Besides The Fire  

By Patrick O`Sullivan

Search County Kerry



Everyone knows the old saying: ‘There’s no fireside like our own fireside; and so there was nothing nicer than to gather round the fire in the evening time.

Then there was the peaty smell of the turf and the woody incense of the logs all mixed up together: the turf redolent of the bogs and the heather and the long days of summer; the logs redolent of the woods and the groves and the green winding ways.

It was a familiar thing to go gathering sticks in the grove in the evenings after school. My mother loved to see the logs burning in the hearth, the orange of the flames leaping and dancing and crackling for joy, the fragrance of the wood filling the kitchen still. 

It might have been the smell of the fir or the pine, the sweetest of smells, green, aromatic and wild; it might have been that of the ash or the birch, everything about it wonderfully warm and wishful, wholesome, organic too. 

Gathering the sticks was like an adventure in itself, our journey taking us along the old boreen. We did not know it then, but the self-same boreen had figured on local maps since early Victorian times and possibly long before.  

It was the place where robins nested in mossy banks in the spring, where foxglove and gorse and woodbine too, flourished in the summer.

Turned off the track midway and headed past an old Victorian cottage on the very edge of the grove. This had been gardener’s house when the old country house was in its heyday and there were gardeners and servants in plenty Long since deserted, it had the look of the fairytale about it still.

 

There was the red-bricked chimney, the old green door, the apple trees and roses overgrown, the summer lilacs and the snowball tree: a jumble of colour and scent in the heady days of summer. 

The roses were no more than memories in the autumn, of course, but whenever I think of the cottage I think of them still for they were a kind that might have graced old china all soft and flowery and pink, all deep and silky and red. 

It was as if the people of the house had left them as a legacy to us, vivid reminders as they were of the rich and fruitful summers of the past. 

More often than not, our old neighbour, Mary, went with us for there was nothing she liked better than gathering sticks. She lived with her husband, Jer, in an old fashioned thatched house, the fire blazing in the hearth on chilly autumn evenings.

He was a bit impulsive though when it came to the sticks, sometimes overlooking those that lay on the ground for the sake of those that dangled tantalizingly overhead. 

It was as if she regarded the latter as a challenge, an adventure, straining after them as she did with other twigs or sticks; her sense of delight almost palpable when they fell from their places at last. It was as if it were mission accomplished again. 

It was years later that I saw a documentary about the actress Audrey Hepburn. There was nothing she liked better in her retirement than gathering driftwood on the beach. There was something elemental, therapeutic about it, she said, something that reaffirmed her connection with the earth and the sea and the world around her. 

I doubt if Mary ever thought of it as deeply as that. She just wanted sticks for the fire and she loved the thought of gathering them. Still, for all of that, it is a sentiment which would surely have struck a chord with her, for it was as if her heart were singing when we were in the grove, the sunlight pouring in slants as we gathered the firewood again.

 

Sometimes we came upon Mrs Graham’s guinea fowl in the grove. Mrs Graham, the owner of a mini car and a much loved dachshund dog, was Mrs Ruth’s companion in the nearby country house. 

Her guinea hens were a familiar sight among the trees, their dark plumage mottled with white unmistakable in the long light of evening. 

There were foxes too in the grove,, but as far as we knew, they never bothered too much with the guinea hens. When the sticks were short and tidy, we made them into bundles and carried them home on our backs. When they were long and unmanageable we dragged them after us like sylvan treasures gathered and valued again. 

Looking back there was something homely, companionable about it all: the long’path stretching before us, the tall trees on every side. Sometimes we were given, a fallen tree in winter, the logs brought home by donkey and cart, so that it would not be long till the flames were dancing again, till they were jumping for joy in the hearth.


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