Ballinasloe Boyhood in 1940/50s Ballinasloe
Chapter 8 - Hospitality
by Declan Burke
If you leave the environs of Ballinasloe and travel about 3,000 miles roughly southwest you arrive in Warner Robins in the State of Georgia in the year 1971.
I had finally completed all my training and various obligations and was for the first time in my life, setting out to make my living as a doctor, completely independently.
I tasted Southern hospitality and thought it was even better than what I remembered of my youth on my native shore.
Everybody seemed to end all conversations with an invitation: "Y'all come and see us now, y'heah". (Translation: You must come and visit us soon, now do you hear me?)
Now my mother brought me up to not respond to just one invitation to someone's home. That would be downright impolite, but if the invitation kept coming, well then it might be impolite to ignore it.
So, one Sunday, after Mass, the kids all dressed in their Sunday best, we 'happened' to stop by one of the more persistent importuners home.
Was that ever a let down! The people were warm enough but clearly we were as expected as snow in summer in the Deep South.
As luck would have it, (in the days before pagers) I recalled some urgent task I absolutely had to do with great dispatch and we 'reluctantly' broke away from our would-be hosts, with immense relief all round.
We learned then that Fáilte Uí Cheallaigh* did not extend beyond the shores of the Emerald Isle.
Now, back to my boyhood in the 50s, the concept of hospitality was so pervasive that I was mostly unaware of it and I just knew I could buail isteach** into any friend's home and expect to fend off invitations to stay and have a meal especially if I was aware my own mother had dinner ready at my home.
The woman of the house
But if I let slip any hint that I was not causing desperate disappointment at home by my absence, then the bean a'tí*** would make it her life's ambition to keep me there for that meal. And I in turn had to eat all that was placed on my plate and express amazement at her virtuosity in the kitchen. (Well, you sorta had to).
A favorite trick of the bean a'tí was to appear to acquiesce to the visitors refusal to have "something to eat" by observing that a "cup of tea in your hand" would not violate his or her sense of propriety while the guest sat and chatted a while.
Other members of the family would be sent in to provide a smoke-screen of conversation; usually a light and sparkling conversation until, viola, 'herself' appeared with a laden tray 'fit for a king'.
"Ah, sure, 'tis nothing, just a few things we had lying around after the Christmas/Easter/Christening" or whatever.
You also had to be sure you did not admire some object in that house even a little as it would be given to you outright, and if you managed to talk your host out of gifting you with the thing, like as not you would find it hidden in your car when you were looking for something else a few days later. The host would express amazement at the migration of an inanimate object, and see it as a sign from heaven that it was destined to happen. As for accepting it back, that was completely out of the question.
That was the atmosphere of informal, but near-total hospitality I grew up in.
Bride and groom
Not that it didn't have its lighter moments, as when my mother received a telegram one day saying some distant in-law would be arriving on the 11am train with, of all things, his new bride.
Consternation descended on our house as it was in the usual state of neatness every home with young children is at all times.
Intense cleaning and tidying ensued and Mother sent my brother Fintan to one of the neighbours to borrow their new rug to cover a bare spot on our living room carpet.
Just as everything clicked into place, the doorbell rang and there stood the bride and groom, virtual strangers, but nevertheless entitled to (what we now regard as extravagant) hospitality.
One glaring fact could not be gainsaid, namely the bride was considerably older than the groom and also she had a pronounced limp.
In the mores of the times, these 'facts on the ground' were read confidently as an 'arranged marriage' clearly helped along in this case by a substantial infusion of cash from the woman's dad.
But nobody said a word. This datum, deduced with certainty, would remain unspoken throughout the visit.
Afterwards, behind closed doors, who knows?
So, we had the set-piece of Irish hospitality, the unexpected guests in the parlor being fed and watered (in a manner of speaking) with great civility.
The only 'off-note' was my brother Fintan who sat silently on the floor intently regarding the new Bride, saying nothing, in all his seven years of wisdom, just observing.
My mother gamely kept the conversational ball in play till my father could make it home to meet the newly-weds.
In due course, the conversational possibilities of the vagaries of Irish weather were exhausted and a short hush fell.
Fintan seized the opportunity to make his one and only comment about the whole scenario:
"Mister, will you tell your mother to take her crooked leg off Mrs. Jones' new rug?"
It is generally conceded by all who knew the situation that this was one of the best examples of economy of words that could ever be used.
The lad had nailed, fair and square, every salient point in the whole situation and had done so in spades.
* Fáilte Uí Cheallaigh - the legendary ur-hospitality of the Kelly Clan.
** buail isteach - to walk into a home, confidently expecting a warm welcome, literally to 'beat in' as in a sailboat going to windward.
** Bean a'tí - woman of the house, absolute ruler of her domain, a phrase used extensively by John Wayne in The Quite Man.
Declan Burke is now a medical doctor and lives in Culpepper, Virginia, USA.