Sunday, November 7, 2010

Gratitude - #1

Before 2003, my curiosity in the history of the Silver Bowl was totally in the hobby territory. Then I clued in that I actually had one heck of a story to unearth. I flew over the Great Pond and threw my ignorant self into the archives of Armagh and Belfast and London where I encountered the stunning kindness of 3rd cousins and others, people who had been total strangers to me until then.

The first was Venetia. She not only offered that I could stay at her home in South Kensington, but she also offered her bed. This meant that she slept on a sofa that night, a sofa that isn’t more than 5’ long. Seven years later, she offered me her bed once again. Her brother Tommy cooked our supper for the second night. Since meeting him for the first time in 2003, I have often stayed with him, but this time he had other company. The first time I stayed with him, he actually kitted out a room especially for me - freshly painted and with a newly bought brass bed – and told me it my mine to use whenever I visited London. There was even a stuffed teddy bear and flowers in “my” room, just be sure I felt welcomed.

On this trip, I met another 3rd cousin for the first time. Actually, his grandfather is my 3rd cousin. His grandson Jack – who would then be a 3rd cousin twice removed, is how I think it goes -  hosted me at Tetbury where he lives and works on the grounds of High Grove as a gardener. He and his friend Grant are also skilled in the arts of being butlers. I realize now, having experienced it for the first time, that butlering is way more than an art – it is more like an act of grace. Not only were there were fresh freesias in my room, but my bed was turned down nightly and a special treat was added one night to celebrate Halloween. I slept with a goblin that night. He left sticky toffee on the pillow. Sorry.

Home cooked meals with Jack and Grant were served according to the rites of French service and sometimes served in the English style, so I could experience both. In one style of service, the butler serves from the right and clears from the left and in the other, well I plead jet-lag. I can’t recall. Any woman of my generation can also tell you that it is the rare 30 year old male who will not only ask you if you have any laundry, but then also do it AND iron it. Heck, I rarely iron it myself. If it were not that my research called me to leave for Dublin at the hideous hour of 3:30 on Monday morning, the boys would have had to use a crowbar to get me to leave.

On the Sunday that I stayed there, Jack drove us a couple of hours to Devon to meet his grandparents. More gracious hosts than Pat and June do not exist on the face of this planet. At one time, long before retirement, they ran a pub somewhere – I can’t recall where – which was voted best pub in England. If June’s ciabatta chicken is anything to go on, it is no small wonder that their pub won the award. She did the cooking there. For dessert, she served us perfectly poached apples with Devon clotted cream – surely one of the world’s seven wonders – and the four apples that we enjoyed together were four of the thirty six which had grown from a graft on their apple tree, a graft done by their gardener grandson.

Yesterday, Peter – a friend from Dublin who I met a few years ago as a result of this work – drove me a couple of hours north so I could meet up with Seamus whose father had recently bought a house named Silverbridge, a house that figures in the history of the local COULTER family. It is a listed house and had previously been inhabited by an eccentric bachelor who shared it with his 35 dogs and 35 goats. In spite of the fact that there were urine stains half way up the wallboard – Hughie, Seamus’ father showed me the extent of it, so I know that this is no exaggeration – this old bachelor had always emerged in immaculate kit. Not a whiff of goat about him. How he achieved this is anybody’s guess. Hughie & Seamus toured me around. Piles of dry rot, wet rot and burned timbers revealed the extent of what was necessary.

From there, Seamus drove ahead of Peter and me in the manner of a race course driver to guide us towards the home of his grandmother. I had wanted to meet Alice for years, but whenever I had come to Ireland she had been off gallivanting in Italy or some such. This time though, I got lucky. There she was - as they say, “as alive as life and twice as natural” - in the dining room of Liscalgot House where we chatted while Seamus’ mother, Phyllis, served us tea and scones.

Mary Cumiskey is one of the stalwarts of the Creggan Historical Society and I had already read her well-researched book on the famine in Creggan, but I hadn’t known that she had also published a subsequent book in 2007 on the Creggan Charter School which ran from1737-1811. This was a school funded by Protestants to convert Catholics to their way of thinking and my 5 times great grandfather was the first schoolmaster there. Clearly, he was a piece of work. Worse, his son George who had followed him had been dismissed as schoolmaster for immoral conduct as a result of a complaint lodged by a Miss Rose Johnston and her father James. Now, this part of the history had never been part of the family lore that our family knew about, but there it was – warts and all, as Mary said. Hmmm.

Tonight, I will be at Peter and Bernie’s where they will fuel me with fine food and banter and then I will return to start the second week of my foray into the Deeds Registry. Life doesn’t get any better. Except that I still have to find time to enjoy my first Guinness. I think tomorrow will be the right day. My birthday. When I’m sixty-four ...

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