taken each morning from our own garden. Chickens were of the quality of poulet de Bresse, a three-pound chicken costing $1.50. A Texas-size sirloin for three was $1.40. A five-pound salmon, caught that morning in Lough Corrib, could be had for less than $4.00. And local shops carried a wide variety of canned and frozen goods, including such unlikely staples as peanut butter and instant coffee. The only difficulty in a summer’s good eating was that sometimes fresh beef was hard to find. “It’s too hot,”explained the butcher. (Hot? The temperature rarely went above sixty degrees.) “People wouldn’t buy the stewing bits,”said he. “We’d be left with half the cow. It’s too hot for stews or soup.”

The state of the weather is, of course, a first cause in Irish conversation. for the shifting, dramatic skies overhead contain a gambler’s set of computations on all holiday activities. Will it blow up rough if we go out to fish? Will it suddenly rain if we swim in the lake? Will the weather hold while we go off by car to explore one of the many old ruined castles which stud the countryside? “A nice soft day,” announces our maid as she bicycles up to the house to start work in a drizzling mist. She is a maid such as dowagers used to dream of, a dynamo who dusts, sweeps, does all our laundry by hand, brings cut flowers from the garden, bakes bread, serves tea, and keeps us constantly entertained by her conversation, all for $9.00 a week. And a week for her is a sevenday one, as it is for Mr. Kelly, our gardener who also acts as handyman, bringing in turf and coal, stoking the Aga cooker, doing household repairs, driving the car on errands, and doubling as fishing gillie any time we ask him. Servants are easy to find in Ireland, and if our house had no laborsaving appliances, then, as my wife said, it merely proved to her that one energetic girl with a dustpan and broom was superior to the most ingenious device dreamed of by American know-how. Add to this the fact that the maid showed my small son around her father’s farm, found him a donkey to ride, taught him how to milk cows, cut turf, and stack hay, and generally made the summer the most memorable experience of his young life. The Irish like children and have a lot of them. Children reciprocate by adoring Ireland.

As for prices and comparisons: English cigarettes were 45 cents a pack; American, 56 cents. Liquor prices were slightly higher than in New York. French wine was readily available even in small villages and realistically priced to sell at a very slight retail profit. As for fuel, we used turf (peat) and built a fire each night all summer. Most nights we needed it. Total cost was under $10. To feed our anthracite cooker and have hot water for baths cost us an average of $11 each month. When, finally, we received our bills from the local stores, I checked the additions, and there were no mistakes. We found that for the house, car, boat, all food, gardener, maid, and a certain amount of souvenir buying, pub crawling, and dining out in hotels, it had cost us a total of $450 a month. In addition we had purchased several books and were now dressed in the latest in Irish handknitted sweaters. We had fished and bathed, had ranged up and down the Connemara coastline in our Morris Minor, had visited the remote Aran Islands, and had spent many good evenings in Galway, which the Irish describe with no hyperbole as “the most Irish of cities.” We had lived in the Sicily of Ireland, a remote, bleak, and beautiful land where Irish is still many country people’s first and native tongue. Above all, as householders — that is, as people who were not tourists on a ten-day vacation — we had been welcomed into farmhouses, had gone to local dances, and, memorably, had spent many evenings sitting before a stranger’s turf fire while someone fetched an accordion and a woman of the house began one of those haunting emigrant refrains which link Ireland with every Irish family’s second country, America. Rich or poor, strangers or not, we had been made welcome. Money cannot buy that.