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THE WARMTH OF THE IRISH

If you're Irish, come into the parlour,

There's a welcome there for you,

And if your name is Timothy or Pat

So long as you come from Ireland

There's a welcome on the mat;

If you come from the Mountains of Mourne,

Or Killarney's lakes so blue,

We'll sing you a song and we'll make a fuss,

Whoever you are you're one of us,

If you're Irish this is the place for you.

_ from If You're Irish, Come Into the Parlour, by Shaun Glenville and Frank Miller

c.2001 Hearst Communications Inc.

If you're Irish and you look at the proliferation of Irish pubs worldwide, you're comforted by the thought that you need never be lonely again anywhere on earth. Indeed, you can ignore what the song says _ it doesn't matter if your name is Timothy or Pat or if you come from the Mountains of Mourne. There's a place for you in the huge Irish pubs of Berlin, Madrid, Paris and Sydney, not to mention in Ireland itself.

They're all trying to capture that elusive but magical quality we call Irish hospitality. As wannabes the world over strive to match that warmth, that welcome, in Ireland it just comes naturally.

I'm Irish myself, and the bit of education I have helps me understand the traditional hospitality of the Irish. Sometimes it seems they're simply good at it _ welcoming the stranger, making him or her feel at home.

You see it when you deplane at Shannon or Dublin. "Here, let me help you with that bag, that door. And mind your head getting into the car. And isn't it a grand day, thank God. And if you're worn out from your flight, we'll have you in your bed in no time."

From the small, family-run bed-and-breakfast houses to the five-star hotels, there is a sense of immediate ease that is hard to find elsewhere in the world. There is a welcome on the mat, and it says "Cead Mile Failte" (pronounced KAID MEE-la FALL-che), Irish for "one hundred thousand welcomes."

Americans return from there and tell me what a friendly country Ireland is. Certainly one of the things that appeals to them is the common language, not having to parlez-vous their way around the country.

Ah, you'll say, "But they speak English throughout the British Isles." And the Irish will say back to you, "Yes, indeed, but an English of inferior quality." What American wanderer hasn't returned shaking a head over the other accents _ Scottish, Welsh, Cornish or Cockney?

It may be a stereotype, or it may be a simple statement of fact, that the Irish in Ireland are hospitable. Even if I accept my own flat declaration that they're "good at it," I wonder why and, in wonder, return to my childhood and the example of my mother.

Whenever there was a knock at the door, we looked at our mother to see what we should do. If it was a Monday or a Thursday, she would shake her head and signal silence, for these were rent-man days or insurance-man days, and when you didn't have the money, you ignored the knock.

This "silent treatment" went against my mother's nature. You would never ignore a knock at the door _ it might be the Holy Family looking for shelter or a cup of tea. That was half a joke but you never knew. And if it wasn't the Holy Family, it could be any poor family or simply a single wandering beggar.

In the Limerick of my youth, during the 1940s, there was no shortage of beggars. My parents, with their sense of history or at least their feeling for it, understood the long, dark aftermath of the Great Famine 100 years before. In the lanes of the city, where books were scarce, Famine stories never faded, stories so terrible they were often whispered.

Any beggar at the door was knocking for history, reminding us that his or her ancestors once had roofs over their heads and kettles whistling on the hob and surely we could spare a cut of bread and a jam jar of tea.

Even in the worst of times, my mother, Angela, would bring beggars to our table while we watched and wondered at the way she could take half a loaf and perform a "loaves and fishes" with it, or the way she stretched the tea leaves for three till there was enough to fill the jam jars for six people _ herself, the beggar, my brothers Alphie, Michael and Malachy, and me.

There were times we grumbled there wasn't enough and we were still hungry, and that is when she would invoke the Holy Family or the Great Famine. She knew it was hard to be giving away the little bit you had left, but you had to put yourself in the place of the beggar who took no pleasure knocking on people's doors, the beggar who knew there was more hope of a morsel in the lanes of the poor than in the grand streets of the comfortable.

You were not to turn anyone from your door, because there was great shame in such an act, shame for the one hiding behind the door. In olden Ireland, we were told, all doors were open to everyone.

But then the Famine came, and the roads were clogged with the starving, the diseased, the destitute, dragging themselves desperately from door to door. And my mother knew from the stories handed down that if you had a few healthy potatoes, you had to feed your own.

Ignoring the knock became a common thing in Famine times and the cause of a great sadness that could not be helped.

In his 1972 book The Mountain People, anthropologist Colin Turnbull wrote of the Ik, a tribe in Uganda whose existence was threatened by famine. Abandoning their previously humane ways, the Ik espoused an individualistic lifestyle as part of their new means of survival.

Turnbull describes how the tribe's personality changed from being open, generous and good-humored to quarrelsome, petty and cruel. They became so insensitive that they even laughed over a toddler crawling toward a fire who was about to be burned. The Famine surely had a similar effect on the Irish, dampening their spirit of generosity and hospitality.

But that spirit is back full force, and so is the fun _ the "craic," as they say in Ireland. There are smiles in Ireland now where the teeth are white, polished and all there.

These days, Ireland is said to have the fastest-growing economy in all of Europe. They even call it the Celtic Tiger. And the country has one of the youngest populations in Europe _ with 40 percent of her people being under the age of 25. Those young men and women are not as tormented by history as my generation once was, and they've crawled out from under centuries of political oppression and church dogma.

Pity my mother died in 1981 and didn't see the New Ireland, the Celtic Tiger. Pity she couldn't see the world flocking to her country for the "craic" and the "seisiu'ns," traditional Irish music played in the pubs.

She was never an enthusiast of drinking establishments, but if that's where the singing was, that's where she'd be _ and she could enjoy a whole night on a glass of ginger ale. For her generation, and even for mine, a going or a coming was an event that required the ritual of hospitality. Sit down there now and I'll make you a nice cup of tea.

For the pint or the noggin, you repair to the pub, but if you want to get inside Ireland, stay there in the sitting room with the tea, the cousin you're visiting or the lady who runs your bed-and-breakfast.

If there's one thing we could all learn from the Irish, it would be to enjoy life, not rush it. God knows there's no hurry, but if there were, the world would wait.

That's what my mother would have said to anyone.

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